Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Monuments of Nothingness


video
video is also here: https://vimeo.com/126624837
Monuments of Nothingness
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
April 30, 2015
at Gibson Memorial Chapel
Blue Ridge School, St. George Virginia
Matthew 5: 13-20

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.
Amen.

13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. 15 Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
17 “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. 18 For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.[1]

Back in February I spoke to you about my belief that you are all amazing creatures, with infinite potential, but how we often choose the safety of chains rather than reaching and actualizing that glorious potential we were each made with and for. I have to admit today's message is very much on that same theme, back then I said how it fuels me to get you all to see that potential that I see, and I still believe that to my core, but on Monday I was having one of those cynical days of doubt where the circumstances and the evidence I was seeing all around me, made me question that faith if only for a moment. . . and as a perfect testament to the powers of Providence, I was asked yesterday to speak here this morning, and so all at once I had to address and fight against that cynicism head on, and put to mind and words the hope of my faith beyond that moment of doubt. I can tell you I have done so, and it is quite a journey, and I want to take you on that journey with me this morning.
The driving catalyst for my cynical feelings on Monday was excuses. I kept hearing them, and they all turned my stomach because they just hung in the air unquestioned, unchallenged, and completely accepted as, "just the way it is," and I felt the pressure on Monday to just throw in the towel and accept it myself, but I just can't do that because I know deep down what exactly excuses are, and the destructive force of them in our world.
A former colleague of mine, brought with him a definition of excuses, that I have used again and again, some of you may have heard this before during one my tirades either in class or on the football field, but he told me that excuses can be defined as "tools of incompetence that build monuments of nothingness, people who use them seldom accomplish anything." I want to think about breaking that down into its parts for a moment before I go further. . . if you think about the first part, "tools of incompetence." Tools are obviously things that you use to build, fix, repair, but the OF there, "of incompetence," does that mean that the tool builds incompetence, or does it mean that tool is built by, or owned by incompetence?. . . I think it is great to see it both ways actually, because it becomes a self perpetuating circle. . . incompetence + excuses breeds more incompetence which leads to more excuses, then so you have incompetence built by and building more incompetence. . . it is a vicious downward spiral. . . a self perpetuating system of failure, but the irony is that these tools are actually building something, they are building beyond mere incompetence, these things he calls monuments.
Now a monument is a structure, a marker, and a symbol, a witness, a testament, and that is what these really build, but these monuments are made of nothing, again more irony, a monument suggests size, scope, wonder, memorial, immensity, but nothingness suggests it is all a sham, invisible, fake, flimsy, and not real.  The real shame though is that these monuments of nothingness, these fake testimonies of accomplishment, become so real, so real at least seeming, that they become true for people, and like the great monuments and pillars of our society, that we look to for truth, and identity, and greatness, and self worth, we end up building our lives based on these empty monuments of nothingness, the mirages of seeming truth. It's sad. It's sad, and it is a disease that has reached almost every corner of our country, of our institutions, and especially through our schools into our youngest generations, you guys.
And I may offend, because no one likes to hear that what they built with their lives is a monument of nothingness, and no one likes to believe that what their lives are built upon are monuments of nothingness. . . but the evidence is glaring, and it slapped me in the face on Monday. I heard stories of seniors who are in danger of graduating because they've built their lives on excuses, seniors, whom we are about to send out into the world, with our stamp of approval on them, I heard from my students, student after student about why they can't write, why they can't do math, why they can't get to class on time, why they can't, can't, can't. . . and I saw people accepting those excuses, building up those excuses, allowing, fostering, serving those excuses, building a culture of excuses, rather than accomplishment, excusing those excuses and it turns my stomach, not because my homework wasn't done, but because the reflection of self it shows, and the lie it perpetuates. . . that it doesn't really matter, no one checks anyway, the rent never really comes due, it's just a monument of "nothingness" after all, all of life is, thinking otherwise is merely subscribing blindly to an artificial set of standards that someone just made up years ago, the chains of the past, and therefore it is ok to be less, and not only is it ok, but it's easier, it's the path of least resistance, it's comfortable, and safe, and therefore good, or at least the emptiness of "fine." How are you. . . O I'm fine. . . if you've ever said that you know just how empty such phrases and ideas actually are.
And then I go home, Monday night, and the effects of such things hit me in the face. I had gone to bed on Saturday night disgusted that the fans at the Oriole game Saturday night were told not to leave the stadium, because they'd be in danger, and I prayed for the situation on Sunday at church, but Monday night, I saw it escalate, protest turned riot, violence, looting, fires, destruction. . . and it hit me in the face again, the same cynicism that hit me here, the monuments of excuses coming home to roost, the rent coming due, and the character checks coming back with insufficient funds. And I thought excuses again, because if you followed the conversation on twitter, or facebook, or instagram, or on the news, you saw two sides forming quickly, and both sides looking to excuse these behaviors of destruction. For the rioters, you heard, well they are poor, they see no way out, they lack education, they are just young, they are black, and disenfranchised, and all that excuses their behavior, they might be acting rashly, out of anger, passion, frustration, but what else can they do, being what they are, their situation, their plight, excuses their behavior. They are just victims. Excuse me, but those are monuments of nothingness, and that leaves people bankrupt when it comes to character. Making excuses for people does nothing for them except chaining them to their plight. . . for they've sold out their future, in favor of an empty monument of nothingness, the kind you can build with violence, and the false empty promises of the pandering politicians, and we need our cities, our culture, our country, we need our world built not on monuments of nothingness, but on cornerstones of character, and nothing undermines a foundation like an excuse. It may seem to be loving, and accepting, and open, and tolerant, and all the other buzzwords, but the truth is it simply destroys people.
But they aren't alone because there are alot of people excusing the cops, too. Well, they  are under alot pressure, and it's a tough job, and they get frustrated, and. . . and. . . and. . . monuments. We should expect more, because if we are satisfied with less, less is exactly what we are going to get. But that would mean sacrificing our agenda, and facing the truth, the actual, entire, challenging truth, and the lies are easier, it'll be fine. . . monuments.
Ernest Hemingway wrote, in The Old Man and the Sea, that "man was not made for defeat, man can be destroyed, but not defeated," meaning that you can destroy the body, but you can't defeat the spirit, the fighting, grasping spirit. . . . I think he hadn't considered the power of excuses, for they don't destroy, instead they more sinisterly seek to defeat, and then enslave. Defeat the aspiration, and enslave to mediocrity. . . and it becomes a disease, like that which leaves our cities in flames, and our society, lost and looking for answers, and leadership, and character.
Now I have to be honest, sometimes there are reasons, and reasons are different from excuses. They do exist, and they are true, weakness and frailty are truly a part of being human,  and that just makes it all harder to deal with, because excuses are just the imposters of these reason. . . and it is hard to tell the difference. Which is really the other sinister quality, because those who truly need our compassion don't always get it because people are selling these "Wolf Tickets" (another saying by the same friend who told me about the monuments), wolf tickets comes from the story about the little boy who cried wolf, he lied so much that no one could see the truth, and that is the horrible other ugly side about excuses. They blind us to the distinctions. . .
"Lies unremmittingly repeated, can make us believe heaven is hell and hell is heaven" --- do you know who said that, Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf, which was a rephrasing of something Milton wrote Satan saying in Paradise Lost. And the greatest repeater of lies that we face is ourselves. . . I just can't do math, I'm not a good writer, I'm not smart enough, I'm a victim, I can't do it, you tell yourself that enough you'll believe it. There is a great song by Nickel Creek that says, "Others have excuses, but I have my reasons why." So true. . .
How do you tell them apart? How do you tell the difference between a reason and an excuse in a world overrun with imposters, a world overrun with people selling and buying up these wolf tickets even from themselves? Man it is hard. . .
But I believe the answer resides in grace. Wait a minute, isn't grace just forgiveness, and isn't forgiveness, the same thing as excusing, not holding people accountable. No, and here is the subtle but so important difference. . . grace forgives, grace gives second chances, grace understands, but grace never lowers standards. . .  "Not one iota will pass from the law, and woe to him who relaxes one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others. . ." now there is a danger here, especially for me, the old notion of practicing what you preach. . . because I like many of you fight the battle of excuses. . . so I could ask myself, who are you to preach such a message, for you certainly do not live up to it?. . . and I fought with that last night, but I had this thought, practicing what you preach is impossible if you are preaching perfection, and if you aren't preaching perfection, you are accepting less. . . no, grace is needed, especially too for me, but I cannot allow myself to preach the truth as limited by what I have achieved in my life so far, because it ain't much, but instead only limited by what I, and all of us, have the potential to reach and be. Mr. King and I were talking about the word Amazing, as it is in Amazing Grace, and I would like to think, that the word could be taken apart, into the root, a - above, without, apart from, and then "maze," the lost and struggling, twists and turns of this world. . . grace seeks to lift us up, beyond our excuses, and monuments, and wolf tickets, into our real potential. . . to be the salt of the earth, and the city on a hill, and shining our light for the world. . . don't let your light be darkened and snuffed by destructive forces of excuse. . . monuments of nothingness.
And the minute the excuses of Monday night were over, the sun rose on Tuesday, and it was my daughter Clara's birthday, and I was thinking about how I wanted her to see and be prepared for all the stuff she'll face in her life, I thought I want to wrap her in the armor of hope, and just then the stories of character began to come to light, people in Baltimore, not bound by excuses, rose to amazing heights of greatness, with simple but powerful acts. . . selfless acts. . . acts that raise the standards, building monuments of love. . . such is the amazing power of grace, it makes it possible for fallen creatures to once again rise from the ashes and live up to the image in which we are created, the kingdom of heaven is not built with monuments of nothingness, but instead the ever reaching, infinite, never faltering one iota, monuments of love. Which will you build today? Monuments of Nothingness or Monuments of Love. . . May it be so, Amen.
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Here is the poem I referenced I wrote on Tuesday for Clara
http://revcoachatkinson.blogspot.com/2015/05/armor-of-hope.html

Here is the sermon I referenced I gave in February for the boys: "Chains: Why it sucks to not do your homework!"

http://revcoachatkinson.blogspot.com/2015/02/chains.html





Image result for blueridgeschool



[1]The Revised Standard Version. 1971 (Mt 5:13). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

What Does It Matter?

What Does It Matter?
Peter T. Atkinson


People keep asking, what are you having,
"I don't know" is our only reply,
Which must be a strange answer since
It always prompts the question why.
"What does it matter?"
"Don't you think it makes a difference?"
"Sure there is a difference.
There is all the difference in the world
Between a little girl and a little boy,
And even more as they grow
to be women and men,
but there is a difference
between difference and preference,
and so either we'd equally abide,
so what is there to prepare for
or waste a single care for,
since neither of us gets to decide,
and despite what many think
nor does he (or she),
and it's better that way,
so again,
"What does it matter?"



Monday, April 27, 2015

The Wailing of the Oriole Bird


The Wailing of the Oriole Bird
Peter T. Atkinson

Have you heard, have you heard,
The wailing of the Oriole bird?
As the flood of tears do pour,
Quoth the Raven, nevermore.

They just don't know why we have to fight
Since purple and orange join black and white
In perfect symmetrical harmony
In crowds of thousands in fall and spring.

Have you heard, have you heard,
The wailing of the Oriole bird?
Violence will never settle the score,
Quoth the Raven, nevermore.

Instead of assigning shame and blame,
They offer up their simple game
In prayer that we all again will choose
And see just how much we stand to lose.

Have you heard, have you heard,
The wailing of the Oriole bird?
Expecting more from Baltimore
Quoth the Raven, nevermore.






Sunday, April 26, 2015

After Dinner Stroll

After Dinner Stroll
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
April 26, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 6: 16-24
Job 9: 1-11



Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.
Amen.

 16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20 But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.
22 The next day the crowd that had stayed on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there. They also saw that Jesus had not got into the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. 23 Then some boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. 24 So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.[1]

As I said last week, in chapter 6, instead of one miracle at the beginning of the chapter and then all the fall out from it, here there are two. Last week we took a look at Jesus feeding the five thousand gathered by the sea of Galilee, the sea of Tiberias, with only two fish and five loaves. Every one ate their belly full, and there was some leftover even. Every one was happy, they were joyous, and they wanted to make Jesus their king. I said last week that what they were trying to do was recreate the miracle, of their full bellies, they wanted to make it a system, make it an institution, and what better way to do so than by making this miracle worker their king. If he can feed the people like this, he would make the best king ever. All of our struggles over limited resources, which from a practical and political standpoint, most people think is the root of all our problems. Because people do not have enough, they hoard, they steal, greed and envy are rooted in some having some and some not have enough, and some having more, but here Jesus can rid us of that, with more of these miracles. . . let us make Jesus king! But Jesus instead heads up the mountain to get away from these folks wanting to make him king by force.
And then he comes down and takes a little stroll, you know across the lake. Jesus walks on the water. It is an image so central to the life of Jesus. . . it has even become a trait given to people of perfection. . . at least in our minds, when we say, you know him he walks on water. It is the quintessential Jesus miracle. And the John Gospel version here, is so basic. It has all of the great aspects of a Jesus miracle scene. It's out on the water, a storm is coming up, the sea is rough and the wind is blowing, the disciples are gathered, and they of course, as they always do become terrified, and all Jesus says is, "it is I, do not be afraid," and then it is over, they reach the other side. We are all very familiar with the scene, and I think each in our own way we can picture it in our minds. . . that no matter how amazing and challenging to our faith it is, it is a simple miracle, but what does it mean? How do the people react to this one? He fed them and they wanted to make him king, what about when Jesus takes a stroll across the lake?
We'll talk more about it next week, but it the people do not really react to Jesus walking on the water, instead they just follow him because they "ate their fill of the loaves" according to Jesus. They do not say much about the walking on the water, though as we can see at the end of our reading for this morning, John makes it quite clear that they know something very, very strange has happened. . .
22 The next day the crowd that had stayed on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there. They also saw that Jesus had not got into the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. 23 Then some boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. 24 So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

So they come over there to Capernaum to find Jesus, but they do not ask him about how he got there, and all throughout the rest of the chapter he does not address to the crowd about how, why, or that, he walked on the water, so we don't have much. All we have is that Jesus says, "Do not be afraid, it is I." And that truly, I think, is all that matters to the gospel writer John.
Think about how often in this gospel so far people have come to Jesus, seen his miracles and not gotten the full picture of just who Jesus is. Nicodemus sees him as a teacher from God, but then Jesus sets the record straight, the woman at the well says that Jesus cannot be the messiah, or could he. . . the Jews at the temple after Jesus heals the paralytic are angered at the presumption of Jesus' claims to be God, and now in this chapter the Jesus feeds the crowd with a miracle, and the people want to make him king, want to make him an earthly leader, make him the highest of what human beings can be, but Jesus reacts again, they just do not get it do they. Not a teacher, not a king, I am the Son of God, I am the Word that has become flesh, I am Immanuel, I am the light of the world, but the people did not see the light, they preferred the darkness instead. . . again we see the theme repeating itself, they want to make him king but he is so much more than any mere king because he can walk on water. He embodies all of the Old Testament descriptions of God. . . for God has a great and strong history with water: dividing the waters from the waters when he created the world, placing his firmament in the sky to separate the waters from the waters permanently, dividing the waters again with the land, so that all of the creatures of the world could have a place to live. . . and then when His people were standing between the Pharaoh and the waters, he split the waters with hands, and the Israelites crossed over on dry land. God is our defender and our protector, as we said in the Call to Worship this morning, and he reigns forever. As Erick read from Job:
     He is wise in heart, and mighty in strength
—who has resisted him, and succeeded?—
5     he who removes mountains, and they do not know it,
when he overturns them in his anger;
6     who shakes the earth out of its place,
and its pillars tremble;
7     who commands the sun, and it does not rise;
who seals up the stars;
8     who alone stretched out the heavens
and trampled the waves of the Sea;[2]

John's gospel is clear with his claim on just who Jesus is, and Jesus' miracle of walking on the water proclaims it as well, as do his word. We have heard Jesus say before, do not be afraid. It is almost a constant from him in the course of the four gospel accounts, but this is the first time that Jesus speaks these words in John's gospel, which is important, but not nearly as important as his other words. Jesus also says "It is I", which misses something in English. In Greek it is rendered, "ego emi" I am. . . and this also marks the second time so far that Jesus gives one of his 24 I am statements. The first was to the woman at the well, when he was proclaiming himself to her as the Son of God, and now he does the same walking on the water here. It's important because I am of course is the closest translation you can have of the name of God.
What does it mean to make Jesus less than God? Why does Jesus here constantly press the issue? Why are we so stubborn to make him do so? What is the danger, because there must be some, Jesus is always correcting. He corrects the lowly and starved, and he corrects those who are against him.. We often think that even a little bit of Jesus is good for someone? Are we wrong?




[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 6:16-24). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Job 9:4-8). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Panem et Circensis (Bread and Circuses)

Panem et Circensis
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
April 19, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 6: 1-15
1 Samuel 8: 19-22

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.
Amen.

6 After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2 A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3 Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”
15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. [1]

We have been reading the Gospel of John since way back in January, and now that we are 4 months and 5 chapters in, it has been hard to ignore some of the patterns that are emerging. The last few chapters have begun with miracles, Jesus performing what is referred to as a "sign," to which the people react - some people are amazed and follow, and some people are angered, wondering who this Jesus is, and what exactly his coming and presence here means for their status quo. They are not sure what it is that they are supposed to feel, think, believe, handle, the coming of this man, who they think is just the carpenter Joseph's son, but is doing amazing things, and breaking rules that have long stood as much, much more than mere tradition. Jesus has turned water into wine, he has told people things about themselves, things that he shouldn't have known; he has healed a man who was paralyzed for 38 years, and each miracle has demanded a response from people because miracles tend to demand responses. And the responses, both good and bad, have each inspired words of correction from Jesus himself. Unlike the other Gospels where Jesus rarely talks about himself, here the words are constant, and chapter 6 follows this same pattern. So over the course of the next few weeks we will look at the miracles of chapter 6, because this time there are two, and then look at the fall out and the words that Jesus uses to explain, which include this time, the famous, and first of the many "I am" statements: "I am the bread of life."
Here in chapter 6 Jesus feeds the 5000 with the five loaves and two fish, and then he walks on water. They are two of the more famous miracles that Jesus performs, and they are both found in the other gospels as well, all except for Luke, who doesn't include the walking on water part. These two are certainly top 10 miracles, maybe even top 5. I've heard many sermons about them in my time, but one thing jumped out at me this time, that never has before, and that is the little verse between the miracles. I had never really thought about it before, but this time it jumped out at me, it says. . . verse 15:
15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. [2]

It was the wording, Jesus had to escape up to the mountain because the people were going to take him by force to make him king. . . how weird is that, and how does that happen, how do you take someone by force and make them king. . . now I've heard of kings taking the throne by force, but I don't think I've ever heard someone being forced to be king. . . it's usually not something that you really have to be forced into. . . It's good to be the king. . . people do what you want, you have all the wealth you need, and all the power. . . you are in control. It's good to be the king. . . why would they need to take and force Jesus? and why does he resist? Why does he sneak away to the mountain, only to return later that evening and walk on the water?
Now let's back off from the questions for a second and take a look at the miracle itself. Now I've heard many of the normal takeaways from this passage. That it is all an act of faith, that there is no limit to what can be accomplished with Jesus pulling the strings, that even with a little that if you start to spread it around it is amazing how far supplies will go. I remember when I was thinking about going to seminary, and they had what they called a discernment weekend, which was like an open house at a normal school, but we went, toured the campus, and sat through a number of sessions aimed at helping us think about all the questions that were surrounding heading t seminary. . . stuff like. . . am I really being called to ministry? How will I know? How will I get through three years away from the work force? Can I leave my job and make it work? Do I have the skills necessary to be a good minister? Do I have the faith necessary to make it through the many questions that seminary has to offer? And also what was central, is how can I financially afford it, tuition, room, board, and not working? How is it all going to work because the math doesn't add up? They used passages like this one, that with only to fishes and five loaves, and a little faith, and the generous contributions of alumni and Christians everywhere, most of our students make it through without debt. Simply five loaves and two fish, and a little faith is all it takes. I am sure that that can be true, is true, and it certainly was for the most part for me. Miracles do happen when following Christ. I testify and know it to be true. I'm sure you all can look back at your lives and think about times where you have had a 5 loaves and 2 fish moment.
Yesterday, well since Thursday, the boys at Blue Ridge have been on character education trips. The Freshman did a bonding wilderness trip, the sophomores went to D.C. and worked in a soup kitchen, the Juniors did some appalachian home building and repair, and went whitewater rafting. I was with the Seniors. They had alternating High Ropes challenges and community service activities on Thursday, then on Friday they hiked 16 miles from Blue Ridge School, up the mountain to where Rt. 33 crosses Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National park, there where Governor Spotswood and the Knights of the Golden Horseshoe landmark is. 16 miles and over 4000 feet of altitude. . . 4000 feet of up! It blows my mind, and I was lucky enough not to have to do it with them, but out of 40 students 38 of them made it, quite impressive! Yesterday I was with them to do some reflection and talking about discernment of who they are, what goes into making them, and coming to terms with the larger questions of life. I asked them had they ever had a time when you felt like you were at the right place, at the right time, where the entire world seemed to make sense, and everything was leading up to that moment, and you felt like all of the energy needed for what you were doing, was all fueled, and the outcome, created more fuel, like you were a perfect machine where you were not expending any energy that wasn't somehow rejuvenated right back into you. . . to me that is what that 5 loaves and 2 Fish moments are like. Because we are there, an Jesus is there, and all things in creation are exactly as they should be, and all the perceived limitations of time, space, and human weakness just seem to disappear. I've had those moments, and they are quite impactful, quite powerful. It leaves a mark on  you and you are forever changed by it. Some of the boys knew what I was talking about, and I hope that some of you do too. And one other thing is also true, that I've come to know, there is no way to artificially recreate or sustain that kind of moment on our own, though we would do everything in our power to do so, but the time goes, and the miracle moves on, we can't trap it. It does not allow us to be stagnant, but forces us to grow, to change, and to learn from it, not to stand still, but to be ever present beyond.
Now look back at our questions. . . why doesn't Jesus want them to force him into being king? Why do they want him to be? Why does he need to go away to be by himself? I think it is because they want him to recreate that moment. They want to make it a system, a self sustaining system, one that replaces the old one, the Roman one, the broken one, the one where to quote Philip, they don't have enough money to afford to feed even a few of these people. They want to replace that system with this new one, because this guy gets it and he can give us our bread. Kings are cheap, huh, loyalty to the throne is cheap. Our loyalty can be bought for just a full belly, and how often do we as people give up our freedom for such a pittance. We'll give our vote, our loyalty, to the person who will give us what we want, will pander to us, will make us happy. Jesus just filled our bellies, did amazing miraculous things, lets make him king then, setting our sights on the very small. Of course Jesus seems to have his sights higher than this, and seems to be quite underwhelmed by what these people want to make him. Just like with Nicodemus, Jesus has more to offer these people than just full bellies, national systems of equitable governance, campaign slogans, and the like. Roman Emperors at the time were famous for offering their people Bread and Circuses, and they loved them for it. Feed us and entertain us and we will be your slaves. We will make you our king!
I'll probably get in trouble for this, but oh well, there was a SNL skit from back when Bush and Kerry were running against each other and it was satirizing the debates. To be fair I'll start with Bush, but they asked him what his plan was for winning the war in Irag, and he started saying how he was going to work hard, eat at his desk, and come in on Saturdays, that it would be a lot of hard work. . . and the moderator says back to him, "So your plan for winning the war in Irag, is to work hard, come in on Sunday and eat at your desk?" and he responds, "If that's what it takes. . . . " Then it shifted to carry and the question was about flip flopping his views. . . the question was, "Last week in a speech you spoke out against guns, and now this week you were speaking for the, can you explain to the American people what your position is?" And he condescendingly states, "When I spoke out against guns I was at an anti gun rally, and when I spoke in favor I was at a pro gun rally, and that is not flip flopping, that is pandering, and I think the American people deserve a president who knows the difference!" 
Jesus knows the difference, and is doing neither. He is not pandering, he is not filling our bellies, he is not just giving miracles to gain followers, or to be king.  . . there is always more to Jesus than that. We can't artificially sustain miracles, we can't make systems, and we can't force Jesus to be what he is not. . . because it is always less. . . Jesus wants to offer us so much more than that. . . and we will see that in the next few weeks with his statements about himself in this chapter. He does not disappoint, but rather gives us real perspective on what he offers, and it is beyond anything we could ever force him to give us.  




[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 6:1-15). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 6:1-15). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Edges

Edges
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
April 12, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
John 5: 37-47
Deuteronomy 4: 1-20



Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.
Amen.

37 And the Father who sent me has himself testified on my behalf. You have never heard his voice or seen his form, 38 and you do not have his word abiding in you, because you do not believe him whom he has sent.
39 “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. 40 Yet you refuse to come to me to have life. 41 I do not accept glory from human beings. 42 But I know that you do not have the love of God in  you. 43 I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; if another comes in his own name, you will accept him. 44 How can you believe when you accept glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God? 45 Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; your accuser is Moses, on whom you have set your hope. 46 If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. 47 But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?” [1]

One thing that I have noticed in my life time is that people these days have trouble with edges, we have trouble with borders, we have trouble with things that provide dividing lines between things, admitting that some issues are actually quite black and white. I used to not like, Robert Frost's poem, "Mending Wall," but have since grown to really love it and enjoy it. . . he poses in the poem two major ideas, and puts them at tension with each other, and then beautifully does not relieve the tension, but lets it just linger, and marinate within the readers' minds. He writes, on one hand, "Good Fences make good neighbors" and he is saying how he and his neighbor walk the wall each spring to fix it, to replace the stones that have fallen out during the year, but the other line he throws out it, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall" . . . which literally refers to the forces of nature that cause the rocks and stones that make the wall to need to be put back in place. . . it is as if something in nature, some force seeks to tear down the walls. It's a good tension between our desire from old truisms like "Good Fences Make Good Neighbors" and some more free and natural urge to tear them down. But whatever the metaphor we want to use, I think that we are often afraid to go near the dividing lines that separate us. . . or we are subconsciously nervous, or unconfident, and therefore self conscious about our own "edges" and so seek to round them and sand them down, so as to make social settings all the much less tense. We especially are that way about Religion. . . and that is what I want to speak about this morning because I think that is what Jesus is speaking about in this passage.
If I were to ask my students what the differences between the great religions of the world are at the beginning of the school year, before studying world lit at all, they would and usually do say that basically all the world religions are the same. There are a few small differences, but all in all they are all about moral teaching. . . they all in some way shape or form, instruct their members as to how to treat each other, their neighbors, those around them with kindness, respect, dignity, and love. In a diverse and multicultural society like ours such teachings, that all religions are the same, are taught to seek to minimize the conflict that could arise between religions, focusing on the commonalities, and it all seeks to tear down the walls that divide, those edges where we are uncomfortable, where we flee from discussion in hopes that we will not offend, that like the famous "Coexist" bumper stickers promote, with their multi religious symbols, we could just get along and forget our differences, but in passages like the one we have today Jesus does not allow us to wish away those edges because they do exist, and when push comes to shove they really do matter because they are at the heart of why. . . the what's may be similar, what we do, how we do, but the why's really shape the fine tuning of the what. . . like the differences between diseases and symptoms.
There is a great story from the Arabian Night's stories called "The Fisherman and the Jinnee" and it shows a real truth concerning the tradition out of which the faith of Islam is formed. In the story a fisherman is out in the waves and he is fishing, and catching nothing, but then on the third cast, he casts further out, and is just about to quit if he doesn't catch anything. On this third cast he doesn't catch a fish either, but he does catch an lamp, and as he is cleaning off the lamp, rubbing the side, a jinnee comes out. . . and when he comes out his first words are, the pious words of faith, "There is no God but Allah. . . and you would expect him to say, and Mohammad is his prophet. . . . like the first pillar of Islam states, but he does not. . . instead he says, "There is no god but Allah, and Solomon is his prophet." That is a really packed statement about the religion of Islam and where it comes from, and just exactly who "Allah" is, or who they see Allah to be. . . by saying Solomon is his prophet, they are suggesting that Prophets come and go based in historical reality and circumstances, but Allah does not change. . . and Allah was the God of Solomon in the Bible. In the story the lamp and the Jinnee work as a time capsule. The Jinnee was imprisoned in the lamp during the time of Solomon, so he is the prophet of God. . . had it been 40 years earlier, the Jinnee would have said, there is no God but Allah and David is his prophet, before that, Samuel is his prophet, Gideon, Deborah, Joshua, Moses, There is not God but Allah and Abraham is his prophet. Packed in that one line is the claim that the God of Islam is the very same God that is in the Bible, that Allah is Yahweh, is Jehovah, the God of Moses, Jacob, Abraham. All one in the same. . . so if that is true, then why the struggle, why the conflict, what is the edge of Islam and Christianity, and well Judaism. . . it would seem in  today's world that knowing the edge would help us because ignoring the edge has not staved off conflict. . . so what is the edge, if the claim of Muslims is that Allah is the very same God as the God of the Bible? Why the problem? Do you know?
It comes down to this. . . and is capsulated in the first statement of pillar of Islam, there is no God but Allah, and Mohammad is his prophet. Christians may agree about the first half of that statement, but not the second, at least not traditionally. Mohammad claimed to have had the Word of God revealed to him in the cave outside of Mecca, that the Angel Gabriel came to him and told him to Recite. . . and what he recited, is or became eventually the Koran. . . which means Recite in Arabic. . . now this is a huge edge. . .for a Muslim the Koran is the perfect word of God. . . that it is Revelation, and that it is perfect. . . and it is then in the same tradition as the revealed laws to Moses and other revealed teachings out of Jewish and Christian scripture, however the reason for the need of another prophet of God, that is the need for Mohammad is that the revealed Word of God had been corrupted over time by human teachers, translation, time, misreadings, mistakes made by scribes in copying, basically the instructions that Yahweh, or Allah had given to human beings had been altered and God was using Mohammad to set things straight, in that way Moses and Jesus, and the other men of God were prophets like Mohammad, but the perfect word of God they brought or relayed had been damaged.
So that becomes the edge, or at least the source of the edges. Christians and Jews do not believe that Mohammad is a prophet of God, and therefore the Koran has no real authority as the "Word of God." It becomes an edge, you either believe that Mohammad was visited by Gabriel or you don't. He is either a messenger of God, or he is a crazy claiming to have talked to God and having such delusions of grandeur, or he is using and experience to manipulate others. There is a source, and it divides.
Now look at what Jesus says to the Jews that he is talking to in this chapter. Remember the context as well. . . Jesus has healed that man in the pools on the Sabbath, and has claimed to be doing what the Father has told him to do. The Jews there have gotten angry because he has broken the Sabbath rule, and has claimed to be the Son of God. They are looking at him like he is a blasphemer, or he is crazy. . . sound familiar? Jesus says to them. . .  
39 “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. 40 Yet you refuse to come to me to have life. 41 I do not accept glory from human beings. 42 But I know that you do not have the love of God in  you. 43 I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; if another comes in his own name, you will accept him. 44 How can you believe when you accept glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God? 45 Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; your accuser is Moses, on whom you have set your hope. 46 If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. 47 But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?” [2]

Think about this situation. You are a good and pious Jew, a Pharisee even, and you are taking scripture and leading a life based on the book, and now all of a sudden there is a man, standing in your midst, and claiming to be the one the scriptures are pointing too, claiming to be the fulfillment of the promises of scripture, but he is breaking those rules  you have based your entire life on. What do you do? What would it take for you to believe in him instead of what you've been told? We are the products of such decisions and such faith, the descendants of the people who made that decision throughout the years, who saw the edge and chose. It is an interesting question still about what we follow, do we follow Jesus or do we follow the book? are they the same thing, or are they slightly different? Where is the line, where is the edge?
These questions are front and center in the world today, and create many edges of belief between the different denominations within Christianity, and in some cases are creating more edges and dividers even within denominations. One thing that this passage shows is that the answer to the question is not easy, and it is not simple, and is not clear. It is more proof that the Bible is a very complicated book of voices, rather than one clear cut contiguous point of view, because here is Jesus interpreting scripture in a very new and different way than the trained religious teachers of his time. . . what would Jesus say about our struggles today? What side would Jesus be on? Would we be on his? It is so very hard to answer these questions. . . one thing though is the case. . . Jesus does not allow it to be simple for us. He does not make it easy. He challenges us to see him in a very real way, to see God in a real present way. . . and in a rule shifting, way, where everything we thought we knew about life, death, and God is challenged. . . or it isn't, the claim of change comes from Jesus himself. . . salvation comes from Jesus himself, the authority from the Father comes from Jesus himself. . . I put the famous quote from C.S. Lewis in your bulletin. . . and it seems to really be magnified by this passage, Lewis wrote:
“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

We may like to live in the safety of shaving off edges like that, but Jesus is an edgy kinda cat. . . and is not safe. . . to quote another of C.S. Lewis book's describing his Christlike metaphorical character the Lion, Aslan. . .
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” 

Jesus may not be safe. Jesus may not be Politically Correct. Jesus may not fit into our secure categories. Jesus challenges what we know and think about the world, even what we thought we knew about God. It is not easy to follow Jesus, nor simple. . . but he claims to be The Way, the Truth, and the Life. . . and He is not Dead but Risen. . . will we follow where he goes? Is he the Son of God, or just another mad man claiming to be. . . that was the edge then. .  . and is still an edge today? Something there is that doesn't love a wall. . . 





[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 5:37-47). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 5:37-47). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.