Sunday, November 24, 2013

Faith and Gratitude

Faith and Gratitude
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
November 24, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
for The Gordonsville Community Thanksgiving Service
Luke 12: 22:32 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

22 He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24 Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 25 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  26 If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? 27 Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 28 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! 29 And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. 30 For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.
32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.[1]  

As I was thinking in the brief time I had about what to say about thanksgiving, I decided to look at the Gospel passage that I had chosen earlier this week to be a part of the service, well before I knew I'd be preaching from it. I chose it, simply because I was trying to find a "thanksgiving" passage that would match Sue Ann's choice of Psalm 100.  You'd be surprised how often giving thanks is talked about in the New Testament, but it's typically specific, like someone thanking Jesus especially for what he has just done, a healing, a miracle, a presence, just being there, or Paul thanking in one of his letters, the people of the Church in Rome or in Corinth for example, and their hard-fought steadfastness in the faith. So I picked this one, thinking what a great testament about who God is, and what he does for us, straight from the mouth of Christ himself. If this is true, if what Christ is saying is true, if these promises are true, it would certainly bee something that we should be grateful for, be thankful for, and a great reason to praise God with joyful noises, song, and clashing cymbals.
 I preached on these very verses a few months ago, and their connection to faith, how faith can be such an amazing, strength giving, life affirming piece of our existence. . . and that this well known text where Jesus talks to us about how God works, and how he provides for the needs of his creation, all of his creation, reminding us at the end, to not be afraid, and calls us a little flock, so loving, so close, so intimate, so nurturing and enduring, as parent to child. It affirms to us our special place, our special identity, our special relationship with our Creator God. Believing this, is central to our faith, and central to who we are as humans, and who not just ourselves are, but our neighbors and friends, and brothers and sisters in Christ are. . . God provides for us, yes, but for others as well. . . to this we believe, and therefore we are grateful, to be grateful just seems fitting, to give thanks just seems right.
But have you ever thought about how faith and gratitude are connected, how gratitude, giving thanks, stems directly from faith? It is all connected to how we see ourselves and how we see God. Therefore the flipside, not having faith, doubting, worrying, having a low opinion of ourselves and our neighbor is being ungrateful, ungracious, and unrecognizing of our many gifts. You see part of our gifts, part of what we can be thankful for, is ourselves. You and I, us, each of us are uniquely created gifts of God, life itself is a gift, and not just of time, but of wonder, of perfection, of care, of the very image of God.
As a teacher, I work with teenage boys, I can think of no greater issue than this one, self identity, they don't know who and what they are, they lack self knowledge, the realization of who they are as people, that they exist, that they matter, and that their "mattering" not only makes a difference in this world, but that it is the difference. The world needs them, which is why God created them, and meant for them each amazing things. Many of them don't know this, they don't know that they matter, they wonder, they think that their mattering is based on how they fit into certain boxes, how their peers label them, that their mattering is put off for until they get to college, or then until they get a job, or until they have a family. They don't see that all of it matters. And it's not just kids, it's all of us. We're surrounded by artificial things that provide for us, we become mere functionaries in systems, and we are forced to fit in some way, and if we don't fit, for whatever reason, we do not feel like we have worth. Jesus begs to differ. He screams out that it just is not true.
I believe to my heart that this issue is central to what we as Christians can and should be doing. . . spreading that Gospel message, letting people know that they are loved, and have value, that God loves people, God made people, and God provides for people, and for this we give thanks, of course we give thanks, because we believe it, but are people who don't believe it grateful or are they worried and bitter and wallowing, or rushing and hurrying, fighting, and clawing to fit somehow, by their own constantly faltering merits, afraid deep down that what they have just isn't enough to keep up?
Christians across the country do a pretty good job, not perfect by any means, but a strong effort is made to give food at the holidays, to help each other, but we often fail at the other. We fail because we are afraid to enter the arena of person building, we're afraid that we don't have the words, or the entry point, the place to start, the means to do so, the opportunities, so we just don't do it enough, but let us seek this Thanksgiving, and beyond to find ways to nurture people in the faith that God is in control, God made us, and that God made us for a reason, and that it all matters. . . that we each matter, and so we are forever grateful. I have a personal mission statement for my ministry, it has to do with what I believe it means to be human and what it means to be a child of God. . . I hope that we can work together to make it known. . . I see us connected to beach glass, you know the glass that washes up on the beach, with edges worn down, and a fresh glow, fresh value, a newly made treasure from something that had been worthless, thrown aside, left forgotten, has been restored through time, and the amazing work of the nature that God has made through love. He even take our trash and makes it new, imagine it, so I decided that I wanted to dedicate my ministry to this idea. . . here is the mission, and how I see our role as Christians in this still new millennium. . . so let us be a wet, salty, communion of former shattered, tossed aside, jagged pieces of broken glass, who have been newly and completely transformed into a beautiful rainbow of redeemed gemstones, trying to catch the eye of the rest of the wandering world, there glistening just beneath the surface of the water as the tide moves back and forth in the surf. . .  let us also thank god that we are then a part of that amazing rainbow, and give thanks for all the other people and colors that shine in the light of Christ's love and grace. We can't be a rainbow by ourselves because they need every color, each one of us beautifully reflecting the light of Christ in our own colorful and unique way, the whole spectrum. I believe this to be so, and in his name I humbly and gratefully give thanks and pray. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 12:22-32). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Save Yourself

Save Yourself
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
November 24, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 23: 33-43 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [[34 Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”]] And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38 There was also an inscription over him,  “This is the King of the Jews.”
39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” [1]  

This morning is Christ the King Sunday when we celebrate, honor, and pay witness to the fact that Christ is King, now and forever. I was really surprised last week, when I looked at the lectionary reading for this week and it wasn't the follow up to last week's reading, the conclusion about the coming of the Son of Man. I was surprised because this week, today, is Christ the King Sunday, which is also the last Sunday of the Church calendar, where we commemorate Christ's Eternal Kingship, and that passage was all about the second coming, the coming of the Son of Man, bringing redemption, at the end of all the division and wars and earthquakes and persecutions and all of that stuff, we talked about last week. Christ comes in glory, out of the sky, setting up his reign for all time. It's typical that passages like that are saved and read on Christ the king Sunday, so it left me surprised, but once I looked at what the passage really was for this week, my surprise came to be pleasant because I like it. I like that on Christ the King Sunday we get to look at the way the world views the kingship of Christ because it's much different from what we claim to believe, and the attitude is much more real to us, it surrounds us,  and therefore is so much more meaningful.
One of the big truths about the way the world works is that everything has to be practical, and more than that it has to be immediate. We have to be able to connect the dots and say definitively how this is connected to that, how this was caused by that, how that is a direct result of this, and the this's and that's can be anything, as long as we can logically and within reason connect them, we understand and everything makes sense. In this simplified, small perspective view of things, that we as humans seem to fall victim to, we are in control, and we are the judges of what is true and what isn't, but again the key word is perspective, and the individual human perspective is limited, and will always be, it's part of our fallen world, it's what happens when you believe the lies of the world, you can see good and evil, but it blinds you to the truth, God is the cause and source of the all the this's and that's. Let me be more clear and less abstract.
Look at how these representatives of the world talk to Jesus at his trial and crucifixion. Pilate, who is a representative of Rome, the controllers of the world, the placers of kings. . . yeah the Romans decide who is the king of the Jews, the Roman's chose Herod, he's their puppet, not this guy, so Pilate asks, are you the king of the Jews. . . Jesus doesn't answer. . . Then he finds him to be harmless, certainly not a threat to the Roman power, just a religious nut, a fanatic, a local problem, so he gives this king over to the puppet to take a look, he does, he wants him to do miracles, Jesus won't, Herod also doesn't deal with him, sends him back, then Pilate gives him up to the people, they want him crucified. . . some kinda king right. A king can't be a victim, a king must rule, a king must act, a king must protect his own interests, a king must order people around and protect his realm, by always protecting his rule. . . That's a king, that's what we want in a king.
 That's what the Jews wanted in a king, back in 1 Samuel. The Jews ask God to give them a king, do you remember this. . . The elders come to Samuel and say: Samuel 8: 5-18

“You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” 6 But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, 7 and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. 8 Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. 9 Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”
10 So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 

But a king is no rosy thing, remember self interest, practicality, and limited perspective is at the heart of all human beings, yes even kings. Look at the warning Samuel give them about what exactly having a king will mean.

 11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; 12 and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15 He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16 He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

You'll call out, but get no answer, no relief. . . mostly because you'll feel safer, you'll feel safer with a king, because you can touch him and he's there, and will appear to try to solve the issues of the people, not because he necessarily cares, but because it is in his best interest to care. He will promise to save you when the trouble comes, he will promise the world, but will not deliver real help, just enough to make you feel safe. . . because the image of safety is enough to sustain the system. Kings know that, and so do the Romans because they understand the people and they understand the world. . . at least they think so. The story continues back in Samuel's day the same way as in the Romans day, and we can say it is much like this in our day, too. Continuing with v 19:

19 But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, 20 so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”[2]

Let us be like the other nations, it's safer, we see their kings. . . it seems to work for them, why not us?
So yeah, the world knows what a king is, and there just is no way that this Jesus of Nazareth is a king. So let the mocking begin. They put the crown of thorns on his head, they wrap him in purple, and they write in three different languages "King of the Jews." As if he could really be a king. . . as if the Jews to the Romans could have a king of any substance. . . only a puppet like Herod, no one could stand up to Caesar. . . certainly not. So they mock him, saying "Save yourself." If you are the king, "Save yourself" because that is what kings do, since time immemorial, kings save themselves.
My students have been writing papers on the attitudes of Ancient peoples towards kings, according to ancient writings. There are so many, and they all paint kings as self centered rulers who do for themselves, and if they help out the people its really about helping themselves, for with every new success comes more and more power, more and more riches, more and more glory and greatness. There is the Epic of Gilgamesh, from ancient Babylon, where the king Gilgamesh builds great walls to save his people from outside invasion, but then uses those same walls to imprison them within his tyrannical reign. The Greek king. in The Iliad, Agamemnon, power hungry, brings an army to Troy, but sacrifices the success of his army to satisfy his own selfish desires. Oedipus wants to help, wants to save, but over steps and becomes a tyrant in the process. These kings are all examples of what happens when human beings rule over each other, we become the victims of limited perspective, again and again. Kings save themselves, but yet we continue to fall victim to it because practical power is there, it's visible, we can see it, it makes us feel safe to hear someone real and in power telling us that they are on it, and everything will be ok. We allow them to become tyrants because we can see them reacting to this and doing that. . . ok at least he's trying. And it's better than nothing. Something is always better than nothing. Creon says to Oedipus, "but what if you are wrong?" and the king replies, "Still I must Rule." Doing something, anything, is better than nothing, because it pleases the crowd and calms them down. It is the image of safety.
The Cross is not the image of safety, it's not a kingly image, even with the purple vestments and the sign, and the thorny crown. There is no way to dress up the cross and make it look like Jesus is a king, and he is not saving himself. . . but he's had that chance before. A couple times, he could have done exactly that, save himself. He could have told Pilate the truth, or lied, he could have done something, he could have performed a miracle to prove himself to Herod, but he doesn't. In the desert, too, there with Satan, he could have saved himself. He surely could have turned a stone into bread, he could have jumped off the cliff and been saved, he could have bowed low before Satan and been saved, shoot, Satan even promised him the kingdom, as far as eyes could see, he could have had it all, but he doesn't. No he doesn't save himself. Jesus doesn't save himself. . . instead he saves us. He doesn't save himself, he saves us. . . not in a visible way, in a crown of thorns way, a way that turns over this world and its tangible practical immediate needs, and way that requires faith, and not faith in the illusion that we see around us, but instead in the truth that is in and around us that we don't see. Christ, Jesus, God, remembering that he is the only king, the only deliverance we need. Oh man that takes a lot of faith, sure it does. But if you look at history, and you look at the present, and you still believe that the human alternatives are better, you also have a lot of faith.
A skeptic might say, that we have 2000 plus years of Christian rule and that it has failed, and we might call that failure, God's rule, and God's failure, but no it's not, and no it wasn't, and no it isn't. It is a history of the trappings of faith, taken over and used to sustain human power structures. . . from Constantine to "In God We Trust" to "Yes we Can" it's there. . . G.K. Chesterton said it best, when he said. . . "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried." You know why it's difficult, because we all seek to do what Jesus is unwilling to do, we all seek to save ourselves we keep seeking to save ourselves, individually and collectively, we try and we fail, rather than letting Christ save us. . .
We conclude our lectionary Journey through Luke today. I'm ready, I'm ready to start over and begin Advent next week. . . but there have been some pretty intense passages, some incredible promises, and some harsh truths, and it all seems to culminate in today's and rightly it should, with the cross, but not the cross as an end, the cross as a beginning, not the false, phony and ridiculed king, mocked and beaten, hanging in effigy, but the true king, and savior of the world, Jesus the Christ.

The Romans thought it finished,
The Chief Priests thought they'd won,
They all told him to save himself,
Not thinking it could be done,
But he had other plans,
Which was the will of one,
And saved them all instead he did
At the raising of the sun.  

All praise be to Christ the King, may we believe in his rule, and that the Kingdom of Heaven is come.  The man next to Jesus says to him, "Jesus, Remember me, when you come into  your kingdom." Jesus responds, "Today. . . you will be with me in paradise." "Today." Amen.


[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 23:33-43). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (1 Sa 8:5-20). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

System Failure / Not the End

System Failure / Not the End
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
November 17, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 21: 5-19

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.


5 When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6 “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
7 They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8 And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.
9 “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11 there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
12 “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13 This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14 So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15 for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17 You will be hated by all because of my name. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your souls. [1]

I want to take note of the Prayer of Preparation before I start because I wrote it while I was studying this passage, and it says succintly much of what I want to say today, so I'll start there before we get into the weeds of this passage, lest as I warned of last week, we get lost on the way:

When we think the ends justify the means,
We mean the ends we think are imminent,
And in our control, but when do ends occur?
Rarely, if not never, especially when forever
Is the ever of beginning and the end. 

So having said that, let's begin. . . Luke 21 seems to be completely about what we call Armageddon, the end times, at least it seems to be. It sounds scary. It has a ton of difficult imagery. It's harsh. It's intense.

“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11 there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. [2]  

When we hear texts like this we think, Revelation and Armageddon, and it scares us, and here it's out of the mouth of Jesus, so it's real, and whether we like to think it or not, whether we like to admit it or not, these things seem to surround us daily. Maybe it's not as bad as all this, or maybe it is, maybe things are spiraling out of control, and that it's harder now to be a follower of Jesus, but it isn't easy to be a follower of Jesus any time, and truthfully it never has been easy. Throughout the 2000 years of Christianity every generation felt that they were on the brink of "The End," With people pointing to passages like this as proof, looking at our world, and many times they use that trumped up fear to extend their control through fear. It happens again and again, and there is great danger in this type of thinking.
We've been working our way through the Gospel of Luke since the beginning of Summer, and the reality of the Gospel, the picture it paints of what following Jesus is like certainly has not been an easy walk through the park. Instead it has been an inside and out complete conversion of action and intention, a complete give away all your stuff, and your heart, total submission of will, following towards a complete sacrifice of self for others, and not just friends but even enemies. So with that story as preface to this passage, and the betrayal and crucifixion following fast after, the images of this passage are put into perspective, and though the images are similar to an Armageddon type scene, or an Old Testament prophetic destruction type scene,  at the beginning I said seems, seems to be like Armageddon, seems, so before we jump to conclusions, and let me quote Lee Corso, from College Game Day, and say, "Not So Fast My Friend." The world of this passage does seem to be on the brink, but of what? Is it the end? Before we jump to scary conclusions, that tend to enslave us to and through fear, instead let us take a look at the details to get to the bottom of what is going on here, and what it really means, and what it is saying to us in our context, we may find that it is not pointing towards the end of the world at all. . . we may just find that it's much more intense than that.
First off, lest we get blinded by the imagery, let's look at the question that Jesus is responding to. They are speaking about the temple, how beautiful it is, how large the stones are that it's built of, and how it has beautiful gifts on it "dedicated to God," so the people say, and Jesus says, "6 “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” This temple and these gifts, "dedicated to God," though they claim to be will fall apart. Then the people ask him, ok well when will all this happen? So Jesus is responding to a question about the temple and within the context of it being taken down and destroyed. Now is the temple in destruction the same thing as Armageddon? If so, then it all happened already, the temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. and was only rebuilt, and not as a temple but as a mosque over 600 years later in 691. So yeah, if we are to take this literally, the temple did come down, but it was not the end, you know at least not in a final sense, of the end, you know THE END, thanks for coming. Again there is danger in strictly literal interpretations.
Ok, so let's dig deeper into context. . . a figurative understanding of the temple could be more applicable. If you look at what directly precedes this passage, you see Jesus in conflict with officials of the temple, Sadducees and the Scribes. We talked about the Sadducees last week, seeking to catch Jesus in a trick question, and then also in chapter 20, Jesus speaks directly and harshly about the scribes saying:

46 “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets. 47 They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” [3]  

So Sadducees and Scribes, both temple officials, both proud, both using their positions for themselves, both giving Jesus a hard time, both included then in the coming destruction of the temple. Does Jesus simply mean that these guys will soon get what is coming to them, that the tradition that they represent is coming to an end, and being replaced by what Jesus brings. Wouldn't that type of understanding fit, where Jesus claims that he will destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, which is typically understood as the Resurrection on the Third Day. The temple would be rebuilt, but in the hearts of Jesus' followers, the hearts of all people, broken down outside the walls of the temple, broken down walls that divide people, bringing people together, isn't this the heart of Jesus' message. It is similar to what Jesus tells the Sadducees in what we read last week, God is bigger than what you have built, and bigger than  your traditions, and bigger than those stone walls, and so God will bring them down because he can't be contained in them, no, God will be running loose in the world, not shut up in a temple and not a part of your control any more. Yes this interpretation makes sense.
And certainly attacking tradition like that would cause the divisions talked about, nations and kingdoms, and persecutions to follow. No one likes to be challenged, especially those in power, those of privilege, those who have been all but happy to rest on the traditions and exploit people based on those traditions. Once the rug starts to be pulled from under them they do typically fight back, and who to their opponents. But it appears that the system is broken and is in need of repair. The temple, supposed to be a house of prayer, but has been turned into a den of thieves. The religious leaders, who you would think would be excited about the coming of the Messiah, are not. The poor are being exploited by a system that is supposed to be building them up. Yes the system is broken and needs to be fixed. Yes the system is broken, but Jesus when will it be fixed? Isn't this the question here?
Then come the bewares. Beware of imposters saying, I am he, the time is near. Here is the real danger of this passage, and those like it, and how often is it forgotten? How many times does a person come along, saying the system is broken, and I am the key, I offer solutions to fix it, to save people from the broken system, only to renew the broken system in some other way, the unintended consequences always leave a system still broken, and many time broken worse. Jesus says beware. . . of these quick fixes, these imposters with false solutions, saying the end is near. We call this demagoguery, and the demagogues are always in fashion. Stirring up fear, stirring up worry, promising that they have the only fix to the broken system. In this type of panic about the end, stirred up fears about the end, the demagogues, these false saviors, promise an end that is in their control, and are then authorized to bring about that end by any means necessary, all means are justified. People turn over their lives to them, their hopes their dreams, their freedom, and the broken system is simply sustained, or renewed even more harshly, not destroyed and rebuilt as Jesus promises.
He says that wars and insurrections may also take place, but to not worry. Because the end will not follow immediately, nation against nation,  what war was ever waged that was not supposed to end all wars, but they don't, they never do. But then Jesus says there will be earthquakes, and then famines and plagues, also great fertile ground for a demagogue to rise, all of these are often thought to be dreadful portents and signs from heaven, but remember from Elijah, that God was not in the earthquake, but rather a still small voice, not always the loudest voice, interesting. The right way is not always illuminated by the loudest voice. So all this will happen. . . and then the end will come. . . right, that is what you'd expect, but it doesn't say it. I kept looking forward for the end, but it isn't anywhere.
Instead he says, before this happens, you yourself will be persecuted, and arrested, turned over to the Synagogues, (that's an interesting one) and prisons, brought before kings and governors for my name. You'll get to testify, you'll get to stand up, I'll let you know what to say, but you'll be betrayed by your parents, relatives, even friends, and they may even put some of  you to death. . . You'll be hated, but not one hair upon your head will perish. . . whoa really, "by endurance you will gain  your souls. Did you hear the end? Me neither, rather endurance, strength, on-going trials. The end doesn't come. How interesting. . . Don't you see it. . . It's way too easy to write this passage off as an Armageddon, end times passage, way off in the future type deal, and it still may be that, but it doesn't talk about an easy and quick end, but rather a long arduous journey, where the ends are the false parts, the imposters, where the easy escapes are just aspects of the brokenness of the system trying to remain, like those threatened Sadducees and Scribes who lash out at Jesus and have him Crucified. But look at where Jesus goes in the passage following this one, I want to read it because it isn't the lectionary text for next week:

20 “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. 21 Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those inside the city must leave it, and those out in the country must not enter it; 22 for these are days of vengeance, as a fulfillment of all that is written. 23 Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people; 24 they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
25 “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”[4] 

Not the end, after all that, but your redemption. The word can also be translated, deliverance, payment of ransom given. Some things end, but the things that end are the broken systems, Jerusalem is what is destroyed. Those inside the city, that system, must leave it. It's over. We talk about the end as if it is something to be feared, something to be avoided, but the end doesn't come the way we think, it's simply a new beginning. When Jesus says that he is the beginning and the end, he means it. That's what it means to be infinite, what it means to be God. Infinite, literally means, no end. We sing it every week.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son :
and to the Holy Ghost;
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be :
world without end. Amen 

I was thinking about this idea lately, especially as I was preparing for this sermon, reading this difficult text, but also, all over the place these days is the idea that the "Ends justify the means." Last Saturday we had a morning program at Blue Ridge where we discussed Lance Armstrong as a case in honor, or really lack thereof, and we talked about how cheating produced for him, money and glory, and fame, and riches, and also money for cancer research, and all kinds of other things we would consider good, and that the boys certainly considered good, and we posed the question was it worth it to cheat. Most said no it wasn't worth it because it all fell apart, or maybe it was because that is what we wanted them to say, but yeah it all fell apart. That's an ends justify the means. . . and if time stood still after he won his tour de frances, we would see it different, but time didn't stop, rather it went on, the end was merely an illusion, time went on and his actions came back to haunt him. There are other stories similarly problematic all over the news. . . questionable means  they may be positive things, they may be sellable as ends justifying the means, but as we see again and again, the ends don't come because they aren't in our control for one, and that there is just no such thing as an end, other than Jesus and he instead offers redemption and deliverance, just like God has done since the beginning.
This isn't the first time that Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed. Check out Jeremiah and Lamentations, Jerusalem's destruction is well documented, but then read Ezekiel, and you'll see who is still in control if there was any doubt. History didn't end then, nor did it in A.D. 70 when the Second Temple was destroyed, nor will it when we stand to trial and are persecuted, or we suffer loss, or get we discouraged, or even when we die, instead through enduring all those things do we come not to the end, but to a beginning beyond our broken systems that we build trying again and again to stave off the end, but the only things that end are those broken systems, and they all do eventually, for they are only the illusion of reality, just as Jerusalem is the illusion of God. When it has all come to pass, and systems fail, God remains, and offers redemption.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 21:5-19). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 21:10-11). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[3]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 20:46-47). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[4]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 21:20-28). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

This Side and That Side

This Side and That Side
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
November 13, 2013
For the funeral of George Newman Allman, Sr.
at  Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
2 Corinthians 4:16 - 5:1

 Let us pray,
Source of all true wisdom
calm the troubled waters of our hearts,
and still all other voices but your own,
that we may hear and obey
what you tell us in your Word,
Through the power of your Spirit.

      16 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
5 For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 

I've always been drawn to Emily Dickinson's poem, "My Life Closed Twice before Its Close," which goes. . .

My life closed twice before its close—
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me  

So huge, so hopeless to conceive
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell. 

Emily Dickinson wrote this poem in this life. She had lost two great loves during the course of her life when she wrote these words, and at both, both instances of loss, as she describes in this brief and poignant poem, her life also closes. One of the times was the loss of her father, and the other the loss of her first and only love. Loss, and especially these two losses, shaped much of her life, and gave inspiration to some of the greatest lines of insight ever written on the subject of death, at least our perspective from this side. It is the pair of last two lines that has always grabbed my attention, because she really does state so clearly and so completely much of what we feel on this side while we mourn for those we have lost. She writes, "Parting is all we know of heaven and all we need of hell." So true so brilliant. The key words contrasted in the poem are know and need, whereas parting, remains the constant.

We know that there is parting, we know that we have suffered loss, we know that there is and will be an empty space surrounding us now, empty chairs, an empty bed, silence, where conversation had once flowed freely. These are what we know of death, and so she says that it is enough to make Hell real to us, not needing fires or torment, just loss, parting, and is therefore also the  limits of what we know heaven to be, from this side. . . again, know and need.

But hope is not based in knowledge, is not based in what we know. Hope is based in faith, hope is based in what we believe, what Christ has taught us, what Christ has done for us, what Christ represents in our lives. We may not know much about heaven, but our belief transcends what we do not know, and includes wonders beyond what we can even imagine, or as Paul writes "glory beyond all measure." We use words like rest, and joy, and love, and light, and wholeness, and eternal, and peace to describe what we believe heaven to be. In our minds eye and through our hearts spectacles we see loved ones gathered, all together, joyous harmony, and reunion, joined together in God's amazing love, a bright shore, made sure by the will of the father, the sacrifice of the son, and the love of the holy spirit.

We see in the scripture passages like 2 Corinthians 4 that what we see and know on this side is not all there is. On this side we see age and sickness making us weak, crippling our bodies, making life a challenge beyond our understanding, but we cannot see the spirit within, growing in strength, preparing for communion with the Lord, communion with the love that created it, communion once again at home, as life was created to be, at one with God, able again to walk without falling, to run without slowing, to work without tiring, and to dance without ever faltering, the stressless restful peace and harmony of love: Everything that the world was created with and for finally made whole.

This side and that side, is a heart wrenching juxtaposition, especially for those grieving loss on days like today. Though there is emptiness in our vision, though there is vacancy where George used to be, there will never be emptiness within your heart, for in your heart love never dies. . . and that love that you feel, though you can't see it, the fullness of love that you feel in your heart, every memory that put that feeling there in your heart, every hug, every laugh, every tear, cried alongside our dear friend and father and husband and grandfather, that has filled your heart and will continue to fill your heart, is just a taste of the glory yet to come on the other side, for though we do not always see it, love is the connector that takes away the boundaries between life and death, between this side and that. . . and for love we thank God, for it has touched us all, giving us more than hope, but the life giving waters that make it all somehow worthwhile. It is this truth that we witness to today, the Resurrection and the Life Everlasting. Amen.


Sunday, November 10, 2013

In the Weeds

In the Weeds
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
November 10, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 20: 27-39
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

 27 Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28 and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30 then the second 31 and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32 Finally the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”
34 Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35 but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36 Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37 And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38 Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” 39 Then some of the scribes answered, “Teacher, you have spoken well.” 40 For they no longer dared to ask him another question. [1] 

This passage may be one of the most pleasingly useful ones for us in our day and age because Jesus finds himself in a situation where we often find ourselves, or I'm not sure about you all, but I certainly find myself in this situation. You are surrounded and confronted by non-believers, you get a question that is leading, its deliberately leading you into the weeds, just to get you lost, contradictory and hypocritical. There seems in today's world that there is no one more sure of what Christians believe than non-Christians. Many if not most non-believing people, are ex-Christians, who have been turned off by the faith by something. Sometimes a person, sometimes an intellectual issue that somehow they felt caused them to be outside of the established faith, and therefore decided to completely turn their back on all trappings of religion. Not all of course, but some, I'll call them evangelical Atheists, are people who have become or at least are Atheist and now want everyone else to be, too. They do this confronting often; they assume they know what you believe, and then they ask a question that they are sure will put your faith in binding contradiction with itself, and then they wait. They wait for you to start stuttering or saying "well" or back tracking, or admitting to yourself and to them that your faith is based on flimsy truth and flawed logic, all justifying their non belief, and their rational superiority, their intellectual supremacy, and their completely condescending attitude over you and anyone else foolish enough to believe in such ancient superstitious ideas, like God. You often ask yourself, if they were so confident, why would they care so much to get you to agree with them? It's as if their doubts about what they claim to rationally believe without question, are reinforced by your faith in something else, leaving them with shaky confidence at best, and so an aggressive chip is sitting squarely on their shoulder called doubt and distain. I'd say this very aspect, their shaky confidence, is important to remember, and Jesus does remember it here in this exchange.
Let's look at the situation Jesus is in. The passage tells us that some Sadducees came up to Jesus and started asking him questions about what the Resurrection would be like, but it also tells us that Sadducees do not believe in the Resurrection. They know it, Jesus knows it, now we know it because it states it so plainly. They ask him about a situation where seven brothers marry the same woman. Under Mosaic law, which they uphold literally,  it was traditional for a younger brother to marry his older brother's widow, should the older brother die. They make up a scenario where this happens seven times, just to ask Jesus, which one of the brothers will have her as wife in the Resurrection. It's totally a trap question, and they do not expect Jesus to have an answer to it. It's actually kind of a childish question in a way. I'm reminded of some of the whoppers that Sunday School teachers get asked. Stuff like: if God is all powerful can he create a rock that is so heavy that even he can't lift it? How do you answer questions like that? They take human logic and turn it on its side. Faith in the light of such a question certainly seems irrational and then foolish, and that is the point of the question, trying to make the teacher foolish. I remember when I was in science class in tenth grade, I had Mr. Aukermann, I was never really all that into science, so making people laugh and the teacher look foolish was a much more interesting pastime. This class was biology, and he was talking about proteins one day, amino acids, and traits and genetics and stuff like that. Now I remember always trying, in my best smart aleck sort of way to ask him questions that were ridiculous,  silly questions, but I loved doing it because he would always take the questions seriously and give me, or at least try to give me a serious answer, despite the juvenile giggles that fueled my adolescent confidence. On that day I asked him, "Hey Mr. Auk, if proteins are what determines our traits, and meats like steak are filled with proteins, if I eat a lot of steak would I eventually turn into a cow. Every class clown, has a side kick, and he is now saying, doubling down, "Oh yeah, teach, that's a great question." Now the teacher should have answered, fighting smart aleck with smart aleck, something like you may not turn into a cow, but you may become a fat pig, ended it and moved on. That's what he should have said, but instead he got into the weeds, he started explaining how amino acids break down the proteins, and that the traits are lost. . . he spent 20 minutes, giving me a legitimate answer, stopped only by the bell. . . teenage success, mission accomplished, derail the teacher one whole class period. That's what these questions are meant to do, derail the message and make the teacher look foolish, getting them to enter the weeds, and get themselves lost.
The Sadducees even begin by calling him "Teacher." I couldn't help but reading that, hey if you are so smart, and are teaching all these people, if  you got a lesson for me, riddle me this one batman: If a woman has 7 different husbands who die, then she dies and they all are present and resurrected, who is she married to? You can almost hear one of the other Sadducees, saying, "Oh that's a good one, yeah teach, which is it?"
Now we have to look at what Jesus does, how he answers. He dismisses the question. He says that they don't understand how the resurrection works. It's bigger than your little games. That's the key isn't it? It's bigger. Look at what he says specifically:

Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35 but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36 Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 

He doesn't go into the weeds with them. He simply tells them that your conception is way too small, heaven is different from here. You are looking at things on your own terms, and your terms are way too limiting.
How about that for handling a condescending question? It takes it and flips it, it flips the high ground. Condescending literally means "with going down," as if talking down, from the large brained, got it all figured out, down-hill to the small brained, believing in nonsense. Jesus turns the ground upside down, and lets them know that their thinking is actually the small thinking. The established thinking, the herd thinking, is the limited close minded thinking.
The next part of Jesus' response even goes farther. Now the Sadducees were a class of priests in Judea, who were in charge of keeping the temple. They were high priests. They believed very highly in a literal interpretation of the Torah. It is this literal tradition that gave them their place in society. It is this literal tradition that they claim to be questioning Jesus on the Resurrection. And then it is this literal tradition that they base their question about the marriages on.
An interesting fact about the Sadducees is the derivation of their name. In Hebrew the closest word to Sadducees, which is thought to be the same root as their name is Sadiq, which means "Right, just." They are the ones in society who are right, according to the meaning of their name. Imagine the added condescension then in their question. Jesus, teacher, how are you teaching what you teach, it goes against the torah, it goes against tradition, it goes against us. It is to these people that Jesus evokes himself the source of their authority, the Torah, bold move.
Jesus says:

"And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38 Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” 

The story of the bush, that's the burning bush. Dead are raised? Why is that? Where is that in the story? What is Jesus talking about? Now we know that Jesus answered their question enough at least for them because it says right after this in v. 39, "Teacher you have spoken well." They don't challenge him. Why not? Why don't they?
The name of God is important in Jewish Tradition. It was never to be spoken, actually in the language the way it is spelled it is technically unpronounceable. It is the sound of wind. Sometimes in English it's transliterated Jehoveh, or Yahweh, but it's more like yhvh. The idea of not speaking it, is that you can't control it. Naming something, speaking a name,  can limit it, and control it, but God can't be contained that way, not in a word, not in a building, not in one idea. The name of God, best translated from that story about the bush in Exodus is I am, in English. God is the is. The eternal present. All places and all times. There always is an "is." Now is "is", and now is "is", and there is another one, and another one. The is of a minute ago is not defining or limiting on the is of now. I know it sounds weird, it sounds like philosophical nonsense, but it is all about the idea that God is bigger than any one idea, bigger than any one moment or event, but is every moment and event, and is then also bigger than the limits we seek to put on God, bigger than the Sadducees concept of God, the one they have been selling. God is not of the dead but of the living, and if he is God still of Abraham and Isaac and of Jacob. . . and Jesus says, now, he is. . . to him, who lives eternally in the present, they also are still alive to him. To think other wise would certainly be limiting God, and the Sadducees certainly would never want to do that, at least not publicly. They'd instead wait their time.
Now obviously its different in a situation that we are in now, when atheists put us on the spot, trying to paint us into a corner, lead us into the weeds with a question to make us feel foolish and silly. We can't necessarily catch them back in an area of inconsistency on their part, but we can take something from what Jesus does, and that is we need not enter the weeds. Number one, I've talked before how I'm not sure that apologetics, trying to prove the rationality of God and Jesus is the best use of our time, that Jesus doesn't defend himself at his trial, so why would we feel like we need to be his trial lawyer. Words aren't going to produce belief anyways, it takes the cross to do that. We don't necessarily need to do that, but to put it in sports terms, this is defense not offense right. We're the ones who have been cornered, and backs against the wall. Maybe it's miracles like walking on water that people can't believe, or maybe it's the world created in 7 days, maybe it's fitting all the animals on Noah's ark, maybe it's any number of things. Someone points to something like that and says, "How can you believe something like that." Our first inclination is to go into the weeds and fight each battle, but Jesus seems to suggest that the only argument we need is the God is bigger argument. God is bigger than any of those details, just as Jesus does in this passage. I can't speak to the details of that, but I know Jesus is working in my life. What do you mean? You are a Christian right, you believe this and you believe that, always experts on what we believe, aren't they. . . I believe that God is. . . it's enough and it's bigger than you can imagine, and bigger than you can refute, and it gives me life, it redeems my life, it sustains my life. The power of faith is pretty impressive. But what it really does is it seeks to invite them back in. They have been turned off by something, maybe it was someone who was close minded and they think all Christians are closeminded, maybe it was a detail that doesn't jibe with their scientific view of the world, great, fine, invite them back in, God is big enough for them, too. Don't be one more thing that pushes people away by putting limits on God.
I was in a situation like that this week. A friend of mine said to me because I was saying how God's sovereignty is central to my worldview, and hope. He said:

"To me the idea that human action is secondary to God's control is frightening. I prefer to believe that we are in the driver's seat, and that we shape our own destinies. Perhaps this is naive. But why would God be controlling our lives? are we his entertainment in some elaborate game he invented to amuse himself?"  

Now like the Sadducees not believing in the Resurrection, I know that he doesn't believe in God, so it's interesting to me how he can be afraid of something he doesn't believe in. He was sure that I would try to explain to him about why it's not an elaborate game, and about God's glory, and love, but instead I said. . . that depends on your definition of God. Whether or not  you believe in a human god with a beard sitting on a cloud, watching us and pulling the strings, or whether you believe that God is the creator of all things, or whether you believe that God is simply a manifestation of what is true. . . I told him instead, I believe in a God who "is." Jehoveh, Yahweh, yhvh, I am. What "is" is big enough to encompass all truth, and would have to by definition. . . interesting to think which one of us is living in superstitious human notions of reality, but that's not the point, the point is that possibly, and it may not do anything, but possibly I opened the door for him to look at God a little differently from what he rejected at best, or at least I didn't again shut another door. God isn't limited to the notion of God that he rejects, instead what do you believe in, start there. . . Jesus meets people where they are and invites them in, God does the same. . . that's being "I am" the "is" everywhere at once. It's not a mental trick, or a way to be falsely inclusive, it's simply true, and good for all of us to remember.
As some of  you know I wrote a poetic gospel while I was in seminary called "Song of Salvation" I closed it like this:

But on the third day, the stone was rolled away
And His body was raised,
Satan was wrong, death isn’t as strong,
Instead God shall be forever praised.
So we are saved, at least from the grave
The Bible allows us to know it
But there is more, for us to learn for sure
For God is also a great poet. 

And any artist knows that his creation grows
Under his watchful care
So you and me, should struggle to see
And keep searching for what is there. 

Don’t miss a miracle trapped in the literal
Instead thank Him for every breath,
His power is all, and even after our fall
God is still stronger than death. 

And so victory was won with subtlety
But many still cannot see
But perfection takes time, and through reason and rhyme
One day all will truly be free. 

Don't miss a miracle trapped in the literal. . . It's good for us to remember lest we feel we all have it figured out. Why go in the weeds, why alienate people by trying to convince them, instead bring people together with the amazing limitless nature of God, rigidity has failed, like it does for the Sadducees in the midst of Jesus, close minded tradition in the midst of Emmanuel, God with us, is like waiting at the Red Sea for it to open there again, when God has moved from was to is.  The way of Jesus is amazingly unifying. . . and Jesus shows us that way, again, and again, eternally. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 20:27-40). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.