Sunday, October 5, 2014

What We Face

Prayer of Preparation: What We Face
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
October 5, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Jeremiah 5: 1-3
Acts 17: 16-25

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.

 6 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. 18 Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19 So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” 21 Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.
22 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23 For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. [1]

So I'm excited for October to finally be here. I, and we, as a Session have had our sites on October and November since way back in the spring. We've been in talks, conversations, organizational meetings, trying to get organized enough with plans about the future of our church, to make a presentation about where we are, and where we'd like to go, where we feel like we are being called to go, to begin a Stewardship campaign of sorts, but to do it our own way, a way that seems right to us, and a way that seems right for us. . . doing as we always do, the best we can. We have some challenges that we are facing together. We have a journey to go on together. We have some battles to fight together, and over the next eight weeks I hope to share with you what we see as a path forward, and invite each and every one of us to take a unique part in that vision going forward. If all we do is talk about it, then we have but scratched the surface, but the conversation is the first step. So over the next 8 weeks we will be looking at Stewardship, the State of Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, as an act of worship. My sermons over the next two months will be based on the 8 main parts of our worship service and how it is tied to where we are as a church. I'm excited about what I am planning to say, and I'm excited about the opportunities this church has going forward.
So if you take a look at your insert you can see how it all breaks down. Today is all about the Prayer of Preparation. This is a part of the worship service that I brought with me from Hampton. It is and was a piece that we started putting in the bulletin. It was never spoken during the service, but was written there to be read during the prelude by each person as a meditation. It was a quote, a poem, a thought. . . and its purpose was and is to cultivate the soil. Presbyterian worship circles around the Word being read and proclaimed, and so the sermon is central, but often, as the parable suggests, seeds planted in cultivated soil find more success than those that are merely scattered on the path or on the dry rocky ground. So what the prayer of preparation is designed to do is to get us thinking. . . it is there to spark thought. . . to challenge us sometimes, and sometimes its message is ironic, sometimes historical, sometimes a direct challenge, sometimes a famous line, sometimes a part of our Book of Order, I've even used secular things like Shakespeare, Thomas Jefferson, even the ancient Greek Playwright Sophocles, and even more often I have placed my own poetry there. . . which works to reveal part of the ponderings going on within me during the week leading up to the sermon. . . and it is often a challenging phrase. . . . for often the poetry of such a phrase can subtly challenge in a way of its own, that any other piece could not do. . . music actually can often do the same thing. . . but music as art does not reach everyone the same way. So the Prayer of Preparation is just one more time to intentionally cultivate the soil of the mind for the seed to be planted there.
So if you look at the Prayer of Preparation today, you may get an idea of what we are looking at going forward. Since over the extended worship service we will be looking at our church, our strengths, our weaknesses, looking at who we are, where we are, and where we are seeking to go, specifically us, I thought a good way of cultivating the soil would be to look broadly at the challenges we will face that have nothing to do with us, that there really isn't much we can do to change about them, for they are all external, but they really are legitimate challenges and existential factors we will face in our present and certainly more and moreso in our future. We will focus on the specifics of our church in the weeks to come, but today in way of preparation for that, I want to take a look at the landscape of the culture and events in which our church finds itself afloat, and the floating metaphor is true. . . for it is the case that we are affected greatly by some of these outside factors, they like waves and currents flow all around us, while we seek to be carried in the flood of the river of time by the hand of God, else we should capsize or be floated down stream into change or even oblivion. In the midst of it all it may seem that we are up against insurmountable odds. . . and that there is no hope. . . perhaps to the logical mind that is 100% true. . . but such has been the case forever for people of faith, followers of God, and certainly for Christians. Most of the time the floodwaters have been a challenge, both in times when it seemed that Christianity controlled the stream of culture, and in times, like now, when it seems that churches like ours could not be more overwhelmed by the changes going on around us.
It is no secret that one of our biggest challenges is the trend in our culture and country that church attendance is exponentially decreasing. People have more and more other avenues for their time. It used to be that the country had systems in place, laws and traditions, that set Sunday apart, and now all of those are no longer in place. Families have other commitments on the weekends that pull them away from being in church. So in that way time is against us. But it isn't just time, also faith in general is also in decline, at least in terms of organized religion. So it isn't always just a matter of time, but of interest. People seem to be in increasing numbers less interested in being a part of a organized institution of faith, some because they don't believe, and God is seen as an outdated superstitious notion of the past, and some others, though they believe in God are turned off by organized religion. The two thousand years of Christian history is always constantly being judged. . . and the track record isn't great, but such is the case for other institutions, too. . . many institutions are having a difficult time in the changing culture.  Technology has opened the door for new ways of doing things, and some of them have rendered the old ways. . . exactly that. . .old, out of date, and obsolete.
Popular culture also doesn't do us any favors. There is a great secular bent to most of popular culture. There is an individualized, if it feels right do it, vibe to pop culture. . . Pop culture is providing other avenues for human salvation. . . other avenues for people to become fulfilled full balanced people, other promises for feeling better about ourselves. . . ones that don't seem to include the guilt, the judgment, or the hypocrisy that fills the perception of what the church is in people's minds. I see it all the time in my other job. . . my students, once they hear that I am also a pastor, draw many conclusions based on that, and not many of them are positive, and hardly any of them are accurate, but the past, our history, and other concepts of what Christianity is about have painted this picture indelibly in their minds, and it is very hard work to alter that. It is hard to shake that baggage. Most of what I do on a daily basis over there, at school, is trying to break outside of those stereotypical barriers into the real.
But it's hard to do, because Christianity doesn't always get the best press. . . and some of it is deserved. We turn on the T.V. and see things like Westboro Baptist Church protesting funerals. . . we see Mega church pastors like Joel Osteen, promising affluence to Christians, you see churches spouting slogans and simple truisms about what faith is about. . . you walk down the street yesterday at the Gordonsville Street Festival and you get all kinds of pamphlets proclaiming all kinds of things, claiming "Biblical Truths" that are also simplistic and the dualistic vision of good and evil, and that walking into their church is the only answer. You get bad movies like "Noah" reflecting poorly what Christians believe. You have Christianity boiled down to simple political points of view, and that type of division eliminates folks from the other side. . . no matter which, because it happens on both sides.
With all that going on around us. . . how does the typical person, the prospective visitor. . . what do they see when the drive past Gordonsville Presbyterian Church? What percentage of the general population is even open to walking in our doors and staying? How many people are open to the idea of becoming a Christian in that environment. . . and then also the question, how many of them are open to the idea of being a Presbyterian? We have some baggage in the press too, and not much of it has anything to do with what we do here, but how would anybody on the outside know that? What are those perceptions in the greater community? Is it affluence? Is it stuffiness? Is it overly conservative? Is it too liberal? I bet each of those, all of those, even though they contradict and are even complete opposites. . .I bet all of those are a part of the public perception of us. . .and like I said it doesn't have anything to do with us here. . . it's just all part of the external world in which we live.
And you may say, well we are what we are, why do all of those things matter to us? The answer is that like the larger protestant churches, our numbers are stagnant at best, and dwindling at worst. And we'll get to the specifics of this over the course of these eight weeks, but we have many financial challenges that we must face in the next few years. Growth would seriously help from that standpoint, but also from a vibrancy standpoint, from a life stand point, from a health standpoint, we would like to be growing as a church. But we are facing, again these are external issues, rising prices. . . for everything. One of the biggest is health insurance. The cost of health insurance is on the rise. . . you all face it yourselves, but as a church part of what the church is required externally to pay for, for my family, is rising, and faster than we can afford. It is breathtaking the percentage of our budget that is just that. But with that challenge is the economy in general. . . people have less to give. So with fewer people to give who have less to give it all equals a challenge. . . and again I'm just focusing on the external factors we face. . . obviously we have specifics of these we will get into later. . . but as the greater economic factors fluctuate around us. . . it affects us. . . and there isn't much we can do to change those factors.
So to sum up the situation. . . we are surrounded by a world full of people whose minds are either hostile, apathetic, or ignorant to what and who we are. We need to grow this church from a vitality standpoint, and from a financial existential standpoint. There are growing problems surrounding the economics of our country, state, our town, and our church, not to mention each of us and our own personal struggles which are also individual and imposing. Many would say that there are new and better models for church that are emerging in the world, and so the question of how relevant we are is constantly around us. We each are being pulled in multiple directions by our jobs, our families, our responsibilities, and our health. And if all of that didn't sound bleak enough, I haven't even yet mentioned ISIS, or Ebola, or World War III, or Russia, or Israel, or open borders, and terrorism.
I chose for the two scripture readings this morning times of real trial. Jeremiah describes a world that is very much lost around him. . . and it got worse before it got better, but we are still here. Paul, in the Acts passage, goes into the crowd at Athens, the very center of the opposing viewpoint, the religion of the empire, the tradition that had been going on for 1000 years, and had persecuted Jews first and then also Christians, but Paul goes into that environment with just the truth, and with God and preaches. He is not measuring his success by external things, by the ends, but instead by the means, by doing what God called him to do. The ends are in God's hands, all that we have is what we are called to do. . . it is all we can do, and all we need ever do. The rest is in the hands of God, and so we put it all in faith. I was once told by a fundraising guy, a mentor of sorts of mine, when I was first starting my teaching career at Christchurch. . . he said, "run a good school and the rest takes care of itself." The same may apply to church. Run a good church, and by good, we mean a faithful church, a loving church, a believing church, a church resting and relying on God's providence, and a church always striving to listen for the call of God, willing to go wherever that takes us. . . and the rest will take care of itself. . . it must for it is in God's hands.
So the external factors that we can't control surround us like a raging flood. It seems that we are caught between those raging flood waters and our destruction, and that there is no hope. Logically speaking there isn't any. There is nothing we can point to that would suggest we would succeed, no business model, no solution from some kind of consulting firm. It shouldn't work. . . and that should humble us, hopefully enough that we wouldn’t think we could do it another way on our own. . . but we should remember that none of it should have worked until now either. The Israelites were trapped between the sea and their destruction, too, and a pathway was opened up. . . later the Jews were surrounded by the Assyrians and the Babylonians, and they each took and destroyed what had been built, but yet the remnant remained. . . they were followed by the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans. . . and yet the remnant remained. . .not only did it remain, but Paul up against the best opposing minds in all of Athens, planted seeds, that a mere 400 years later would make Christianity the established religion of that empire, and then Europe, and then spread to the rest of the world, and yet with all the good and the bad of Christian Empire, and Christendom, some of which we are still paying the price for, we are still here today. . . and we shouldn't be. All logic says that we shouldn't be. . . but we are and it all because of God. . . and it is in God that we put our faith, trust, and hope. . . for it is quite clear to us that our success can only depend upon him.
I hope the ground is cultivated. ... we have a ways to go, and many things about ourselves to look into. . . but let us be on God's side, living according to God's will, and insure the future into his hands. . . for that is where it truly lies. Now we are ready for worship. . . in the mean time, may we consecrate our worship by breaking bread in holy communion together. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ac 17:16-25). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.