Sunday, October 23, 2016

Discernment: To Come to Know

Discernment: To Come to Know

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

October 23, 2016

at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia

Psalm 119:  25-32

Luke 8: 9-15

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.


And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, 10 he said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but for others they are in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand. 11 Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. 12 The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, that they may not believe and be saved. 13 And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy; but these have no root, they believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away. 14 And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. 15 And as for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience.

I once heard a person say from the pulpit, in trying to simplify the Bible and its message, that Bible was actually an acronym, an acronym for Basic, Instructions, Before, Leaving, Earth, and I cringed, I couldn’t believe it. . . I thought wow, he must have gotten that from a T-Shirt somewhere, and yup, wouldn’t you know it. . . years later I saw the shirt. . . and yeah, I cringed again. . . because the Bible is many things, but it is hardly basic. . . what with the differing and multiple voices, and contradictions, and hard truths. . . and many of these hard truths, expressed in parables like this one. . . and the disciples ask. . . um Jesus. . . what did you mean by that? And then he gives an answer, and his answer muddies the water more. There is another parable. . . in the Gospel of John, where Jesus says I am the Gatekeeper, then he says  I am the Gate, and then he says, I am the Good shepherd. . . and all that are listening think he is crazy. . . yeah nothing basic here. . . and are they really instructions even? Debatable. . .  then the Before leaving Earth deal is just bad. . . and to sum the Bible up like that, why would we do it. . . the Bible is so much more, in all of its twists and turns and glorious contradictions. . . it is very much wonder. . . very much the word of God, and being such impossible to put in a box. . . though we try and try.

I bring this up today because today we talk about discernment. On the journey we are on, this 8 week journey, we have reached the second piece. . . and I think I’ve decided I like aspects to describe these. . . I said last week that I was having trouble coming up with the descriptor. . . they aren’t steps, or phases, because they repeat and happen over and again and simultaneously. . . but they are more than just categories. . . academic categories for the sake of themselves. . . so I came up with aspects. . . these are aspects of life. . . ways to look at life. . . ways to see the patterns. . . in all their glorious repetitions and muddled paralleling of each other. . . and they are again Humility. . . first the beginning of it all. . . I’m not sure. . . I don’t have the answers. . . and you look, you seek, you knock, you ask, and that brings us today: Discernment: coming to know. . . , you find, you hear, and the door is open. . . next is Resolution, making that choice, then Perseverance, sticking to that choice through it all. . . like my anthem this morning. . . the storm tossed life, our discerned relationship with Jesus Christ gives us that peace in the midst of the storm. . . and those moments of peace are our Fulfillment, which is next. . . Then Legacy and Retirement. So Humility, Discernment, Resolution, Perseverance, Fulfillment, Legacy, and Retirement.

We looked at humility last week. . . looking at all of the reasons we have for asking, for seeking, for searching for who it is that we are, and what it is that we are called to do. These are the questions that are asked in the process of discernment. And of course there are basic answers to this. . . and perhaps that is what the man and the T-Shirt were saying. . . and they are in the Bible. As a human being, the Bible tells me I am a child of God, made in His image, Beloved, Saved by Jesus Christ, a sheep of his fold, cared for deeply beyond my wildest imaginings, that I am known, my inward parts are known, that I am fearfully and wonderfully made, that there are plans for me from the womb. Yes, all those things. . . and there are commandments, like the first, Be Fruitful and Multiply, or the Ten. . . no other Gods, Thou Shalt Not Kill, or bear false witness. . . etc. . . or the greatest. . . Loving God with all my heart, my soul, my mind, and my strength, or those things in Hebrew. . . my Lebab (which literally means heart but is translated mind) they thought the heart was the center of thoughts, then Nephesh (which is translated as soul) but means your essence spiritual essence, and then my favorite Meod (which is translated as strength) but means the very end of your strength, like a story I read for my students this week about these two sons, from Athens, they were said to have lived a good life and died a good death because they carried their mother 9 miles into the city of Athens, and then upon arriving fell to their death because all of their energy was spent. . . my students didn’t agree with the Greeks by the way, but that is Meod. . . have you ever given of strength that way. . . that is the call to love God. . . and then the last is like it. . . Loving your Neighbor. . . so maybe that is basic afterall, we are Children of God. . . and we are to love God and Love our Neighbor. . . okay, we’re done. . . maybe like we thought last week after saying. . . Fear of God is the beginning of Wisdom, we were done with the whole humility thing. . . now we have our basic instructions. . . Love God and Love Neighbor, and we know who we are as Children of God. . . but what does that mean, in the specifics. . . in the you being you, and me being me sense. . . even the disciples who were with him, standing right there with him, had trouble with it all. . . drop everything you have, leave it all and start loving God and Neighbor, follow me. . . sure but what does that look like? And I believe that for each of us it is something very different? What specifically did God mean when he made you. . . when he says he knows your inward parts, and is molding you, selecting you while you were in the womb. . . what does he want. . . what is he calling to you to do. . . to be. . . the Old Testament refrain to that calling voice is always the same. . . Hi ne ni. . . Here I am. . . so today we say, Here I am. . . and then we listen, or more specifically we discern.

So one of the places we look is of course the Bible. . . and perhaps it gives us a lens to see more, to see the rest of life, but in it we can also see human characters, characters just like ourselves wrestling with these questions. . . whether it be Jacob, and his travels and trickery, finally coming to terms with God, wrestling with him on the road. . . or whether its Noah. . . build me an ark. . . and start loading it with animals. . . or Moses, Go Down Moses, Way down in Egypt Land, tell Old Pharaoh to Let my People go. . . or Jonah, running away, fleeing from the presence of God, so he thinks. . . or Job, ever faithful amidst trials, or Abraham heading up the mountain with the knife, and Isaac, and no lamb. . . Mary, blessed are you. . . or Saul, heading to Damascus to find and persecute more Christians. . . so many models for discernment. . . sometimes it’s a voice, immediate and clear, a flashing or blinding light, a burning bush, a truth that you can no longer run away from, an angel. . . so many possibilities. Sometimes God calls to us, and he isn’t a earthquake, or the thunder, or the wind, but instead that still small voice. . .  and think about Ruth, for her something tells her to defy all logic. . . everything that she knows is right. . . to completely do the opposite of what seems like the smart thing to do. . . leaving behind your land, your family, to head to land and family of your dead husband’s mother, yes your mother in law. . . makes no sense. . . and then what about Esther. . . where there is no specific message, but the situation is perfect, you are the only one, the right person, in the right place. . . are these good models for us? Do we find ourselves in situations similar? Do we hear the still small voice? Do we see the blinding light? Do we have regular encounters with angels? Maybe some of us do in our own way. . . but then again, those stories don’t repeat themselves either. There is only one burning bush. . . there is only one blinding light. . . only one time where there was a pillar of fire leading through the darkness. . . and if you go stand out by the Red Sea, it probably won’t part again. . . again there is no box that we can put God into, no step by step guide to discernment. . . no way to hold our body, no magic words to say, no four fold path. WE are simply told to Ask, Seek, Knock. . . and if we translate it more correctly from the Greek. . . it is Ask and keep asking, seek and keep seeking, knock and keep knocking. . . but then also the find is find and keep finding. . . or as Daniel was told in 10:12 “Do not fear, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words have been heard. . .” , so yeah possibilities for discernment are all around us. Erick read for us from Psalm 119 and the Call to Worship today was also from there. Psalm 119 is the longest of the Psalms, and works as an acrostic in its original language, a statement of law and discernment for every letter of the Hebrew Alphabet. . . there just are so many ways to ask for discernment. There is a still small voice, for those who have ears to hear. . . and as we said last week, those ears are born in humility. . .

So where can we look. . . Calvin opens his Institutes with these words:

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other. For, in the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone. In the second place, those blessings which unceasingly distil to us from heaven, are like streams conducting us to the fountain.

So there is a connection here, a connection between coming to know God and coming to know ourselves. . . that in seeking one we seek the other, because they are so mutually tied. . . so how do we come to know. . . I briefly introduced last week the idea that there are really three categories for this coming to know. . . that we learn from our experiences. . . we learn from external sources of information. . . and we learn from internal. . . and I introduced the idea that it is cool how these form and reflect the Trinity. . . that we come to experience the Son, Jesus Christ, that his coming to Earth, incarnate was all about experience. . . that God, the Father, in His Omnipotence, Omniscience, and Timelessness, is very much an “other” for us, and therefore external. . . and then who could deny the powerful presence of the indwelling Holy Spirit. So again yeah, the idea of coming to know ourselves and coming to know God is indelibly linked.

So keep that in mind, but think about how Experience, External, and Internal influences are our sources for what we have come to know in life. Like Experiences. . . you burn your hand on the stove, and you know not to do that. . . or you listen to your parents tell you, “don’t do that, it’s hot” External. . . or you look at that red hotness, feel a little bit of that heat, and something inside, call it instinct. . . but you think to yourself, nope not gonna touch it. . . I’ve seen Susanna make some of those decisions on her own, already. . . Nope. . . she nopes it. . . nope is a great verb isn’t it? But let’s look at each one. . . experience. . . it shapes us. . . it changes us. . . and if we look back on our lives it helps us in our discernment. I can think of so many life experiences that have shaped who I am. . . and they do inform me in what I know about myself and inform me in decisions I make. Life, loss, happy memories, mistakes. . . things that I’ve experienced in nature. . . the falling of acorns, taught me something last week, and I wrote it in a poem. . . or even the rays of a lighted moon. . . the poet William Cullen Bryant talks about it being called the hymnbook of nature. . . it’s all there for us to experience. I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

What about external? Who are the people in your life that you listen to? Maybe your family, a close friend, a spouse? Maybe you had a teacher from your childhood that left their mark on you? Maybe it was a book you read, or a poem, a quote that you have memorized? It could be something that your parents instilled in you? Maybe it is from television, the news, a politician? A song, a painting, a piece of art? Wisdom from the ages? Someone who you got to see live. . . those Saints at church, whose lives were so brilliant, they just seemed to leave a trail of light behind them. . . or maybe there were negative people, things that you heard, where you just said no, I don’t buy that, I know that’s wrong. . . you see those people leave their mark on you, too. How do you determine who to listen to? What to listen to? Which news channel to watch? The one that supports your bias, or the one that challenges it? So there are tons of external influences on us, too.

The internal is harder to describe. . . but we know it’s there. . . is it conscience, or instinct, or wiring. . . or how much of our internal is just the internalization of all those external voices. . . perhaps, and I used to think that was all there was, but then I had kids. . . and how much of their personalities is there on day 1, they are already shaped, already uniquely them. . . so there is something there. . . but what is it. . . is it just chemicals, intereacting with each other, synapses firing, or is it something shaped and formed, fearfully, wonderfully, and purposefully made by the Hand of God, and why are those mutually exclusive ideas? We look inside and we can find something about who we are as well. . . All three of these” experience, external influence, and our internal, inward parts, all working together, in making us who we are, and each playing a role in our decision making, our discernment, and our coming to know ourselves. . .

So what now, how do we know for sure, how do we come to know? How can we ever put all this together enough to take the next step. . . that step towards resolution, where we say, yes I am this, I will do that, and be confident enough in it that we will persevere, come what may, that we will have enough strength to stand in the storms of life. . . that our lives will be tied to God, tied to Christ, tied to the Cross, authentically ourselves, the us that God made, the me that God meant, when he made me. . . the you God meant when he made you. . . . that is where we head next week, when we move on to the next aspect: Resolution. Amen.