Sunday, August 31, 2014


A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
August 31, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Matthew 7: 24-29

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.

24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25 The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”
28 Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29 for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. [1]

I was inspired looking at the Sermon on the Mount last week, to take another look this week. And this week I decided on looking at the end, which would allow me to go look back at the whole of the sermon, looking back at some of the key points, in the context of this ending and the reaction of the crowds. At the end of the three chapter sermon, Jesus finishes, and it says that the crowds were "astounded." I get that. . . I get astounded. . . especially in light of teachings like last week's where Jesus says we are not supposed to stand up to evil. . . yes I get astounded. Because "Astounded" means overcome with shock and wonder. Yes if you take a look at the sermon on the mount. . . Matthew 5-here at 7:27. . . you look at it with careful fresh eyes, trying your best to recreate the environment of the folks hearing it live. . . and yes astounded. . . I think would be the word to describe it. It is hard for us to do that though. This sermon has been picked apart, studied, examined. . . its teachings have become cliche to an extent. . . its teachings have been watered down. . . its teachings have been taken out of context. . . and from our familiarity with them we have lost a bit of that astoundedness. . . but if we can try to recapture it this morning. . . to become astounded again. . . do you have room in your heart for shock and wonder. . . when it comes to the teachings of Jesus Christ?
But amazingly it isn't the teaching that astounds the crowd at all. As amazing as the teaching is. . . as challenging as the teaching is. . . as seemingly new and fresh, and original as the teaching is. . . it is not the teaching that astounds the crowd, but instead it says. . . it is the fact that Jesus speaks with authority. The Greek word is "exoosia" . . . do you hear that word. . . "exoosia" . . . it means the kind of guy that can get stuff done. . . a guy with bonifides. . . a guy with liberty. . . a guy with real power. . . and interestingly enough it says, "not like the scribes." It is interesting because the scribes are the people that should have the authority. . . they are the ones who should be in the know. . . who should know what they are talking about. . . who have the authority to preach the scriptures to say what's what. . . for people to listen to them, but they obviously do not. . . they should but they don't, and Jesus does.
As I was thinking about this, this week. . . I was drawn to thinking about this idea of speaking with authority. . . and what it's all about. I was deep in the throws of three a day football practice. . . we had football players looking to us for direction and guidance and motivation, and correction, and care, and concern for them. . . these are new students, some of them freshman, many of them first time away from home, and doing something harder than most of them had ever done before. We had to teach them and get them in shape enough to play a game yesterday and we only had a week to do it. But it was interesting to think about what it is that gets people's attention. . . because it really is that idea of speaking with authority.
We have four coaches and each of us have our own style at how to speak. . . how to compel attention with the right authority. The head coach is older, reserved, intelligent, caring. . . we have a young coach who is an alum. .. a former player. . . not much older than them. . . We have another coach who is 6'7 really big, played division I football in college at Indiana University. . . and me, reserved. . . yet not afraid to get intense and yell if the time is right. Somehow though we all speak with authority. . . at least so far. . . its a good mix. . and we have the boys listening to us at this point.  . . I've also coached now with four different head coaches in my career, too, and all of them have had different styles. They had different styles, but they all came through, they all spoke with this idea. . . authority. Some people think you have to yell and be intense to get the attention of football players. . . maybe. . . some people think you have to have been a player yourself. . . some people think you have to be old. . . some people think you have to be young. . . to be able to relate. . . some people think you have to be fun. . . some people think  you have to be stern and serious. I've seen it all and all coaches are different. But I think what really matters is being genuine, that  you care, that you show up, that you are there in the first place. . . people respect people who show up. . . kids certainly do. . . they have a respect for people who are there for them, and are not just there, but real and present. . . sometimes the other stuff fades over time. . . you may have their ear early because they like you, or because you are fun, or because you are scary and yell and scream, or that they are impressed with your resume as a player or as a coach, but those don't last. . . if you are genuine you'll speak with greater impact, and it seems to be the kind of impact that will last. People will look to  you and see that you are someone who is real. Is that what we have from Jesus here? Is it that Jesus has shown these people he cares, that he's there, that he's genuine?
I think so, it has to be a part of it. . . I know it's hard to separate our concept of Jesus from the movie versions. . . like the idea that Jesus comes up, and you can see the glowing halo above his head, or his crystal blue eyes. . . the caring stare that heals the pain in Charlton Heston's Ben Hurr, that makes him forget his quest for revenge. . . It's hard to get beyond the idea that Jesus would be walking around and every one would automatically know that he was the son of God. . . remember that even those closest to him. . .those following him. .. his disciples. . .though they do follow, it is not until much later that they begin to identify Jesus as something more than just a really powerful rabbi. . . but a Christ. .. a messiah. . . but something does draw these people to Jesus. .. this thing Matthew calls "authority" "exoosia". . . because some of the things Jesus is saying are a major challenge to us. . . and certainly would have been to his contemporary audience. Obviously last week's, "Don't stand up to evil" would be hard. . . for they had evil all around them. They were occupied, oppressed, by a foreign and cruel empire from a distance, and a corrupt sellout governmental system closer to them. They knew what it was like to walk down the street and have occupying soldiers there, who had the military might and authority to use force and intimidation tactics to get whatever they wanted. It is in this situation that Jesus says for the crowd not to worry. . . that their needs and wants would be taken care of. . . that like the birds of the air and the lillies of the field their needs would be supplied. . . hard sell for people who have been poor, but yet they listened, yet they were intrigued, yet they followed, did they believe? Did they yet? He had authority. . . but what is it? What is it about what he is saying? Is it how he is saying it? Or is it just that he has "it". . . that hard to pin down idea of charisma. . . the gift.
Matthew's gospel has this sermon early in its pages. Jesus hasn't done all that much yet. . . but it would seem there is already a growing reputation. He has done some healings and some ministry, but they are only talked about in generalizations in the text. . .  never as  yet has the narrative slowed down enough to really tell one of those stories. . . so here is Jesus' first big moment for the crowds. . . and without doing any real miracles he's up there talking. . . and he has authority. He has exoosia. . . . I wish I knew more about this idea. . .
One of the things that we do as people, people who try to speak with authority is that we are always trying to figure out what our authority is. . . so that we can hold on to it. We want to know, hey why do people listen to us? What is it? Is it my credentials? Is it my ability to turn a phrase? Is it that I am telling people what they want to hear? Is it that I haven't stepped outside my comfort zone, nor the comfort zone of my audience? What if I challenge the people? What if I offend? What if I say something wrong? Will I lose all of my credibility if I do? These are the things that go through our minds. It certainly does for me. . . as a teacher. . . constantly we are taught as teachers to teach to the students, to teach in ways that they will receive the information, to meet them wherever they are and help them get up the mountain. I don't think I could be effective of doing that if I didn't speak with that whole authority thing. And even here. . . I am much younger than most of you. . . yet you listen. . . yet you come back. . . I do sometimes ask myself what is it. . . is it the building . . . is it the tradition. . . is it the fact that you always have. . . But what about new people and visitors, what makes them come? What will make them stay? Certainly it is partly what is going on up here. . . I think we as humans worry about that. . . and I do to some extent. . . but I think that if you are worried too much about that stuff, you'll end up losing that authority. . . because what you are saying might get curbed. . . it might become safe. . . and it might stray away from the truth.
Jesus speaks with authority because not only does he care and is genuine to the people, but because he speaks the truth. . . he is the embodiment of the truth, and there is something within all of us, despite our fallen nature, and our self interested blinders that we tend to put on, when faced with the truth we can't deny its existence. Without halos and miracles, Jesus' words come forth from his mouth to our ears and we recognize them as true because they are. . . even when they push our minds, hearts, and souls beyond where we want to go.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart the peacemakers
You are the salt of the earth, the light of the world, a city built on a hill cannot be hid.
Don't hide your light under a bushel, let it shine, let it shine let it shine.
I have not come to abolish the law but fulfill the law, righteousness is important
You have heard it said do not murder, don't even be angry
You have heard it said do not commit adultery. . .  don't even look with lust
Just let your word stand. . . why swear
You have heard it said and eye for an eye. . . turn the other cheek
You have heard it said love your neighbor. . . yes but love your enemies as well
Don't practice your piety in front of others. . . but in secret. . .not for credit
Don't pray long. . . pray like this. . . not heaping up empty phrases for undue praises
Fast without making it look like you are suffering
Don't store up treasures on earth where they will rust
The eye is the lamp of the body
No one can serve two masters
Do not worry. . . consider the lilies of the field the birds of the air
Strive for the kingdom of heaven. . .
Do not judge lest you be judged
Why do you see the speck in  your neighbor's eye but do not notice the log in  your own eye
Do not give what is holy to dogs
Ask and it will be given to you, seek and ye shall find, know and the door will be opened
In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.
Enter through the narrow gate. . . the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life
Beware of false prophets. . .  know them by their fruits
Build your house upon the rock. . . for the house build on sand. . . the rain fell, the floods came, the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell--and great was its fall!"
Be astounded. . . for this is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Mt 7:24-29). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Radical Love

Radical Love
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
August 24, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Matthew 5: 38-48

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.

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; 40 and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; 41 and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.[1]

It's pretty much a safe bet that if you are studying the Sermon on the Mount, you are going to be challenged by what Jesus says. The sermon on the mount is filled with some of the most seemingly radical teachings in all of Christianity, The Bible, and quite possible even in the world. And I don't mean radical in a political sense, I mean radical in a sense that it takes what our understandings about the world and the way it is and stretches the definitions, pushing them well beyond the limitations that we would put on them. Jesus seems to flip upside down in words in the Sermon on the Mount all of the things that he flips upside down in actions with the cross and the empty tomb. Both the Empty Tomb and the Sermon on the Mount are statements about the way our world operates, the way that God sets up our world, the way that God is working in our world, and both the Empty Tomb and the sermon on the mount preach to us a world that is beyond our limited understanding, but at the same time very, very real. In the course of the Three Chapters that make up this sermon, Jesus teaches about upside down blessings, world transformed, upside down, last first and first last, meek inheriting, stuff, he talks about radical forgiveness, he talks about people being savory like salt in a world gone bland and stale, he talks about anger, and almsgiving, prayer and fasting, having complete faith and so not worrying about today, our daily bread, not today and not tomorrow, but trusting, he talks about narrow gates, and asking, and seeking, and knocking, he talks about doing unto others as we would have them do unto ourselves, he gives the Lord's Prayer, and amidst all that, in the middle of it all he talks about a very radical idea of love, and it is a two part definition. I want to take a look at both, because they have a real teaching for us today, as in all time, and it is an important teaching because like so much of the rest of the Sermon on the Mount it challenges our nature, the limitations that we put on things, seeking to widen our perspective into areas beyond our comfort: Radical love.  
                   He begins with one of the oldest definitions of justice. It is the central concept of the oldest human law code that we have intact from history, that famous Code of Hamurabi. It is the definition of human notions of justice. "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." This is justice right, retribution. If someone were to do something to you, you would be entitled to do the exact and equal thing back to them. If they were to take your eye, you'd get to blind them, if they were to chip your tooth, then you would get to do the same back. . . of course these are not just pictures of literalism, but refer to anything taken. If someone were to take your cow, you get to take theirs, someone were to accidently destroy your fence, then you would get to do the same to theirs. It's called retribution. . . and it is a simple, and a very human concept of dealing with issues. It is strict, as many would say justice must be. Another way of saying it, would be, "it is only fair." Or "What goes around, comes around?" Some would even incorrectly call it "karma." But Jesus poses it, as a "you have heard it was said (as is his pattern in this section--posing a well known concept and then refuting it with another path) . . . but then he says, "but I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil." Really. . .  wait a second I'm going to say that again. . . "do not resist one who is evil." well why not!?! What are you supposed to do with someone who is evil, take them out for cookies, if  you aren't supposed to resist them? Does that mean evil gets to win? I'm not sure I like all of this. . . 
Let's give Jesus the benefit of the doubt, maybe he doesn't mean "evil" . . . What then is this word we translate as, "evil?" Turns out it is the Greek word "poneros" often translated wicked, sometimes as something that produces hardship, but quite often it is the same word used talking about "Satan" type evil, capital E -  evil. . . We don't luck out with an out here, like it's just little baby evils, annoyances, no this is real deal evil . . . it is the very same word for evil used later in this same sermon when Jesus says, "deliver us from evil" in his well known prayer. I'll hold off on that for a second. . . maybe you know where I'll head with that, maybe not. . . but here we are and Jesus is saying, don't resist evil. And then he goes on to give some examples: someone strikes you on the cheek. . . you offer up the other one. . . someone steals your coat. . . . you give him your cloak as well. . . someone forces you to go one mile. . . and you go with them two. . . if someone begs of you. . . you give it. . . if someone wants to borrow from you. . . you don't refuse. So don't hit back. . . give to thieves. . . do more for someone making you do something. . . and give to beggars and lend money. . . There is the famous speech of advice from Polonius in Hamlet. . . practical fatherly advice. . . and at every step he is saying exactly the opposite of Jesus. . . right down to never a borrower nor a lender be. . . for loan often loses itself and friend. . . but no here Jesus says the opposite. . . It's not practical, it doesn't seem wise, it doesn't seem legitimate, it doesn't seem right. . . what is Jesus talking about? How often do we hear these phrases. . . turn the other cheek, go the extra mile. . . yes we hear and say them all the time, but to us they are soft cliches becoming and taking on so much less than their actual stated meaning here in context. So if this is the statement, the most ancient statement of Justice. . . and Jesus is throwing it upside down, telling us not to even resist evil. . .  maybe there is something more important than Justice in the world. Maybe there is something more important than good and evil. . . at least from our perspective, from our standing in the face of evil type perspective.
But let's look at it for a second. . . basically this is saying, give in. . . be the person that always gives in. . . keep giving and giving and giving, don't make a stand for justice. . . there seems to be a stand for something, but it isn't right and wrong, good and evil, or justice. Maybe there is some practical truth to this, but I don't necessarily think there needs to be. But often if we look backwards into history with the right perspective our eyes are sometimes open to God's working in accordance with these teachings. The first that came to mind this week was Russia and their brave defiance of two would be conquerors just over a century apart. In both scenarios the Russians gave and gave and gave, retreating and retreating, and first Napoleon, and then later Hitler attacked and attacked and attacked. . . and eventually both conquerors over reached, and were completely defeated. Maybe there is something to such a thought. . . evil implodes on itself. Does it? Always? There seems to be a lot of faith there.
Is that kind of faith too much for human beings. . . faith in a truth. . . a promise. . . even if it is just an interpretation. . . ? I was drawn to the words of Psalm 35. . . "How long O Lord will You look on?" They must have asked themselves the very same thing. . . evil is on the march, marching, marching. . . across Eastern Europe. . . through Ukraine, on and on, even all the way to Moscow. . . over 600 miles. . . 1800 miles across. That is alot of space to retreat and retreat, that is alot of people to say. . . even if not to God. . . "How long, will You look on?" When do we get to fight? The time finally came. . . a similar strategy was used with Santa Anna after the Alamo in Texas. . . Sam Houston retreated and retreated. . . then finally made the stand, once Santa Anna had over stepped, gotten prideful, greedy, and overstepped. But all the time you could hear the grumbling. . . "When lord when?"
My favorite, and I think the best example though is not these battlefield metaphors and examples, but instead the very fact that non-violent protest works. Look at the movements of Martin Luther King. . . of Ghandhi. . . standing, not retreating, but also not fighting back, at least with force of violence. . . turning the other cheek. . . and even the most angry, the most aggressive of people look silly, and well evil. . . in the face of such strength. Something there is in this world that shows us there is more to this world than simply, "An eye for an eye retributive justice."
But Jesus goes on. . .as if it weren't enough for us to not stand against, resist evil, but now he says love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. . . So already we aren't resisting them, but now we are praying for them. If you look at the Call to Worship, that is taken from Psalm 35, it has there that "When, Lord, When" but it also has this concept. . . the Psalmist is asking when Lord when, specifically because he has tried to follow this loving the enemy deal. . . it says he prayed and fasted for them when they were ill, that he was bereaved for them like a brother, but what good did it do, because when he was down, they laughed and scoffed, they celebrated with glee, gnashing their teeth, slandering. . . awful stuff, and what justice is it, what good is this? I do what you ask, I've been good, they are evil. . . why Lord why? When Lord When? . . . for he makes his Sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. . . great, I say again Why Lord Why? When Lord When?
Jesus says. . . if you love those who love you what reward do you have? Tax collectors. . . the evil. . . they do that. . . .if you only salute only care for your brethren. . .what more are you doing than others? Even the Gentiles. . . the non believers. . . those who have no faith in a loving and just, all powerful, sovereign one, God, even they do that. . . no  you must be perfect. . . and the idea there of perfection is also loving your enemies, because God is perfect. . . your heavenly father loves regardless. . . it would seem both the good and the evil.
How can God do that? How can God be a Just God and love the Unjust? How can God do that and have us still consider God to be Just? To be perfect. . . What kind of love is that? Loving your enemies? That doesn't sound like love. . . love is reciprocal. . . love is given and received. . . love is given in contract. . . love is something that you hold on to, hold on to long enough, that you can be safe enough to say it, and that they will love you back, and that you don't get hurt, and you don't put yourself out there, because you want to be sure. . . that's the way we love right. . . that's what love is right. . . wait. . . is love something more than that.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never ends. . . now faith, hope, and love abide. . . and the greatest of these is love.[2]

It bears all things. . .  God is love. . . God bears all things. . . . even on the cross. . . and God loves us when we don't love him back. . . God loves us. . . we know it because God loved us enough to send his son Jesus Christ to save us from our sin. . . in our sin. . . not in our righteousness .  . . but in our sin. . . it is that unconditional love. . . the only love that is. . . the only love that abides. . . and it is love that is given without reciprocity. . . sure the reciprocity might come, but that isn't it seems the reward of love. . . because anyone can love like that, but God loves in this glorious unconditional way, that has some reward beyond the mere reciprocal. . . beyond our give and take, beyond our conception of justice, beyond our perspective on right and wrong. . . into another amazing radical dimension of truth. 
And yet we still cry out, Why Lord Why and When Lord When, because it seems to us that winter is not coming on fast enough, and the German blitzkrieg is rolling fast 50 miles a day. . . and no one seems to hear, or listen, or have an idea of when to turn and fight. . . and evil is all around us. . . and it is in our relationships with each other. . . and we wonder when lord when, why lord why. . . it is in our church struggles over right and wrong, and we Wonder When Lord When, Why Lord Why. . . it is in our minds every time we wonder, every time we seem to turn the other cheek, and go the extra mile again. . . and for what. . . nothing changes, they just keep pushing. . . does evil even know, do our enemies even realize that we are there, or are they just charging and charging, completely oblivious of the way they make us feel, and they way they continue to hurt us, and the way that they have no compassion. . . on and on again. . . here we go. . . how many cheeks can I turn. . . how many miles must I go? When Lord When, Why Lord Why?
Our Father. . . Hallowed by thy name. . . Deliver us from Evil. Amen.

[1]The Revised Standard Version. 1971 (Mt 5:38). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (1 Co 13:4-8). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Anyways. . .


Turn the other cheek, go the extra mile,
Seven times seventy, but will it ever end?
How often must we step to the side
And let people pass, or walk over us?
Damn it, it's hard, especially when
People don't even see you step aside,
Don't even feel your cheek on their fist
As you turn to give them the other one,
Don't even watch you take the first steps,
Let alone all the rest of the extra mile,
You just run and run and run, and it seems
As if no one cares, and none of it matters,
And giving is all you do, all you'll ever do,
That nothing will ever change. Faith says,
"It only seems that way, it's always darkest
Before the dawn, God is great all the time,
Run the race, persevere, I place my bow,
There in the sky, I'm in control, I promise."
But Damn it, Faith, I really want to know,
 What in the world do you know about it,
Anyways. . .

~ Peter T. Atkinson

Does Faith Make a Difference?

Does Faith Make a Difference?
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
August 17, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Romans 4: 13-25

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.

13 For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation.
16 For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 18 Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” 19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 20 No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 Therefore his faith “was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 23 Now the words, “it was reckoned to him,” were written not for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, 25 who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification. [1]

We've heard passages like this from the Bible all the time, and they talk about faith, salvation through faith, we as the children of Abraham, get to share in the relationship with God he did, and his righteousness that God gave him through his faith. We get to in the same way believe in Jesus Christ and have his righteousness reckoned to us. We've heard it all before and it is the central teaching of Paul's letter to the Romans. But what is faith? And how does faith work? What is it all about? What difference does it make? In light of our lives, our world, all the problems that we seem to face, how does faith play a role in all of this?  Does faith make a difference in the way that we live our lives? What is this teaching from Paul in our context? What is it in light of the world we live in and its problems? What is this teaching in light of what I preached about last week, and the divisions in the church? Is there any relationship between Paul's letter to the Romans and us? These are the questions I seek to look towards and examine this morning. . . and from my study this week I have found that they really are important for us because like it says in the Book of Ecclesiastes, as we've been studying in Sunday School, "There just is nothing new under the sun." His times are our times are all times because human nature doesn't change.
To understand this Letter, the most important thing is context. It is important to see how Paul crafts his arguments, and there is danger in taking one piece of the letter, one paragraph, one verse and have it stand on its own because it is argument, and an argument has shape, and has movements, and often Paul, in his Letter to the Romans is positing two different viewpoints in juxtaposition against each other, only to refute both with a third way. I want to show you that this piece on faith is exactly that, Paul's proscribed third way. He is going to bring up the problems in the world, show the most natural solution, the one that we as humans are initially drawn to, then he is going to challenge it, show that it is lacking, which could make then all the problems seem to be hopeless, only to then offer the true solution.
I teach writing, I went to Hampden-Sydney College, a school renown for its rhetoric program, where we were all taught and tested for being able to craft arguments, and understand arguments, to know our minds, and to be able to argue a point, to get the point across and drive it home. I know good rhetoric when I see it, and Paul's arguments are well crafted. . . but again seeing the nuance, and how it works, you can easily see how someone reading a section in a vacuum could miss much. Context is important in Bible study, and that is often forgotten, and to our peril really. For instance, a book like Job has vast sections where the characters are offering their opinions on why Job is suffering, but they are all wrong. Take one of those out of context and call it gospel truth, and you could run into problems, people have.
So let me show you what I mean here in Paul's letter to the Romans. His first movement surrounds showing the problems of the world. He is going to show a complex problem, both the disease and the symptoms, the cause and the effects. It's there in the first chapter, after the initial greetings, starting in verse 18, (subtitled in my Bible as The Guilt of Humankind):
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; 21 for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools; 23 and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.

There it is root cause right, knowledge of God in things around us, no excuse, but were not thankful, and wanted to change things, they were fools, but claimed to be wise, and began to love their own creation instead of God's, they begin to love things. . . he keeps going from there it all stems:

24 Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, 25 because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, 27 and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. 29 They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 They know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practice them. [2]

Harsh words, bleak outlook. . . hate, division, envy, murder, strife, covetousness, malice, rebellion towards parents, heartless. . . he lists many, and we could look at our world and see all of these things surrounding us today. We see greed and corruption, and hatred, murder, all of it. . . all of it. We could focus on any one of Paul's claims and fight against it, rail against it, crusade against it, because it is all there and is all perfectly identifiable. There, it's all laid out plain. . . people have gone astray from God, and have fallen into violence, hatred, debauchery, and the like, we need to do whatever we can to return them to God. We think that we can get them to God by combating each one of the evils. . . fighting against each one. . . curing people of their sin. Churches have been seeking to do this forever, and it usually doesn't work, but the Bible says it, it lays it out right here, and if you were to focus just on these verses, you would have Biblical backing to just go out and crusade against the world and its sin. . . but Paul goes on.
In the very next verse, his tune changes, and he tempers it. He challenges the crusade against sin. Check it out the next chapter verse 1 and following. . .
2 Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.

Uh oh, same things. . . but I don't murder, I'm not debaucherous, I . . .  
2 You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” 3 Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? 4 Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? 5 But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.

It is interesting that he says storing up wrath. . . do you ever feel that way, that wrath? Have you ever seen people who were on a crusade against sin, not be angry? or afraid? usually talking about a slippery slope, and how to hold on. . . that is a place of fear. . . and I've said so often that fear is the opposite of love. It renders love often quite impossible. We get blinded by our crusade, we miss the plank in our own eye. . . it's there. It's human nature. Hey I do it too. We all do.
I've seen it just this week. I've seen it with the riots out in Missouri. I've seen it on all sides of the political debate. You can see it on any internet comment board and facebook post that has to do with an political issue. I've seen it in the aftermath of people commenting and arguing over the causes of the death of Robin Williams and whether depression is a disease and whether suicide is a choice. I've even seen it on something that seems so good and noble, like the Ice bucket challenge. . . in a week's time something fun and valuable, bringing awareness, and funds to ALS is already turning towards division and ugliness. People using it to get at someone. . . really. Come on. It's all around us. . . it's human nature, and we all are a part of it, we might just find that we take different aspects, affecting us in different ways, but we all seem to wear the stain.
So  here Paul has shown a problem, thrown cold water on the solution. . . saying wait a second, before you go out and attack the symptoms, you need to realize that it's a disease and it has also infected you. . . so what now Paul is it hopeless? What are we to do?
6 For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: 7 to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; 8 while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. 9 There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, 10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. 11 For God shows no partiality. [3]

In other words, if you are seeking justice. . . realize that God is just, He defines just, He is not partial, and He is in control, and the distinctions  you make He doesn't make. He sees it all, them and you. . . and repays according to his deeds. Uh oh. . . that's not good. Think of the journey that Paul has led us on so far. Sin in the world = destruction. . . then  you think you should go out and defeat sin, but he tells you that you have sin in you too, so basically. . . sin = destruction and you = sin. . . Paul goes on to quote the Psalm from our Old Testament lesson. . . not even one. . . because then we = destruction. . . all the confidence we had built up is gone, what are we to do? It reminds me of Christian in Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan has him living in the city of destruction and he feels that he can't leave because of the burden on his back. Trapped. . . but there is a way out.
Paul is seeking to show a different way than the laws that have brought us to this place of destruction. . . a different and new Jesus paradigm, that he himself is fresh to, having before been a Pharisee himself, even the context within Paul himself is important, because he is human like us, and has found himself in this same place of destruction. . . so he looks backward into history before the law, to the first, the father of us all, the first person that God chose to relate to and make covenant with, in the beginning of it all, Abraham. . . He looks at Abraham and he sees a relationship with God, God making a promise, man believing the promise and God fulfilling the promise, despite all obstacles and doubt and circumstances, God promises and Abraham has faith, and God keeps those promises.
Paul makes the argument that this is what it means to have faith in Jesus Christ. It is a new place, a new station, a new world paradigm, a complete shift in thinking. God is, has promised us marvelous things, and why should we doubt that they could come to be? Why would we doubt, though sin is ravaging our world. . . we need not fight against sin and crusade, but rather trust God, believe in him, knowing that God is just. It provides a perspective outside of the weeds of Paul's fist argument, the world and all of its problems. . . It provides a look at ourselves and how we are a part of those problems, and seeks to remind us of the beginning, God's power, that reconnection that we had missed, the one that simply believes and gives thanks.
Is it possible? Sure, what difference does faith make? All the difference in the world. . . all else is a downward spiral. . . all else is sinking sand. . . all else is human shortsighted solutions. . . leading to more unintended problems, making the problems of the world worse and worse, rather than better as we intended, no the only way to stop the cycle is to get out of it, doing so with faith, and remembering the simple power of a thankful, loving heart.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ro 4:13-25). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ro 1:18-32). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[3]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ro 2:1-11). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

To Stand

To Stand
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
August 10, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 12: 57-59
1 Kings 3: 16-22

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.

I want to talk this morning about some of the issues that are front and center in our church. Over the last four years there has been a great number of churches leaving the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., and with some of the developments at the latest General Assembly there may be more leaving soon. I know that a church very close to me is beginning talks and playing out scenarios, trying to discern what they want to do. Every church has their own reasons for thinking about leaving, but the issue that has become front and center, and in many cases has become the straw that is breaking the camel's back is the redefining of marriage. Many Christian denominations are trying to figure out how to best minister in an ever changing culture, and as the church begins to change, often two camps are formed, those pushing the change are on one side, and those resisting the change on the other. Each side has their point, each side has been aggressive, each side is angry, each side is pulling and pushing for  their way, and each side's voice is loud and often tries to drown out all other voices, and in this polarization of the two sides, the two camps, the reality that there is actually a third voice, a much less vocal majority that just isn't sure. . . this moderate voice, often goes unheard, gets called luke warm, tries to get swayed to one side or the other, is accused and labeled by both sides, but really that third voice has something to offer the argument, and it's more than just sitting on the sideline wishing that that everyone could just get along. . . there is much more to it than that, and I want to do some work today to discuss the strengths of that view, to empower that moderate voice, to give real support to any who would listen. You would think that the moderate voice would be appeasing, accomodating, the easy medium, but it is truly a stand, and to stand in the middle of two warring camps isn't so easy, often what is said from that voice alienates both sides, and I certainly risk doing that today, and so such a stand can become extremely difficult and quickly isolating. It isn't easy, it's not an easy thing to talk about, but here goes. . .
I chose two Bible passages, whose connection I think opens up many different avenues for thought and discussion. The first is Solomon's feat of wisdom from 1 Kings 3: 16-22.
16 Later, two women who were prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. 17 The one woman said, “Please, my lord, this woman and I live in the same house; and I gave birth while she was in the house. 18 Then on the third day after I gave birth, this woman also gave birth. We were together; there was no one else with us in the house, only the two of us were in the house. 19 Then this woman’s son died in the night, because she lay on him. 20 She got up in the middle of the night and took my son from beside me while your servant slept. She laid him at her breast, and laid her dead son at my breast. 21 When I rose in the morning to nurse my son, I saw that he was dead; but when I looked at him closely in the morning, clearly it was not the son I had borne.” 22 But the other woman said, “No, the living son is mine, and the dead son is yours.” The first said, “No, the dead son is yours, and the living son is mine.” So they argued before the king. [1]

And then the gospel lesson is from Luke 12: 57-59

57 “And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? 58 Thus, when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you in prison. 59 I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.” [2]

I've been asked a few times lately, by some of my more conservative friends, what it would take for me to leave the PCUSA. . . their faces are always looking at me, like, how can you stay on that sinking ship, don't you know that the Bible says this, how can you stay in a church that has forsaken its Biblical Traditions, Don't you realize that the church is called to transform the world not be transformed by the world. . . stuff like that. There are many assumptions made behind that question. And I get all that. . . I understand that point of view, but I'm not so sure. The Bible isn't the easiest book to read, it isn't like there is a list of rules, and that is it, the Bible is not as some would say, like the simple church sign acronym suggests, Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. . . It's not so cut and dry. Instead it's a narrative, it's a story about relationship, and surrounding that relationship there is commentary about how life should be led, but there is always context. . . and in narratives, in context, in people's lives, in relationship nothing is ever so cut and dry. At the center of that story though is God, God creating, God establishing the Earth and how it functions, God entering into relationship with people, and finally God coming into this world as one of us, humbling himself to become human, and then dying on a cross for our sin, only to be resurrected, throwing on its heels everything that we thought we knew about this world, its limitations, and its very foundation. We find that the power of God, and its foundation in love is more than what we can wrap our minds around, and so that leaves things a little bit messy, a little bit less defined than maybe we would like. . . and that can be and has been ever since,  a difficult thing for  human beings to encounter, to grapple with, and to live out in the world. And so the simplicity of the Biblical argument is problematic for me. There is always more to it, and there are many other issues that you could easily say are outside, or against the Biblical tradition, that are ignored, and are much less politically and antagonistically considered. . . I could name a bunch, but don't want to let myself get too far off topic, but ask me some time, I'll give you an earful. No there is no such thing as a pure church, and there has never been. There was no glory time where everything was perfect because the visible the church we see is human entity, and though it may run parallel to God's Holy Invisible Church, it's not the same thing. We're flawed and we don't know, But that is a big piece of the moderate position, because it isn't sure, what to think, it is discerning still, it's waiting, and listening, waiting for that still small voice to make the truth more apparent, and most importantly, it's humble. And from that humble stance the fullness of the moderate position grows.
But that's not all. . . the I don't know answer isn't enough really. . . it's a start, but there is more to it, at least for me. And for me it all has to do with what being Presbyterian means in the first place. At Coralee's baptism I celebrated the idea that we hold very firm to, and that is freedom of the conscience, and in that freedom of the conscience, along with it must be mutual forbearance. We have to think that the other person's point of view is just as valid possibly as ours, and that isn't easy, believing someone else may be living and interpreting the will of God and be reading the Bible differently than we are, but just as faithfully, and it isn't easy to do that, certainly not when everyone is trying their hardest to drown out every other voice but their own. And since we have freedom of the conscience, our minds, our viewpoints, and what we think about things is not determined at General Assembly, despite what many think, what many believe, and quite possibly what many people wish. Instead we get to make up our minds ourselves. People inside and outside of PCUSA could stand to remember that very important distinction about us, and the way our denomination works. All too often the media, the powers that be within the church, the two wings of the debate forget that and seek to put us all in the same one voiced box. . . but that is not the case.
And for me this is where the Gospel passage comes into play. The answer to these issues for me, the how to get along with each other, shouldn't come from General Assembly. If it does we've already lost. I had a seminary professor jokingly lament how sad it is that the Book of Order is so long. She said, a group of people who need that many rules just to get along is destined for problems. . . Look at Jesus here, he tells his followers to seek to judge for themselves what is right. . . because if you take it to a higher authority, you are putting all the power in their hands, and you may not like the result, Jesus says, "you will pay even to the very last penny."
I remember my days working on the Discipline Committee at Blue Ridge. We'd have kids who'd fought or had some kind of disagreement, and all of a sudden because they couldn't work it out for themselves we had to intervene. During the counseling part of it, I always tried to bring that point out, look we shouldn't have to involve ourselves in your dealings, but now your freedom, the freedom that you have over what is going to happen next is now out of your hands, and you can't get it back. They'd be earning themselves a punishment that certainly could have been avoided. In hindsight they  could usually see how foolish they had been for letting it go so far. There is real wisdom in that. I think one of our biggest challenges in our culture today is that we have forgotten this principle. We all too often outsource our thinking to those above us, whether they are more famous, or are on T.V., or more educated, whatever the case and allow them to do our thinking for us. And when they do, we may not like the result, but at that point, it's really hard to get that back. . . Jesus says, "you'll pay to the last penny." And it is all too often the same in the church, and it shouldn't be for Presbyterians. The Reformation occurred, and wars have been fought since, to allow for individuals to relate to God without a mediator, but do we take that for granted in our faith. We can wrestle with the Bible and faith, and prayer, and study, and all of it ourselves, but do we, or do we instead allow others to shape what we think, feel, and believe? Remember two camps, the third as I'm talking about today isn't really a camp at all, but a community of people all discerning and thinking for themselves, trying to figure out the best way to serve God and to love each other. It sounds good right. . . it sounds Christian right. . . it sounds Biblical right. Yeah that's what we're fighting for, fighting to preserve, as the other two factions fight against eachother.
Only the Bible would be broad enough in its point of view to have a narrative that includes that text from Jesus about seeking to solve issues ourselves, and include the famous story of Solomon's wisdom, too. To everything there seems to be exceptions, and sometimes there are issues that are beyond what we can handle ourselves. I get that, and Jesus gets that too I'm sure. . . cause look at this one. Two women, prostitutes it goes out of its way to say, both have babies, one mother's child dies, and so she steals in the middle of the night the other woman's baby, switches them at the breast, dead one for the live one, and then is adamant about the fact that it is her baby, all the way up to the King it goes. And he famously as a show of how wise he is, says to cut the baby in half, giving half to each. One of the two mothers says no, she can have it, she's reached that limit, and to save the baby, she stands down. . . Solomon of course sees this, knows that only a true mother would do such a thing, would rather lose the fight to save the child, her child, whom she loves. Powerful story, clever, and Solomon shows himself to be a wise judge. It all works out when you have a wise judge. But it's hard when you don't, or when you think you don't, when you've lost faith in that system. And maybe that's where we are now, where things were in Jesus' time too, where faith in the human systems just isn't there.
So, imagery of the story is there in our situation. It's not hard to see the church being pulled in two directions by two different groups, points of view, and we, like Solomon, have to ask ourselves if those points of view really care for the baby, for the church, for God's will, or are they blinded by the movement, by the quest of it all, the battle, the fear that they may be losing, or the joy of the momentum of winning the battle. I have to admit that though I'm certainly in the middle on this, I have a lot of sympathy for the traditional viewpoint because change is difficult, and things have been changing very quickly, and there hasn't been time for discernment and discussion, and reconciliation this time around. It hasn't been that long since the General Assembly made similar steps, and the speed scares people. There hasn't been much compassion from the progressive forces for those who may disagree, and that's hard to deal with. It's hard to deal with the idea that your church is becoming something that you no longer recognize, and you choose one battle to fight because you feel like you've given and given and given, and it just won't stop. And so you have to stand for something, lest you stand for nothing. I get that. . . but that's not the stand I want to make. It's not the stand I feel called to make because I don't think it is the right one, as I said it's not easy or cut and dry, it's not about rules it's about people and relationships and those are messy.
But the truth is I don't find myself connected with Solomon in that story as much as with the real mother. And I feel saddened by the fact that something I love is being torn apart by folks who I don't think quite get what is so great about the Presbyterian church, what makes it unique, what makes it be something that is worth fighting for, worth saving, and that is all of those things I said at Coralee's baptism: the freedom of conscience, the mutual forbearance, the ability to listen, to discern God's will, that Jesus Christ is the head of the church, rather than a voting majority of 51%.  These are the things that are really important to me because it allows each person to grow their relationship with God at their own pace, in their own time, where ever they are, because God is at the center of all of that, not some human schedule of how things "should" be. We need to remember that. . . especially in the turmoil like now.
So to get back to the original question. . . what would it take for me to leave the PCUSA? It would have to leave me, and do so by destroying the things that I hold dear, like personal discernment. It would have to become a top down, majority rules, compassionless, thing, and Christ would then have to be replaced by someone or something else as the head. I don't think that has happened yet. Maybe some would disagree. . . and they would say to me, come on you need to stand for something, you need to make a stand, put it all on the line, are you just afraid?
That is a question we all have to ask ourselves because Christians shouldn't be timid and led by fear. Jesus says, take up your cross and follow me. Carrying the cross is about standing up, about making a stand, about being crucified on a hill for what you believe, for what you are called by God to do and be, so we shouldn't be afraid to stand. We shouldn't just get along to get along, we shouldn't stand for nothing, trying to preserve a comfortable status quo. That is what Martin Luther King’s letter from a Birmingham Jail is all about and why I included a piece of that in your bulletin as the prayer of preparation[3], and such a stance will not inspire, or he says lose our authenticity and forfeit the loyalty of millions, no we have to stand, and we can’t  just conform to the world taking that easy road. . . awe come on Pete, that's exactly what you are doing what the church is doing. . . really. . .now that it's almost football season I'll quote Lee Corso and say. . . "Not so fast my friend. . . " How often does the world allow people to make their own minds up? How often does the world wait and listen for discernment? How often does the world seek to love and nurture? No, the world seeks to make everyone conform to it, to make every one think and be the same, to do things the same, the world likes to simplify and order things diametrically opposed into factions that then make war against each other, that has been the way of the world for centuries, millennia, . . . It wasn't until 1776 where another idea began to take root, during what King George III called a "Presbyterian Revolution." Ahhh how soon we forget. . .  you see our nation holds the same ideas, from the same source, and we on many levels have forgotten that too to our peril. . . but no. . . We are not conforming to the world when we are humble, and seek peace, and compassion and love, instead we are daring to stand against the diametrically opposed tides seeking to push and pull everyone apart in separate ways. It's easy to stand in a big crowd and rail against another big crowd, trying to rally consensus and get more people to your cause because there is always power in numbers. . . but majority, and popular opinion, polls, or voting assemblies, or who can talk the loudest, all of that, just isn't the way that I seek to discern truth. Instead I'll stand alone, if I have to, at least uniquely me, and I'll promise to stand up next to everyone else who has their own view or is still discerning. . . I'll stand there because if I have to be crucified on a hill, at least I'd know that, that was the hill that God called me to, created specifically for me, in my time and my place according to my maker's will, not as part of a group push and pulled by the tides, but mine. . . . and that stand may not be today. . . but the Presbyterian Church believes, or at least has traditionally believed in people making those stands, and ideally has supported them, and so I stand for it, because it isn't an it, but a you and me, an us, and a them, all together in a community of individuals. . . and I know the world needs that important witness because it is truly rare, unique as each one of us is. So God give us the strength, when the time comes, and to be patient and faithful until it does. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (1 Ki 3:16-22). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 12:57-59). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[3] But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.   ~ Martin Luther King
                                                     from "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"