Friday, October 31, 2014

Waiting, O God

Waiting, O God


Waiting, O God, are thy faithful people
Silent and still, their hearts unfurled
For brothers and sisters, our actions full and feeble,
Take on ourselves the weight of the world
But we with doubt and sin, infecting
Spreading corruption, pain, and greed
When will faith its armor protecting
Give to mankind the strength it needs?

So from our knees, to the Lord Almighty,
Praise be thy name, thy will be done.
Help us to bend and to love, always rightly
As we are led to follow thy Son.
‘nd when temptation, doubt, and fear o'ertake us
When we cannot endure the pain
Please then O God, do not e'er forsake us,
Drive us humbly to our knees again.

Now on our knees we come humbly to thy table
Arm in arm, our love made clear
We come not because we are worthy or are able
But save that Jesus Christ invites us here
He gives us his body and blood he's shedding
Forgiving our sins, all washed away
To himself our souls embedding
That we would not ever go astray

Help us to live in Thine ever present moment
Open our hearts to hear Thy call.
We seek to discern Thy will, though still and silent,
‘nd place on the altar our gifts, our all.
Though we may not know where the path is leading
Filled with fear, beyond today,
Give, us faith, your spirit, ne’er receding,

To know you’ll guide us each step of Thy way. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


Book I

God help me to seek the truth, and to tell its story,
Guide my head, my heart, my hand, and my pen,
To consider all of life’s history, from its beginning
Up to now, that somehow we can break through lies
And see clearly again, as you created us to see,
As you created us to be, for lies abound: the fog
Of them covers our eyes, like poison it kills,
Like disease it spreads, like cancer it grows,
Like other cycles it spirals, continuously, in seamless
Pattern forever, but to the poison there is antidote,
To the disease a cure, to the cancer a remission,
The cycle can be broken, but it takes perspective.
We must break far enough from the cycle, to see
Clearly once and for all what it is we face—that lies,
When seen from enough distance, outside the battle,
The crisis, the painful emotional crippling fear,
Can be seen for what they really are: empty,
Powerless, shortsighted, and superficial nonsense,
Merely the temptations of our illusioned control.
Help me to see the cycles, the same story repeated,
Again and again, over and over. The moment shifts,
But the choice is always the same: I am in control,
And so I can be, and do, and take whatever I want.
This lie remains at the heart of all the others, so God,
Lead me to this diagnosis, help me gain the trust
Of my patients, and help me lead them to face the
Pandemic, see the pain it causes, and to endeavor
To take the prescription, for it is only this: Engage
The truth, for until we do, nothing else matters,
For the truth is that Love created us, knows us,
Saves us, and is all that can sustain us, and Love
Is engagement, getting messy, moved and moving
Relational but never relative, sacrificing, serving,
Freeing, giving, the beginning of perspective,
For it doesn’t start with concern for us, but is found
When seeking the best for each one else, not
Every but, each, for real love always is personal.

And since we must engage, help us to engage,
Mind, body, and soul, in stories, not statistics,
For each song in the continuum should be sung,
For somewhere along the trickling years of time,
Through history's shifts, twists, and turns, the grind
Of battles, exchanges of power, the tugs and tides
Of war, the rise and fall of kings and systems,
The ebb and flow, wax wane, push and pull,
Of each crisis and latest Armageddon, we see
Love often gets lost in the shuffle of each moment,
For it is in each moment, where lies loom large
When our struggles for survival drown Love’s
Still small, but ever steady and constant voice.

* * *

Since all stories need context, a starting place,
A point where the issues are made clear, where
We come as close to recognizing good and evil
As ever, let us begin this story, in the last great war,
The last time, things seemed clear and simple.
God, show to our minds a boat, speeding across
The English Channel, where dressed in green,
A normal American young man, taken from
His anonymous life is shoved forever into a moment,
Where we see history being made, and the future
Being formed, where lies are being called
To reckon, since Truth’s engagement demands
That sometimes we fight. In the wee small hours
Of the morning, which he knows could be his last,
He seeks clarity, which you often give in times
Like these. Despite the hum of the motor, he prays,
Hoping to hear Love’s voice, above, within, and beyond
The man made noise, cluttering and overwhelming
His worry weakened, doubt infected senses:

God in your wisdom tell me that this must be,
For I shudder at the danger we face this day.
It seems that my life at twenty four is short
To end this way so many miles from my home.
Is there any other way, may this cup pass,
For my wife at home misses me, and I her,
The children we hoped to have, will die with me.
Is what we do today worth such a cost?
Is war the answer, for I look to my right
And I see myself, frightened boys, alive,
Today, but death approaches fast for us,
We know where we go, and what we face,
Part of me feels it’s right, but I don't know,
Illumine me with your spirit O God,
Give to me the truth I need this day,
Alight my path, and come to show me why,
And I'll give my life unto your perfect will,
And commend my spirit to your loving hands.
I pray this prayer in my savior's holy name,
And with hope and faith, I humbly say, Amen.

The stars shone above, twinkling as they have
Since the very first day, and as his eyes shut
And sleep slid across his face, needed peace
And rest in the midst of the tempest of war,
A voice came to his attention, saying:

Greatly beloved, hear me, pay attention
To the words that I am going to speak to you.
Rest now your body, and let your mind
Grab hold of all you've known, been taught,
Thought and dreamed, your words were heard,
On this the first day you set your mind to gain
Understanding, and humbled yourself to God. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Message: Engage

The Message: Engage
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
October 26, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Jeremiah 14: 7-9
Revelation 2: 1-7

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 in the last four weeks, using our Order of Worship as a way to study what we do as a church and where we are, we have looked at the Prayer of Preparation, where in getting ready for the message of the worship service, we looked at the external issues that we face as a church heading into the future: all the things that go on around us, all of which we have no control of. Then we looked at the Call to Worship, where each week we get a reminder, a strong statement about who God is, and the wonders he has done, taking stock in the fact that it is amazing that we are here at all, for we have been greatly beating the odds. Between all the external things and the way this world is, it's just so much standing in our way, we shouldn't succeed, but we shouldn't have gotten to this point either. It is wonderful to think about all the miracles that have brought us here. Then last week we took some time to look inward, at ourselves, where we fall short, where we doubt, where we seek to control, tightening our grip, as a part of our Prayer of Confession. It is like Moses taking off of his shoes, we bear our souls and humbly come to approach God.  
So with the ground of our hearts and minds fertilized, we have been called to worship God, and we have confessed and reconciled to God, we've passed the peace of fellowship, it is now time for us to hear the Word of God read and proclaimed, to wrestle anew, hearing once again what God's Word is speaking to us today. What an honor it is to get to wrestle with scripture each week and find in it truth that is timeless, and certainly wholly relevant in our lives today.
Every week I say the same prayer of Illumination. I never thought that I would use a rote prayer, the same prayer for something like this, and when I wrote the poem that is the basis for it years ago, I never planned for it to be used like this, but every week I say it because there is never anything that is more true to what I want to say before I read scripture and preach, so let us pray this again. . .
Help us to see despite our eyes   (for our eyes are blind to so much)
Help us to think outside of our minds  (for our minds hold on to the wrong things)
Help us to be more than our lives (lest we should ever think that we are or have done enough)
            For your eyes show the way (from you outside of us)
            Your mind knows the truth (from you outside of us)
            Your being is the life. (from you we owe everything)
Amen. (it’s not just be but we humbly coming forward to be filled anew)

I chose the New Testament Lesson for this morning from Revelation the letter to the church in Ephesus. Revelation 2: 1-7
1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.
2 “‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear evil men but have tested those who call themselves apostles but are not, and found them to be false; 3 I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 Remember then from what you have fallen, repent and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. 6 Yet this you have, you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. 7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’[1]

I hope that you have taken the time to look at the insert. There you will find a bit of truth, troubling and real. You see that we have our work cut out for us. There are so many factors that have brought us to this point. . . and it's not dire, it's not awful, but it is certainly real. We face real challenges as a church. Most churches do these days. . . Stuff costs more, we are aging, the building is aging. . . times are tough, but we already talked about that. We thought as a Session that it was time that we let everyone know exactly where we are. And the first of the changes that we want to make is to try to do a better job of exactly that: making sure everyone knows where we are as a church, and not just financially, but all parts because as Presbyterians we are all called to be a part of it. We all must engage. But today is not so much about looking at the problem, but trying to paint a picture of where we go from here.
I've been trying to think about how to address our situation and what to say about how we can work on it. Basically the mathematics of the situation are that, though we have some money saved away, it is quickly being used, and our giving is slowly decreasing as well. At the same time the cost of the things that we need to do, those external things that we can't change, they are all going up. It is the times we live in. It is difficult for churches. I want you to know what  I was preparing and thinking about this week in preparation, and really for the last 6 months or so, and through all the times we've talked around and around it in Session meetings again and again, many times seemingly in circles.
But this morning, keeping with the theme of the parts of the worship service, this morning we have gotten to the center piece of our worship service, the Word is read and proclaimed. I want to talk about what I do when I preach, and that by way of a sermon itself let you all in on the process. One thing that I promised myself when I started, was that the moment that I had nothing original, new, and meaningful to say, to preach every week, I would be done. That I, if I am going to stand up, have a responsibility to offer something that has never been said, and the only way that I know how to do that is to bring out my own point of view. That means I have to wrestle with the text, with the situations of the world, with the truth myself, and I do, at least week to week. That being said, there are always things going on in my life that echo my studying, giving me more to process, to wrestle with, to think and pray about. This week is no different.
So here I am giving a Stewardship Sermon to a church whose finances are in trouble, facing challenges, and I am teaching Oedipus Rex in class. Talk about a humbling thing because there sure is a pressure in this situation to promise that it all will work out. . . to stand in front of everyone and lay out a plan, saying if you do what I say, stick to the plan, and listen to me, it will all work out, the church will grow, and our coffers will be full. That is exactly what Oedipus does. He’s faced with a plague ravaging his city of Thebes. His citizens come to him and beg him to step in a do something. People want action from a king—they want to know that everything is alright, that the king is on it. But the theme of the play surrounds what happens when God’s will and the job of protecting the people is in conflict. What happens, what does a king do when the city is destined to struggle, and that is just the way it is? Can a politician, or can I as a preacher ever say that for real. So the flipside is to promise the world, promise that everything will be alright, just believe in me. . .  Oedipus says, “You pray. . . . but if you listen now to me, you’ll get your wish. Hear what I have to say and treat your own disease—then you may hope to find relief from your distress”. . . .can’t you see the problem? Listen to me, do what I say. . . just tithe more. . . volunteer more. . . and your reward will be great. Everything will work out. But there is a great line in the play that says, “The king who waits for the will of God and humbles himself, in his city no tragic poet sings.” Oedipus is a tragedy, it doesn’t work out, despite his promises. The church is similar. There have been many times where preachers and priests promise to know the will of God and are proven wrong by events. So that is  on thing going through my heard.
Also though this week, I watched the 30 for 30 ESPN documentary about the 1983 N.C. State championship basketball team and was so inspired by coach Jim Valvano, that I also watched one of his motivation speeches, called “Cutting the Nets Down” where he talks about the need for a dream, for seeing it, embodying it, and believing in it for success to happen. He talks about how he always holds a practice at the start of every season where they don't play with balls, just with scissors, and they cut the nets down in practice, because they want to see themselves as champions, practicing the victory tradition because you have see it to do it, he said. And he talked about his father, and how when Jim said his dream was to win the National Championship as a coach, his father promised to be there. . . He said, “Dad you know it’s hard.” He said, I’ll be there. So when he made  the tournament the first time with Iona, he called his dad, and his dad, “Son my bags are packed” Jim said, “but dad its hard” I know son, my bags are packed. In 1983 N.C. State had to win 10 games in a row to win the National Championship game. They had to win the ACC tournament because their record wasn’t good enough to get an At Large bid, and then they had to win each round of the NCAA, but they believed and somehow the got it done, the cut the nets down. He said,
“How do you go from where you are to where you wanna be? And I think  you have to have an enthusiasm for life. You have to have a dream, a goal. And you have to be willing to work for it.”

Enthusiasm and a dream, believing in it, having your bags packed. . . now pair that with Oedipus. And you see that things aren’t ever simple. But what inspiration!
Then on Friday I was picking up the girls, they were going to practice with me, and they were watching their cartoons, “The Grasshopper and the Ants.” You know where the grasshopper talks like Goofy—Coralee says, “hey he sounds like goofy” and I’m like “Garsh (like Goofy) you know he does” Then I sing his song, “Oh the world owes me a living. . . deda dada deda dada doo” and he spends his summer playing while all the ants are working and when winter comes, well, you could get the idea that God helps those who help themselves. . . but is that what I want to say. . . sounds too much like Oedipus.
Then we’re at practice and I don’t know if you’ve ever been around a 1-6 team of high school football players, but focus is not a part of what they are about. We had a kid jump off sides three plays in a row, even after telling him the count. It was amazing. Why do we work, someone said, “It’s a miracle,” and in pops into my head the “Night Before Christmas” special with the mice and the clock, and their song, “Even a miracle needs a hand.” The line, “We’ll help our maker, to make our dreams come true, but he can’t do it alone.” Wow, talk about a troubling theological statement, but I was faced with it. What a message, let’s take it upon ourselves, be enthusiastic, everything will work alright. . . . Wait a minute. . . Oedipus. . . I can hear the tragic poet starting his song. . . humility.
Then I remembered the fact that I said last week that the title of this sermon for this week was going to be “engage.” And that’s it, the real problem of Oedipus is that he, and many other characters in the play are unable to face the truth. They either run away from it, or try to change it, but the real answer is to engage with it. It may not do anything, but it’s life, it’s living. . . it’s what being human is about. Engaging. I teach boys at Blue Ridge and their parent’s are at their wits end about what to do to get their boys to be successful. And they come to me for parent conferences, and they see the faith that I have in their sons, and they ask me what it is I’m going to do. And I tell them I am going to do whatever it takes to get them to engage, to be present. . . I don’t promise they’ll be rocket scientists or get into Harvard, but I do promise that if they engage they will be them. They will be themselves. And what else can an engaged parent want? It’s not a promise that can’t be delivered. It’s a truth that has to be wrestled—a truth that will  shape the life being lived around it according to it. It’s life, it is all we can hope for is to engage.
And that is how it is for God’s will. His will, will be done. We know that. And I can’t tell you what exactly the future will entail for this church. I can’t promise you that it will all work out, all I can do is ask you to engage, as I ask myself to engage. I can’t tell you the future, but I do know something about my own past, and my own present, and I believe that there is no place else that I am supposed to be at this very moment than here, and engaged. And there is faith in that, there is enthusiasm that can come from that. And it is to that I place my hope. I’ll engage today and pray that I can engage tomorrow, the rest whatever may come is in God’s plan, and I’ll engage with that when it comes. Jesus said "Seek  ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added unto you." Seeking is another word for engaging, seeking God's will and honestly becoming a part of it. What a calling!
Now I chose the letter to the church in Ephesus  for a reason this morning because it gives us a warning. Look at it again. . .
I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear evil men but have tested those who call themselves apostles but are not, and found them to be false; 3 I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.

As we engage, as we go through tough times, what we call adversity, it will be really easy to point fingers. It will be really easy to think, well I do this, why can't they do this, or am I the only one who ever does this, or I need to do this all myself. . . and what is missing there is love. Right now we don't have a problem with this. We are a loving congregation, a caring congregation, but as we go through the rough road ahead it will be easy to fall in that trap. Let us all work with our eyes and hearts open to not only engage with the truth, but be committed to staying engaged with each other as well.
There is one thing that I have learned this year with football, and like everything else, it all fits in together, but it is that there is no better motivating and enthusiasm creating stuff than success. Like I said before yesterday we were 1-6, and had lost our last five games. The team has been filled with finger pointing and blaming. When times get hard it's easy to point fingers, but yesterday we won 54-18. So many kids had break out great games, and it was incredible. This kid who hasn't played much all of a sudden ran for 200 yards and 4 touchdowns. He was the player of the game, the kids carried him off the field. It was awesome. All the pointed fingers disappeared and they were together. Success is awesome, so I want to make sure that we remember that we have had some really amazing successes this year, and they are connected to a really great strength of us. We are great at big events. We come together; we work together, and the result is wonderful. Do you remember Joan's funeral, and the energy and the people, how magical it was? Do you remember Vacation Bible School? We should be proud of those. We have great momentum. We should have great enthusiasm for what we can do here. We have three big events coming up, and they can really be the kind of momentum building stuff that is awesome. Trunk or Treat, Apples and Art, the Civil War Christmas Service. All three of these are in our wheelhouse for what we do well, and our enthusiasm for them can really become infectious to the people we get to meet and know. It's all there for us. I'm not going to promise that it will all work out, but I can promise that we as a group of people have been called to this moment in time. . . let us engage with the truth we face and seek the kingdom of God. The rest is up to God.
Jim Valvano gave another speech, that is probably more famous. In 1993 his body riddled with cancer, he gave his "Never Give Up Speech." Usually you see him giving the speech, with such strength and passion, but I saw a larger piece this week. I saw Dick Vitale helping him get up the stairs, when he could barely walk. I saw him saying that before he got up there he had been vomiting in the bathroom, but on stage he had such strength. What an amazing story. There is fight in us beyond what we can believe. Engaging with life, can there be any higher call. I'm truly blessed to fight with each and every one of you. Let's go together, engaging with our future. Thy will be done. . .. amen.

[1]The Revised Standard Version. 1971 (Re 2:1). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Wait 'til Wednesday

Wait ‘til Wednesday
Peter T. Atkinson

It’s Sunday Morning, and it’s coming down,
With those alarm bells ringing through my head
And I tell you the way I’m feeling now,
If it was you, you’d prefer that you was dead.
I can’t remember much at all,
Where I went wrong
And took the fall,
The choices that I should’ve made instead,
Though I am in pain today
And do not have much else to say,
But if you wait ‘til Wednesday,
You’ll see that I’m ok.

Don’t come on Sunday, for the guilt will flow,
Don’t come on Monday, I’ll be too busy to know
If you come Tuesday , there’ll be still more to pay,
But if you wait ‘til Wednesday,
You’ll see that I’m ok.

For when that whiskey river flows your mind goes with it
Down the bending stream.
The things you find you do and say, are sometimes
Much worse than what they seem.
You think you’ll never get it back
And that your wheels have left the track
That you’ve gone and pissed away your dream.
But time always has a way
Of wiping the past away,
So if you wait ‘til Wednesday,
You’ll see that you’re ok.

Despite that on Sunday the guilt does flow,
And that on Monday, you stay too busy to know
Don’t worry on Tuesday, that you still have more to pay,
Just wait ‘til Wednesday, friend
You’ll see that you’re ok.

So now it’s Wednesday, and you’re feeling fine
And on Thursday you lose all track of time,
Then Friday and Saturday leave you back in pain,
Just wait ‘til Wednesday, friend
You’re back on top again.
Just wait ‘til Wednesday, friend
You’ll be back on top again.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Our Weakness Is

Confession: Our Weakness Is. . .
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
October 19, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Isaiah 59: 9-15
Hebrews 4: 12-16

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.

12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do.
14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.[1]

So back in April when I had the first was considering the idea of using the Order of Worship as a way to preach about the status of the church as part of my idea for a prolonged Stewardship Sermon Series, I was drawn first to this Sunday the most. In many ways the Prayer of Confession is a special part of the service, one unique, one that has a really important Theological place. When you consider the patterns and rhythms of our Order of Worship, there is real significance to laying ourselves, our lives, our weaknesses, our shortcomings, in short our Sin on the table first. When we confess our sin weakly, and weekly, we symbolically and ritualistically are laying our lives, all of it, every piece, wrinkles and all, at the feet of God, holding nothing back, we put it all out there, so that we can be wholly present for the rest of it. There should be no part of us that we are ashamed to bring with us, for we have stated who we are, imperfect, broken, and real, and then we are proclaimed forgiven, proclaimed to be children of God, not because of this ritual, but because of Christ. We are not washed clean every week, but instead we testify to the idea that our brokenness does not separate us, does not single us out, does not render us outsiders, but instead brings us together, for our brokenness we all share, and our forgiveness we all share. . . and it is nice to be reminded of it. It is centering, much like the Call to Worship reminds us of the hugely perfect and awesome nature of God, the Confession at once admits our bond of brokenness and our bond of forgiveness, acknowledging how truly great it is that Christ has redeemed us.
I was excited about this part, not only because it is such a great and important part of our worship service, but because I think that the act of confession, the act of laying it all out there, being honest about where we fall short is such an important part of what it means to live in community. How much of our trouble, the trouble of any group, of any work place, any collection of people stems from lack of communication, that people hold back because deep down we are all insecure, and we all fear being truly honest because there is risk. . . what will people think? Am I the only one? How can I let someone know my weakness? How can I ever be respected? How can I ever be of use? We get so worried about our weakness that we let it rule over us, despite ourselves. But through confession we can be made whole. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians. . . and I derived my sermon title from this verse. 2 Corinthians 12:9
But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me.

It is one of those great glorious ironies about Christianity, and it is one of the biggest things that mark a distinction between the followers of Christ and the world, and that is that our weakness is our strength. Our weakness is our strength, or it should be. For if our strength is born in Christ our weakness is what forces us to cling to the Rock, fully relying on Christ, laying it all on that sure foundation, that we are strong not it what we can do on our own, but in what we can do in and through Jesus Christ. So rather being ashamed and fearful about our weakness, about our Sin, the fact that we are lost, we wear it like a badge of honor. Strange isn't it. . . counter intuitive completely, right. We've been told forever to be our best, to put our best foot forward, to strive in a competitive game of status and hierarchy, but that it is in our weakness that we are made strong, it is in turning the other cheek that we truly fight, and to quote, St. Francis's famous prayer, "It is in dying that we are born to eternal life."
It is a common misreading of The Scarlet Letter to look at the heroine Hester Prynne's punishment of having to wear the Letter A for adultery in public humiliation, that the Puritans are horrible uncaring, prudish, judgmental, hypocrites. . . they may be, but that Letter is not symbolic of the town's condemnation, but as a badge of honor, the beginning of Hester's redemption. The other symbol, as is shown in the Prayer of Preparation is the child that was the natural sign of her "Sin," for her pregnancy was what gave her secret away first. That child, "Pearl" is the symbol of her redemption, she is the glorious example of what God does with Sin. He doesn't take it away from us, he doesn't take away the punishment, the shame, the fear, the worry, and the doubt, instead he makes a wonderful miracle, a life giving purpose, just like he does with Cain, marking him to be untouched, and Jacob, forever to have a limp. . . the letter and the child become not a mark of shame, but one of God's undying grace, forgiveness, and favor. Hester is the heroine of the novel, the tragic figure is the Rev. Dimmesdale, her partner in crime, unknown, hiding, imploding in secret, a secret shame which slowly destroys him. The hidden sin is the cancer, whereas the acknowledge badge of need, of weakness, of sin, is the beginning of God's work and glory in our lives. Hawthorne so brilliantly shows, though, our human tendancy to run away from this glory, in our shame. Hester doesn't always see Pearl as a gift from heaven, and she doesn't see how she has been blessed. She wallows in her guilt, though surrounded by God's favor, and at one point she tries to remove the A, and in great literary symbolism, Pearl can't see her mother without it. It is as if her redemption is based upon her acknowledgment of her Sin, her wearing of it in public, and we hate to wear it don't we. It's there from the beginning, in the Garden of Eden, though Adam and Eve share the Sin, and know that God already knows, when he comes the hide, and they cover their nakedness. . . and then they play that blame game. It is a tendency. We have a real problem with standing naked before the world and before God, but that is what confession is about.
So this morning I'm going to talk not about our strengths as a church, but about our weaknesses, and I'm going to do my best to leave them out there, to not cover them up, to not couch them in excuses, to not render them benign with explanation, to not balance them off in a sandwich of positives, like we are told to do when we write progress reports at school, but instead just to let them hang out,  just to let them be, and to just nail them to the cross, and place them at the foot of God, and then at the end we will acknowledge them, and we will thank God that we are forgiven. So while I do this, confessing my own weaknesses alongside the weaknesses we share collectively as a church, I want you to think of your own, and if I start to explain or give excuse, trying to mitigate, I'm want to remember Pearl, and remember that fig leaf, and try to fight off that all too human self preservation temptation.
The weaknesses that I'm going to talk about all have to do with our work here at church, not necessarily out in the world, but things where we fall short here. There is a great joke, that isn't in good enough taste to tell from such a sacred pulpit as this, but the punch line is, "Damn Brother, I don't believe I would have told that. . ." It is not for that type of discomfort that I speak, but for honesty. The conversations that we are going to have over the next five weeks, will be much better in the clear air of honesty. Wouldn't a little honesty go a long way in our world, even if it was painful in the short term.
 Let me start with me. I have been your minister now for three years now, can't believe it, and I have learned some things about myself in that time. I have learned that I have some strengths as a minister. . . well Pearl. . . but have many more weaknesses. And probably the biggest one, that stands out more than any other is that deep down I am still the shy kid who fears new and uncomfortable situations, and I hate the telephone. I do, when I need to call someone, I am still the 7th grader, on the upstairs phone, breathing hard, and staring at the crinkled up paper with Amy's phone number on it. "Who is going to answer? Will I recognize their voice? What if I do, should I say their name? Should I ask if she is there? What if she answers the phone? What if her dad does? What if her brother does and I think it's her dad?" Add twenty some years to that and the same questions come around. . . ok I'm calling, but I'm calling for so and so, what if her husband answers the phone, sure I'd want to talk to him to, but I'm not calling for him, I'm calling for her, how long do I talk to him, . . . whew answering machine. . . I start mumbling, wait what, did that make any sense?" Silly I know, juvenile, I know, but absolutely true. And it is the same thing for a visit. . . would they want me to come over? Would I if I were them? How often? How long? It's pretty amazing what I can do to convince myself that the time isn't right, and that oh well I can just do it next week, and then months go by, and then it is worse now than it would have been. Childish right, yeah, but there you go, it's out there. . . and it has created some issues. I've dropped the ball when I shouldn't. It has led to some miscommunications and challenged relationships. It really has. I know it, and some of those I'll never get the chance to repair, because sometimes it really is too late, death has a way of being final doesn't it.
But that leads me to my next thing. . . and I'll own this as part of me too, and a weakness that I have, but many of you share it, and that is that we are all too nice, and so we fear conflict, or maybe we don't fear it, but we sure avoid it whenever we can. And it leads to division and problems because we aren't honest and up front with each other. We don't own our opinions, and we don't fight battles, and we go along to get along a lot, and rather than confronting issues head on and actually working to fix them, we do the go around route. We talk to this person, and they talk this person, and we agree to each other's faces, but then later we change our mind, and then when we are found to have been silently right, then we say things, like, "Well I never really wanted to do that anyway." It happens. We all do. I do too, and it hurts us. Conflict is scary because sometimes it seems that there is always a winner and a loser, and that just doesn't work for us, we don't want anyone to feel bad, we don't want ourselves to feel bad, and so we put it off, and hope that the winds will die down, but it usually doesn't. Just like the phone call I didn't make, it only gets harder down the line.
Now the little fearful voice in my head is screaming out, man are you opening up a can of worms. Really do you want people to be more honest, to be more blunt, to be more frank? Do you want more friction? Are you just inviting hard feelings? We're a small church, can we weather a storm like that? Can we get through divisiveness? Any divisiveness will destroy us. You are right it will, but you never resolve conflict by avoiding it, just like I never make phone calls I don't make. We all have fears, and our fears may be real and warranted, or they may just be the silly juvenile voice of insecurity that sometimes has too much voice, but we all have them. . . and a little faith goes a long way, and not just faith in ourselves, but faith in each other. Oooh Pearl there I go, just let it lie. . .
but before I do, I just want to share one last story. We've been struggling through a tough football season. And we've gotten to a point where we've made decisions as coaches and players that we can't get back this season. We can't undo some of what we've done, and it all revolves around faith. Us as coaches having faith in the players. . . . and for us it was stuff like, "Well can they handle it? Can they handle us being tough on them? Where is the balance? Are they going to quit? We can't expect too much of them can we?" Well we didn't and so now we don't get much. . . lack of faith. And the players, they lack the faith in themselves, the confidence, and from their lack of faith in themselves they also doubt each other. And it is too late now really to undo some of that because there just isn't enough time left. Isn't that it, there just isn't enough time is there. There never is. That's the difference with God. God is infinite, there is always more time. . . there is always more, the end is our illusion. . . and since there is always more time, there is no such thing as too late, yesterday would have been ideal, but today will have to do. Today will have to do. . .
Now when we do our unison prayer of confession and we have things that we share that are very human, and sometimes connected very much to the teaching of the sermon. . . well the teaching of the sermon is next week, and it will be filled (I hope- Pete don't build this up too much what if you can't deliver, you're right I can't deliver, but Jesus will, so go ahead) with hope, with vision, with possibilities, with forgiveness, and love. . . but right now, as we do every week, I want us to silently think about how we each fit into this picture, where do we fall short, what could we do better, bear your soul, naked and without excuse before God, for his love is steadfast and his ways are sure. . . I began this with a reading from Hebrews. . . it went:
14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.[2]

Let us in our weakness go before God. . . .
Who is in a position to condemn? Only Christ, and Christ died for us, bearing our Sin, Christ rose for us, showing us the possibilities of what forgiveness can do, and Christ reigns in power over us, what more shall we fear, know you are forgiven and be at peace. Amen.

[1]The Revised Standard Version. 1971 (Heb 4:12). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
[2]The Revised Standard Version. 1971 (Heb 4:12). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Hope for Years to Come

Call to Worship: Hope for Years to Come
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
October 12, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Deuteronomy 4: 32-40
Colossians 1: 15-20

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.

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. [1]

So last week as a part of our eight week extended worship service, looking at how we worship and where we are as a church, we had the prayer of preparation, and we took a look, by way of introduction, cultivating the soil within our minds, at the external factors that we face as a particular church. And came to the conclusion that we shouldn't make it. We shouldn't survive as a church. There is way too much standing in our way, there is no business model we could follow, there aren't any prospects, and logically speaking we should just give up, or resign ourselves to the fact that we will fizzle out soon, that we may persevere for the short term, but the tides are against us, and if we are honest with ourselves there just isn't anything we can do. Now, Pete, I thought  you said this was part of a Stewardship Campaign, something inspiring, something that is going to motivate us, sustain us, build us up for what we are going to do together here in this place. Maybe. . .
It's interesting, on Friday in class I was teaching my students a lesson about rhetoric, a lesson about how to persuade someone to do what you want them to do. We are studying the Iliad, and in the final chapter Priam, the king of the Trojans, risks his life, into and behind enemy lines, into the camp of Achilles, the man who just slaughtered his son Hector, and his mission is to get Achilles to relent and give him Hector's body, so they can perform the proper funeral rites for him. It was a look at what the strategy was. . . so as a way of getting at the subject I showed them clips of two movies where someone was attempting to persuade someone to action. . . one was A Few Good Men, where Tom Cruise is baiting Jack Nicholson into admitting his crime. . . you know the famous, I want the truth. . . You can't handle the truth scene. . . and the other one is what I want to mention today because it got me thinking about today. . .  the other one was Return of the Jedi. . . the Emperor is trying to turn Luke to the Darkside. . . trying to get him to act. . . to sacrifice his belief, his training, the good in him, his belief in the power of love. . . and seek to control the uncontrollable, seek to fight. . . to fight out of fear, out of emotion, out of a need to control. . . so the emperor paints the bleak picture for him. He shows him how in control of it all he is, he takes away all of Luke's hope, he tries to make him believe, that his friends will die, that the rebellion is in vain, he is appealing to the hero in Luke, the fighter in Luke, knowing that everything within Luke screams out to fight, but that fighting is not the path, not the right path, not the way of the Jedi. . . and somehow Luke resists, and his selfless resistance inspires Darth Vader to betray the emperor. . . thus making Luke victorious, the completion of his training, an act of faith rather than an act of action. . . and it results in the only success possible.
Now I bring this up because our situation is bleak too, the world is against us, there seems to be no hope, and just like Luke everything within us screams out to take things into our own hands, to act, to do something, to try to control the situation, to take the situation over, but no matter how noble that fight is, no matter how heroic the stand might be, no matter how valiant. . . it is an act prompted by despair and not hope, an act founded in control and not love, an act prompted by fear and not faith, and thus an act that though it may seem like the only thing to do, the right thing to do, the wise thing to do, the practical thing to do, will never work, and like Luke fighting against the dark side, the real danger is not the failure, but the fact that you have become what you are fighting against, for Luke it's the darkside of the force, for a church it is the world. . . in an effort to defeat the world, you end up becoming just like the world and so rendered worthless, living a message rendered powerless, hypocritically raising up an idol and calling it church.
Instead, though, in church we worship the Living God. And every week the Call to Worship seeks to remind us just who that living God is. Usually in the service it is a responsive reading of a Psalm. . . or some other Biblical Hymn, and the Psalms stand as testimonies to just who God is, what God has done, and in that vein what God continues to do, and it's good to be reminded, and it's good to be called, to be called from the world, from our daily lives, our daily grind, our daily worries and fears, and doubts, into a place, into a moment, into a sacred time, where we Worship God. This is what we do here, and there is a great Biblical mandate to be reminded of God, and what God has done. . . as proof, as faith building, life edifying infusion of God also in our very present in our very midst.
There was a great call throughout the Old Testament to remember who you are, and remember what God has done, for God's mighty acts have given meaning and identity to the people of Israel, for God parted the waters and led them by hand out of slavery, out of bondage in Egypt. It was crucial, and maybe the most important piece of the culture, perhaps even more important than the Law itself, for it is what gives Law its meaning and context. God has acted in the life of the people, and it is in response that we give worship in humble, grateful Thanksgiving. It seemed that God knows, and the Bible testifies to the case as well, that people tend to grow comfortable and then forget, and so grow weary while forgetting, and finally to grow fearful because they have forgotten. . . and because they have no memory they have no hope, for what is forgotten is that fact that we have been here before, we have been trapped between the Pharaoh's army and the sea, completely hopeless, and God came, God acted, God was there, and the world and what seemed true, shook, trembled, changed, and paled in comparison to the miracles of God.
We need to remember that we shouldn't be here but we are. . . the children of Abraham should have been crushed by Pharaoh's army, the children of Abraham should have died in the desert, should have been destroyed by the Philistines, should not have survived as a remnant, a light, an idea through the time of the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires, should not have retained an identity when the Greeks came, or when the Romans came. . . and certainly when God himself came to Earth, should not have been able to stand against the Romans, when they crucified Him, that should have been the end of it, when they rolled the stone in front of the tomb that should have been the end, but it wasn't. This is the lesson, this is our inheritance as people of God, and this is what we are reminded of each week, what in our minds we remember, the truth that Calls us to Worship, for there is no other response to the story. To remember it, to acknowledge it, to allow it into your world, your composition, is to be awed, amazed, and gratitude shown through worship, the beginning of the pledge of our lives to his service, the service of that truth, according to His amazing power and will.
Paula read it for us today:
32 For ask now about former ages, long before your own, ever since the day that God created human beings on the earth; ask from one end of heaven to the other: has anything so great as this ever happened or has its like ever been heard of? 33 Has any people ever heard the voice of a god speaking out of a fire, as you have heard, and lived? 34 Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by terrifying displays of power, as the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes? 35 To you it was shown so that you would acknowledge that the Lord is God; there is no other besides him.[2]

And the Call to Worship isn't about apologetics. . . it isn't about proving God's existence.  It is simply about acknowledging it, it is about remembering God's mighty acts, and so believe that they do continue into today. That God's will is infact being done, and will be done. And if such is the case what need we fear? What need we do other than align ourselves to that Holy Will?
I started this sermon painting a very bleak picture. I brought up Luke Skywalker and the Emperor. . . the bleak picture he was painting. . . the way that he was trying to bait him to action, but fearful, anger filled, hopeless action. And I said we face a very similar predicament. . . one where we may feel that we need to act in fear rather than in faith, for that is a difficult place, a hard place, a place of challenge, many would probably prefer to live in simpler times, in easier times where faith is easy and life is not filled with challenges, prefer to live in that day of jubilee, when Pharaoh, said "I'll let your people go, and everyone was celebrating, packing, and moving. . . that we would prefer that day to this, prefer that moment to the moment up against the sea with those chariots reigning down. We might pine for the 1950's when church attendance was high faith was strong, the nation was strong, but we don't. We live in these times. We face the challenge of a generation desperately in need of direction and not knowing it, adrift and lost, too lost to even to know it's lost, and so is not even seeking a way out, not even seeking that deliverer, preferring the golden calfs, and easy paths. But we are seeking, and we are looking, and we are challenged by the slowness of time, and doubt of worry. We'd rather live in simpler times.
In another amazing Testament to God’s hand even in the little things. . . we have been putting this service together for a few weeks now, and I was working in parallel with Dorian and with Erick, basically just giving them the idea that today we would be worshiping God, celebrating our Call to Worship, the very call to worship God. And they had great ideas, so many great and inspiring ideas for music. . . and what kept coming up was the Battle of Agincourt, from the Hymn tune of the prelude to the benediction response they will be singing, written for the movie version of Shakespeare’s Henry V. What they didn’t know was that this battle, and that play are so close to my own heart, that I wrote my college honors thesis, being a double major in history and English, on this battle and its many literary and artistic representations. . . making the point that the meaning of history is so much more important than the events themselves, that what the event shows, what the event tells us about life, and God, and truth are what is central. This battle is one very much like the Israelites pressed against the Sea, it is very much like David and Goliath, it is very much like Jesus and Pilate, for it is, at least in its legend, about the faithful few triumphing over the haughty many, the overconfident unbeatable enemy, and it is a time in history that has given people faith, that even against insurmountable odds, with faith, we can know that God’s will, will be done, and that is certainly a place of faith.
Shakespeare immortalizes the moment with two speeches, “Once more unto the breach,” and “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” In that, especially the second one, King Harry, through Shakespeare’s flare for the poetic moment, captures what inspiration is, even in the midst of hopelessness. . . and in that speech he evokes God’s hand, and the amazing potential that they have, the amazing memory that they will have, and the amazing testament for all people in the future that they get to be a part of because they, themselves were chosen to live in those challenging times. We live in challenging times, and it is a blessing to us. We get to serve God, not because it is easy or simple, but because we were chosen for these times, that we may find more out about ourselves, our potential, what God made us for, and out of that, how much more than we can ever image can our lives be, all in worship to God? We are called to worship in every aspect of our lives because God has done marvelous things, and is only our hope for all of our years to come. Oh to live in a time where that very truth is all that matters. . . let that church fill you with a grateful heart, that you and I, that we were born for challenging times because God knows more about us than we may have thought. . .  Amen

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Col 1:15-20). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Dt 4:32-35). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.