Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Idea

The Idea
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
July 5, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
1 Samuel 8: 11-18
Colossians 3: 7-17

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.

I'm excited to be back from vacation. We had a wonderful time, but it is always great to be back to work, and I'm extra stoked to get to preach today because in all my years of ministry, including my time as an intern in Hampton, I've never gotten to preach around the Fourth of July. We have always been heading to the beach now, rather than just getting back. So this sermon has very much been on my mind for years. I've always wanted to preach on the idea of America and how it fits into the context of history, how it fits into, I believe, the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. . . and mark that I said the "idea" of America. . . because America is not a land, not a people, not a flag, not anything that could be misconstrued as an object of idolatry, but instead it is an idea, and it is an idea I believe to be based in the witness of God's revealed Word, though often "we the people," have countless examples of how we fail to live up to the idea of what America is. . .  choosing instead to be distracted by labels, symbols, and the trappings of the idea. I had trouble deciding which New Testament Passage to choose to accompany and guide this message because so many fit it partly, so I chose this one because it is quite formative, telling, and important for us to remember these days, as the idea is like it has been since its inception, being constantly challenged. Colossians 3: 7-17
7 These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life.8 But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive  language from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices 10 and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. 11 In that renewal  there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. [1]

I was especially drawn to verse 11, the piece that talks about the change in distinctions, how life in Christ removes them. It is such an important idea that it is also found in Paul's other letter to the Galatians, where he says, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus."[2] What an important message, and certainly central to the American Idea, but I went with the Colossians passage because it outlines the context. . . that it is a new life in Jesus Christ we are living, and that the Old Life is all around us, and provides context for the changes that are brought about by the new life, by the new faith, by what Christ makes possible, and like the Christian life has context and growth, so too does the American Idea, for many aspects of what we take for granted, as "just the way it is" these days, are very much radical, untested, and experimental in the history of the world. So I want to take some time to tell that story today. As many of you may know, I've been working on writing an epic that tells this story, but today I thought I would give the short version, and maybe I can use it as a kind of an outline for that larger work.
Into a world of Sin, human beings have believed in a lie. . . it was a lie that started in the Garden of Eden, when we came to question the existence, the veracity, the truth about God, creating, ordering, and making a world for us that is Good, providing for our needs, and making a home for us, making us in his image. Having lost sight of that truth, through the lie of sin, we turn on each other. . . we believe that we must struggle and make our own way in the world. We come to mistrust each other, even falling into the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. . . Now in a world where we must work, in a world where we must struggle, in a world where we cannot trust each other, where we cannot count on our work being safe, our property being safe, our families being safe, our person and dignity being safe, we instead make our own way, we fight, we hoard, we take, we protect, we fear, we hold onto grudges, or as Paul puts it, we become overcome by "anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive  language. . . and we lie." We lie because in a world of lies, one more lie is an attempt at control, control we never actually have, but are constantly seeking. We each fight over control of our little lives, our little universes. Now in this world of conflicting ideas and partial truths, the strong become powerful, and might makes right. . . and from the might. . . the truth gets formed. Leaders, kings, and emperors grow and the more they can control, the more of their truth can be spread, this truth becomes religion, and religion and power are mixed together. . . rituals and gods, become based on the idols of control. Polytheistic Paganism is the religion of power, and the Philosophic insurance policy that the institutions of power will remain. Faith and power interconnected and indivisible. . . this is the way of the world.
But then in the 1000 years before the coming of Christ, in many remote places, in each of the centers of civilization, new ideas begin to emerge, seemingly independently, but emerging in each is a new idea about the transcendence of truth, that the world is connected, ordered, and that there is truth beyond what any one man could claim, even if they happen to be king or emperor. It is on this axis that the world begins to turn, though gradually, and fragilely and only partially in China, and Persia, and India, and Egypt, and Greece, and of course centered around a group of people, long exiled, and then allowed to return to settle in Jerusalem, rebuilding a temple on the ideas collected in a set of Scripture, founded in Law, Wisdom, and Prophets. It is in this world, especially within the tradition of Hebrew Monotheism and the Greek World of the Philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, that God sends his Son into the world to reveal the complete truth, redeem humanity, forgive sins, set the record straight, revealing the limitless nature of His Power and Love, that it not only transcends truth, but is the complete truth, divine and connected to God the sole creator of the universe, the great poet who set all of this into motion.
And Christ teaches against the grain of human history ideas like loving your neighbor, and turning the other cheek, and going the extra mile, and about saltiness, and exemplary cities on hills, and lost sheep, and seeking the one who has been lost, and celebrating about the importance of even one, returning to the fold, the importance of the individual, every, and each, having importance, being made in God's image, being important enough for Christ to go to the cross, personally for each, not through representatives, like kings or priests, elites, but personally, not by what we have done, but by what he is giving. . . ideas like grace, and love, and the fact that they are more powerful even than death, for on the third day, the stone was rolled away, and death was defeated and life was made anew. . . and the same Christ who was nailed to the cross was now running free in the world, proclaiming and changing it forever. . . a new reality, perhaps as it always had been hiding somewhere in the truth beyond the lies of Sin.
But despite the Render unto Caesar, and the other distinctive features about this new reality, after years of persecution, the Christ truth was married again to power, much like the old Pagan ideas that had always been a part of the world, much like the Old Testament passage, warning of the double edged sword of having a king. . . and therefore a symbol of God's rule on earth. . . . What happens when corruption ensues, when might again makes right, when the wants and desires for control of the rulers becomes disconnected from the will of God they are supposed to be representing? Both Kings and Priests again come to have all the power in the new Christendom, and you can see the results in the history of medieval Europe. . . War, crusades, ruthlessness, inquisition, corruption both political and religious, taxation, indulgences, false and empty promises about the meaning and cause of pain and disaster like Plague, disease, and crisis, for there was no check on power and might, for the truth again had become caught up in it all, God's will mixed up with the wishes of the Kings and priests and even Popes.
But God's truth would emerge through the rising trouble, even out of it, for the Crusades brought to Europe remembrances of the axial changes of the 1000 years heading toward Christs' birth, and the Biblical Account of Jesus, we called the New Testament was set free from the powers, made readable and accessible by the ordinary person, and the results were transformative, for knowledge of the truth is power because it is light and light overshadows the lies of the darkness always. . . and once the truth was beginning to be able to shine, it kept shining brighter and brighter. Reformation. . . the world was changing and life was changing, and people were being set free to relate to Christ personally, with no mediators, set free from controlling rituals, and the superstitions of the powerful. Truth was again being seen as a transcendent reality that was un-owned by anyone, but instead living outside, so that it could be sought after equally by everyone. Because we were now set free by Christ, and the words of Colossians and many like it could be made true. . . .
11 In that renewal  there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.

Not hoarding, not controlling, not forcing, not oppressing, but freeing, defined by compassion rather than fear, kindness rather than oppression, humility rather than knowing all, meekness rather than might, and patience in faith rather than the holding tight of doubt, because despite it all God is in control, and loves us, and is good. Pretty high ideas aren't they. . . It was in this new world, that the Enlightenment and the First Great Awakening laid the spiritual and intellectual framework that wrote the Declaration of Independence. Dripping from Jefferson's words was the idea of the gospel. . . Men, created equal, with former distinctions disappearing: like race, or station, or gender. . . although we have never quite lived up to the idea, it was there, like a shining light for us to reach higher and higher, to grasp beyond even our own abilities in humility. That these men should be free to discern the truth as it relates to them, that their lives, each life mattered, and was important, and was crucial to the unfolding of God's plan. . . that the truth about right and wrong was much more powerful than might. . . for tyranny existed even if it wasn't spoken of. . . the king didn't have to agree for it to be. . . . Natural Law, transcendent truth dictated rather than the dictator, and so laws would need to be based in Natural Law, or they wouldn't hold water, they wouldn't last, they wouldn't have merit, and they could then be challenged, civilly, through this notion of Civil Disobedience. Only within this American Idea could the civil disobedience, of following moral law, over municipal law be such a powerful thing. It is just dripping with the truth as told by Christ, who certainly knew something about standing up against authority.
Now today we debate over symbols and labels and the like, all idols that fall far short of the idea, and the idea is what should connect us, but does it? The idea is important, and it is being overshadowed by the trappings, the flag, the notion of exceptionalism, the richness of the economy, the so called American Dream, rooted in house, job, a white picket fence, and 2.3 children. We protect the people, while enslaving them by notions of safety and fear. The idea of America depends on the belief in Transcendent truth, it depends on the notion of a provident God, it depends on us seeing the dignity and importance of the individual, that the whole is made up of each, and each is the framework. These are important cornerstones of the idea of America because without them we are just a land that we can build a wall around, we are just a people that can use each other to get ahead, and we are just symbols and idols we can use to control debate and divide us from each other. More and more this is what we are forgetting as we go further, we fear rather than love, we control rather than let be, and we grasp, claw, and fight, rather than believing that someone else's point of view may have merit. We cannot forget that the idea of America is centered in Christ, not in name only, not in a Medieval notion of Christendom, not in a limiting and dividing way, but in a way that brings people together, beyond labels, beyond distinctions, beyond things that we can try and control, beyond fear that the world is spiraling out of control, but in faith, that God is very much in control, even despite us. . . that we can again, like Jefferson wrote, and our Presbyterian ancestor in faith, John Witherspoon asked to be added,  with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor. Despite all the times that we have fallen short of this idea, despite how we continue to fall short of it today, now seeming worse than ever, that these simple words, hold the key to unlocking the power of our Idea, not the American Dream, which Shakespeare wrote, that dreams are the "children of an idle brain, begotten of nothing but vain fantasy," but the American Idea, which is rooted in transcendent truth, knowing with all humility that we seek the American Idea, constantly, knowing that though we cannot live up to it, it is self evident that it is good, and continues to be, and should ever be sought after. May God grant it to be so, and to bless each of us as we seek it arm in arm freely together.

Today's Anthem:

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Col 3:7-17). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ga 3:28). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.