Sunday, July 19, 2015

Some Days It's So Simple

Some Days It's So Simple
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
July 19, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Daniel 3: 15-23
1 John 3: 18-24

Click Below to Listen to an Audio File of "Some Days It's So Simple"

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.
Amen.

18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19 And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20 whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us. [1]

 In this first epistle of John, the disciple restates the greatest commandment . We have been going through this same disciple's Gospel since January, and though the other evangelists, Mathew, Mark, and Luke, all give verse to this idea of loving God and loving neighbor, spelling it out as the greatest, most important of all the commandments, and that though  it even finds its origins in the Torah, the Law, the Pentateuch in Deuteronomy, out of the mouth, seemingly of Moses himself, John's gospel doesn't include it, despite the great and high import of Love in his somewhat enigmatic so called fourth gospel. But do we find it here in the three brief letters by John, all of which are so beautiful in nature. Their every phrase just seems to drip with love. Love is the central idea here too. He connects love with belief, and in doing so this letter certainly then echoes the repeating emphasis we have seen over and over again in John's gospel, that belief, identifying Jesus as the son of God, has real import in us being able to carry out this simple commandment to love in this our complex complicated wandering world of wondering and doubt, so since the motif  repeats here, there is little doubt that the evangelist, John, or at least his community, is responsible for crafting both, and that it's the same John, in fact, showing more connection than just the Christian Biblical tradition of believing that all of the New Testament people who have the same name must be the same person.
I was drawn to this passage, this week because of its first two words. John addresses his audience, as "little children." Somehow, for some reason it jumped out at me, after the glorious week we've had here at Vacation Bible School, with these great kids. These little, and not so little children, with their constant energy and their positive enthusiasm, and attitudes, made the week so easy, and made the words of this letter so easy, because after John addresses the audience as little children, he says,  "let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.  And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him  whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything." I felt like that the other night when I was choosing a passage to preach from, one that would connect to what I've been preaching on from John all year, and one that would connect to the week we have had together here. It was perfect.
When you have a week like we had this week, one where you know you have loved, it is easy to feel like you are surrounded and enveloped in an embrace of truth, completely reassured even to the deepest darkest corner of your doubting hearts. You see the smiles and the singing voices of children, beaming with the learning of the love of Christ, and you just know that you have loved, in truth and action. . . and on days like that love is so simple, and in its simplicity contains its very reward. There is a sense that living in love like that can be simple on those days, and though you are tired at the end of the week, the fulfillment you have seems to be equal to the effort that you put in, and you feel like you have been in the exact right place, at the exact right time. Maybe it is the hug you got from the little kid who started the week unsure of how to relate to you, maybe they were a little scared, shy, and reserved, but then by Friday, they are in your shadow, on your lap, and stuck to your hip like glue. Maybe it is seeing the kid, who didn't want to do anything, wanted to sit on the side, was too cool to sing those silly songs with the little kids, but then there they are, before you know it, smiling and singing, completely lost to their former inhibitions. Maybe you see the child who didn't know the first thing about David, or Deborah, or Bartimaeus, there answering questions, and really getting it. That is the week we have had, and that is the simplicity of love, and some days love is simple like that. Love is so simple, and so rewarding, and so true that you are strong enough to not get despairing over murdered marines, and an unstable world, that just seems to be more and more dangerous and out of control. But some days again it is so simple.
So I had that in my mind, but I also had another story in my mind, and that was the Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego story. . . who my uncle, in his book that he has been writing and he showed me to look over, an allegory based on the book of Daniel, he called them, or at least their modern counterparts,  Chad, Mitch, and Abby. . . probably easier to say, but not as much fun.  We talked on Wednesday about the Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego story, and their civil disobedience that got them thrown into the fiery furnace. I think it has been in my head because of the song. It's my favorite from the Statler Brothers, called "The Fourth Man in the Fire." It is so great because it shows off everything that is so cool about them. It sinks down low, it goes way up high, the piano accompaniment is always bouncy and carnival like, and there is that great spoken part in the middle that tells the story. It's awesome, with the great line, "They didn't bend, they didn't bow, they didn't burn. . .  " It's catchy, and of all the stories of the week this one stuck with me the most, and creates a great juxtaposition with our "easy to love week." Sometimes love is like John describes easy, and other times it's very hard.
Chad, Mitch, and Abby, to borrow their abbreviated names from my uncle to save some time,  are faced with a moral dilemma where the civil law, and their moral convictions become pitted against one another in a decision of a moment where they must choose one or the other, and somehow doing both or doing neither is just not an option, they can't abstain, or have themselves marked absent for the vote. They must do something. They have to choose whether to bend to the will of King Nebuchadnezzar, and bow down before his idol made of gold, or burn in the fiery furnace, since that is the prescribed punishment. How about that for a difficult day, and a crisis of faith. A leap of faith is one thing, but a leap of faith into a fiery furnace is something altogether different. The choice is terrible, the choice is painful, the predicament is scary, filled with horror. . . . because it leads to seeming certain death. These moral dilemma's are constant in life, and constant in the stories of literature. . .
I was thinking about Jean Valjean in Les Miserables: he's given the way forward, there is a man who the authorities think is him, they are punishing him for breaking parole, which would mean that from this point forward the real Valjean would be forever safe, his alter ego, his alias, his assumed identity would finally be above suspicion, all it would cost would be his honor, and the poor innocent life of someone else. . ., but the flipside, coming clean would cost him greatly, his place, his station, his job, and not only from selfish reasons, but the town needs him, Fantine, Cosette, there were so many people depending on him. And it isn’t just in literature, people throughout history have been placed in these predicaments. One that comes to mind is Sir Thomas More, teacher to the king, great Renaissance Humanist, but on the wrong side when Henry VIII breaks with the Catholic Church in Rome. He finally finds himself in a situation where he must accept the King as the head of the Church, denounce the former queen, and swear allegiance to the new queen Anne Boleyn. He has family, dependents, and estate, which he will lose, maybe even his life. . . He refuses to bend, and is executed for it. . .  moral dilemma's, choices of honor, they surround us always and are there because they are so human. It is part of the human condition to be in situations that are difficult where the path that leads forward is a challenge to us, where the decisions we make are a matter of life and death. It doesn’t happen every day of course, many days are much more complicated, where there are choices and differing paths, shades of grey. But then there are these other days where reality beckons and truth hangs in the balance. They are difficult yes, frightening certainly, life shatttering you bet, world shaking, you know it. . . but complicated, not really at all. That is the rub. When you boil it down to its parts, it is not at all complicated . . . Instead it is simple. . . as simple as the love we gave was this week was simple. Love, honor, truth, it either matters or it doesn't. God either is or He isn’t. Jesus is either the Son of God or not. The promises are either true or they aren’t.
It doesn't make it easy, it just is pretty simple, it can cost you your life, and everything that you hold dear, no not easy, just simple, it matters or it doesn't. . . the problem we have is when we try to avoid the simple. We try to add these complications. We try to avoid. We try to live life in avoidance of it all. We add complications to it making it seem like there is more, because in the complications there are escape hatches, and that great eject button. We can push it, and find ourselves in a much seemingly safer bubble, much more seemingly secure fortress, a world within our seemingly complicated complete control, a world made in our image by the creation of our  own artificial complications. Sometimes we call them justifications. Sometimes we call them rationalizations. Sometimes we call them excuses. Sometimes mitigating circumstances. Extenuating circumstances, grounds, even becoming raison d'ĂȘtre. . . and that's the other rub, that french phrase becomes true in its translation of the problem. They, justifications, rationalizations, grounds, excuses, mitigating, extenuating circumstances when  used, when that escape button is pushed, they become our new reason for being, and they were never real, ever, never real in the first place. They are a new world of our own creation. Do you see how this is connected to the Sins of the garden? Don't eat the fruit, you won't surely die. . . what in this world is sure anyway. . . that's too simple.  . . . you know it's more complicated than that. Don't believe it.
Some days it is simple though, and we see that simplicity. We saw it this week, in giving love to children, and feeling their love in return, as if it were perfect, and meant to be, simple and sweet, but we also find it, when we are forced to face trial, when there are no escape hatches, or eject buttons, just life and a choice, a choice we must finally face, head on without complications, frightening, for reality can be frightening, but never truly complex, too real for complications, instead simple.
Let me read the epistle passage again, I think you may see what I'm talking about. . . the simplicity of faith making it possible to love, possible to face the simplicity with real boldness, as Christ faced the cross, as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego faced the fiery furnace, as Daniel faced the lion's den, as David faced Goliath, as Noah built and ark and faced the flood, as Moses faced Pharoah, and the sea blocking their path, and the grumblings, and the desert, as every martyr who ever lived and died in simple faith shows. . . the word martyr comes from the Greek word for witness. . . what they witness to, and the reason that the witness matters, is because the truth they show in their death is so simple that even the most hardened of escape valved, complicated artificial world controlling .  . . sinners, just cannot ignore. And I use that word sinners in the most inclusive way possible, because I am one of the worst at this, reality facing stuff. . .  But I see a martyr, like Christians persecuted by Isis, like Thomas More, like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and it moves me. It moves us, it reminds us, it bears witness, and we see again the simple truth. We see again how simple truth is. It is a shame that it takes such things to get us to see, but it does. We cannot forget that Christianity is a faith built by the Loving witness of Jesus Christ, and again and again by the witness of many martyrs. Look at the passage again:
18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19 And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20 whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us. [2]

Another simple promise, so simple it shakes the complicated world off its foundation of lies. What do you think? Can you see it? Can you see what I'm saying? Does it seem simple? Man I'm not sure, but on my best day, maybe I see it that way. . . some days it is so simple. . . God give us more of those days, the good ones like this week, and also though we wish to avoid them at every turn, give us also those challenging ones, those fiery furnace ones, and grant that we face the simple truth faithfully, and filled with your love.  May it ever be so, Amen.



[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (1 Jn 3:18-24). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (1 Jn 3:18-24). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.