Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Cup

The Cup
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
June 11, 2017
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Psalm 23
2 Samuel 12: 1-8
Matthew 26: 36-39

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.

 2 Samuel 12: 1-8
and the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.” Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”
Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more.

One of the things that I have really enjoyed doing in my sermons is connecting together things that aren’t usually connected together, and the reason I like to do it is that when you connect things together that aren’t usually connected together, you think thoughts that aren’t usually thought. In other words you gain insight, beyond what is usual. It breaks down the barriers that often bind us to familiar patterns and allows us to see things anew. This morning we looked at two different places in the Old Testament, where David, the King plays a role. One is the reading from 2 Samuel where Nathan comes to David and rebukes him. You see this passage directly follows the David and Bathsheba story, where David in his Kingly arrogance and desire decides that he wants to possess another man’s wife, and thinking himself more important because he is the king, decides to have the man killed, making things worse, the man was Uriah, a Hittite and one of David’s great generals, and David didn’t just have him killed directly, instead he cowardly and despicably sent him into battle in a way that would ensure that he would be killed. The lives of his men meant so little to him, that they were just pawns to be discarded for the king’s own pleasure, and Nathan calls him out on it, and tells him the story about the man and the little lamb. You see in the parable the poor man’s lamb is taken to satisfy the rich man, David of course is disgusted, and this allows him to see finally into his own crimes.
But look at what Nathan says, look at the details. . . the little lamb drank from the same cup as the master, just like the poor man’s own children. There is great love there, drinking from the same cup, and does this mean that God is the poor farmer. . . loving one like Uriah the Hittite, a foreigner? Interesting. . . but look also at what Nathan says to David. . .
You are the man! Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more.

You see what wouldn’t I have given if you would have needed. . . another way of saying the cup runs over. . . Could this rebuke from Nathan been on David’s mind when he wrote the famous 23rd psalm, my cup runneth over, it certainly has the same imagery of a sheep who was loved, cared for and protected like one of the family, God’s own family.
What is it about cups? Drinking from the same cup. . . my cup runneth over. . . now listen to the Gospel reading:
Matthew 26: 36-39
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. 38 Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” 39 And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”

It may seem like something normal and everyday like a cup would not have significance, and wouldn’t be something that could teach, let alone preach, something relevant to us, but how interesting that Christ doesn’t say, hey, Father, is there any way I can get out of this. . . instead he uses the metaphor of cup. . . let this cup pass from me. And the Greek word that that is attributed to him in every gospel account of the story, so in Matthew, Mark, and Luke is the word “Proterion” which literally means drinking cup, and is the same exact word that was used in the original Greek translation of the Old Testament, for the 23rd psalm, a translation known as the Septuagint, which dates to 200-300 years before Christ. . . so there is a linguistic connection between the words, and between the metaphors. . . but let’s think about these two together for a moment. . .
Let this cup pass, we take to mean the betrayal, the trial, the beatings, the floggings, and the death by crucifixion. . . right isn’t that what we think about when we hear Jesus saying “Let this cup pass.” Isn’t there another way. . . can you get me out of this. . . you know one more time for old time’s sake. . . kinda like Tessio in the Godfather, when he is found out for betraying Micheal. . . he says, “Can you get me out of this Tom, you know for old time sake. . .” One last try, one last ditch effort. . . Or in one of my favorite movies. . . Have you ever seen Darby O’Gill and the Little People, it’s a classic. . . Darby catches the king of the Leprecaun’s King Bryan Connors, and holds him until he grants him three wishes. . . and he holds onto his wishes too long, trying to get his daughter taken care of, but without the King to keep the fairies and the other powers of darkness at bay, the banshee comes and strikes Darby’s daughter with a fever. . . Darby uses his third wish to take her place in the Coach de Bower (C√≥iste Bodhar). Then King Brian is free, but for old time sake joins Darby in the Coach, and they share reminiscences of their rivalry, and Brian says to Darby, “I wish I could go with you all the way.” And Darby says, “I wish you could, too.” And then Brian starts laughing, such a great scene, says, “aren’t you a knowledgeable man.” You see early in the movie, when Darby catches him the first time Brian offers Darby a fourth wish, and when he takes it he says, “Three wishes I grant ye, big wishes and small, but if you wish a fourth wish you lose them all. . .” so now in the Coach, the fourth wish releases Darby from his deal, and the coach returns empty. . . the daughter wakes up, and there is a happy ending where the daughter Katie, marries a young Sean Connery. . . Now this is what I’ve always taken “Let this cup pass” to mean. . . Hey God can I wish that fourth wish and undo all this. . . but alas no. . . the trial, the torture, the cross, the tomb. . .
Earlier in the Gospel of Matthew Jesus uses the same metaphor. . .
21 And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” 22 But Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” 23 He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”

So Jesus uses this idea of his trials being a cup that he must drink from here too, and it seems to be linked with destiny, “are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink” you could take this to mean, are you able, can you do it, but it could instead mean, we all drink from our own cups, our own path, our own way, as given by God. . . “this is not mine to grant, but is for whom it has been prepared. . . and he says, by my Father.” So if we were to read it this way, it would seem like we would each have our own cup to drink from. . . and the ability thing, there, is not a slight on the disciple’s ability in their own willingness, but instead in their path and destiny to be different. . . we all find ourselves often wanting to drink from another’s cup, maybe because we see the need, the challenge, the moral highness of it, or maybe we are just envious of the others, or maybe we like the disciples are trying to earn our position. . . but whatever it is, we have our own cup to drink from. . . and as David says and learns, that cup runneth over and is sufficient.
But there are many more significant cup stories in the old testament. . . look at Genesis 44.
Then he commanded the steward of his house, “Fill the men’s sacks with food, as much as they can carry, and put each man’s money in the top of his sack. Put my cup, the silver cup, in the top of the sack of the youngest, with his money for the grain.” And he did as Joseph told him. As soon as the morning was light, the men were sent away with their donkeys. When they had gone only a short distance from the city, Joseph said to his steward, “Go, follow after the men; and when you overtake them, say to them, ‘Why have you returned evil for good? Why have you stolen my silver cup?[a] Is it not from this that my lord drinks? Does he not indeed use it for divination? You have done wrong in doing this.’”
When he overtook them, he repeated these words to them. They said to him, “Why does my lord speak such words as these? Far be it from your servants that they should do such a thing! Look, the money that we found at the top of our sacks, we brought back to you from the land of Canaan; why then would we steal silver or gold from your lord’s house? Should it be found with any one of your servants, let him die; moreover the rest of us will become my lord’s slaves.” 10 He said, “Even so; in accordance with your words, let it be: he with whom it is found shall become my slave, but the rest of you shall go free.” 11 Then each one quickly lowered his sack to the ground, and each opened his sack. 12 He searched, beginning with the eldest and ending with the youngest; and the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack. 13 At this they tore their clothes. Then each one loaded his donkey, and they returned to the city.
14 Judah and his brothers came to Joseph’s house while he was still there; and they fell to the ground before him. 15 Joseph said to them, “What deed is this that you have done? Do you not know that one such as I can practice divination?” 16 And Judah said, “What can we say to my lord? What can we speak? How can we clear ourselves? God has found out the guilt of your servants; here we are then, my lord’s slaves, both we and also the one in whose possession the cup has been found.” 17 But he said, “Far be it from me that I should do so! Only the one in whose possession the cup was found shall be my slave; but as for you, go up in peace to your father.”
And so Joseph holds onto Benjamin as a slave. . . but Judah pleads for his release, and tells the story of their father, Jacob, and old man who greatly mourns the children of his old age, Joseph, who he thinks is dead, and this Benjamin. . . the child of his right hand. . . whom he truly loves for these two are the children of Rachel for whom he worked so long, and loved so deeply.
So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.
Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.

And there you have it right, a story of forgiveness and destiny. . . Joseph forgives his brothers because he looks at the life he is leading and knows he has been led in it by God for God’s purposes. He is simply drinking from the cup, and the cup has run over. . . and so the cup makes its way in the story as the Cinderella piece, the marking of what brings the story to its culmination, the cup. Much like another story in Joseph’s life, restoring the Pharaoh’s cupbearer to him, through Joseph’s recounting of a dream. . . again it is a story of forgiveness and destiny, centered around again a cup.
It is really remarkable when you start to look at all of the cup stories in the Bible. . . Nehemiah, whose path it was to restore Jerusalem, was able to do so because he was, as it says in Nehemiah 1: 11, “cupbearer to the king.” There is the restoration, the forgiveness of Israel, after the long years of exile, again a cup running over. Listen to Psalm 16
Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge.
I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord;
    I have no good apart from you.”[a]
As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble,
    in whom is all my delight.
Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows;[b]
    their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out
    or take their names upon my lips.
The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
    you hold my lot.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
    I have a goodly heritage

There are also places where the cup imagery is connected to wrath rather than forgiveness. . . as if the cup is the very cup of justice. Look at Psalm 75:8
For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed; he will pour a draught from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs

It’s echoed in Isaiah, but it also has the forgiveness, connected as Isaiah is so famous for the salvation that is often read during Advent as we prepare for Christmas, chapter 51

“You are my people.”
17 Rouse yourself, rouse yourself!
    Stand up, O Jerusalem,
you who have drunk at the hand of the Lord
    the cup of his wrath,
who have drunk to the dregs
    the bowl of staggering.

Thus says your Sovereign, the Lord,
    your God who pleads the cause of his people:
See, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering;
you shall drink no more
    from the bowl of my wrath.

There is that cup imagery again, justice, penance, forgiveness. . . and it is Christ’s cup to drink from, so that we might have life.
Look at the language of Communion. . . this cup is the new covenant sealed in my blood. . . the cup of salvation. . . and it is given for us to drink from. . . and like David way back in his time, there is forgiveness, the cup of salvation runs over. . . and God gives us each our cups to drink from. . . it is wrapped up in the goodness of the cup that Christ drank for us. . . for His running over cup makes ours whole, makes ours to run over, and since the cup runs over it cannot be contained. . . certainly not in a tomb. . . and certainly not in anything then ever again.
Look at the poem from Bonhoeffer I put in the bulletin. . .
With every power for good to stay and guide me,
Comforted and inspired beyond all fear,
I’ll live these days with you in thought beside me
And pass, with you, into the coming year.

The old year still torments our hearts, unhastening;
The long days of sorrow still endure;
Father, grant to the souls Thou hast been chastening
That Thou hast promised, the healing and the cure.

Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving
Even to the dregs of pain, at Thy command,
We will not falter, thankfully receiving
All that is given by Thy loving hand.

Powerful words from a man whose cup to drink from included resistance to Nazi’s, breaking from his pacifist beliefs to seek the death of Hitler himself, and his own martyrdom in a Death Camp, to die days before the camp was liberated by Allied forces. . . Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving, even to the dregs of pain. . . at Thy comman we will not falter. . .” He wrote this in the death camp. . . his cup was a grieving cup, but his life was one that runneth over in its power to fill us. . . such is the amazing power of God, the means by which he maketh our cups to runneth over. . . all praise the mysterious wondrous ways of God. Amen.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Down to Believing

Down to Believing

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

June 4, 2017

at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia

1 John 5: 1-6

Genesis 15: 1-8

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.


There is a singer who had some hits awhile back, but she was never really a huge country star. Her name is Alison Moorer, and I just absolutely love her. I love her voice, it’s strong, it’s a little deep, and it is so rich, but what I most like about her, is her songs. There are so many that are so lyrically intricate, subtle, fresh, and meaningful. And I didn’t know it, but it makes sense to me because when I looked it up to see if she writes her own songs, which she does, I found out that she was married to one of my other favorite songwriters, and I don’t I missed it, but she was married to Steve Earle. And I also found out that she did write the song that I’m about to quote, and that provided the title for this morning’s sermon, Down to Believing. . . but she wrote it about her upcoming divorce from Steve Earle, and I’m not sure how that changes, or if it does at all my perspective on the song. . . in some ways it makes it more real because it does often come down to believing and believing is hard in any context. Listen to her words:

We found it hanging from a cloud that time we went up there
It looked like diamonds and pearls
It was so much of it I wore a little in my hair
Everyone said silly girl

Coming down it wasn't easy but we tried our best
Said we used it up and didn't put any back
Now you look so surprised cause there ain't none left
And you're just empty-hearted and sad

I guess it comes down to believing
And whether we do or we don't
Guess it comes down to staying or leaving
And whether we will or we won't

Staring down at the ground ain't gonna help us none
There's no need in making this hard
Hey life's too long to wake up everyday without someone
Who likes all your scratches and scars

I guess it comes down to believing
And whether we do or we don't
Guess it comes down to staying or leaving
And whether we will or we won't

Anybody ever loved anybody knows this is part of the deal
Just have to hold on for ever after
It's all gone

Then I guess it comes down to believing
And whether we do or we don't
I guess it comes down to staying or leaving
And whether we will or we won't
And whether we will or we won't
And whether we will or we won't

Originally I was only going to include the chorus because how awesome is that, so true, so poignant, concise. . . “I guess it comes down to believing, and whether we do or we don’t. . . how basic that is”. . . It is about believing, whether we do or we don’t, so much in life is as simple as that, but rarely do we like to ever put it into those simple terms, but then of course she goes further, not resting on the believing, but on the action connected to the believing. . . and that believing is put so magically and rhymingly into the action. . . “Guess it comes down to staying, or leaving and whether we will or we won’t.” Now obviously, this song is about romantic love and relationships, and in her case as I said earlier I’m sad to say a relationship that failed, but I think the connection to Christian faith is palpable. . . and perhaps that is why when push came to shove I wanted to include the verses, too, because they are quite telling, too, because love relationships are deeply personal and develop with the advancing of time throughout our lives, and so does her song, and so should our faith, our relationship with God, too, but does it?

Look at the first verse. . . she is talking about the first steps of love, the emotion, the cuteness, etc., the simple romanticism of love. . . she says:

We found it hanging from a cloud that time we went up there
It looked like diamonds and pearls
It was so much of it I wore a little in my hair
Everyone said silly girl

She is describing the magic of taking a cloud and wearing it in her hair, like diamonds and pearls, it is the poetry of the romantic, the silly notions of a little girl. Often our faith is like that too, rarely do people progress from their Sunday School notions about God, which in some ways is sweet and fine, but the problem is that often that faith is not strong enough to make it through the many trials of life, which is what the basic truth I want to put forward in this sermon. . . echoed in the chorus, saying that it comes down to believing. . . she continues, though first, with the second half of the verse.

Coming down it wasn't easy but we tried our best
Said we used it up and didn't put any back
Now you look so surprised cause there ain't none left
And you're just empty-hearted and sad

You see, she gives that warning I gave just a second ago, used, up, didn’t put any back. . . now none left, and left empty hearted and sad. . . it is here that she gives the first hearing of the chorus: it comes down to believing and whether we do or we don’t, comes down to staying or leaving and whether we will or we won’t. Like Love is something that needs to be beyond that sweet first phase, and so does our faith. . . because it really, does come down to believing, and whether we do or we don’t, and not just in easy times, but in hard times, in challenging times, in all times. But I’ll get to that further in a minute.

Let’s look at verse 2:

Staring down at the ground ain't gonna help us none
There's no need in making this hard
Hey life's too long to wake up everyday without someone
Who likes all your scratches and scars

This is that part that gets to the messiness of love, and how love needs to be honest, and open, and vulnerable. . . that we have scratches and scars. . . and with all our scratches and scars, the fact that we have them is something that is true about us. Again in the children’s Sunday School versions of Christianity we talk about Sin as something to avoid, something about behaving, we  picture God as an old man in the clouds, with a white beard, holding people to a very long list of rules, instead of the God who made us, with all our scratches and scars, loves us anyway, forgives us, but not in a way that makes those things ok, or bends the rules to make it right, but gets at something much more complex, like the character of love and relationship, and a very different God, not so rigid, as a Fundamentalist might make us think, and not so lax as some Pseudo liberal progressive might sell us, but a deeper full bodied honest relationship, and this is what we testify to week to week when we Confess our sins. . . Again, what you believe about God in the depths of your soul, honestly is what it comes down to, believing, and whether we do or we don’t, and that is what she sings again.

The third verse is actually more of a bridge. . . it is shorter, and looks backward to experience and joined experience, she is trying to connect with all people who have ever loved. . . she says

Anybody ever loved anybody knows this is part of the deal
Just have to hold on for ever after
It's all gone

It is part of the deal, you just have to hold on for ever after It’s all gone. . . and this is where she almost loses it. . . she almost loses me. . . and this might be the bottom piece that reflects the feelings that led to her divorce, who knows, but she says here it is all gone, and that it’s over, and you get the idea that perhaps she was mistaken about love throughout, that it was truly just the romantic silly notions of the little girl who fell in love, but then she returns to that chorus that really brings it all back.

Then I guess it comes down to believing
And whether we do or we don't
I guess it comes down to staying or leaving
And whether we will or we won't

It comes down to believing. In her case, it was truly love, they were truly one, and perhaps in my language of understanding for it, God brought them together. Either that is all true or it isn’t. . . and the staying or leaving is connected there. If it is love you stay, if you leave it wasn’t because if such things are true, then they are true, and if they are not then they aren’t and they weren’t. Now obviously I’m speaking from a God Sovereign, Calvinist, Reformed, God is in Control kinda way, and that is the way I see love, maybe she doesn’t, or didn’t when she wrote the song, but that is how I see it, and that is how I hear it when I listen to her singing it. It comes down to believing, and whether we do or we don’t.

Think about our faith in those terms. What do you believe about God? I was tasked with talking to Chloe and Holly Norton, this morning in our confirmation class, with talking about what it is that we believe, or what we say we believe as Presbyterians. I showed them the Book of Confessions, we talked about some of the Catechism questions.

The shorter catechism asks the following question about God, and gives the following answer:

Q. 4. What is God?

A. God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.

The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way

1.      There is but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty; most wise, most holy,most free, most absolute, working all things according to the counsel of his own immutable and most righteous will, for his own glory; most loving, gracious, merciful, long-suffering, abundant in goodness and truth, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; the rewarder of them that diligently seek him; and withal most just and terrible in his judgments; hating all sin, and who will by no means clear the guilty.

And the Confession of 1967 says this:

God’s sovereign love is a mystery beyond the reach of man’s mind. Human thought ascribes to God superlatives of power, wisdom, and goodness. But God reveals his love in Jesus Christ by showing power in the form of a servant, wisdom in the folly of the cross, and goodness in receiving sinful men. The power of God’s love in Christ to transform the world discloses that the Redeemer is the Lord and Creator who made all things to serve the purpose of his love. God has created the world of space and time to be the sphere of his dealings with men. In its beauty and vastness, sublimity and awfulness, order and disorder, the world reflects to the eye of faith the majesty and mystery of its Creator.

I told them, and was trying to get across to them that the reason we have so many confessions is that our statements of faith are not perfect in themselves, but rather represent a conversation of faithful interpretations made based on scripture, and of course through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. . . but again a conversation. . . and we each offer our own language to this conversation about God. . . but my question today, I ask again, “What do you believe about God?” cannot be answered in such words, because that is what they are words. . . the truth about our answer to this question has to play out in the context of life.

As I was thinking about this sermon this week, there have been many challenges I’ve faced and seen. Packing and preparing to sell a house is a difficult thing. . . but it isn’t life challenging, but disease is, death of loved ones is. . . or even the holding on to life of a loved one who is withering away, that is life challenging. Disappointment over relationships, when people just don’t do what you think they should, it’s disappointing, it is difficult it shakes us. But then again as am writing this, the news is on, and I’m watching the report of 3 men driving a white van onto the sidewalk of London Bridge plowing through crowds of people, then leaving their van behind, wielding large 12 inch knives, heading into a markets and restaurants and bars, seeking to inflict as much carnage as possible. . . and you think to yourself. . . what do I believe about God? Can I still believe in God’s sovereign will, can I still believe that there is a God, and that He is all powerful, all knowing, ever present, unchanging, just, and all the other words associated, when he would allow such things in the world to happen. Why God? Why oh Why?’

And if I can’t get there on that, if I just mark it out of my brain, and wrap my faith around clouds that look like diamonds and pearls that I put in my hair, like a silly little girl, what do I have in my own times of trouble? When I’m faced with the choice. . . she put it, staying or leaving, and whether we will or we won’t, but it can be any number of things. . . should I hold tighter, should I change who I am, should I seek to control my space around me, should I cut corners, should I cheat, should I, any number of things. . . it comes down to believing first, and then it comes down to those wills and won’ts.

The Bible is filled with stories of faith tested to the edge. Our Old Testament Reading, Abraham, the covenant, the years and years, the journey taking many different roads, the droughts, the famines, the struggles with members of the family, the taking of Haggar, the fathering of Ishmael. . . and yet the promise, God’s promise remains. . . Abraham and Sarah laugh, for everything tells them that it is quite impossible. . . but then God gives. . . and then God goes to take away, on the Mt. Moriah, with no lamb, only the child of promise, Isaac, which means he laughs. . . and on they go, with nothing to drive them but faith, and experiences of faith leading to this moment. Could you have faith in such times yourself?

Think of the New Testament, in the Gospels the disciples struggle with believing, and they are there walking with Jesus. . . the refrain of Jesus rings again and again, Ye of little faith, do not be afraid, if you had faith simply the size of a mustard seed you could say to this mountain to move, but we don’t need to move mountains we just need to get through the storms of life when they blow, or the long drudgery of time and no change, remembering the promise, but losing hope that things like joy can actually come. . . but it does, it comes down to believing, and whether we do or we don’t, and then it comes down to staying or leaving and whether we will or we won’t. . .

I waited until now to read the New Testament Lesson, take a listen at 1 John 5: 1-6

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth.

You have to love John, and the way that he so constantly conbines the images of love, obedience, and faith. . . and the simple combination leads to the victory that conquers the world, our very faith itself is the victory that conquers the world. . . just believing.

I’ll quote another country song. . . To beat the devil. . . the devil comes to a country singer who is broke and sings him this song:

If you waste your time a talking
To the people who don't listen
To the things that you are saying
Who do you thinks gonna hear?
And if you should die explaining how
The things that they complain about
Are things they could be changing
Who do you thinks gonna care?
There were other lonely singers
In a world turned deaf and blind
Who were crucified for what they tried to show
And their voices have been scattered by the swirling winds of time
‘Cause the truth remains that no one wants to know

And that’s it, It comes down to believing, and the devil in the song is trying to say, no one does, and no one cares, and you are simply foolish to be trying to spread some kind of truth, but then the song ends this way:

You see, the devil haunts a hungry man
If you don't want to join him
You gotta beat him
I ain't saying I beat the devil
But I drank his beer for nothing
Then I stole his song

And you still can hear me singing
To the people who don't listen
To the things that I am saying
Praying someone's gonna hear
And I guess I'll die explaining how
The things that they complain about
Are things they could be changing
Hoping someone's gonna care
I was born a lonely singer
And I'm bound to die the same
But I've gotta feed the hunger in my soul
And if I never have a nickel
I won't ever die ashamed
‘Cause I don't believe that no one wants to know

I guess it comes down to believing, and whether you do or you don’t, and 1 John tells us that faith is not something that we do, but something that is given to us through the water and blood of Jesus Christ and the testimony of the Holy Spirit. . . on this Pentecost Sunday when we celebrate the beginning of the church by the gift of this very same Holy Spirit, we pray that when we need it most, and in all times, may we be given the ability to believe, for that is what it all comes down to, and is the source of how our actions become manifest. . . whether we do or we don’t, always is the beginning truly of whether we will or we won’t. Amen.

Friday, May 26, 2017

More than Enough

More than Enough
For the Blue Ridge Class of 2017

From me to you now once more
For one last time, since I go my way,
And you each now reach your end here,
So before you head toward a beach
To take a break and eat a peach
A few last questions I do beseech
Us each to consider:
Did our actions match our speech?
Did our programs truly preach?
And in so doing teach you each to really reach?
Like we said we would?
As we say we do?
For you stand now unto the breach,
And once more we send you in, dear friends,
For what you’ve known ends, it’s true,
But this day so much more begins
And more alone pays dividends.
When peace is dropping sweetly slow
Will you be modest and still,
And then when the blast of battle blows
Will you be able to summon the tiger, until
It ends, for the game’s afoot, and
Victory must now come from inside you.
We ask ourselves what did we put there?
Was it enough?
What would have been enough?
Should we have done more?
Could we have done more?

The answer of course is no
Because if we were ever to explore
The truth behind the numbered score
Everything that’s actually you or your
Was inside you well before
You entered through our classroom door,
Head on desk and feet on floor
Bored enough to start to snore.
Even if more was called for,
Or more was looked for,
Or asked for,
Or sent for,
More was ever done for
Just another lie we fell for
As we sought to ignore
The truth we abhor about potential:
That the job of a mentor
Is to withdraw and not deposit
To find and not fill
To distill rather than instill
To bring out from the depths
The pure water from the true well
To affect by not infecting
The defects of our own affliction.
To respect and not suspect
Nor reject what the architect
In His divine intellect in effect
Formed from clay to stand erect
Perfect, a direct reflection of His own image.

Yes we always wanted to do more,
And in fact we still do, but to you,
We bid adieu, for you have made do,
You have made it through
You have muddled through
Passed through
Pushed through
You have seen it through
You have broken on through
And now on the other side
You stand, not like a dog without bone,
Nor an actor out on loan,
And never alone, but yes on your own,
Equipped with everything you’ll need
As you have always been,
No less and no more.

We couldn’t do more.
We wouldn’t do less.
We offered to you only our best,
Which is no more nor less
Than what we ask of you,
Nor what we need of you,
From this day to the next,
Each day until your last.
What more could there ever be
Beyond infinite definite potential
Continuously sought for
And never fully found,
But always being found,
Seeking and finding,
And always more
Ever enough.

That in a sense
Is the essence of the reaching
We’ve been preaching
And teaching,
At least on our best days,
And today is one of those days
So I only have one thing left to say,
Put these my words away,
And find the more within yourself,
There is the fire burning hot enough,
And also the ice, equally great,
So will always suffice:
In other words,
More than enough.

Saturday, May 20, 2017


a Wedding Homily for Ben and Kelsey Roache
by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
May 20, 2017
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church
Psalm 139
Hebrews 10: 23-25

Hebrews 10: 23-25
Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.  And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds,  not neglecting to meet together, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

As I was looking through this wedding ceremony liturgy, these words that we would share, the vows that you would make, the word that seemed to repeat itself again and again is the word faithful. It was repeated enough to drive me to think about it, and to try to think deeply about just what is meant, and therefore why it is so important on a day like today to repeat so often. To remain faithful in marriage means that you will be true to each other, true to your vows, and honest. In the dictionary it said to be faithful is to be loyal, constant, steadfast. . . seems fair enough, but how can you be such things in a world like ours, how can you remain loyal, constant, and steadfast, when such things are rare, and times passes on, struggles and trials abound, pressures and disagreements come, often they pile on, and the easy and road oft traveled, would be to forsake, forget, and pretend like the words you say today, do not matter.

I think the key is in the word itself. The word faithful that we see meaning to be loyal, constant, and steadfast is rooted in the word faith. . . as if faith itself is what gives this ability.

It may begin with the faith of God, whose steadfastness is quite possibly his most repeated trait, that no matter how far we me wander, God is there as a living perfect of example of faithfulness

 or it may begin with the faith in God, that our lives are actually in his hands, that he has brought you to this point, that he made you, Kelsey and that he brought you here to be standing beside Ben, and that he made you, Ben, and that he brought you here to be standing beside Kelsey, and remembering that road, the road that has led you to this moment goes on into the future with the same guidance, providence, sovereign will and care. Such is a powerful foundation on which to build a life together.

But also look around. . . your faithful families and friends, each given uniquely by God to be in your lives as teachers, helpers, supporters, examples. . . lean on them, lean on us, marriages need a community of supporters, and you have them in abundance.

And look to each other. The love you have, the feeling, the dedication, the time, the memories, the moments where each of you were absolutely needed by the other, the laughs, the smiles, and the tears that will drop on the others’ shoulder, may it sustain you in those moments of frustration and give you faith and therefore the strength that flows from that faith.

God has brought us all together today in celebration, and though we will leave this church the memory of this moment and the vows you are about to make will live on in each of us, and we will then always be able to look back on them and see a testament to the power and providence of God, for His Love endures forever and his promises are true. And we will look to you as your lives grown in fullness and love made stronger together and know truly the same. Amen.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Value of Each Part

The Value of Each Part
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
May 14, 2017
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
1 Corinthians 12: 12-26

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.

Even with the recent news, I wanted to continue with our Easter series, looking at the meaning of Easter from the Letters. So far we’ve looked at the 1 Letter of Peter and we’ve looked at Paul’s letter to the Romans, and today I wanted to look at one of my favorite parts of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. Like I said last week, these epistles are really letters, and they have their own specific context. The church in Corinth knew many divisions, and Paul was constantly working with them trying to get them together. They were divided on things like which apostle brought the gospel to them. They were divided on who would be served first when they shared table. They were divided on questions of piety, people who were following all of the Jewish dietary laws and those who were not. And they were divided on notions of whom was the greatest among them, whose job was the most important, etc. It is this division that Paul is speaking to in the section of the letter we read today. . . Here is 1 Corinthians 12: 12-26.

12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

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.

I’ve always loved this passage, the imagery is so clear, when we think of our own body we know that every piece is important. We think to ourselves, is there really one aspect of our bodies we could actually do without. Not having eyes, not having ears, nor legs, arms, even pinky toes have a purpose. But sure then we look around and we have to take note that here in the real world there are people who have parts of their bodies that do not work, people who were born blind, or deaf, have fingers, or toes missing, and they function and even thrive in the world. How many amazing musical geniuses are there who are blind, folks like Stevie Wonder, or Ray Charles, or Ronnie Milsap, or the amazing voice of Andrea Bocelli. . .  geniuses of old as well, John Milton all but lost his sight by the end of his life, and Beethoven lost his hearing, there is great irony, but here in God’s world it seems that though they are without a part, the other parts seem to be given extra. . . extra awareness, extra perception, extra . . . something extra. . . , the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, we could wonder to ourselves, if they had not been born without sight would they have been the amazing genius’s that they are. . . I remember, the old Flip Wilson comedy skit about Christopher Columbus. . . and he’s going through Columbus convincing Queen Isabella to give him money to discover America, little Isabella Johnson he calls her, and he says, “if I don’t  discover America, there’ll be no land of the free and home of the brave. . . and no Ray Charles. . . then he says when Isabella heard that she panicked. . . No Ray Charles. . . you gonna find Ray Charles. . . he in America. . . of course he’s in America where do you think all them records come from. . .” but would there have been no Ray Charles if he hadn’t have lost his eyesight at a young age. . .

so we might read this passage one way and think that in a church there must always be the eyes, and there must always be the hearing, there must always be every part, and every part the same, in every place you go, and then maybe we could go around assigning the parts, that all would be the same, and the church down the street would have all the same parts as the one across the street, and the one outside of town, and the one across the state, and we might look at ourselves  and wonder where are our eyes, where are our legs, how come we don’t have this or that, but that would be ignoring this one amazing fact found in the middle of this passage, buried in middle, lest we begin to take it all too literal, and that is where it says,  But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.”

This is the amazing piece that Easter brings to the table, with the amazing freeing, power of the Resurrection, and that is how it empowers us and frees us to be who we are, and that we have value, and if we were lost there would be this lessening of the world, but with us there, no matter how strange our gifts are, they are important and valuable, and crucially necessary, for this body of Christ, born anew and running free in the world, that is the church of which Christ is the head is not able to always nail down and systematize, though we’ve tried and tried for years, 2000 to be exact to perfect it. . . and the more we try, the more that we get astray, but also the more shut down and controlled it gets, the more it cannot be contained, and new life breaks through any of the artificial barriers that might have been imposed.

So that being the case, that the metaphor is that each part is necessary, but not every organ is a standardized model, the question that we all must ask ourselves is, what part am I, which piece of the puzzle am I, what is my role to play. We don’t have to ask whether our part is necessary it is. We don’t have to ask ourselves whether our part has value it does. We don’t have to ask ourselves whether our part has a place within the body of Christ it certainly does. . . all we need to ask ourselves is, simply, what is my part to play, because we all have one, and no part is more or less important than another.

This is truly the radical teaching, the radical beauty of the Easter message because there have always been hierarchy within religion, society, and culture. There have always been levels of importance. There have always been classes, and each class is more or less valuable than the others. These distinctions might have been made in the past because of talent, they may have been made because of wealth, they may have been made because of title and role, they may have been made because of some leadership model, like the king, or the nobles, or the priestly class, since they were leading were somehow more important, but here not so much, these distinctions may exist, there may be different roles that we are called to play, but they are each of importance, they are each of value. . .

There is a great book by Dr. Seuss that I Clara loves to have me read all the time. . . it is called Yertle the Turtle, and it might be my second favorite after Thidwick the Soft Hearted Moose, but in Yertle the Turtle, Yertle is king, and he is king over all of salamasond, the pond where he lives and rules, but he gets tired of ruling just the pond, he wants to rule more, he thinks if he were higher, he’d rule over all that he could see, so he gets his turtles to stand one on another’s back, with him on top, and he gets up there and is happy that he can rule over more and more, but he wants to see more and more so he can rule over more and more, so he get’s more and more turtles to stack themselves up, and he goes higher and higher, until the only thing higher than him in the sky is the moon, and of course he is envious, but at the bottom of the stack there is a small turtle named Mac, and Mac, tells him of the stress they are all under holding him up, saying it is great you’re the king and are seeing such sights, but we down here should also have rights, and Yertle tells him to shush up, because he is the king, at the top of the stack, and the turtle on the bottoms just a turtle named Mac. . . but eventually Mac gets fed up, and he burps, and his little burp shakes the throne of the king, and they all fall to the ground. . . and poor Yertle is only the king of the mud, and the end of the story is plain don’t you see, the turtles, well all the turtles are free, as turtles and maybe all people should be. . . You see, old Yertle forgot that his supposed value stood literally on the shoulders of many whose importance could be forgotten, but was certainly important none the less. . . you see stories like this come out of this notion of this Easter understanding. .. . the eye cannot say to the foot, I have no need of you, for he does. . . none are without their import.

The hierarchies of the past are, at least they should be gone, how often do we not in practice hold up this important teaching. Some may blame it on the Kings like Yertle but quite often it is due to the apathy of the Turtles named Mac, because though the story paints it as if Yertle is just sitting on the top doing nothing, in reality often is the case that those who are at the top get there because they are the ones willing to do. . . they are the ones who work and sacrifice and put out.  . . they are the ones who find themselves always volunteering, always doing the work, always martyring themselves for the benefit of all, and many times without thanks, and they find that they are trapped as the doers, because if they do not do, it will not get done. . . and people willingly give up their value and their rights to those who are willing to do the work, and systems of hierarchy thrive on such notions. . . but we as Easter people. . . as Easter Presbyterians cannot do such things. . . we are each called, each have an important role to play, each have something to bring to the table, and it cannot be done, it cannot be brought by anyone else. . . so again we are back to the question, what are you called to do?

I wrote in my letter to you this week two important words. “Lean in. . . “ and it just so happens that those are the words that Yertle had forgotten, he instead was leaning on, and didn’t realize it. When you lean in to the center you are leaning and being leaned on, and you are leaning on that which connects you together in the first place. . . the Holy Spirit, the power of God, and the Resurrection love of Jesus Christ. . . May we all lean in because as it was written: “But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.” The arrangement is perfect, and you are that arrangement. . . so lean in. . . Amen.