Sunday, February 24, 2013

Jerusalem, Jerusalem

Jerusalem, Jerusalem
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
February 24, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 13: 31-35

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.

31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32 He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ 34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35 See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’ ” [1]  

So this is one of those weeks where the lectionary is cool because I get to preach on one of those passages that I probably wouldn't pick to preach on otherwise. It's not that this passage isn't interesting or anything, it's just that it's one of the smaller exchanges that Jesus has. It doesn't really fit into the larger context. It is as if Jesus is hanging out doing his Jesus stuff, then some people come to him and he reacts. It's not a planned speech like a parable. It's not instructions like the sermon on the mount or one of the healings. It's not rise take up your matt and walk. It's not I am the way, the truth, and the life, it's not you are the salt of the Earth, instead it's Jesus reacting. We get a glimpse of Jesus in a unrehearsed moment, when someone makes a statement to him, and it's actually a threat of danger, a threat to Jesus' very life, and then he replies, and in his reply so much is packed. It's like if you ever had the question, how would Jesus respond to a death threat,  pay attention to this. There is a lot here. I want to work to unpack his reply this morning. Maybe we should read it again before we get going because we have much to unpack.
So it begins, with the Pharisee coming to him, with the threat. . . 31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” Now come some questions from us. . . What is the Pharisee's motive? Are they sent by Herod? If so what would that mean? If not then what? Was it out of their own volition, if so what is their motivation? Do they care for Jesus? Do they want Jesus to leave, to get out of town, get out of their way? What is it? It's hard to know for sure, and because we are so conditioned in Luke's gospel to distrust the Pharisees, we certainly have doubts about the intentions of them. So what do you think? Is it Herod, if so why the warning? If Herod truly was a fox, then wouldn't he sneak up on him take him unawares? Isn't that the political way? Then that leaves the Pharisees, are they threatened by Jesus' presence? Would it be better for everybody if Jesus would just go away? Is this exchange done in public? Does he show up the Pharisees for the benefit of the crowd, or is it in private? Do the Pharisees whisper to him, or are they threatening in their manner? Is there more behind the words? What is their body language? The questions are endless, an inquiring minds would like to know, but I guess we won't know because the Pharisees are silent after his initial question and there isn't any extra narration.

So now Jesus' answer:

32 He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.

"Go tell that fox." Don't you just love that. Here is Jesus with some attitude. Here is Jesus, giving lip service to the warning. It seems to me there  is no way to read this that doesn't have a little bit of sass in it, and a little bit of sarcasm, and total disregard for the political issues of the day. Here he is above normal trivial human concerns, you know like life itself. Think about it. A group of high ranking religious authority figures are giving him a warning that the highest ranking, non Roman political authority figure, is planning to kill him, and Jesus insults the ruler and disregards the warning. It is a total insult to all involved. Jesus is like, hey I've got some work to do, I'm going to be doing it the next three days, and I won't stop until I am done. You all worry about your politics I, instead will be casting out demons and healing people. There is a scene in the Kevin Costner movie about Wyatt Earp, where Costner as Earp who is the town's Marshall has just been involved in the OK Corral shootout, and the corrupt County Sherriff, Johnny Behan comes to arrest him, and all Earp says is, I don't think I'm going to let you arrest me today, Johnny. Awesome, totally Bold, in the face of someone who is a coward. Jesus shows that kind of disregard for these Pharisees and Herod here. There is even some extra flippancy because he gives them his schedule. In other words, if that fox wants to find me, he can look for me here. He knows where to find me. I'm not running. It is interesting, what power does Herod have over a man who is unafraid of death, in his day, and to an extent in our own, the threat of violence is the unspoken trump card in the government's arsenal, death in Jesus case in fact it is in his plans. Secondly, what power of intimidation do religious leaders have over someone who has a strong relationship with God. These are important ideas to remember because they may be of some importance in a minute. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. . .
But first I found something very interesting in my research, an interesting insight into ano older Christianity and Bible interpretation that seem so far outside of our experience. I was checking out Matthew Henry's famous Bible Commentary. It's the biggest thickest single volume book I own. It's huge. He goes through the entire Bible and give his comments on each part. I found this section to be one of the most amusing that I have ever found there. Especially the "Fox" part, check it out, he writes. . .

In calling him a fox, he gives him his true character; for he was subtle as a fox, noted for his craft, and treachery, and baseness, and preying (as they say of a fox) furthest from his own den. And, though it is a black and ugly character, yet it did not ill become Christ to give it to him, nor was it in him a violation of that law, Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people. For Christ was a prophet, and prophets always had a liberty of speech in reproving princes and great men. Nay, Christ was more than a prophet, he was a king, he was King of kings, and the greatest of men were accountable to him, and therefore it became him to call this proud king by his own name; but it is not to be drawn into an example by us.

Can you imagine someone working so hard just to defend or excuse Christ for being rude to a ruler? My how different we are today. . . In other words, you can speak out against political leaders as long as you are a prophet. . . then you get a pass. . . and you get an extra pass if you are Jesus because you outrank them. I wonder does that count for us, as Christians, and Christ followers or are we bound by the Old Testament norm. The quote, " Thou shalt not speak evil of the ruler of thy people" is from Exodus 22:28. Interesting in context of Exodus, when there are no "princes and rulers" yet, except for the Pharoah that they have just defied. Interesting understanding of the idea of the justification for civil disobedience, don't you think? Henry wrote in 1662, when much like Herod's Israel, and Pilate's Rome, the political structure was unquestionable and seen very much as a gift of God. What does Jesus think of such a situation? Are all those powers that be destined to be foxes? Interesting to think about, and again we'll get to that in a minute too.

Now we come to the next part of Jesus's respsonse:

33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’

Here is an interesting line. I've always been intrigued by this line. How often is it that Jesus offers such a legalistic phrase. Why is it impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem? Is it some kinda cosmic thing? It is literally impossible for a prophet to be killed somewhere else? What is it? My rational mind goes away from those cosmic hypothesis and comes to a conclusion a little more close to home, and it has to do with where Jesus goes next. I think it has to do with human notions of tradition and closemindedness, that we don't recognize prophets unless they meet certain criteria. Doesn't this ring similar to Jesus in his hometown, saying a prophet isn't regarded in his hometown? The problem then isn't with the prophet, but instead the blindness and weakness of the people being prophesized to. Prophets must be killed in Jerusalem because they always have. Or have they? What is it about human beings that we tend to make up rules like this, and that tradition becomes one of the biggest limiters of our mind, what we believe, and what we can find possible, otherwise the limitations we put on our world, ourselves, and also regrettably on God. . . Here we are again, we'll get to that in a minute, too. Now we get to Jesus's lament.

34 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!

Think to yourself. What are some of the other occasions where Jesus show sadness or frustration during his ministry? Typically it is when Jesus is saying, ye of little faith, or be not afraid. Those seem to be the typical ones right. Now here we have Jesus, in a statement where he is defying typical human fear, in an act of true faith. . . Does he lament over Jerusalem because they do not have faith and they are consumed by their fear? Is this why the people of Jerusalem kill prophets? Because they are afraid of what the prophet says, and that they do not have enough faith to live based on the prophecy? I think so. . . especially when taken in the light of the next line he speaks.

How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

Look at this, it is a message of protection, of comfort, of love, but they were unwilling. Why? Because of fear. . . Because of lack of faith. . . It fits in perfectly with the other laments of Jesus. But also look closer at the image. . . A chicken protecting her chicks. . . And what is the common enemy of chicken? What is the biggest predator of a domesticated bird like a chicken? My aunt and uncle raise chickens. They have all kinds. There are so many good stories about them and their chickens, but the sad fact that they have continued to struggle with is trying to protect their chickens, and the chicken's eggs, from foxes. . . foxes. "Go and tell that fox for me." Herod and the Pharisees, those foxes. . . how prescient. In a passage that just abounds with imagery of the future work in Jerusalem. . . three days, finishing work, being killed, now you have an extra piece. . . it is these foxes whom the people will choose rather than Jesus, again and again, and seemingly in Matthew Henry's time, and again now. But Jesus, despite it all offers more:

35 See, your house is left to you.

In my house there are many rooms, the kingdom of heaven is at hand, it's here, just take it. I have left a place for you, but as I said you won't choose it. Or will you? Jesus does seem hopeful, still teaching even in his lament. Always dropping clues of the truth. But then he closes it all with more foreshadowing:

And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’ ”

Foreshadowing because those palms will be waved, there will be glory, but a few days later everything will shift, and fear and lack of faith will again be the case. O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, why oh why? Why do you choose to be protected by the fox? Do you think that he is stronger than the hen, too, and even though he devours you, is the only one strong enough to protect you. It's an interesting metaphor isn't it because the hen probably isn't strong enough to stop the fox. At my uncle's the fox typically would eat the hen, too. They never would go out and find a slain fox amid the chicken feathers strewn, but there were survivors, always survivors. Now let's play out the metaphor, how would the hen protect her chicks? How? Yeah you are right, by becoming the sacrifice for them. By giving herself for the chicks. The fox takes her and leaves the chicks behind. You've just got to love studying the Bible. The symbolism is so interesting and layered.
Instead though we choose the fox because there is too much risk about the hen. There is too much faith involved, we become overcome by fear, and so we depend on the fox, the devouring predator for protection. Matthew Henry's commentary brought it out for me. He, himself fell into the same trap. Well, Jesus should question authority, but we better not, for we're not prophets. I beg to differ. We are prophets, Christianity must speak with a prophet's tongue and challenge what is not right in the world. Silence in many cases is choosing fear. Hanging inside safe traditions is choosing fear. Limiting God, and replacing God with our own idols. The idols that take the place of God in our lives. What are the things that we depend on rather than God? I invite you to ask yourself that question this week. Jerusalem, Jerusalem. . . Christian, Christian, that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35 See, your house is left to you. . . come into the house. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 13:31-35). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, February 17, 2013


A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
February 17, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 4: 1-13 

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.

4 Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’ ”
5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 Jesus answered him, “It is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’ ”
9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you,’
11     and
‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ”
12 Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” 13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. [1]

I've found, now twice it's happened, when you go from not preaching from the lectionary to trying to preach from the lectionary, that you find yourself preaching out of passages from scripture that you have recently preached. Last winter, at the beginning of the year, I was attempting to follow the major events of Christ's life, my own lectionary of sorts, and now I find that the lectionary has a similar structure. So here I go again, getting the chance to preach again on Christ's temptation in the desert. Last year I focused on the character of the devil, focusing on how easily Christ seems to do away with the devil, simply by saying no, by resisting temptation, he strips the devil of his power, and he simply walks away vanquished, to wait for a new opportunity. Then I touched on the nature of sin, being that it seems to stem from our desire to sustain ourselves by controlling others, controlling the world, and in many ways even controlling God. I want to continue that idea this morning, and it seems, that I've already used my buzzword for the day, three times, seems, and there is four. Basically, I'm going to try to get at how our need to control comes from the idea that it all seems right to us to do so. It seems that our only hope is to control, and so we strain, struggle, by rook or by crook to control. It seems the only way after all.
Seems. . . Every week we confess our sin. Every week we talk about living rightly. Every week, and it's been this way for 2000 years of Christianity. Why is it that we cannot perfect existence? Why is it that sin is so strong? In many ways it is found in this one little word, "seems." Seems suggests that things are not what they appear. What we see is not the actuality, the truth, what is. . . Think about this in line with our gospel passage for today.
Jesus is hungry, food is offered. . . There seems no harm here. Is there harm in seeking nourishment when you are hungry? Jesus says that "Man does not live by bread alone." It certainly seems like that is the stuff of life, well bread, water, pizza, sandwiches, an occasional steak, some grilled chicken, some of Russ's crab bisque (I can tell you it was good), all these things certainly seem what gives nourishment. It's pretty simple, it seems as if our lives are dependent on the food we eat. Maybe more than seems in this sense.
Then the next temptation, Jesus is the son of God, why not be in power, why not assume your place, why not rule all that the devil shows, it's his anyway. . . it all seems logical, why not now? Why must it be later? Why must Jesus go through the rest of the story? Why not just take it all now? . . . Then "worship the Lord, Your God, and serve only him." Yeah but it seems as though a little change in the scheduling wouldn't make a difference. . .
Then the third, God is all powerful? God is Good? It seems as if he should come save me should I decide to jump off this cliff. Such is the gist of what the devil says to Jesus, such is the gist of what Psalm 91 says.  . . we recited it as the call to worship didn't we. . . we said:

For God says, "Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them."
The Lord God says, "I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them. With long Life I will satisfy them and show them my salvation."

Seems pretty cut and dry. . . why not put it to the test? Why not see if it's all real after all? Why not get some real empirical data for once, do away with all this faith stuff? There seems to be no harm in taking a jump. I don't have bad intentions. I'm just doing what seems right. Why should it make a difference if God saves me now or at some other time? Why not now?
These three aspects of the story reflect different aspects of our lives. Remember I looked at them last year as, control of resources, control of others, control of God. But if we look at them as seemingly harmless acts that prove to be "sin" how big does the list grow? Many poets and writers within the Christian tradition have tried to show this interesting dilemma of perception in interesting ways. Allegory is one of my favorite literary devices. Allegory is when the author writes a parallel story, which symbolically tells another story. Animal Farm, by George Orwell is a great example, also the Wizard of Oz. I've been working on such a story about this beaver, who in the name of helping his friends begins to do their jobs for them to disastrous circumstances, meant as allegorical satiric commentary on much of our  society' ills. Many poets have used allegory to show human sin in a way that is less harsh, a seemingly innocent story, so that people are willing to listen to what is the actual truth beyond the seems. It's like Emily Dickinson wrote:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant --
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind --
There it is blind to the truth, blinded by what seems true, what is true is often harder to bear. I'm going to use Aunt Emily's advice and use an allegory to help us see how sin blinds us to its wiles despite our best intentions.
My example of the allegory of the "seemliness" of sin is Edmund Spenser's story of "The Red Cross Knight." And before you ask, yes I'm teaching it in my class right now. DeAnna commented to me last week how my class tends to influence my sermons. . . I told her that it works both ways. . . I'm not sure to feel more sorry for you all or those poor boys. . . The Red Cross Knight is a story about a knight, who turns out to be St. George, going on a quest to defeat Sin, which symbolically takes the shape of a dragon. St. George and the dragon is a familiar legend, but Spenser adds to it the allegorical combating of sin element. The coolest part of the allegory is the way his intentions are good, but he somehow gets waylaid along the journey, and must struggle to remember his mission. His struggles all begin in the wood of error, where wouldn't you guess it, nothing is as it seems.
The first aspect of the story I want to bring out, is why he goes into the wood of error. The story says a storm sends him there looking for shelter. What are the storms of life? Stress, loss, pain, losing a job, losing a loved one, a break in a friendship, changes in wealth, political threats to safety, doubt, fear, regret. These send us looking for shelter. So we take up trying to find a way out, and forget that we were on a mission to begin with. Such happens to the knight, he goes searching for shelter from the storm, and the woods at first "seem" to be quite inviting, peaceful, and beneficial. It's very beautiful and pleasant, at least at first. It also says that the paths and alleys (seems there is no way to tell a dead end from a path), and  in the wood of error they are also very wide and lead in many different directions, to many different outcomes, the appearance of freedom, but the outcomes are not visible, and therefore are not definite. . . and all the paths are also well travelled. We are not the first to travel down this road.
The details that Spenser puts forward about the wood of error are amazingly timeless. It's funny how as time goes by, sin does not change. I asked my students this week, "why must the wood of error seem inviting and pleasant." They were thinking about it, so I let them think, I let them stew about it for a few moments. What do you think? Then one boy chimed in, saying, "because it wouldn't be error if it was intentional, it would just be wrong." Right! Let's think about that. . . why does Spenser hold error as a part of sin? Let's put that question off for a second. . .
Now I want to bring up the Red Cross Knight's companion, Una, she represents Christianity. It is her who gives him his armor, almost quoting word for word from the Ephesians passage about the "full armor of God." It is symbolically her country that is being ravaged by the dragon of sin, and it is for her that he goes on the quest in the first place. (You can see how complicated it gets, I promise I won't go too much further). She goes with him in the wood of error, and is a warning to him, constantly reminding him of the dangers. Take a look at the Prayer of Preparation for today, it gives one of their exchanges.

"Ah, lady," said the Knight, "it were shame to go backward for fear of a hidden danger. Virtue herself gives light to lead through any darkness."
"Yes," said Una; "but I know better than you the peril of this place, though now it is too late to bid you go back like a coward. Yet wisdom warns you to stay your steps, before you are forced to retreat. This is the Wandering Wood, and that is the den of Error, a horrible monster, hated of all. Therefore, I advise you to be cautious."                                              

Two of my favorite lines are in this. . . Red Cross says, "Virtue herself gives light to lead through any darkness," which is him basically saying I know the rules, and what is expected, I don't need anything but rightness to pull me through. . . And she says, "but I know better than you the peril of this place". . . as if to say, there is more to right and wrong than what virtue teaches, and the power of error is strong. Is this Christianity's message to us about sin. . . that it is stronger than we are because it begins with error and then snow balls. And it does for Red Cross too, he becomes blind to his error, gets involved with pride, which leads to despair. Despair is that hopeless place where we often find our world. Safely cynical, unchallenged, but miserable.
I had the distinct privilege of seeing the play "Urinetown" at Blue Ridge yesterday. Those boys did such a great job. I was moved. . . you know it's a good play when you laugh, cry, and are forced to question your world view all in one two plus hour sitting. Only music and theater has that power. Urine town is another allegory, that poses questions rather than answers about our world, the path we are on, and the possible outcomes of the choices we make. It leaves you really at a place where you have to choose what to believe. Cynicism or Hope. . . and the play doesn't necessarily sell one over the other, just the actuality of the dilemma. It was a breath of fresh air hidden by allegorical satire and bathroom humor. And it asks you to take a leap of faith because either truly is one.
The question that we ask ourselves during this season of lent is: Is our world what it seems or is it so much more? And if it is more what does that mean? For the Red Cross Knight, what brings him out of his despair is being reminded of his mission. . . defeating sin. . . interestingly enough flawless virtue isn't the answer, instead he must learn, faith, hope, love, humility, zeal, justice, repentance, mercy, and then with the help of the living waters or Jesus Christ the dragon is slain and sin is destroyed. The boys were upset that the fight scene with St. George and the Dragon was so anticlimactic. Yes for the final battle is nothing, sin is weak against faith, hope, and love, which is why Christ is so unaffected by the devil's temptation. May we all seek such grace. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 4:1-13). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Let Me Build You Shelter

Let Me Build You Shelter
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
February 10, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 9: 28-36 

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.

28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah”—not knowing what he said. 34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36 When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.[1]  

So there are only a few days where the paraments and my stole are white. White marks the high holy days of the church calendar. The Christmas season is white. Likewise the Easter season is white. Then there are a few less known holy days sprinkled through the year. This morning is one of those. It is Transfiguration Sunday, which marks the Sunday right before the beginning of Lent. This Wednesday we'll get together and begin the season of Lent with a special Ash Wednesday service, following our soup night, come for both 6:30, and then 7:30. Just to give it another plug. Transfiguration is not one of the holy days we look forward to or think about when we are planning the church year. It's not high on our list, for whatever reason. Possibly the reason is that the story is kind of mysterious, and for that reason intimidating. It's hard to get at. It's kind of strange. Let's take the place of the disciples for a second.
If we look at the rest of the chapter heading towards this moment. The disciples have had a whirlwind of experience. I know you could say that for almost every chapter of the gospels. But in this chapter they go out on their own for the first time. They go out and travel to the different villages and "bring good news and cure diseases everywhere." Then they come back to Jesus reporting back, and then they balk at feeding the five thousand because they think for some reason that five loaves and two fishes is nowhere near enough to feed that multitude. Then also in this Chapter Peter makes his big declaration, claiming that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah. Then Jesus tells the disciples about his future death and resurrection. And that brings us up to our reading for this morning, the Transfiguration story, which we celebrate this morning. This story is the center piece of the chapter because after it the whirlwind continues, with the disciples failing to heal a demoniac because of their "little faith" and they close it all out with an argument over which of them is the greatest. This isn't the best chapter in Luke's gospel for the performance of the disciples. It seems like the achieve alot, but each time the follow up their achievement, for lack of a better term with something that shows that they are hopelessly clueless.
I understand where they are coming from. As miraculous as the healings and the mass feedings are, as intense as coming to the knowledge of, who Christ is, and what his mission will be, would be for them, none of that compares with the strange details of this story. So some time goes by, and Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on the mountain to pray. Then all of a sudden, while he is praying, his face changes, and his clothes turn white. Dazzling white, the NRSV calls it. The Greek word for it is the same used to describe the color of lightning, so it's not the kind of white that reflects light, but the kind that produces light. Here is one of the places where I wish there was more detail. I'm glad to hear about the whiteness of the white, but wouldn't you like to hear more about how Jesus' face changed? How did his face change? What about it changed? The NRSV says the "appearance" changed, and again something is lost in translation, the Greek word is often translated as "form" or "shape" or "figure." I guess that's more clear than appearance, but still really vague.
It's from this we get the idea of transfiguring, which I found in my studies this week is a word that exists only from this story. Typically in English when we use transform or metamorphosis, rather than transfigure. The only other place the word is used is somewhat new to culture with the coming of JK Rowling's Harry Potter franchise. It seems that at Hogwarts, all the students need to take "Transfiguration" where they work on spell that change the shape of things, for instance changing a pen into a cup, or the like.
But still it's very vague, and the vagueness seems to add to the mystery, as if that were needed, because it only gets weirder as we continue. The next thing you know Jesus, Peter, James, and John aren't alone. All of a sudden they saw "two men, Moses and Elijah talking to him." Again the details are vague. Here wouldn't you like some dialogue? Wouldn't you like a better account of what Moses, Jesus, and Elijah were saying? Something, some banter between old friends, something. You know like Moses saying,  "Hey nice mountain, it's alot easier to suddenly appear, climbing Sinai was tough, and by the way good job bringing your disciples with you, you never know what trouble they are going to get in while your away." Jesus saying, "Yeah tell me about it." Then Elijah piping in again and again always telling Jesus to speak up. . . ha ha ha, (pretty proud of that one). . . You see Elijah is the one listening for God and only getting the still small voice. . . But seriously, don't you think what they said would be important? Inquiring minds want to know. All we get is, "they were speaking about his departure, that he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem." So basically all we get is that they are in on the plan. They are in the know. There is some connection from the New and Old Testament after all.
Can you imagine what this would be like for the disciples. All of these parallels fall short, but maybe it was like what I felt like when I was a the final game at Memorial Stadium, and they brought back all the old Orioles one by one. Or maybe it would be like going to see a concert, like Michael Buble, and then out walks Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Dean Martin. Something like that maybe, but not even close, because this is Christ, whom you've dedicated your life to following surrounded by the two biggest prophets from the Old Testament, and the amazing thing is you get the idea that the disciples could barely stay up for it all. They are "weighed down with sleep" but "since they had stayed up, they got to see his glory." Since they stayed up, it makes it seem like it's New Years, and your struggling through to midnight to see the anticlimactic ball drop. I mean come on this is the huge. Moses, Elijah, Jesus! This is the biggest summit of Biblical figures. How about a little bit more enthusiasm from the disciples here, barely staying up,  and all we get in description, is a few lines, and only a brief summary of their discussion about Jesus and his departure in Jerusalem.
Hmmm, departure. . . Is that the word you would use to describe what Jesus does in Jerusalem, entering on a Colt, turning the tables on the temple, sharing a last meal with his disciples, being betrayed, arrested, tried, flogged, paraded through town, carrying a cross, crown of thorns on head, nailed to the cross, pierced in the side, death, resurrection on the third day. That truly is some "departure." Calling that a departure is like calling the parting of the Red Sea a wave, calling Noah's Ark a canoe, calling Daniel in the lion's den a cat encounter. Departure, really?
Then I looked it up. You know what the Greek word translated here so weakly as departure is, "Exodus." Now you're talking. Now we've got something here. Now it's all coming together. Yes, Exodus, man bring it home Greek language. Yes that is what Jesus does at Jerusalem. He doesn't just leave, doesn't just depart. He sets free. He leads us out of bondage. He sets the captives free. He lets his people go. He triumphs over those whose hearts have been hardened. Leading the way to the promised land, the land flowing with milk and honey, he becomes himself the way, salvation. One of the big important pieces of this story is that we get another really important look at who Jesus is, what exactly he is going to do, and the tradition that Jesus is a part of. Saying here I am, God, setting people free from bondage, again. It is who I am. It is what I do.
This again is Revelation, reflected in the light shining, important aspects of who Jesus is are come to life here on this mountain, and it seems like so many times before and since, human beings can't comprehend what is going on. Not only can they barely keep themselves await, but then Peter pipes up, "Master it is good that we were here." Just what does he mean by this? You can almost see Jesus being hopeful, that Peter gets it. As a teacher, I feel this way all the time. You've just made a great illustration, you think that there is no way they kids could have missed it, and then one raises his hand, and says, "Yeah Mr. Atkinson, that is like. . . " And crestfallen, you come to the realization again that they just really have no clue. Or maybe how I was a minute ago about my Elijah, still, small voice joke. . . So Jesus is hopeful, thinking to himself, yes it is important and good that you were here Peter, hello, that's why I brought you. . .. Maybe he gets it. He is the one who got the last question right anyway. Then Peter says, are you ready for it, "let's build you each a dwelling." Let me build you a shelter. . . And Jesus' face falls, then the cloud appears. Cloud covering the light. . .symbolic. . . yeah I think so.
Why does Peter want to build for them dwellings, shelter. The Greek word again adds some depth to our understanding because the word is the word used for Tabernacle. Hmmm, tabernacle, just like the one the Israelites had in the desert, wandering for forty years. Now, let's think about this for a second. There are two possibilities here, I think, well maybe three, the extra one being that Peter is clueless and not making sense. But the other two are:
1. Peter wants to show off his knowledge of the story. He's heard the word Exodus, he's seen Moses and Elijah, and he's like, okay I'll show them all that I know what's going on. "Hey Jesus it's good that I was here, let's build you all a tabernacle right, right, get it (wink)." Oh I know that student too, the one who knows just enough to get into trouble by trying to sound like he knows it all. It's certainly not out of character. As I said later in the chapter the disciples are posturing over who is the greatest. Why wouldn't that posturing be going on here too? Maybe. .
2. But more likely Peter is falling into the trap that so many of us fall into, and is often familiar in the Bible narrative. We've got some new information, we've got some new knowledge about God, and we want to protect it. We want to protect God. We want to be the one who does it. Look at the Prayer of Preparation. Peter is not the first to want to build a shelter for God. David in 2 Samuel 7, "

Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.”   

Why do we do that? Why do we think we need to protect God, here from the elements, but sometimes it is more, sometimes it's from doubt or secularism or being forgotten? I don't think it comes from any malice. It's just misguided benevolence, blind to the prideful error of it, inherent in human beings it seems. The problem isn't the deed, it's the motivation, and perhaps the motivation is hidden from us because it is so natural to us, so natural to the way we are and the way we see the world and ourselves. What does it mean to be the protector of God, the one who builds the house for God to live in? It's a place of greatness, isn't it, a place of control.
Let me illustrate what I mean. This week in class, we've been reading Medieval Literature in class and every year I show my students the movie Tristan and Isolde because the movie really brings to life for them some of the themes of Medieval Literature in a way they can understand. The loyalty and betrayal of some of the other stories that we read, that they miss, upon seeing it on the big screen begins to make sense. So in that movie, if you aren't familiar with the Tristan and Isolde legend, is a story of star crossed lovers. A young British Knight, Tristan, is thought to be dead and sent across the waves on his floating funeral pyre and finds his way to Ireland, where he is found by the Irish princess and nursed back to health. They fall in love, but know that their love cannot be since Britain and Ireland are at war. He doesn't know she is the princess, she tells him that she is a maid at court. So when the Irish King offers her as the prize at a tournament to divide the British Barons, Tristan wins the tournament, but not for himself, for his Lord, the King of Cornwall, Mark. Mark then marries Isolde and Tristan's loyalty is challenged. Mark doesn't know about all of it, and he is a little self conscious because of Isolde's youth and beauty, and the fact that Mark is missing his hand, having lost it saving Tristan's life when Tristan was just a boy. The loyalty again is important. Mark says to her, "I will do anything to make you happy, what can I do to make you happy?" The irony is that the only thing that would make her happy is something that Mark probably would not do. He doesn't really want her to be happy, he wants her to love him, and he thinks if he can make her happy she will.
Do you see the connection to Peter? He doesn't want to build a shelter for them because he wants them protected, but that he wants to be the one doing it, to show his devotion and prove his worth, so that he can be the one who does it. "Peter did not know what he had said." Just like David, feeling guilty for living in a palace while God lives in a tent. Do you think that any palace you could build, David would be nice enough for God? Really? How arrogant. . . but arrogance born from a real sense of insecurity. Like Mark wanting to earn the love of Isolde, so too is Peter trying to position himself as worthy. The shame of it is this is the way we love, (and if you don't think so watch the Valentine's commercials this week, "Every Kiss begins with Kay" comes to mind), this is the way that fallen human beings love, looking to control and earn and own, and this type of love is toxic because it leads to broken relationships, hatred, and resentment. It plagues the Israelites in the Desert, it plagues the future of David's Kingdom, it plagues the disciples, and it plagues the church throughout its history. We do not need to protect God, we do not need to Shelter God, we do not need to put God in a box, we do not need to sell God, we do not need to do anything, but love God and serve his people, not because we want to be great or worthy, but because we are us, created beloved children. Jesus will teach us about this type of love, the real kind, the kind on which our world was and is made.
God comes in a cloud as if to remind Peter and the rest of us, "This is my son, my chosen, listen to him!" Listen to him! Listen to his words and listen to his deeds because he will show you what love is. So they go down the mountain, and there is a crowd and a boy possessed by a demon, but none of the disciples could cast it out. Jesus says, "You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?" Good Question.
So we enter Lent this week. The time where people give things up in memory of the fast of Christ in the desert. Let us seek to give up during this Lenten Season our need to earn God's favor, let us give up our old understanding of love, and let us then seek to focus daily ways to serve God, and Christ his beloved Son, not based on our own needs, but on where we hear him call. . . for God calls out to us to "Listen!" For listening is needed to get outside of ourselves. And Christ calls out from the cross, showing us that love is selfless, that love is sacrificial, that love is not about owning and controlling, but in giving up all, even unto your very last breath for the other. Oh so very hard. Loving God give us the grace. May it be so!


[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 9:28-36). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

This Guy

This Guy
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
February 3, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 4: 22-30 

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 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ ” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.[1]  

Tough crowd, don't you think? In a the span of a paragraph, 10 short verses, Jesus goes from "All spoke well of  him" to "They got up, drove him out of town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. What is it? What does he say that turns these tables? What does he say that leads him to the cliff? What button does he push?
First let's see what he said to gain their favor at the beginning, making "all speak well of him." Last week's gospel reading in the lectionary was the scripture that precedes this one, and I wanted to save it for this week, so I chose the epistle lesson from 1 Corinthians instead. Let's take a look at the beginning of this story. Luke 4, starting from v. 14: Jesus had just begun his ministry having successfully completed his temptation in the desert.

16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

18     “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”[2]

To this they respond with speaking well of him, but then he goes on and they want to throw him off of a cliff. In this passage he is talking about fulfilling the prophecy, and proclaiming the year of the Lord's hearing, all good news for these folks, but his role is simply to proclaim, and it seems that proclaiming is safe, proclaiming is all good for them, it doesn't resonate with a challenge to them, so they're cool with it. They're oppressed and poor and seeking God's favor, so a proclaimer of such is exactly what they need, but then comes the prophet talk, and this is all too much. Jesus drops the prophet word to them in reference to himself, then he compares himself to Elijah and Elisha, and the people just can't handle it. You can almost hear them. . . Who does this guy think he is? Isn't this guy Joseph the carpenter's son? Where does this guy get off calling himself a prophet? Then they start looking around for the cliff.
This is the second time I've preached on this story from Luke, since being the pastor here. Just over a year ago, I focused on the idea of "no prophet is accepted in his hometown." Last year I brought out the idea that what we see is connected to what we are looking for, and that since all they were looking for was the carpenter's son, that is all they saw. Coming back to this story a year later I have been drawn in another direction, seeing much more in the context. I want to look at today what it is that makes us this way. By us I mean human beings and by this way I mean cynical in the face of greatness which poses a challenge to us. What is it that makes us not believe when we are in the presence of greatness? What is it that brings out the cynic in all of us? And at the heart of it all why does greatness seems to challenge us, and why rather than standing up to the challenge, we tear the greatness down, or in this case, try to throw it off the cliff.
It seems that there is something within human beings that wants everyone to be average, that when someone gets too big, we want to knock them down, back to everyone's level. Is it envy? Is it jealousy? Is it a way to make up for our own feelings of inadequacy? Is it even something more in us, or rather less, does it come from an emptiness we have inside us? I see it all the time around me as a teacher, and I remember it from my student days. When one kid has all the answers in a discussion he is mocked. When a kid makes the right choices he is teased for being too good. When a kid's grades are higher than everyone else, he tends to hide it, lest he is ostracized for excelling. I see it so much. Why do kids do that to each other? Keeping that kid from becoming too uppity, is that really what we mean by humility? Is that kid being humble when he hides his test, or is it out of fear? I have a few more examples in case we think it is only kids who act this way.
Have you all noticed the news lately, or at least the sports news? There has been much press on Ray Lewis lately. He's retiring, and since he announced his retirement, his team, the Ravens have been playing like a team on a mission. They have been dominant, where up to that point they had been kind of floundering, good, but not great. They won their division, but did not have all that great of a record, so they've had to play in each round of the playoffs. Now since their playoff run began, you began to hear about aspects of Ray Lewis's life and career that had been silent for so long. When he was young in the league, the year before his first Super Bowl appearance in 2000, he had some legal trouble because he was involved in a double homicide. It's hard to tell the facts of the case, I do not want to get into the facts of the case, but the bottom line charges were not filed against him, and he was a witness in the trial. 13 year later it is hard to know exactly what happened, but the point I want to make is, why now? Why bring it up now? It has not been talked about much in recent years. He has been an exemplary citizen and ambassador for the game. His foundation in Baltimore has helped hundreds, or more, of underprivileged kids. He has been a great leader for his teammates. Why when his career is again at the top do we bring up the negative of the past? Why do we do it like that? Now I'm not saying that Ray Lewis is like Christ, far from it, but there is greatness in him, and the amazing accomplishment of his emotional leadership taking the Ravens back to the Super Bowl, why do we need to knock it down? What do we gain, by saying "can you believe they let this guy play, he's a murderer."
Another possible story, and one in an opposite category, this one of fallen, challenging our faith in the greatness of people is Lance Armstrong and his recent admission of taking drugs and cheating as a cyclist.  Lance Armstrong had been the greatest cyclist in the world. He had won more Tour de France races than anyone else. He became a world figure of real fame, but his legend grew when the story spread that he had testicular cancer, and overcame it, and continued to win tour de France titles. He became a hero to many. His "Live Strong" campaign and company raised millions of dollars for cancer research, but his glory fell apart in the last few years under suspicion of using performance enhancing drugs, which he vehemently denied for a long period of time, until a few weeks ago, he came clean to Oprah about cheating, completing his fall from grace. People were outraged at him, and his cheating, but even more so his attitude and behavior, which was aggressive and nasty, attacking anyone who accused him. People felt like their inspiration from him was all a lie, leaving them disillusioned and betrayed. Can you believe this guy, he cheated, and he lied, I'm so disappointed.
Are these two stories connected and how are they connected to this story about Jesus? To me the common thread is mob justice, the court of popular opinion, and the dangers of group think, on one hand, and the human inclination to create and destroy idols on the other. Public opinion is a fickle thing, and more and more it is shaped by a media that suffers both from short term amnesia and selective moral outrage, both of which leave them just barely above the fray and thus just outside of having to be accountable for what they say. A week later and everyone has forgotten anyway. The big question that always seems to surface when you criticize the media though is whether they create or reflect the culture. Not wanting to debate it, I'll say at least for this morning that they reflect the culture. One clue for this is that history has shown that the mob doesn't really need television to be fickle. It only took a week remember for shouts of Hosanna to turn to shouts of crucify him for Jesus. So we go back and forth loving an idolizing men like Ray Lewis and Lance Armstrong and feeling satisfied, proven right, vindicated, when they fall from grace. You could say the same for Tiger Woods is another example. Do we build up these idols just to see them fall? Why do we take joy in their downfall? Then once they fall, we build them back up again. It seems they are again safely flawed like the rest of us. At least until they get to be too great again, just like Ray Lewis the last two weeks.
I think we have trouble with greatness because it makes us uncomfortable. We like our idols flawed.  We like them after all like us, and as long as they are flawed we can be the ones in control of how we think of them. If they get to be too great we can always remind ourselves that, nope they have their problems too. We can look up to them, but they don't have to challenge us. They may be good, and they can inspire me to be good, but they aren't perfect after all. Because there is a danger in a perfect idol. Just look at the way people have reacted to the fall from grace of Lance Armstrong. They are hurt, they are disillusioned, they are wondering what it was all about, they are wondering if it was ever real. Yes it's much better to stay in control of your idols.
I keep throwing that idol term around. I do so on purpose. The pun is intended. I very much mean idol in the sense of idolizing heroes, like I would say growing up Bo Jackson was my idol, or Cal Ripken, or Gary Clark. I mean idol in that innocent way, but I also mean the church meaning of idol. I said that it is important that you keep control of your idols, lest you become challenged. The idea about idols is that they are human creations, created by us and then worshipped by us. We create something to believe in, and then we do, but we can never forget it is us that created it in the first place. No matter how much you try to forget, it is you who give the idol it's power, and thus you are never really challenged by it, you are never really pushed beyond your limits of faith, it never really changes your life, because you know deep down that it isn't real. But if you can forget, and you really believe  you can become vulnerable. Faith is vulnerability. Faith allows for you to get hurt. Cynicism is much safer. There are a lot of people who really believed in Lance Armstrong, and will have trouble believing again. It is that feeling of hurt in us that doesn't let us believe in Ray Lewis, and it is that kind of hurt in us that doesn't let us believe in Christ, and that kind of hurt that caused those people to want to throw him off the cliff.
I found this show on HBO that is now in its second season, but the first season was available on demand, so I started at the beginning. I've only watched the first couple episodes, but I was intrigued by the idea. The show is called, "Enlightened."  This woman has an emotional breakdown, where she flips out at work, and causes a big ugly scene. This scene is how the first episode started. Then she goes away to a therapy retreat in Hawaii where she finds clarity and peace. But like all escapes must this one ends and she has to return home back to her life, the very same life that drove her crazy in the first place, but now she is armed with her new found faith about herself and her healed holistic new world view. The show revolves around her trying to live out her new found enlightenment back in the darkness of her world. It is a train wreck of a show, but so far, and like I said only a few episodes in, there does seem to be hope that she will slowly solidify her very surface oriented transformation and make it stick. I'm hopeful at least because the show is very realistic, it could go either way.
The reason I bring the show up, is that it consistently asks the question of whether her change is legitimate. Do we believe that people can change? Do we believe that people can be redeemed? Do we believe that there is more to people than what we see today, that there is so much more within that can be found at first glance? Do we believe that someone like Ray Lewis could make mistakes when he is younger and from those mistakes become a positive figure in the world? Do we believe that though our idols fall that the legacy of what they inspired can still mean something? Is it possible that God can work through a steroid user with an aggressive narcissistic messiah complex to inspire people to overcome their cancer and to believe? Is it possible that a carpenter's son from Nazareth could actually be a prophet, Messiah, Son of God, redeemer of the world, that he is not a created idol, but actually our createor? And if the answer to these questions is yes, will you rise to the challenge of being better than you are, or would you rather throw that belief over the cliff, remaining in the safety of unchallenged cynicism? Have you been burned believing before, and would you rather not put yourself out on that limb again? Does belief challenge who you are, what you do, how you view people, and how you view life? If you believe that people can change then why not allow yourself to be inspired by the amazing stories of redemption that are all around us, and why allow that faith to be challenged when people prove false. They may, they do, they will, don't let it discourage your faith, and don't fall into the trap of only choosing safe and flawed idols. Though humans are flawed, Christ is great, and through Christ all things are possible. God give us the strength to believe that, lest we wind up throwing our faith, our hope, our redemption, our salvation off the cliff. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 4:22-30). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 4:16-21). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.