Sunday, May 31, 2015


A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
May 31, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 8: 12-20

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.

12 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” 13 The Pharisees then said to him, “You are bearing witness to yourself; your testimony is not true.” 14 Jesus answered, “Even if I do bear witness to myself, my testimony is true, for I know whence I have come and whither I am going, but you do not know whence I come or whither I am going. 15 You judge according to the flesh, I judge no one. 16 Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is true, for it is not I alone that judge, but I and he who sent me. 17 In your law it is written that the testimony of two men is true; 18 I bear witness to myself, and the Father who sent me bears witness to me.” 19 They said to him therefore, “Where is your Father?” Jesus answered, “You know neither me nor my Father; if you knew me, you would know my Father also.” 20 These words he spoke in the treasury, as he taught in the temple; but no one arrested him, because his hour had not yet come. [1]

Each time we read scripture we pray for Illumination, we pray for light, we for knowledge, we pray for the Holy Spirit to bring to light what is in the text, to help us to see what we haven't seen before, for it to speak to us anew today. How interesting that the metaphor we use for knowledge is light. It is one of the oldest standard metaphorical symbols there is. Ancient religions looked to the sun as a source of wisdom. If you look at the Sun gods, the sun idols, like Ra in Egypt or Apollo for the Ancient Greeks, they were not just gods symbolic of the sun, but also of wisdom, as if knowledge is gained when the sun comes shining. . . it brings things to light. When you think about it, it's pretty basic. . . we can't see in the dark, but once there is light we can see. . . and seeing is a major gateway towards what we know. . . right, seeing is believing. . . isn't all scientific knowledge based on such things. I talk to my students about what science is built on, and we come to the conclusion that all science stems from, or is supposed to stem from sensory observations, what you can see, smell, taste, touch, and hear, and our most dominant sense has always been sight. . . and so it stands to reason, logically, that there would be a connection between light and knowledge. Ironically the blind Helen Keller is quoted as having said, "Knowledge is love and light and vision." Notice there the set of three she uses.
Today is Trinity Sunday, where we take a day to commemorate one of the most basic, troubling, and difficult to understand doctrines of the Church. It is basic because it has come to be the basis for what Orthodox is, being one of the oldest uniting and dividing principles within the church, since way back at the Council of Nicaea in the 5th century. It is troubling because we end up splitting God into three persons, while testifying to at the same time the oneness of the three. It is difficult because it seems so mystical and otherwordly and hard to comprehend and wrap our minds around. Sometimes it is even considered part of the Hocus Pocus superstition, a remnant of the old church of an old and long gone time. But when I was in seminary, there was one class discussion that I always thought was the most interesting, and it was where we looked in the old and the new testaments for textual evidence of the Trinity, and it was really cool to think about it in that way, that it isn't just a New Testament concept, but could be found in the old, and then you can find that it can be expanded out to different aspects of all life and creation that seems to be rooted in sets of three. If you think about things in threes, there is something very real, final, complete about seeing things wrapped up in three, as if three completes it.
This morning I want to talk about knowledge and light and the trinity because I've found a really neat and interesting way of looking at an aspect of the trinity in our lives around us, and it is all connected to how we think, how we come to know, how we come to believe, and how we process the information that comes our way. At the end I hope to show you how even something so simple as coming to knowledge is surrounded in trinitarian symbolism.
Now we've already talked about how light is a symbol for knowledge. Any time we think of someone having an idea, and the lightbulb shines above their head, we get this picture, and when we say someone is brilliant, we get the same, but it's rooted beyond and much deeper than that. And here in John 8, Jesus says I am the Light of the World, and the entire passage is about coming to know. . . how do we know? how do we come to know? what verifies things for us? how do we determine what is true and what is false. Here the Pharisees say to Jesus that he cannot be a trustworthy source, simply because he is testifying on his own behalf. Jesus, of course, says, I come from the Father, and if you knew the Father, you would know me, so obviously you don't. You don't know me and you don't know my Father. Strong words from Jesus to these Pharisees, these teachers of "the Father" but they don't know him, nor do they know Jesus. Why not? Again, how do we come to know things?
I ask my students this very question at different points during the year, at the beginning, when they haven't learned to think and question much, and then further in when they've learned to challenge themselves more, and I want to come up with a list, not just of what each one of us uses, but more of a full list of what people everywhere, all possible sources for finding and discerning truth, and then we do what academics is all about, we make up categories to put the ideas in, to organize them. So I want to lead you through that a little bit now, but think about it for yourself as we go, and see if we had forgotten anything in class. They usually start pretty basic, and remember they are in school, thinking about teachers and parents and books, stuff like that. They make up the voices that we listen to in our lives to get at truth. . . and I pushed them further to think about not just those voices of authority, but all other voices, ones that  you agree with and ones that you don't, they all seem to shape what we think and know in some way. . . so those voices may be, the news, politicians, newspaper articles, friends voices, all of these things influence our thoughts in some way. Different people of course put emphasis on different areas, they trust different things, but all these pieces are outside influences. . . so that becomes our first category. The outside, or external influences to truth. Again, including other people, books, and maybe that major sometimes silent influence, but which is very external is tradition. . . the voices of those who have come and gone before us, their voices not silenced by the grave. Chesterton says of tradition
Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”

I don't know why I included that quote, other than I've always liked it, and it seems a good way to sum up the external part, making sure we've expanded the idea to include all parts.
And that brings up the next piece of the puzzle that the students eventually get to, which is our own personal experience. All of us bring to each day, every day we've spent on this Earth, or at least those we can remember, and it would seem that our remembering goes beyond just mental recall, but our muscles tend to remember action, and our bodies seem to sense and acclimate to things over time, but all of the factors that we experience through life goes into our understanding of the way the world works, and what we know and believe. It all fits in, and one thing that is true is that our experiences are completely unique to us, two people even experience the same thing in different ways, but all of it leads to what we know. Someone who has experienced trauma in life may see the world one way, someone who has experienced loss, heartbreak, love, connection, known the death of someone close to them, known births, known poverty, or great wealth, or oppression, or had experienced war, or fear, or betrayal. . . all of those things can affect the way we see the world and its truth. I think of Harry Potter and the threstrals from Book V. . . since the first book there are these carriages that bring the students of Hogwarts from the train to the school, and they appear to be magical carriage that propel themselves, but they are actually drawn by these creatures known as threstrals. And the interesting thing about Threstrals, is that they can only be seen by humans who have witnessed the death of someone firsthand. Harry does at the end of Book IV, so he can see them in Book V, and what a great symbol of how experience can affect what we see and what we know. It's a troubling truth as well, because many times, at least my students want to think that their experience teaches all, and that they can build their lives on what they have seen and experienced, but sometimes our experience can shape what we see, and if that is the case how real is it, how trustworthy is it? There is that great anecdote about the missing axe. . . where there is this man who loses his axe, and he sees a boy, and the boy, looks, walks, and talks like a thief, but then the man finds his axe and the boy looks normal again. . . sometimes what we think determines what we see, and what we see determines what we think, so even then we can be led away from actual truth.
And that leads us to the third category I try to push them on, and that has to do with what we are before we learn, before we experience, just us from the inside, that voice within that may be how we are wired, it may be our conscience, it may be chemical, it may be spiritual, it may even be ancestral, a kind of ancestral muscle memory where our ancestors experiences are somehow written into our DNA. It's always hard to explain exactly what it is, but all of my students admit that there is something to it, there is something there beyond what we are taught, what we've heard, and beyond what we have experienced.
So we all have three categories of information coming in, and we compute it, process it, prioritize it, organize it, and learn from it all in different ways, in different aspect, in different orders, but all of it is connected in this idea of discerning truth, what is true, what we believe, what we know. . . and the differences and disparities and changes in point of view, the fact that we all have different ideas of the truth, lead many to believe that the truth does not exist, and that it is all relative, but this takes, as unquestionable fact, the ignorant, though popular notion that truth must be known to exist, that just because no one's got it all, or that there is disagreement on what it is, means that truth is relative therefore that there is no such thing.
Christ faces such notions, but in his day, such cynicism was wielded and owned, people claimed to have the total knowledge of truth, such as these Pharisees, and so cannot see a new light standing in front of them. If you have it all figured out then there is no room for new knowledge or new experience. They were sure that the Father could be encapsulated in the Torah and the Prophets that they had already read, but their new experiences had nothing to add to the picture, and so with Jesus, the light of the world standing in front of them they missed the light. . . one could wonder whether they too would have missed the light shining from the bush that didn't burn, or the pillar of fire leading through the night. Paul, Saul at the time, and a Pharisee, himself, was so struck by the light on the road to Damascus that he was blinded and then changed forever.
So what is our mixture, of discernment, how much do we listen to the external? How much to our inner voice? How much to what we have experienced in our own lives? Do we trust some sources more than others? Do we hold up one as perfection, completeness, or monopoly? What is the danger in doing so?
Here is why I like this set of three, and why I think a fluid balancing of the three is important, and a good way at ever seeking the truth. If we think about it there is much to be said for The Father to be an example of external truth. . . creating the world, revealing truth at times, leaving his craftsmanship and poetry on the world, even being a Father, like one who provides wisdom, knowledge, and tradition, all from the outside for us to take in. . . Then the Spirit, the indwelling Holy Spirit, the Parclete, the sustainer, is there represented in the internal, hard to nail down and understand, but as present as the air we breathe, and as crucial to life. . . and then finally, knowing how much experience plays into our psyche, the Son was sent, for us to be able to experience God's love ourselves, flesh to flesh, human to human, humbling himself to come and be with us on our level.
In this way God, the three persons of God, infuse all parts of our discernment, in perfect completeness, complete, but never finished because life, love, and God are constantly moving, and moving us. The light of the world meets us where ever we are, and in it there is no darkness at all, it shines and we can know it, experience it, and internalize it. It fills us completely.

[1]The Revised Standard Version. 1971 (Jn 8:12). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

To Others' Sin

To Others' Sin
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
May 24, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 8: 1-11
2 Samuel 11: 1-6

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.

8 1 while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.”  And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”]]  
I don' t know about you, but I am glad for this morning's reprieve from John's typical gospel style. Here we have a story that is by no means simple or easy, but at least is in the style of the other gospels. Here we have a scene that is created, and we can see it. Here we have a story that begins and ends just 11 verses later. Here we have therefore a beginning and an end, where Jesus acts, the action and speaking is quick and direct, the reaction of the people is immediate, and no further expostulation from Jesus is necessary. Also, the simple words that Jesus says really stay on topic, are connected rationally to the situation, and so they make sense to us, even if they challenge us. It is not like Jesus has done so far in John's gospel, again and again, changing subjects, answering the unspoken rather than the spoken comments, and speaking seemingly about heavenly rather than earthly things. Here we have a difference. The subject is focused, Jesus comments are tight and make sense to the situation, and the situation is certainly Earthly, though there does seem to be heavenly implications, but here we have it in correct poetic order, using the concrete and earthly to highlight and illuminate the heavenly, rather than the abstract and heavenly, clouding, and confusing the implications for life here on earth. Perhaps this change is one reason why scholars believe this passage is inserted here later. It is certainly different, and older versions of the Gospel of John do not include it. But here we have it, and as I said, I'm glad for the reprieve, in style, if not in intensity of message.
It is a story that is also familiar to us. There is a woman, brought forward who has committed adultery, and she is to be stoned to death. Jesus interferes, inserts himself into the situation, and she is saved because he tells them, "he who is without sin, should cast the first stone." Of course no one casts such a stone, reflecting the certain truth that all people do sin, that all have something about them that they hide from the light, preferring instead the darkness. Now, those are the details that everybody knows, right off the bat, the "he who is without sin, cast a stone" has entered the cultural lexicon, it even has a non scriptural brother about glass houses, but what really stands out here, and what I want to look at today, are the little details that are often missed from the slogan, truism, drive-by look.
The first point, is that this situation isn't about the woman at all, instead it is about Jesus. She is simply the latest tool in their attack on Jesus. It says there in Verse 6, "They said this to test him, Jesus, so that they might have a charge to bring against him." How interesting. . . what is it that they want to say, or want him to say? What are they trying to catch  him in? What crime? If we are to take this story within the context of the rest of John's gospel, despite the fact that we already alluded to it possibly not being original, it does fit from this aspect, if we are to take it within the story, Jesus' main crime that these people have against him is about breaking the Sabbath laws, twisting, and altering the laws of Moses, that have given them standing, identity, and place as God's people in the world. It seems they are doing so again, Moses' law states that this is the penalty for adultery, which is one of the Ten Commandments, just like remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy. They want to see who Jesus is going to side with, this poor woman or Moses, tradition, and the law, handed down they believe from God. How can Jesus be the Son of God, when he so often seems to break the laws of God? You see how such inconsistency and perhaps we could call hypocrisy, maybe, might stop some of the people who have chosen to follow him for a second thought. So the woman is irrelevant, they are looking for any excuse. Now in the news this week, and pretty much any week you look, you can still see this tactic happening today. It is always easier to attack the person, rather than the message, and in hopes that the message falls right with them. If you want to attack the American ideal of liberty, it is easier to tear down the founders as slave holding hypocrites, than to point out that freedom is somehow harmful, though such is your true aim. This week I saw two major headlines, one about a pastor who was caught with a profile on a gay dating site, who the world was quick to point out the hypocrisy of him, not caring about him, but using his weakness as a way to attack what they saw as a voice they didn't like within Christianity. Another was the scandal about the Duggar's, you know the 19 kids and counting folks, oldest son, and the sexual crimes he committed when he was 14. The world again, outraged by his actions, but truthfully using those actions to tear down the monument that they saw as some kind of judgmental, perfect family,  snooty, hypocritical, Christian voice. It is more about attacking the voice you don't agree with rather than the person, but you can use their "sin" as a platform and a tool to tear down what they stand for. What it truly reveals is the hypocritical picking and choosing of moral outrage that has been prevalent in our world since the beginning. Tear down what you disagree with, not matter what. I thought that the problem was that Christians were intolerant, hateful, and judgmental? Hmmm. . . the story is nothing new.
The other small, but glaring, detail, is that there is only one accused person, though they state clearly to Jesus that she was "Caught in the very act of Adultery." Now, there are many sins that you can do all by yourself, but adultery is not one of them. As they say, it takes two to tango, and it takes two to commit adultery. The very word, its roots mean, "a" apart from, or moving to, and "dul" other, so moving away from one to another, in latin the word had to do with all forms of corruption. . . we get the idea of unadulterated, from this line of the definition. So it doesn't mean, the sin that only "adults" do, but a real sense of corruption, but again this is not the concern of the Pharisees gathered. Their target is Jesus, not in bringing corruption to an end. So where is the man who committed this act, that they supposedly caught her in the "very act of"? Why is he not up here held to the same standard as she is? It immediately makes me think about Nathaniel Hawthorne's take on this story, The Scarlet Letter. Hester Prynne is caught not in the very act, but with her husband not around, she is found to be pregnant and gives birth to her child, Pearl. That is how she is caught in the very act, and in his version, the story is all about how Hester's public sin and confession brings her to a place of redemption, whereas, her partner in crime, so to speak, ends up being slowly destroyed by his secret. So where is this guy that is to blame with this woman that Jesus encounters here?
Does it have to do with the last interesting detail, Jesus writing in the sand? How strange? This crowd is gathered, they are wanting to catch him in some hypocritical or blasphemous act, they are asking him what he has to say about it all, and he bends down and writes with his finger in the ground. Then he stands up, delivers the famous line about casting the first stone, and then bends down and goes right back to his writing. He says nothing else, just writes in the ground. Wouldn't it be great to know what it was that he was writing? Like maybe the name of the other guilty man, or maybe he is writing a list of the people assembled and their sins, or maybe he is writing nothing at all. . . Or does it even matter? John doesn't tell us, and though our curiosity is certainly piqued,  maybe it was just the act of writing that is important. Maybe it's the subtle act of it, the bluff of it, the lack of engagement in their trap, the idea that Jesus doesn't raise to their level.
I wrote this poem this week thinking about it, it's printed in the bulletin.
What did he write on the ground with his finger,
When he bent down and wrote there in the dust?
Did those assembled, ready to throw their stones,
Feel his gentle scratching in the dirt on their hearts?
Their guilt felt something strange deep inside,
Though his finger just barely scratched the surface.
They didn't like it, whatever it was, the itch he scratched,
Because they got out of there, quick, but she stayed.
I guess her soul was already laid bare in public,
So she could take a little scratching and then go on.

This Jesus, who has something about him that makes people follow him, must be something about the way he looks at you, and the fact that he knows about people before really knowing them. . .  he knows about the sins of all gathered, and something about him makes people look into the very blackness of their souls. . . the light of the world stuff, that Jesus will talk about next, and that we will look at next week, so is the scratching and writing on the ground, just symbolic of him scratching beyond the surface of the people gathered, uncovering the sins that they have hidden, and they want to keep hidden, no matter what it is, with each scratch of the dirt, the stone throwers depart, until all of them are gone. And Jesus tells the woman that there is no one left to condemn her, and neither does he. . . but he tells her not to sin again.
It is a picture of grace, not lowered standards. He tells her not to go sin again, to change her life, to make something of this second chance, but that this time around there is to be no penalty. It's how grace works. . . it forgives completely, it is unearned, it has no strings attached to it. . . which makes it some how wonderfully, free, and so completely transformative. The cynics in us say it doesn't work, that she will just go back to her old ways, that she has gotten away with something here, and not holding people to standards results in the lowering of standards. . . which is the view that the Pharisees were caught in. . . It's all caught up in the idea, "Shall then we sin, so that grace may abound," Paul says, "by no means." Grace isn't about sin, it is about transformation, and fresh start, and that feeling like you didn't deserve it, you didn't earn it, but that now you somehow owe, your life, your loyalty, your obedience, not as payment, but as a new life of new relationship.
When I was working on the discipline committee at Blue Ridge School. There are 3 student members and 3 faculty members, and when we got close to the end of the year, one of the three student members broke the rules and got in trouble. He was so embarrassed, and part of his punishment was to lose the privilege of serving on the committee any more. I fought for him to be reinstated. He had been the toughest member of the committee, the most rules oriented, he had looked at students across the way from a righteous standpoint, not understanding why anyone would ever break the rules, and it was hard for him to see any other point of view than that of perfection.  He by breaking the rules himself agreed with the punishment that he should be removed from serving, which is why I thought he should serve. He should have to stand in judgment of his peers, not in a place of perfection, but in a place where he too had felt the grace of forgiveness. He thought, but wouldn't I be a hypocrite. . . I said, "who isn't to some extent?" What have you learned from this: Compassion, understanding, empathy? Important, huh. . . even towards yourself.
So with all of this going on, how does this story tell us we should handle the "sins of others?" Is Jesus saying that we have no role to play, that we are to simply accept sin as a part of life, and as the world says now tolerate it? Christians need to become more tolerant to Sin in the modern world, so as to get along with the world and attract new members? Should we just admit to ourselves that things like adultery aren't that bad? Maybe I thought that way at some point, or at least that well I sin too, who am I to say anything about the sins of others? But then I was in class a couple of years ago, and we were looking at The Divine Comedy, and I asked them what they thought was the worst sins, how they would arrange Hell if they were given the chance, would they, like Dante, put betrayal at the very bottom, deepest, and worst punishment place. Many of them did, some said, murder. . . but one of them said adultery. I asked him about it after class, and his father had committed adultery in his family, and it tore his family, his world, his life completely apart. Nothing was the same after that, trust was broken, relationship was broken, they were embarrassed and on display, and hurting. . . because his father was unfaithful. When you think about the destruction that adultery can cause, it is hard to be tolerant.  . . or there is danger in such tolerance. And I'm not sure that Jesus here is "tolerant" like that because his actions are meant to transform, he tells her to go and sin no more. Many have thought that in this story, the woman here is Mary Magdelene, or if not her, someone like her, that becomes a truly devoted follower of Jesus, someone whose life is wholly and Holy transformed.
How do you think she would respond to sin, the sin of others?  Would she use it like the Pharisees try to, to push forward her agenda, and attack voices that challenge their lives and authority? Would she be afraid to say anything? Tolerating sin because of being afraid of hypocrisy? Don't you see, both of those responses are about and concerned with ourselves. . . . Jesus instead is focused on the sinner, saving, and transforming the sinner. . . my that is a difference, it is a compassionate, caring, relationship building approach, and look at how those words are the very antithesis of the effects of the sin. The sin breaks relationship, and grace and compassion, focusing outward to them and not to ourselves heals, builds up, and restores relationship. Is this a picture of what Jesus does? Perhaps we could have faith enough, grace enough to try such an aggressive approach ourselves?

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 7:53-8:11). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Not Mine

Not Mine
For the 2015 Graduates of Blue Ridge School

It happens the same this time each year.
We send a new crop of you boys from here,
But deep inside we have one fear,
For truth be told, it's never quite clear,
Whether we've done our job to guide and to steer
You off into the right direction.
Our intentions reach beyond perfection
In hope that combined affection and correction,
Would have some measured direct effect,
But still, somehow, we do suspect,
Despite what we say we do expect,
That if someone really went and checked,
They'd find our fears you boys reflect.
We always can say we tried to teach you,
But do we ever really reach you?
So often we go and keep on going
Without really ever knowing
That you boys have really ever grown,
Despite what our fears and doubts have shown.
Just one year, or maybe once upon a dream,
Our wishes could be answered, it would seem,
If we could find a way to scheme,
And make one boy actually be the complete
Summation of our balance sheet.
For we'd finally get a chance to see
Exactly what one boy could be,
Who had taken all we had to give
With him into the world to live.
He'd be the embodied combination
Of every lesson and situation,
The full fruition of his education,
Built on a firm and just foundation.
When it came to math and science,
His skills would come through in full compliance,
And when it came to reading history,
There'd be no time that was a mystery.
He'd know English, Spanish, Chinese, too.
There'd be nothing this boy couldn't do,
And believe me even this'd be true:
There be no hoop he wouldn't breeze through.
He'd be an athlete, a singer, and an actor,
An artist, the smartest, with no detractor,
In every situation be the constant factor.
There'd be no challenge that e'er could buck him,
And never have to be told his shirt to tuck in.
He'd never fail to get out of bed,
Or have his hair too long upon his head.
He would, then, from here instead,
Head out into the world equipped,
With bulging biceps, fully ripped,
Never having ever slipped,
Or once deviated from the script.
He'd complete the rites of passage twice,
For only once just might suffice,
But why be bothered by bottom lines,
When the light of virtue always shines
Just above where your hand has been
To the beyond direction you're going in.
He'd stand forever and face his fear,
Never failing to persevere.
In all he'd say, he'd be sincere,
And stand tall a model for his peers.
When it came to brothers keeping,
In he'd come swiftly sweeping.
Never would you find him sleeping.
Right into the thick, he'd be always leaping.
He'd know the Golden Rule back and forth,
Be the constant compass pointing north,
A guide for all the other lost,
Who into trouble just had crossed,
And on the wind been turned and tossed.
They'd look to him and they would know
Exactly which way they should go,
And safe returning even so,
Rising back up from down below.
He'd seek and always find success,
Always more and rarely less,
Not just in money, but in nobleness,
Finding family, and ease to stress,
With friends abounding numerous,
Ever grateful that he'd been blessed.
I can go further, on and on,
In this my vision, description of perfection,
But I think you hear just where this song
Has missed the boat, and so has gone
Woefully, frightfully, perfectly wrong,
For though we've tried to shape and mold you
To our vision, we can't just hold you,
Despite all the things we've done and told you
Because you see, you're still the old you,
The perfectly made, shining gold you,
All we can hope is you find the bold you,
Deep inside, but seeking to shine through,
In everything you say and do.
No matter what, it's better to be you,
And though we push and raise the bar higher,
Planting seeds and setting fires,
All in hopes that we'll inspire
You to be more. It's not to change you,
Or take you apart and rearrange you,
Nor would we ever try and exchange you.
No, we simply know the you inside,
The you, you many times have tried
To keep down in fear to hide.
Don't ever mistake the truth for lies,
Despite our growns, despite our sighs,
In spite of what our fears comprise,
As we watch you stand and rise,
Pride's what is gleaming in our eyes,
When one last time we call your name,
The same name you gave
When you began this game
Twelve or thirteen years ago
Little do you ever really know
Of what you will or can truly be,
Until the future comes into view to see.
Our experiences truly build the sum
Of what it is we do become,
So go from here, seek, search, and find,
And never ever in blindness bind your mind.
Just follow where'er Your path does wind,
Never mine.

              ~ Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
                                May 24, 2015


Sunday, May 17, 2015

Are You Led Astray, Also

Are You Led Astray, Also
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
May 17, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 7: 40-52
Isaiah 53: 1-7

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.

40 When they heard these words, some of the people said, “This is really the prophet.” 41 Others said, “This is the Christ.” But some said, “Is the Christ to come from Galilee? 42 Has not the scripture said that the Christ is descended from David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?” 43 So there was a division among the people over him. 44 Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him.
45 The officers then went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who said to them, “Why did you not bring him?” 46 The officers answered, “No man ever spoke like this man!” 47 The Pharisees answered them, “Are you led astray, you also? 48 Have any of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him? 49 But this crowd, who do not know the law, are accursed.” 50 Nicodemus, who had gone to him before, and who was one of them, said to them, 51 “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” 52 They replied, “Are you from Galilee too? Search and you will see that no prophet is to rise from Galilee.”[1]

I decided to title this sermon, "Are you led astray, also" after the Pharisee's line in this text. So often we think about someone being led astray, away from Christianity, but here it is the Pharisees that say it to Jesus' followers. . . they believe it is Jesus that is leading the people astray. My how the tables are turned. . .you see there was a time when following Jesus was far from the norm, when it was counter cultural, even an act of  rebellion. We must remember that the followers of Jesus are putting much on the line when they follow. We must remember that Jesus himself put it all on the line with his actions, and that many truly felt he was leading people not to the light, but very much astray. We talked about it last week, and have alluded to it off and on throughout our study of John's gospel, but today I want to really get into it. Why follow Jesus? Why let yourself be led astray?
There must be something, but what is it? We talked a few weeks ago about how Jesus to the Jews of the time would be like Mohammad or Joseph Smith to us. Most Christians have found reasons to reject those two men, who many in the world claim to be prophets, but we have decided, even now to follow Jesus, and by even now I mean, 2000 years after he was hanged on a cross. Why? Because last week we took it a step further and compared what Jesus was doing and representing it directly against a passage from scripture, from Deuteronomy, directly out of the mouth of Moses, where he is warning the people about being taken, and led astray, there is that word again, by a false prophet, practicing things in secret, and doing wonders, and proclaiming to be the powers of other gods, in Jesus' case, namely himself as the Son of God. . . but here we are 2000 years later led astray. Why?
When I think about Led Astray, I think about Denzel Washington in Spike Lee's movie about Malcolm X, standing in front of a group of people saying, "
Oh, I say and I say it again,
ya been had!
Ya been took!
Ya been hoodwinked!
Led astray!
Run amok!
This is what He does....

Now we think that Jesus is by far the  most eloquent, the  most convincing of people, but it's half and half, at best here on who follows and who doesn't - - can you picture someone on the other side saying these words to Jesus' followers: You been had, took, led astray.  . .  ?
What is the opposite of astray? I need a word for it. . .  the thesaurus gave me. . . "on course" or "straight". . . if we think about the root word, "Stray" would be like lost, like a stray dog, or a stray sheep, led away from the shepherd, into the woods. . .  This is what they are claiming Jesus does. . . he leads astray from the teachings they have held so fast to, at least in intention, to something very new. . . but what is Jesus' main crime at this point in John's Gospel?. . . "Healing on the Sabbath" back in chapter 5, remember the man, the paralyzed man who was at the pool, that magical, pagan bath, in Jerusalem, that Pagan, idolatrous ritual healing place, but the powers that be didn't have a problem with all that, they instead only had a problem with the Sabbath breach. . . and then Jesus' claims after that in public about being the Son of God. . . blasphemy. . . other than that he fed 5000 people, certainly harmless, and then he  walked on water, but no one really ever acknowledged him walking on the water. But now here, Jesus is in Jerusalem, and more and more are following him, and his message, his presence, his claims, his miracles, something about him divides the people into opposing camps. . . some think he is great, and others think he is leading people astray. But are we to take it their anger at him literally on face value about his miracles and blasphemous claims? Is it instead another scriptural technicality that keep people away? Is it again the problem of where Jesus is from, remember nothing good can come from Nazareth, and this is so ironic, they ask,
Isn't the Messiah supposed to come from Bethlehem and Not Galilee, not Nazareth, who could ever come from that backwater place. . ." Ironic, since this gospel doesn't include the Christmas narrative like Matthew or Luke. . . so here we are again, what is the problem with Jesus on one side, what is it that he is leading people astray to and from, and on the other side, why follow, what makes people follow? We don't like extremes like this, where we have to pick and choose where to stand. . .
What is this being led astray all about? We could look at the teachings and signs of Jesus here in John, feeding people, walking on water, turning water into wine, claims of being the one true God, the word, with God, and as God since the beginning. . . the very beginning. The only real thing that Jesus has said, and he says it again again, is that all one needs is to believe, receive life, and obey. . .as if it all were hand in hand. Believe, receive life, abundant, beyond the pale, normal, life, into more life you can ever imagine, why because of love, and what is the response of the beloved, according to Jesus, to believe, and do the will of the Father. That doesn't sound so onerous, it doesn't sound bad either, I could use some of that abundant life stuff, andit doesn't sound like it is all that leading astray, at least not all that far astray, where does the astray part come in?
Maybe some of the teachings from the other gospels? Love your neighbor. . . love your enemies? The beatitudes?
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. 6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. 7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. 8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. 9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. 10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.[2]

It is kind of against everything that seems so apparent to us in our world. It seems upside down, kind of like the tables turned over in the temple. Hey come follow a person that tell you not to worry about your life, not to get revenge against your enemies, but instead to love them, some one who doesn't want to be king, someone who eats and associates with undesirables like tax collectors, cheats, and prostitutes, someone who disregards the traditions that we hold central to our existence, a prince of peace that instead brings division. The reasons for staying in the fold with the Pharisees and not running amok, and astray, on a practical level, are numerous. It would be easier not to care, not to love, not to get up and come to church on Sunday, not to love your neighbor, certainly easier to hate your enemies, to hold grudges and hold onto bitterness and resentment. All of that would be easier. . . so why would you let a teacher like Jesus lead you astray into a much more challenging life of self sacrifice and martyrdom, carrying a the cross of a disciple of Jesus? Why do these people? Why do we? Why did the Christian Martyrs persecuted by the Romans, why did Martin Luther, why did Mother Teresa, why did Dietrich Bonhoeffer, why did Martin Luther King? Why do the Christians being killed in the middle east by ISIS, why do we? I could ask do we, but that doesn't help much today? I could ask us are we really led astray, or we instead safely secured in the fold of the world's tradition?
What makes the difference, though? I think it has to be wrapped  up in one word, "Relationship." Jesus comes seeking relationship. . . and some people are open to it and some aren't, the rest comes later, the following, the journey of trials and opposites. . . it seems if you take things out of balance, out of order,  you'll just fall away eventually. If you want to make Jesus king because your belly is full, you'll miss it, and the moment that your belly isn't full in that way, or full in another way instead, you'll be out, again looking for something to work for you. I was in chapel at school on Tuesday, and the speaker said, you can use Jesus how ever you want, and if it works for you go with it, or whatever you use that works for you it is all the same. . . really? Isn't that just more king making idolatry? Instead Jesus seeks to know us, and for us to know him. . . look at the snapshots we have of the people who decide to follow Jesus. He tells them things about themselves that no one could know, he skips the pretence and small talk and goes right to the heart of real intimacy. That is relationship building, and relationship makes all the difference.
I watched "God is Not Dead" this week. Interesting movie, but not great. . . bad acting, over the top message, apologetics. . .  proving the truth of Jesus, Jesus on trial type stuff. . . when that stuff doesn't really ever work, at least  not in the way Jesus models it here in John. Jesus instead gets inside people by coming himself, bringing himself, and it is personal. Relationship is the reason that obedience is ever possible. Relationship with Jesus is the way that the believing is possible. Relationship is the reason that abundant life is possible. I would say that I believe that the difference between being left secure in the fold of the world and being led astray by Jesus is relationship, and it was true for people then, and because of the resurrection it is still true today. Come to know Jesus that is what we should seek, and show, and strive for.  And it happens differently for all of us, different ways, different times, it looks different, unique to each of us, which is why I had trouble writing this sermon this week. It is different for all of  us, different for each of us, and that is part of what makes it so great. . .  It is about being open, not so sure, searching for the new, the Pharisees weren't looking for something new because they were sure they had it all figured out. Do we think we have it all figured out? Because just at that moment Jesus comes in looks into our hearts, introduces himself to us again, and says follow, come I will lead you astray into new, more abundant life, life that you haven't known yet, even if you thought you did. If you want to try to convert the world to Christianity, converting all, you will always be cynical and anger, wondering why any of it matters. . . even with the best rhetorical, evidence, like you have created the best argument ever, you've got it down cold.  . . you can never reach all, because there is no relationship, and their really needs to be. . . instead focus on each. It is why Jesus said love your neighbor, rather than love the world. . . the world is nameless, faceless and far away, but your neighbor is there in your face, close enough to your heart to reach out, but it is easier often to feel good about  having a heart big enough to encompass the whole world. . . the one, is much more intimate, and includes the real risk of being successful.
I want to close with a poem that I wrote mid week about the difference between all, and each. .  .
Each Life Matters
Peter T. Atkinson

There’s only one difference ‘tween “all” and “each,”
And it’s the only one difference that matters,
For “All” is a number ever out of reach
And therefore all hope it shatters.

Never, no, never could you ever help all
So you might as well now stop your tryin’;
The world around us is just fated to fall,
Why waste your time carin’ for the cryin’?
It don’t matter no how; it never did y’all;
They keep sellin’ but we just ain’ buyin’.
No, life’s just a clock, and all its tick ‘n’ its tockin’
‘s just the music that plays while we’re dyin’.

Do you believe that, really deep and inside?
Have you never touched anyone’s soul?
Can you honestly say that you’ve never felt pride
In making another broken soul whole?
If you’ve ever loved with your arms open wide
Beyond selfish desires of control,
Then you’d too see the shame, of the endless names
Absent when “All” calls the roll.

And so every time that we talk of love
Let's not lose the "each" in the "all"
For silence is broken when only one dove
Forgets that his voice is too small.

[1]The Revised Standard Version. 1971 (Jn 7:40). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
[2]The Revised Standard Version. 1971 (Mt 5:3). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.