Sunday, March 27, 2016

A New Creation

A New Creation
An Easter sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
March 27, 2016
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
1 Corinthians 15:19-26
Isaiah 65:17-25

Here is Audio Version: 

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.

If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
20 But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. 21 For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being;22 for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

It is one of the great truths of the world that many preachers would rather preach Good Friday than Easter, the cross is vivid with imagery, whereas the empty tomb is well. . .empty. The darkness is filled with color, they may be stifled certainly by the shadows, but there are contours that you can describe, whereas the light, the whiteness, it is blinding, and words all fall short of the reality, or maybe it is all somehow connected to some extent to why some preachers would rather, or feel more at home officiating funerals rather than weddings. That people have ears to hear on those sad days, and need comfort, so they are looking for hope, but on a day where hope and light and joy are already radiating how can you even begin to add to it with mere words.  I know that I always find it difficult to preach Easter, and difficult to preach heaven. It is difficult to preach the happy stuff, the promises, and it has nothing to do with whether they are  true or not, or whether you believe them, it is just that words fall short, and there nothing worse than describing less than God, shortchanging heaven, or limiting Easter.  I was looking back over most of my sermons, and most of them can be seen in some sense as being pretty bleak. There is strength in them and I own each word, but they usually look at the darkness that finds its way into our nature, the way that we fall short of the high distinction of God’s favor, or image, even the very depths of human deprivation, rather than on the promises of God, the Resurrection, the Empty Tomb, etc, and then bring out grace, forgiveness. We fall short, but there is grace. . . Grace, as hard of a concept as it is, it is much easier to preach than the Empty tomb. It seems there is more life in death for us,finite creatures, because we can grasp death, hold it, understand it, but Heaven, Resurrection, Easter: It’s even hard to tell the story because it is so well known, and in its known-ness, it can lose its magic and mystery.
The women head to the tomb, worrying about how they are going to roll the stone away, but when they get there, they find the stone has already been moved, and the tomb is open, and the tomb is empty. In all versions there is intense emotion, fear and dread, mixed with wonder and unmistakable joy, but then it moves on quickly and the Risen Savior, running wild in the world, comes into contact with people, on the road to Emmaus, Doubting Thomas, Feed my Lambs, Baptize all the nations, I will be with you to the end of the age. And then the New Testaments end. . . but my favorite of all the Easter texts is Mark because it has Jesus inviting the Disciples back to the beginning, back to Galilee, as if they are to relive it all again, but this time there is a new creation. And no matter how you want to describe the indescribable, like the gleaming white or what eternal life may indeed be like, there is one thing that is completely clear. The entire world has changed. This is indeed a new creation, and if you have encountered the Risen Christ, you may not be able to put it into words, but the world is different for you.
Let me take a step back. Last night, as is always the case, The Ten Commandments was on television, and if you could wade through the seemingly countless commercials, you could have seen some of my favorite cinematic scenes of all time. There are so many great ones, but my favorite was on, right when I turned on the TV after we had gotten the girls to bed. Moses has been condemned for killing the Master Builder Bacca. Everyone knows that he is a Hebrew and a slave, and he has been banished. . .which is another great scene, when he is getting banished and the Pharoah’s great voice, Sir Cedric Harwike, (who I actually have reading Wordsworth poetry, oh it’s amazing) but here he is saying, the name of Moses will be stricken from every pall and tablet, from every pyramid and obelisk. . . so great, but then it moves to the desert and Rameses gives Moses a robe and a staff to rule over serpents and scorpions, and Moses heads out into the desert, and the music starts. . . o the music starts. . . and then Cecil B. Demille’s voice comes on and says one of the most amazing descriptive poems ever about Moses crossing the desert. He says:
Into the blistering Wilderness of Shur, the man who walked with Kings, now walks alone, torn from the pinnacle of royal power, stripped of all rank and Earthly wealth, a forsaken man, without a country, without a hope, his soul in turmoil, like the hot winds and raging sands, that lash him with the fury of a taskmaster’s whip. He is driven forward, always forward, toward a God unknown, toward a land unseen, into the molten wilderness of Sin, granite sentinels stand as towers of living death to bar his way. Each night brings the black embrace of loneliness, and in the mocking whisper of the wind he hears the echoing voices of the dark, Moses. . . Moses. . . His tortured mind, wondering if they call the memory of past triumphs, or wail foreboding of disasters yet to come, or whether the desert’s hot breath has melted his reason into madness. He cannot cool the burning kiss of thirst upon his lips, nor shade the scorching fury of the sun. All about is desolation. He can neither bless nor curse the power that moves him, for he does not know from where it comes. Learning that it can be more terrible to live than die, he is driven onward, through the burning crucible of desert, where holy men and prophets are cleansed and purged for God’s great purpose, and then at last at the end of human strength, beaten in the dust from which he came, the metal is ready for the maker’s hand, and he found strength from a fruit laden palm tree and life giving water, flowing from the well of Midian.

Cecil B. Demille is proving my point. . . look at the ease and beauty he imparts in describing the desperation and destitution of the desert. It is as if words themselves roll off the tongue whenever you want to describe the bleakness of life. . . but then a palm tree and a well, represent for him redemption. But the coolness of the water, the sweetness of the fruit is not put into words. What can you say about the water more than that it is cool and wet. . . but that it gives life? How we don’t know it just does? Any description of the process cheapens its magic. The same is true with the fruit. . . can you describe its refreshing nourishment, the process of breaking down the calories into energy? No it either becomes too mundane and scientific, or it turns vulgar, decomposing, digesting, defecating. But in reality that water and that fruit is life itself, mysterious, magical, very much of God. . . but it can’t be described only experienced.
Later in the movie there is another hard to describe scene, connected in theme to this spiritual mystery. Moses, minding his business, tending his sheep, sees a bush burning on the side of the mountain, he finds it strange because when he looks closer he realizes that it is on fire but it doesn’t burn. There is light, but it does not consume its fuel. He approaches it and it speaks to him. He must cast his shoes off. He must go to Egypt. He will be given the words that he needs. He asks its name. . . he is told the name of God, and he is being sent to set his people free. . . way down and Egypt land, tell old, Pharaoh, to let my people go. And now Cecil B. Demille is faced with the same problem again. Moses has just seen God, talked to God, been sent on a mission from God, and so is very much a new person. The old has been swept away, and there is something new to him. . . how can you show this? Do you have another description from the voice over. . . “Now having seen God. . . “ But what would you say? He decides to take another route, and that is to physically change Moses’ appearance. Where up to this point Moses has been Ben Hur, now Moses will become Moses. . . fuller beard, longer hair, greyer hair, and with a strange light radiating from his face. . . and a looking into the beyond aura about him. His eyes colder as if they can look through you, as if they are constantly looking beyond you, to some world that is dying to be. In case it wasn’t enough you have his wife Sephora say there to Joshua. . . “He has seen God.” Oh I get it, that’s what happened.
It is hard to depict mystery and majesty on film without it appearing cheap and fake. That is why no movie about Jesus quite captures it fully. Actually I think Ben Hur does the best job, but its power is in that Jesus is never really shown, just the people’s reaction to Jesus. . . which suggests in a way the point I want to make. . . and that is the reality of Jesus, the truth of the Resurrection, the fullness of Easter can never be described, it has to instead be experienced. And this experience needs to change you, and no I don’t mean coming down from the mountain with your hair frosted and your beard a bit fuller, and not changing your voice into some kind of breathy God version of itself, “and now Beloved, let us pray,” no it needs to change you fully, and especially your perspective of the world, because the world has changed. Once you’ve experienced the Risen Christ, all of the rules have forever been changed. Death no longer has dominion. Where is thy sting? The World is a new Creation, made anew, again. Your eyes would change.  . . how you would see yourself, the world, and others, would change. People might think that you are strange.
We’ve been reading Hamlet this week in class, and there is a really appropriate line from towards the end of Act 1. Hamlet has seen the ghost of his father, the ghost has told him about the murder of him by his brother, Hamlet’s uncle, and Hamlet has sworn to avenge the murder. . . and he is of course caught up in a frenzy, and Horatio says, how strange it all is how strange Hamlet has become, he says, “O Day and Night, but this is wondrous strange”, to which Hamlet says, “and therefore as a stranger give it welcome. / There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” They didn’t use to believe in ghosts, now they’ve seen one, and the ghost has changed their world forever. Of course it is strange. Hamlet’s life has been changed forever. He’d be crazy if he stayed the same. You don’t have a life changing encounter and then stay the same. . . such is the case with the Risen Christ.

So I will not describe the empty tomb, will not describe the new creation, (though I may try to do that for the rest of my career and life), instead I will ask you to look towards your experience with the Risen Christ. I will have you picture that encounter in your mind. I will ask you to try to put it in focus in  your mind, then have it direct your eyes to how  you will see the rest of creation, and let that authenticity of story guide your life. 

Friday, March 25, 2016

Good Friday 2016

Good Friday
Meditations on the Last Words of Christ
March 26, 2016This service is about experiencing Good Friday
Through symbol, word, and song
Engaging the 5 Senses
all derived from and pointing to the 7 Last Words of Christ
Reading from Scripture
Isaiah 53: 1-9 
"The Suffering Servant"

Song #1 - "Redemption Day" by Johnny Cash

Father forgive them, they know not what they do. . .

He told us not to throw stones unless
We had no sin, but he had no sin,
And so we hanged him instead,
Whipped, and bloody, there he hangs,
Right there on that cross:
Holy hands, Holy feet, thorny crown,
All complete, and yet He forgives us,
Even so He forgives us,
And still He forgives us,
Here is a basket of stones.
Who shall be first? Who shall be last?
Take one, each one is jagged, broken,
Just like you are, none is perfect,
No smooth edges, so grab hold of yourself,
And throw it, do the job and destroy perfection,
He makes us look bad, like fools,
Take one, any one, throw it.
Look he's made it easy,
He turns His back,
He's closed His eyes
Throw it now!
How can we ever
pick up a stone again, then?
Father, do you still forgive us when we do?

Song #2 - "The Law's for the Protection of the People" by Kris Kristofferson


This day you will be with me in paradise. . .

They hung me on a cross next to Him,
Next to Him what was I?
No, I, next to Him, was nothing.
Next to me, He was without blemish, without stain,
Perfect, and untarnished, and blooming,
And blinding, His light was blinding.
And I next to Him was not.
I deserved it, well maybe not this,
No one deserves this,
But I was guilty,
I did what they said I had done.
My soul has been withered a long time,
The things that nourish
My roots have all but been forgotten.
I made my way through this world.
I made my bed, and I'll lie in it.
I embrace the darkness
Where I can finally rest.
It is the choice I have always made.
What makes Him?
What makes Him do?
I will surely remember Him?
And that He was Hanged next to me.
Will He remember me,
That I was next to Him?
Maybe I should ask. . .

Song #3 - "Down There By the Train" by Johnny Cash

Woman, behold your son; son behold your mother. . .

Could you imagine watching your child go through it,
The trial, the beatings, the cross?
You know you'd feel every lash.
You'd feel the pain.
You'd cry each tear.
Even the words would hurt
The jeers, the accusations.
That's my son,
I remember holding him,
Him lying there in the manger,
There was a moment when He was just mine,
Mother and Son,
Before the Shepherds came,
Only to this,
It has rent my heart in two.
Behold he says,
If only for one more time,
One more second,
One more day,
I could just hold Him,
Rather than behold Him.
My soul would truly magnify the Lord,
If he would just look again on his lowly servant,
And show one more time the strength of his arm,
And give me one more moment,
Then I would truly call myself blessed.

Song #4 - "Nothin'" by Townes Van Zandt

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me. . .

If there is one thing a carpenter knows (bang)
It is nails, nails and wood, (bang)
And the bang of a hammer. (bang)
Joseph showed me how to hold a nail just right, (bang)
To swing a hammer just so (bang)
And the nail would go in, faster (bang)
One swing (bang)
Two Swings (bang)
And we'd be off to the next. (bang)
Joseph sure could swing a hammer. (bang)
I almost got used to the noise, (bang)
So I could hear it without flinching. (bang)
Oh the things he would make, (bang)
Tables (bang)
Chairs (bang)
Even Homes (bang)
He'd never make something like this. (bang)
There just is no art in torture (bang)
And my Father is an artist (bang)
Crafting with care (bang)
A carpenter is a creator (bang)
And a creator's work is never done (bang)
Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani (bang)
Why God, Why? (bang)

Song #5 - "I See A Darkness" by Johnny Cash

I thirst. . .

Have you ever been so thirsty it hurts?
Your throat starts to dry,
And it seems like it is cracking,
Just like the dry dusty ground,
When the sun burns down in August.
It's hot, and you sweat.
It all just flows out of you,
And nothing is replaced.
Jesus is there, and beyond.
He's not just leaking sweat either,
But blood and bile and pus,
Just gushing out, emptying him
Of all the waters of life,
And his voice comes out in a hoarse whisper,
I thirst.
When you are that dry,
And your tongue is swollen and raw,
Even water burns.
Could you imagine vinegar?
It burns your nose.
Even cut with oil on salad,
It leaves your tongue split and burning,
How cruel do you have to be
To mock someone's need like that?
Again did we not know what we were doing?
I've thirsted,
Ignorance is not what it was.

Song #6 - "Cool Water" by Johnny Cash

It is accomplished. . .

Is it the weight of this burden,
These chains that drag me down,
Or is it that they have trapped me,
Confining me so I can't be free?
I so want to be free.
I want to do what I want.
I want to control who I am.
I want to define myself.
I want to be whatever I want to be.
It's my right. I've seen it written.
I can be whatever I want.
We call it free will,
But why does it feel more like chains?
Why do I always seem to choose to carry this burden?
Why is it comfortable to live confined in lies?
What is that, Jesus?
What did you say?
It is accomplished?
What is?
Wait what?
It is as if I could fly away.
Is this the light?
I'm so light, even I could walk on water.

Song #7 - "Free from the Chain Gang Now" by Johnny Cash


Father into thy hands I commend my spirit. . .

It started with a rainbow and a promise,
And then it grew,
To a nation,
A child,
A land flowing with milk and honey,
And demanded a sacrifice of a son,
But not my son.
It then expanded to laws,
A guide to being righteous,
To make a sustainable community,
But external laws are hard to follow.
Give us a king, instead,
Something we can actually see.
He did,
Promising again.
We didn't.
Again hard to follow.
It all brought us to this moment,
A new promise,
A new covenant,
Sealed in the fulfillment of an old promise
An old sacrifice.
This time He writes it on our heart,
For Love
Is more than a promise,
It is more than external,
It is experience.
So take and eat.
Take and drink.
Remember me,
Follow me,
And into the Father's hands commend your spirit. 

Song #8 - "Flying Shoes" by Townes Van Zandt

Silent - Pantomime of Communion Institution - Breaking Bread and Pouring Wine

Song #9 - "Ain't No Grave" by Johnny Cash

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Stand Under

Stand Under
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
March 20, 2016
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Philippians 2: 5-11
Isaiah 40: 4-9

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

I hadn’t looked at the Lectionary for this week yet, last week, when I referred to this reading in my sermon. I did because it is the central root message from which the rest of Paul’s Letter to the Church in Philippi grows. It is a message about humility, which is an important key ingredient in the Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday mix, the week leading to the cross and the empty tomb, somehow the story is caught up completely here, so let us look again. Philippians 2:5-11
5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.9Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Palm Sunday is one of the strangest days on the calendar. It is strange because, here we are, one week before Easter, one week before the empty tomb, one week before the real celebration of life in this world, and we are already celebrating. We are celebrating the Earthly entry. Here comes the Savior riding into Jerusalem, fulfilling the words of the Prophets, the King has returned, echoing the triumphant entry of David, dancing before the Ark of the Covenant. It is a familiar story. There are the palms, the people yelling hosannah, the children, the borrowed colt, the uptight Pharisees and Sadducees, saying, hey can’t we shut these people up, this is too loud, this is too much, we can’t afford such a spectacle, what will the Roman’s say, teacher do something about these people, your disciples? And Jesus answering, see these stones, if i were to make the people be quiet, even the stones would cry out. . . it is that kind of explosion of excitement, reverberating through all assembled, all the people, even the rocks on the ground. But it is all strange because between this Sunday and next Sunday, an entire world takes place.
Jesus goes into the temple. . . he turns over the tables, he calls them a brood of vipers, the place a den of thieves, which should instead be a house of prayer. For many this is the last straw. . . Healing on the Sabbath, eating with Sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors, breaking all the rules, challenging traditions, arousing the people, disrespecting authority, is one thing, or many things, but messing with the money, messing with the economy, hitting people in their purses, pointing out the hypocrisy of the purse, that is completely something different, it is the straw, and sitting there on the camel’s back, it is too much, way too much. So the plot to kill him intensifies. . . they reach out to one of his own. This Judas, they pay him, he promises to betray him. Why? Who knows? Was it the money? Or did he envision something else for Jesus? Did he think Jesus meant more here, not somewhere on the other side of the rainbow in heaven? Did he want to end the Roman oppression by whatever means necessary? And Jesus just didn’t seem to get it, so Judas sells him out. . . and Jesus knows it. They share the passover meal, on last time, one last supper, breaking bread, drinking wine together. He tells them to remember. He shows them what will happen, the bread, his body, broken, the wine, the cup, his blood poured out, a new covenant, of sins forgiven. . . did they know then, could they see then. . . it didn’t seem so, for they asked, and he told them that one of them, one of the twelve chosen, his most trusted, one of them would betray him, he already knew. . . and they all denied. . . Peter protested the most loudly, how could we, how could I, I could never, and Jesus tells him, Peter, before the cock crows you will already have denied me three times. . . and having eaten they go out into the garden, Jesus prays, and all of the disciples fall asleep. He asks one more time, Father, may this cup pass, is there another way, can this be avoided? But as if he knows the answer already he says, not my will but thine. . . it is in this garden that the other garden will be undone. . .  the lie defeated. . . obedience, humble obedience. . . comes to be.
And then the soldiers show up, led by Judas. . . he comes up to Jesus, betrays him with a kiss. Does Jesus look him in the eye? Does Judas hide his face? Is it here when Judas’ fate is sealed. The soldiers seize Jesus. Peter grabs his sword. And Jesus bids him put it away, if you live by the sword you will die by it. . . no the cup cannot pass. . . the next steps are being led, and they lead to the cross. . . Jesus submits silently. . . to the Jewish leaders, to Pilate, to Herod, back to Pilate. . . He never said a mumblin word, at least not in his own defense. Pilate asks him if he is the King of the Jews, he says, that is who you say I am. . . Herod wants him to prove who he is, wants to see a miracle, again Jesus does not comply. So Pilate leaves it up to the crowd. Barabbas or Jesus. . . the crowd chooses Barabbas, shouting Crucify him for Jesus, Barabbas goes free. Crucify him. . . you see that is what makes today so strange, because Palm Sunday, Hosanna, and just a few days later Crucify him. You could miss it if you blink. You could miss it if you go from Sunday to Sunday. . . and then you miss the cross. For that is what is next. The flogging, the body weighed down, by the sheer weight of the cross, the crown of thorns cutting in, his sweat burning the cuts the thorns make in his head, his body beaten and abused, walking step by step. . . until Simon, a stranger, is drafted to help. They carry the cross to Calvary. . . and nail him to leave him. Between two criminals they hang him. And in the midst of it all he says, Father forgive them they know not what they do. . . He says, I thirst, they give him vinegar to drink, they pierce his side, it is accomplished, and he gives up the ghost. Then they seal him in the tomb. End of story.
So much is encapsulated in this week, so much of the story we could miss if we just waved our palms today, and showed up for the Rising next Sunday. One could ask, is that story important? Or is the celebration, the all? I wrote this poem a number of years ago, it is about the cross, and the need for it, how many like to skip it, but that we do so at our peril, cheapening the cost, cheapening grace. Here is “What Greater Shadow”
What Greater Shadow?
What greater shadow
Is so soon forgotten
Than the cross?
Cast in darkness
By Easter morn’s light,
Mem’ry’s loss.
Can we hope to bear
Such intense pain?
Could we ever care
Outside of gain,
Giving all
Into pain
To sustain
And reclaim
Those lost
Tossed and
Scattered by the wind?
Of course not,
Which is why
Our minds like to
Skip the cross,
Ignore the pain,
The nail marks,
The mocking crown,
The burning vinegar,
The speared side,
For us,
Who drove the nails,
Who crowned the king,
Who offered burning drink,
And pierced the side.
Did we really not know?
Or was it just too much?
Is it still?
The amazing miracle,
God in our midst,
With us,
And for us,
Became us,
Whom we despise,
To raise us.
May we remember the cross,
For the cross of hate,
The height of cruel,
The pinnacle of evil,
The high water mark of sin,
Somehow, somehow,
Is not enough,
To overcome

I  think we need to remember the high water mark of sin, the pinnacle of evil, and the height of cruel. It reminds us what we are capable of, what sin is capable of, and what it all costs. What love costs. . . but more than just the story I want to look at the story in light of all, the whirlwind of the week, and what Christ must have gone through. . . and the humility it would have taken, to willingly take each step, to persevere a worse week than anyone could image, a beyond imaginable fall from celebration to humiliation, from glory to condemnation, from praise to ignominy, from joy to despair. How do you persevere something like that?

I’ve said a couple of times during this year that the Greek equivalent for persevere is the word Hupo-mene. . . which literally means to stand under. How do you as Jesus? Stand under those who whip you, condemn you, sentence you, nail you to the tree? How do you stand under those who spit it at you, hate you, turn on you? How do you stand under? Especially since your are so much more than, so much better than, so much above us, you should be standing over us. . . but you placed yourself below. . . the humble, stands under, placing himself below. . . how interesting it is that to persevere is to stand under, and to be humble is to put yourself below, and for us to comprehend such things we call it, “understanding.” Something there is in this play of words. To humble yourself is to stand under, and by standing under, only, standing under all of it, standing beneath, shouldering the cross, feeling the weight, and standing under it, with standing it, only then when it falls from our shoulders, not because we shrugged, but because it was taken from us, our burden removed, once you can stand under. . . only then can you begin to understand. . . May we take this week to do just that. . .standing together, standing under. . . can we withstand such things. . . I only pray. Amen.