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.

Amen.





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.


Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Means


The Means
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
July 16, 2017
at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Zuni, Virginia
Deuteronomy 6: 28-34
Matthew 6: 4-12


For Video Recording of this Sermon click here

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

We continue our series that we started back a few weeks ago, this idea of a Presbyterian Revolution, where I spoke of the connections between the American Revolution and Presbyterian values, how many, both critics and supporters of the American Revolution dubbed our nation’s beginning a Presbyterian insurrection. And I called for the need for us as a nation, beginning with us as a community, to revive those values, to spread that world view, and to create a new Presbyterian Revolution by so doing, finishing that sermon with two questions, why not here, and why not now. And I posed three simple ideas that could become the framework for our revolution. . . the first, which we went into depth on last week was,

A Firm Faith and reliance on God, knowing that God is sovereign in everything that we do and all that is



We looked at how the past that has led us up to now is improbable, and that we shouldn’t be here, and that the only explanation for the story is the very miracle of God, and his providence. And this should give us hope and confidence, a true faith for living in each given moment. This idea is foundational for what we will talk about this week and then also next week, this week, focusing on the means and not the ends. . . and next week’ loving and respecting our neighbor.

So focusing on the means, and not the ends, because the ends are in God’s hands. . . I chose scripture readings in line with this idea. . . but I want to look at the Gospel reading first this morning because it makes the connection, it bridges the gap from last week to this week. Here is Matthew 6: 28-34:

28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

34 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.





Do you hear it there ringing in our ears? Why worry about clothing? Why worry about what we will eat or drink, for the father knows that we need these things, and will provide, but look here at what Jesus says, here in this pivotal argument of his Sermon on the Mount, he says, “strive first for the kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. . .” or as the King James Version puts it so famously and memorably, “seek ye first the kingdom of God and his Righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.” I can hear the old song, following that up with Allelu, Alleluia. . . seeking first the kingdom, is this the same as focusing on the means and not the ends? The official statement I made on this two weeks ago was. . .



That we focus on the means and not the ends, for with faith in God the ends will take care of themselves. . . we need only focus on what we are being called to do and to be at any given moment, and offer that willingly and freely and repeatedly our entire lives





Could it be said that the action of seeking first the kingdom is, focusing on what we are being called to do, and who we are being called to be, at any given moment, and then living that calling, willingly, freely, and repeatedly our entire lives. If you think about it perhaps that is exactly what it means to seek the kingdom of God, for can you imagine what the world would be like, what the world look like if all, if everyone, if each of us lived according to nothing more than just exactly the person God made us each to be? Can we even imagine that though? Or is it something that is near to us, but at the same time just out of our grasp, out of even our minds’ ability to grasp? Is this what Jesus is talking about when he says the kingdom is near, but also that the kingdom is something that should be constantly sought. . . and look at how he connects the kingdom here to righteousness. . . which is one of those church words, that folks often use but rarely think about its specific meaning. . . it basically means “the state of being right” and what defines right other than what God defines. . . seek always the kingdom, seek always what is right in God’s sight, and the rest will take care of itself. . . and look he even describes it in the immediacy of today. . . do this today, for tomorrow will have its own challenges. . . today’s troubles are enough for today. Focus on the means, focus on what we are to do and be, today, and tomorrow will take care of itself, leave the ends to God.

This idea makes practical sense, though often the path is harder because it calls us to let go and have faith beyond the immediate moment. We live in a world of fake news, and the expediency of misdirection, a world of alternative facts. We live in a world where when our leaders lie to us it is simply accepted as what politicians do, the way it all works. We live in a world where the very meaning of words is constantly changing on the whims of public opinion. . . opinion shaped by a constant onslaught of ready on-demand 24 hour news media, driven not by accuracy and facts, but by ratings and agendas. We live in a world where doing what is right, simply because it is right seems out of style, and counterproductive. In short, we live in a world where the ends justify the means, and it is all about winning, no matter the cost, no matter the process, no matter the damage done in the process.

I taught high school English for 15 years, which means I taught writing, which I think is the most difficult thing in the world to teach. Some might say that Math is difficult, but at least in Math there is an answer, and you either get it right or you get it wrong, it either comes out at the end or it doesn’t, you either follow the set rules and find the answer, or you go astray at some point and mess up, and you can usually find where you went wrong if you trace your steps backward. Writing is not that way. There is no right answer, there is no perfect way of phrasing something, there is no perfect idea. . . you have to get comfortable with doing nothing less than your best and letting it lie, letting it be enough, even if there is no such thing as enough. Because you can know all the rules, you can have all the grammar set, you can understand vocabulary, and can have all the tools in place, but having that doesn’t quite get you there, it doesn’t ensure perfection because there is no such thing. You have to have an idea, and you have to seek to communicate that idea. . . that is all, that is what writing is, and so that needs to be your goal, and if you have another goal in place, the quality of the writing is going to suffer. I used to make that a rule, a covenant between me and them. . . They would need to have communication of an idea as their goal, not the grade, not just getting it finished so they could move on, those typical teenage mindsets. . . ugh can’t I just get this done, can’t I just call it done. . . I’d of course answer that with the question, is it done, can you call it done, can you honestly say you have sought to communicate your idea carried it through to the best of your ability. Because if they did, that was how they would get an A. . . and there was no other way. Seek first the kingdom of God. . . if they were seeking to get an A they couldn’t, they had to write a good paper to get an A, and the only way to write a good paper was to have an idea and seek to communicate that idea. . . something that was done word by word and sentence by sentence. There was no cutting corners, there was no skipping steps, there was no way to jump to the end and call it all done. It just wasn’t allowed. See it is tough to have a Reformed Calvinist Presbyterian Minister as a High School English teacher. . . applying those ideas to the classroom. . . freedom and responsibility and faith, man did they love me and hate me all at once, but you’ll hear those stories as we get to know each other better I’m sure.

So let’s think about it, if we want to have a Presbyterian Revolution, if we want to grow this church, if we want to spread our unique understanding of faith to our neighbors and then beyond to the community, and even then beyond that. . . the only way we can do it is to do our work, each day, each week, each year, the very best we can. . . and that will mean something completely different for each of us. We will each need to discern what it is that we are being called to do, and sometimes it isn’t even a doing, it’s more of a being, discern who it is you are being called to be, who God made you to be. . . the being and the doing, are one and the same. . . and I don’t mean doing nothing, and I don’t mean having no forward vision, but that forward vision should take it shape from the Kingdom of God, and His Righteousness. . . We must look to God, to Christ, who is the head of the church, for what we are being called to be as individuals and as a church.

We will get into specifics of what that means in more detail in the weeks to come, but let’s look at the Old Testament lesson because this can give us a framework for the general that applies to all of us in our own unique ways,  this is the famous Schema from the Jewish Tradition, from Deuteronomy 6.

 Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

10 When the Lord your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—a land with fine, large cities that you did not build, 11 houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant—and when you have eaten your fill, 12 take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.



Let’s put this into context. . . the Israelites have just been freed from their bondage in Egypt, or to be honest they have just wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, and now Moses is retiring to let Joshua lead them into the promised land. . .and these are the parting reminders for living and maintaining their community in the land, one could certainly make the parallel about the kingdom of God. . . and look at what they are to do. . . its connected very much to our own thoughts this morning. . . It starts, like we talked about last week, 1. remember who they are, and who God is, now 2. Love the lord with all your heart, soul, and might. . .

So this is what we are being called to do, love the lord with all our heart, soul, and might. . . Now I want to look deeper into these because I like them so much. I love their Hebrew equivalents, because like so many things, like Bara last week, much is lost in translation. So heart, soul, and might are three Hebrew words, Labab, Nephesh, and Meod. Let’s look at each one, first Labab, which is translated often as heart, but in Hebrew it actually means your inner parts, your guts, the deepest aspect of your physical body. . . so love the Lord with all of your physical body from within. . . Next Nephesh, is translated usually as soul, but it really means your essence the very stuff of your life. . . so we have the inner most of your body in labab, and the inner most of your spiritual essence in Nephesh. . . and now we have my favorite which is Meod. . . usually translated strength or might. . . might, I actually like better because it is more wholistic than strength, but literally what it means is the very end of your energy, the very end of you, like to your last breath, everything you’ve got, as if you’ve travelled across the desert only to collapse because you can’t go another step, and God does the rest, that is meod. . . now remember it is Moses telling the Israelites this, so in someways it invites us to remember Cecil B. Demille and his 10 Commandments movie, when Moses has been drummed out of Egypt, and Seti in that great voice of Sir Cedric Harwicke is saying, Let the name of Moses be stricken from every pall and tablet, every monument and obelisk, and on and on, and then Rameses gives him the staff to rule over serpents and scorpions and he is headed out over the desert, and the other great voice comes, the voice of DeMille himself, as the narrator

Into the blistering Wilderness of Shur, the man who walked with Kings, now walks alone, torn from the pinnacle of royal power, stripped of all rank and Earthly wealth, a forsaken man, without a country, without a hope, his soul in turmoil, like the hot winds and raging sands, that lash him with the fury of a taskmaster’s whip. He is driven forward, always forward, toward a God unknown, toward a land unseen, into the molten wilderness of Sin, granite sentinels stand as towers of living death to bar his way. Each night brings the black embrace of loneliness, and in the mocking whisper of the wind he hears the echoing voices of the dark, Moses. . . Moses. . . His tortured mind, wondering if they call the memory of past triumphs, or wail foreboding of disasters yet to come, or whether the desert’s hot breath has melted his reason into madness. He cannot cool the burning kiss of thirst upon his lips, nor shade the scorching fury of the sun. All about is desolation. He can neither bless nor curse the power that moves him, for he does not know from where it comes. Learning that it can be more terrible to live than die, he is driven onward, through the burning crucible of desert, where holy men and prophets are cleansed and purged for God’s great purpose, and then at last at the end of human strength, beaten in the dust from which he came, the metal is ready for the maker’s hand. . .



That is the very definition of Meod, that you cannot take another step, that every bit of your being has been spent. . . Loving the Lord like that. . . such is what Moses experienced, and such is what Moses is describing. Labab, Nephesh, and Meod, Heart, Soul, and Might, Your bodily depths, your spiritual depths, and the very extent of your active energy, perhaps that in itself, Loving the Lord such as that, is the first step toward seeking the kingdom of God, and His righteousness. . . It is surely enough for us to begin with. . . And it is enough that Jesus himself quotes those very words when he is asked what is the greatest commandment, though he adds to it the idea, that we will go into next week, saying, “and the second is like it, “Love thy Neighbor as thyself. Though it does hang that word Love out there doesn’t it, a loaded word for sure, and one we must seek to look at and wrap our minds around in the weeks to come.

So we know where we are headed, next week and beyond, but I wanted to end this morning’s sermon with one more illustration focused on today, for those other ideas, the ideas of the weeks to come will be challenge enough for that other day. . . so to close today’s idea, here is a musical illustration, that fits the idea. This is a song I wrote when I first entered seminary. . . it is very much about living the means and not the ends, for it is about loving God, not to be saved, but just because God is. . . salvation then is one of the many things added unto, down the line, a given not for today, but whenever God wills that time to come.  This is called “God is and I Do”


I seek to love God,

Not just to be saved.

I seek to know God,

Not just to behave.

I want to find God, with a love that’s true,

Not ‘cause I must, not ‘cause I should,

But ‘cause God is and I do.



God made the Earth and Stars,

Made things near and far,

And still remembered a time and place for me,

In the greatness of the world,

The beauty all unfurled,

Perfection in everything I see.



Repeat Chorus



God sent to us His Son.

Again showing us the love,

God has for us simply knows no end,

But we don’t understand.

We think it’s just a plan

To earn our love, the right to call us friend.



Repeat Chorus



My heart is far from pure.

Sin in me endures,

But I wish to be a better man.

I work hard everyday

To get where I can say,

I really have done the best I can.



Repeat Chorus





Sunday, July 9, 2017

An Improbable Past

An Improbable Past
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
July 9, 2017
at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Zuni, Virginia
Deuteronomy 26: 5-11
Hebrews 11: 17-29
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives   
For your eyes show the way
    Your mind knows the truth
    Your being is the life.
Amen.



Last week was a great Sunday, and one I won’t forget. Thank you so much for the great welcome that you gave. I remember the music, those beautiful patriotic songs, the energy that was here, the excitement of a new beginning, while awaiting a holiday of great remembrance and celebration, the celebration of the birthday of our nation, the day that the idea of America was put into writing. Last week, I proclaimed boldly that it is now time again for another Presbyterian Revolution, pointing out and remembering that that original American Revolution, the very spirit of 1776, was founded on Presbyterian Principles, and how much those principles need to be revived, recultivated, and retaught in our contemporary American culture, for we find that they are truly missing, and truly missed. I tried to simplify those Principles into three basic ideas.
1.      A Firm Faith and reliance on God, knowing that God is sovereign in everything that we do and all that is, can give us the security and confidence to live out the other two. . . which are


2.      That we focus on the means and not the ends, for with faith in God the ends will take care of themselves. . . we need only focus on what we are being called to do and to be at any given moment, and offer it willingly and freely and repeatedly our entire lives


3.      Love our neighbors, see in ourselves and in each other, and in those whom we may disagree, the fact that we each are children of God, who have something important to bring to God’s table, that just as we each are called to do and be ourselves at any given moment, so too is our neighbor, and that we will work that they may be free to bring their own offering as well.

I thought that over the next three weeks, starting today, we could take a look at each of these three concepts in much more depth. So the first for today is, a “Firm faith and reliance on God, knowing that God is sovereign in all that we do and all that is.” With this in mind I chose the Old and New Testament Lessons for this morning, for they both have to do with faith, and how the proof of the past, the vibrant memory of God’s workings up to this point give shape to our faith, and supply us with the confidence we need in order to live by faith in the present and heading into the future.
The first reading is from Deuteronomy, which is Moses’ departing words to the Israelites, whom he has led to this point. He is telling them to remember who they are, and that identity is shaped by what God has done for them, and they need to remember, for when they have been living in the Land that God has given them, they may be prone to forget. Listen to this:
Deuteronomy 26:5-11
you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. 11 Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

Notice how this statement of faith, this statement of identity is filled with remembrances of what God has been doing from the beginning, how the past gives them that identity, and how the past gives them that sense of assurance. .  . and how simply remembering this must be central to the ritual and religion of their lives.
The New Testament Lesson comes from Hebrews 11, which starts with a famous statement defining faith, and then goes through a list of heroes from the Old Testament recounting how their faith was instrumental in their journey walking with God. . .  Hebrews 11: 1-3 defines faith this way:
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. . . by faith our ancestors received approval. . . by faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. . . look at how the idea of hope for the future is connected to faith, and faith is connected to what God has been doing in the past, the past gives us hope for the future, for the past we can see, or have seen, or can study, whereas the future remains unseen. . . but it is all connected in the Word of God. That is a profound few verses. . . bringing us to later in Hebrews 11, this verses 17-29, which gives us a glimpse of what this whole chapter is doing.
Hebrews 11: 17-29
17 By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac. He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, 18 of whom he had been told, “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” 19 He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead—and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. 20 By faith Isaac invoked blessings for the future on Jacob and Esau. 21 By faith Jacob, when dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, “bowing in worship over the top of his staff.” 22 By faith Joseph, at the end of his life, made mention of the exodus of the Israelites and gave instructions about his burial.
23 By faith Moses was hidden by his parents for three months after his birth, because they saw that the child was beautiful; and they were not afraid of the king’s edict. 24 By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter, 25 choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26 He considered abuse suffered for the Christ to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking ahead to the reward. 27 By faith he left Egypt, unafraid of the king’s anger; for he persevered as though he saw him who is invisible. 28 By faith he kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel.
29 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned.

And I stopped it there, but it could have gone on and on. If I had chosen verses before these it would have included men like Abel, Enoch, and Noah, and if I had chosen verses after these it would have included the fall of the walls of Jericho, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jepthah, David, Samuel and all the prophets. Women and men facing amazing trials, all the time God is working out His amazing Will through his amazing story.
Have you ever seen a sunrise or a sunset that was so beautiful that if someone tried to paint it, tried to capture it as realistically as possible, no one would believe that it was real. That the colors, were so vibrantly pink or glowing orange, or majestically purple, that no one would ever believe that such a painting would be real? No it must be imagination, it cannot be real. If so you will understand what I’m getting at this morning. On Easter morning I did something different this year. Rather than writing my sermon ahead of time, breaking the great commandment of “Thou Shalt Never go to bed on Saturday night whilst thy sermon is incomplete. . .” Instead I decided that I would get up early in the morning, before the light, and experience the sun rise, and write my sermon then. . . now in many ways that was an act of faith in itself, for what would I have done if writer’s block ensued. . . I mean you’d think Easter is easy to preach about, for it’s the main deal afterall, but you find that it actually is challenging, because everyone has heard it all before, it is so central, and actually each sermon you preach during the year should reflect in some way back to the Resurrection, so on Easter you have all that added pressure of the culmination, and not to mention the fact that the pews are much more full than normal, as friends family, and those folks you see only twice a year make their way to church. So I’m taking a big risk. . . stepping outside the fold of routine, breaking an important commandment, and laying it all on the steadfast love of God and the Holy Spirit’s always, please God, perfect timing. Now I expected to describe what I saw, as the sun rose over the mountains in my front yard, but instead I was overcome by the sounds. You have never heard birds like I heard, a veritable trumpet symphony proclaiming the dawn, the far away roosters trumpet followed by the repeated theme of the whippoorwill’s solo followed by a chorus of indistinguishable songs, blending together in a joyous harmony like you wouldn’t believe. . . . and you wouldn’t believe it had you not heard it yourself. I can’t begin to describe it. . . such things are improbable to say the least, which is what we call impossible things, that though since they happened we have to acknowledge. That sunset we couldn’t paint was improbable, and the chorus of birds that Easter Sunrise was improbable, and the past which has led us to this very moment is improbable.
It should not have been, and we should not be here. So many things, and many is not enough, because it truly is every happening since the beginning of time. . . and if any one of them were different, we would not be standing here right now, maybe we would be somewhere else, maybe we wouldn’t even be, maybe there would be no being at all, but there is, and the only possible explanation for its being is God, there is no other logical, rational and honest explanation. All others fall short and deny too much. . . like it is a coincidence, and accident of history and physics that a planet would exist at the exact distance from the sun to support life, or that there would be a central nervous system with in human beings that gives us not only animation but sentience and awareness.
That a man leaving his people, everything that he has ever known to head out into the wilderness to grow old with his barren wife, and then finally after too many years to be possible, has the child, and from him a nation more vast than the stars in the sky, through which the whole world would become blessed, is born. That’s improbable, or That a baby, escaping the murderous decree of the Pharaoh would be saved from the basket, raised in the palace, flee across the desert only to find God speaking to him from a bush of flames that did not burn. . . that he would lead those people out of slavery, through the parted red sea, improbable, that a young shepherd boy with a sling and a stone could defeat a giant, play a harp, and go on to become king, improbable. . . that a kingdom could be destroyed, and all inhabitants sent into exile, under the rule of Babylon, then Persia, and not be lost in the dust bin of history, but exist even so into the future as a people, a book, and a religion. Improbable, for it only happened this once. . . and That the religion would point to a promised Messiah, and that during the time of the Roman Peace, a man made peace won by force and systems of oppression, would be born a Prince of Peace, who would teach of a new kingdom, a kingdom of God that was near, a true peace not made by force, but by and through love, love that is defined by sacrifice, ultimate sacrifice, and that this man was crucified, on a cross, laid in a tomb, but the tomb couldn’t hold him, death couldn’t hold him, nothing could, for he was the Word who was there at the beginning, shaping and forming this completely improbable history since its inception.  It is a beautiful story, but an improbable one for sure. . . and it doesn’t end there, but goes on, and brings us here today, here in Zuni, Virginia, each with our own improbable past, the winding roads of our lives that bring us here today.
Where do I even start with my own life. . . do I start with two college kids, one at Virginia Tech, my father, and one at Radford, my mother. . . on a blind double date. . . I think there was actually a cancellation of plans that made it happen. . . but Dad came close to going to Hampden-Sydney instead, but something made him want to be an architect, but he didn’t become an architect, he ended up majoring in Math, which he could have done at Hampden-Sydney, and if one iota of that story was different, I wouldn’t be here. . . and each event since, has led me here, I didn’t control those either, I didn’t plan it, it was provided for me, each step perfectly formed.
One of my favorite words in the Bible is the second Hebrew word in Genesis. . . The Hebrew Bible begins with the words, Breshit Bara Elohim. . . we translate those words as “In the Beginning God Created.” Breshit – in Beginnig or to begin with. . . Elohim – is the word for God. . . and then you have Bara. . . and bara is the word we translate as create, but its meaning in Hebrew is much more interesting than merely to create. One thing about it is a word with a limited subject, in other words not just anyone can Bara. . . in fact no one can Bara except for God. . . that significance is lost in translation because in English, I could use create to describe what God is doing, or I could use it to describe myself creating this sermon, or an engineer creating a new way to separate peanuts from their shells, it doesn’t matter in English, but it does in Hebrew, and it is important in understanding the way God baras our world. The other interesting idea about that word is that the Greeks way back 300 years before Christ used the word Epoisin to translate bara, and that is the word from which we derive our word poetry. . . so God is like a Poet, an artist, and an artist is constantly at work, never making mistakes, but constantly shaping and forming, perfecting. . . Now if  you look at what God does, what Bara-ing is it includes some amazing things, speaking light into existence, separating the waters. . . I’ll do a Sunday School or Bible Study class on it at some point because I can go on and on, but I won’t today, but it is amazing stuff and it includes everything up to and including everything that has brought us to this minute to praise, sing, and bless his holy name this morning here at Bethany.
 Now I ask a question. What is your response to something like that. . . mine is awe and wonder at first. . . I’m in absolute awe of that very reality. . . the idea that there is a God, loving, steadfast, eternal, omnipotent, beyond words, shaping history. . .I feel awe and wonder, I feel gratitude, and probably most important hope because I know that the God that has led us all here, will continue to lead us in the future, and it helps to look back, remember, feel that awe, wonder and gratitude, again and again, that is why Moses told the Israelites in his address to recite the story about the wandering Aramean, who is their ancestor, why the author of the Book of Hebrews recounts all who have lived by faith, and why I have asked us each this morning to look back at our own lives, because all of that matters, and should give us the hope and the faith we need to take the next step.
I said last week that this faith in the very sovereign providence of God is the foundation on which the other two aspects of our revolution will rest upon. Those two we will look at in the coming weeks: Next Week, focusing on the means not the ends, which makes sense of God is and has been shaping this His world, and then the week after: loving our neighbors, realizing that the same God who is working in and through us, also is working in them. Awesome stuff!
Now before I go I want to leave you with something. . . Every year while I was a teacher at Blue Ridge I wrote a poem dedicated to the graduating class, meant to be memorable, or inspiring, or challenging. One year I wrote a poem that included four mini verses inside, which I entitled “Four Songs before you Go” The last of those is applicable today so I’ll read it, it goes as follows
Now time moves on and we must go
Our paths diverge apart we know,
But we'll remember standing here
Arm in arm, with fears, in tears
And on that day in the future we
Will be beyond these fears you see,
For each step we take, we take in doubt,
Until after it has all worked out."

(The rest of "Four Songs Before You Go" click here)
Can we have the same faith in the future that we have in the past? On our best day we say emphatically, Yes! But why then do we hang on so tightly? Worry so often? May God grant us faith, that the improbable past, will and does lead to a future where only one thing is possible, that which God wills. May it be so.