Saturday, June 28, 2014

Immediately Forget

Immediately Forget
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
June 29, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
James 1: 19-27

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.

So after last week, preaching on the James Epistle, I decided that I wanted to dig deeper into it, and study it for the next few weeks. I knew that it would be tough, and so far it is. I knew it would be hard because it is all about putting faith to work, belief into action, shaping your life around what you know to be true about what Christ means in your life. It is intense, it's hard hitting, it really makes you think, and beyond making you think it puts much into perspective. It makes you uncomfortable, it's inspiring, it's challenging, and all that it makes it difficult, but at the same time so important for us. As I was studying it this week I came across a line in the text that I didn't remember. It jumped out at me. It made me think. It made me think about what it means literally on the page, and then what it would mean in our lives, and I wasn't sure. Writing this I'm not sure, and I can say now, delivering it before you all I'm still not sure, but I am totally captivated by the image that James creates in this simple metaphor, and so let me share it with you, and I'll do so in the context of the larger passage. Here it is James 1: 19-27.

19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.[1]

The image that I found so interesting is verses 22-24, "But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like." I guess it is a simile and not a metaphor. . . they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror, they look at themselves and, on going away, forget what they were like." What a fascinating image. . . how did I miss it before? It's really a interesting one to think about. As a poet I am always drawn to the clever comparison, the ones that make you think, and this one is totally new and interesting. Similes are about comparing two unlike things. . . to find their underlying similarity, but who would have thought that looking in the mirror and being a doer of the word and not a hearer?
Except maybe, and the song was going through my head as I was thinking about it. It came in first. . .yes Michael Jackson, "Man in the Mirror," when he sings. . .
I'm starting with the man in the mirror
I'm asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you wanna make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself and make a change.

That's what I thought about , especially with the mirror image, and it also fits in a way with the doing good image, the changing world aspect of what Michael Jackson is talking about. Maybe on the surface that is what is going on here. Like we need to look at ourselves in the mirror, start with ourselves, you know pull the plank out of our own eye, and then change the world, that is what being a doer of the word is about right. . . but this image, James' image isn't that, it goes much deeper, and it a much more interesting and challenging way.
First off its not like that because it's the wrong character in the whole deal, it isn't the doer of the word that is looking at himself in the mirror, but the hearer. . . the hearer is like someone who looks at himself in the mirror, and then goes away and forgets what they are, what they see, what they look like.
Have you ever done that? It's always good when parsing a metaphor or a simile to go the most literal, the most basic understanding first. . . so let's do that, have you ever looked in the mirror, then forgot what  you looked like when  you looked away. I don't know that I have. I have forgotten what other people look like. . . not necessarily completely, but the image of faces sometimes fades over time, but usually with people that you don't know well, or only saw a few times, but that is hardly the case with ourselves. I remember being away for the summer from school, and losing someone's face in my mind. . . like you remember them basically, but can't put that picture. . . then when you see them again, you have that, oh  yeah now I remember. I know you moment. But that's not this, because it's you, and it's immediate. Or maybe it's like that time where you've gotten some food on your face or something, and you keep checking to make sure that you've gotten it off. . . you think you have gotten it completely, but you look away and you get that feeling like you might have missed it. . . so  you look back just to make sure. . . You just looked at your face, and it's clean, but you need that second look. But no I don't think that is it either.
I think the key word is in the beginning, in the first of the three verses. . . it says. "Be doers of the word, not merely hearers who deceive themselves." There it is I think it's that deceiving word. People that are "merely hearers" of the word deceive themselves. And there it is the lie. . . that is what makes people forget. I remember a good friend and mentor of mine when I was working at Christchurch School was the Dean of Students. He also coached football with us and was just an awesome all around rock solid man. He was respected beyond reproach by students and teachers alike, and if anybody who has been around a boarding school can tell you, either as a student or as a teacher, the Dean of Students is the most thankless, friendless job on campus. You are the chief discipline person. You are the person who hands out demerits, and just in the first hour of the boarding school day, there are 6 potential messups, and they tend to pile on, and pile on. Getting up, checking into breakfast, being shaven, being in dress code, passing room inspection, making it to assembly or chapel, and being on time to each of those commitments. At any school this is the most challenging part of every boarding school teenager's day, and missing any one of those requirements could result in a detention. So he was busy with all that, trying to meet with each student on that list. . . and if that wasn't enough he also had to deal with the major issues, he had to set up the Discipline Committees, he had to be the face that sent people before the board that would most likely expel them, he had to be the person that called parents to let them know their son's educational path was abruptly changing. . . students typically don't like that guy, and teachers never think that he is doing enough to punish the kids. . . it's a no win, but this guy was amazing, loved, respected, mostly because he was fair, honest, consistent, fatherly, caring, and so like a counselor as much as just the head warden. But I remember he had a sign in his office, remember he met with around 30-50 kids a day, about the most personal and troublesome issues you can imagine. . . from drugs, to girlfriends, to parents, to grades, to laziness, he saw it all, and heard every excuse and every lie in the book, but he had a sign in his office that said, "If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember what you said."
Deception is a difficult thing. . . and it gets you because the easiest person to lie to is yourself. I know a lot of people who can't lie to others. They get caught every time, or they just are honest, but they constantly lie to themselves. So many of my students fall into that category. . . heck I do, too, we all do I think. And it's not always big stuff, just little stuff, it's not always a big lie, or an important lie, it sometimes doesn't even seem like a lie at all, just filtered truth, sometimes we call it point of view. . . we cut out everything that we don't like about ourselves and only focus on, remember the good points. I sometimes think that I have reverse anorexia. . . because I can look in the mirror and I don't see the same 50+ pounds overweight, staring back at me like I do when I see the same shape in a Photograph. . . the cameral adds pounds right. . . of course, why doesn't the mirror? Selective seeing. . . and it's not just about physical stuff, there are all kinds of things about ourselves that we selectively see, or selectively remember. . . We reinvent ourselves over and over again, trying our best to focus on the good aspects.
Every year I ask my students on their final exam, this year I called it a survey because I wasn't supposed to give an exam. . . see how easy it is just the change the words. . . something there too, euphemisms are great deceivers aren't they, in today's politically correct world, there is alot of word game deceptions that we do to make ourselves feel better about how good of people we are, but I digress, but at least on parallel topic, because I ask them every year that question, "Are you a good person?" And I get all kinds of good answers. Most of them think they are. If I asked you all the same question. . . what would you say. . . I can say for myself. . . well I'm not perfect, but I'm a pretty good guy. . . you know I try. . . I could be better, but I'd say I'm good. I think most people would answer that way. . . we confess our sin every week here in church. . . I'm sure the answer is different for all of you, but ask yourself, what does it mean to say it. . . "I am a sinner." Confess and be forgiven. . . what is that like? I'm pretty good, but I could be better. . . I guess that is what I'm confessing away, my little imperfections. But here is the rub, does that make us hearers of the word or doers. . . because what are our standards like. I know that mine are lower than the perfection of the Word. . . even if I tell myself they are higher, I am deceiving myself. I don't know if I could stand honestly against the measure. . . I don't know that my mind would let me, it always seeks to prefer the much more doable illusion. Maybe that is what James is talking about when he writes the second piece of this:
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.

Deception. . . worthless. . . eeek!

So what is the face we see when we are looking in the mirror? How does this metaphor work? I think when we look in the mirror we see ourselves, or at least some kind of version of us that our mind allows us to see, but there is some deception involved, somewhere between our eyes and our minds. . . because despite what we often think--that what we see shapes our thoughts--despite that, really what we think usually shapes what we see. . . So our mind shapes that image in the mirror, but as soon as we walk away we can't remember it, because it wasn't real, there was some shape shifting going on. That is the hearers of the word. . . according to James. They see themselves according to their own flimsy standards, what our minds, our weak minds can handle, can take in, that filtered much safer reality, because they try to make it about those standards, and since they shrink in comparison, they lower them, or just filter out the parts that don't fit, see it's human nature. . . It's sin. . . But the doers of the word, see in the mirror an image of God, an image of Christ, a child forgiven, lumps and all, ready to go and do more, not standing against the standard, but set free to be.
You see that is what the Word allows us to see, not our own shape shifting, hidden, filtered version of ourselves, that partial self, conflicted, splintered, fragmented, and imploding, but instead the wholeness, our entirety, broken and put back together, standing full and in need of grace before the mirror. . . that person walks away from the mirror the same. . . and is the same in all cases and places, and when you are the same, when you are you, when you have become a doer of the word, then you don't forget, because it doesn't change. You don't have to remember who you are, and what standard you are dealing with, instead you get to walk in faith as a reflection of the Image of God. . . and if that is the case, then you see that reflection also in everyone else you come to meet. You have love, you see love in the mirror, and you see love in other people because that is that image looking back at you. You see it every where you look because everything was made by it, and so  you need never forget. Doing is all encompassing because it starts from within and explodes outwards in one united connected truth, the totality of yourself, the created image of God.
Pretty cool, huh. . . From here I go on vacation, and I need it because it's funny how quickly you can get broken and filtered, and start making excuses and deceptions for yourself. It's interesting that they send pastor's to school. We study, we learn, we pursue the Bible, we pursue faith as an intellectual pursuit, and how easy it is, for the day to day work of church life can really fall into that pattern. . . for often the weekly routines are continuations of that intellectual pursuit. . . it is for me. . . study, read, think. . . often the soul, the heart, the spirit takes a back seat to the head, in the emergence of routine. I pray that I can take some time to get out of my head, to get out of the measuring, and falling short, and excuses, to find again my heart, reconnect with faith, and do the things that I have let fall better, the connections with people, the prayers, the visits, the relationships, the vision. . . because as I said James, studying James, preaching James is difficult, but trying to live it is even harder. . . and I want to reconnect. . . I want to do rather than hear. . . be rather than get by. . . and I want to see in the mirror the same person that remember when I walk away. . . perhaps walking away, walking on the beach, letting the waves crash over my feet, looking anew into the sand and finding that thrown away piece of glass can get me to that place, James makes you look at yourself. . . and asks when you do, do you see Christ? Tough question. . . God give us the grace to ask it, give us the grace to take a look, and give us the grace to realize that with Christ in our lives, how could it be any different? Amen.
22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jas 1:19-27). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, June 22, 2014


A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
June 22, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Deuteronomy 11: 1-9
James 1: 1-8

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.

I decided this week that I wanted to preach about hard times. I wanted to look at what it means to go through hard times, what they are all about, and so I was perusing through the epistles and came across the letter of James. I read the beginning, and then kept reading the entire letter. There is alot of good in it. . . despite the fact that Martin Luther wanted to take it from the Bible, saying that it was an epistle of straw, mostly because it challenged his salvation through faith alone ideas. . . there is much in James that is about the reality of living a life as a follower of God, and that life is shaped by the idea that faith without works is dead. Though these words are the most famous from the letter, they are found in context. He opens with words about struggle because his audience is no stranger to struggle. It is these opening lines about struggle and endurance that will give shape to my message this morning.

1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,
To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion:
2 My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4 and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.
5 If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. 6 But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; 7, 8 for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord. [1]

Even the opening of the letter puts things into context. Look at who the letter is addressed to, "The 12 Tribes in dispersion." Yes, the letter is addressed to the Jews, who since the hard times of the Babylonian exile have been scattered to the wind. A series of empires followed the Babylonians. . . Persia, Macedonia, The Ptolemy's, and finally the Roman, which brings us to these first generation Christians who at this time were all Jews. For almost 1000 years the Jews have not had a country of their own. They have been ruled, subjugated, and often oppressed by this series of powerful empires. Without the autonomy of one homeland, they have become spread throughout the world, with no land to unite them, only a culture, a history, and The Law to give them any identity, I would say that is the definition of struggle, at least group struggle. And surrounding the time of Jesus' life and death, or actually following them the time of persecution for Jews in the Empire was heightened. It would be easy to lose hope, to lose faith, and to worry that God has finally removed His favor. If we think about the famous line from James about "faith without works" being dead, it makes a lot of sense within the context of the audience of this letter, those 12 tribes. . . they, as a people,  have been given that similar advice before. Then works was called law. . . and the book was Deuteronomy.
Paula read for us this morning one of the passages from that book that gives this message. There are many. . . it is a constant refrain. . . follow these directives so that you "may live long in the land." One could easily take a simple message from this. . . here are some rules to live by, live by them and things will go well, don't and they won't. . . and then you could also extrapolate further some of the historical realities of it all and say that since the 12 tribes of Israel have been dispersed across the world, then they must not have lived according to these commandments.  You may begin to make those deductions, and many people have time and again, but often reality is much more complicated than any easy truism like that. It is always easier to blame than to go forward. And so it is, it would seem that struggle is not always used for punishment. Struggle is not always the result of bad behavior or sin. . . think about it, if it was then would Jesus have been tried? Would Jesus have been flogged? Would Jesus have been Crucified, for he was flawless? There must be more to it. . . there always is. The truth is the answer to why things happen, why struggle happens isn't so easy to answer, but this passage is not suggesting a reason for it happening or a thing or person to blame, but instead is talking about what is needed to get through it. . . and that is endurance.
Endurance is an interesting word. If you look it up in the dictionary you'll get that it means "The ability or strength to continue or last, especially despite fatigue, stress, or other adverse conditions." That's it right, the ability to last. The origin of the word is pretty cool and interesting too, it literally means to exist in time, like en-for in, and dur- like duration, time. Time, this world, the tangible world, just living in it is to endure. . . Shakespeare put it in much more artistic words when he wrote, To be or not to be, that is the question, whether 'tis nobler in the minds to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them. . . to die to sleep." Yes to live is to endure. Life is difficult and hard. . . though there is good in it, it is slow, the clock ticks slowly, and things take time. Life takes time. And so enduring becomes a real essential to life.
And so James writes, that when we face trials we should consider it joy. Yes and that is line one of the letter, after the introductions. It's like dear 12 tribes. . . take suffering as joy. . . so much for dazzling with truth gradually, beating around the bush, easing into it. . . no when you suffer be happy about it. . . and the reason that you should reckon suffering as joy is because it produces endurance. It produces then the ability to make it through those hard times, or to be even more basic, it makes it so you can live. . .  you know live in time, where life takes place. Suffering makes it possible for you to live. Suffering adds life. He says, when endurance has its full effect. . . you will be "mature and complete, lacking in nothing." Amazing words. Strong words. Words that give hope. . . for life is full of suffering, both on a personal and on a group type level.
There is no doubt that there is much suffering in the world. There is no doubt that it seems that we as Americans are struggling, but how many of us see that struggling as a joy, as something strengthening us, as something preparing us for the next piece of life to come along. No instead we are often trying to figure out why we are suffering, to blame, to avoid being blamed, rather than allowing the hard times to prepare us for the future. This passage seems to say that these hard times are about looking ahead to a time, not an easier time necessarily, but to a time where we are much stronger, much readier, much more mature and complete and lacking in nothing than we are today, so that we can endure. That which doesn't break you makes you stronger. . . that's true. . . and we know what stronger looks like, but breaking is more frightening. . . it looks like splintering, division, and weakness. . . things falling apart. . . funny how that cliche so fits the truth of what breaking looks like. How much division do we see? That's not the struggle, that's the breaking, the quitting. . . struggling is a joy, for it brings endurance, quitting brings nothing.
What about here? Here in this church. It may just be summer time, but we've been consistently less in number week to week. We've had some good folks, some good friends move away, some friends move on, and some friends in the hospital, unable to be here. When there is less of us, our resources are also lessened. We have less money as a church to do the things that we want to do. We worry about the future. . . and when you worry about the future, people tend to hold on tighter, to try to avoid the hard times, the real struggle. . to hold on to the status quo, the past, the comfort of the way it has been, because the way it may be is much too frightening. . . That is the natural response, the human response, but James is pointing out the Christian response, the faithful response, and it looks to the present struggle as joy, the future struggle as more joy, and the possibilities of it all as something to be endured and through that enduring real maturity and wholeness will take place. James is giving us those words of comfort. . .and we'll take them, even though our struggles are so much less in scale compared to the dispersed, persecuted, first Christians who were all Jews living in the latest Empire to hold them in its hands.
Ok, so we are supposed to endure it, great, but what are we supposed to do to do that, how do we get through it, what do we do to make it? Look at where James goes next: "If you are lacking in wisdom (if you don't know what to do) ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given to you." The way forward will be given by God. . . for it is important for us to remember, that the way to here has also been given by God. The big key message of Deuteronomy, isn't just following the law, that's a big part of it, but the bigger part of it, the most important part of it, was remembering who you are, who God is, and what God has done. This is the God who has brought you out of Egypt, this is the God who has been with you all along, this is the God who died on the cross, this is the God who defeated death, and this is the God who has always given generously and ungrudgingly, and he will again, believe.
James says, "ask in faith, never doubting." Ask in faith. . . we have to believe that our asking will make a difference. We have to believe that God's will being done is what we want. . . for God's will is perfect. He says that doubt is like being tossed by the waves, being tossed in the wind. It certainly echoes Psalm 1, which we read as our Call to Worship this morning, doesn't it. The path of the wicked, for them it is not so, they are just blown by the wind, rather than being planted, rooted by the waters. Doubt and faith, Sin and hope. . . these are completely connected. They are what matters. Without faith and hope none of it matters, none of it. It is simply a return to the pagan notions of conflict, that the world is in conflict, with the powerful fighting against the powerful, and the weak used as pawns in the game. That is what the world thinks, but we will learn endurance, because we will know that God made this world and is in control of it, from that we will believe that God's will is going to happen, we will from that take hope because God loves us, and is deeply concerned about our well being. . . and will do for us what is best. Let us not look backward, but forward in hope, in faith, in love, and so through our endurance taking its full effect, will bring us to maturity and completeness. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jas 1:1-8). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, June 15, 2014


A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
June 15, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
1 John 2: 12-17

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.

I'm going to break with tradition today, and save the scripture reading for the end of this sermon so that it is in the perspective of the rest. . . it's from the 1st of John's epistles, and so it is about love, and God, and loving God. . . for that is what those great letters are about, but here the sermon by way of introduction I will preach.
So often in the church calendar we have days like today where there is a church remembrance and it coincides with a secular holiday. There are many times where Pentecost lines up with Memorial Day. . . but this year where Easter was much later in the month of April we have today, Father's Day, and it is also Trinity Sunday. The week after Pentecost always is. . . It is as if now all the three parts of God have made their appearance in the story, the last with the Spirit coming last week at Pentecost, and so now we can celebrate God complete and in three this week. It may also be because, after the birth of the church at Pentecost, one of the first great watershed Theological debates, schisms, and then coming together in Council. . . which is the pattern for most church doctrine. . . one of the first was all about this doctrine that has inspired so much confusion and mystery since its inception: The Trinity.
I remember a few years ago when I first preached on the Trinity on this special day of remembrance someone told me that such Theological issues aren't what it's all about anyway, no one can know afterall, and it's all just hocus pocus really. . . . His words, not mine, but he did and does have a point; there has been much division and trouble concerning the doctrine of the trinity throughout the centuries. It is the biggest issue that Muslims, at least at the beginning,  have with Christianity. . . God is one, not three, dividing God creates a polytheistic, rather than monotheistic model, and such is simply idolatry afterall in their minds. Christians, at least Orthodox ones, do not see the nature of God in three and one in this divided way, though. Is the nature of God important to ponder and consider and think about, especially if it sets people apart against one another? Is it better to just focus on ourselves and what we can know, focus on the law and righteousness and being a good person, focus on Jesus and Salvation and redemption instead? It's an important question to consider, especially if it divides us, but on the other hand for Christians, in the west, this one doctrine has been the one source that has unified Western Christianity, being one of the few traditional pieces of Orthodoxy that survived the Great Schism and the Protestant Reformation. When so much divides us, names, the primacy of the Bible, the importance of tradition, what communion is about, what baptism is about, when to do it, what it does, who should be and who shouldn't be, how church government should work and be organized. All these questions divide Western Christians, but the Trinity is one of those few things so many people agree on.  Therefore it is really come to be the standard for what is considered orthodox, the dividing line between orthodoxy and the rest. For better or worse it is a part of our history, a part of the faith of our fathers, and so a part of the faith of us, and for that reason I think important to talk about from time to time, and to commemorate this Sunday every year, representing the end of the Easter Season, the last of the special days where white adorns the sanctuary. Next week it is back to green, ordinary time, and it's green and ordinary for a while. . . all the way to the end of November when we look at Christ as the King, but today we look to the Trinity. . . so let's do it, though it may just hurt our brains to do so.
So today we get two, Trinity and Fathers. As I was studying, pondering, deciding what to talk about, I was thinking about the juxtaposition of these two ideas, and maybe I was thinking about the history of the doctrine of the Trinity as well, and its unifying definition of Orthodox, like I've just been talking about, but somehow part or all of this at the same time was going through my head, but when I was thinking about Fathers and Trinity the first thought that came into my head, the first word that popped in, like I was playing a word association game became the title I chose for this sermon today: "Sturdy." Sturdy because a three legged table is the right amount of legs to get the first taste of what we consider sturdy, and sturdy because I am blessed to have a Father in my life who has been sturdy for me. And maybe that has something to do with it. The blessings of Fathers and the blessings of faith are often linked, and when they are all the more sturdy. Our fathers, our parents give us our first foundation of faith. . . and I use the term parents here in its widest form possible because oftentimes it's aunts, uncles, grandparents, church friends, and so many more who become parent-like to a child. There is a real truth to the fact that all adult/child relationships have that kind of import. . . which is a truth that should inspire and intimidate us at the same time. The faith that we share with our children should be sturdy for them. . . and this world is greatly in need of sturdy things, because so much of what we have to deal with is much more shakey.
In this world we live in, that philosopher's call postmodern, truth has become a shakey thing. It is a relative thing, and unknowable thing, a doubted thing, a challenged thing, and therefore completely shakey. . . we get to form it for ourselves, by ourselves, on our own, again shakey. . . for what we think is true, no matter what, right? So many of my students have this ingrained in their heads. They accept it as unquestionable fact (with no realization of the irony of such a notion), but if you get them in honest moments, where you can ask questions beyond the surface, it is amazing how fast the presupposed sturdiness of relativity, gets lost in the actual shakeyness of I don't know. And I don't know is a good answer, it's much more honest answer than, "I make my own truth," and allowing yourself to realize you don't know is actually beginning of knowing. . . it's like the rock bottom where sturdy can be built, whereas so much of our society and our viewpoints are built on seemingly safe, but completely groundless notions of the relativity of truth.
And this is where the doctrine of the trinity comes in. It is mysterious, it is confusing, it is unknowable, but in that unknowability is its charm, its power, and its import, because it leaves so much to the unknownness. I touched on it a little bit last week, when I was talking about the Holy Spirit, and how that ethereal part of the Trinitarian God allows the size of God to be bigger than our narrow minds. It brings the tangible documented acts of God in the past and does not allow our minds to box God in them because you could, and people do. There have been movements in seemingly faithful worship which do exactly that. They make God just a creator, they make God just a redeemer, and God is each of those things, both of those things, but God does not end there. . . and real faithful worship has to acknowledge the scope of God beyond the past into the very presence of our lives now and in the future. But at the same time people also try to remove the past and focus just on the Spirit, seeking to ignore the law and the prophets, the creation, the crucifixion, whatever it is. . .it misses the sturdy totality of what God really is. The Trinitarian concept of God brings a real balance to our understanding of who God is and what God is, not in a limiting way, but in a challenging, an expansive way, a way that pushes us from our comfort at the same time it gives us real comfort. The table metaphor is a good one, because faith grows shakey when we seek to take away one of the legs of the table.
And perhaps that is exactly what our post modern or whatever you want to call it world often seeks to do. In a false attempt to make things more complicated and sophisticated it actually overly simplifies things, and then rejects them for being way too simple. So much of what people reject about God or religion, as I have observed, is not the large Trinitiarian depth of God, but a narrow shaky idol that only represents one piece of what they think the whole would be. They may say things like, well God is much too rigid for me, I don't believe that God creates such wonderful diversity and then makes a bunch of rules that narrow that very existence. The Trinitarian God is bigger than that concept of what God is. You may hear something like, and I've mentioned this slogan before. . . morality is doing what is right no matter what you are told, and religion is doing what you are told no matter what is right. . . neither the person who believes that statement is true about religious people, nor any religious people who fit into such a statement represent a much larger Trinitarian concept of God. . . you see there is always more, and its more complicated. . . and trying to make it simple, makes it not easier to grasp and make a part of your life, but easier to reject, or find wanting, when the sheer scope of the Trinity isn't easy to grasp, and also isn't easy to reject. It's simple enough to find wanting. . .not simple enough to reject.
But the Trinity not as a reality, but as a doctrine, is dangerously close to that kind of simplicity. If it becomes simply a check box of belief, like you either believe it or you don't, it becomes way too easy to accept, find wanting, and reject. . . because it's just words, just an idea, but the reality, the part that hurts your brain to think about, is what matters. . . let it hurt, let it leave you wanting more, living shakily in the mystery. . . it brings you ironically to a much more sturdy place. Yeah it seems a paradox, but so much of Christianity is a paradox. I think of the famous prayer of St. Francis. . . and all of its opposites.
Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.
Yes it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. . . and it is in losing ourselves in the shaky mystery of the Trinity that we find the hard rock sturdiness of faith in God, bigger and beyond any box we could ever try to put God into, or maybe it would be an envelope, for that two dimensional idol of God, could just put on paper and stowed safely like that, but the Trinity busts God out of the envelope, off the paper, and into our very lives.
You may think to yourself that it would be hard to understand such an idea, and you'd be right, and then you may also think that you have to understand something to teach it, understand something to pass it on, understand something to seek to instill it into someone else, and this being Father's day, where we celebrate special parent, again big definition of parent, relationships with children, I want to dispel that fallacy. Understanding here isn't the goal, teaching this isn't about teaching knowledge, but about showing love.
So now I want to read the scripture passage for this morning because it puts a lot of this into perspective and reminds us what it is about, children, father's, and  young people:

12     I am writing to you, little children,
because your sins are forgiven on account of his name.
13     I am writing to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning.
I am writing to you, young people,
because you have conquered the evil one.
14     I write to you, children,
because you know the Father.
I write to you, fathers,
because you know him who is from the beginning.
I write to you, young people,
because you are strong
and the word of God abides in you,
and you have overcome the evil one.
15 Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; 16 for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever. [1]

The world likes to make the simple sophistocated and make the sophistocated simple, so that it can take it, own it, wield it, or reject it. . . let us seek to love instead. . . for the Love of the father shows us what it is all about. . . more than we could ever imagine. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (1 Jn 2:12-17). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Out of Control

Out of Control
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
June 8, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
1 Corinthians 12: 1-11
Genesis 11: 1-9

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.

1 Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2 You know that when you were heathen, you were led astray to dumb idols, however you may have been moved. 3 Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.
4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are inspired by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.[1]

Today is Pentecost, which is recognized as the day of the church year where we celebrate the birth of the church. The story of Pentecost is familiar, yet mysterious. It's familiar in that one day each year, today, it gets told, similarly to the Christmas story and the Easter story, it has it's place year to year, so to some extent it is familiar, but Pentecost is not as familiar as those other much more famous church holy days. There was a time when Pentecost was given similar importance to the others, but the strangeness of the story maybe make it not as memorable to modern Christians. Flames on people's heads and speaking one language and hearing in many different languages just don't inspire carols quite like the manger and the empty tomb, but the very idea of inspiration has its roots in Pentecost, rather than Christmas, for on Pentecost we recognize the coming of the Holy Spirit, the paraclete, the sustainer, by its very meaning inspiration and thus the church. It's ironic in one sense that the Holy Spirit is the person of the trinity most connected to the church because often churches have the hardest time with the Spirit because it is out of control. . . by its nature it is out of control. . . it is ethereal, mysterious, ungraspable, always outside of our reach and understanding, and so since we fear a lack of control almost more than anything else, we often downplay the place of the spirit. One of the major ideas of the Presbyterian denomination is the idea, and it comes from scripture that things always be done decently and in order. . . often such a statement at least in practice, seems to cut off that spiritual third side of the trinity. For in the Father we can see the order of creation, and in the person of the son we can see the heart of decency, but the third person of the trinity is there to challenge that easy parallel. Such it is to have a trinity, a balance of three. . . lest the balance created by two could create too much understandable graspable totality all within reach. The spirit instead is always pushing us to be more, think more, and understand more than what is at first so simple to us. At the same time the spirit sustains us and inspires us, strengthening us like no other, but in so doing keeps us humble, sustained but not content, and therefore striving, and not at rest.
This uncontrollable nature of the spirit reminds us that there is always more to God than the past or the present. There is always more to God than what we can say or what think we know. There is just more, recalling from the great book of Ecclesiastes, trying to completely know God is like trying to catch the wind. . . vanity of vanities. . . recognizing this difficult truth, that God is bigger than what our minds can grasp,  results in that highest of human virtues, that at the same time is the lowest by its nature: humility, lest we were to ever think that we had it down and were in control.
The Pentecost story mirrors the Babel story, which is why I had Paula read that again today. For in the Tower of Babel story the tongues of the people were confused, and they could not understand the language of each other. In the Pentecost story, though the tongues are still confused the ears hear anew. Everyone, though they may speak different languages, understood the one speaking voice in their own language, truly a miracle, but there is also great symbolism in the pairing of these two stories, and it gets into the real importance of the Holy Spirit to the life of the church, though we often seek to forget it, since it makes us uncomfortable. It is the message of most of Paul's letter to the church in Corinth, and is an important message to remember in today's modern, assembly line, systematic life of the contemporary world. There is a real problem of uniformity and conformity. That though the church should be one, the diversity that must live within that oneness is natural and should never be forgotten. On Pentecost, one voice was speaking, but each heard it with their own ears, but at Babel one voice was speaking and all were falling in line.
I heard it said a few weeks back that the real crux of the Tower of Babel story isn't the tower at all, nor the tongues being confused, but the fact of "bricks." This tower was to be made of bricks, rather than stone. . . each brick, molded and shaped, uniform and perfect, made especially to fit together, leaving no space, just the strength of an impenetrable wall, built upwards to the sky. How interesting then that it would be the people at the end of the story who being too uniformed are confused into diverse speaking. God could have certainly just broken the tower to the ground, grinding the bricks back into stones, but instead God works to diversify the people. The people then are the bricks, and the tower is expedience and progress. People are molded and shaped into uniformity building a better future, but the problem is that people are not tools with which to build, but rather the reason for building, just as God built this world for people to live in. There is a real danger when people cease to be the object of the love of creation, and begin to be the tools and resources of the building, for God doesn't create that way, nor is the world supposed to work that way, though people seek to make it so. The suggestion of the story then is that the bricks are symbolic of the dangers of people conforming or being unnaturally conformed, that though the tower is built, the cost of the individuality of the people is what is much too dear. There is a great warning to the temptations of people to find easy answers, to look to curb uniqueness in favor of the expedience of one size fits all humanity, making people into tools and building blocks for civilization, fitting people into types, seeing people as types, softening up the rough edges to make people actually fit into categories even and especially when they don't. People like bricks are judged then by their usefullness and not by their humanness, the divine image that lives within each of us, not just some of us, and not just those who fit in. This was what I was thinking about when I wrote the prayer of preparation for this week, it is the Pentecost call of how the church should be built:
May we build with stones and not bricks,
Remembering that through each nook
And within each cranny, made by uneven
Edges, the wind blows, flowing freely,
As it has since time's beginning
On the newly formed and divided waters,
That though the lines may be crooked,
Each holds a unique space and place,
Filled by each as only each can, leaving
A vacancy when absent that cannot be filled
By any other piece. There is a value
Such a wall knows, that its finely
Crafted descendants have forgotten
Through the mind numbing conformity
Of molded bricks with all the right angles
Of efficiency, facility, and progress.

It is in this idea that I want to look at the spirit and how it offers us more in what we are and what we can be. In the piece of Paul's letter to the church in Corinth we read this morning, one word was repeated again and again, and I almost chose it as the title of this sermon. . . it's "variety" "varieties of gifts" "varieties of service" "varieties of working." Variety, but the same spirit. . . that is the truth of the spirit. . .it is all over and inspiring all kinds, in all kinds of different ways, but yet within all of the glorious diversity there is the one shred of uniformity and that is the God that is being served.
We talk a great deal about diversity in today's world. It is a buzz word on the news and in board meetings. Schools, churches, places of business, they all seek to sell the fact that they have diversity, but what they mean when they say they have diversity is that they have the inclusion of multiple uniform and recognizable groups apparent in their make up. It is why you will see the hand picked rainbow of people depicted in the photographs of every pamphlet and brochure. Check us out we are diverse and you can see it on the surface. . . it is interesting though that each institution is seeking to be "diverse" in the same way. . . all on the surface, diversity only skin deep, for the unspoken truth of this skin deep diversity is that it isn't diversity at all, but the worst kind of dehumanizing conformity, for it forgets that there is no group of people that is not diverse, for there are no two people who are alike. . . though we seek to bind ourselves to our alikenesses, we often do so at the expense of our variety. . . and such control, is all too human, and in such loses the uncontrollable nature of the spirit led world.
I once tried to show this truth through a series of pictures, always asking the question, which picture is of something made by God, with the spirit, the ruach, flying over the surface of it, and which is a human construct, formed within the human rational mind. The first picture was a natural map of Virginia, with the rivers at angles, streams, curving here and there to match the patternless contours of the ground, and the other was a map of Richmond, with it's streets and blocks, systematically straight and perfect at right angles. . . at least for the most part (the dreadful secret is that even within human nature there is not the ability to perfect a vision for no one man builds a city). Everyone got that one. The next though was tougher, one was a picture of a Nazi regiment, marching perfectly in step, perfect uniformity and forced conformity, but then that picture was paired with another of children where there was 2 white kids, one a boy and one a girl, one black kid, one asian, one hispanic, and one middle eastern kid. All total there were 3 boys and 3 girls, below it, UNICEF. I gave it to the audience, and here was the twist. Of course they initially thought that this rainbow was created by God, and they said so with a great smile of someone who had just taught the world to sing by buying everyone a coke, but the ugly twist was that this picture too was a human creation, with all the apparent diversity the truth was that it was skin deep and a picture that shows the same problem of the Nazi uniformity. . . for it only sees the outside where each fit into groups, rather than the full picture where each was a unique person, waiting desperately to be led by the spirit.
It's easy to do less, but I do believe that we are called to be more, to see more, and to do more than what is easy. Our categories are not enough because they don't see people, and our formulas and systems are not enough because they do not allow for the spirit to challenge the normal and the ordinary into the truly extraordinary. On Pentecost Sunday, we wear red, and adorn the sanctuary with red, and it is the only day we do so. It is a day and color that stand out from the rest, from the normal, let us celebrate today what sets us each apart, for within what sets each of us apart is what makes us whole and one, and that is our creation, our redemption, and our being sustained in life, led by, even though it makes us uncomfortable, the wonderful power of out of control, Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1]The Revised Standard Version. 1971 (1 Co 12:1). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.