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.’
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.