Sunday, August 13, 2017

I Won't Walk Away

I Won’t Walk Away
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
August 13, 2017
at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Zuni, Virginia
Jonah 2: 2-9

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.


As we continue this series about Love, defining it without confining, we will start with this week and next week getting into more of the specifics about love. In the first sermon in this we looked at how love is one of those infinite words that is hard to define. It is hard to put into words what exactly it is and be specific about it because when you do so you tend to leave much of it out, but that the way to break through those limitations is with poetry and with narrative, for they each bring to bear experience, which is constantly occurring, new and distinctive in and to each one of us. So last week, we looked both, taking the metaphor about God is love, and hashing it out against one of the Biblical poems about God, Psalm 136, recalling the chorus about the “steadfast love of the Lord” Ci Laolam CHosdi. . . and then we looked at the sweeping Biblical narrative of God’s actions, relating them, each of God’s actions to what then must be aspects of love. If the purpose of the last two sermons was to push outwards, expanding the definition of love, it was, but at some point you must begin to reign it in, because despite the fact that Love is infinite, i.e. without ends, it does not mean that love is everything. If Love was truly everything then it would really exist, no we can discern that which is and that which isn’t love, and so since we have pushed the limits outward, now I want to begin to talk about aspects of exactly what love is, not that it is only this, but that is really this. I want to introduce this idea by looking at the Old Testament Lesson first. This is the famous prayer of Jonah from the belly of the great fish. Jonah 2: 2-9.

 I called to the Lord out of my distress,
    and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
    and you heard my voice.
You cast me into the deep,
    into the heart of the seas,
    and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
    passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am driven away
    from your sight;
a] shall I look again
    upon your holy temple?’
The waters closed in over me;
    the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped around my head
    at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
    whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the Pit,
    O Lord my God.
As my life was ebbing away,
    I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to you,
    into your holy temple.
Those who worship vain idols
    forsake their true loyalty.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
    will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
    Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”

Now I use this story and episode and prayer to bring out one of the great aspects of love, and that is its steadfastness. We paid homage to it last week with our reading of Psalm 136, the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever. . . What God is saying, what God is doing, What God is showing through His actions is in fact, I will not walk away. I will be with you. I will be faithful to you. I will be your God. And he shows this again and again. Once Adam and Eve falter, God shows up, asking “Where are you” though Cain has murdered, he is marked, though Jacob is a swindler, though Abraham makes mistakes, though the Israelites, having just been freed, mutter and ask to be put back in their chains. Though during the time of Judges, the people forget and turn away from God again and again. Though Saul, then David, then Solomon all sin in the eyes Of the Lord he is still faithful and steadfast, remembering the covenant that he made, even in the face of the Exile and the destruction of the temple, as the Prophet Ezekiel teaches, and as we looked at in Bible Study on Monday, God is still in charge, still ruling, still upholding his covenant, he has not gone anywhere, and he says that “they will know that my name is the Lord.” God is still present, no matter what may befall, because love is unconditional, steadfast, and therefore, will not walk away.

And this continues to be the case in the New Testament as well, look at the last words of Christ in the Gospel of Matthew, this being the lesson for this morning, Matthew 28: 16-20, some call it the great commissioning because it gives the disciples their job to do, but it does one thing more.

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

I am with you always to the end of the age. I am with you, I will be with you, I will not walk away. And it isn’t a conditional statement, it is not I will be with you if, you are faithful, you are true, you go to church, you lead sinless lives, you follow my commandments, sure he has commissioned them, they, we are to make disciples of all nations and Baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but the next statement is predicated not with a so, or a therefore, but with a “remember” don’t forget I am, definitely, assuredly, bet your life of it, I am with you to the end of the age, always. . . the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever. God is with us, we may run like Jonah, we may turn away, we may cheat, be unfaithful, forget, but it changes nothing about God, God always shows up, and is always with us. His presence is sure, steady, unwavering and true, and therefore one of the necessary aspects of love is this steadfastness, this notion that says, come what may I will be here. And we know this. . . two reasons we know it. One is that we see here God doing it, and the other is that it truly is one of the great human needs in the world. We have the need to have other human beings say to us, I will not walk away, why? Why is that? . . .

Now for the answer I want to have a little bit of fun this morning and change it up. I want to show how this aspect of love isn’t something that the church has a monopoly on, but something that every human being understands and knows, and I’m going to show it through some songs, showing how the idea that love means, not walking away, and being steadfast is something that human beings know very well at their very core, even if they for some reason of history do not connect it to God. . . we affirm and we do connect it to God, and the way God made us, so why do we have the need to have other human being say to us, I will not walk away. . . .

Why? why? Tell them that its human nature.
Why? why? Does he do me that way? (If they say);
Why? why? Tell them that its human nature.
Why? why? Does he do me that way?

You see, its there, right, human nature, the way God made us is why we need love, and why we can seek for our greatest needs and wants to get a further understanding of what love is. We know deep down there is something in us that is empty without someone else, and that being abandoned is one of our greatest fears.

Don Williams puts it this way

G) ‘Till the rivers (C) all run (G) dry,

‘Till the sun falls (C) from the (G) sky,

‘Till life on (C) earth is (G) through,

I’ll be (D) needing (G) you,

Paul Simon tried to write the opposite, but we know that it is folly just when we hear it. . . he writes

I Am A Rock, I am an island.
And a rock feels no pain;
And an island never cries!

No that song is about the folly of a human being thinking that he can live on his own, that he can some how shield up and protect himself from love.

[Verse 1]

Please,  lock  me  away  and  don’t  allow  the  day.

Here,  inside  where  I  hide  with  my  loneliness.

I  don’t  care  what  they  say,  I  won’t  stay 

in  a  world  without  love.

This writer, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, of All you need is love fame, knows that living in a world without love just doesn’t work for human beings, we aren’t made that way

So what remains is the question of love, the statement of love that works both ways. The question of Love, as I put in the bulletin as the meditation for today is quite simple, as captured by my favorite songwriter, Townes Van Zandt

If I needed you, would you come to me?
Would you come to me and ease my pain?
If you needed me, I would come to you
I'd swim the seas for to ease your pain

And swimming the seas to ease pain, must not only work when everything is sunshine and lollipops but also through the hard times. . . the rain. . .

On a perfect day, I know that I can count on you

But when that’s not possible, tell me can you weather a storm

 ‘Cause I need somebody, who will stand by me

Through the good times and bad times, who will always

Always, be right there

Sunny days, everybody loves them,

Tell me baby can you stand the rain,

Storms will come, this we know for sure

Tell me baby can you stand the rain?

So love may be intimidating to us, it may be something that is great with meaning, a word that we dare not uses to often for the very reason that it means not walking away through the hard times, maybe even forever. Robert Earl Keen puts it this way

Love's a word I never throw around
So when I say I'll love you til' the end
I'm talkin about until the day they lay me in the ground
Love's a word I never throw around
I actually said it to my wife in this way. . . from Frank Sinatra

Today I may not have a thing at all, 

Except for just a dream or two;

But I've got lots of plans for tomorrow,

And all my tomorrows belong to you.

I’m going to finish now with two songs, two songs that I think really capture this aspect of love the best. One is from the secular world and rings of it, and the other from the gospel world. Let me start with the secular one first. Listen to this, this is from a song by Jewel called “I Won’t Walk Away” aptly titled for today don’t you think. . .

Wrong or right be mine tonight

Harsh world be damned, we’ll make a stand

Love can bind, but mine is blind

Other’s stray, but I won’t walk away.

That is it, other’s stray but I won’t walk away, If you needed me I would come to you, I would swim the seas for to ease your pain. I can stand the rain, come what may, I will not walk away. Wouldn’t it be great to have someone say this to you? Have you ever dared say it, and mean it, while saying it to someone else. . . . such is the stuff of the love of God, as is shown in this gospel classic.

Once I stood in the night
With my head bowed low
In the darkness as black as could be
And my heart felt alone and I cried
Oh Lord, don't hide your face from me

Like a king I may live in a palace so tall
With great riches to call my own
But I don't know a thing
In this whole wide world
That's worse than being alone

Hold my hand all the way
Every hour, every day
Come here to the great unknown

Take my hand, let me stand
Where no one stands alone

Take my hand, let me stand
Where no one stands alone

Sunday, August 6, 2017

God Is Love

God Is Love

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

August 6, 2017

at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Zuni, Virginia

Psalm 136

1 John 4: 16-21

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.


16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

Last week we began this series on defining the idea of love, we wanted to get at the heart of exactly love is, in its totality, in its completeness, for Christ himself calls Loving God and Loving our Neighbor to be the greatest of all commandments, and here John in his letter affirms unwaveringly that we are to love, abide in love, love God and must also love our brothers and sisters also, so it is imperative for us to know what love is, but I also had said that one of the real dangers of defining something like love, something that truly is infinite is that when you do so you can also confine it, you put it in a box, making it easy to handle, easy to hold, easy to accomplish, but easy then also to wield like a weapon, easy to limit, and easy to miss. There is the danger that you could think that loving in one limited way would be somehow enough. Like the liar that John refers to who says he loves God, but despises his brothers and sisters. There is also the danger that you could think that your broken and limited view of love be all there is, and when that limited definition leaves you hurting and wanting, you have nothing else, nothing more to pull you through. There is the danger that you could mistake someone’s loving towards you as something else. Have you ever been there before, and feeling those feelings of loss, hurt, betrayal, abandonment, from loved ones? Perhaps. Have you ever done something for someone from your perspective out of Love, but had the other person not understand, or did not take it the right way, or thought of your love, not of love, but took it as hate?  Have you ever felt either of those ways towards God. . . feeling betrayed, hurt, abandoned, in your darkest moment, by God? Have you ever asked the question, how could a loving God allow this to happen? How could a loving God allow that to happen? Could love include such things? Our New Testament Lesson goes very far in answering that question unwaveringly in the affirmative.  Saying that God is Love, that God has perfected love, that God abides in love, and that we know God does love us, and believe God does love us through His love, and we love, because God first loved us. These words ring out in the affirmative that God, who we believe to be all powerful, is Love, but then there is suffering in the world. Can such things be? Can such things be love? Does your definition of Love include such things? Some people have said that yes the God of the New Testament is a loving God, but the God of the Old Testament is vengeful, smiting, and unbending, but aren’t both God? Could both characterizations of God be defined as Love? Is that possible? Or are we missing something? Maybe we don’t know what love is after all. . . maybe we need to push out our boundaries a little bit, that our definitions of Love are too confining for the Infinite God we serve.

Last week I took the very long road to say that there are two ways that we can define an infinite idea without confining it. One is through poetry and metaphor, for they each leave the interpretation open to the experience of the reader. The other is through narrative because narrative deals with experience. So if we were going to look at our God/Love metaphor, that God Is Love, we would need to look at all of the experiences of God, the poets who have written, and the narratives that describe God and his actions. It is a great thing we can look at God to find out about Love, and perhaps we can experience Love and find out about God. This morning we can start with the poetry because it is actually a poem about God’s actions, and saying how they fit God’s love, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s from the Old Testament. You see the same loving God is actually there, too.

Let’s take a look at Psalm 136. It has a repeated refrain, “his steadfast love endures forever” at least that is what I have in my NRSV, but the pew Bibles are NIV, and the NIV has “his love endures forever.” The King James, our oldest English version has “his mercy endureth forever,” and I read another translation that said, “his covenant agreement endures forever.” There are many. . . so today I want us to leave behind the middle man, and speak a little Hebrew. It is actually easier for us because in Hebrew it is only three words. And the first one is easy, it is just Ki. . . got it? And Ki just means “for.”  The second one is a little more tricky because it has kind of a guttural sound, it is La’olam, and this means “enduring”. And the third starts with a grinding ch sound, Chasdoh, is the one for steadfast love, which comes from the root, chesed, which is the closest word to our Love, maybe or the Greek Agape, but it is about God’s love for us, which of course is connected to his keeping faith in his Covenants, something that he always does, and something we often fail at. So I’m going to read the English first line and we will say together each time, Ki La’olam Chasdoh. . .

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
    for his steadfast love endures forever.
O give thanks to the God of gods,
    for his steadfast love endures forever.
O give thanks to the Lord of lords,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;

who alone does great wonders,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
who by understanding made the heavens,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
who spread out the earth on the waters,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
who made the great lights,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
the sun to rule over the day,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
the moon and stars to rule over the night,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;

10 who struck Egypt through their firstborn,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
11 and brought Israel out from among them,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
12 with a strong hand and an outstretched arm,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
13 who divided the Red Sea in two,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
14 and made Israel pass through the midst of it,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
15 but overthrew Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea,[b]
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
16 who led his people through the wilderness,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
17 who struck down great kings,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
18 and killed famous kings,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
19 Sihon, king of the Amorites,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
20 and Og, king of Bashan,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
21 and gave their land as a heritage,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
22 a heritage to his servant Israel,
    for his steadfast love endures forever.

23 It is he who remembered us in our low estate,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
24 and rescued us from our foes,
    for his steadfast love endures forever;
25 who gives food to all flesh,
    for his steadfast love endures forever.

26 O give thanks to the God of heaven,
    for his steadfast love endures forever.

You see that is the great thing about that Psalm it repeats it. It tells the entire story about the covenant relationship between Israel and their God, and each step of the way they chant as if to remember, as if to drill it into their minds that their God is Love, and that each thing that he does is a part of that love, from Creation to the parting of the Red Sea, to the providing of food, the giving of land, and the getting rid of their enemies. . . all seen by them as Love and a part of God’s steadfast love, Hessed, for them, but aren’t there more things that God does in the Bible, isn’t there more to the character of God than just these things, can’t we delve deeper and get more, breaking through any confines that may arrive, although we are getting a picture of love from this, creating a place and home, providing food and nourishment, protecting from those who may mean harm, setting free from bondage. . . that is a pretty good list, at least to start with,  because at this point it is confined to a certain perspective. . . what about love for say the famous kings, for King Shihon of the Amorites and King Og of the Bashon. Does love include preference? Choosing? One over the other? Could such things be?

Let’s look further. . . we remember that God creates the world in 7 days, that he places a firmament, that he holds back the waters, that he creates space, and that he fills that space. . . and that finally he creates human beings, in his image. . . perhaps we can create our own refrain, steal it from Tina Turner, What’s love got to do with that? Remember. . . God is Love. . . what about rest, on the seventh day God rests. . . is rest a part of love? Then God places a tree in the midst of the garden, forbids it to be eaten, but leaves us free to do so? What’s love got to do with that? God is Love. . . God shows up, in the cool of the day, calls out, where are you? Even though he must know already? Does God punish. . . or are these merely the consequences of the action? (That is Day 1 or 2 of my Sunday School class starting on September 10th so we’ll skip answering that question for now). . . God chooses and prefers Abel’s offering to Cain’s. . . What’s love got to do with that? Remember God is Love? But when Cain kills Abel, God sends him out, but leaves a mark on him, a protective mark, that he not be touched. . . interesting. . . then you have Noah, a flood to destroy the world, except for 1 righteous man and his family and all the animals 2 by 2 except for those silly unicorns that missed the boat, God Is Love. .  . a rainbow, a promise, the first covenant, never shall I again. . . is this the beginning of “Ki La’olam Chasdoh” or is it merely another aspect of God is Love, that has never not been. . .  because then Abram is called. . . promised to. . . then made to wander, to wait, to question, to act in faith, and during that time the great cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed, love again? We affirm again, yes God Is Love! Abraham take your son, Isaac up the mountain, father, says Isaac, where is the lamb. . . love. . . he does show up though, right at the moment of truth, Abraham, Abraham, put down the knife. . . no not your son. . .

What about Jacob, the trickster, cheats his brother out of his inheritance, flees, but is chosen still by God, and God wrestles with Jacob, renames him, and again, is it like Cain, leaves a mark on him, gives him 12 sons, but they fight amongst themselves, jealousies reign, they sell their brother Joseph, but God cares for Joseph, provides for Joseph, protects Joseph, uses Joseph to save many from famine, including the brothers who had sold him. . . . but then allows the Egyptians to forget, and then to enslave, for years and years of bondage, but then when Pharaoh decrees that babies should be slaughtered, he saves one in a basket. . . the same Hebrew word for the basket is Ark from that old story of Noah. . . one slow of speech, he uses to set the captives free, and promises to lead them to a land flowing with Milk and honey. . . . Think about God with Gideon, Deborah, Ruth, Samson, Samuel. . . think of Samuel’s mother Hanna, and her prayer, God give me a son, and God does. . . think of David, with Goliath, with Saul, with Jonathan, what about with Bathsheba. . . what characterizes God through all of these stories, again all of it is Love, must be. What about the prophets, what about Daniel, what about Elijah, that God not being in the hurricane, the earthquake, but instead the still small voice. . . the oil jars that are always full. . . what about with Jonah, the patience, but also the forgiveness toward Nineveh. You could spend a lifetime studying all of the aspects of God and of Love in the Old Testament, but how often do we seek to limit God to suit our tastes, and to limit Love then to what is easy sweet and appealing, the Valentine’s Day love. . . but we can see that it is much more difficult than that. . . Love has many more rough edges than that. Jacob wrestles with God, and doesn’t let go. . . is that what we need to do to understand the depths and mysteries of what love can be, because I didn’t even mention Job yet, or the Assyrians, or the Babylonians, or the exile, Esther and Haman, hmm love. What about the Persians, Isaiah calls Cyrus the anointed of God, could it be love to use a foreign ruler to restore and reestablish the Jewish state, even if it is merely a colony within the larger Persian empire? Then you have the Greeks, and then finally the Romans. . .

At which time the ultimate definition of Love comes. Christ, God come to live with us, not born in a palace but a manger, allowing himself to be baptized by John, heads out in the desert to fast and resist temptation. . . the temptation of control and escape. . . he withstands. . . his steadfast love endures remember. . . eats with outcasts, feeds the multitude, heals the sick, raises the dead to life. . . and takes over the empire, sets up a benevolent dictatorship where everyone’s needs are administered to, and all are taken care of forever more. . . wait, what? Isn’t that what the world says the definition of love would be? A central authority making sure that everything is fair and equal and no one ever needs, or has their feelings hurt? Isn’t that love? Perhaps not, though because that isn’t at all what Jesus does. No he goes to a cross. That can’t be right, I thought the New Testament was the progressive loving testament. . . how could it be that with all of the power in the world, all the power to do some good, Jesus doesn’t do it. That instead he goes to a cross, to die, and to be trapped inside of a tomb?

NO there is something more to this love stuff. . . there are a few common threads that we see in the story, and they find their culmination in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. WE see the act of creation. . . creating a world, creating beings to be in that world, establishing ways that lead to the flourishing of life, but also leaving people free to make those choices. . . even to their own destruction. . . but then repeating the process again and again, with special promises, planting seeds, seeds that find themselves cultivated through actions done freely, always freely, in faith. . . these seeds create lands flowing with milk and honey, blessings, and abundant life. . . then there are other times when the captives need to be set free again. . . covenants of righteousness are forgotten and broken not by God but by us, and people end up in chains. . . God sets those captives free. . . but the new covenant according to Jeremiah the prophet will be written onto our hearts, and so God comes himself to be the seed planted, to leave his mark on us, to set the captives free, to become the sacrifice, and to show for ever that the true and full definition of love, though it may be difficult because it always includes a cross, is stronger than any limitation we could ever put on it, even death itself.

Can you imagine how much faith must be a part of love for love to include such freedom? I’m not talking about the faith that we have in God, but the faith that God must have in us. He must know something that we do not, to have such faith in us, that we could ever learn to love like that, to love He does, he must have much faith in us to believe that we could begin to have enough faith in Him, and to have faith enough in our neighbors to love him and them in the way that God loves us, faith enough to feed and heal and provide and sacrifice ourselves, all in order to set them free. . . not to shape them to our will or enslave them and control them, but to set them free. Love is heavy. . . for God is Love. Amen.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

What Is This Thing Called Love?

What Is This Thing Called Love?

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

July 30, 2017

at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Zuni, Virginia

Psalm 100

1 John 3: 16-18

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.


 Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
    Worship the Lord with gladness;
    come into his presence with singing.

Know that the Lord is God.
    It is he that made us, and we are his;
    we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
    and his courts with praise.
    Give thanks to him, bless his name.

For the Lord is good;
    his steadfast love endures forever,
    and his faithfulness to all generations.

Rather than starting this morning with the New Testament lesson, and the answer it gives, we’ll begin this morning with a question, and the best way to put a question like this to us is to hear it, and hear it more beautifully and poignantly, than you could by me merely speaking it. . . so listen. First you hear the clarinet . . . , and then the rest of the orchestra comes in . . .

What is this thing called love?
This funny thing called love?
Just who can solve its mystery?
Why should it make a fool of me?

That is our question. What does it mean to love? What is love? What is it that Christ says is the greatest commandment? What is it that we are to do? How should we think of it? This is going to be the theme of this next series, entitled, Love Defined, but not Confined. . . let us start, what is this thing called love?

Every year when I was teaching I began my classes with the same lesson. I used it as an introduction to what I think literature is all about. I would have them do their best to try and define "love", not that all literature is about love, of course not, couldn’t be, well maybe at some level, and if you stick with me I think you'll understand what I'm getting at.  It's cool because Love is a word that means so much, and it means something personal and it means something different to each person, and it means something even to teenage boys, who can find meaninglessness is most anything. It also is a word that is very much packed with experience, and each of us have experienced love in one of its forms throughout our lives. Even love’s absence is a noticeable form of Love, I’ve found. Love is something that is universal, it lives in all times and all places. It is an idea that is infinite, and so I know I am setting the boys up for failure, when I send them back to their dorms on the first night of school with a blank piece of paper, and the assignment that says, define love. . . and don't just define it from the dictionary, I want you to define it completely, every possible aspect of love, leave nothing out. Ok, go, gentlemen. . . good luck.

What would you do? Here is what they would do every single year. They always come back with basically the same ideas, it was like clockwork. There is the dictionary definition that would always come out first, and it is always easy to spot it, those cheaters think they're so smart. . . . something like . . . "the intense emotional feeling of attraction and attachment to a person or object." That was always first. . . the quite proud of themselves literalists were always first. . . smiling. . . but, then from some of the more slack likely creative types you get a few words trickling in, words like, passion, romance, affection, preference; sometimes unconditional would creep in. But in those first try definitions so much was always left out. . . it always was. . . which at this point is very good for the lesson because the bait is set. . .their minds are beginning to work, and they are already realizing that there is more to it instead of less, more to words than what the dictionary has to offer, more to answers than any mere sentence could bring to the table, and that is key, so next I push them further to get ideas down on paper. I ask them to come up with two word phrases that have love in them. . . like tough love, puppy love, love shack, love hate relationship. . . on and on. . . and as they say them I’d rush to write as many as I could get on the board, usually at least twenty or so, and with all of them on the board it is easy to see some of the major holes in their first definition. It just doesn't go far enough. . . and I ask them, what they think about their original definition. . . they always say it's pretty bad. . . it sells itself short. . . it is a cheap version, it is too limited.

It's at this point that I get into the root of the problem with them. . . and I get to do so by showing them a Greek root that is found in the assigning word, the cause of the problem, and the result of the problem, all at the same time, and that is the Greek root, "Fin." It is the root in words like "final" and "finish." And for the choir I think we had "fine" in our music this morning, like DC al Fine. . . where you go back to the beginning and then sing it through to the fine, to the end. . . yes the root fin means end. You see I'm always working on their vocabulary. . . you have to have many levels going on at once. . . kinda like a sermon. . . but yes this root "fin" is also in the word "define" because that is what you are doing. . . you are putting ends on where the word begins and ends, the boundaries of meaning that make the word itself. That is what you do when you define. . . but the problem with a word like "love" as I am trying to get them to see is that you can't put ends on it because . . . here is the next one. . . love is "infinite". . . do you hear it again, there is the "fin" again, this time describing something that has no ends. You can't define something that is infine. . . it doesn't work. . . because no matter what you do, when you set the ends you will end up, and here is the last one, "Confine," you always confine. . .  when you try to define the infinite.

So then with their minds swimming. . . I tell them, O. K.  so now do it. I want you to define Love. . . "but Mr. Atkinson you just said it was impossible." Sure it's impossible. . . and I'm the teacher and I'm telling you to do it, so go ahead. I tell them, this is not the last time that I will ask you to do something harder than what you can do (Remember the other week when I told yall having a Presbyterian Pastor teaching high school is tough, I’d have no trouble with telling my students to do something impossible). Now with them flabbergasted, frustrated, and utterly confused. . . I ask them. . . how do you do it. . . how do you define something that is infinite without confining it? How? . . .  Blank stares. . . Come on guys don't quit on me now. . . it's day 2. . .

Hand goes up. . . yes. . . "You could just be vague. . . "

"Sure"  you can just be vague. . . but isn't that just what we had on the board at first. . . a vague definition that really doesn't help us and sells us way too short?" Yes, beeeeep, thank you for playing, no good, too easy, I won't let you punt. . . I told them this anecdote. . . and it connects here. . . so you have a community. . . I tell them. . . let's call it a school. . . and the school has a religious tradition, but that religious tradition, though still there, does not reflect the make up of the school. . . maybe it does to a certain majority, but the school has grown much more diverse. . . so you decide to water down the message so as not to offend. . . you try to make everything safe. . . and vague if you will. . . what happens. . . nothing right. . . it all becomes a waste. . . no one gets anything out of it, because it is a lifeless, vague version of something that should be giving life. . .  Think about it with love. . .what if all you had was this vague definition limiting people's concept of how love works, what love does, how it affects people, what it is. . . what if you go with the definition of love that we started with. .. that whole intense feeling of attraction thing. . .and then that intense feeling of attraction isn't returned, and you get that amazing all encompassing pain that goes with love sometimes. . . but your definition doesn't include it because you were being safe and vague and. . . men do you see the problem? That person may think that their love wasn't real, they may down play their experience. . . they would be missing something extremely important.  "Yes coach, we get it." So next try. . .

How do you define something that is infinite? I start to give them hints. . . remember that you are in English class. . . its day 2 and this is an introduction exercise. . . more blank stares. . . I ask them. . .What if I were to say, "love is like a hole in the head" . . . it's painful. . . it takes life. . . but then also, sometimes when you are in it your brain seems like it going to fall out, and you lose your mind completely. . . or that your head has this hole. . . and it is the shape of love. . . and if it is not full. . . you will never be whole. . . we could go on and on couldn't we. . . what if I said "love is water" it gives life, it's refreshing, it's powerful, it cleans and refreshes, starting you out anew. . . it also could be dangerous . . . especially when out of control. . . when it rises too quickly. . . when those floodwaters are raging. . . what about when it's not around,. . . life just can't flourish. .  . everything dries up and dies. Do you see figurative language. .. poetry. .. this is what allows you to define something indefinable. . .why does it work? Because it leaves itself open for interpretation. . . the writer means it a certain way or ways, but it also allows for the reader to take it another way, and every reader will bring his own ideas and take it a different way. . . why because experience. . . love like other infinite ideas, is something that is infinite because everyone's experience is different and should be taken into consideration. . . to leave out someone's experience would be to sell love short. . . again confining the infinite.

I had a student one time, at the end of the year, they had to write college essays, and he had struggled all year with the work I assigned. His first draft of his essay was about how he has ADHD, but that he has worked to overcome it, by playing with a pencil under his desk. . . and the essay was atrocious, it hoped to say I over came my ADHD so you should accept me into your college, but what it really said is I have no idea what I’m doing, I know I’m supposed to say I’ve overcome my ADHD so you would accept me, but I haven’t, and you probably shouldn’t. We worked on another essay idea, that allowed him to show that though he has ADHD he thinks, but thinks differently. I told him to list some things he was interested in, and then try to link them together into an essay that like ADHD bounces all over the place. He did, and it was awesome and at the end of it he wrote, Love is like a tatoo. . . recalling back that first assignment from day 1. . . he said it hurts sometimes, but if it is real it leaves its mark on you. Success!!!!

But that is not the only way. . . how else guys. . . how else can we define the infinite. . . blank stares. . . but they are interested ones. . . you see I’ve got them now. . . how else. . . come on guys remember it is English class. . . still nothing. . . remember it's English class and now we've gotten Poetry covered already. . . someone says "stories" . . . yes narratives. . . why . . . because again we are bringing experience, showing experience, showing life. . . I point up to star crossed love. . . on the board as one of those two word phrases from earlier. . . I could define that sure. . . or I could write and perform Romeo and Juliet and I would take you much further. . . I could define what it is to be an orphan, or I could Oliver Twist. . . obviously the story is not enough. . . interpretation, connection, all of that is part of the deal. . . it needs to be there in the intimate relationship between writer and reader. . . and so I tell them that is what we will do this year. . . we will read some of the great works of world literature. . . looking at how people throughout history have tried to define things that were indefinable. . . I ask them what are some of those things. . . those infinite things. . . we already have love. . . what about hope. . . what about dreams. . . what about friendship. . . what about evil. . . what about good. . . what about human nature. . . what about God. . . these are the ideas we seek to understand, to study. . . because they are the ideas of humanity. . . and they always have been. End of lesson. . .

Now what does this have to do with us, here on Sunday morning. . . Listen to this from 1 John 4, not our official reading, we’ll do that last, but from the same letter:

7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

Do you see the metaphor, that famous of metaphors. . . pairing two of these infinite ideas together. . . God is love. And just like love. . .  God is infinite. . . God is hard to define. . . and yet we seek to do so, oh so often. And the danger is just like love. . . when we define God. . . we confine God. . . We make God small . . . we sell God short. . . we try to put God in a manageable, definable box. . . one that makes us comfortable. . . one that gives us a sense of security. . . one that allows us to be in control. . . one that fits our lives. . .and then with God in that manageable box we use God for our purposes. . . whether they be controlling other people. . . or judging other people. . . or making us feel better about ourselves and our situation. . . but just like the Israelites in building their golden calf. . . this God is a mere shadow of God's true reality. . . God's infinite reality.

So how do we then get to know God. . . how do we get to tell others about God. . . to communicate about God if we can't define. . . the answer is similar to how I told my students to define love. . . through metaphor. .. through relationships between things. . . common threads and comparisons. . . that is poetry. . . and also through narratives. . . between these ideas we get to share our experience, for that is what we do, that is what we have to give and to get from eachother. . . experience. . . relationship. . . all of these teach us about each other. . . and give us more and more of an understanding about God. So then it makes sense that the way that we get to know God is to love one another. . . to get closer to God by getting closer to eachother. . . loving our neighbors. . . listening to them. . . telling our stories. . . It's all there.

And that is what Jesus is for us. . . metaphor. . .in the sense that Jesus is both God and man. . . a comparison of two unlike things. . . brought together. . . and it shows so much about both. . . so much about eac. . amazing metaphor. . . and narrative. . . God coming to us. . . walking with us. . . tried by us. . . dying for us. . . and then raised. . . again busting through any perceived limitations we may seek to place on the infinite. . . that's quite a story. . . and it is a story that could teach us beyond what any other thing could do, because it meets us where we are, allows us to experience it for ourselves. . . and creates that wonderful relationship between the teller/actor/creator of the story, and all of us blessed, open hearted witnesses. It is love forever defined by metaphor and narrative, it doesn’t confine the infinite, but sets it free in that relationship. . . and so we come bit by bit to understand what love is, and also what God is. . . that we in the weeks to come will try to define love without confining it. . . setting it free from the bounds we may have placed on it. . . expanding it beyond what is safe, and what we have been actually able to accomplish, for an infinite idea like love can never be done. I do though wish to pose a definition, and it is connected to God is Love, it is connected to metaphor, it is connected to historical experience, and it is as close as we can come to such a definition. . . it is contained in our New Testament lesson for today. . .and will be our starting place for our foray into it next week, take a listen. 1 John 3: 16-18

16 We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

Is the definition of love, to follow in Christ’s footsteps, and to sacrifice, to give of your complete self, for others? Could anything less, anything else begin to suffice? We will begin there next week. Amen.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Each Conscience

Each Conscience

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

July 23, 2017

at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Zuni, Virginia

Ecclesiastes 4: 8-12

Romans 12: 3-8

Let us pray,

Help us to see despite our eyes

Help us to think outside of our minds

Help us to be more than our lives   

For your eyes show the way

    Your mind knows the truth

    Your being is the life.


So far in this our Presbyterian Revolution series, we have looked at the connections between the Presbyterian historic principles and those that founded our Nation, lamenting that many of these principles have gone missing, and are greatly missed, as we have become a divided and polarized nation of late, and actually to be honest we are a divided and polarized denomination, and that being the case there is a great need for these principles to be refound and reclaimed, and our own revitalization, our own spiritual renewal, our own deepening of fellowship and faith, greatly depend on them as a Christ centered foundation. We said that the first is a firm reliance on the providence of God, remembering that God is Sovereign and his perfect will is working all things toward Good. And then second we said, knowing that what becomes important is our emphasis on the means rather than the ends, that we can do our daily work, that we can discern and follow His Sovereign will for our lives, and can know that the ends are very much in His hands, that knowledge frees us to give of ourselves fully, risking, taking leaps of faith, that we can become very much empowered to be ourselves. . . discerning what we are to be and do at any given moment, so that we may offer exactly that willingly and freely and repeatedly our entire lives.

Now in this final installment of this Presbyterian Revolution series, we will focus on what all that means for how we are to see and act toward each other, for we have been set free by Christ to discern and follow and offer up our unique vocation, and now we are called, for that is what vocation means to do so together, not as divided individuals, but as a community. . . for that is what we are called to be. . . but first let us look to scripture. Our Old Testament reading comes from the Book of Ecclesiastes, one of my favorites for it contains passages like this of vivid if realistic wisdom. Listen to this, Ecclesiastes 4: 8-12

There was a man all alone;
    he had neither son nor brother.
There was no end to his toil,
    yet his eyes were not content with his wealth.
“For whom am I toiling,” he asked,
    “and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?”
This too is meaningless—
    a miserable business!

Two are better than one,
    because they have a good return for their labor:
10 If either of them falls down,
    one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
    and has no one to help them up.
11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
    But how can one keep warm alone?
12 Though one may be overpowered,
    two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

I just love Ecclesiastes, for in the face of what he continually calls vanity and meaninglessness, the vanity and toil of our endless work under the sun, he comes back to two enduring nuggets of meaning, one is the wisdom and fear of the Lord, and the other is what is described here, the need for each other, the need for other people, the need for community. Now I want to take this time to specify and pose a definition for this term community because I think that it is an important term, and one that I feel is often misused. . . or at least can be understood in multiple ways, and I want to use to be clear with what I mean when I use community because there is a slight but crucial difference between a community which is at the basic level an assembly of people, and other terms that we could use to describe assembled peoples. Now when I was teaching my English classes at some point during the year I had to teach the difference between the connotation and the denotation of a word. . . now to refresh your memory because most of you have long since absented yourself from the doldrums of the high school classroom, for more real world pursuits, let me tell you that a denotation is the flat exact dictionary definition of a word, and a connotation is the associations that a word picks up through usage over time. So when I was teaching this distinction I would often use the assemblage of people words as my example. . . so for example if I were to pick the words group, crowd, and mob. . . at the denotation level they all mean as we have said an assemblage of people, but a the connotation level a group is non-descript, neutral, a crowd is usually seen as loud boisterous and excited, whereas a mob is intent on anger and destruction. So if I would say there is a group of people outside, you wouldn’t get nervous, and if I said there was a crowd outside, you might feel inclined to be curious, but if I said there was a mob outside, you may have to rethink your afternoon. . . like it might not come to be. . . the word community is the same, it has a slightly different connotation. . . what do you associate with the word community? Do you hear commune or communal, communion, dare I say eek communism therein? You may, but for my mind there is one major difference that distinguishes a community from a crowd and a mob, and that is, that a community is a group of individuals whose individual identity remains intact. Whereas in a crowd or a mob, that typically is not the case. A crowd may get ripped up into an emotional frenzy and usually has an energy of its own that buries the individual within. . . and a mob, likewise, consists of one loud and angry voice. . . but a community has all the strength of the group, it is the threefold cord that is not easily broken, and the warmth of the compassionate embrace, but the people there in hold onto themselves, and do not give because they must, but because they choose to, freely. . . it is a group of people formed by love, and love must always needs be free, but we will talk of that more in the weeks to come. Look at how Paul describes this new community of the church in his letter to the Romans. . . this 12: 3-8

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Listen to his words there, and the flow of them. . . he starts with humility, let not every one among you think more highly than you ought to think, but think with sober judgment, each according to the faith God has assigned. . .  notice the call there to humility. There is the sense that you know that you have need, you know that you cannot do it all yourself, you know that you need help, you know that your faith and abilities come not from yourself but from God as he created you, Jesus Christ as he has set you free, and from the Holy Spirit that filled you and supported you in faith. So you come together to form a body, but this body has many members, and not all members are the same nor do they have the same function. It is not a monolithic mob, but instead a diverse community of individual members. . . we, who are many, are one body in Christ, AND, and here is the word, “individually, we are members one of another.” And we have gifts, all coming from God, that are not the same but rather are different, and we need all of them. He takes up the very same line of argument and metaphor in his first letter to the church at Corinth too, he writes in chapter 12

14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24 whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25 that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. 27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it

Even there as well Paul writes again, individually members of it. He says we each have different jobs to do, and that each of those jobs is indispensable, each as important as any other, but there at the end of our reading in Romans he implores his people to do it. It is of course one thing to be called, and another to do it, The New International Version captures this essence really well, this is Romans 12: 6-8

We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.

A community is a place where people can come freely and should feel empowered to fully live into their unique self, the fullness of their unique identity, formed and made individually unique by God himself.

Now this is why I am called to serve in the Presbyterian Church rather than another denomination. I believe that we, at least historically, and at least in our ideals, at least on paper, hold to this definition of community and seek to form and embody the same. Sure in practice we falter. . . our brokenness comes out as we either push our own wills and agendas forward and run rough shod on others, or on the other end of the spectrum become complacent and fall into thinking “it is not my job, someone else will do it for me.” The two work together and create a cycle of those who do becoming burnout, and many others feeling left out. Yeah in practice we falter, but written on paper, in our Book of Order are these principles. The idea of “Freedom of the Conscience” where we understand that a person’s personal feelings on many issues may be his or her own, and be between them and God, and that this leads to another principle that we have written down that of “Unity in Diversity” which is how we put the notion that though we are each unique individuals we are brought together as one body. And that though there is truth, people’s grasp of certain aspects of it may differ, and therefore we are to have “Mutual Forbearance” towards each other. In other words you do not have to check your brain at the door. You should not have to feel like you have to hide who you are or put on airs, but instead come humbly, from wherever you may be at this very moment, we seek you where you are, wherever you are, and we simply, each of us, seek to become open to become exactly what God is calling each of us to be. . . and as we said last week, give up to God, the totality of that self, freely, completely, and repeatedly, our entire life.

So, we must ask ourselves, is Bethany Presbyterian Church a community? Do our members, friends, and visitors feel empowered to seek and share the fullness of their gifts? You may feel like screaming out Amen and yes! But does each member here find that to be the case? Does each member seek for that to be the case for each of the others? Do we have an active few who feel the burden of doing set solely on their shoulders, carrying the ball, thinking if they were to let it drop no one else would pick it up? Do we have others who have not found their niche? Have not sought out a chance to get involved? Have decided that others could and would do it better and therefore should do it, instead of me? Do we truly have a community? If the answer is still yes when it is broken down like that we are well on our way! If not we know the basis of our task ahead. We need to find ways to empower each other. . . We need to find ways to discern and learn our unique gifts, and sometimes we will find things we never knew we had. . . We need to find ways of letting go in faith believing that others are called to act like we have been, and to let go even when they do it differently. . . We need to each shoulder the burden of our own conscience as well. We need to wrestle with the challenges of scripture. We need to each wrestle with the challenges of faith in this broken world. We need to each be willing to help and engage each other along the way!

To be honest, if we are living out these principles in a Spirit led way, it is probably going to be a little messy. It may become more messy than we are used to or are comfortable with. . . when you talk about Freedom of the Conscience often conflict can form, so be it, conflict weathered under God’s grace binds people more tightly together. When you talk about Unity in Diversity, sometimes the person next to you is very very much different than you. . . loving them anyway that can be messy,. . . and when you talk about Mutual Forbearance, that means you have to listen to a viewpoint different than your own. . . you don’t have to agree. . . you just may have to listen. . . I hate the term open minded, I use the term Welcome Minded instead. . . because I think when people tell you to be Open Minded” they just want you to think like them. . . but Welcome Minded is different. . . you open up your house, you welcome in guests—those other ideas—but then at the end of the day it is your house and you get to decide what remains there.

It can get messy. . . can we handle a little messy. . . I hope so. . . remember we are building all of this upon a faith that God is sovereign and that He has the ends in his hands. . . I do think that God prefers the mess. . . history is enough proof of that. . . there is that old joke about the man who was tending his garden to his garden when a door to door evangelist comes up to visit, and he says hello brother, this is a wonderful garden that you and the Lord have made here. . . and the man doesn’t miss a beat, says, “Yeah you should have seen it when the Lord had it by himself. . . “ The mess. . . picture in your mind two maps, one the map of a city, every road straight in perfect symmetrical blocks, you can just see the design and ingenuity evident in the engineering of each detail. But if you look at a natural map, with the slow meandering curves of each river, no pattern that we can see. . . to us a mess, to God a masterpiece. Alexander Pope wrote

To him no high, no low, no great, no small—
He fills, he bounds, connects, and equals all....
All nature is but art, unknown to thee:
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see:
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good.

To his I will add my own and leave you with the image. I wrote this a few years ago when preaching on the Tower of Babel. . . another great story of the danger of conformity, where God imposes different languages. . . imposed diversity. I thought about the idea of building with stones, each different, and somewhat messy, with holes where the wind can blow through. . . how it wouldn’t be as efficient, but may be write.

May we build with stones and not bricks,

Remembering that through each nook,

And within each cranny, made by uneven

Edges, the wind blows, flowing freely,

As it has since time's beginning

On the newly formed and divided waters,

That though the lines may be crooked,

Each holds a unique space and place,

Filled by each as only each can, leaving

A vacancy when absent that cannot be filled

By any other piece. There is a value

Such a wall knows, that its finely

Crafted descendants have forgotten,

Through the mind numbing conformity

Of molded bricks, with all the right angles

Of efficiency, facility, and progress.

No here at Bethany, with living stones, each uniquely shaped, and crucial to the plan, we will build our revolution, and we will build on top of the stone that was rejected and has become for us our cornerstone, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. May it be so, Amen.