Thursday, February 19, 2015


Chains, or Why it Sucks to not Do Your Homework
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
February 19, 2015
at Gibson Memorial Chapel
Blue Ridge School, St. George Virginia
Psalm 86: 1-11
Colossians 3: 12-14

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.

If you have ever read any of my sermons, or have paid attention any of the times I have spoken here before, you may have noticed, and I have done so for years, that I begin all of my sermons with that prayer, the one I just spoke. In my faith tradition it is a called a prayer for illumination, and is used at the beginning of a sermon, like an invocation in an epic, asking beyond myself, in my case to the Holy Spirit, for spiritual guidance to fuse with what I am saying to allow us, you the hearers and I the speaker to be moved and inspired to be bigger, and better, more, and beyond what we think we are, somehow more than ourselves, so that we can begin to fulfill the glorious potential of our actual being, that the truth exists outside of us and we are aspiring to get to it. Informing that prayer then is the belief that each one of us, both you and I, and all people everywhere, have within us, often living beyond even our own knowledge of ourselves, a potential that transcends our conceived limits, a greatness to which we each may aspire if we could just free ourselves from chains that exist, holding us back. In other words, I believe that all people are inherently wonderful, with a potential for beauty and greatness that transcends our own imagination and conception of who we are, but that for many reasons we fail to live up to that greatness, and in many instances fail to even see the possibility of that greatness in ourselves and in each other. So each time I speak I say that prayer in remembrance of that truth, paying homage to it, reminding everyone involved that there is actually more to us than we are conscious of, hoping in some way that this can begin the process of removing some of those chains, seeking to set us free, you and I.
I must admit that what I am saying today is completely based in my belief in that truth, and that honestly I see my entire existence as a teacher and as a pastor, and as a father, and a friend, and a mentor, and a son, and a human being all stemming from that one same belief. It is what I do, and what gives me meaning, just believing that people have untapped greatness within them. Imagine having a lens like that for seeing the world, and having a unified mission like that about you at all times. In many ways it is quite fulfilling to be connected and unified in purpose like that, to be motivated by a belief that ties together everything you do, and every aspect of who you are. It fills me with the energy and drive to do my jobs, all of them, and for me as fragmented as my life could be, pulled in a thousand different directions, pulled between two simultaneous careers, a wife and two kids, with one more kid on the way, having that connected mission makes what could seem impossible - that I actually get any of it done - somehow I do and it does, it happens week to week, year to year, and day to day, somehow it all works. But the flipside is also true and is that such unified mission and purpose and belief is fragile because it all hangs in the balance of just one thing, one belief, everything is connected to that one idea, and that is quite a commitment because if that one belief were to fall, if just a little bit of doubt were to enter in, where would it leave me? From where would my purpose come, my energy, my drive. . . Such is the risk of faith, such is the risk of being all in on something and building your life on a single principle. . . and it is a real risk, and to ignore the fact of the risk is frightfully naive and disrespecting of the all importance of it, the very realness of it, but like most things worthwhile, it is not easy nor is it meant to be easy.
So having said that I want to get to the point. . . I decided to entitle this talk, "Chains" because I want to talk about the things that tend to hold us down, and keep us from being free enough to strive for that true potential, but my original working title was, "Why it sucks to not do your homework, to not shave, and to whine about getting walkabouts." As I said I believe in our untapped potential as people, and therefore I see you all as young men, exemplars of that infinite potential, and that our job as teachers here, according to the mission of the school, is to get you to reach, to reach beyond yourself, your perceived limitations, the chains that have been built in and around you, already in your young lives, by your experiences, by your families, by your friends, by this society, by thousands of years of human history, and by the choices you have already made to date, it is all the summation of exactly what it is you see when you look in the mirror each day. . . our job, as teachers and mentors, is to get you to see beyond that, into that realm of the infinite beyond the visual, that is called potential, or as I called it a minute ago, that beautiful greatness you are born into as a human being. To get you to see that, to reach for that, to aspire to that, we have to see it ourselves. We have to believe it, to believe in you, to see beyond what you see, and to work each minute of each day to show you the greatness you have beyond this moment's actual into the potential of the next moment, and the next. And that is hard to do. It is hard to do because each of us, each of your teachers is also battling against and trying to see beyond our own chains that exist from our own experience, society, and expectations, too. It is a quixotic idealistic dream that we all represent as teachers here. . . and one the world likes to build up in appearance, in image, because it makes us feel good to say we aspire to such ideals in life, but the world really thinks that deep down it is all a joke, exactly that a dream, a means to the end of keeping the system afloat. . . education after-all in reality is not about realization of self, but is just about college and the job market and fitting square pegs into round holes by sanding off the edges that society doesn't want and that the system can't use. So you see introduced into the world of idealism is the ever threatening cynical view because to be honest the cynic has grown fearful of what glorious damage for good that realized self could create.
So why does it suck when you don't do your homework, and you don't shave, and you whine about walkabouts. . . honestly because that stuff doesn't matter enough for us to have spend such time on it. We want to be beyond that. We want to live in that idealistic world where the cynics have to shut up because that untapped potential is busting out all over the place and just cannot be ignored. We want to live in a world where we can talk about ideas that matter, where we can teach you things that really have meaning, where we can bring out of you the ideas that you can offer the world, that no one else can because those are the only ideas that truly matter, and what education truly needs to be about.
We want to release the you from those chains, but we can't do it, and it doesn't happen when we are begging that homework gets done, having to find new artificial punishments and requirements and policies and programs, and meetings, and conferences, and progress reports, just to get you to do your work. We want to get to the point where we get to pull out your ideas because like I said, that is what the world needs, but how often do we give you that assignment where you get to think, and you get to opine, and you get to put yourself into it, and we get nothing. We get the BS, the excuses, and the I don't know it's too hard. . . because you refuse to invest enough of yourself to risk an answer of your own, thinking that what you have inside just doesn't measure up. Bull! But every time that happens that cynical voice starts to get louder, the one that says, nahh they can't do it anyway, don't challenge them, just pass them through, give them more multiple choice and true false, leave the critical thinking to the smart kids at other schools. Bull!
We want to teach you real character, about virtue and goodness, about real definitions of manhood, and citizenship, and responsibility, and love, and ethics, but instead we have to spend time talking about shirt-tails, and peach fuzz, and whether or not you have a belt on, or socks. . . showing up on time, making your appointments. . . we give a Baron award for not having write ups, we give pins, we even call it character because, it's a hoop y'all can get through. But it's not character and it's not virtue because it deals with minimums, check off boxes, and I want more, I look out at this student body and I want more, I see more, I expect more, and I want you all to be more. I want be more myself. But again that cynical voice says, ahh what if they fail? What about that boy who just can't do it? Can't do what? Get up in the morning. . . I get that I struggle with that, too. . . I say where is that kid's strength? Let's build there because there is untapped potential, greatness, let's find it. Let's look beyond the mundane. We can do that here!
I hear you guys complaining all the time about the structure and the rules and babying and you guys are butting up against the glass ceiling with your mouths, but your actions show how much you love your chains, because they are safe. There is no risk involved. There is something there holding you back that you can blame for not grasping each moment. The bravado, yeah I could do it, but you know why bother, they wouldn't let me anyway. . . I could be great, if I worked, but this school it holds me back. I will tell you right now that if you got inspired by that real inner fire towards greatness, we'd see it, we'd get fired up by it, too, and we would work together to raise you up beyond your wildest imaginings of what you could accomplish. We would be your partners in your success. Oh my God, I would jump out the room with excitement. We'd see it and be like, yeah there it is that kid gets it, and we'd fight for every freedom, every privilege, every hope and dream imaginable for you.
Some of us do that now, or at least try to. We try to advocate for your freedom, for your ownership, but its hard man. It's hard because so often when the opportunity for doing more, for showing up, for taking over comes along, you guys go back into your shells, and just like that paper you chose not to engage with and put yourself in, you do it half assed. And man does that hurt. It hurts because it proves once again that the world just might be right, and that freedom, and responsibility, and independence, and character, are all just empty dreams, that we are just random clumps of dust, and none of it matters anyway, might as well just stoke the fire, and keep the system running, perpetuating itself for as long as our luck holds up, hey it doesn't matter any way, we'll just keep printing money.
Some may believe that, but I don't and I won't, I don't get paid enough money to sell out like that, no my motivation has to come from believing. . . so I'll have faith in you, and I hope, everyday, that one of you, or more, or truly that all of you, will start to believe too, and become partners with us, partners with me, in your education, in your life, and your potential that knows only the bounds that you allow yourself to accept.
Let us pray,
Father God, help us to see beyond ourselves to the truth that you see, help us to keep the faith in our potential, to extend the grace that we need, that though we forgive, that though we give grace, that though we believe in 70x70 chances, that we never lower standards, but continue to reach for more, for just as you live in the infinite. . . you made us with infinite possibilities, help us to come into the true self awareness of our amazing potential. Help us to partner with each other to remove the chains of fear, doubt, and cynicism that would hold us back. Fill us with a fire of love, knowing ourselves completely, and then freely offering that beautiful totality to a world in desperate need to believe again. In humility we pray. Amen.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Definition

The Definition
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
February 15, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 3: 11-16
Numbers 21: 1-9

Today's Anthem: "God So Loved the World" arr. David A. Zabriskie

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 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 
16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. [1]

When I was at Christchurch School, and in many ways it is similar at Blue Ridge, the culmination of the Chapel Life of the school was the Lessons and Carols service. Both schools unapologetically go all out to celebrate the beauty of the traditions surrounding Christmas, with candles and anthems and hymns and readings, but one thing that will always resonate in my mind and that I will remember was that, the last reading of the Lessons and Carols service is always John 1, "in the beginning was the word. . . " etc., and it was always marked in the bulletin as "The Meaning of Christmas" that "the word becoming flesh and dwelling among" us is what Christmas is all about. It was really cool at Christchurch because, like Blue Ridge, it was an international school, with many different nations and cultures represented. Each year, or at least one year that stands out in my memory, John 1, was read in all of the languages represented at the school. So it was like Korean, Chinese, German, Moldovan, Arabic, Spanish, Russian, and some more. You got to hear the words as they reach each corner of the globe, the beautiful truth resonating to every tongue. It had the feel of Pentecost where everyone got to hear in their own language. It was so meaningful to me, that DeAnna and I when putting together a similar service in Hampton decided to have John 1 read in English, Latin, German, and Greek. It was interesting to hear the sounds of the familiar cadences coming through in language so different from our own. Neither school had the same traditions surrounding Easter, maybe because many of the boys go home over that weekend, maybe because the Resurrection at Easter is much less Politically Correct than the more tame Christmas Secularization, but there was never a great service commemorating Easter, but if there was you can bet that this passage, John 3:16 would parallel that John 1, that for many John 3:16 is the "meaning of Easter," and mainly because of the second half of the phrase. . . so that we can have "eternal life." The stone rolls away and we get to have eternal life. In our heaven first, results based, us centered, religious tendency, we often skip the "God so loved," and focus right on the "eternal life." You can see it all over the place in Pop Christianity. . . the church signs, the T-Shirts, the bumper stickers, the News Debate, and the  God loving part falls to the wayside. . . so I want to take a break from that, not because I want to downplay it, or act like it doesn't exist,  or challenge it in any way, but because the foundation, the chief cornerstone, is on the otherside, the God side, the Christ side, the Loving side. . .
Because Love is such an important part of what is going on here. The word  love is found in some form in the Bible over four hundred times, including often the attribute referring to God constantly in the Old Testament as steadfast love, the what Jesus calls Greatest Commandment, of Loving God and Loving our neighbor, even going so far as in one of John's epistles, 1 John, that God, in fact, is Love. . . so love has much importance in the Biblical Story and in our faith as it is derived from that Biblical Story, but often we have difficulty in describing exactly what love is. I think most of you know, by now, from my mentioning a few times in my sermons and in my graduation speech at Blue Ridge a few years ago, that I begin my classes each year with a lesson on trying to define love. And that process is challenging because their definitions always begin with the idea of feeling and emotion, which certainly no one can deny is part of it, but leaves us lacking, because attached to that feeling is action, there needs to be action in love.
Sometimes we can look at opposites to give us a clue about what a word or an idea means. Like if you want to know what up is you can compare it to down,  or as Grover so indelibly taught my generation in our younger days, that if you want to know about far, just think about near. . .Near. . . . . . and far.  But looking at the opposites of love like hate, falls short because hate as an opposite for love is so short sighted. There is so much more to love than just the mirror image of hate, because hate is just a feeling of antipathy, where as love is so much more than just sympathy. It includes it, but like all infinite things, the things that come from God, it just cannot be encased in so narrow an idea. In my lesson I get my students thinking poetically about metaphor and figurative language because I want them to see that poetry is the only thing that can work to define the infinite without confining it too much, because metaphor allows for interpretation and shared experience. And experience is important to the equation because experience plays such an important role in our own process of discernment with regards to truth, and one of the many things that make us completely unique and different from one another is our experience, no two lives are completely alike. But infinite definition is not the same thing as relative truth. . . though we cannot limit wholesale, there is a definite truth we can point to and learn from. And these are what we really talk about when we say we are defining words like love. Because though all of our experiences are different, we do share certain experience in common, and one of those happens to be how we relate to God in our own lives and how the characters of the Biblical story interact with God in the Biblical narrative, for all are one. We can share those experiences and learn from each other and from what others have shared in the past and grow closer to God.
So experience and metaphor all play into it. . . A metaphor that the Bible gives us is "God is Love", (actually from one of the epistles attributed to John our Gospel writer) and the experience we can look at is the Biblical manifestations of God acting. . . and then we can think about how this fits within a Biblical idea of love, and then by comparing it with our own experience we can get a really good concept of what love is. First you have God with his steadfast love, not abandoning his people Israel, setting them free from bondage, teaching them about righteous and sustaining laws for living in community together. You have that God coming into the world proclaiming and teaching more about what righteousness and living in community are about, holding up as the most important part of it, this idea of loving God and Loving neighbor. . . so the relational idea grows and includes both ways, with each other and with God. But if we are really thinking about love we would have to look at everything that God does.
And then it would stand to reason foundationally speaking that love is about making life, redeeming life, an sustaining life. And life is made when love sets free, because God sets us free. . . free to be, free to will, free from slavery in Egypt, free to even enslave ourselves through our own freedom. Free to choose chains again and again. . . but then God remains. . . and will set us free again. . . so this steadfast conception of God and love is important as well. There is the sense of the unconditional side of love. It doesn't necessarily mean that there isn't right and wrong, or preference, but that those do not work to limit love ever. You could say that love gives second chances, (we think of characters like Jacob, and David and others), that love desires for justice (we think of the prophets being sent by God to speak the truth to power), but love also knows mercy (we see Jonah's interaction with Nineveh), that Love seeks us out where we are, following always right behind us (and hence we see God's interaction with Jonah). We could see love offering protection, (like he does for  Daniel in the Lion's den), or strength to stand and risk (like he does for Esther). We can see love leading (like God does the people through wilderness). We can see all of these things. . . we can seek to emulate all of these things. We can love by protecting, and leading, and seeking people where they are, being there when they turn around to us. We can love by risking, and desiring for justice, and giving mercy. We can love by setting people free having the hope and faith that they will do what is beneficial to themselves and to others, even if they may not. We can do all of those things by loving, and I would guess that many of us do on a regular basis, we try to, we try to be that good life giving type of person, but there is more to the metaphor, there is more to the experience, and therefore there is more to the definition of love because God takes further.
And that is where John 3:16 really comes in. . . because it seems to say that Love also includes sacrifice, giving up a piece of you, something completely unique to you, as intimate and close as a child, a son, and as a child, a likeness, in God's case the totality of self. . . for our doctrine states, like God, same as God, even in John's Gospel, the Word was God and the Word was with God. . . and now this son, this only son, the text goes out of the way, is being sent to the world to save it, giving all who come to believe, eternal life. It is the mark of a sacrifice, a total sacrifice, to pain, to gruesome persecution, to beatings, to crucifixion, and to becoming a symbol of human sin and cruelty, hanging on that cross for the world to look at and take notice, that they may come to believe. He connects it to the snake being raised up in the desert, which we heard about in the story that Erick read. . . the people looked at the snake, they saw the snake, the snake that had been poisonous, that had wrecked so many, that had caused such devastation, the people looked at it risen up on high, and they would then live. . . . just by looking at the snake, risen high, high above them on a post and they would live. What an interesting thing to see and compare Jesus' sacrifice to. . . that by merely looking the people could see and live. . . how interesting that it is in just beholding, believing, believing what though, a complete sacrifice in love, we see that, we believe in that. . . and then in that we are given eternal life. . . just seeing love gives life, but what are we looking at, a symbol of perfect love, a definition that encaptures what love is completely, the complete sacrifice of self for the other, and the intense feeling that would make that sacrifice possible.
Why do we not go to that definition of love first? Because it's so hard. It is so hard to think about love as a perfect sacrifice, because we are always looking out for ourselves and our interests. And love has many imposters. . . one of them is manipulation, where you go through all of the appearance of love, but in the end it is about  you, and in that case it sucks life rather than giving life. I'm sure you have seen it, felt it, and done it. Another of love's imposters is loving the whole world just to feel good for yourself. Fighting for nameless justice. . . fighting for impersonal ideals. . . fighting for vague seemingly selfless impulses that underneath are all about us. Man is it hard. . . but this sacrificing element is what separates love. . . it dies to the self. . . but one of the most important aspects then is valuing  yourself enough to give it. You have to know how valuable you are, how worth while you are, how great you are, how much of a child of God you are, how held up in faith you are. . . because through faith we know that love is worth it. We know that giving up yourself completely is such a powerful idea, such a noble thing, and upon seeing Christ's perfect example. . . we know that life abounds in such thoughts of love.
We can know this, but it is still hard to sacrifice, to love completely, to give up of self without holding back, without fearing. . .  how are we to live up to such a commandment as to love God and neighbor, when the definition is complete sacrifice? I'm not sure, but now we can flip the metaphor around. Rather than looking at love, let's look at God for a moment. One of the things that John has been teaching us so far in his gospel is that we shouldn't put God in a box, but rather understand God's completely free and infinite aspects. . . but that we always have that tendency to limit God, knowing that tendency we can still experience God where ever we are because God limited  himself in the human form of Jesus, so that we could come to know more clearly about that limitless aspect. . . . we can know love in the same way, through loving in any way, with a mind to the complete sacrifice, knowing that is what love really is, we can learn love through the little, just thinking of others is a step. . . and a seed, just like a notion, consciousness, a mustard seed of faith is enough to move a mountain. . . a little shred of love points us in the right direction. This I believe is why we confess week to week. We know that we do not love completely, or have not found the situation right for that complete sacrifice. . . we openly confess that, just as Jesus does in the Garden of Gethsemene. . . we resist because we are coming to know the value of that sacrifice. . . and the act of confession reminds us that Love requires more than we have so far given, but we also acknowledge that through practicing love we grow closer. Remember it is not the temple that is the problem but how we see the temple. It needs to point us to God, rather than encapsulate God. Our small acts of love, show love to the world, make a witness of love to the world, but there is always more we can do and be and give. . . we haven't loved completely yet, we still have more to give, we are never and can never be done until there is no more left of us to give. . . therefore may God in his love for us keep us humble, remembering that we have not yet begun to love entirely, for there is more of ourselves that we have yet to give . . but in that humility we are fee to love where ever on the spectrum of love we are. . . and in doing so, even in the small we spread life.  Amen.

So often I write my sermons on Saturday nights, but this one I wrote Friday afternoon, and one of the reasons I wait until Saturday night is that I will rethink and rework again and again anything that I wrote earlier anyway. This sermon was no exception. I continued to tinker with the ending of this because what I was saying was that the standard for loving is complete sacrifice. . .how can you say that without devaluing the process of getting to that point? How do you remain focused on the size, the end, the amazing scope of love, without ignoring the fact that it is hard to get there. . . I think a good metaphor for it is writing. As a teacher of writing I am always fighting against what my students have been taught before about writing and how binding those definitions usually are. Things like, paragraphs have to have 5-7 sentences, or a thesis should be always the last sentence of an introduction. These artificial requirements don't produce quality writing, and as training wheels they have to at some point come off. . . but I run into the issue all the time that these artificial requirements are important to the development of the writer, and that not everyone can just write with out any step by step progression. So there needs to be instruction, you need to have the "training wheels" but there needs to be a point where those come off, that the training is pointing beyond itself to real ownership and freedom. It is helpful to think about love, and our relationship to God in the same way. . . and Jesus coming to us in our own form is a great manifestation of this truth, humbling himself, limiting himself, to take on a human form to teach us beyond himself, through himself to understand the infinite nature of love and God. . . . so take that as another metaphor, use love's training wheels, but do not lose sight of what Love truly is. . . and go from this place loving. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 3:11-16). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Are We Being too Literal

Are We Being Too Literal?
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
February 8, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 3: 1-10
Ecclesiastes 1: 12-18
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.

Over the course of the next three weeks we will be looking at the conversation that Jesus has with the "Pharisee named Nicodemus," who comes to see him at night. The conversation has three movements. One about this notion of being born from above, or again, which we will look at this morning. The second is about Jesus' mission to bring eternal life to those who believe in him, and the last, the third is about darkness and light, lies and the truth. In many ways these are connected, and work like the bread of a sandwich around the amazing teaching about eternal life, which finally gives us a real insight into this notion of "believing and receiving" that we have been looking for. So here it all begins with Chapter 3: 1-10.
3 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.  7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.  8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? [1]

Have you guys ever seen the movie, Spaceballs? It was made in 1987 by Mel Brooks as a spoof of Star Wars. It is definitely a silly movie, but a classic. There is this one scene, where the President, President Scroob, tells his henchmen, Dark Helmet and Colonel Sanders, to comb the desert looking for Lonestar, Princess Vespa and the rest. And so in typical Mel Brooks fashion there they are out there with combs and they are literally combing the desert. . . . classic, the visual is priceless. They have this big pocket style comb, and ask them, if they've found anything. . . but after they say no, Colonel Sanders asks Dark Helmet, one of my favorite lines. . . He says, "Are we being too literal?" And right then Dark Helmet pipes in, "No, he told us to comb the desert so we're combing it!" Too literal. . . I always think of that moment when I read this encounter with Nicodemus from John 3. Look at it, there is the "unless you are born again, or born from above, or born anew," depending on your translation, you cannot see the Kingdom of God. . . and the first words out of Nicodemus' mouth are, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Can you believe that question. . . is that what you would have asked? It's almost as bad as the folks in the last chapter, who when Jesus says, that he's going to tear the temple down and build it back in 3 days, said, "That's impossible it took us 46 years to build it." Again, how can you take the things that Jesus says literally. . . but yet we do and the problem is just like here with Nicodemus is that the literal puts limits on Christ, and just when we had torn the temple down, setting God free to run wild in this world.
Let's take a look at this Nicodemus guy for a second. It tells us he is a Pharisee, and it tells us that it is late at night, but other than that not much. Who is he? What does he want? What is he after? So many times when a Pharisee makes an appearance in the gospels they are usually trying to trick Jesus, trying to catch him in a gaffe, where he seemingly blasphemes, or breaks the rules, or says something to run afowl with the Romans, but this seems very different. It's almost as if Nicodemus comes to Jesus because he is genuinely interested in Jesus, he's intrigued by Jesus, that maybe he even believes. He comes right out and says, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God." That doesn't sound like someone who is trying to trick Jesus, but rather a genuine interest. He calls him teacher, Rabbi, and he says we know he is from God because of the signs. . . and it is to this that Jesus turns it right around on him. . . Very truly I tell you, that no one can see the kingdom of God who is not born from above. . .  Imagine that, you come in the middle of the night to Jesus, you tell him how great he is and that he must be a teacher of God, and in answer to the affirmation, Jesus says, "no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born from above. . . or born again, as it is often translated. And it is to this that Nicodemus says, how can you be born if you are old? how can you re-enter the womb? Weird right, I mean what Jesus says is weird, and the fact that Nicodemus takes him so literally is weird. Who is writing this dialogue? Jesus goes on to say that being born from above, is like being born from "water and the spirit" but this time he says it in reference to entering the kingdom of God, the first time it was just to see it, now to enter it. But then as if to sense Nicodemus' confusion, and possibly our own, Jesus goes out of the way to make it just as clear as mud by saying. . . "The wind blows where it goes, and the sound of it you hear, but you don't know where it comes from or where it goes.. . so it is with everything born of the spirit?" Now Nicodemus' reply makes sense. . . he says, "How can these things be?" and Jesus hammers him, with, "are you a teacher of Israel and yet you do not know these things?" Talk about speaking right to the issue. Strange and strange, curiouser and curiouser. . . . we have entered wonderland for sure, a wonderland where the literal is confusing.  
But the typical takeaways for this passage are the most literal ones possible. They take what Jesus says at face value and build those familiar walls of who is in and who is out, on the basis of being "Born Again." When you hear the term born again what picture do you get in  your mind? I think generally it refers to a sense that there should be a conversion experience to Christianity, but I don't know about  you all, but the picture I get isn't the most positive one. I see alot of permasmile. . . I see alot of pushiness. . . often slogan filled. . . and shallow, well literalism. . . literalism that if questioned is fought hard against. . . that is fragile. . . protective. . . narrow. And it is this passage that gives it credence. Have you ever been asked the question, When were you born again? And if you don't have an answer, it feels like you have failed a test, one that obviously suggests that literally you will never enter nor see the kingdom of heaven. . . and ain't that a pitiable shame. I've heard the question be answered in the snarkiest way possible before. The person said, I don't need to be born again, I was born right the first time. . . . and the righteous competition has begun. . . who is right? who is wrong? What is authentic and faithful? and what isn't? Are we to take this literally that there must be a conversion experience, and it has to come at a "second" birth and not the first one. . . what constitutes a conversion experience? How close do you have to come to going back into the womb? What counts and what doesn't? It is amazing how easy it is to find yourself right back out in the desert with your comb. . . again being too literal. Isn't it funny that Jesus has just torn down the temple, walls and all, and already in the next chapter we want to build those walls right back. Walls dividing in and out.
But Jesus isn't describing walls. . . he is describing spiritual stuff. . . water, spirit, breath, heaven, above. . . all of these things. . . and that a teacher of Israel should know what is going on? Now why should a teacher of Israel know? What is the basis for their knowledge? What do they study and base life on? What source do they study for truth? Right, the Torah, the Law, the books of Moses. .  . the first five of our Old Testament. Now what does that teach about spirit and water. . . now I'm sure there are many places, but you don't have to get very far because right in the beginning of Genesis, you have All of these. . . You have the spirit flying over the waters there on the first day where God was making the heavens and the Earth. Is it possible that Jesus means you have to be born in that moment. . .you have to recognize your connection to the whole, to the beginning, to the Father, realizing that you are very much a part of God's creation, and that from that everything else comes. It is a spiritual birth. . . from above. . . an adoption. . . . not literally of course, but figuratively.
Having this knowledge and disposition and understanding of yourself can really make a difference in the way that you see Jesus, yourself, your purpose, how life works, and that each new day is a new day of creation, a new day of creation that is all connected back to the first day, when the kingdom of God was very much intact and being built. If you don't acknowledge that creation of God, that God is in control, that God has built this world and is building this world, and that you are a part of that glorious creation, taking part in it with the spirit and the water, flowing over you, then how could you ever possibly see the kingdom of God, and that since Jesus knows that seeing is believing, that we must see, he has to replace that visible temple he tore down with something we can see, himself, and connect that self to the world around us. We are born from above. . . children of God. . . if  you can't see that, how could you see the kingdom, and if you can't see it how could you enter it? Is this what Jesus is talking about? I don't know, but it makes as much sense as the other, the rigid "Born Again" doctrine that has divided people for so long. But this kind of thinking may be just as off base. . . again, are we being too literal?
What does John want us to get, to pull away and learn from this encounter, that starts here in such a confusing way? What does Jesus want Nicodemus to do? Is it anything specific? He goes on to say in what follows. . . " 11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?" But Nicodemus remember came to Jesus stating that he believed in him. . . what does all this mean? Is it only that Nicodemus has seen Jesus do miracles and he is so sure that Jesus is a teacher of God. . . isn't it interesting that Nicodemus, a teacher of God, sees Jesus perform miracles and then puts him directly into his own category, a teacher. . . You must be like me, a person of God if you can do such miracles. How arrogant? and how typical of us? We like to put Jesus in a box to be like us, to be like something we understand, to be like something that doesn't change us all that much, that we can go about life as normal without any difference. . . . is this why Jesus says, you haven't seen anything yet. . . you have seen and already you are trying to categorize, already you are trying to put me in a box you can understand, you are trying to adopt me into your world, rather than leaving your world and entering into mine. . . let me blow your mind then and tell you that there is more to me than what  you have seen, and more to me than you will ever understand unless you give up yourself first, completely washed away by water and the spirit, things that are necessary to life, the wind, the air, and water, and they are both all around us, completely accessible by all, and they do not make rigid barriers, but instead are fluid. . . ever changing, yet ever present, and they fill everything. . . let it fill you, not the other way around. Stop trying to put everything in your literal earthly categories, if you do so, if you put all of this in your rigid earthly categories, how will you ever understand heavenly things because heavenly categories don't fit in the narrow earthly boxes. . . I am not just a teacher of God, but I am God, and I am the son of God, and as the son of God I will die so that I can be raised. . . For it is in this exchange with Nicodemus that Jesus says, for God so loved the world that he sent his only son so that everyone that believes in him may have eternal life. . . that is a claim that goes far beyond someone being a teacher, and it goes far beyond any other limits we might think to put on Jesus. Jesus defies categories, defies logic, breaks through the walls that we build. Why does Jesus need to tear down the temple. . . why do we need to be born from above? Because he lives outside of our preconceived notions and they have to be torn down before we can go forward. . . as many of  you know I wrote my own version of the gospels a rhyming ballad that puts the stories of the four together into one. I concluded that poem with these words, I wrote it thinking about this exchange between Nicodemus and Jesus:
So we are saved, at least from the grave,
The Bible allows us to know it,
But there is more, for us to learn for sure,
For God is also a great poet.

And any artist knows that his creation grows
Under his watchful care,
So you and me, should struggle to see,
And keep searching for what is there.

Don’t miss a miracle, trapped in the literal.
Instead thank Him for every breath.
His power is all, and even after our fall,
God is still stronger than death.

And so victory was won with subtlety,
But many still cannot see,
But perfection takes time, and through reason and rhyme,
One day all will truly be free.

It is a story about growing and expanding definitions of the world, expanding definitions about life, and death, and love, and God, and even us, so we have to be careful of being too literal because we might miss something, we might miss some of the glorious scope of Jesus if we try to keep him safely within our safe literal mindset. "Don't miss a miracle, trapped in the literal, instead thank him for every breath" for each breath is a miracle. . . maybe it doesn't literally fit our definitions of how big a miracle must be, but it does grow our understanding of God, and just might work to make us a little more humble, and a lot more grateful. May it be so, thanks be to God.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 3:1-10). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Chapter 2: Old an New, part 2
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
January 25, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 2: 13-22
2 Samuel 7: 1-11

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.

13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. 15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken. [1]

As we continue our journey through the Gospel of John, this week we take a look at the second half of chapter 2, where we see Jesus clearing out the Temple, causing those people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and also those money changers who it says were seated at tables. It is interesting that it doesn't tell us where the sheep and the cattle, and the doves were. It doesn't say, where there were men selling sheep closely shorn, standing in the corner, and the cattle who were walking around in circles, and the doves who were above on the rafters cooing so softly and praying for peace. I mean really, where else would the money changers be but sitting at tables!?! But I guess the detail is important because he needs tables to flip over, and it would be possible that we wouldn't know where the tables came from unless they had been mentioned here first. The details of this story are all really vivid. . . but the big question that we have is not about sheep and doves, but about why does John have this story so early in his gospel, when the other gospels place this story in Jesus' final week of ministry. The other gospels include this temple clearing out episode in the passion week stuff, occurring right after Jesus' triumphant, palm Sunday, donkey riding, Hosanna parade, like here he comes, we love him, but then he turned the tables in the temple, challenging the Man, a little too much, and he had to go, like Jesus' ministry was all building, all funneling towards this one watershed moment, where everything changed, but John doesn't place it at the end like the others, instead places this all important scene here up front at the beginning.
I didn't know why going in, to tell the truth I hadn't put much thought into it at all, but after studying this chapter the last two weeks I really have an idea now that makes sense to me, and it is a powerful, important message for the rest of the Gospel and its overarching purpose about Believing and Receiving, which is really cool, as if the Gospel writer was creating a work of meaningful work of literature, all working to convey a single salvational purpose. Last week we talked about the famous Wedding at Cana, where Jesus turns water into wine. We talked about a lot of things, but the most important, I thought was the idea of this being the start of a new covenant. Here you have, at a wedding, Jesus beginning his ministry with the first of the signs. And he turns what was the Sacramental Wines for the Jewish Rites of Purification, in other words the water that they used in the rite where they purified themselves, washing them clean from their sin. . . .and Jesus is transforming that water, not just any water, but that water, into wine. And we talked about how that is symbolic of a new covenant being formed, in Jesus' blood, significant to us, certainly on a day like today where we celebrate communion, and it happened as it specifically states on the third day, which is certainly representatively symbolic in its own right, and that it all took place at a wedding where, a man and a woman were being joined in a new covenant, a relationship of love moving forward from this day forward. There is just so much here that points us in the direction of a very new idea coming forward in this person of Jesus, of whom we are supposed to believe and receive according to John in Chapter 1. . .
But that isn't all that he says of Jesus in chapter 1, and this also comes through as very significant, it is there that John the Baptist has been baptizing sinners telling them to repent, but then he gets to baptize Jesus, and when he does he comes to know who Jesus is, and so therefore says, "Behold the Lamb of God." Now it just so happens that the breaking up of the temple takes place during Passover. And again we have more Jewish, Old Testament symbolic imagery, of the Old becoming New, because Passover of course is the Jewish observing of the night where the 10th plague was unleashed on Egypt, where the Angel of Death came and was ending the lives of all the first born. . . except those who had sacrificed a young lamb. . . a lamb who was perfect in several categories. . . from the lamb blood was to be put over the door, a sign to show the Angel to pass over that house. And in such you have Jesus who is that lamb, has shown himself to be creating a new covenant, has turned the old sacrificial waters into wine, or his blood, now heads into the Temple on a new passover to further extend the new covenant, and to reclaim and realign the old one. And just like the after the tenth plague when the Pharaoh relents and lets the people go, this lamb of God has set us free as well, but free from what. . . ?
He goes into the temple and challenges the status quo. He finds there as we have seen, business being taken place, but it is not his father's business, instead it is the business of the power brokers, it is the business of the world, it is the business of money changers and animal peddlers. But not only that, he challenges the Temple itself. It is possible that this house of God that they had built had become something very far away from God, and not just because of the money changers inside, possibly, but because what the temple can or should mean. Though meant to be positive and faithful houses for God, built in all piety and faith, Temples can also have as human history shows, two issues associated with them. The first one seems to be what is going on here, and that is when there just is no reverence for it . It is only a public forum, where the business of life gets taken care of. It isn't special, it isn't sacred, it isn't holy. It becomes merely a place for people to meet, a social club, a place for business. . . it happens quite often really,  but the other danger that temples can have is that they can take on too much importance, and become idolatrous, in that they become houses for the worship that you can see. . . and in such trap God in a place, in a system, in a narrow definition, a safe definition, a definition that keeps those powers that be in place, that they can wield to keep their control. There is a sense that though these two issues of the temple seem like opposites of each other, too much sanctity and not enough. . . in actuality, in real life, they are quite the same and connected. It all stems from human power, human agency, and in such human idolatry. If God is confined in a temple then humans can do what they want, and if God is ignored then humans can do what they want. Jesus is all about restoring, resurrecting and bringing people and the institutions they belong to through their restoring back to life, with new purpose, new relationship, new possibilities, all again apart of this new covenant idea. . . sealed in Jesus' blood.
In so we are set free. . .set free to begin again in relationship with God. That God can live everywhere and can pierce the walls of even the coldest of human hearts. The Prophet Jeremiah claimed that there would be a new covenant, and that this new covenant would be written on the hearts of the people, and that it would mean something more to us. . . that it could be a part of us, could be intimate with us, personal to us, and therefore defining of us, rather than being defined by us. All of the other covenants that were made, through Abraham and Moses, through David, even through Noah, were very personal, but to them and their descendant, them and their people, but this one breaks through entering each and every human heart that would begin to believe and receive. So we get the idea that the receiving has to do with having this covenant written on your heart, and that it is written on  your heart in some way, that we will find out later, but when it is it does the work of purifying, cleansing away your sin, and wiping the slate clean so that real, full and total relationship can emerge. The Lamb of God does this for us. . . it protects us from harm, and shakes the foundations of power, just like it did Pharaoh, it does here in the Temple, and in a upside down, meek inheriting the Earth, swords into plowshares, last shall be first kind of way, it is a challenge to those who have been wielding the idolized version, the narrow version of God for themselves, and they don't like it. . . but even as God hardened the Pharaoh's heart, God used their anger for his own purposes, bringing this story full circle with the cross and three days later, in the fullness of time. . . the empty tomb.
Why do we make the idols? Why do those wielding the idols have such power over us? It is because we can't see God, so when the darkness looms, when we have trouble believing in something we can't see that our fears overcome us, and we trade the faith in the God who is, for the things we can see, the things that have given us comfort. The trouble is that these things, like the temple can take the place of God for us, and when they are taken away, or changed in some way, or destroyed we find ourselves lost. One of the real ideas that Jesus seems to be saying to us in this story is, “What are the things that give you comfort, that connect you to God? What are those things, now take them away, is God still there? He very much should be! Tear it down and God will still be there three days later.” In the last three days I've written two poems, and I think they tie these ideas together. The first is written in the bulletin: a sonnet called "The Temple"
The Temple
In need of something I can see, I seek
to build for you a home in which you'll live.
Free from your sight, no need for me to sneak,
I'll fill your home with what I choose to give.
And so control I'll have, with sated heart,
I've done it based on what I understood.
And satisfied with my completed part
I now can say that I am truly good. 
But locked away you just could never be.
You're much too great for four walls to enclose.
Your nature cannot live except for free
And so these lies you always do expose.
Help me to see beyond the seeing end
And kneel before the truth that does transcend.

That’s it right, we build those temples that limit God because we want to feel safe, but they end up making God too safe for us, and limit God’s real impact. How can we do better? Because it is hard to see beyond the seeing end, especially when the rain is coming down, and pouring down and it seems like there is no hope in sight. . . . We've been praying for my niece for a few weeks now, and as she has many times, she created artwork and her work inspired my words. . . this poem "A Rainbow Never Runs" works to show how important a covenant written on our heart can be for our faith:
God's Rainbow Never Runs
Inspired by Gabrielle Jackson's "Rainy Day Blues"

In olden times, in Noah's day
When God did wash the world away
Forty days of rain and then when done
The clouds subsided for the sun.

And then upon the sky he laid
His bow of peace, a sign displayed
The colorful symbol of covenant love
A promise made from heaven above.

That though the rains do pour and fall
Never will a storm consume us all
Instead the spectrum does remind us
That God's light can always find us.

So in my heart I know no rainbows come
Until after all the rain is done
But it lately seems the opposite is true
No matter what I say or do

It's like the rain in its constant flow
Has drenched and soaked God's rainbow
And the varied colors have leaked and run
Until they've melded into one.

And wiped the brightness clean away
Leaving only darkish, purplish, gray,
Seeming like no light could ever sever
Through the darkness, no never ever.

On days like these it's hard to hope,
Not to mention, deal, persevere, or cope.
In this darkness I must admit
That I would rather give in and quit.

The light that makes the colors bright
Has always put up quite the fight
But the battle just proved to be too much
For Faith and Hope and Love and such.

And so as these dreary colors rain
I'll open my umbrella again
To try to stay dry until the flood
Covers my life in muck and mud.

And just as I thought my life was done,
There arose the morning sun,
Shining through the clouds to dry
And once again light up the sky.

But before each drop of rain was gone,
There in the shining light of dawn,
A rainbow, once again was lay
Knocking me to my knees to pray:

"O God, in the midst of all my fear,
When your voice I can't hear clear,
Give me faith that you'll never depart
And write this vision upon my heart."

In that poem we can see it. . . we can see the darkness and we can see the rain, and we can feel the panic, the idea that may be God is not in control, that maybe all this is way too hard, that maybe I should just quit and give up. . . I’ve put up the good fight, and so has God, but we’ve both lost. But then the rainbow comes again, the light comes again, Jesus is raised again, and this covenant, the one that Christ writes on our hearts can never be destroyed, it can’t be taken away, we can’t be convince otherwise, and dissuaded, proved wrong. . . it is there it is in our hearts and it is built from within. . . because our hearts do not work like temple walls, it’s walls expand outwards, and with God in our hearts, that love, that promise, that power, just expands outward for the world to see, not defined, but free. . . what temples have you in your life that need to be destroyed, just to see that God is still very much there despite them. Something for churches today to remember. May it be so. Amen.

Gabrielle’s picture:

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 2:13-22). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.