Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Praise of Men

The Praise of Men
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
September 27, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 12: 36-43
Proverbs 3: 13-24
Click below for live recording
live audio recording

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.

36 While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.”
When Jesus had said this, he departed and hid himself from them. 37 Though he had done so many signs before them, yet they did not believe in him; 38 it was that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
“Lord, who has believed our report,
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” 39 Therefore they could not believe. For Isaiah again said, 40 “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart,
lest they should see with their eyes and perceive with their heart,
and turn for me to heal them.” 41 Isaiah said this because he saw his glory and spoke of him. 42 Nevertheless many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, lest they should be put out of the synagogue: 43 for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.

As we close Chapter 12 of the Gospel of John, we must remember that this chapter has been very much like an earlier chapter in the Gospel. Chapter 6 and 7 were very similar. Here Jesus has just called Lazarus back to life, and enters Jerusalem to crowds and crowds of followers, so many so that the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders think all is lost and the entire world is going after him, but then here, by the end he finds himself alone. Back in chapter 6 Jesus fed the multitude by the sea, and people are begging for the bread he has to give, saying, Jesus give us this bread always, but then by the end of chapter 6 and into chapter 7 all of the crowds of people have gone. In both Jesus begins with a promising miracle, but then gets into details of what it all means, and the people have no time for it. Back then the problem was that he seemed to confuse them with his speeches, they ask for the bread he has to give, and he starts talking about eating of his flesh and blood, and Eugene Peterson's "The Message" translation captures it perfectly, saying they had no stomach for what he had to say. . . and here there is a turning of their eyes, a hardening of their hearts. . . Jesus invites them to become "sons of light," but by the end accuses them of loving "the praise of men, more than the praise of God."
This is an interesting topic, this idea of loving the praise of men more than the praise of God. It is certainly a statement that rings with a whole lot of truth for us, doesn't it. Even if we are giving ourselves the benefit of the doubt, and it was even our best day, if most of us were honest with ourselves it would still ring true because sometimes it is just hard to tell the difference. Put yourself in the Jesus' audience, these crowds who have come after him, because it is hard to know what is God and what is Man when religion gets mixed in.  The Pharisees are speaking for God on their side, and Jesus is speaking for God on the other side. How is one to know, especially when it may not always seem so black and white like that. What if 90% of what the Pharisees are saying is just exactly what Jesus is saying? What if you've listened to the Pharisees your whole life? It would be hard to tell the difference, so even if their intentions were to follow God, to worry about the praise of God more than the praise of Man it would still be difficult. . . For us it is the same. . . you have this church teaching this, that church teaching that, this pastor saying this, that pastor saying that, the Pope coming this week and saying a bunch of stuff, this politician saying one thing, that politician saying the other. . . this law being interpreted this way one day and that way the next. . . how do you know, even if you do have good God seeking intentions, it can be impossible, and do we really have those good intentions always. . . when the herd is headed in one direction, it is hard to stand up and point out how the other might be right. . . especially when the herd is claiming to be doing what God wants, how does the one stand up against that herd, when he sees God differently. . . God's will isn't something that can be decided by something as fickle as majority popular opinion. . . I mean in one week we go from Hosanna Praise Him to crucify. . . . how do you have enough confidence in what you know to be right, true, holy and from God, where does that confidence come from? Especially if people who have just seen amazing signs and miracles can't sustain that knowledge and faith for long? What happens if you are wrong, if you were wrong all along, completely deluded? How would you ever know?
And we are people pleasers, naturally, I think most people are anyway, we like to be liked. . . but we also need people, we need other people, we need people to help us, we need to get along with them, we need to go along to get along, as the saying goes. . . you need people, so you have to please them to some extent if you are going to rely on them. We see it all around us. This is one of those election primary seasons where this truth is just all so apparent all around us. .  . there are so many people out there, and you need to win enough of their votes to get done what  you think is right, and you have to get elected before you can do anything. . . so be what they want, get in then you can do what you want. . . hmmm, but where does it end, though? Because we are good, human beings are good at lying to ourselves, aren't we. . . well I'll just give in here, I'll compromise there, I'll bend a little bit today, but next week I'll hold the line. . . I'll be what they want this week, but next week I'll show them my true self. . . but next week never comes, and you never get completely back to square one ever, instead you end up a completely different person, before you even realize it. . . you begin to wonder if square one even existed ever, and that's just on a personal level. . .
Two of my favorite song writers of all time were roommates in college at Texas A&M, I mean how cool is that, and they followed different paths, which makes it all the more remarkable that they both became successful. They wrote many songs together, but there are two songs, one wrote one and the other wrote the second, and they speak to both sides of this people pleasing business, and of course like great folk and country songs it's not just about pleasing people, but pleasing a woman. The first is about changing to be whatever a woman wants. It's about doing whatever it takes to win her back. . . . It's by Robert Earl Keen and, I thought about doing both songs as the anthem today, but I chickened out, it's called "I Would Change My Life" and the hook is
I have spent my hours on some misbegotten dreams
and I have spent my money on some foolish hearted things
and I have spent my memories on some old and bitter wine

I would change my life, I would make it right, I would change my life if she'd only change her mind.

It really captures it. . . he's so lonely, she's left, maybe she was right, maybe he was a fool, maybe he should get his stuff together, maybe he should do some soul searching to figure out what is important, and to become a better  man, but it is also a line of desperation. . . how much change is necessary, and when does it end, how far does he have to go. . . it is a really slippery slope to losing yourself in just the way we are talking about. . . that world choosing pleasing men rather than pleasing God type stuff. . .
But then the other one is by Lyle Lovett, and it's lyric is just as poignant, just as hard hitting, just as basic and straightforward in its simplicity, but so much harder to actually do and say. . . he writes:
And I have seen my share of long nights
And I have told my share of lies
And I have run into the darkness
When I saw the look in your eyes
But if the night didn't lie in the darkness
Then the daylight would be hard to find
And if the truth didn't turn to a weakness
I would have never have spoken my mind

And if the stars didn't shine on the water
Then the sun wouldn't burn on the sand
And if I were the man you wanted
Then I would not be the man that I am

But how hard is that song to sing. . . how hard is it to just let all that hang out there and say it, to know yourself well enough to give it all up like that. . . and that is just knowing yourself with one person, getting back to square one like that, you can see it as a possibility, I mean the success of Lyle's song, the reason so many people can relate is we've been there, we've felt like saying that, but that it is still so rare, and that's just one person getting back to square one, but how can we as a species ever get back there, through all the lies and manipulations. . .  to a really truly honest world, where we are pleasing God and not just the images of eachother that we use as a shield on the outside that have become us through use? Where would you even think to begin?
So when Jesus says, you love the praise of men more than the praise of God, he's no doubt right. . . yeah we do, but how would one go about changing that? There is this poem by Emily Dickinson, that has such a powerful line, she writes:
Parting is all we know of heaven,
But all we need of hell.

She's getting at the truth that no matter whether you go to heaven or to hell there is parting, and that's enough to make a hell. . . missing your family, friends, and you of course believe in heaven, but you don't know, all you know is the parting. . . it may be more. . . I honestly think this fact that we can't get back to square one of honesty as human beings, that there are just so many lies built on top of lies over centuries, that that's all we need of sin. . . it's enough to destroy, its enough to separate from God, there may be more to sin than that, but it' is certainly enough. . . And like Denzel Washington says in the movie, "Glory" in response to Mathew Broderick's Colonel Shaw and his conversation about the Civil War going on and on without anyone winning, finally Shaw says, "It stinks huh" and Denzel's character, Tripp, says, "Yeah, it stinks bad, and all of us are covered up in it, ain't none of clean." That's enough to know about sin. . .the details beyond that get us in trouble, and have us pleasing men, rather than trying to get to that honest place with God.
So where do we start? How do we start being able to please God, rather than men. . . I think humility is big start, confession of our capital S, Sin, our ignorance, our eyes covered, and blurred by lies and mirages, image rather than reality. . . and then we ask for God, we ask for Jesus to be our eyes. . . and then we take the time to look, we ask God, we ask Jesus to be our ears, and we listen. . . we ask God, we ask Jesus to enter and to fill our minds, with no mediator, no man in between, but with brothers and sisters at either side. . . and then we ask God, we ask Jesus to fill our hearts. . . and then we love. . . and then just maybe we get glimpse. . . and we do it all over again, lest we grow too confident. . . When we come together as a church to praise God, it is by no accident of a design that we Call each other to worship, we confess our Sin, and then before we open the word we pray. . . I open each sermon before I read the scriptures with the same prayer, I never thought I would, I never planned it that way, I never set out for it to be that way when I began my ministry, or when I wrote the poem, but I 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've ever wondered why. . . I hope you see now. not my eyes, but his, not my mind, but his, not my life, but his, his way, his truth, his life. . .pleasing God, knowing the difference, bringing us back to that square one of honesty, starts with God, because we cannot do it ourselves. . . it starts with him. . .  I spoke to the boys at Blue Ridge Thursday morning. . . I have copies of my homily in the fellowship hall if you'd like to take a look. . . and I posted it on my blog. . .I spoke to them about this topic too, though differently. . . I spoke them about acting beyond the rewards, doing things because you know it's right. . . that is Pleasing God. . .but it takes humble discernment and that takes patience,  may we then be patient humble seekers in all we do, in all we are, to try, to be open, . . .to be pointed in that direction rather than our own, and then you begin to feel grace, and grace is always enough. . . thanks be to God, Amen.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Why You Never Whip a Mule

Why You Never Whip a Mule
A homily delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
September 24, 2015
Gibson Memorial Chapel
Blue Ridge School, St. George, Virginia
Luke 15: 22-32
Hebrews 12: 1-2

Click below for th live audio recording of the speech

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.

Shakespeare wrote, give me the man who is:

As one in suffering all that suffers nothing—
A man that Fortune’s buffets and rewards
Hast ta'en with equal thanks. . . . Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart.

Hamlet is talking about Horatio, and praising him for being steady, being loyal, being true to himself. I have argued that, staying true to yourself, “To thine ownself be true” is the great commandment of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, those who are, survive, and those who are not, become victims of the tragedy of the play, inadvertently causing their own death through their inconsistent, untrue, sometimes meddling, sometimes manipulative actions. They run afowl because instead of being consistent and true to their core principles, their own selves, they are blown by the wind and seek to control ends, and forget about the means, thinking that the ends are what matters, that the ends justify any means necessary. . . in other words they are worried about punishment or reward, good results or bad results, and act accordingly.
I want to seek outside of Western Tradition, because Eastern Wisdom and their traditions do a much better job of refuting the idea that the ends justify the means. . . The Ancient Hindu Scripture the Bhagavad-Gita stated:
Be intent on action / not on the fruits of action. . . perform actions, firm in discipline, relinquishing attachment; be impartial to failure and success-- / this equanimity is called disipline.

This definition of discipline suggests that there are right and wrong actions, which is not that radical a statement, but it also suggests that the qualifications for right and wrong go beyond and are much deeper than simply judging them based on their outcomes.
It’s pretty simple really, I am a football coach, and as a football coach my goal is to win football games. . . my team has the ball on the other team’s one yard line, and I call a play. The rightness or the wrongness of my call will be judged on the basis of whether we score or not. We score, and I’m the smartest man in the room, we don’t score and I’m a fool. Right and wrong based on results. . . but here we are saying that there may be more involved in right and wrong than simply the outcome, that there are ideas, principles, virtues, that somehow live above the world of cause and effect, the world of reward and punishment. . . read in the Blue Ridge Code of Conduct the section on Moral Courage, you'll find it there too.
I bring this up because you all, or at least many of you, on Saturday morning, viewed the end of the movie The Reivers, I wasn’t there because I was off proving myself a fool at the football game, but I’m pretty sure having suggested that book, and that movie, that you saw the scene at the end where Lucius, the boy, who has lied, and stolen his grandfather’s car to go on a trip to Memphis, is owning up to his mistake. 

You all were focused on the boy and lie, but I want you to think about why his grandfather doesn’t spank him, or stops his father from spank him. Because it is the central reason for the book, the reason Faulkner is writing, and the reason the book’s narrator is telling this story. . . the book begins with “Grandfather said,” so it is told from the point of view of the now grown up Lucius, to his audience, and we get to take on the role of the grandchild, and why do grandfather’s tell stories? To teach lessons. . . . His lesson is why you never whip a mule. . . and why he wants his grandson to be a mule and not a dog. You whip a dog, you whip a horse, but you never whip a mule.
Let's look at the dog first, have you ever trained a dog? If you have you know, you give him treats. . . you repeat the behavior, you reward him when he does what you want, and you scold him when he doesn't, then he learns. . . Same thing with the horse, you have the carrot and you have the stick, and you break a horse down so he'll work for you, and once you break him, he'll work himself to death just please you, to get that carrot, and avoid the stick.
But neither works with a mule. Faulkner says a mule will work for you 25 years, just to get the chance to kick you in the face one time, to make sure you know he is independent and not your slave, it says you don't whip him because he already knows the way home, if you try to lead him he won't go. Mules are stubborn that way.  Faulkner then goes out of his way to say that mules are the gentlemen of the animals. He doesn't whip Lucius because he wants him to be a gentlemen, he wants him to be a mule. . . he knows that Lucius knows he's wrong, and so he knows that Lucius somewhere deep inside knows the way, and if he were to hit him, Lucius might get to thinking that, that somehow punishment erases the wrong doing, and makes it right, but it doesn't, not for a man, not for real. . . because Lucius is the one who needs to be able to look himself in the eye again. . . Lucius is the one who needs to find his way forward, from inside, and the hit, the punishment, just adds another lie, it adds the lie that someone else determines your value and the worth of your word, the value and the worth of yourself. And that just ain't true, unless you are a dog, a slave, or someone who is a dependent. . . and we don't need more of those, we need instead givers.
People say all the time that you all are a part of the entitlement generation, where you get to show up and you get rewarded for just being, that you think you deserve it. . . the problem with that is you get so wrapped in the rewards and the punishments, that you just can't judge yourself anymore. You're motivated by the path of least resistance. You do whatever you can to get by, to not get messed with, to avoid confrontation, you can't stand to get yelled at, you can't deal with failure, so you do just enough to avoid it, how many times have I've been asked how long does it have to be, how many pages, how many words, any answer I give would become the minimum, and you'd do just that because you are motivated by the reward of my grade, or me not yelling at you, me letting  you alone, me saying you are done. . . you're completely motivated by the carrot, the trophy, the reward, the grade, and when you don't get it you're hurt, disillusioned, you start thinking that "it's not fair," you start looking at what rewards those around you get, and you get jealous.
I chose the Gospel lesson for today for that reason. The Older Brother in the story can't accept his brother being welcomed home, he's been there, he's been working, where is his fatted calf, where is his party, he even says, here I've been working for you like a slave. . . really a slave? Perhaps that is the case for someone worried about fatted calves and parties, is that why the elder brother stayed all those years, or was it fear of living, fear of actually living to his full worth, and that fear, that regret is coming home to roost as envy. He made his choice freely, remember, he could have gone he chose to stay.  
We talk a lot about freedom in this country, here is what I think freedom means, it means having the opportunity to reach your potential, to become what you were put on this earth to become, fully, but not for yourself, freedom for yourself is the trap of rewards, the trap of materialism, focused on what you will get out of it, no you reach your potential, so you can give yourself to the world, because the world needs you to give, and can't accept less than your all, we do that  too much already, and your all means you aren't looking for something in return for yourself.

 It's a tall order huh. . . this school's mission believes in that possibility, this school strives for such an ideal. . . this school's complete gift of itself is to fulfill that calling, that mission. You come here as partners in that mission. . . so you must seek your all. . . look inside yourself and strive for whatever is there, what is there sometimes hidden deep inside underneath alot of garbage, and history, and lies, and hard times, and worry, and fear, and insecurity, but it is there. . . help us let you find it, we'll do so by any means necessary, but don't let us trap you with the sticks and carrots, we'll use them sure because they are effective, just like training a dog, you can train boys, but eventually we want you to be men, and men, gentlemen, men of character, the cost of such a distinction is that you live beyond such trivial things, above the carrots and above the sticks, the treats. Because then you can weather any storm, you become what Hamlet was talking about "suffering all, suffering nothing" you can face all adversity, and still remain yourself. You can persevere. . . such a great word, but the Greek equivalent is so much more powerful. It's the word ὑπομονή, in the New Testament it's in Hebrews, let us run with perseverance, hupomone, the race. Like many Greek words, it's a compound, the first hupo, means beneath/under, and mone means to stand, how long can you stand under, without trying to escape. . . such is the task we face as human beings, such is the test of life. . . things won't always be easy. . . you are never done. . . you matter too much to ever be done. . . so go live your life, go give your life.  Amen. 

Some quotes from Faulkner's The Reivers

"He'll know different, because mules have got sense. But a mule is a gentleman too, and when you act courteous and respectful at him without trying to buy him or scare him, he'll act courteous and respectful back at you--as long as you don't overstep him. " (245)

"You were born too late to be acquainted with mules and so comprehend the startling, the even shocking, import of this statement. A mule which will gallop for a half-mile in the single direction elected by its rider even one time becomes a neighborhood legend; one that will do it consistently time after time is an incredible phenomenon. Because, unlike a horse, a mule is far too intelligent to break its heart for glory running around the rim of a mile-long saucer. In fact, I rate mules second only to rats in intelligence, the mule followed in order by cats, dogs, and horses last--assuming of course that you accept  my definition of intelligence: which is the ability to cope with environment: which means to accept environment yet still retain at least something of personal liberty. . . . 
The mule I rate second. But second only because you can make him work for you. But that too only within his own rigid self-set regulations. He will not permit himself to eat too much. He will draw a wagon or a plow, but he will not run a race. He will not try to jump anything he does not indubitably know beforehand he can jump; he will not enter any place unless he knows of his own knowledge what is on the other side; he will work for you patiently for ten years for the chance to kick you once. In a word, free of the obligations of ancestry and responsibilities of posterity, he has conquered not only life but death too and hence is immortal; were he to vanish from the earth today, the same chanceful biological combination which produced him yesterday would produce him a thousand years hence, unaltered, unchanged, incorrigible still within the limitations which he himself had proved and tested: still free, still coping. (121-123)

" 'Live with it? You mean, forever? For the rest of my life? Not ever to get rid of it? Never? I can't. Don't you see I can't?'
   'Yes you can,' he said. 'You will. A gentleman always does. A gentleman can live through anything. He faces anything. A gentleman accepts the responsibility of his actions and bears the burden of their consequences, even when he did not himself instigate them but only acquiesced to them, didn't say No though he knew he should. " (302)

"Now go wash your face. A gentleman cries too, but he always washes his face.'" (302)

"Grandfather must have been teaching me before I could remember because I don't know when it began, I just knew it was so: that no gentlemen ever referred to anyone by his race or religion. (143)

"both these mules is colorblind" (91)

Sunday, September 20, 2015

The World Goes after One Buried Grain

The World Goes after One Buried Grain
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
September 20, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 12: 12-25

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.

This morning I'm going to do something a little different with the scripture reading. . . I'm going to break it into two parts. So as to look at the two movements in them with more focus. . . because the second half makes more sense in light of the context of the first. So will look at John 12: 12-25, but 12-22 first, and then 23-25 in a moment.

12 The next day a great crowd who had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. 13 So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” 14 And Jesus found a young ass and sat upon it; as it is written, 15 “Fear not, daughter of Zion;
behold, your king is coming,
sitting on an ass’s colt!” 16 His disciples did not understand this at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that this had been written of him and had been done to him. 17 The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead bore witness. 18 The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign. 19 The Pharisees then said to one another, “You see that you can do nothing; look, the world has gone after him.” 20 Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks. 21 So these came to Philip, who was from Beth-saida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew went with Philip and they told Jesus. 

Now what you have here is the Palm Sunday text from John's gospel. . . and we know that Palm Sunday Marks the beginning of Holy Week, and the beginning of the end. . . We also know that this crowd assembled here on Sunday, come Friday, change the shouts of Hosanna, and Blessed is He, to Crucify him. . . . I've had us look at the face of the mob before, and I will again, but in minute, for now I want you to put yourself in the place of the Pharisees, I want you to pretend that you are Caiaphas, and you have already decided that it is better for this one man, this Jesus of Nazareth to die, rather than for the entire nation to be put into Jeopardy by angering the Romans. . . so you are Caiaphas. . . and here comes Jesus in his grand entry, for today is Palm  Sunday, and here comes Jesus, the crowd proclaimed king of the Jews, the conquering hero, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey's colt, like he thinks he is someone out of the prophets or something, and the crowds have gathered, and they are fired up.  . . excited about who they think Jesus is, what they think his life means for theirs, what his coming means. . . they are shouting hosanna, and blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, Hosanna which means, save us now. . . save us now, from whom, the Romans. . . you think to yourself, it's going to take alot more than a donkey for such a coup. . . but here they shout, believing their salvation has come, for here is the Christ, God's anointed, just like David, a new covenant, a new king.
The crowd is rowdy, and you are getting nervous. . . you start shaking in your boots, for  you've heard the stories, and you know that these crowds have heard the stories, too. You've heard the hype, they've heard the hype. . . this man performs wonders, he's healed, he's given sight to the blind, he's fed a multitude by the sea, word is he can even walk on the water, and he's raised this man Lazarus from the dead, who I've heard tell he was dead for four days. He's done all this but what is he against the Romans? What is one man against a Legion? What is one man up against the power that is wielded in their systems of bureaucracies and their wealth beyond measure? We've seen centurions on the move. . . he can raise a sick man sure, but when the Romans kill you, you stay dead. We are an occupied nation, and we need to remember that, to follow this man is fool hardy, and look the world is following him, the entire world will flock to him, and where does that leave us? You say to yourself, v19 "You see that you can do nothing, the entire world has gone after him." and in saying that you think that all is lost, for the world has been swept up in Jesus mania. . . and for a Pharisee like Caiaphas that is a disaster, and they have lost hope, but they do  not know the world like Jesus does. . . .
Caiaphas and the others are afraid, worried, and concerned that the entire world is set to follow Jesus. And it may seem like that some days. When the world is caught up in the frenzy, the music is playing, the promises are made, and faith is easy, blessed is he, therefore blessed are we, here we are, and we are gathered, the whole world is ready to follow, and the rest of the world is shaking in their boots. . . And the world does follow, Jew and Gentile, male and female, rich and poor, slave and free ,even the Greeks show up wishing to see Jesus, and the Pharisees are convinced they've already lost, sure that the world, the entire world has shown up, but the thing about the word is that it keeps turning. . . and so. . . in truth the world never follows. . . .the world never follows, Caiaphas and his friends need not be nervous because the world may follow on parade day, but the parade ends, and Jesus keeps going, the parade stops, and Jesus heads on, the crowds disappear and Jesus continues on, steady as a rock. . . alone. . . and he goes alone because he is heading to the cross.
Now I'll pick up the reading here with verse 23. . . remember that the crowds have gathered, the Pharisees are nervous, a couple of Greeks make their way to Jesus, asking the disciples to see them. . . and here is Jesus answering the disciples. . . for Jesus always knows:

And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified. 24 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if any one serves me, the Father will honor him. [1]

The crowds may be gathered, but just like Jesus does in the other gospels from time to time, he lets his followers know the cost  . . . the tremendous cost of discipleship, picking up the cross and following. For as Jesus says the grain of wheat must be planted, it must die to being a seed in order to grow into another fruit bearing plant. And in the face of such truth, the world turns and the crowd disappears. Why oh why was Caiaphas ever afraid? Because the hard days come and the world falls away. Jesus says you have to give up  your life to bear fruit, and no one really wants to do that. . . they are screaming Hosanna, save us now, and Jesus is leading them to the cross, dying, planting a seed out of his own and very life. . . he lets them know that, he lets them know that, that is what it costs, that, that is what life costs, that, that is exactly where Jesus is leading, and he says He who loves life, loses it, and he who hates life in this world keeps it for eternal life, such is the promise of the man who walked on water, fed the multitudes, made the blind man see, and raised Lazarus from the dead, and it is real leadership because he is going to make that same sacrifice himself, Jesus is leading, but Caiaphas need not worry, the world may follow on parade day, but few show up to continue through the fire to the cross.
In our world of air conditioned comfortable churches. . . we seem to be good at the parade. . . but do everything we can to avoid planting the actual seed that Jesus is talking about, and we wonder why we don't often see the fruit. I think that it is for us, like it was at the parade, you can get caught up in it all, the peace, wonder, joy of life, that we forget what it costs, and forget who our leader is, and where he is calling us to go. . . but he's such a great leader because he goes there himself. . . and comes out the other side, he shows us the way,  just like his parable about the seed suggests. . . this gospel is about believing and receiving, it has been so up to this point, but here there is a great change, and it is wrapped up in this idea of following. He says later a few verses later. . .
The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, lest the darkness overtake you; he who walks in the darkness does not know where he goes. 36 While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.”[2]

In the darkness you get lost because you can't see where to go, but Jesus is the light of the world, and his light is leading to the cross. . . and we follow the light, believing in the light, so that we too may become sons of light. . . but we have been told again and again that people have chosen the darkness instead. . . and we will see why because we are being called to sacrifice and to risk. . . 
I was thinking of great examples from history of leaders leading men to almost certain death for a cause. . . and the difference always was shown that the real leaders lead from the front. . . I thought about Lo Armistead as I was watching Ken Burns' Civil War Documentary this week, as he during Pickett's charge at Gettysburg took his brigade further than most others, crossing the fence. . . he led with his hat on his sword, up front so that his men could see him. I thought about William Wallace in Braveheart, standing before his men saying . . .
Aye, fight and you may die. Run, and you'll live... at least a while. And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willin' to trade ALL the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they'll never take... OUR FREEDOM!

Henry V at Agincourt saying, we few we happy few we band of brothers, and then he led them himself from the front, once more into the breach.. . . We can be inspired by such things. . . the right words, the right actions, the right leadership. . .it can make men forget all that they hold dear to risk, to put on the line, to plant their seed in the ground so that others may benefit from the fruit. . . what a tremendous act of love it is. We can see it, in our minds again and again, and we are the beneficiaries of so many who have made such a sacrifice. . .
It made me think of Thomas Paine, and his writing "The Crisis" that he wrote in December 1776, after the Independence Parades and signing was over, the summertime joys were replaced by the tremendous hardship of winter at war, he wrote, and for some reason his words rang through my ears as I was studying and thinking about this passage this week:
THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.

Everyday you hear someone say that the world's crisis is upon us, that all of the troubles in the world are staring us in the face, and that they are too much for us. . . I'm not sure if these times are any worse than any other because the world has faced much in the past, but our leader has long shown us the way. . . and we each have a life to give. . . and love demands we give it. . .
Now I want us to remember a few things about what that is all about because I know that it is pretty intense. . . 1. Your life is precious, it matters, it’s worth it, when God made you there was a reason, there is a reason, find it, be it, give it. . . 2. It is not easy, despite what you hear about Christianity and Christians, the so called prosperity gospel, the promises from people on TV, the permasmile that some folks wear, it isn’t easy, it takes the giving of all of you, but you are worth it. . . 3. Since it takes your all, and you are valuable, come to know yourself, figure out what your talents are, develop them, they often live outside of what others may think of you, or even what you may think about yourself, but God has equipped you with them. . . God has equipped you with them to give them, not to hoard them, to plant them, so they can bear fruit  4. Just like for Jesus, time is important, the fullness of time, the right time, now may not be the day, but there will come a time to give of yourself. . . wait patiently in prayer     5. No one else can tell you when that time is, and what that time is about, what giving your all means, except for God, pray, listen, discern. . . come to know in your heart that things are right. . . I begin every sermon with a prayer of discernment, not my eyes, but his, not my will but his, not my life, but his, show me the way Jesus, and he does, and has. . . it just often is the opposite of the way the world wants to work. . .
1.      Your life is precious
2.      It isn’t easy
3.      Come to know yourself
4.      Be Patient, you can’t force the moment
5.      Listen, Discern, Pray
God give us the discernment and patience to know when we are called to give it, and the strength to follow where God leads. . . St. Francis' famous prayer has always been a favorite, and it speaks of this upside down world of opposites that Christ shows us. . . it is printed in the bulletin. . . may we pray it now together.
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.

[1]The Revised Standard Version. 1971 (Jn 12:12). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
[2]The Revised Standard Version. 1971 (Jn 12:35). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Because I Am Old

Because I am Old

On a day when the light was shining high overhead,
Glimmering white on the water, just over the hill,
They walked, three and three, five and five,
The littlest boy trailing behind, while the littlest girl,
Only missing a step, shadowed them as a third wheel,
Boy and girl walk hand in hand in the perfection
Of innocent friendship, rare and beautiful
In this fallen world, reminiscent of primordial walks,
Taken, once upon a time, once upon a garden, before
Blame and desire and the wanton cares of life.
You wonder what is in their little heads, what thoughts
Run through the peaceful scene, if any do at all,
Or if they are just so caught up in the joy
Of it all, that splendour of the grass, radiant,
And bright as the shining white waves of water,
That they do not think anything, instead only feel.
I see it and I long to feel what they do, and can,
When I see the scene, captured, frozen in time,
Like my own memories of childhood, though events
Aren't quite as clear, I can see their faces,
Remember a smile, a tear, the sound of laughter,
As if it were today, though I never would have
Been taken back so deep into my mind's archives
Had I not been sparked by the image, I felt, yes,
For an instant, but then my mind went right to work
Because I am old and being old I analyze,
And I'm not completely sure which is better.

Photo Credit: DeAnna Atkinson

Sunday, September 13, 2015

What Is Important?

What Is Important?
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
September 13, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 12: 1-8

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 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” [1]

We learned many things in Seminary about the Bible and Biblical Scholarship, that most people rarely think about, and perhaps for good reason, because in a sense it misses the point, but it can be fascinating and it many times does appeal to our general curiousity. One example is the quest to find the so called "historical" Jesus. For the last hundred years or so, Biblical Criticism has come into vogue. It seems that somewhere in the late 19th and well into the 20th century the mystique came off the Bible, and seeking the answers to questions became much less taboo. One of the areas that people have delved into is the quest to find what they call the "historical" Jesus. . . the Jesus who lived, beyond the missing pieces, into the cracks in the story, deep into the discrepancies within the record, especially the gospel record, because there are many discrepancies, especially when you include John's gospel, in comparison to the other three. . . as we have seen throughout John's gospel, there is something more going on here than simply trying to tell a definitive historical narrative record of Jesus' life and ministry headed to the cross. Now I don't bring this up because I put much stock in their quest, except I want to let you in on some of their criteria as a way to introduce the story from this morning because it gives us a lens.
Part of their work is they are trying to determine which parts of the story are what they call authentic, in other words that they really happened, and which are made up or altered, or shortened, or summarized somehow for some desired effect. There are two main criteria that they say give more credibility to an episode or a quotation. One is called multiple attestation. . . which means that the episode is recounted in more than one of the gospels. . . this points to greater authenticity, especially when John's Gospel also includes it. . . and that should make logical sense. . . if you have more than one witness a given testimony has more weight in a courtroom, this is based on that same principle. . . and the other they say is, if the statement doesn't fit the general accepted norms, then it is likely to be Jesus, that if the statement Jesus makes is somehow embarrassing, or troubling to the movement. . . that the disciples or the gospel writers would have preferred to have left it out, but they seemed to have to include it because Jesus must have really said it. You see it seems really basic. . . why it matters is a whole different story. . . but here in this story we have both.
The woman anointing Jesus' feet with the expensive perfume that has nard in it is found here in chapter 12 of John's gospel, but the story is also told in Matthew 26 and in Mark 14, but in those tellings the so called, woman, is unnamed, but here we have Mary, the sister of Lazarus. . . and if you add that great apocryphal telling from Andrew Lloyd Webber it's Mary Magdelene, which in a way can show how details can be shifted and changed to form some desired effect, in the case of Jesus Christ Superstar, it is for simplicity of the plot. . . but this story is accounted with much vivid, though divergent details in three of the four gospels, and you could make the case that we also have shades of the Mary and Martha story from Luke, here, because we are told that Mary is perfuming feet, while Martha is serving, very similar to the Mary at Jesus' feet while Martha does all the work from Luke 10. In  both the Matthew and Mark account it all takes place just as it does here, in the town of Bethany, but they add the detail that it takes place in the house of Simon the Leper. . . some have taken this to suggest that Simon the Leper is in fact the father of Lazarus, Mary,  and Martha. . .  another interesting twist on the story. . . and I have to admit, I can see why a faithful person might be interested in trying to figure out how these small episodes, that we get in such brevity in the gospels, how they actually fit together, because there may be more to come to know from such as study. We do, as we talked about a few weeks ago, have a great thirst to know more about the people Jesus comes into contact with. . . we want to know more about them because we just want to know more about Jesus, what it is like to be in contact with Jesus, with the divine on that life changing level, because it is all so curious. . . especially, when you start to wonder why would Matthew and Mark leave her nameless when John names her Mary. . . why would they not connect her to Lazarus, the man Jesus raised from the dead. These questions call out to our curious bones. . . but what may be the most important here, because it is what we are given, despite are curiosity, is what Jesus actually says, because it fits the category of multiple attestation, being the same here, and in Matthew, and in Mark, and it just doesn't quite seem to fit the movement. . .
"Leave her alone. . . you will always have the poor with you."
Because care for the poor is very basic, and fundamental, and foundational to the movement Jesus is building, and it is very fundamental and foundational within Judaism. Paula read in Jeremiah direct words about care for the poor:
Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,
and his upper rooms by injustice;
who makes his neighbors work for nothing,
and does not give them their wages;
14     who says, “I will build myself a spacious house
with large upper rooms,”
and who cuts out windows for it,
paneling it with cedar,
and painting it with vermilion.
15     Are you a king
because you compete in cedar?
Did not your father eat and drink
and do justice and righteousness?
Then it was well with him.
16     He judged the cause of the poor and needy;
then it was well.
Is not this to know me?
says the Lord.
17     But your eyes and heart
are only on your dishonest gain,
for shedding innocent blood,
and for practicing oppression and violence

Could it not say, woe to him whose feet are anointed with perfume, especially perfume with Nard, when people are hungry, starving, and impoverished. . . Despite the character change, Andrew Lloyd Webber does capture the scene quite well musically. . . With Mary singing:
Try not to get worried try not to turn onto problems that upset you, O don't you know everything's alright yes everything's fine. . . .
While Judas jumps in with: People who are hungry people who are starving, matter more than your feet and hands!
That puts it there front and center doesn't it. If we are not about helping the poor, what is this all about?
Look at our Psalm, from the Call to Worship, Psalm 41,
Happy are those who consider the poor; the Lord delivers them in the day of trouble.
The Lord protects them and keeps them alive; they are called happy in the land.  
You do not give them up to the will of their enemies.
The Lord sustains them on their sickbed; in their illness you heal all their infirmities.

You can see where Judas is coming from. . . what are we doing here? Think about it in today's terms. . . how long would Jesus get to keep his precious not for profit tax exempt status if he were using possible group funds for such wasteful luxuries as perfumed foot ointment, with Nard, for Goodness sakes. . .the IRS, Project Hope, guidestar, and would be all over Jesus for such things. And where is Jesus' compassion, you will always have the poor with you, but you won't always have me. . . . really???
Now it is interesting how Judas is thrown under the bus here by the Gospel writer. . . parenthetically of course. . . .Judas (the one who was going to betray him), or (he said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he is a thief, and was stealing from the common funds), wow, they are trying really hard to downplay what Jesus says here. .. he must only have said it because he knows Judas' heart, knows he's a thief, otherwise there is no way Jesus would ever have said something so heartless and hopeless about the poor. But in the other gospels its not even Judas, in Matthew it is just the disciples, and in Mark, it is just some and they. . . . some scolded the thoughtless her. Why does John include those pieces of information about Judas? Is it one of those textual additions that sometimes happens during the copying of manuscripts? Is it a gloss? someone's notes, someone pondering how Jesus could have said such things? It could be, but it seems likely, even according to rules of skeptical scholars, that Jesus said this. . . what does he mean? What is important? How could anointing feet be more important than using resources to help the poor? Because if it isn't caring for the poor, many people would just not be sure about this whole Jesus thing, or at least you hear that alot. . . when a mega church offers Starbucks Coffee, or you have a huge ornate gold plated cathedral surrounded by impoverished slums. . .  criticism abounds. Echoing Jesus in other parts of the gospel. . . you hypocrite!
Why does Jesus support Mary in this case? I don't think it is because of a lack of compassion for the poor, though I have heard that sermon. . . .and I don't think Jesus would say it if he didn't really mean it, because I've heard that sermon, too. Those are the two extremes. I think it has to do with individual  call. . . and it echoes throughout some of the other stories, too. We each have our own path, our own place, our own individual nature, talents, gifts, and we are each called to different things. It is possible that Mary is called to anoint Jesus' feet because she is preparing him for his death. . . while Judas has a different place. . . or the disciples, or the some/they. . . whose place is it to scold someone who is faithfully in the presence of Jesus doing what she feels called to do? Her center is Jesus, where is Judas' center? If you take the gospel literally, he is just a greedy money grubber out to steal from the community coffers, and the bigger the coffers the less likely people would know that things are missing. . . but even if Judas isn't the greedy antichrist the glosses present him as, and you take him at his word. . . that he does care for the poor. . . his center is not necessarily Christ. . . and the mission doesn't come through Jesus. . . it isn't ordered in that way. . . and so it is action, it may be selfless, it may be thoughtful, it may be benevolent, it may be sacrifice, it may seek to do some good, but it will never be effective because it isn't grounded in Christ, grounded in truth. . . . Now that is not a popular thing to say. . . it seems many disagree today both in and out of churches, and would be all over me for saying it, because it can excuse people from doing things that are good, and charitable. . .  and that is dangerous, especially in churches, where you need to find volunteers to cover stuff, to keep programs going, to get the good things done. . . but how quickly can it become about exactly that, focusing on the ends, and not the means, not only does Jesus get lost in the shuffle, but so too do the individual people you are supposed to be helping. . . and it is never sustainable. . . people aren't energized by force, guilt, scolding, not long term, not in eternal ways, like what Jesus is calling us to. Remember Jesus has just raised someone from the dead. . . that changes the rules, it changes the landscape, it turns everything upside down, and the old definitions of material wealth and poverty, just don't hold water anymore. Poverty has nothing to do with the lack of nard or silver, but distance from Jesus. Judas, be patient, have faith, come near to me, and you will see. .  .The brother of the Prodigal son, sees things the same way, so too does Jonah after Nineveh is saved. . . . how can she, how can he, why should I be doing this, when they are doing that. . . . Jesus says come to me, to you. . .  and to others, not because of what you do or are doing, what they do or are doing, but because of Jesus. . . can you accept such things? If Jesus is the Son of God, What is Important? Jesus, it all else flows from him, else is nothing, even the most compassionate martyr who is out to save the entire world, without Jesus it would come to nothing. . . but could a human being be the most compassionate, actually selfless martyr, knowing and being able to give that kind of love, without Jesus. . . I don't think so. . . many may disagree. . . and that is fine.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 12:1-8). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Je 22:13-17). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.