Sunday, January 26, 2014

We Become Fools

We Become Fools
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 26, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Genesis 3: 1-13
Romans 1: 18-25

So we continue our walk through the Old Testament, now heading to the watershed moment most commonly known as "the fall," that moment when our world fell from perfection. It has been interpreted many ways throughout its long history. It is very familiar to us and often we take for granted the details of the stories we are the most familiar with. So let's delve into this story with fresh eyes, but first I want to pose some questions. On the insert are four basic ideas that I want us to have in our heads before we delve into this text, so we can read as actively as possible. To me these questions are central to how this story relates to the rest of the Bible and our understanding of what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is all about. Think about before we go forward what your answers to these questions are. . .
1.      Original Sin? What is it and when does it take place?
a.       Listening to the serpent's words? Believing them? Making the decision to eat the fruit?
b.      When Eve takes the bite, or when Adam takes the bite? the guilt afterwards?
2.      What is different after the "Sin?"
3.      What is God's reaction? 
4.      What does it all mean to us?

So now, Let us pray, for the open hearts and minds that only God can give,
Almighty God, 
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.

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2 The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3 but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’ ” 4 But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
8 They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” 10 He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” 11 He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” 12 The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” 13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”[1]

This one story is maybe the most foundational story for all of what we believe about the Biblical narrative and what we believe to be true in our world. It is central. It gets into one of the major issues of the Western Worldview. The world was created to be something, created to be good, but just is not good. Something went wrong. One of the keys of the Western Worldview is the idea of a Fall, and it gives us hope. It causes us frustration, of course, but there is always a hope that if it was once great, it can be restored again to greatness. If you think about it there is hope there. I want to look today at exactly what happened, what changed, and then how "the good" can be restored.
So first, what happened. . . we all are familiar with the basics of the story. Snake comes to Eve, convinces her to partake of the fruit they weren't supposed to eat, she eats, shares with Adam, they hide, then God shows up, and Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden, never to return. That's the basic story, but let's delve a little deeper into the details.
First the serpent. . . tradition often teaches that the serpent is a manifestation of Satan or the Devil, the adversary to God, but nowhere in the story is the devil mentioned, rather the snake is just a snake. Obviously, it isn't that much of a stretch to connect the actions of the snake with the destructive actions of the devil, but we don't find a devil character all that much in the Old Testament. There is a Satan in a few places, but he does not really appear to be the eternal adversary of goodness, the destroyer, so rather than applying a name to him, let's just look objectively in exactly what he the serpent does. He asks Eve if God had told them they could eat of all the fruit in the garden, and Eve of course replies that "we are not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil" a direct quote of God from Genesis 2: 17, but she adds to that "nor touch it," then continues as God said "lest ye die." Pretty clear don't eat the fruit or you will die. The Hebrew for the lest you die part is, written there on your insert. pen te muten - lest you die, and the serpent says back to her, you will not surely die. The Hebrew for that is interesting, it is simply lo - te muten mut.  In other words, no die die. Repeated roots like this are typically used for emphasis, which is why we add the surely. But check that out. Lo which is the negative, then die die. In other words, exactly what God said, quoted back to her, but added for emphasis and then a direct negation, what God said is a lie, you won't die, die. To me there is no other way to read this.
The serpent is saying, God lies, now if God lies, what does that mean for the rest of what God says? Especially when you take into account the idea, that each word spoken by God comes to be. . . Let there be light, light. . . Let there be a firmament, a firmament. . . let us make humans in our image, humans in our image, and most importantly, God calling these things "good." By the very nature of God and creation what God says must be true, he makes true true. What happens when you consider God then to be a liar. . . right all hell breaks loose. The goodness of creation falls into question, and if you think about it the very existence of creation falls into question, certainly the purpose of life becomes completely in doubt.  So all of that is going on. So remember our questions - is this when the fall occurs. . . the moment where Eve begins to doubt, everything that is true? Replacing that "truth" with the lie, that God is insecure, that God just doesn't want us to have knowledge of "good and evil," that God doesn't want us to become like God.
Let's look at her next steps. . . So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. Do you see it? It gives us three details. She saw it to be good for food, she saw it to be a delight to the eyes, she understood it to be desired to make her wise. That certainly seems like an act of the will, right. She reasons it out, and then dives in, and then shares it with the man. They are perfectly culpable. There is the lie there, but there is no force used, just a seed is planted and then she logically decides to go for it. So is her logic flawed already?
Because what happens next? "Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves." Interesting language here, their eyes were opened, but before she could see, she was basing her choice on sight, that the fruit looked delightful and good for food, but now their eyes were opened, and they realize they are naked, and they hide. They hide from eachother, and they hide from God who then shows up, it says it is in the cool of the day, there is a suggestion in the language that God has done this before, that this is a pattern for God to walk in the Garden with the people in the cool of the day,  but now there is a change in that pattern because the man and woman are hiding themselves. Then the final part is the blame game. Adam blames Eve, and Eve blames the serpent. So eyes opened means. . . hiding from God and trying to pass the blame to others. Certainly seems like the beginnings of something very very bad. And it is. . .
So now we've looked at the story in more detail. . . let's look at our questions. . . maybe pose some thoughts if not definitive answers.
So first: Is there Original Sin? What is it? So obviously we are dealing with disobedience here right? God said don't do something and it gets done? But why the cosmic change though? Why are we all connected to this one story? This is explained so many different ways. . . like that something changes in us genetically, and then is passed down from generation to generation, that within our human bloodline, we are now forever tainted by this one error. That our nature now is flawed, and there is nothing we can do about it. Is that a magical thing then? Is it a punishment? Is there something world changing within the fruit itself? It appears that some answers just lead to more questions, don't they.
What if we look at it another way? What if the change isn't in the fruit at all, not in our blood at all, but in the way we see the world and ourselves? And the fruit is a symbol. I alluded to it before, what if the issue is believing the lie? Believing that God lies, which in a sense is not believing in God? There is no creator, there is no order to the universe, there is no purpose, there is no such thing as "good", just a fraud, an insecure fraud, making a lot of claims and proclamations, laws and rules, just to keep us from enjoying ourselves, the whole thing is a sham. Is believing that enough to destroy the world on its own? Surprisingly it seems like it is. Then the sin would be believing the lie, the act of eating the fruit then is simply the symptom of the disease. It would certainly make sense when we talk about salvation by faith, wouldn't it?
So let's look at the other side of it, the rest of the story in this light. So they eat the fruit, and begin to notice things. Remember they are now looking at the world and not trusting anything. They realize they are vulnerable in this world, and thus nakedness is an issue. Then all of a sudden, they are faced again with reality, but they can't see it because the lie has already done its job. God, the God they were doubting, shows up, like he always has, and God hasn't changed, God is still God, God is still the God who spoke the world into existence, God is still the only one who can Bara, create, God is still very much in control of what is going on, still creating, still God. But due to the doubts Adam and Eve are all messed up, thinking they can hide. Isn't that interesting. . . thinking that you can hide from God. . . at the same time thinking that you need to hide from God. Do you see issue there? If God matters you can't hide from him, and if God doesn't matter, why bother hiding? Hiding just doesn't make sense. . . it is quite foolish, actually, but yet it is what they do. And it's what we do isn't it? Have you ever thought that this story isn't just about Adam and Eve, but a type story of how humans interact with God? More than history, a parable of history, explaining how humans are. We are faced with the truth, come to doubt an aspect of the truth, act on that doubt, have no way of being able to process the truth then anymore, and so hide, pretending it didn't happen, or blaming others so that we do not have to stand in judgment, fearing the judgment that we told ourselves didn't exist in the first place. Then the tree of knowledge of good and evil is about being blind to the fact that all is good, made good by God, not a dualism of opposites but a unified creation of strict truth. Now doubts enter then, if every human being lives this exact story, as I think they do, multiply the damage of each by the people that have lived. Imagine how far away from God, from the reality of God you can get. Imagine how deep the hiding can go. Imagine how many symptoms of the disease there would be. Just off the top of my head I can think of 17 trillion lies we hide behind. Imagine how much an illusion the false reality would become. Still with me on those 17 trillion lies. It would mess us up completely, we couldn't trust anything anymore, we couldn't trust anything within and about us because our basis in truth is flawed in a dichotomy of good and evil that doesn't exist.
Auden put it so wonderfully poetically in his Christmas poem, he talks about the effect of sin, being a divided will. A divided will between four faculties.
As a dwarf in the dark of
His belly I rest;

So in other words your gut. . .

A nymph, I inhabit
The heart in his breast;

Emotions. . .

A giant, at the gates of
His body I stand;

Senses. . . what we see

His dreaming brain is
My fairyland.

Our minds.

Now all four of these things should tell us what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what isn't, but instead they all point towards different things. Isn't that a cool way of saying it? Divided will, that is the result of seeing the world not as a unified thing made good, but instead the opposite, whatever that could be. It's not just one thing, but every lesser thing. Remember there is no Good and Evil, there is only truth and God called that truth Good, the rest is simply else, and if God created everything that exists there is no else. It's presence is an mere illusion, a lie, a fabrication, a mirage. Isn't that what lies create.
Paul stated it much more simply in what Paula read this morning from Romans, he wrote,
Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; 21 for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images[2]

So that gets to a little bit about the effect of all this on us. But what about God? Where does he fit into all of this? God is all knowing? We believe this about God. So he must already know what had happened, but he shows up anyway. God shows up. God creates. God loves. God tells the truth. Things do change for Adam and Eve and us. God has allowed it to happen. God has allowed us to believe the lie. I believe to my heart, and the belief is based on what I know from the Gospel, that God allows it because love is what is important, and one of the biggest truths about love, is that it cannot be forced. We want to talk about God having no limits, he doesn't have limits, God then only chooses to limit himself because it is necessary for the infinity of love. How's that for a paradox. . . when you see it from God's perspective it makes complete sense, it is no longer a paradox, but alas again Sin is powerful. We get glimpses of this truth all the time, when we find that in giving ourselves we find life. Again and again. . . Light from darkness, it's what God does.
So how do I know this? What makes me think this is true and not just another manifestation of the misguidedness of our sin? Because what is true about God in the Garden is shown to be true about God throughout the Bible, and throughout our lives. . . God shows up, no matter what. That is the other side of love. It sticks, it's unconditional, and it doesn't go away. It doesn't run away. It stays, it shows up when we hide, it shows up even when we strike our brothers and doesn't forsake us, it shows up in a famine, it shows up in a flood, it shows up in a promise, it shows up when a sacrifice is needed, it shows up in a wrestling match, it shows up in dreams understood, it shows up to a basket floating in the Nile, it shows up at the Red Sea, it shows up in the land flowing with milk and honey,  it shows up when the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans come, it shows up in the Lion's Den, and in the Belly of the Fish, it shows up knowing our inward places, before we even had shape it shows up, it shows up in a stable in Bethlehem, and it shows up on the cross, and three days later it's running free in our world again. God shows up, doing what God does. Nothing has changed, the story goes on and on, each day again and again. Stop hiding, turn around, fall to your knees and begin the relationship of perfection. Friends believe in the good news of the gospel. God shows up, in Jesus Christ we are forgiven. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ge 3:1-13). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Revised Standard Version. 1971 (Ro 1:20). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Stranger

The Stranger
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 23, 2014
at Gibson Memorial Chapel, Blue Ridge School, St. George, Virginia
Proverbs 19: 1-9
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.

 Better is a poor person who walks in his integrity
    than one who is crooked in speech and is a fool.
Desire without knowledge is not good,
    and whoever makes haste with his feet misses his way.
When a man's folly brings his way to ruin,
    his heart rages against the Lord.
Wealth brings many new friends,
    but a poor man is deserted by his friend.
A false witness will not go unpunished,
    and he who breathes out lies will not escape.
Many seek the favor of a generous man,
and everyone is a friend to a man who gives gifts.
All a poor man's brothers hate him;
    how much more do his friends go far from him!
He pursues them with words, but does not have them.
Whoever gets sense loves his own soul;
    he who keeps understanding will discover good.
A false witness will not go unpunished,
    and he who breathes out lies will perish.

So I've heard a bunch of these talks throughout my time here, and I've given a few of them myself, and I've never heard in all the wisdom, all the motivation, all the life stories, thoughts on what may be the most important piece of what it means to be a human being and that is relationships, real relationships, real dirty, messy, vulnerable, true, all of our crap out on the table relationship, and I'm more and more convinced that this is that most important piece, the central idea, the meaning of life is finding how we can live together, and not just live side by side, ships passing in the night, but in and amongst each other, intertwined, affected, loving and loved, at the same time completely vulnerable and safe within someone else's arms, in someone else's life, heart, mind, body, and soul. It is what we long for at our deepest core, and it seems that everyday we do things that make that dream, make that hope, make that wish, make that purpose just that much harder to make real. Today I want to talk about one aspect of why that is, in hopes that we, myself included, can learn something about intimacy, for that is what we call this need we have, and how it relates to honesty, true, raw, vulnerable, bear your soul honesty. For at the heart of intimacy is the need of honesty. It just doesn't exist without it. Lies build walls and push people away, they create the distance of two people living within altered reality.
Having read the Bible passage from Proverbs, words of wisdom from antiquity that may or may not mean something to you, I now want to talk about the message spoken there, taking a look at something a little bit more contemporary, I'm going to play for you parts of five songs, each of them represents an aspect of the battle we face for intimacy, and how dishonesty, lies, doubt, and fear are all related, and all seek to make intimacy impossible. The first sets the stage. It may be familiar to you, maybe not, here it goes. . .
The Stranger
Billy Joel
Well we all have a face
That we hide away forever
And we take them out and show ourselves
When everyone has gone
Some are satin some are steel
Some are silk and some are leather
They're the faces of the stranger
But we love to try them on

Well we all fall in love
But we disregard the danger
Though we share so many secrets
There are some we never tell
Why were you so surprised
That you never saw the stranger
Did you ever let your lover see
The stranger in yourself'

Billy Joel's, "The Stranger" introduces our problem. We each have parts of us, that we feel aren't adequate, or are ugly, or are shameful, scars, our past, mistakes. . . we want to hide them because we feel that if we share them with those close to us, if we let someone else into our secret true selves, they won't be able to handle it, which will lead to rejection. So we build up walls, we build up walls for our protection. These walls protect us from others, they keep us safe, they keep us from ever being vulnerable, but they keep us isolated. Something there is that doesn't like this separation, something there is that doesn't love these walls, but yet we build them strong. We think we need them. We think they are saving us from pain, but what they are doing is keeping us from life.
Some of you may not have been there yet, maybe you have yet to experience it. Maybe your walls are thick enough that you haven't let yourself get here, or maybe you just haven't had the opportunity yet being young, but there will come a time, when a relationship you are in, and it doesn't have to be a love relationship. It can be any, but these songs I've chosen point that way, hey popular music is all about it right, But in some relationship that you have, where you will reach the point where if the relationship is to advance you will need to go further, share more, start to show your true self, start to learn about their, the other's, true self, and if you don't the relationship will be forever defined by distance, you will be forever strangers. . . As the Billy Joel song suggests, the Stranger that exists is there, and for the relationship to grow you'll have to let the stranger out. This next song is about that. . . It's called, "If I am a Stranger" and the chorus suggests, "If I am a Stranger now, I will always be". . .take a listen.

If I Am a Stranger
Ryan Adams

For all the hours here that move too slow
There's all this letting go, that don't pass
If all this love is real, how will we know'
If we're only scared of losing it, how will it last'

If I am a stranger now to you
I will always be, I will always be
Stronger now then me, stronger then you
Our love will always be
And if we let it go, I will try to be there for you
If I can, what if I can't'

Today is yesterday when you don't know
How to rebuild the walls that someone has knocked down
To tell the truth it's hard enough about a lover
Who you want to hide your darkness from
So they won't let you down

If I am a stranger now to you
I will always be, I will always be
Stronger now then me, stronger then you
Our love will always be
And if we let it go, I will try to be there for you
If I can, what if I can't'

There it is that cross roads. If we are scared of losing it how will it last. . .If I am a stranger now to you, still, after all this, still, If I am a stranger now still to you I will always be. The speaker in the song knows that if the relationship is to grow, it is now or never, and if the relationship is to grow they will have to let each other know the stranger inside themselves, or they will just remain strangers. If they remain strangers the relationship is over, though maybe ending right away in any official sense, the worst ones often linger for years, but the slow death spiral will begin. And if they bear their souls, show each other the stranger, there is risk involved. Ryan Adams doesn't promise in the lyrics that everything will work out, he just states the fact that something is going to change either way and hopes it will work out, "if I can, but what if I can't" So let's take the step, believing that if they don't bear their souls, they keep it hidden. They stay together, together, but still strangers, as they will always be. The next song is based on that phenomenon, and what happens next between two strangers who stay together. It is "Brilliant Disguise" by Bruce Springsteen.
Brilliant Disguise
Bruce Springsteen

I hold you in my arms
as the band plays
What are those words whispered baby
just as you turn away
I saw you last night
out on the edge of town
I wanna read your mind
To know just what I've got in this new thing I've found
So tell me what I see
when I look in your eyes
Is that you, baby
or just a brilliant disguise

I heard somebody call your name
from underneath our willow
I saw something tucked in shame
underneath your pillow
Well I've tried so hard baby
but I just can't see
What a woman like you
is doing with me
So tell me who I see
when I look in your eyes
Is that you, baby
or just a brilliant disguise

Now look at me baby
struggling to do everything right
And then it all falls apart
when out go the lights
I'm just a lonely pilgrim
I walk this world in wealth
I want to know if it's you I don't trust
'cause I damn sure don't trust myself

Now you play the loving woman
I'll play the faithful man
But just don't look too close
into the palm of my hand
We stood at the alter
the gypsy swore our future was right
But come the wee wee hours
Well maybe baby the gypsy lied
So when you look at me
you better look hard and look twice
Is that me , baby
or just a brilliant disguise

Tonight our bed is cold
I'm lost in the darkness of our love
God have mercy on the man
Who doubts what he's sure of

Do you see what happens when we stay strangers, though together? The relationship ends, even when it continues. The trust just completely falls apart. And the beauty of this song is that it reveals the ironic truth about it all. It isn't that you keep the person out that is really the problem, but because you don't let them in, that because  you have something to hide, you become sure that they do too. You become sure that you can't trust them. It's all about insecurity right in the first place. You don't think they will want to be with you if you tell them all, so you hold back, and then that insecurity, that doubt, those lies creep into your mind and make you think that they aren't honest either. And the brilliant disguises destroy what was real, the stranger that was hidden comes to the surface anyway. . . the ironic truth rings out from what Ryan Adams sang. . .If I am a Stranger now to you, I will always be.
So what to do? We say we then should tear down our walls and become intimate. Put ourselves out there, get into the fire, put ourselves out there and at risk right, so now I go to Garth Brooks for this. . .
Standing Outside the Fire
Garth Brooks

We call them cool
Those hearts that have no scars to show
The ones that never do let go
And risk the tables being turned

We call them fools
Who have to dance within the flame
Who chance the sorrow and the shame
That always comes with getting burned

But you got to be tough
When consumed by desire
Cause it's not enough just to stand outside the fire

Now I could end it here, with that simple message that love and intimacy take risk, life requires us to get into the fire, and you're right I think it does, but it isn't as simple as that because relationship is a two way street, and part of the problem so far, is that we have been concerned only about ourselves, and our feelings, our issues, our own secret truths, whether we will be rejected and haven't yet thought about the other, when that is really what is all about. Love isn't about you it is about the other. The danger with what we are talking about is that it also requires the other person to reveal, and the question arises, can they trust you? Are you offering love or are you looking for a conquest?  This next song I think is the best of the bunch, it's called the Tower Song, and there is real power in the Tower image. Townes Van Zandt wrote it this way. . .
Tower Song
Townes Van Zandt

So close and yet so far away
And all the things I'd hope to say
Will have to go unsaid today
Perhaps until tomorrow
Your fears have built a wall between
Our lives and all that loving means
Will have to go unfelt it seems
Leaving only sorrow

You built your tower strong and tall
Can't you see it's got to fall someday

You close your eyes and speak to me
Of faith and love and destiny
As distant as eternity
From truth and understanding
The wind blows cold outside your door
It whispers words I've tried before
But you don't hear me anymore
You're pride's just too demanding

You built your tower strong and tall
Can't you see it's got to fall someday

The end is coming soon it's plain
A warm bed just ain't worth the pain
And I will go and you'll remain
With bitterness we've tasted
A mother's breast a new born child
A poet's tears a drunken smile
I can't help thinking all the while
Their meaning won't be wasted

You built your tower strong and tall
Can't you see it's got to fall someday

The ugly truth sometimes about men is that we want to crush towers in our way, we want to conquer, we want to own and have, and control, so we want to tear the walls down of others. . . Do you hear that in the song? He is singing to her about her towers coming down, but the unspoken question that lingers is, has he torn down his? Is he vulnerable himself, or is he out for himself? Does he just want to tear down hers, because he talks about a poet's tears and a drunken smile, and leaving. . . are they symptoms of his own fears, his own walls, his own insecurity, causing him to finally give up and leave, in that fullness of selfish behavior, self pity and defeat, that comes from looking out for yourself, looking to gain rather than give, again making love, real love, life changing love, the thing that deep down we all really need, all the more impossible because of our self doubts, fears, and insecurities.

I want to leave all those images in your head. I hope you remember the songs. I hope you remember the importance of relationships, I hope you remember that intimacy is connected to honesty, it has to be, but it also has to involve vulnerability, and above all else it has to involve giving up yourself for the other, putting yourself in their hands and knowing that they have you, that is trust and partnership. Love only exists when you give all of yourself, and only in that giving of yourself is life gained, it's more than risk, it is willing sacrifice, it is true love. So I pray that you can find the strength within yourself to get close with others,  I and hope the same for myself, to know yourself, to be yourself, to tear down your walls together with others, being fair with the other person, being  honest, and in the end step into the fire together, holding each other up, providing security and comfort not for yourself but for the other, tear down and build up, there will be pain involved in your life, but life will have existed, in the real rather than the virtual, where there is no reset, no start over, just you, all of you, and everyone else. . . simply being together, being together not just side by side, but interconnected. The rest is just prelude. . . Amen.