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.