Sunday, August 10, 2014

To Stand

To Stand
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
August 10, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 12: 57-59
1 Kings 3: 16-22

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 want to talk this morning about some of the issues that are front and center in our church. Over the last four years there has been a great number of churches leaving the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., and with some of the developments at the latest General Assembly there may be more leaving soon. I know that a church very close to me is beginning talks and playing out scenarios, trying to discern what they want to do. Every church has their own reasons for thinking about leaving, but the issue that has become front and center, and in many cases has become the straw that is breaking the camel's back is the redefining of marriage. Many Christian denominations are trying to figure out how to best minister in an ever changing culture, and as the church begins to change, often two camps are formed, those pushing the change are on one side, and those resisting the change on the other. Each side has their point, each side has been aggressive, each side is angry, each side is pulling and pushing for  their way, and each side's voice is loud and often tries to drown out all other voices, and in this polarization of the two sides, the two camps, the reality that there is actually a third voice, a much less vocal majority that just isn't sure. . . this moderate voice, often goes unheard, gets called luke warm, tries to get swayed to one side or the other, is accused and labeled by both sides, but really that third voice has something to offer the argument, and it's more than just sitting on the sideline wishing that that everyone could just get along. . . there is much more to it than that, and I want to do some work today to discuss the strengths of that view, to empower that moderate voice, to give real support to any who would listen. You would think that the moderate voice would be appeasing, accomodating, the easy medium, but it is truly a stand, and to stand in the middle of two warring camps isn't so easy, often what is said from that voice alienates both sides, and I certainly risk doing that today, and so such a stand can become extremely difficult and quickly isolating. It isn't easy, it's not an easy thing to talk about, but here goes. . .
I chose two Bible passages, whose connection I think opens up many different avenues for thought and discussion. The first is Solomon's feat of wisdom from 1 Kings 3: 16-22.
16 Later, two women who were prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. 17 The one woman said, “Please, my lord, this woman and I live in the same house; and I gave birth while she was in the house. 18 Then on the third day after I gave birth, this woman also gave birth. We were together; there was no one else with us in the house, only the two of us were in the house. 19 Then this woman’s son died in the night, because she lay on him. 20 She got up in the middle of the night and took my son from beside me while your servant slept. She laid him at her breast, and laid her dead son at my breast. 21 When I rose in the morning to nurse my son, I saw that he was dead; but when I looked at him closely in the morning, clearly it was not the son I had borne.” 22 But the other woman said, “No, the living son is mine, and the dead son is yours.” The first said, “No, the dead son is yours, and the living son is mine.” So they argued before the king. [1]

And then the gospel lesson is from Luke 12: 57-59

57 “And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? 58 Thus, when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you in prison. 59 I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.” [2]

I've been asked a few times lately, by some of my more conservative friends, what it would take for me to leave the PCUSA. . . their faces are always looking at me, like, how can you stay on that sinking ship, don't you know that the Bible says this, how can you stay in a church that has forsaken its Biblical Traditions, Don't you realize that the church is called to transform the world not be transformed by the world. . . stuff like that. There are many assumptions made behind that question. And I get all that. . . I understand that point of view, but I'm not so sure. The Bible isn't the easiest book to read, it isn't like there is a list of rules, and that is it, the Bible is not as some would say, like the simple church sign acronym suggests, Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. . . It's not so cut and dry. Instead it's a narrative, it's a story about relationship, and surrounding that relationship there is commentary about how life should be led, but there is always context. . . and in narratives, in context, in people's lives, in relationship nothing is ever so cut and dry. At the center of that story though is God, God creating, God establishing the Earth and how it functions, God entering into relationship with people, and finally God coming into this world as one of us, humbling himself to become human, and then dying on a cross for our sin, only to be resurrected, throwing on its heels everything that we thought we knew about this world, its limitations, and its very foundation. We find that the power of God, and its foundation in love is more than what we can wrap our minds around, and so that leaves things a little bit messy, a little bit less defined than maybe we would like. . . and that can be and has been ever since,  a difficult thing for  human beings to encounter, to grapple with, and to live out in the world. And so the simplicity of the Biblical argument is problematic for me. There is always more to it, and there are many other issues that you could easily say are outside, or against the Biblical tradition, that are ignored, and are much less politically and antagonistically considered. . . I could name a bunch, but don't want to let myself get too far off topic, but ask me some time, I'll give you an earful. No there is no such thing as a pure church, and there has never been. There was no glory time where everything was perfect because the visible the church we see is human entity, and though it may run parallel to God's Holy Invisible Church, it's not the same thing. We're flawed and we don't know, But that is a big piece of the moderate position, because it isn't sure, what to think, it is discerning still, it's waiting, and listening, waiting for that still small voice to make the truth more apparent, and most importantly, it's humble. And from that humble stance the fullness of the moderate position grows.
But that's not all. . . the I don't know answer isn't enough really. . . it's a start, but there is more to it, at least for me. And for me it all has to do with what being Presbyterian means in the first place. At Coralee's baptism I celebrated the idea that we hold very firm to, and that is freedom of the conscience, and in that freedom of the conscience, along with it must be mutual forbearance. We have to think that the other person's point of view is just as valid possibly as ours, and that isn't easy, believing someone else may be living and interpreting the will of God and be reading the Bible differently than we are, but just as faithfully, and it isn't easy to do that, certainly not when everyone is trying their hardest to drown out every other voice but their own. And since we have freedom of the conscience, our minds, our viewpoints, and what we think about things is not determined at General Assembly, despite what many think, what many believe, and quite possibly what many people wish. Instead we get to make up our minds ourselves. People inside and outside of PCUSA could stand to remember that very important distinction about us, and the way our denomination works. All too often the media, the powers that be within the church, the two wings of the debate forget that and seek to put us all in the same one voiced box. . . but that is not the case.
And for me this is where the Gospel passage comes into play. The answer to these issues for me, the how to get along with each other, shouldn't come from General Assembly. If it does we've already lost. I had a seminary professor jokingly lament how sad it is that the Book of Order is so long. She said, a group of people who need that many rules just to get along is destined for problems. . . Look at Jesus here, he tells his followers to seek to judge for themselves what is right. . . because if you take it to a higher authority, you are putting all the power in their hands, and you may not like the result, Jesus says, "you will pay even to the very last penny."
I remember my days working on the Discipline Committee at Blue Ridge. We'd have kids who'd fought or had some kind of disagreement, and all of a sudden because they couldn't work it out for themselves we had to intervene. During the counseling part of it, I always tried to bring that point out, look we shouldn't have to involve ourselves in your dealings, but now your freedom, the freedom that you have over what is going to happen next is now out of your hands, and you can't get it back. They'd be earning themselves a punishment that certainly could have been avoided. In hindsight they  could usually see how foolish they had been for letting it go so far. There is real wisdom in that. I think one of our biggest challenges in our culture today is that we have forgotten this principle. We all too often outsource our thinking to those above us, whether they are more famous, or are on T.V., or more educated, whatever the case and allow them to do our thinking for us. And when they do, we may not like the result, but at that point, it's really hard to get that back. . . Jesus says, "you'll pay to the last penny." And it is all too often the same in the church, and it shouldn't be for Presbyterians. The Reformation occurred, and wars have been fought since, to allow for individuals to relate to God without a mediator, but do we take that for granted in our faith. We can wrestle with the Bible and faith, and prayer, and study, and all of it ourselves, but do we, or do we instead allow others to shape what we think, feel, and believe? Remember two camps, the third as I'm talking about today isn't really a camp at all, but a community of people all discerning and thinking for themselves, trying to figure out the best way to serve God and to love each other. It sounds good right. . . it sounds Christian right. . . it sounds Biblical right. Yeah that's what we're fighting for, fighting to preserve, as the other two factions fight against eachother.
Only the Bible would be broad enough in its point of view to have a narrative that includes that text from Jesus about seeking to solve issues ourselves, and include the famous story of Solomon's wisdom, too. To everything there seems to be exceptions, and sometimes there are issues that are beyond what we can handle ourselves. I get that, and Jesus gets that too I'm sure. . . cause look at this one. Two women, prostitutes it goes out of its way to say, both have babies, one mother's child dies, and so she steals in the middle of the night the other woman's baby, switches them at the breast, dead one for the live one, and then is adamant about the fact that it is her baby, all the way up to the King it goes. And he famously as a show of how wise he is, says to cut the baby in half, giving half to each. One of the two mothers says no, she can have it, she's reached that limit, and to save the baby, she stands down. . . Solomon of course sees this, knows that only a true mother would do such a thing, would rather lose the fight to save the child, her child, whom she loves. Powerful story, clever, and Solomon shows himself to be a wise judge. It all works out when you have a wise judge. But it's hard when you don't, or when you think you don't, when you've lost faith in that system. And maybe that's where we are now, where things were in Jesus' time too, where faith in the human systems just isn't there.
So, imagery of the story is there in our situation. It's not hard to see the church being pulled in two directions by two different groups, points of view, and we, like Solomon, have to ask ourselves if those points of view really care for the baby, for the church, for God's will, or are they blinded by the movement, by the quest of it all, the battle, the fear that they may be losing, or the joy of the momentum of winning the battle. I have to admit that though I'm certainly in the middle on this, I have a lot of sympathy for the traditional viewpoint because change is difficult, and things have been changing very quickly, and there hasn't been time for discernment and discussion, and reconciliation this time around. It hasn't been that long since the General Assembly made similar steps, and the speed scares people. There hasn't been much compassion from the progressive forces for those who may disagree, and that's hard to deal with. It's hard to deal with the idea that your church is becoming something that you no longer recognize, and you choose one battle to fight because you feel like you've given and given and given, and it just won't stop. And so you have to stand for something, lest you stand for nothing. I get that. . . but that's not the stand I want to make. It's not the stand I feel called to make because I don't think it is the right one, as I said it's not easy or cut and dry, it's not about rules it's about people and relationships and those are messy.
But the truth is I don't find myself connected with Solomon in that story as much as with the real mother. And I feel saddened by the fact that something I love is being torn apart by folks who I don't think quite get what is so great about the Presbyterian church, what makes it unique, what makes it be something that is worth fighting for, worth saving, and that is all of those things I said at Coralee's baptism: the freedom of conscience, the mutual forbearance, the ability to listen, to discern God's will, that Jesus Christ is the head of the church, rather than a voting majority of 51%.  These are the things that are really important to me because it allows each person to grow their relationship with God at their own pace, in their own time, where ever they are, because God is at the center of all of that, not some human schedule of how things "should" be. We need to remember that. . . especially in the turmoil like now.
So to get back to the original question. . . what would it take for me to leave the PCUSA? It would have to leave me, and do so by destroying the things that I hold dear, like personal discernment. It would have to become a top down, majority rules, compassionless, thing, and Christ would then have to be replaced by someone or something else as the head. I don't think that has happened yet. Maybe some would disagree. . . and they would say to me, come on you need to stand for something, you need to make a stand, put it all on the line, are you just afraid?
That is a question we all have to ask ourselves because Christians shouldn't be timid and led by fear. Jesus says, take up your cross and follow me. Carrying the cross is about standing up, about making a stand, about being crucified on a hill for what you believe, for what you are called by God to do and be, so we shouldn't be afraid to stand. We shouldn't just get along to get along, we shouldn't stand for nothing, trying to preserve a comfortable status quo. That is what Martin Luther King’s letter from a Birmingham Jail is all about and why I included a piece of that in your bulletin as the prayer of preparation[3], and such a stance will not inspire, or he says lose our authenticity and forfeit the loyalty of millions, no we have to stand, and we can’t  just conform to the world taking that easy road. . . awe come on Pete, that's exactly what you are doing what the church is doing. . . really. . .now that it's almost football season I'll quote Lee Corso and say. . . "Not so fast my friend. . . " How often does the world allow people to make their own minds up? How often does the world wait and listen for discernment? How often does the world seek to love and nurture? No, the world seeks to make everyone conform to it, to make every one think and be the same, to do things the same, the world likes to simplify and order things diametrically opposed into factions that then make war against each other, that has been the way of the world for centuries, millennia, . . . It wasn't until 1776 where another idea began to take root, during what King George III called a "Presbyterian Revolution." Ahhh how soon we forget. . .  you see our nation holds the same ideas, from the same source, and we on many levels have forgotten that too to our peril. . . but no. . . We are not conforming to the world when we are humble, and seek peace, and compassion and love, instead we are daring to stand against the diametrically opposed tides seeking to push and pull everyone apart in separate ways. It's easy to stand in a big crowd and rail against another big crowd, trying to rally consensus and get more people to your cause because there is always power in numbers. . . but majority, and popular opinion, polls, or voting assemblies, or who can talk the loudest, all of that, just isn't the way that I seek to discern truth. Instead I'll stand alone, if I have to, at least uniquely me, and I'll promise to stand up next to everyone else who has their own view or is still discerning. . . I'll stand there because if I have to be crucified on a hill, at least I'd know that, that was the hill that God called me to, created specifically for me, in my time and my place according to my maker's will, not as part of a group push and pulled by the tides, but mine. . . . and that stand may not be today. . . but the Presbyterian Church believes, or at least has traditionally believed in people making those stands, and ideally has supported them, and so I stand for it, because it isn't an it, but a you and me, an us, and a them, all together in a community of individuals. . . and I know the world needs that important witness because it is truly rare, unique as each one of us is. So God give us the strength, when the time comes, and to be patient and faithful until it does. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (1 Ki 3:16-22). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 12:57-59). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[3] But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.   ~ Martin Luther King
                                                     from "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"