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.