Friday, September 15, 2017

"Something About Love" for Patrick and Samantha Kennedy

Something About Love
a Wedding Homily Delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
For Patrick and Samantha Kennedy
September 15, 2017
Herrington on the Bay, North Beach, Maryland
I chose the famous pledge by Ruth in the first chapter from the book the bears her name because she, in a way, does in that pledge what you are doing today. You are making a pledge to each other, to live your lives together, in more than just spatial togetherness, but with a spiritual connection, that transcends each of you individually. And like Ruth, who was doing the absolute opposite of what logic and worldly wisdom dictated she should do, you are entering into something somewhat counter cultural in our age, for you are entering into the commitment of a lifetime. You are pledging your entire lives to living with each other, partnering with each other, working together, fighting the battles of life together, come what may, whether the winds will blow, and they will, and whether the rains will fail, for they surely will as well, and even if the very foundations of the earth may shake, you two will be bound together by the pledges you make today. That is quite a big deal, and though marriages are quite common, the reality of such a pledge being fulfilled is rare. Life happens, things change, but you today look out into that unknown of the future and clasp hands, and choose to hold to each other, always.

I recently preached a sermon series at my church that sought to define love, to get at exactly what love is. . . and we found it to be difficult to do so both honestly and completely because when you get down to it love is of God, and being of God is infinite in its nature, like God is, making it impossible to define, without confining too much, without putting it in a small and safe heart shaped box, but real love is bigger than that, it is bigger than today, its bigger than your relationship thus far, for it includes also everything you will face. And if we look out across this beautiful group of witnesses assembled today, it includes everything they have faced and experienced, and it includes everything that the great cloud of witnesses who have come before have experienced. . . it must include it all, for love is the very foundation that this world is built upon. It is the stuff that binds it all together. It is the stuff that it is made of. Pretty big deal huh!

But even in its infinite nature, it can also be recognized in its manifestations, and we can know it through them. So there are aspects to love, and it is these I wish to point you to, today, at least three of them.

1.      Love never walks away.

2.      Love is about the other

3.      Love leaves behind it a trail of life

Today you embark on a promise of the first of those aspects. You are joining hands and looking into each others tear filled, light radiating eyes, and saying to the other, I will not walk away. . . the world be damned, come what may, I pledge this day, and each day to come that I will be with you. . . my love will be steadfast, a mirror image of the steadfastness of God. As God is Love, and He has not abandoned us, so I pledge that I will be there with you in all you do from this day and each in turn, sunrise and sunset, until my last.

And in doing so, you embark on the second of those aspects. Love is about the other. Just as Christ died on the cross, just as God gave his only begotten son, you will give of yourself to the other. True love, the stuff of life, the stuff of the world, requires as such. The emptying of yourself for the other. . . mind, body, strength, and soul, your love for your neighbor begins with the person lying next to you, and if given fully will mirror and honor the love you have for God, completing the great commandment, to love God, fully, and to love your neighbor as yourself, though in truth you are never really done. . .

Because the third aspect is also true. Love leaves behind it a trail of life. God made the world that way, that the person giving fully of love, never runs out, the more you give, the greater the well you have to draw from, the cup runs over, the well it never runs dry, but instead is amassed with living waters that spread and in doing create life and energy. . . We can have faith because Jesus Christ has shown us the way, that no cross and no tomb could ever hold the amazing life giving power of love.

And so you can love each other freely, for that is what we do as human beings, and what life ordained by God is all about. . . Remember that, remember, when times are hard, when the challenges of life come, that it is not mere circumstance that has brought you together, but a divine purpose, that every event and aspect of your life has led you to this very moment, and will lead you. You have been shaped by your upbringing, by your training, by  your experiences, by the very order of your lives to make not only the commitment you make today, but each day of that commitment as they unfold slowly one by one going forward.

It is easy when blessed as you two were, and as I was, to look at our parents and see ease and perfection in marriage, and to seek to emulate and replicate that perfection, but what we don’t see is that there is no such thing. . . I can tell you after 8 years of marriage myself that we are far from perfect, and that we fail, and fail often. . . but we keep coming back, we wake up to each other and the commitment that we made, and never question truly that God has brought us together, not for perfection, but for the unique and flawed and messy and bumpy and expectation challenging and hotly discussed disagreement filled creation ordained by God that marriage is, and that is a blessing to us both, beyond what we could ever imagine creating our own.

So Patrick, Samantha today, we do not pray for perfection for you two, but instead for a long, humble, marriage, full of times where you fall short of your expectations you have made for yourself and each other, but where you say I will not walk away, and give of yourself completely to the other, and so build behind you a trail of life, that will never run dry, for this is Love as God has made it, the very love that has brought you to this moment, and will carry you through to its fulfillment, as God himself wills. . . for the Glory of God, and in His holy name, do we pray. . . amen.

The Unity Candle

Your marriage, which begins today has a much longer story than either of you may know. The light that has been shining in the world since its beginning finds itself here with you, and you are a part of that history. Each of you were raised in the light, into families, with mothers and fathers who have passed on the light of life to you, just as it was passed to them, generation to generation, back to the beginning of time. The light spreads, it divides through the centuries, as the branches of the human family tree grow and sprout and bear fruit and multiply, but never does the light dim. Today in joining your two families we use the symbol of fire, with its light and heat, to show how in your love, and by your marriage, we are joining together not only two people, but two families, uniting their lights into one, so that a new branch may form, such as it has been ordained by God, and such as he commands, bidding us to be fruitful and multiply. May he bless the union between your two families, now and forever. . . Amen.
by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

Monday, September 11, 2017


Thanks Danielle for the inspiration!

The Marks

The Marks

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

September 10, 2017

at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Zuni, Virginia

Genesis 4: 8-16

Romans 12: 9-21

Let us pray,

Help us to see despite our eyes

Help us to think outside of our minds

Help us to be more than our lives   

For your eyes show the way

    Your mind knows the truth

    Your being is the life.


Have you ever had to describe someone to someone else, trying to get them to remember that guy? You know, don’t you remember that guy from high school, the guy with the. . . and then you fill in the blank with what we call the distinguishing marks. What are the things that stand out about a person that makes them memorable or unique? What are those things? What are those things about Jesus? Have you ever thought about it? I took a class in seminary called Images of Jesus, and I’d like to do a variation of it sometime here, maybe in a Sunday School Class or in a night time workshop, because it’s cool to think about it sometimes. . . but in that class we looked at artistic representations of Jesus, paintings, poems, variations on the gospel stories, and then also movies. You think to yourself, how do we know that a picture is actually depicting Jesus, beard of course, sandals? Blue Eyes? What are the distinguishing marks of Jesus? Are they physical or is there something behind them? It was interesting in the class to see how renderings of Jesus changed over time and between cultures. We saw Jesus of a thousand different races, even a Chinese Jesus, some we wouldn’t necesarrily think at first were Jesus, but at the same time, it was obvious that they were depicting him at the same time. It was fascinating to think about.

But what I found most memorable was Jesus from the movies, the class made us think about actually how hard it is to depict Jesus in a film because how do you capture the dual nature of Christ visually? Right it’s difficult? If you make him too much God, then he doesn’t seem human, and if he is too human then he isn’t enough God, and often sometimes it borders on Blasphemous. . . think of some of the great movies about Jesus, like The Greatest Story Ever Told, or King of Kings, The Passion of the Christ, even Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar. Think about the way that Jesus is depicted. What are some of the striking marks of his character? And what do they seem to show about the idea of Jesus they are trying to convey? Some of the older ones like “Greatest Story Ever Told” and “King of Kings” show Jesus kinda stiff, though at the same time radiant, talks slowly, very breathy, and there almost seems to be light coming from his face. . . It is as if they took the image of Jesus straight from a Renaissance Painting, and you can almost even see the halo. . . but the Jesus from Passion of the Christ and that latest Bible Miniseries, is softer gentler, more human, good looking, caring, and compassionate, sorrowful and earnest. . . less reverential and awe inspiring, but giving off at the same time a distinctive air. It is hard to depict Jesus on film. Perhaps my favorite is the depiction in Ben Hur, because you actually never see Jesus’ face, instead just the reaction of the people to him. . . the life that comes out, that trail of life we talked about as a characteristic of love. . . It makes you wonder about how people in Jesus’ own time came to know he was more than man but Christ, Messiah, Son of God. . . what were those distinguishing marks of Jesus?

To get closer to this idea of distinguishing marks lets look to the Bible. Distinguishing Marks is an important repeated idea, throughout, but especially in the Old Testament. Tribes, families, religions often had marks that distinguished them from others. We can think most notably of the ritual of circumcision. . . it was a mark and sign of the covenant between God and the Israelites all the way back to the time of Abraham. . . it showed that you were a part of the group, a part of the chosen people. . . but the Old Testament Narrative shows two other marks, because it seems that having a personal and individual relationship with God leaves its mark on you. . . to mention another movie, picture Moses in the 10 Commandments walking down the mountain having spoken to the burning bush, with his face gleaming and his beard now perfectly frosted. . . but that is extra biblical imagination. . . the two I want to talk about are Cain and Jacob, both stories in Genesis. . . let’s look at Cain first. This is Genesis 4:8-16

  Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! 11 And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” 13 Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear! 14 Today you have driven me away from the soil, and I shall be hidden from your face; I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and anyone who meets me may kill me.” 15 Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. 16 Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

Notice how the details there are specific. . . “and the Lord put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him. . . What would that mark look like? Do we sinners, sons and daughters of Cain as we are, bear that same mark?

And the next is Jacob, whose name means trickster, and he hasn’t been a good guy, cheating people, especially his brother, but then he has this encounter with the Lord. This is Genesis 32:22-31

22 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

Jacob would bear this mark his limp for the rest of his life. . . He had striven and wrestled with God, and it would change him. It changed his name, now Israel, he who has striven with God, and it changed his physical attributes, giving him a distinguishing mark. When we wrestle with God are we left humbled and marked as well?

I had these two markings in mind when I wrote the song Mark Me years ago. . . I’d like to take a moment to sing it for you, for lack of a better time. . .

Mark me, mark me in my sin,

Let me begin, to know your ways.

Mark me, mark me today,

Your protective ways,

Overcome my shame,

Mark me.

I have killed my brother,

But my punishment I cannot bear.

Can I wander this world alone?

Please Lord, hear my prayer.

Repeat Chorus

I have cheated my brother,

And have not lived an honest life.

I wrestle with you, O God.

I limp forever from this fight.

Repeat Chorus

Interesting that in that song I’m asking to be marked, not in my value, not in my accomplishments, not in my great deeds, to be remembered and monumentalized for all time of my greatness, but instead I am asking to be marked in my sin. . . it is a distinguishing mark in Christianity that we are sinners and are saved by Jesus Christ. Just like Cain and just like Jacob, it is not in our goodness, but in our shortcomings, our failings, our fall, that we are raised up. . . it is from our knees that we gain strength, in humble supplication. . . there for the mere asking. One of I think the most misread novels in American Literature is The Scarlet Letter. Mostly it may be because people don’t read past the first chapter. . . maybe it is because it is a high school standard, everyone is supposed to read it and have read it, but how many people actually do, or did? Just enough to pass the quiz perhaps. But in that first chapter, the heroine Hester Prynne has to wear the disgrace of the “A” for Adultery on her at all times, while she is pilloried, and shamed before the entire community, and then after. . . and I’ve seen it so many times too, the assignment that goes on, where the students have to wear some kind of confession on their clothes all day to feel how embarrassing and horrific it would have been to be marked like that. . . and shamed and ostracized, and that teaches that the Puritans are bad, that Christianity is judgmental, etc. zzzzz zzzzz. Sleeper. . . the real power of that story isn’t a rail against the harshness of the Puritan modes of punishments, like it is typically taught today, oh no. . . Hester is not the victim of the novel she is the heroine. . . and the mark that she must wear isn’t her shame but instead becomes the miracle of her salvation, because not only is she caught in her adultery, but it also leads to a pregnancy and a birth, the birth of her daughter, Pearl, and Pearl is a symbol of her redemption, not her pain. She grows stronger as the novel progresses, and Pearl, in such a great scene from the novel, can only see her mother if she is bearing the mark. . . she takes it off, and Pearl does not know where she has gone. . . there is great symbolism there, where she must acknowledge her sin to be saved in it. . . on the flipside the true tragic figure is the man in the adulterate affair, the Reverend Dimmesdale, he suffers in silence, unable to confess because he is too weak to suffer what may befall him if he should come clean. . . and he wastes away. Hester Prynne grows strong and is saved in her sin, bearing it openly on her chest, whereas his hidden sins eat him alive, until he is nothing left, dying of a shattered and broken heart. We should remember that the first result of the sin in the garden of Eden is that Adam and Eve feel shame and hide. . . and then they blame, they do not seek to stand openly in the place of judgement, and instead hide and turning away, and it just does not allow for true redemption to take place. . .  we have to bear our sins it seems.

For Jesus bears them for us. . . and Jesus is marked for them. Think about what the cross does to Jesus, think about how it even leaves his resurrected body marked, and it is by those very marks that he is known, at least it is so by Thomas. We all remember the story of Doubting Thomas, who says, unless I can see for myself, unless I can put my fingers through the holes in his hands, those places where he was marked, by the cross, while bearing our sins. . . Christ himself takes on the weight of our sins and is marked by them, distinguished by those marks. And it is said that there have been Saints blessed with the stigmata, those strange markings of Jesus on themselves, but most of us will not get that, so the question remains, how are we marked for Christ, what are the marks of Christ on us, what is the humble mark of our sin on us, how have we been left by our own wrestling with God? What are the marks of a Christian? How are we to be distinguished from others? It’s a big question? If we were to watch the news we might get one idea. We might get the notion that Christians are judgmental, small minded, science denying, Cretans, permasmiling hypocrites, fake and false at our core.  . . and we may not deserve that, though with all stereotypes there is a shred of truth, even if we don’t like to admit it. What do people in this community think of when they think of Bethany Presbyterian Church? How much of their impression is positive? What is negative? How can we build on the positive? How can we turn around the negative? Knowing, acknowledging, and bearing it all seems like a place to start. But the flipside too, is how can we double down on the positive things, it is about knowing them as well. How can we seek to make the distinguishing marks of this church become like the distinguishing marks of Christ, for we are to be his body in the world. We are the body of Christ? Perhaps it might be interesting to think of Bethany Church and our distinguishing marks, kinda like the Ben Hurr Jesus, how would we be known if you could only see us through our effect on the community around us? I’m not sure. . . But one thing is also important to remember, and that is we are not judged by the world, they are not the standard of our mission nor our success. Instead we look to the Lord, and his Word for our direction. 

Over the next bunch of weeks we will be thinking about this idea. I will be preaching from each line of the same text, and that text is delineated in my NRSV Bible as the Marks of a Christian. Paul is outlining what he thinks should be those distinguishing marks, and it is a very good list, a challenging list, and one that is a good place to begin discussion on how we measure up to some of them. Here is that list, this is Romans 12: 9-21 the Marks of a Christian. . .

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

You can see that there is a lot there to go through, and that the list is challenging and thorough. . . we will begin next week with “Let Love be Genuine.” Until then let us think to our distinguishing marks as Christians and as a Church, think about them, pray about them, and talk about them together. In his name we so dedicate our time, amen.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Love's Imposters

Love's Imposters

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

September 3, 2017

at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Zuni, Virginia

Hosea 8: 1-10

1 Corinthians 13: 1-7

Let us pray,

Help us to see despite our eyes

Help us to think outside of our minds

Help us to be more than our lives   

For your eyes show the way

    Your mind knows the truth

    Your being is the life.


So today we wrap up the Defining Love sermon series, but today we are looking at it again from a completely different angle because instead of looking at what love is, we will be looking at what love is not. But the funny thing about love is that there are many things that appear to be love, they look like love, they seem like love, the world thinks they are love, and the world sells them as love, but they just are not. They fall short, they lead astray, they are the wolves in sheep’s clothing, cheap imitations, they are, in short, the imposters of love. We’ve said in the last few weeks in describing what Love is, that Love always says “I will not walk away.” We also said that “Love leaves a trail of overflowing never running out life behind it. And last week we said that love is about sacrifice, and that Jesus Christ through his own sacrifice for us, his own love for us, makes his kind of love possible. Not only does he command us to love God and love our neighbor, but by loving us first, by providing for us first, by sacrificing for us first he sets us free from our doubt and fear to actually be able do the same. . . but sometimes it is hard for us, still. . .

Before we get too far into this I want to get to our scripture lessons. First the Old Testament lesson comes from the Prophet Hosea. . . and interestingly enough, Hosea is all about choosing to worship the other than Gods. The main metaphor that Hosea talks about is the idea that God and Israel are Husband and wife, but that Israel has forsaken God, and has not been faithful, choosing instead idols. Hear the word of the Lord from Hosea 8: 1-10:

Set the trumpet to your lips!
    One like a vulture is over the house of the Lord,
because they have broken my covenant,
    and transgressed my law.
Israel cries to me,
    “My God, we—Israel—know you!”
Israel has spurned the good;
    the enemy shall pursue him.

They made kings, but not through me;
    they set up princes, but without my knowledge.
With their silver and gold they made idols
    for their own destruction.
Your calf is rejected, O Samaria.
    My anger burns against them.
How long will they be incapable of innocence?
    For it is from Israel,
an artisan made it;
    it is not God.
The calf of Samaria
    shall be broken to pieces.

For they sow the wind,
    and they shall reap the whirlwind.
The standing grain has no heads,
    it shall yield no meal;
if it were to yield,
    foreigners would devour it.
Israel is swallowed up;
    now they are among the nations
    as a useless vessel.
For they have gone up to Assyria,
    a wild ass wandering alone;
    Ephraim has bargained for lovers.
10 Though they bargain with the nations,
    I will now gather them up.
They shall soon writhe
    under the burden of kings and princes.

It’s a simple story really, and a simple promise, because you have decided to worship that which is not God, choosing else to worship and serve, God will leave them up to those things, knowing that those things are merely stone representations of God, and rulers and kings who do not love, but instead mean to harm them. It is quite reminiscent of the judgement that Psalm 1 gives for the wicked, that they in fact actually will not stand in judgement but instead be blown by the wind, rather than rooted. They have here decided to worship gods who are not real gods, and seem to be given the right and freedom to do so, even though it means their destruction. If you want to live in the world the Assyrians have built, live in the world the Assyrians built. Realize though that is not a world of love, and sacrifice and justice, but instead a world where might makes right, and it is the Assyrians who have the might, and therefore they will determine the right, and you will be lost. . . We call this idea of creating other gods to worship, idolatry. . . but the parallels are there as well in Love, choosing a love that is not the actual fulfilling life giving love, the love that God ordained to be the structure of his ordered universe, results in less. . . and less than God just is not God. Less than love just is not love, it just does not render the same results, it does not bear the same life giving fruits by which we flourish. I hope you see the parallels and can remember the warning as we go forward. . .

Now the New Testament Lesson. . . if you’ve caught the last bunch of sermons I have given, trying to define love, you may have been thinking to yourself, “How can he be working at trying to define love, without ever once referring or using the greatest passage in the Bible about Love. . . the beautiful, the well-known, the oft repeated at weddings and other occasions where love is in the air. How can you go about defining love in a Biblical mode without using 1 Corinthians 13. . . Faith, Hope, Love, but the greatest of these is love. . . well truthfully you can’t do it, so here it is, at least the first part of those famous words. . . . 1 Corinthians 13: 1-7

13 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

What does it mean to be patient and kind, not envious, nor boastful, not arrogant nor rude, not insisting on its own way, not irritable or resentful, not rejoicing in wrongdoing but instead in truth, bearing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things. . . It is actually a pretty impressive list, isn’t it. . . does it jibe well with the list of love’s attributes that we have made of Sacrifice, Steadfastness, and Leaving behind a trail of life. . . I think so actually, leaning heavily on the sacrifice, that is about the other and not the self. . . one who is focused on the other can be patient and kind because it’s not about them, and certainly envy, and boasting are out of the question, those are both about, hey look at me, look how great I am, or hey I deserve that too. . . how come they get that and I don’t. . . arrogant, rude, insisting in its own way. . .that is all about me. . . irritability is a reaction to an affront to yourself, resentment is about not getting your own way, and holding onto that feeling. . . then that whole bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things, is the cost of saying to someone, I will not walk away, come what may. . . so we are not way off. . .

So if love is about the other and not me, then those imposters of love are deep down the love that is selfish. . . do you know of any? Can you name any right off hand? I’m going to start small I think, but there is one that use to get me every year. . . as a football coach. . . and that was the national trend of NFL players, and since the NFL players did it, it would trickle down, and that is the wearing pink during October for breast cancer awareness. Now I am certainly not against breast cancer awareness, and I’m certainly not against all the money that is raised and the awareness that may or may not come from the trend. I’m just truly skeptical that at heart it is really about that, because in my 16 years as a high school football coach, I know that for my players it had a lot more to do with saying look at me, than it had to do with fundraising and mammograms. . . and I know that some of the proceeds of those gloves and shoes and bandanas and socks and belts and mouthpieces and facemasks and jerseys and eye black. . . which is despite all odds a thing actually, pink eye black. . . thought it was supposed to be black to be effective. . . but maybe that is another example, its not about deflecting the light from the sun, but instead about doing something more to say, look at me. . .  but it’s one of those things. . . it raises money (it certainly boosts profits), it raises awareness. . . it’s a nice thing to do. . . but it isn’t love, and it isn’t enough. . . I know cold right.

We had many things like that at my former school as we were trying to supposedly teach the students to be more aware, conscious of what was going around them, and of course more loving towards their neighbor. . . . We would do fundraisers for charity, where the boys could pay $10 and have a dress down day. . .You see they had to wear coat and tie every day, but they could pay money and not have to, as long as the money was going to a good cause. . . we were helping, but at the heart of it all was laziness, not sacrifice, but the temporary bending of a rule, to incentivize the behavior we wanted to instill. . . Another one, was, following the breast cancer month of October, there was the men’s health month of No Shave November, where again, $10 donation, charity, temporary ban on the shaving rule. . . effective yes, but love? Is that what we were teaching them? And is it just the high school equivalency of tax breaks for charitable donations? Which is kinda ironic based on the political rhetoric that we see. . . if you don’t pay your taxes you are heartless and don’t care about people, but one way of getting around it is to help people yourself, on your own, but cynicism is at the bottom of it. . . people won’t “love” unless they are getting something out of it. . . one wonders if I would be possible just to love and help people, without the middle man of manipulation? Maybe. . . naah, cynicism right, but what then does the cynical version of love through taxation as a middle man result in. . . right. . . resentment. . . which is one of the things that 1 Corinthians suggests that love can never be. . .

I wonder at heart what the true trouble is. . . is it that love in these ways has become much too big, global, and large, and love was never about that kind of thing? That it has become about “all” but should instead be about loving “each.” Does Jesus use neighbor because it suggests a certain proximity, as if love needs be personal, immediate and face to face. . . not loving of a faceless mob, nor of a faceless idea of a person somewhere across the world? Is there something missing when we love by proxy, rather than in person, when we outsource our love, through our money or our views, so that others might love in our place? We see it so much in the recent division, is it all media driven, or is something else behind it. . . the absence of love, that you can love humanity, globally somehow, but hate people. . . stand in the streets saying that you are all about love, but vilifying a total stranger as someone filled with hate. . . it reminds me of a great quote from Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. The character Ivan says, “The more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity.” And that is the case for many, love has become such a large and distant thing that people end up loving all of humanity, they think, but hating the individual human, and that is just the absolute flipside of the commandment to love our neighbor, and as we see too much in our world it does not result in a trail of life, but instead a great chasm of the discordant opposition to life.

So that is one of the imposters to love, the love by proxy. . . it is born out it seems from a much too small version of love that is at heart if we were to be honest more about our selves than the other, the giver rather than the recipient, all possibly stemming from social pressures and other incentives rather than the selflessness that love demands. It’s love on the sidelines, and beyond what we have mentioned often manifests itself in love through hashtags on twitter, the right bumper stickers, the right political views, and has nothing to do with love in reality.

Another one of love’s imposters is much more personal, and we all I think have experienced it in some way in our life. . . Have you ever heard the phrase the old ball and chain? The notion that love is a burden, an obligation, a prison. . . I think about an old Seinfeld episode where Jerry was thinking about getting married. . . and Kramer comes rushing in, as Kramer does, and says, “What are you thinking about, marriage, they’re prisons man, you’re doing time. . . its like you wake up in the morning, she’s there, all day long, she’s there, it’s like you have to ask permission to use the bathroom”. . . then he says, “and you can forget about watching tv while you’re eating, you know why, because it’s dinner time. . . and do you know what you do at dinner time, you talk about your day. . . did you have a good day, well what kind of day was it, was it a good day or a bad day. . . you have no idea!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!.” Is love truly a burden like that, we have said that it is about sacrifice and saying, I will not walk away, and that is commitment. . . but love is supposed to not be about you any more but about them, about the other, but at the same time an amazing paradox about the more you give, the more that you get, and the cup is always full, and the tomb cannot contain it. . . why is it then that we have such a hard time giving of love in that selfless way? Why do we see something that is supposed to be life giving, life overflowing, life fulfilling as chains? Because there is this chasm right, the chasm of vulnerability, the putting yourself out there, and not having it come back. . . what is that?

What is the true opposite of love? It is not hate, hate is not even in the same league as love. . . hate is simply loudmouthed ignorance, bumping around in the dark, it is something different entirely. . . the true opposite of love is fear. Love builds people up, Fear breaks them apart, Love sets free, and fear places people in chains. . . because fear causes people to seek to control their situation, control. . . we try to hold on because of a fear of abandonment, a fear of love not being reciprocated, a fear of it all being in vain, a fear that love does not exist, fear of the unknown. . . remember how we said that some of the system of globalized love is built on cynicism. . . we must do it this way, manipulate, else it won’t get done, and we of course know that it must get done. . . right. . . fear. . . doubt. . . cynicism. . . ends justify the means, love doesn’t exist, they could never love me, love isn’t really that powerful anyway, there is no such thing as the trail of life, they are merely prisons, I will walk away, and hold onto and take care of myself instead. . . . and the problem is that fear breeds more fear, and doubt breeds more doubt, and all that is left is people controlling others and using fear to do so. . . remember the Assyrians, and idol worship, and the Israelites forsaking God and the law of love for the law instead of Might makes Right. . . yeah fear eventually dissolves into control. . . the real chains, people place on each other. . . how truly ironic huh. . . but that is what is described by the Prophets in the Old Testament, we need to be more like the Assyrians and the Babylonians lest we are over taken by them, we need to protect ourselves, in the way they do, with power and might and kings and gods of stone. . . self fulfilling prophecy I would say. . . the same is true about abandoning the world of love for the world of fear, it because merely a cynical world of manipulation and control real quick. . . and in many ways we are there folks. . . and the only way to break out of those chains is not more of the same, not half measures, not partial love pieces, but instead the whole deal. . . knowing the power and redemptive characteristics of love and living wholesale into it truth.

I’m going to use one more example of the depths of the love imposter that is fear and its need to control, and the way it actually uses fear to achieve its ends. . . Now you are all familiar with the old children’s story Rapunzel, but you may not be familiar with the latest Disney retelling of that story, in the cartoon Tangled. Anyone? Grandparents, come on? Now in that movie there is the character Mother Gothel, and she is bad, she uses the magical property of Rapunzel’s hair to stay young, you see it, as long as it isn’t cut has the power to heal and keep an old witch young. . . now I put that quote from Machievelli in the bulletin and this Mother Gothel is up on that cynical manifesto, she decides she is going to use fear and false love to keep Rapunzel locked away in the tower. In fine Disney fashion it is all captured in song, this one called “Mother Knows Best”

You want to go outside
Why, Rapunzel?

Look at you, as fragile as a flower
Still a little sapling, just a sprout
You know why we stay up in this tower
(I know but)
That's right, to keep you safe and sound, dear

Mother knows best
Listen to your mother
It's a scary world out there

Mother knows best
One way or another
Something will go wrong, I swear

Ruffians, thugs
Poison ivy, quicksand
Cannibals and snakes, the plague
(But )

Also large bugs
Men with pointy teeth and
Stop, no more, you'll just upset me

Mother's right here
Mother will protect you
Darling, here's what I suggest

Skip the drama
Stay with mama
Mother knows best

Mother knows best
Take it from your mumsy
On your own, you won't survive

Sloppy, under-dressed
Immature, clumsy
Please, they'll eat you up alive

Gullible, naive
Positively grubby
Ditzy and a bit, well, hmm, vague

Plus, I believe
Gettin' kinda chubby
I'm just saying 'cause I love you

Mother understands
Mother's here to help you
All I have is one request

Don't ever ask to leave this tower again
(Yes, mother)

Oh, I love you very much, dear
(I love you more)
I love you most, hmm

Don't forget it
You'll regret it
Mother knows best

You can hear it right. . . fear, using fear, and false notions of love. . . to keep and enslave, and it all makes her think she is not good enough, that she is not capable. . . but of course she is, the world is not the cynical evil place of fear, but instead something very different, and she is not just the vulnerable weak and defenseless little girl she is made out to be, instead she is much much more than that. I said that the only way to break out of this cycle of fear and false love is to actually love, fully, not in half measures by proxy, but by full measures, and to do that you have to know the worth of yourself, because if you do not know your full worth, how could you ever give of it? Look at how Rapunzel breaks the spell Mother Gothel has over her. . . she realizes the truth about the wonder of who she is. . . and says to her

"I am the lost princess, it was you, it was all you, I spent my entire life, hiding from people who would use me for my power, but I should have been hiding from you, You were wrong about the world, and you were wrong about me, and I will never let you use my hair again.

We could and probably should say this very thing to ourselves. . . we are wrong about the world and the way it works every time we allow it to convince us to hold on and not to give of ourselves completely and freely, without fear, with complete knowledge that we have already been loved, and loved abundantly, by the very one who created us and this world we live in, having the faith in us that love requires to set us free. . . may we in everything we do remember in everything we do what real love means. . . I said last week that Jesus makes it possible for us to love. . . one of the amazing ways he does so is at heart stripping us from our fear, so in the moment, every moment, Be Still our Souls, we can choose love, the giving of ourselves, rather than holding back or accepting less. . . to God be the Glory. . . amen.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Your Complete Self

Your Complete Self

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

August 20, 2017

at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Zuni, Virginia

Genesis 22: 1-14

John 3: 11-16

John 15: 12-17

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.


We’ve reached the end of our defining Love series, though we may go one more next week, looking at the imposters of love, that which is not love, but looks like it, or that which the world thinks is love. I think there is great value in doing that perhaps, like there is value in learning what something is by finding out also what it is not. When Thoreau heads into the woods at Walden Pond he says that he is going to. . .

live deliberately, I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, To put to rout all that was not life and not when I had come to die Discover that I had not lived.”

He’s talking about studying life, but love would be the same, that it is good to learn to love deep, to suck out all of the marrow of love, but that we also need to put to rout all that is not love. . . I think it helps, but that will be next week. This week we will be looking at our third and final aspect of love, the idea of giving of your complete self.

We started by seeking to expand the definition of love, realizing that there is the danger of too much confinement when you are trying to define something infinite like love, that it is infinite because the experiences of love are infinite, but though it is infinite, all/everything is not love, there are specifics within, patterns that connect us to what is and what is not love. We used the idea “God is Love” to expand, by looking at all of the actions that God takes throughout the Bible, and then attributing them to our idea of love. It stretched the boundaries for sure, but then for the last two weeks we’ve looked at specific aspects. One that Love, is steadfast, it says to another, “I will not walk away” no matter what comes, I am here. Then last week we looked at the effects of love, that love, real love, leaves a trail of life behind it, and that the funny thing about love is that it does not empty of itself, but rather grows as it is given, paradoxically so. . . but this week we will look at the aspect of love that is perhaps the greatest, as Christ says that Love hath no such one than this, to lay ones life down for a friend. . . and that is what we see today in the two Scripture lessons. The Old Testament lesson is one of the more dark passages, and the New Testament is perhaps the most well known and positive statement of our faith, but they are both linked by sacrifice. Let’s look at the Old Testament first, here is Genesis 22: 1-14, the Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah. . .

22 After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill[a] his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13 And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”;[b] as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

Now this story is certainly heart wrenching, and the details are just so impressive, especially since it was originally written in a language like Hebrew, where there just aren’t a lot of words for stuff. It’s an old language and there was not much time for abstract wording, but humans have always had a great capacity for expression, and Hebrew is poetic like that, much is expressed in the simplicity of details, and the way they are paralleled and repeated. The first I’d like to bring to your attention is the phrase, “Here I am.” It actually appears three times in this text. It also incidentally appears 30 times in the Bible. . . and I bring that up because it is always connected to an important concept, that of call. . . when it appears. Usually God is calling, like he does the first time here, Abraham, and Abraham responds, “Here I am.” It happens like that with Moses, God says, Moses Moses, and Moses replies, “Here I am, Samuel, Samuel, Here I am, Jacob, Jacob Here I am, even Isaiah and Jeremiah the prophets both respond when called by God, Here I am. . . it even reaches the New Testament, when Ananias is called he responds, “Here I am.” The Hebrew Word repeated is a simple one, “Hineni” always simply translated, Here I am, but based on the context, and how it is paralleled in each case, we can infer something more about the meaning, basically when someone says hineni, they are saying three things, 1. I acknowledge your voice 2. I hear what you are saying 3. I’m ready to respond. . . all that is packed into the phrase Hineni. . .but it isn’t always God calling when it is used. . . there is another category that makes up the other part of the 30, and that is between fathers and sons. . . and that pattern is introduced here with Isaac, it happens again with Jacob, with Joseph, and with Samuel. . . in this case with Isaac, Isaac is going along with all this, but notices something very wrong and says, Father. . . and Abraham answers, Hineni, right I acknowledge your speaking, I hear what you are saying, I’m ready to respond. . . . but this time Isaac says, um dad, how come there is all this wood and fire, but no lamb to be sacrificed. . . perceptive kid. . . something is fishy. . . but Abraham answers, with such a statement of faith, and one important as we go forward, he says, the lord himself will provide the lamb. . .how true right, especially since we know the rest of the story, for the 3rd heneni, here I am, comes at the end of this, Abraham has the knife, and the angel of the Lord says, Abraham, Abraham (and that is the typical pattern, name twice, followed by, “Here I am” Heneni, I acknowledge your call, I hear you, I’m ready to respond. . . . put down the knife. . . the Lord provides, and thus Mount Moriah is named. . . and that brings us to our New Testament Lesson. . . John 3: 11-16

11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you[a] do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.[b] 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.[c]

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

We know that passage so well right, God so loves us that we he gave his son as a sacrifice, his only son, so that we shall not perish but have eternal life. . . the story that was begun back in Genesis is now brought to fruition here. . .  God himself has provided the lamb. . . how poignant that the Old Testament passage is clear on it, that simple detail in a story where details are few. . .as is the case in most Hebrew tales, what is there is, must be important, so the Himself, added to God, God himself will provide the lamb is prophetically beautiful paired with the Christian understanding of John 3: 16, is it not? The Lamb that was slain was God’s only son, no he spared Abraham’s only son, and gave his own instead. . . himself, God self, given for you and for me. . . impressive stuff, and the very high definition of Love, must be right. Christ himself later in John’s gospel says,

 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

And he says this completely surrounded by love commandment language, it is preceded by the command, he says, this is John 15: 12-13

12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

And then 14

14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.

So this raises the question, is following in Christ’s literal footsteps, laying down your life for you friends, following in this greatest of loves, is that actually required of us for salvation? I mean there is no mistaking it right, the greatest commandment is to love God and love your neighbor, we are to love because Christ first loved us, but there is not greater love than to lay your life down for your friends. . . . Christ in the other gospels talks about carrying the cross, pick up your cross and follow. . . what would the cross be for, excect for the full sacrifice of one’s life. . . and our Christian faith to be honest if we were to think about it is founded upon such sacrifice and following in Christs footsteps, thousands of early Christians were martyred for their faith by the Romans, horrible deaths. . . Romans pitting Christians against the lions, and those lions were undefeated. . . following in Christ’s footsteps. . . the call to love. . . perhaps, but what about this story of Abraham and Isaac? Is there something to the idea that Christ himself is the lamb who is to be slain, so that we would not perish. . . that God calls for Abraham to stop the knife. . . does he do the same for us? Maybe. . . . I don’t want to down play and short change the notion of literal sacrifice, but I think there is nuance here, and part of it has to do with the notion of “have to” “must” etc. . . because look at the language Christ uses. . . he says friends. . . and friends shouldn’t do out of compulsion, not out of guilt, not out of manipulation, but out of gratitude. . . an important distinction. Let’s look at the rest of the John 15 passage, and I’ll read the verses I’ve already read again, so we have the context. Remember he starts with. . .

12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants[d] any longer, because the servant[e] does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

Not servants but friends. . . yes there is command language, but commands between friends. . . look at what Jesus says is the difference, I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything. . . you see the free decision, not a test, not an onerous necessity is given, not out of the withholding of information, for some kind of manipulation, but because all has been revealed. . . and what is revealed is the amazing power of love, the I will not walk away, and that the cup is never empty, death is not the end. . . but that is just the way it is. . . love is not then required, it is not quid pro quo, rather it has been done, all this has been done, how do you respond? When were you saved? 2000 years ago! There is no game. There is no trick. There is no guilt, this is not the carrot and the stick, this is not controlling behavior, this is not master and servant, this is friends, this is love, Jesus says, I have done this, this is the way the world works, I am giving these commands, so that you “may” love one another. . . . it doesn’t make it necessary, it makes it possible. And his command is the same as the first commandment in the Bible. . . do you know that? Pop quiz? What is the first commandment in the Bible? . . . . Be Fruitful and Multiply. . . I appointed you to go and bear fruit. . . you see that is that trail of life. . . bear fruit, create a trail of life.

Now how do you do that? What is it about? Now first we have shown that it is not about earning anything, it is not about living up to any standard, other than love, and love if we want to be honest does require the giving of your complete self. . . so if we truly want to be honest, it is a gift you are never finished giving, it is not one where you can say, yep, I’m done, I paid that debt off. . . now I can do what I want. . . it doesn’t work that way, that way at its heart is self serving. . . trying to pay off the debt is self serving, trying to earn it is self serving, doing it so you can go to heaven is self serving, and love is not, cannot, will never be self serving, it requires doing completely for others, giving of your complete self for others. . . you see it doesn’t even exist on the give and take, quid pro quo basis, doesn’t even live in that world. And this is why we must confess our sins every week here together in worship, because as long as we are still breathing, we are not done, and are withhold a part of ourselves, we haven’t completely picked up that cross yet. . . ok we haven’t done it yet, but how do we begin to do it, where do we start, how do we give of our entire self?

Remember that word, Hineni. . . Here I am. . . I acknowledge your call. I hear what you have to say. I am ready to respond. . . this is the loving stance. . .

 I acknowledge your call. . . now what’s going on there. . . just like with Abraham, or with Moses and the others, God calls you by name, you are his sheep, he is your shepherd, and he knows you by name, he call you by name, and his sheep they hear his voice. . . you see it all connects together. What does it mean to acknowledge this call though. . . one is that you know the voice of the one calling, you know God, you know what amazing things he has done, and you cannot help but be grateful if you’ve come to know the amazing works. . . but it also means you know yourself. . . you know the gifts that God has given you, you value them, you realize that they are yours, given freely to you, to do what you are called to do, and that if God was taking this moment in time, to #1 create you, #2 give you those gifts, and #3 call you. . . you must be pretty special, pretty important, and crucial to the world that God has made, and all of that is wrapped up in Acknowledging your call. . .

I hear what you have to say. . . there is the discernment, what is God calling me to do and be. . . this open dialogue between you and God is happening through all the ways God has to speak to you, through events, through circumstances, through gifts, scripture, others, people and places, everything. . . we call this dialogue discernment, but that is what it is. . . we used to talk to our football players about having their head on a swivel. . . looking for the ball, looking for would be blockers, looking for the play as it unfolds trying to anticipate, to read. . . that is what discernment is about. . . doing the same thing in life about life, if you can come to know, then that is the second part. . . you can say, I hear what you have to say, God . . .

Then finally. . . I will respond. . . I will take the first step, and then each step after, wherever they may lead, even if it leads to the giving of my entire self, until I am completely spent, or taking up my own cross. . . again not for my own gain. . . I have already been given all gifts imaginable. . . I respond to God’s call to love because I have come to know the love he has shown for me, because as a friend He has let me know, and I then simply do. . .

I put in your bulletin a poem from Whitman, 5 years ago, my how the time flies, 5 years ago I was asked to speak at the graduation at Blue Ridge where I used to teach. My speech was entitle “Love as if your life depended upon it” it came from a quote from a poem I had written for the previous years’ graduation. . . but in that speech I used this Whitman poem. O Me O Life! Take a look at it.

O Me! O life!... of the questions of these recurring;  

Of the endless trains of the faithless—of cities fill’d with the foolish;  

Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who  more faithless?)  

Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the objects mean—of the struggle ever renew’d;  

Of the poor results of all—of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;         

Of the empty and useless years of the rest—with the rest me intertwined;  

The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?  



That you are here—that life exists, and identity;  

That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.

I love that poem. . . mostly because the last two lines. . . the rest is talking about the sadnesses and frustrations, the heartache and the natural shocks that flesh is heir to. . . to borrow words another great writer. . .(another pop quiz if you can name him). . . ha ha. But the last two lines state the culmination of the good, what good amid all this, he asks. And the answer, that you are here and life exists. . . right gratitude for creation, the gift of life. . . and identity. . . that we are individuals, uniquely made, with our own self to give, otherwise we could not love. . . there must be a self to give. . . God gives us that self, and it has great value. . . that the powerful play goes on and you get to contribute a verse. . . you must contribute a verse. That is what life is about, and that is what love is. . . it is not that we are required to love so that we may earn eternal life, it is that we love because that is the stuff of eternal life, it is the cup that runs over, the oil that is never empty, the manna from heaven, the cup of salvation, and the tomb that could never hold it inside. God has made you, given you life, and identity, and a self, to give in love. . . what amazing verse has he given you to write. . . for God so loved the world. . . and all God’s people said. . . no not amen this time. . . all God’s people said, and let us say it together today and every minute going forward in our lives. . . what word. . . yes, Hineni. . . Here I am!