A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
May 18, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Deuteronomy 6: 1-8
Ephesians 1: 3-14
Let us pray, for a welcome mind and a loving heart
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.
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9 he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14 this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory. 
So on this Presbyterian Heritage Sunday, and this special day in the life of our church and of course my family, where we baptize my oldest Daughter Coralee, the occasion presents a wonderful time to look at what we are as Presbyterians, and what we offer the world as a part of the Body of Christ, the Church in the world. Later in Paul's letter to the Ephesians he talks about how there are many diverse functions within the church and much diversity in general, but yet we are one, one in person, one in focus, one in everything because we are united in Jesus Christ and Christ is our all in all. . . and so often we talk about that oneness, and that oneness is certainly important, but today I want to talk about what Presbyterians are, what we offer, and the value that we have as a part of the body, like one may talk about the power of the elbow, or the foot, the hands, the brains, the eyes, or the nose. . . each has a function in our person, and talking about how great the eyes are, does in no way negate the import of the feet. I'm reminded about something I remember Southern comic writer, Lewis Grizzard saying, "That every time he writes about how much he loves the south, he gets tons of letters asking, why he hates Yankees. . . he said in response. . . of course "I don't hate Yankees, but I have a friend that hates them." Today I want to talk about how very proud I am about what it means to be Presbyterian, and how important I think what we do is within the Body of Christ, and not to dwell on it, lest I'd get choked up, why we, as parents, DeAnna and I are very proud to have Coralee baptized today into the church.
To begin I want to share a dream I had this week. It's a weird one because it had to do with me delivering this sermon today. I was to give the sermon with the topic of today, but I was showing up without it prepared. . . at least I had my clothes on. . . but I didn't have anything written, so I ran to my office to write something quickly, but one crazy disaster after another, I can't recall any of them, but long story short, church started, the bell rang, and I was going to have to wing it. . . which was cool, I felt confident that I could do it. . . I knew this Presbyterian stuff down, I know the history, the Book of Order, what I value, I've got it down. I'll be good, but this is where it got a little weird. The church wasn't this one, though Tim was playing his bagpipes. It was much bigger, and there were all these dignitaries behind me. All Presbyterians, and a very diverse crowd, familiar faces to me, but no real names to go with them, all people of some clout, but representing two very different political wings. . . the very left, and the very right. It just so happened in the dream that the one from the conservative extreme was a lay reader of sorts, and one from the other extreme was reading the scripture. The conservative lay reader was going for it, talking about sin and repentance and righteousness, hell and judgment. . . packing as much of all that into the call to worship, much more than I thought ever could be possible. You could feel the tension building on the other side. Then it came time for the scripture and the left wing reader took it upon himself to echo in reverse everything that the other guy said. . . so the next thing you know words and insults are being thrown back and forth. . . both sides calling each other out for being ignorant, having an agenda, ripping Christ to shreds, and everything thing else you can think of. . . and it was in this, that I was called to get up and speak about the Presbyterian faith, unity. . . and so I did, and I felt like I was exactly in the right place at the right time, that what I had to say was going to come out, put the division to rest, bring both sides together, and bring some if not healing, at least perspective to a ridiculous shouting match example of everything that may just be wrong with the what church sometimes has become. . . so with full confidence I rise and head to the lectern, raise my hand and everyone refrains from shouting, and sits, for they have come for this. . . and I begin, and then. . . I woke up. What was I going to say? What were the words that were in the right place at the right time for that moment. . . I'm not sure, or at least the dream didn't tell me. . . but I think I still know, and I think it because that is the world we live in, the world of the church, both outside and in, and we as Presbyterians don't have it figured out in action in the present yet, but we do in our history, and we do in our philosophy, in our theology, in our foundational understanding of what it means to be a follower of Christ. It is this we need to remember today and all days.
To me the greatest strength, the greatest distinctive mark, the thing that I am the most proud of, and have the most hope in, next to Jesus Christ being the head of the Church, is the following two related statements from our Book of Order, from our Historic Principles, that this is something that Presbyterians have held onto and believed in from the beginning. One has to do with private judgment and the second how to deal with the reality of that private judgment.
F-3.0101 God Is Lord of the Conscience
a. That “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the
doctrines and commandments of men2 which are in anything contrary to his Word, or
beside it, in matters of faith or worship.”3
b. Therefore we consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect
religion, as universal and unalienable: We do not even wish to see any religious
constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and
security, and at the same time, be equal and common to all others.
In short we own our brains, we own our thoughts, we get to make up our own minds, at least no one other than Christ has the control over any one else's mind. You don't have to check your mind at the door, you don't have to check your doubts at the door, you don't have to check your misgivings, your not quite sure abouts, your conscience. . . it's yours. And not only do we not force belief of details, we also celebrate those differences, we understand that we are all on a journey, and that it is all a process, and that it is God's work, happening in God's time not our own, and so we help each other on the way. . . finding people where they are, accepting people where they are, learning together with people where they are, helping people where they are, and loving people where they are. We can change, grow, evolve, reform, constantly moving closer and closer to the totality of the Lordship of Jesus Christ. That is what it means to be Presbyterian. That is what it means to allow God, not any one of us to be Lord of yours, mine or anybody else's conscience, God is in control, the God we serve is in control, so why would we need to fight and seek control ourselves. . . it is central to our faith practice, and it is in fact the precursor to freedom, and the foundational philosophical influence on the founding of this nation. Born in Log colleges, Princeton up North, Hampden-Sydney here in Virginia, freedom of the conscience, is the older sibling of the first amendment, the basis for Religious Freedom. We should be proud of it, and be a standard bearer for it in the world, but do we even know that history, the Presbyterian place in that History, the huge influence of the First Great Awakening in this fledgling nation? Do we even know that the battle for Religious Freedom in America found its roots less than an hour's drive from here, and that the founders of that faith are the ones who set up this church, here in Gordonsville, so very long go. . . but freedom is a dream, it is a seed, it is only the beginning, and it goes no where without the second statement from our book of order I'm going to read, and it is the point that we need to again seek to lead the world in learning again. It is what we need to learn again. . .and it is what the problem, the argument of my dream was about. It is subtitled:
F-3.0105 Mutual Forbearance
That, while under the conviction of the above principle we think it necessary to make
effectual provision that all who are admitted as teachers be sound in the faith, we also
believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which men of good characters and
principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty both of private Christians and
societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.
Mutual forbearance. . . people can believe different things, they may hold to differing principles, and in doing so may disagree, but they, on both sides, can be of good character. . . and so it is the "duty of both private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance." Having a different opinion is okay. . . being at a different place is ok. . . so although we all have our opinions, and our principles, and we may stubbornly hold to them, we may believe them to our hearts core, we may be unwilling to let them go, let them be pried from our dead fingers (if you could do such a thing), we would need to be respectful that someone else just may have the same stubborn belief in the opposite, and still be faithful Christians. . . can such things be in today's polarized world? Consensus doesn't have to be. . . everyone doesn't have to agree? No one has a monopoly on the truth. Though we may agree on many things, we don't have to agree on everything. . . you don't have to have people agree with you to love them, you only need them to agree if you want to control them. . . and Jesus' example of love was not about forcibly changing peoples' minds, but instead loving them to the cross hoping to inspire their hearts to love. . . love inspires, love gives, love does not seek to control. And it might get messy. . . it might be the harder way, the longer way. . . but the way would be that way since it is founded in the cross.
I read in a book about church, written by Rev. Tommy Nance, the former pastor at New Hanover Presbyterian Church, that he had once heard that church can be like porcupines in the cold. . . alone the porcupines perish, freezing to death, if they wish to survive they must huddle together, though it may be difficult and painful to do so, survival depends on it. What a picture of mutual forbearance. . . I know that I am pricking you, and you me, but it is not the pain that divides us, but our need for each other that makes the pain irrelevant. Can we be bonded despite our differences, embracing that struggle to be together. . . a strong question to ask when we seek so hard to push our own agenda forward. . . am I controlling people, am I setting people free, is it the will of God or my own?
I saw an article a few months back in Christianity Today, the article was appalled that only 42% of PCUSA pastors who were surveyed answered affirmatively to the idea that Jesus Christ was the only means of salvation. . . Now I have to admit that 42% I thought was low, though the question is kinda dumb, in that other religions don't necessarily claim something called "salvation." To a buddhist, enlightenment is hardly salvation, neither really is paradise to a Muslim, but that is beside the point. . . the other problem with the question to Presbyterians I hope is that faith should not be about a multiple choice test. . . and what does the Christianity Today publishing (I guess Majority) folks, have business judging what people believe in the first place. . . the article was trying to create lines and divide people, where Presbyterians seek to be and do the opposite. . . because who is served by those lines of division, really? Surely Not Christ, maybe our egos, maybe our insecurities, maybe our need for order and control, but certainly not Christ. Those divisions would leave us porcupines in need to die.
Nancy Roache and I were talking the other week, and she told me she ran into someone, I can't remember all the details, but he asked where she went to church, and when she said, "the Presbyterian Church, here in town" he responded with, "Presbyterian, huh, you're one of those seekers." That's it right. . . I'm proud to be a seeker. . . I'm proud to seek with others. . . It's honest. . . it's welcoming. . . and it is a place of faith. . . seeking God's will in our lives, in our world, in our relationships, in our church. . . seeking a path forward. . . seeking, to me is better than knowing, because knowing is standing still. . . looking back. . . but seeking is looking forward. . . and God, the God who is, whose name means "is" presence, now, eternally now, eternally present, doesn't stand still. . . God led the Israelite out Egypt through the Red Sea, waiting for that sea to part again, misses the Ten Commandments, waiting at Mt. Sinai, misses Jesus. . . waiting at the cross misses the empty tomb, and hanging out in the tomb misses the fact that Jesus is risen, running loose in this world. . . you don't get closer to a living God by standing still, but by seeking.
So on today, where we look back to our past, we don't seek to go backward or back to it. We worship here in a historic building, there is a great cloud of witnesses that have passed through these doors and have occupied this space in faith together. We share something with them, but we aren't them, and can't be. We live in the present, seeking God here, to build the future according to his will. Presbyterians have an important role to play in the future of this world, and the future of this nation, and this the greater church. The world and all of its parts needs to learn, and to remember, how to cherish the freedom of the conscience. . . that we are all better, when we all get to be. . . that no one is in the way, nor expendable, all truly held beliefs and principles are valid as long as they are seeking truth. Hold on to your own, and help build others, supporting, respecting, learning from, and teaching, the world needs much more of this. . . and it is what we have always done well, let's not forget it, for it through Christ is foundational to the freedom of the world.
This week I wrote a fable, that I hope you all can take a look at, I put copies in the back (http://revcoachatkinson.blogspot.com/2014/05/the-busy-body-beaver.html). In that fable there is a beaver, whose job was to secure the dam, to plug the leaks, for it was the foundation of life for the rest, but he forsook his job, trying to do for the others, to do their jobs for them, he forgot his own, to the destruction of all. We have a job to do, like the foot, the knee, the brain, the eye, all and each are valid and important and crucial for God's world. He made all of us and he needs all of us, and if there is a them, he needs them too. And we are all Christians. . . despite being so in our unique ways, and to quote one of the Presbyterian fighters for religious freedom, Samuel Davies "that is our highest distinction" and as Christians Christ said that we are to seek first the kingdom of God, and all the rest shall be added unto us. . . if you look at what God made, there is much beauty, but not much symmetry, it is much more diverse, much more messy, much more made with a hand and eye for detail and distinction, should the kingdom of God to which we seek, be any different, one yes, but not one formed of conformity, one formed community of uniqueness, may we seek that kingdom, may he lead us to do so. Amen.