Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Ghost of 1st Christmas Past: B.C.

The Ghost of 1st Christmas Past: B.C.
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
November 30, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Isaiah 9: 2-7
Matthew 4: 15-17

Let us pray,
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.

“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
16     the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.”
17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”[1]

I'm excited to start another Advent Season. It is always a challenge to preach the Christmas Season because the story is so well known, it is hard to keep it fresh, but I really like my plan for the next four weeks, leading up to Christmas. I decided that I want to use the Dickens' A Christmas Carol idea of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future to look at the world and what Christmas means and should mean to us. Pretend for a second that the world is the Dickens protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge, and he is experiencing Christmas for the first time, on the first Christmas. The Ghost of Christmas Past would come to him and show him its history leading up to the birth of Christ, showing him the mistakes, missteps, and the ignorance of the pre Christmas world. The Ghost of Christmas Present would look at the world at the time of the birth of Christ. The Ghost of Christmas Future would take a look at Christmas after that first Christmas, leading us to today, when we wake up on Christmas morning in 2014, and see what it all could mean to us.
To begin the Ghost of Jacob Marley comes to us and shows how he has lived his life in the wrong way. I chose his message to Scrooge as the Prayer of Preparation for today:
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
It held up its chain at arm’s length, as if that were the cause of all its unavailing grief, and flung it heavily upon the ground again.
“At this time of the rolling year,” the spectre said, “I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!”

I think Jesus Christ's claim when he says, "Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near" was deeply in Charles Dickens mind when he wrote Marley's speech. If the kingdom of God has come, then our business is "charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence. It is caring for others. It is love, but before Christmas, those are certainly not the ways of the world. The pre Christmas world looks at benevolence, and selflessness, and love and emphatically says, Bah Humbug! For the world has grown cynical like the miserly scrooge, hurt by history, failed hope. The very story that the Ghost of Christmas past comes to show.
Cynicism came to thrive because there seems to be no reward for selfless, benevolent, faithful behavior, like Marley claims and Christmas calls us to. So the Ghost of Christmas past rushes "the world" to look at itself in the past, before Christ ever came. The world sees itself as a world not run by the meek, but by the strong, and the strong get to dictate the way things work, what goes on, and most importantly, they even get to dictate what is true, and such is the source of their power. Basically what we see developing is the strong offering a combination of violence and then protection from violence--and conflict and then protection from conflict. The Ghost of Christmas past shows people working to provide food, build shelter, raise children, but there are some who do not work. They don't need to, they are strong enough just to take. We see these strong men threaten to destroy what is made, and then offer to protect the people from other strong men. We see the development of gods and traditions and religions to consolidate the power. And we see these gods reflecting the same values as the strong men, might makes right, whatever you want you take, if you can, you should. Most of these Ancient religions see the world as a combination of conflicting forces. There is no real order to any of it, just a parallel of the way human beings work. The strong force the weak to do what they want, from the top down in an intricate balance of favors, threats, dominance, and submission, and people find ways to manipulate from below, but it is always just a dangerous and precarious game. The world is hard and uncaring because people are hard an uncaring. Those in power want to keep their power. Those not in power want to take it from them, and those at the bottom are just trying to make it through.
So the Ghost of Christmas past whisks us away and we find ourselves in a strange building in which rests statues, all the idols of the ancient world. We see animals, and crosses between animals, we see beautiful perfections of the human form. We see priceless artifacts of the past, but when we look in the eyes of each statue we see. . . not morals and benevolence, but instead oppression, for this is what ancient idolatry is all about. We see behind each of the statues the priests that speak for them, we see the sacrifices they have the people offer, we see ritual, and through the sacrifices and ritual we see the real wielding of power, fear. Each of these statues were built on fear and control, giving people false hope that they can do something to control their fate in the world filled with conflict instead of order. But amidst all of this the truth about God and created order is first whispered and heard despite the deafening volume of the widespread idolatry.
We get our first glimpse of it in the ancient city of Ur, and so the Ghost of Christmas Past rushes us backward through history and time to the City of Ur, and there we see Abram who leaves everything he knows behind in Ur to follow this whispering invisible God in the wilderness. Ur is a city state in Mesopotamia. The oldest complete piece of literature in existence is about the King of a Town called Uruk, found on two stone tablets that rest at the bottom of the great wall, many people believe it to be the same, and we see it as the same by the Ghost of Christmas Past. In that town we see a king called Gilgamesh, he builds great walls to protect his people from the outside. He offers them safety, protection, security, at least from outsiders, and that's the rub. . . no one is there to protect the people from him. He's seen as 2/3's god and 1/3 man. . . strong, wise, much better than anyone else, the obvious right one to rule, but we see in him also a brutal, unfeeling, uncompassionate, tyrant. And the people are crying out for relief from him. . . but he is the only source of their salvation.
From there we are whisked away to another City, this time the seat of the Egyptian Empire, to Pharaoh. The cries are the same, help us, save us, but there is a new people under the thumb. It appears that the people of Abram, whose name was changed to Abraham, have once again found themselves under a strong man's tyrannical rule. They call out in their slavery for salvation, and they are heard by God again, the same God who called Abraham out of his dangerous situation. This time the message manifests itself in a man named Moses, a man raised in the palace, but again has become a refugee in the desert. Moses returns again to Egypt and we see him standing up to the Pharaoh, and he is successful, but this is hardly the norm. We see the mighty army following close behind these people of Moses, but a Pillar of Fire blocks their way, and the seas part and the people escape. The Ghost of Christmas past explains that this is a glimpse though of the power of Christmas, a glimpse of what could be in the midst of what is. And out of that event, the world is introduced to law. . . but time moves on and it isn't enough. It isn't enough and it is too much all the same because people haven't changed, the world hasn't changed, cynicism still is the majority.
The ghost of Christmas past whisks us again forward, this time to Jerusalem, in the time of the judges, this the last judge, Samuel. Since the time of Moses, these people, the Israelites have lived in the land they were promised, and they were different from the rest of the world. There was no king, no strong man, just law, and God. But the people wished to be like the rest of the world, they wanted a king, they wanted protection, and security, they wanted to be like the rest of the world. . . they had lost hope, had lost faith, and they wanted a king, and Samuel warned them.
These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; 12 and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15 He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16 He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattleb and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
Samuel knew this because that is what kings do. And we like Scrooge, call out, how could they want that, had they so soon forgotten. Much like Scrooge who is seeing his lovely Isobel, and the life they could have had. . . The world regrets. . . because the we can see ourselves again choosing darkness over light. "Ghost, show me no more, I know what happens next"
But the ghost of Christmas Past again whisks us forward, and there we are in the palace and we see the king David, and across the way is the lovely Bathsheba, Uriah's the Hittite's wife, and we see David making the order. . . send Uriah to the front of the battle so that he will die. David sends Uriah to his death, David the man after God's own heart, the faithful slayer of Goliath, the once humble shepherd who did not seek power, now with the power of King uses it like Kings do, to advance their own way. And again the world shuttered to see the history unfolding because he remembered what happened next. Brother's fighting against each other, against their father, and then a succession of kings, spiraling downward into ruin. Prophet after prophet's warning, all ignored. The world can see it again and again, over and over. Isaiah, and Jeremiah, Amos, and Hosea, Elijah, the same message, all ignored. Until finally the hope is destroyed.
The nations finally rise and destroy the light. Babylon and Assyria, new strong men, Empires conquer and exile the people, extinguish the light and again oppression is the norm. Empire after Empire. . . Emperor after Emperor. . . Nebuchadnezzar, then the Persians, Darius, Xerxes.  . . then the Macedonians. . . .Philip and Alexander. . . then finally the Romans. Could that history have been averted, was there hope, could the light be found again?
The world had grown cynical. . . humbug, of course not. Power is the only thing that is. . . people are greedy. . . there is no goodness. . . other than what the strong give. The strong at least give us some security, we'll take it because better just doesn't exist. What would we do with it anyway, just waste it, lose it. The Greeks started with freedom too, but they ended in empire. . . so too the Romans and their republic. . . none of it was built to last because people just cannot handle freedom, we don't know enough, we can rule ourselves, there is no God we can depend on anyway right, just men, the biggest, brightest, and strongest. They are our only hope.
The Ghost of Christmas past looked at the world one last time and gave his lasting message. You just do not see the truth. You are blinded by your fear, blinded by the lie, that there is no God, that it is all a lie, that the speaking of Creation really didn't happen, and so fear dictates your path rather than faith. Didn't you see faith at work with Abraham? Didn't you see faith at work with Moses? And the judges. . . sure there was pain and suffering, but God was never far, the darkness was always there but the light was stronger. Open your eyes to it, or you will forever live in chains. I must go now, but you will see in the rest of the story the power of the light. It is not new, but perhaps this time you will see, because it will rest inside  your heart, it will come embodied in one of you, and will be restorative, redeeming, and saving. Humbug is your song now, but perhaps after this season of Christmas you will change that tune. Perhaps not. So long.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 4:15-17). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
b Gk: Heb young men
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (1 Sa 8:11-18). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Benediction: Looking Back to Look Forward

Benediction: Looking Back to Look Forward
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
November 23, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Numbers 6: 24-26
1 Thessalonians 3:  11-13

Let us pray,
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.

11 Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. 12 And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. 13 And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. [1]

I started my thinking on this morning's sermon by reading my last seven. Over the last two months we have taken quite a journey. We've looked at the parts of our worship service, and I hope that we have gotten a little bit of insight on what each of the movements of the service are all about, and also a little into why we do what we do, with all the natural rhythms and structure of what we do. I hope we also have allowed ourselves to see how worship actually is at the center of everything we do in church, and that worship is not defined just by this hour every week, but instead breaks out, that everything we do here as a church fits into the rhythms of worship. And probably more importantly I hope that we have really taken a look at where we are as a church. We are a church that is facing challenges. Many other churches in America face what we face, but that doesn't make it any easier that we are not alone. In some ways it could make it worse, and seemingly hopeless. . . like we are just really swimming against the current of culture and the times and the world.
This week we take a look at the end of the service, the benediction. Probably the hardest part of teaching writing is teaching the conclusion. It is the hardest because so often my students are just writing papers to get them done, rarely are they actually trying to communicate something that they deeply care about. So they get to the conclusion and they ask, well what do I write now. . . I tell them to restate the thesis, and they don't want to repeat themselves. Then I tell them the most important part to any conclusion. . . to make it relevant. You have just spent the time to develop a thesis, to write a thesis, to prove a thesis, now in your Conclusion state why it is that your thesis matters. I have been working on a thesis over the last 8 weeks, basically that we have challenges that we are facing, and now we must engage with them. We must engage with each other and we need to engage with the challenges we face. Now in this benediction. . . in this conclusion I have to get across why that matters.
 Literally, benediction means the "good word," it marks the farewell, the blessing, the last good word spoken, and for us lately since we haven't had a choir in a while to sing us out of here with "God be With You till we meet again," it has literally been the last word of the service. Sometimes I say a blessing, sometimes a little prayer, often it is spoken like a charge, a parting mission, a see you next week, and in the meantime go to it, live out the word. . . but more often than not it is one last look back before you head forward, one last review, recap, and look at the message of the service, shortened, put into context, summarized, and made memorable. . . hopefully that it may be a lasting good word for your week, the week ahead, where we all try to live out, and extend the worship. So today, that is exactly what I want to do. I want to take a reviewing look back, a last and final look back, so that we can from here move forward, having said and heard where we are, so we can begin going where God is leading us.
We start every worship service with a meditation that I like to call the Prayer of Preparation. It is usually a poem, or a quote, a prayer in name only, but what it really is, is fertilizer. Seeds will be planted during the course of the day, and these words of meditation seek to make fertile the ground, to quote Jesus, we are making fertile ground in which the seeds can be planted and take root. So on that day at the beginning of October we took a look at the outside external factors, ones that have nothing to do with us, ones that we can't change, but that we live with. It's that harsh current, those rising tides. . . a culture against us, an area that is growing slowly if at all, an aging congregation, an aging building, rising prices of seemingly everything, and stagnant economic growth, making it even harder to afford the basics of life, paired constantly with growing marginalization of traditions and institutions that had once been so prominent cornerstones of society. It's all there. It's all true, and it most likely isn't going to change, at least there is no silver bullet that we have, no trump card we can play, no abracadabra magic words we can say to change it ourselves. Instead we just have to acknowledge it and live in it.
Which brought us to the next week where we looked at the Call to Worship, the time in the service where we are reminded of the amazing power and qualities of God. And the overwhelming message of that week was that we shouldn't be here but we are, it shouldn't work, but it does. History is a story that shouldn't have happened, but yet it did and here we are and it is all because of God. He is the source of our faith and hope, and truly the only one. That Sunday we were blessed with such inspirational music from HARP, with a special theme of The Battle of Agincourt. . . where a small band of outnumbered soldiers, beat the odds and were victorious. Since that Sunday I have had the Non Nobis Domine song that HARP closed with, and it has been quite a blessing of reminder of that day, that historic event, and most importantly the translation of the latin text, which is, "Not us, but God." It is not our doing, but God's and to him we give all the glory and thanksgiving.
Next we confessed. . . we took a look at some of our internal weaknesses, and we allowed them to be our strengths, reminding ourselves that we can of course find our strength in that very weakness because we can rely on God.
And that all brought us to the message of this extended service, the sermon. With the specific challenges that we face we must simply engage, not ignore them, not pretend they don't exist, not over promise, not allow ourselves to be broken apart, but instead to simply engage. Engage with the issues, in the moment, and engage with each other. How easy is that said, and how difficult to do.
But our last three weeks brought us into the responding to the word, responding to that message. We went to the table, arm in arm, engaging with the body and blood of Jesus Christ, we placed our service on the offering table, talking about discerning, seeking to engage exactly with what it is that we are called to do and to be, and in the mean time loving, engaging with each other, and last week we prayed, engaging in conversation with God personally in intimate relationship, and that all bring us to today, when we seek to move forward.
Where do we go from here? First off, we give thanks and then it's Christmas, and Christmas is a great time here. We'll have an Advent study, where we'll engage with learning and challenging our faith. We'll have a really awesome opportunity to engage with the community, with the sesquicentennial civil war service on the 20th. We're going to come together for our annual concert, our annual Christmas party, the Christmas Eve service, with the pageant, and the special lighting of the candles we do. We'll even open our doors for Soup night, and follow that meal with our special Longest Night Prayer Service. . . These are all opportunities for us to worship God, and to engage with who we are and what we are called to do. Can you believe that this little church, with our challenges can pull off a activity packed Christmas season like that. There are huge churches with budgets 5 times ours, that won't do as much, but it's not necessarily just about doing, but about being together and engaging with God. All the time, through the speed of the festivities, take some time out to discern. Because it will be over fast and then New Years, and 2015 is on us before we really even know it. We face all these challenges fresh in 2015. . . what new offering of you are you going to bring to the table in 2015? Will you start a new program here? Will you pray more? Will you give more? Will you serve on Session? Gerri goes off this year. . . will you come on, we have great things going on, will you be a part of it? Are you called to serve? Will  you teach Sunday School? Help with Bible School? Clean the church? Be a lay reader? Visit some of our home bound members? Spend time over at Gordon House? Offer musical talents during worship? Sing and perform in the night of duets? Come to Adult Sunday School? Come to the Lenten service? Come to a special service, like Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, or Good Friday? Do something completely new and original that is a God called gift of yourself to the world?
What will 2015 bring for us as a church? Will it be another year like this one? Will it be different, better, worse? Who knows?
I'm not sure what the future holds, but I do know that we will keep doing what we do. We are a loving church, a caring church, a learning church, and a church that has much to offer a world in need. We just need to get out into the world and let them know it. The message of this sermon series has been to engage, engage with the problems we face, engage with each other. Can we engage with the world, too? What would that look like? Would it involve inviting folks to church for a program? For a Sunday? Would it involve creating a website, where we can reach a new audience? Would it involve having conversations with people we don't know about what we do and why? Would it involve a continued and renewed engagement with Feed My Sheep? Would it involve getting more engaged in Presbytery Meetings and the workings of the larger church? There is much there that will be discussed and voted on in the next few months. . . . where are we? Have we asked those hard questions? Do we feel comfortable doing so? If not why not? If we are comfortable, what is holding us back? What is holding us back from engaging in the world we live in? What?
We have now taken a look back, we know where we have been, we know where we are, all that is left is to follow where God is leading us, and see where it takes us. Part of what I said a conclusion should do is to put the message into context and let people know why it is important, and why it matters. I'm not sure that I have done a good job of that. . . and if I were grading me, like I do my students, I may not score the highest marks, but I think the reason it is difficult to say why it matters, is that we all know why or we don't, because that is the truth: It either matters or it doesn't. This church either matters or it doesn't. It either matters to this community or it doesn't. It either matters to each of us or it doesn't. It either matters to God or it doesn't. We may not know the future, but we know whose hand it is in. . . thanks be to God Almighty. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (1 Th 3:11-13). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Discern then Act

Offertory: Discern then Act
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
November 9, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
1 Peter 8-11
Exodus 4: 10-17

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.

8 Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins. 9 Practice hospitality ungrudgingly to one another. 10 As each has received a gift, employ it for one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: 11 whoever speaks, as one who utters oracles of God; whoever renders service, as one who renders it by the strength which God supplies; in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.[1]

So for the last few weeks we have gone through the parts of our worship, looking at what we do as a church and looking at the the world in which we as a church exist, with all the challenges and opportunities that surround us. Having given the "message" two weeks ago, the message about engaging, last week we began our foray into the part of the service that is dedicated to Responding to that message, the responding to the Word part. Last week, as a part of the response, the first week, we celebrated Communion, the Sacrament, looking at how appropriate it was for us, having engaged with the Word, for us to come together at the table, sharing with each other, arm in arm, the power of full bodied kinetic remembrance. We had talked about the potential problems of over promising, taking it all on our shoulders, and growing apart, and the centering experience of Communion was really timely. The next piece of response, like we do every week is the Offertory. We give of ourselves, weekly,  in music and treasure, what we bring together for the Mission and Maintenance of this church. Today I want to look at what we bring to the table, thinking especially about how our gifts work together in the life of the church, especially in light of these  challenges and opportunities we face as a church in today's world. The very challenges and opportunities we've been looking at.
It would be really easy for me to focus on the ends today, the bottom line, especially since today is the Offertory day. I could talk about those ends. Things like, there is this budget situation, where we need more money than we are taking in. I talked about that two weeks ago. . . we had the numbers printed on an insert in the bulletin. I could talk about things like, in the situation that we are in, we can keep on like we are, and the end result will be that the church cannot sustain itself much beyond 2-3 years, 5 at most, at least not without being forced into some major changes. I could talk about the figures of it all, that we either need to find ways to spend less. . . which really isn't all that viable an option, considering the age of the building and the rising fixed costs we have each year. I could say that the solution to those problems would then either come from a few sources, existing members giving more. . . or having more people, more members to give. Or maybe find new and creative ways to raise the money. . . these are the issues that we talk around and around at Session meetings. Those are basic math type scenarios. That with more funds we could take steps forward in the life of this church, accomplish our goals, and sustain ourselves. I could talk about all of those things, and I guess I did to some extent by mentioning them, but truthfully looking at the "ends" though, can steer us away from what we are really called to do and to be.
The phrase "the ends justify the means" is thrown around a bunch in our society. There is a sense that as long as the long term goal is solid then we can fudge a little bit on how we get there, we can bend the rules, for the rules are secondary to the practical concerns that we have in reaching our goals. At issue, though in ends justifying means logic is exactly what the compromised means does to the person who does them. Who does that person become? What does that Ends Justifies the Means church become? Now it's not like I'm talking about going out and robbing a Convenience Store or anything, those aren't the fudged kinda means I'm talking about, but more, acting from a place of fear and doubt rather than from faith. It's a simple thing, a simple idea, but a very difficult one. . . as a church, I believe we are called to act from a place of faith at all times. Now that is relying on Providence, the idea that God will provide. . . that God's will in His sovereignty will be done. I've said often that if the Ends are in God's hands, then all that is left to us to focus on are the means.
So then the challenge is not where are we headed, to what are we working for, how steep the odds are, where the bottom line is, so much as what are we called to do. In this extended Worship service, the overall message has been that we are to Engage. . . engagement is about being in the moment, discerning in the moment, and acting in the moment. The rest is in God's hands because as I have said so many times, we shouldn't be, it shouldn't work, on paper it just doesn't work, it never has. So what can we do to be the best church we can be not for the future, but each day for the moment, regardless of our internal and external challenges? That is what I want to focus on today, for to quote Shakespeare, and those men at Agincourt, up against unbeatable odds,  "if we are marked to die, we are enough to do our country loss." All we can do "we happy few" is discern God's will for us today, Gods will for us each, today.
Peter, in his letter, really spoke to me this week. There are so many great Call/discernment/offertory type passages in the Bible. I looked at tons of them trying to listen to the right one for us today. I looked at the poor woman who gave all she had, though it wasn't much. I looked at the parable of the talents, to not bury them in the ground for fear that they be taken away, but to put them to work, being fruitful and multiplying. . . as is God's initial commandment, and how we are to let our lights shine for the world, to be the salt of the earth, to not lose our saltiness, considering the lillies, and the birds. . . hearing Jesus anew saying things like Rise Take up your mat and walk, be not afraid, or your faith has healed you, Lazarus, come out. . . I looked at the great call stories of the Old Testament, like Samuel, and his mother Hannah, Abraham. . . all of the times that God called, and people responded, "Here I am" of each prophet, Isaiah, saying "Here I am send me" Jeremiah, in his youth, not having that be a reason not to do God's will, because Jeremiah was formed and chosen even before he was born. . . Moses, as Erick read, being called and doubting his abilities. . . I looked at the call of the disciples, the wise men, the shepherds, Mary, Joseph, all were called, and all did small yet amazing things, all according to the will of God. I read about the clay and the potter, and I heard in my head the Bible School song the kids sung here. One thing all these messages share is that they all begin with God. They all begin with God forming us, our entire being, our inward parts, wonderfully and fearfully made in His holy image. They all begin with God bestowing upon us gifts and talents and abilities that he knows we have, even and despite the fact that we often are unaware of them. They all begin with God calling people to serve. . . and how many times is it that the path leads where no one could have ever predicted?
We, every one here today, we have all been led on this day to this place at this exact time. . . do you ever ask  yourself, why? You should, well maybe not yourself, but God. . . for so much about what we believe tells us that it isn't an accident, it isn't a fluke, and it isn't a coincidence. . . so when God made you, when God made this moment, what did God mean? It's easy to give the old answer, yesterday's answer. . .that I came here because it was the closest to the house, or there was a friend who brought me, or I liked the old pastor, or I liked what this building was, the history here, the tradition. . . I liked all of that, so I came, and now I've stayed. . . That's the old and easy answer, but there is not a challenge in that answer, and there is no immediacy in that answer, and there is no moment of engaging in that answer. I'm not asking why you are here in general, I mean why are you hear specifically, each moment. That is the kind of in touch engagement, discerning that we need to do because our time is not in the past, it is now.
We may be a church with a high average age, many churches today are, or as my favorite Betty Butterfield said when she visited the Presbyterians, she said, that the name had something to do with Elders and the Elderly, and she said, "Ain't that the truth. . . the congregation looked like the audience at the Lawrence Welk Show," she said. Yeah many of you may be Older, but you are still here, and that means God still has something for you, some reason that you are here, this very moment. Find it. . . Ask him.. . . discernment, looking for the call, listening for the call.
In his letter Peter writes,
As each has received a gift, employ it for one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace

He doesn't write, those of you who have received a gift, use it, he writes, as each, and when he writes in that line about grace he says its varied. . . and he says that being a good steward is employing them for one another. All shapes and sizes, all are important, each is important. . . what is yours? Find it, give it, employ it, all for the glory of God. And in the mean time if you're not sure and you're still discerning. . . Peter says, "Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins." in the meantime, just love. . .  you can't go wrong with loving, and it covers up a multitude of sins, you know why because love is engaged, it's engaged, messy, and deep in the moment.  Man  that's easy to say and hard to do. . .
One of the great honors in my life so far was to be asked by the graduating senior class of 2012 at Blue Ridge to speak at their graduation. So that was a very different demographic from here. They were young men embarking on a journey, commencement, the beginning. . . and my message told them to "Love as if their Lives depended on it." It was a line from a poem I had written. . . and I at the time thought what more important message to hear. It really is and was a signature message for me and my ministry, what I'm called to preach again and again. . . that morning was one of those times, those moments, where I felt like I was saying exactly the right thing, at exactly the right time, to exactly the right people, and of course I cried, and got choked up, that's a sign and symptom of that for me. . . I was called to fill up that moment with that message. . . there is no better feeling of accomplishment and purpose than to have that feeling. . . it was awesome. I wish I could tell you that all of my moments were like that one, I can't. . .they might should be. . . but they aren't. But I will say that more often than not, and more and more so, as I've been on this wild unpredictable ride of called ministry. . . I have that same feeling standing here before you today in this moment, that feeling like there is something going on here, that the moment is right, and that we are in that moment. I feel like the message that I spoke to those 18-19 year olds is no different or any more true for them than it is for you. I don't know what the future holds for us, but I do know that we are involved in a moment of time, a moment of purpose, a moment that God has made. . . because honestly they all are, every moment. . . and in them we are to love like our lives depend on it. Nothing else matters and nothing else matters. .. there is no way forward other than love, and love is the only way forward. . . sounds redundant and simple, but so true. In that speech I read for them Whitman's "O Me, O Life"
Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

Sounds familiar right. . . a world, confusing and challenging. . .a world that doesn't make much sense. . . O Me! O Life! but then he says the answer to the question. . .
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

That you are here. . . here. . .now in this moment, just like Whitman's moment, his poem lives in the eternal present, just like God does, I Am. . . just like the moment that we are in, right now. What will the verse of this moment be. . . and the next, and the next, and the next, each one, at its time and place. "Who would bear the whips and scorns of time. .. to be or not to be. . . " right it is the question of each moment. It is the question of each of us individually, and collectively as a church. Love like your life depends on it. . .for more than you may know. . . it does.
So on this offertory Sunday, I don't ask for anything different than I asked for two weeks ago. . . the response of coming to the Table for communion is the same as the offertory response is. . . bring yourself. . . live in the moment. . . and give the moment. . . give yourself in the moment. . . . all of you. . . as you are called. The Old Testament response to God’s call is always the same, hineni, “Here I am” as if presence, being all in, in the moment is really central to it all. Discern for yourselves exactly what that means. . . and be that. .. act. . . and if you aren't completely sure, as you may not be, then simply love, for love fills in the rest. . .it covers up our sins. . . our weaknesses. . . our doubts. . . our fears. . .our sense of being not enough. . . love as if your life depends on it. . . for in each moment. . . o my God. . . it does!
I came across a poem in my research for this morning, that I really like. I put three verses of it in the bulletin as the Prayer of Preparation, but I wanted to read it all. . . it was written in the late 1800's by Elisabeth Alden Scott Stam, who was a Christian Missionary to China. . . her poem. . . "Standing Still, and See"
"I'm Standing, Lord.
There is a mist that blinds my sight.
Steep jagged rocks, front, left, and right.
Lower, dim, gigantic, in the night.
Where is the way?

“I’m Standing, Lord.
The black rock hems me in behind.
Above my head a moaning wind
Chills and oppresses heart and mind.
I am afraid!

‘I’m standing, Lord
The rock is hard beneath my feet.
I nearly slipped, Lord, on the sleet.
So weary, Lord, and where a seat?
Still must I stand?”

He answered me, and on His face
A look ineffable of grace,
Of perfect, understanding love,
Which all my murmuring did remove.

"I'm Standing, Lord.
Since Thou hast spoken, Lord, I see
Thou hast beset; these rocks are Thee;
And, since Thy love encloses me,
I stand and sing!"

[1]The Revised Standard Version. 1971 (1 Pe 4:8). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Veterans Parade Prayer

Veterans Parade Prayer
November 8, 2014
Gordonsville, VA

Almighty God,
On this crisp, cool November Day
That You have made,
The day we have set aside to remember and honor,
We come to You with grateful hearts
In Thanksgiving and celebration.
We Thank You for our lives,
That we have a community,
Made safer through the sacrifices
Of the men and women we honor today,
Veterans, who have given of their time,
Their youth, their energy, even their lives
For the benefit of each of us.
Let us never forget,
But always remember
The price of Peace,
The cost of Freedom,
And the responsibility that Love demands.
We hold their service up to You
With every bit of honor,
We can give.
We honor the good they have done,
The good they are doing,
And the good they will do,
All to the glory of Your Holy Name,


Sunday, November 2, 2014

Gathered on Our Knees

The Sacrament: Gathered on Our Knees
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
November 2, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 22:14-23
Exodus 12:1-14

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.

14 When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. 15 He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; 16 for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; 18 for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19 Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20 And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. 21 But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. 22 For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!” 23 Then they began to ask one another which one of them it could be who would do this.[1]

So now on the first Sunday of November, we continue with our look at the Order of Worship, and it just so happens that today with the Sacrament, it corresponds with when we celebrate Communion. It's almost like I planned it that way or something. When I was growing up the parts of the service were divided into the Preparation for the Word, the Word, Responding to the Word, and last, the sending, and so today and the next two weeks were all part of this Responding idea: Communion, Offertory, and Prayers of the People. So I was thinking this week, about how might we respond to what we talked about last week, over the next three weeks, since the first three weeks of this series took a look at forces swirling around us as a church in this world--our battles with the outside world we can't control, the Amazing one holy, creator, redeemer, sustainer God who we serve, and who gives us strength, possibilities, as well as purpose, and then faced our weaknesses, our faults, our sin-- only to look last week at the challenges we face as a church, trying to come full circle, honest about where we are, where we are going, what exactly we are up against, and what exactly is the source of our hope, only God. I also last week talked about some of the pitfalls we could run into as we move forward in hope: 1 was the fact that I as a leader could get caught up in promising it will all work out, saying things like all you need to do is listen to what I say, do this, that, and the other, and we will be in good shape, when I can and should only speak what I am called to say, not what is the most expedient. . . and then the other issue could be that we would get so caught up in forging ahead that we lose eachother, that we lose the love that holds us together, like the church at Ephesus in Revelation, they do so much to combat the evil that surrounds them and remaining firm, but they lose touch with eachother, they lose love. . . and there are so many places in the Bible that we see love being so central to who we are and what we do.
So yeah, how do we respond to that. . .how great is it that our response starts at the table. We come together on our knees, joining arm and arm at the table, invited by Christ, to Commune with Christ. Our initial response is an humble act of love and togetherness. . . And so if we were concerned with me leading without following God, or that we should allow divisions to drive us apart, how appropriate it is to come together at the table. . . sharing a meal, and not just any meal, but a meal that has so much important religious and symbolic significance.  As Presbyterians part of our Reformed tradition is that we are distrustful of empty ritual, anything not found to be Biblical, and any that is connected to some kind of superstitious, luck type of thing. Calvin was very critical of the Medieval Catholic church, and they even went so far as to distrust church music and other "Church Traditions" where there didn't seem to be a commissioning for from Christ himself, but Baptism and Communion are different and unique, for they come directly from Christ himself, with words describing a perpetual observance.
Communion, or the Last Supper is connected by the original historical event to Passover, which is a traditional Jewish observance, which had its beginning in the Old Testament reading read for us this morning, and from that reading we remember that it is also for Remembrance, this time to remember the night that the Angel of Death passed over the houses of the Israelites, the 10th plague, the one that was the last straw for Pharaoh and finally set them free. Could you imagine sharing the meal of that original feast. . . the trust of God that you would have to have. . . there are so many levels to it. Here you are a slave, and you have been for some time, but now you have this deliverer, this Moses character, and he grew up with the Egyptians, but then disappeared, but then returned, across the desert, and he says that he is a messenger of the God of our ancestors, the God who we tell the old stories about, but haven't known much of personally because we live in a world where we are lost in a sea of pain and hard work, and suffering, and the people in charge, they seem to have a much different view of the world, they seem to have a much more decadent and powerful view of the world, and those days of Abraham and Jacob and Joseph, well they might have been great, but they landed us here, so how great could they have been, but we've seen things that Moses has done. . . could there be more to it, could our time be now, could that God be real. . . is what he says right, how will we know. The Angel of Death that sounds pretty serious, but Moses says if we sacrifice a lamb and put its blood on our doorposts we will be okay, alright I'll submit, we'll see. . . I always think of the Ten Commandments movie with Charlton Heston when I think of Passover. . .and in that movie they could hear, safe inside their bloodstained house, the cries of fear, death, and loss of the Egyptians all around them. Could you just imagine. . . the faith there. It was so important for the descendants to imagine and remember that the Feast of Passover became something that was to be done in perpetuity, every year. . . to remember.
Even up until Jesus' own time, and for that holy Passover, many had flocked to Jerusalem, as was a tradition for many Jews at that time to make a pilgrimage at some point in their lives . . . and so Jesus comes, with his disciples, and they break bread, and remember, back to that first Passover, but Jesus breaks a new bread, makes a new covenant with his disciples, and makes a new memory, a new thing to remember. . . remembrance of me. . . of Christ. . . lest we could forget, as if right? But maybe we could, maybe not in name, or in picture, but we might lose the memory of what Jesus really is, or really was. . . and so wrapped up in the Last Supper, this new passover, is a remembrance of Jesus as servant, humble enough to wash the feet of the disciples. . . humble enough to serve each of them. . . and humble enough not just to serve them food, but food representing himself, giving of sacrifice, again of a lamb, but for a new purpose. . . .but certainly symbolically connected to the first. Take some time to ponder that connection. . . it is impressive and impactful to do so.
It's funny, I get a movie picture every time I think about communion, too, and for me it is Passion of the Christ. It's one of those images that once it is in your head it is hard to get out, kinda like an open casket. . . no matter how you want to try to picture something else, some other version in your head, it always creeps in there with it. And so with communion there is that picture of the crucifixion, it's there. . . always, the extremes of human barbarity and cruelty. . . .but as I was studying, thinking, and living this week, a different idea crept into my head, and it was in many ways connected to last week, and also in some ways connected to the Israelites on Passover, trying to think about what it would have been like for them. . . I was drawn to thinking what it would have been like to be a disciple at the Last Supper. . . imagine. . . here you've been following this guy, and he has done wonders, but now you've come to Jerusalem and it seems like there is a culmination coming soon, like all of everything you've done up to this point following this guy is all leading to this. . . and then Jesus starts talking about new covenants, forgiveness, broken bodies and blood poured out. . . and remembering. . . remembering, but not just God working all those years ago with their ancestors, but God working very much now, and in our midst, it is all made new and it is all made personal. . . and I think that is what it would have been like for most of the disciples. . . awe, wonder, intrigue, curiosity for the future, all mixed with apprehension and fear.
But then the story takes a very different turn for two of the disciples because Jesus calls two of them out. The betrayer and the denier. . . Judas and Peter, and the more I thought about it this week, those two disciples with their stories are very similar to our concerns from last week. Think about Judas. . . in most accounts of him, he is a disciple who wants more out of Jesus, he wants Jesus to be much more radical. He wants Jesus to overthrow the Romans. He wants a traditional and military Messiah, and he has trouble waiting, he would rather take things into his own hands. .. very much like the over promising pastor. . . there is a sense that waiting is not part of the game, but rather doing, going beyond your call, your mandate, your command, because things just aren't going right. . . like saying, come on Jesus, now, act, do something, we need you, we serve you, now, do it, or I'll just do it myself. I'll take that shortcut road, I'll do the more practical thing. . . here in the real world you fight the Romans with swords, knives, and money. . . that is what we need, not prayers, and sacrifice. . . that might work in some kinda perfect world, but here on Earth its real deeds that matter. . . action. . . definitive. . . action.
And Peter then is the other. . . lost the love. . . when the chips were down, when the pressure was on he denies. . . denies relationship. . . denies the friendship. . . denies even knowing Jesus. It can happen. . . Jesus knows it, even to Peter it can happen, the first to recognize Jesus, the Rock on which the church is to be built, falters in the faith when it really matters, leaving Jesus to be very much alone to face the cross by himself.
So instead, Christ invites us to the table and we come. We come to wait, we come to share in the food, we come to discern, we come to be in awe again, we bring all of our fears and doubts, and we partake of the living sacrifice of Jesus Christ. We remember, not just in our minds, but with our bodies, with our senses. . . we remember who it is we serve. . . we remember that he served us. . . that he loved us enough, through anything, through the worst painful barbaric punishment that human beings can deliver, the most cruel, long death, pain, thirst. . . all of that, we remember it, and our problems do not seem quite as bad. . . our crisis not as dire. . . and our divisions and misunderstandings not as deep. . . and we join arm in arm, and we wait for the Lord, we wait for Christ to serve us, to show us the way, to tell us what is next. . . and we as disciples of Christ, seek not to betray, taking it all upon ourselves, our own way, nor to deny, placing those limitations on love. . . letting our love and our faith wither and die. . . no as disciples of Christ we seek not to lead, but to follow, so that call can be fulfilled, and our will can be made to be Christ's. . . that it will be done.
It is with this waiting and kneeling and arm in arm love that I wrote the poem I sang earlier, I'd like to close with it spoken. . . so as to remember. . .
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 they 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

Amen. .

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 22:14-23). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.