Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Cherry Blossom

The Cherry Blossom

Six springs have come, and with them
The blooming wonder of Love’s witness,
Embodied in the cycles of a cherry tree:
Natural rhythms, repeating, each in season,
Perfect, perfectly sequential, as if we could
Set our watch to it, plant it, own it, betting
Our faith on such patterns, moving yet static.
In those six years, the slow motion of time,
And the lulling, blinding patterns, we often miss
The one constant: change. The world changes,
And we change, and we don’t see it always
Because watches are not set by such things,
Nor do they work in rhythm, or arrayed
In such colorful livery; instead they are small,
Infinitesimally small, invisibly small, but there,
Happening and guided by the same force
We witness to in our symbols, like trees,
Or rings, crosses, and decorously colored eggs.
We don’t see the struggle for resources,
Happening in the roots just below the soil,
The selection of which branch will win their race
Toward the light, connected but fighting,
Finding their own way. That all happens below
The surface, and we get distracted by blooms.
How could we not, for their radiance burns
A bright pink, it seems to burst, to bust,
Forth from the cold winter’s strangle, struggle,
And make for us a checkpoint, where we
Can breathe, and rest, and in such rest assess
Where we are, and where we are going,
Making plans, setting a schedule, for now
We have perspective on what was and is,
And then what then must always be, A happy
Moment, forever lasting, or a troubling truth,
That will never not be—our faith and vision
Caught up in this moment because beauty
Is a benchmark, and such must Love always be?
Do we then today, a blooming day, look back
To the planting, and compare, our plans then
To what is now, and do we sigh, or doubt
That our symbols are empty, for love cannot
Be like this? Our plans were very different.
I would never have thought this, nor could
I have ever seen that, but yet it is.
Though our symbols work in sequence, and are
For us the visible signs of love, real love,
True love, the love that created and gives life,
Gives blooms, bears fruit, is truth itself
Cannot be captured by our symbols, nor can it
Be destroyed by them, for symbols are thoughts,
And thoughts are dreams, and dreams
Are the fanciful product, of idling rest
Assessments, but Love is more than beauty,
Never resting, always working, in the messy,
Dirty soil of roots, which clench the source tightly,
So it does not break, nor fade, nor die, nor wilt,
When the seasons change, but lasts, holding on,
And is working beyond the fruits we see,
In the struggling, clenching fight of doubt as well.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Praise or Rage

Praise or Rage
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
March 29, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 5: 15-20
2 Samuel 6: 1-5
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.

15 The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. 16 Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath. 17 But Jesus answered them, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” 18 For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.
19 Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. 20 The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing; and he will show him greater works than these, so that you will be astonished.[1]

Palm Sunday is full of options, so I had a lot of choices to make this week. The typical decision you have to make is, do you focus on the Palm Sunday story, the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the Hosannas, the palms, the crowds, the noise, that even the stones couldn't stay silent? or do you focus on the rest of Holy Week? On one hand you have the palms, you've got some great hymns like All Glory Laud and Honor, and Hosanna, Loud Hosanna, and you hate to miss a great opportunity to celebrate such a joyous and wondrous occasion, but on the other hand so much happens between Palm Sunday and Easter that really shouldn't just be missed. There is great danger in skipping the temple being turned over, and the last supper, and the prediction of Peter's denial, and Judas' betrayal, and the prayer in Gethsemene, and the trial with Pilate, the audience with Herod, the crowd choosing Barabbas, the flogging, carrying the cross, Simon the Cyrene offering assistance, the Cock crowing three times, the crown of thorns, the Cross, Calvary, Golgotha, the two criminals, the spear, the vinegar, the sign that read "King of the Jews", Father forgive them, they know not what they do. . . This day you will be with me in paradise. . . Woman, behold your son; son behold your mother. . . My God, my God, why have you forsaken me. . . I thirst. . . It is accomplished. . . and, Father into thy hands I commend my spirit. . .there is so much that is missed when you go straight from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday in just a week. . . which is why we'll continue the journey Thursday evening and Friday midday. . . because there is just so much to the journey to the empty tomb, and that helps a little bit with telling and experiencing the story. . . and that is what those services are about, experience. . . the experience of communion on Thursday night, and then seeking to experience aspects of the supreme sacrifice that Jesus makes on Friday at noon, but there is still more to ponder and consider. The other choice that I was faced with, was whether I would jump forward to the Palm Sunday and Easter texts, in the Gospel of John, or even one of the other Gospels, for this week and next week, or do I continue along with the Gospel where we left off. I decided finally not to decide, but rather to do a little bit of everything, and so I put the John, Palm Sunday text in your bulletin as the prayer of preparation, so we have that at easy access, and decided to preach from chapter 5, where we were, because providentially speaking, John 5 fits with Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter. It has all of the drama of celebration, condemnation, and resurrection --- Save us now, Jesus must die, the stone is rolled away -- Hosanna, Crucify Him, Hallelujah, He is Risen. It is almost as if John the evangelist, in his gospel which is a preaching gospel, rather than a consistent narrative gospel, that maybe he was taught to preach like I was, that every sermon should include our need, include the cross, and include the empty tomb. John seems to include all three in each chapter. For look, here in chapter 5, Jesus heals a man who had been crippled for 38 years, they celebrate in the temple, the Jews talk about needing to kill Jesus, and then Jesus talks about the will of the Father, and the power of raising the dead to life.  Celebration, Condemnation, Resurrection, It's all there.
The aspect of the Palm Sunday story that has always stood out for me, is how fast the crowds go from waving palms and praising Jesus, to changing their tune and wanting him crucified. In the other gospels there are some mutterings throughout about Jesus running afowl with the Pharisees, and them trying to snare him into traps of saying the wrong thing, in front of the wrong people, like the ever present occupying Romans, but in Matthew, Luke, and Mark it seems like the big issue that drives the people against him is Jesus going into the temple in Jerusalem and shaking things up, turning over the tables, and sending out the money changers. . . but John's gospel is much more intense, and he places the turning of the temple all the way back in chapter 2, and here we are in chapter 5, and the powers that be in the Jewish community aren't just muttering and trying to snare Jesus, but are already "seeking all the more to kill him," as it says in verse 18, just for healing on the Sabbath, and claiming to be God's son, what they see as a blasphemous claim of authority, and of course Jesus doesn't back down, instead he doubled down with the blasphemous claim. He pushes and pushes, never ever backing down or taking the easier political sidestep. I've said before that my mentor Dr. Bob had always asked us when we were passionate about something, and asking his advice over whether we should really go forward with it, he would say, "Is that a hill you want to be crucified on?" Because if it was his answer would have been go for it. . . but "want" is an interesting word there, no one really wants to be crucified on a hill, but sometimes that is exactly where we are called to go, and Jesus certainly ends there, he knows it, and is not willing to alter his identity, or hide his identity, just to settle down his critics to buy himself some more time. So Jesus wasn't backing down, but why such rage from the people? Why the hate? Why the change from cheers to jeers?
Public opinion is such a fickle thing. It is amazing how quickly something can turn it. With the NCAA basketball  tournament going on this week, and the great success of Kentucky, it has put some past tournament great teams into my mind. When I first started watching the tournament was 1991, and I was 12, I remember the 1989 one too, I remember it being on, I remember the name Danny Ferry, but I also remember being bored by it, and choosing to play instead, but that next year it all changed and I was hooked. Dad took me to go to the first round games at Cole Fieldhouse at the University of Maryland. . . it is one of the most vivid memories of my life, I can remember everything, the angle of our seats, seeing the players, all of it, I got a red tanktop that had the NCAA tournament logo. . . such a great day. . . four games in one day. We saw Temple, and Purdue, and Oklahoma State, and N.C. State, old fire and ice, man they went wild scoring 114 points. . . but then the last game of the night was Syracuse and Richmond, and it didn't start till like 9:00, 15th seed vs. #2, at that time no 15th seed had ever beaten a 2. I remember dad telling me that if it was a blowout we'd go home at half time, since it was a school night afterall. . . it wasn't a blow out. . . in fact Richmond won 73-69, it was crazy. . . awesome I was hooked, but what also remember from that tournament, and maybe it was in my mind because of the documentary that aired a couple weeks ago, but in that tournament, one of the greatest teams ever assembled, UNLV, they had won the last tournament, hadn't lost a game all season, had stomped Duke into the ground by 30 in the championship game, but this year they were meeting again, and Duke won. But the reason I'm telling you this story is that the hero of that game, and that Duke team, was Christian Laettner, and I was a huge fan, I loved him, and I remember most people were routing for them too against UNLV because they were underdogs, but as soon as they won, the next year, Laettner's senior year he was hated. How quickly you can go from underdog hero, to everyone hating you when are on top. Duke and Laettner repeated as champions and he was hated forever, I mean the 30 for 30 documentary that I was talking about was called "I hate Christian Laettner" how fast it is. But Jesus doesn't win a basketball championship. . . but he does suffer that same fate, the love and then rage from a fickle crowd.
The Documentary said that 5 things led to the hate of Laettner. . . They said "privilege," "being white," "being a bully," "his greatness", and his "good looks". All of these things seemed to scream that what it is all about is envy. . . but I don't think that is what it is for Jesus. Do we ever envy Jesus? That is an interesting question. . .but no, what I think causes the rage and hate to Jesus is that his actions, his presence, his claims, his power, his love, demand us to be different, they hold up a mirror before our face, they challenge the surface, outside, visible only aspects of our religious life, and sees through it straight to our hearts, he challenges everything we thought we knew about life, and God, and the world, and our place in it. . . and we just don't like it. I watched a minute of Ghandhi yesterday because it was on, and there is that great scene early in Ghandhi's career, when he has begun to make a name for himself, and the British folks don't quite really know how to take them. Amazed, awed, but uncomfortable, because it is a real challenge to their comfortable positions. There is that great scene in the church, and the Christian, Anglican priest is obviously moved by Ghandhi and sees Christ in him, and preaches to that notion to the church, and people walk out. . . I thought, how true. . . how fragile our religiosity sits with us when we are faced with real selfless sacrificial love, that is calm, gentle, but unbending, unflinching, it makes you look inside, and all to often we do not like what we see.
I saw this week an interesting question. Of course they were making a political statement about Conservative Christianity and Conservative politics, but I think the same holds true for Liberals and Progressives, too, but they asked, do you think that Jesus would be accepted if he spoke at some Christian Colleges. . . would the message fit, or would it cause people to walk out. The same question fits for our churches as well, and it may be good for us to think about it on this day where we are all waving our palms. How do we honestly respond to the Jesus message?

I had originally planned to end my sermon here, but I wanted to share one more specific example, this one a poem from my book, that challenges us from Jesus' perspective. I wrote it, while thinking about Robert Frost's "Mending Wall" and in reference to "A Night's Welcome" which was a mission program in Hampton where churches opened up their doors to the homeless for a week in the winter. . . and some of the challenges we faced in doing so.

Good fences make good neighbors,
And locked doors make them great,
But on the inside what does that make?
Safe inside away from the world,
We protect our things from them.
What do we have that they should take?
Who is my neighbor? I must ask—
What is my charge to them, my task?
Who am I to love? Who is us? Who is them?
The walls I build do good neighbors build,
Is that enough love from me, bettering them?
I protect them from stealing from me,
Did I not save them from their sin?
Of course I did, but that is not love,
For I never knew the face of them I saved.
I never once cared for the needs of them,
Only saved them in my way not theirs.
What is their way? What is their need?
It is surely captivated by sin and greed.
If they were us, they’d be saved like us,
Christ at work within their lives, instead
Of wallowing through life half dead,
Stealing from me, who tried to help
Those two weeks we served doors unlocked.
We graciously open our doors to them—
Is that the thanks we get for our act?
What is the problem? How is it made right?
Where do I look for Your answers, my God?
The book of your Word the Words of Your Son,
Love Your neighbor as yourself—can it be?
But my neighbor is none like myself at all.
My neighbor steals. My neighbor lies.
My neighbor must be locked outside.
How can I love my neighbor, like I do me?
“I did,” it said so simply through deeds.
“I did, though my world was heaven.
I did, though Your world was not
Open to what my actions say and do,
That there is no you or I, no us and them.
I the bridge where a fence once stood
Unlocked the doors to you and them.”
Us is all that is left when fences come down.

and the anthem for today: "Old Rugged Cross"

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 5:15-20). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

She and I

She and I
By Peter T. Atkinson
Inspired by "Beautiful Pastel Park" (couldn't find artist, though shown as Van Gogh)
Beautiful Pastel Park - van gough, pastel, park

There we walked, She and I, as if we were all
Who’d ever walked, just She and I,
Perfection walking, She and I,
As if, She and I were one.

We kept on talking, She and I, as if we were all
That ever were, just She and I,
Of nothing talking, She and I,
Forgetting, She and I, the sun. 

And so darkness fell on She and I, as if it all
Mattered to She and I,
The light enveloping She and I,
To us, She and I, was love.

But the lamplight over She and I was truly all
There was over She and I,
That artificial lie to She and I
Was not to She and I from above.

And so it was that She and I,
Became a She and Me an I,
She went one way and I go by,
She a She, and Me an I.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Selective Outrage

Selective Outrage
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
March 22 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 5: 1-18
Deuteronomy 12:29 - 13:4
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.

5 After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
2 Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha,  which has five porticoes. 3 In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. 5 One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” 7 The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” 8 Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” 9 At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.
Now that day was a sabbath. 10 So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, “It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.” 11 But he answered them, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your mat and walk.’ ” 12 They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take it up and walk’?” 13 Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd that was there. 14 Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.” 15 The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. 16 Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath. 17 But Jesus answered them, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” 18 For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.[1]

I've been looking forward to preaching this text ever since we were going through it last week in Sunday School. On the surface it seems like a typical healing story, and we are familiar with Jesus healing people, and this is one of the Sabbath healings and we are also familiar with those. Typically what happens is Jesus heals someone on the Sabbath and then the Pharisees get up in his faith over it, and then Jesus tells a parable or something else talking about how it is not compassionate to hold so fast to the law when people are suffering. That is what typically goes on but the details of this story are slightly different, and it was these differences that piqued my interest last week.
First of all it isn't Jesus who gets criticized first, it is the man who was healed, and not for being healed but for it being Sabbath, and him carrying his mat. And then something really striking happens, they ask him who healed him and he doesn't know. He has no clue who Jesus is. (It's kinda like my grandfather, he was working in construction and his men were working on buildings that were going to be used in the movie Somersby, that had Richard Gere, and it was when he was married to Cindy Crawford. She brought cookies to the site for them to eat, and he just thought this nice, and strikingly beautiful woman had done something nice, he had no clue who she was). Like that, to this man Jesus is just some nice man who said take up your mat and walk, and the guy did, so faith, no believing, no seeking Jesus out, no magic words, he did nothing, and has done nothing, and yet Jesus heals him. . . and now he is getting in trouble for taking up his mat because it was the Sabbath. And the story gets even more interesting because then the newly healed man is found again by Jesus in the crowd, and he says, "see you have been made well, go and sin no more, so that nothing happens to you. Now that is an interesting thing to say. To what sin is Jesus referring to, and in what context. Is he talking like he has before in this gospel about the man's past life, that Jesus may know something about this man, and what he has done, could be, the possibility is certainly legitimate and it fits the flow of the gospel, with Jesus seeing into people's souls and all, and it fits with our standard idea of Jesus, you've been healed, so now go live a sinless life, repent, turn over a new leaf, live the life of the saved. . . but I'm not so sure because of what Jesus follows the do not sin part with. He says, so that nothing happens to you. Maybe I've watched too many movies, when somebody says, "so that nothing happens to you" it's usually some kind of warning, like hey take care of yourself, people who you don't know are out to get you, but who? It doesn't seem to me to be Jesus or God, but the people who were just giving this man trouble about his mat. . . and Jesus is saying hey get out of here, don't sin anymore, these people are dangerous. . . could be, because there is certainly alot of anger, and outrage, even to the point of wanting to plot to kill Jesus. It says, "The Jews started persecuting because he was doing such things on the sabbath.
And all of these details were interesting to me, but the one that really stood out was, this pool. This magic pool where people are lining up to get healed. Now if you are following along in your pew Bible you will notice another anomaly about this chapter, and that is that there is no verse 4. . . . it goes straight from 3 to 5, like a hotel elevator superstitiously skipping the 13th floor because no one will ever want to rent a room on it. No verse 4, and I'm not sure if you will have a footnote in the pew Bibles, but most study Bibles do, and it says that verse 4 states. . .
waiting for the stirring of the water; 4for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease that person had.[2]

It actually includes the end of verse 5 as well. . . and you may be asking yourself why is it in a footnote and not the text, the answer is that it was not found in the oldest of original texts in existence, but was in the text used to create the King James Version translation, and so most Bibles today leave it out of the main text, but for verse consistency with other older translations leave the verse numbering the same, and then include the footnote to show the full text. So how did that part get added in, who knows, those things happen from time to time in the old copying that monks did in the middle ages. Sometimes it is an error, sometimes it is what they call a gloss, where someone added it in as a note, and then the next person copying thought that it was a part of the text, or it could be that one of the scribes decided to add it because he thought that the verses around it did not work for some theological or personal reason of the one copying it. Now in this case this missing verse does two things. . . . one is that it provides a little background for why all these people are gathered in these pools for healing, and two it seeks to redeem these baths from their pagan roots, saying that an angel of the Lord came down to "trouble the waters."
And this is what I found so interesting. . . because there is one really serious question here, and that is why were the "Jews" as mentioned in this chapter so upset about the healing and carrying mats on the Sabbath, but they didn't care about the pool? Because these pools are certainly just as troubling from a Jewish Law perspective, and especially to pharisees, who these "Jews" probably were based on their presence and behavior from the other gospels, I mean this sounds like them. . . but why the outrage over the Sabbath and not the pools?
Let me back up a minute and talk for a second about what Pharisees were, and what their mission was. At the time of Jesus the Pharisees were a sect of Jewish teachers who were trying to reinvigorate the Jewish community and connection via their national identity as Jews, through their adherence to the law. And this was an important job. To them following the Law is what separated them from their Greek and Roman occupiers. Their identity and their sense of history, everything that could unite them as a people was the Law, truly the only thing that could unite them as a people was the law. Because for the last 500+ years the lands of Judea had been occupied, Jerusalem was an occupied city, first by the Babylonians, then the Persians then the Greeks, and now the Romans. Many of the Jewish people were becoming "Hellenized" which means they were adapting to the culture of the day, they were adapting to the Greek and Roman culture. . . and the Pharisees read in the Torah, the law, in books especially like Deuteronomy that their ancestors got into trouble because they allowed themselves to be corrupted by outsiders, by the canaanites, and other peoples, pagans, idolaters, people who believed in many gods rather than the one Holy God, who Is
Kane read it for us:
29 When the Lord your God has cut off before you the nations whom you are about to enter to dispossess them, when you have dispossessed them and live in their land, 30 take care that you are not snared into imitating them, after they have been destroyed before you: do not inquire concerning their gods, saying, “How did these nations worship their gods? I also want to do the same.” 31 You must not do the same for the Lord your God, because every abhorrent thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods. They would even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods. 32 d You must diligently observe everything that I command you; do not add to it or take anything from it. [3]

Yeah don't add anything or take anything away, my Laws are consistent they do not change, do not be corrupted by the people of the land. . . taking on their gods, their idols, their traditions.
. . . and the Pharisees wanted to not make that mistake again, especially since they were still paying for the mistakes of those ancestors, which is why they are occupied in the first place. So that is the Pharisees mission. . . work with the people, remind them of their Jewishness, get out into the people and get your hands dirty and work to preserve the Jewish identity of the people. Noble pursuit of course, for no one wants to see their religion corrupted by the pressures of the world. . . never.
But here is the strange part. . . why so upset about the Sabbath breaking when you have people going to be healed in a pool. Now my first thought here when I came across this last week was, hey that pool, that sounds much more Pagan than Jewish, even with the angel gloss addition from the footnote. It sounds like polytheistic hocus pocus, not Judaism. . .
It sounds alot like the second part of what Kane read:
a If prophets or those who divine by dreams appear among you and promise you omens or portents, 2 and the omens or the portents declared by them take place, and they say, “Let us follow other gods” (whom you have not known) “and let us serve them,” 3 you must not heed the words of those prophets or those who divine by dreams; for the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul. 4 The Lord your God you shall follow, him alone you shall fear, his commandments you shall keep, his voice you shall obey, him you shall serve, and to him you shall hold fast.[4]

Some one obviously was healed in these pools, and prophets and diviners of other gods, are calling you to come be apart, you've seen the healing, seen the miracle, come do the same get into this pool. And that is what my first thought was, that this is a pagan ritual and someone had Judaized it. . . maybe by saying that it was an angel of the Lord that troubled the water. . . but even if it were, why would God act the same way twice? Why could you control the God who you can't even speak the name of, or enshrine in a temple? Again I thought it sounded pagan, so I did some research. . . and sure enough this pool of Beth zatha, or Bethesda. . . was what was called an "Asclepieia" or the healing waters of the god Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. He was famous for carrying a snake entwined staff. . . you may recognize it when you see symbols of our healthcare system, whether at a hospital or on your insurance premium statement. In paganism there is always ritual, you do these things, as prescribed by the priest and you could be healed. . . of course there may be some small fee, or oath of allegiance, but what does that matter for healing. . . some may even try to do that for 38 years.
So my question is why are the Pharisees in this story so worried about the Sabbath, but don't say a word about Jewish people near the temple in the holy city of Jerusalem taking part in a blatantly pagan ritual? Talk about selective outrage. . . why because some rules are easier to mark and enforce than others. . . like the Sabbath for instance. . . it's relatively benign right, who doesn't want a day off. . . but if you start messing around with taking away something that is offering healing, well that probably isn't quite as popular to make a stink about, now isn't. . . it would be like cancelling Christmas. . . where is your compassion, your mercy for those who are suffering. . . but yeah lets enforce the Sabbath, much easier. It reminds me of school, where we enforce rules like shaving, and dress code, and making appointments, but larger issues of character that are harder to quantify and actually raise the bar, those standards we can let slide. It is typical of human nature. . . we tend to pick and choose, what is convenient to us, and what ensues often is what is often called selective outrage. . . you pick and choose what to get offended by based on what fits into your political ideology or your own person agenda. It allows you to condemn the behavior of someone else while you ignore your own misgivings. . . I think Jesus called it, having a plank in your own eye and seeing a speck in the others. . . or he who is without sin cast the first stone. . . or as President Obama gave Jesus credit for, but it actually is derived from Chaucer, he who lives in a glass house shouldn't throw stones. . . judge not, lest ye be judged. . . or as I've seen on facebook often, don't judge someone else because they sin differently than you.
Now of course Providence would ironically set this passage up for me this week. . . when the Presbyterian Church has been in the national news all week because of the changes in to our constitution being ratified changing the definition of marriage. That even though I have misgivings about the change, and what it will do to the church as a whole, as we become more and more divided, and to little churches, in size and numbers at least, but certainly not in importance, who are bleeding members they cannot afford to lose, and or like us, who have lost prospective members because of it, it is troubling from that perspective, but despite that, I am more heartbroken by all the comments I have read from Christians from other denominations who have said that we have left the Bible behind, or that we are no longer following Christ. Providence has given us this passage to study this week because, the echo of the Pharisees is strong in the mission and comments of those who proclaim that we have left the true meaning of Christ following behind, the echo of the Pharisees is strong in choosing one Sin that is easy to mark and defend, and choosing to rally around that, while many others go unnoticed or unfought for. . . it is always easy to point fingers, and the echo of the Pharisees is in the other side, too, celebrating the change because they feel that because they have the “right” and “inclusive” view it does not matter who gets in the way, for they feel they are justified. . . I said in August that I feel like the real mother who comes to Solomon, who does not want her child to be ripped apart, but we must remember always that the Pharisees were not on Jesus side. . . Jesus said to them, "My Father is still working, and I also am working.” The statement is still true today. . . often despite us, and beyond what we see, but The Father and Christ are still working, may we have the patience, fortitude, faith, and stubborn persistence to keep looking for that work in ourselves and others, rather than being selectively outraged by what we see is sin, but not by the sin we don't see.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 5:1-18). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
d Ch 13:1 in Heb
[3]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Dt 12:29-32). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
a Ch 13:2 in Heb
[4]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Dt 13:1-4). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Unknown Depths

The Unknown Depths
for Gabrielle
by Peter T. Atkinson

There are places where the water touches land,
Where the land, peaceful and solid, does stand,
And out in the water, the ripples on the surface flow,
But lurking just beneath do unseen currents go,
And since we are to those unknown a stranger,
We cannot help but feel a sense of danger,
And some would flee and choose to never go in,
To never venture even just one little toe in.
Others of course prefer to run and dive,
For it is in danger they feel the most alive.
They in their running don’t even see the divide,
Never take a minute to see the edging tide,
And so never know the feeling of hesitation,
The paralysis attached to idle contemplation.

But me, I've simply stood there on that ledge
Preferring the known side of the edge,
I do not dive, nor do I flee.
Somehow, here, it seems, I'm called to be,
To sit and ponder the here and there,
On the sidelines, offering inactive prayer,
Content to simply sympathize and give
My watch o'er others as they live:
Shedding a tear for him, a cringe for her,
As the waves arise out of the currents' stir.
But sometimes, while standing there on the side,
A wave can rise beyond the tide,
And what was safe, secure, dry land
Has been overtaken by another's hand.

This very thing happened once to me,
And before I got a chance to disagree
The hand had pulled me out to sea,
And fear looms large in the water's deep,
Like a nightmare produces restless sleep,
And what was left for my soul to keep,
After unwillingly taking faith's final leap?
For what else did I have to grasp
Than the stranger's hand around me clasp'd?
And just whose hand took me from my place,
My safe, controlled, and comfortable space,
And now has me floating through the danger,
That unknown, invisible, frightening stranger?

It couldn't be God. He's supposed to be good,
And good is being safe, where I securely stood,
Not risking my sanity, nor life, nor limb
In a real life version of sink or swim.
What kind of God would bring me here
Where I am floundering in doubt and fear,
Wondering if anything I'd been told  was true
About Jesus Christ, or Love, or You?

And with each new crash and pounding wave,
The shadowy threat from the beaconing grave,
I question everything I thought I knew,
And so have no clue of what to do,
My arms flail and my legs reach down
To find some solid piece of ground,
But nothing firm do I feel or find,
No respite for my desperate, seeking mind,
No place anywhere to rest my soul,
No firm foundation within my control.

It's then my despair did deep descend
But just as I thought I'd reached my end,
I came to know a different truth,
Beyond the fairy tales of my youth,
A truth that isn't comfortable and nice
But is always willing to pay the price,
Not standing on the sidelines from afar
Bright, but as distant as the farthest star,
But gave it all up to live with us here,
To share our pain, to experience our fear,
And still was willing to pay the cost,
Nailed high to die upon the cross.

I remembered then that he calmed the sea
Could he still do the same for me?
Could it have been his hand after all
That he didn't really ever let me fall,
That I was safe there in his hand,
Despite being taken from the sand,
That though I didn't have control,
He stilled cared deeply about my soul,
And never ever did forsake me
Though from my comfort he did take me?

Eventually calm was restored. I was back on land.
On my own two feet it seemed I could stand,
But I learned of strength I never had known.
Through the trial, I somehow had changed and grown.
I no longer was paralyzed by worry and doubt,
For he pulled me into the sea and delivered me out.
There was nothing to fear and hold on tight to,
For He's Lord of the darkness and Lord of the light, too,
He's Lord of the land and He's Lord of the waves,
For He's the Lord who creates, sustains, and saves,
There just is no place apart from His grace
No trouble that causes Him to hide His face,
No problem, no mess, no danger too large
To make me doubt that He is always in charge.
No, I no longer need to feel secure
In the safe, controlled, comfort of the shore,
For I've now survived the depth of the sea,
Because He never ever abandoned me.

Photo Credit: Pj Schlobohm

Monday, March 16, 2015

A Loving Brother Encourages His Sister to Live and Fight

A Loving Brother Encourages His Sister to Live and Fight
Peter T. Atkinson H-SC ‘00

After you rise you have to live,
And life demands your all to give,
Not all at once, but over time,
And it costs more than simply dollars and dimes.

To persevere and run the race,
All the truths you have to face.
A wiling spirit is of course essential,
But more is required to be consequential,

For you must keep fighting when the cameras go away,
And the trending slows to a few a day,
When the bills come due, and the dissent begins,
And disagreements divide former friends.

When the sun is shining and the flowers bloom,
And there just is no sign of the future gloom,
When all is great and the tide does rise,
The forgotten truth can be a surprise.

That life is challenging, and the road is long.
You’ll find that wanting to quit wasn’t wrong,
For you wished to stand where others had stood,
Who decided quitting was the only good,

The only way to avoid the pain,
The easier choice than enduring the strain,
‘Twas easier than all those fardels to bear,
To just end it all and choose not to care,

To forget the past, the commitment made,
Forget the innocents, who’ve been betrayed,
Forget how others have been affected,
The lives of those who’ve been redirected.

But you, my sisters, chose to live instead
Of the peaceful quietus of the dead.
You’ve chosen to be, and so endure.
Remember your purpose and be sure

That though the battle will be long to fight,
The fight you fight is one that’s right.
No matter how long, how far, how hard,
No matter how bruised, and battered, and scarred,

You have what it takes, and more than that,
You’re more than equipped for this combat.
Don’t be fooled when the darkness falls,
When the momentum lags, the movement stalls,

Remember the power that gave you rise,
And from that faith, you can surmise
That if you stay faithful, proud, and true,
There is truly nothing you cannot do.

Save Sweet Briar

Sunday, March 15, 2015

What Does it Take?

What Does it Take?
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
March 15, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 4: 46-54
1 Kings 19: 11-15
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.

46 Then he came again to Cana in Galilee where he had changed the water into wine. Now there was a royal official whose son lay ill in Capernaum. 47 When he heard that Jesus had come from Judea to Galilee, he went and begged him to come down and heal his son, for he was at the point of death. 48 Then Jesus said to him, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” 49 The official said to him, “Sir, come down before my little boy dies.” 50 Jesus said to him, “Go; your son will live.” The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and started on his way. 51 As he was going down, his slaves met him and told him that his child was alive. 52 So he asked them the hour when he began to recover, and they said to him, “Yesterday at one in the afternoon the fever left him.” 53 The father realized that this was the hour when Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” So he himself believed, along with his whole household. 54 Now this was the second sign that Jesus did after coming from Judea to Galilee. [1]

So it seems like at this point the Gospel of John has now gotten going after the prologue, and a slow start, without much action. Now it seems that Jesus is going from place to place and having encounter after encounter with person after person. It seems that some of them believe and some of them don't, and each story is unique. Person after person comes to Jesus, says something to him, some insight that they think they have about who Jesus is and what he is doing. Jesus then sets the record straight, either pushing them further in what and who they think Jesus is, or completely and directly challenging the notion, condemning the shortsightedness and the confidence of the person coming to him. First you have John the Baptist, not the light, but he who came before the light, calling Jesus the lamb of God, then Nicodemus, saying, hey Jesus we can tell you are one of us, a teacher sent from God, to the Samaritan woman we talked about last week, who comes to believe in Jesus eventually. She was unnamed, and the encounter we study this morning is also with an unnamed person, this time a man. We got information about her, the Samaritan woman from last week, she was Samaritan, hated race, 5 husbands, living with a 6th man who isn't her husband, if Nicodemus should have seen it but didn't, we said last week, that she should have missed it, but she doesn't, she comes to believe, and through her so does many in her village. Now Jesus returns to Cana, where it all began with the turning of water into wine, (I think it tells us that so we know that Jesus has a reputation there, they are in the know, they know that this man does magical things), and so now we get another nameless person, but he is far from a Samaritan Woman, it says that he is a Royal Official.
How do you read that? What comes to your mind when you think Royal Official? Especially since he is unnamed. . .  Royal how? Roman, Jew? Is he royal himself, or someone who works in an official position inside the government, which at the time was royal? It makes a difference because the royalty at the time in Judea is puppet government stuff, person put on the throne by the Roman Authorities. . . another sellout? So soon after the Samaritan, just a different empire to sell out to? Are we to be distrustful of him, are we supposed to see him as "privileged," a privileged class person in a society of very, very poor? You would think he would be the kind of guy who can get things done, a person of means, a person of power, a person who can just say the word and people act, but here he is desperate, because this passage introduces a real world truth. Money doesn't solve all your problems, neither does power. There are some things in this world that our systems of esteem and status just have no effect on. . . and death is one of them. The passage does not say why the boy is at "the point of death" just that he is there. He may be diseased, he may have cancer, he may have been this way for awhile, he might have just had an accident where he fell out of the royal litter and was trampled by a crowd, he could have been harmed by someone, a burglar, a kind of ancient mugging by a highway man, he may have fallen out of a window, my favorite english word: defenestration, we just do not know. And it doesn't matter. Jesus doesn't need the back story he just heals him, and not by laying hands on, or rubbing mud on him, nothing of the sort, he just says "Go, your son will live." Period. . . and it was so. . . If it had said, "and we saw that it was good" it would have been just as if Jesus had said "Let there be light." Important, of course. . . Jesus is not hiding who he is, neither is John the Evangelist, remember we started with "In the beginning there was the Word, and the Word was God and the Word was with God." Some            times we like a moment, an action, a ritual to let us know it is working. We like our medicine to taste bad, our gain to have some pain, otherwise we may doubt its effectiveness, does Selson Blue really work better on dandruff than Head and Shoulders, the ad says it does, because "the tingle means it's working" but the tingle really has nothing to do with it the medicine, the tingle just comes from the menthol and the tea tree oil they put in it, but we buy it because it fits into our natural inclination. If we can't suffer a little bit, or earn it, or make it happen, often we miss it. . . did this Royal Official miss it? It says no, he believed enough to go home at first, just to see, and then when he gets there and realizes that all the stars align and the times were the same and he could not explain away it all as some kind of glorious coincidence, he just couldn't talk himself out of it, so he believed. . . but it seems to me like he was doubting all along. . . why? just because Jesus seems to see his doubt. Jesus says to him, "unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe." Jesus knows that this man is coming to him in desperation, like he is just doing everything he can do to try to save his kid. Remember he's a government official, a man of power, a man of action, a man who gets things done, a man focused on the ends, and so whatever means are necessary just to get the job done. And now he is in a situation where all his power has been stripped away because money can't save his kid, neither can him having the ear of the king, nothing in his arsenal will work, nothing in his bag of tricks has been effective, nothing within his plans have done anything, and so in desperation he comes to the man who turned the water into wine saying, please save my son, and then in such a sweet moment, changes the term of endearment, not my son, but my little boy. . . "Sir, come down before my little boy dies." I've seen this desperation first hand, a couple weeks ago when I was called to go "pray over my niece." My sister in law was looking for anything she could do, any piece of control she could grasp, she was going to walk down every avenue, just in case something might work, she was going to do whatever it takes. There is something so human in that, so very touching because it is us, and this nameless royal official, becomes for us every one who has ever loved someone enough to do anything to save them, especially a parent and a child. (God and Jesus seem to know that, too, they get that, understand that, but still, the cross, and still, for God so loved the world. . . knowing human love, knowing the deepness of connection, having that in perfect example, puts it aside, not to save his own son, but to save this man's and yours and mine, our children and us, not because of anything we have done, but because of love).
What does it take for us to believe that in all of its power, potential, realness and world changing actuality? What does it take for us to believe that and  have it completely shift our world into a new one, shift isn't strong enough, it's more of a realigning, like a shift, but one that includes an explosion, and violence, and world destroying change, but we don't have a word for it. . . . so instead we use Salvation and Grace. . . but often even those words fall short. The theology word for it is conversion, full and total conversion, that born again, born from above stuff, that is so fresh in our minds from a few weeks ago. . . no we don't go back into the womb, that's too literal, but we wake up in another world, one where the fears, doubts, insecurities, worries, and clueless lost misdirection of the old world is gone and  replaced by our will being aligned with God's. . . grafted to the vine, near the cross, harmony and love. This is the shift, the violent, world destroying, explosive, realigning, born from above, stuff that is conversion. What does this conversion take?
Some of the great writers and thinkers from Christian History, Experience, and Literature have tried to tackle this very topic, trying to capture their own experience, their own version. In the bulletin I put a brief passage from St. Augustine's "Confessions" at the moment of his change. His confessions are his spiritual biography depicting all the twists and turns, that led him towards Christ, and they included all sorts of missteps, including other religious beliefs, being lost in sin, until this moment, and he puts the impetus for the conversion within the work and will of God. . . listen to his words:
Urged to reflect upon myself, I entered under your guidance the innermost places of my being; but only because you had become my helper was I able to do so. I entered, then, and with the vision of my spirit, such as it was, I saw the incommutable light far above my spiritual ken and transcending my mind: not this common light which every carnal eye can see, nor any light of the same order; but greater, as though this common light were shining much more powerfully, far more brightly, and so extensively as to fill the universe. The light I saw was not the common light at all, but something different, utterly different, from all those things. Nor was it higher than my mind in the sense that oil floats on water or the sky is above the earth; it was exalted because this very light made me, and I was below it because by it I was made. Anyone who knows truth knows this light.

Most people do not know this because usually the only part that gets any press is the first part the Inferno, but Dante's Divine Comedy is his epic poem that depicts his personal conversion. He like Augustine arises one morning and is drawn to the light, but the light makes him realize that he is very much lost in a wood of error, and he is unable to conquer sin on his own enough to just go climb the hill to the light. So Love and Reason work together and he comes to recognize sin and its rewards in Hell, he learns of the rewards of sacrifice enough to renounce those sins in Purgatory, and then finally is his will cleansed enough for him to accept and experience actual divine Love in Heaven, perfecting his conversion.
            Just so was I on seeing this new vision
          I wanted to see how our image fuses
          Into the circle and finds its place in it,

          Yet my wings were not meant for such a flight —
140      Except that then my mind was struck by lightning
          Through which my longing was at last fulfilled.

          Here powers failed my high imagination:
          But by now my desire and will were turned,
          Like a balanced wheel rotated evenly,

145      By the Love that moves the sun and the other stars.

Another is John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, where his character, Christian, finds a book that tells him he is living in a city of destruction, a man named evangelist comes to him, shows him the gate by which he can begin his journey to the city of salvation, but Christian fears he cannot make it on account of the heavy burden he is bearing on his back. He goes through the gate, where Christ removes the burden, and then travails through the world symbolically facing all the challenges of the Christian life.
Yes conversion is a major aspect of the Christian life. What does it take for us? What did it take for you? When did it happened? Or has it yet? It seems that all of our answers are different, and rightly so. . . though uniformity would make things easier, Christ is not relegated to one thing, though many have tried to sell it that way. . . but like Selson Blue, it doesn't have to tingle to be working, and in this case belief is a response to grace not the cause of it. Jesus heals the boy, and then the family comes to believe. . . even our desperation, even our trying to cover all our bases, though they do not control God, they don't get in the way either, unless we let them. Just like this father, the nameless royal official does not start talking away the miracle, explaining it away into the rationalizations of this world, instead he lets it despite himself bring him to faith, bring him to conversion. Ours may not happen like his, or Augustine's, or Dante's or Bunyan's, there may be no burning bush, or blinding light on the road if we happen to be travelling towards Demascus. . . God instead works in many ways to call you to conversion, call you to Christ. Be open, be aware, look for Christ, but don't be afraid when Christ sneaks up on you in a place you didn't expect to find him, in a way you never thought, in the opposite place from where you were looking. . . for the answer to the question, what does it take. . . is simply this. . . it takes Christ, and Christ alone.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 4:46-54). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.