Sunday, April 16, 2017

Dawn Is Breaking

Dawn Is Breaking

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

April 16, 2017

at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia

Luke 24: 1-12

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.


But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body.[a] While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women[b] were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men[c] said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.[d] Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened

I’ve always been a night person. I’ve never liked going to bed. . . so I have some sympathy or Coralee, when I tell her its bedtime, and she fights. I always fought, too. . . and now that I have no one to really fight with, and I have no real bed time. . . so I just fight against myself, and delay and delay. I actually am usually at my most creative and my most productive right before bed. When I’m home alone because the girls are away I usually do all the cleaning to get the house read at night, and I also typically write my sermons at night, usually last night. I hate to go to bed, but I also hate to wake up in the morning. Why is the same bed, that seemed so uncomfortable when I was trying to fall asleep so appealing in the morning. The sheets that were so hot are now just perfectly cool, that lumpy pillow is finally behaving, and my dreams are taking me to places I’d love to go to, and it is all available just at the price of an extra few minutes in bed. . . Now I tell you this because I broke this habit, broke this pattern in order to gain some extra perspective this morning. I wanted to put myself, like the Mary’s, I wanted to put myself up early in the morning, before the dawn, and watch the darkness slowly fade into the new day, and just see what I can see, hear what I can hear, and observe the undarknening of the morning sky, as the dark black gives way to light blue, if by way of a neon explosion of color in the middle. This is what the Mary’s were experiencing all those year ago, on their way to visit Christ’s tomb. Although they had added to their experience the sense of complete and total loss and devastation, for their teacher, the one to whom they had dedicated their lives for the last few years, the one who had changed their worlds, and whom they hoped would change the world, for they had seen him perform miracle after miracle, and he taught somehow differently from anyone else. He seemed to have real authority, he seemed to truly know what he was talking about, but now he was gone. The Romans, who were good at taking stuff, who had taken everything from them all their lives, who had been taking and taking from the world, since before they could remember, the Romans had taken him, too, from them and from this world He said he had made. I am the Resurrection and the Life. . . what do such things mean today, this morning, in the darkness as we go to perform the rites of anointing to his dead body? These are the questions I wanted to experience, and in a way I couldn’t late at night, no early in the morning has completely different thoughts. Here were mine. . .

The first thing I notice is the mist and the cool, no the mist and the cool, and the moonlight, the moonlight really shows the mist, and the cool sent me back inside for a coat. But maybe there in and around Jerusalem it is a bit different, but it can’t be much, there seems to be a universality to this twilight time. . . Yes this is the twilight time, at least in the Celtic tradition. . . they believed that this is the time of day, right before the dawn where the fairies were the most active, trying to live just a little bit more of their magic lives, before the sun rises and robs them of their power. . . I wonder to another story I know. . . that of the Manna in the desert. . . I know it fell over night, and they woke in the morning to find it, but what time did it fall? If someone were to get up like this, before the dawn, could they happen to see the hand of God working, through the mist to drop those edible pieces of bread from heaven? Jesus said he was the bread of life, the bread of heaven, and we had seen those fish, and loaves, never run out, feeding five thousand, we recall back to Elijah and the widow, where the flower was never depleted and the oil remained fully replenished. . . do such wonders happen at this time of day, and we just don’t see them, as we prefer the dream world inside our own heads, to the one that is around us? The moon now is the only light, it shows the mist, but it blocks the stars, at least most of them. . . but off to the east, the black is a little lighter, like the ring around the moon, there is now a similar sight just above the trees. . .

Man, it is so silent. . . the world is truly at sleep. . . in the distance I hear a dog barking, maybe it is the twilight bark like in 101 Dalmatians, where they are trying to get a message across the countryside, I wonder what that message would be. . . not He is Risen, surely, whatever it is I’m sure the master and the neighbors would rather not hear it. In the distance I’ve heard a rooster once, faintly, somewhere off in the darkness, and a few other birds tweet and lone solitary notes, as if to check with their neighbors, is the coast clear? Where is that rooster? I wish he would sound off again. . . I wish more light would show on that horizon, blocked by these hills. . . this mist is giving me the chills. It’s been a half hour and I’ve just heard my first sign of other human life, a truck went by, and then another, and another, amazing how for so long there wasn’t any, and then now they are steady. . . they must’ve been waiting for 5:30, and took the grace of six minute extra sleep. And there is that rooster again. . .

I think back on our Lenten Journey through the darkness, as I sit here in the darkness, knowing that the darkness is slowly waning, as the rooster proclaims the morning, again, I don’t have to wait as long between his soundings. . . I think back to the time we looked to Jesus to calm the storm, and where was he, sleeping. . . I’d bet if he were still alive he’d be sleeping now, lingering longer, or was Jesus an early riser. . . I somehow doubt it, but it is a fact that people like to make Jesus like themselves, it helps. . . I’ve never thought too much before about Jesus’ sleep patterns, did he need sleep, much? Did he dream? What were those dreams like? What were his dreams like this night, these last two days, laid in the cold, cold tomb? The dreams from that undiscovered country from whence no man has ever returned. . . well Jesus, while you were sleeping we faced great danger, the boat was reeling, waves were crashing over the side, we almost capsized and were overtaken completely. . . almost, just apparent darkness I guess. . . is the same true this morning? Disease. .  . so much disease. . . just in our church. . . some healing. . . some not, what makes the difference? Why me? Why them? You’ve healed so many, why not just one more? Why bring others to death. . . what is death like? Now you know, I guess. . . I look up at the sky and the moon is no longer the source of all the lightness in the sky. . . it is a weird thing to see, it is still quite dark, and the moon is still quite bright, but as if the moon has help it didn’t have before light extends beyond the bounds it new only a bit ago. . . making the moon, a minute before so majestic. . . ever the more superfluous and redundant. . . there is no ring of mist around it anymore either, it is only a reflection of what is to come anyway, and reflections fade.

I look to the East, and a star, twinkles firmly in the lightening sky, just between two dark grey now, clouds. . . all other stars have faded. . . but this one stands solid. I think could it be a planet, but it twinkles. . . I think back to astronomy in college, but we certainly never did our observations at this time of day, always at night, as the life a student prefers. . . I wonder if that star, no way it can’t last when the sun rises, but I wonder how long it will try. . . but now it is behind those gray clouds, hopefully the wind that I just felt gust, will help me out and that star will make another appearance before it leave us.

There is orange now.  . . just faintly. . . the black is far overhead, the lighter has moved from the treeline, and has given way for orange. . . against the now purpling clouds. In those last two weeks we talked about betrayal and desertion. . . how they leave you alone, how they leave you questioning. . . I wonder if the experience of a sunrise like this has the power to bring us back from that isolation because that is what I’ve noticed. . . in the darkness, in the silence, in that twilight mist, we do feel alone, but as this sun begins to rise, and the birds keep chiping, the dogs, that rooster, the world is truly becoming alive around me, and I couldn’t help but feel a part of something beyond myself. . . isn’t that what we want, when we feel deserted, when we feel betrayed. . . this whiporwhill which I haven’t heard for years, incessantly wonders where I’ve been, saying I’ve been hear, I’ve been hear, where were you, where were you. . . and now there is more orange, and I’ve done more than hear cars, I’ve now seen one, the first to go by this morning. . . Did Mary and Mary, meet anyone along their way, did they hear the whippoorwill, did they hear this explosion of noise. . . it seems so quiet during the middle of the day, but it is so loud to my ears because it wasn’t there before. . . oh and there are the geese, adding to the morning symphony. . . what a choir, the likes I have never heard. . . with that theme of the whippoorwill echoing out, where were you, where were you, we’ve been here, we’ve been here. . . now the trees are all that is dark, their silouhette against the sky.. . . the mountains look like the clouds and vice versa, and that star is back, just above the clouds will it hang on, and now I can see my toes. . . and I hear a cow lowing, but where is that whippoorwill. . . he has given way to other themes, other birds, I wish I knew better which they were, and there is a woodpecker, I guess trying to find that early worm. . . and now there is ever so much more orange, and that star is still hanging on, and there is the whippoorwill again, we are here, we are hear, o there is that Towhee, and now the bird that sounds like a machine gun, chirp chirp,chchcchchchchhc. Chirp chirp. . . chchcchchchc, then the warbly warbly warbly. . . . honk. . .and the chirp chirp, warbly warbly, and that star still hanging on, another car. . . that dog. . . . now the warbly and the chchchch are in sync together. . . wow I feel like I do when I’m listening to a symphony, was that French horn, or trumpet, or bassoon, is that oboe or clarinet. . . the mix is magical. . . there is ever more and more. . .  could Mary and Mary have heard all this. . . . could they have heard all this and still wondered how they would need to roll the stone away? How darkness could ever rule? How things would seem so depressing, so out of our control, as if there were no hope, no way forward, only a downward spiral? That star is still hanging firm in the sky, and it reminds me of Christmas. . . if you’d follow that star to the East it would beckon you towards this sunrise. . . and here go Mary, and Mary, two wise women, with their Myrrh, so this is what myrrh is for. . . afterall. . the embalming oils first used by the Egyptians. . . what a long journey it took to Jesus’ is time. . . mirroring the. . . I just can’t get over how loud these birds are, you can’t really even distinguish one from another now. . . still orange, but most of it has turned to white as we wait the rise.

Oh wow the light has a music of its own. I can’t describe it, but it just envelops all of a sudden, and the geese must feel it too, because not just one honk but all of them, and continuously over the din of the others. . . but where is the sun. . . where is the sun? it’s light is shining but where is the sun? I hear a new  bird, weeeee, woooo, we, we, we. . . weeee woooo, we we we. . .  still the warbly, the light is up, but where is the Sun? where is that Sun. . . the trees are green now, no longer merely silouhettes, but where is that sun, where is the star of this show, that star is still hanging on and waiting. And the moon, has no glow, but still hangs there in the sky, watching and waiting. . . and now I see the birds, I have only previously until now heard. . . is it a robin, on wait there are tons and they all look to the east, too. . . and that star is still hanging on.

And the sun begins to peak above that treeline. . . and the star and the moon, and I get to see it. . . but it is not the Sun, but who made it, the rising of the Son which puts all of this symphony even to shame. . . He is Risen, He is Risen indeed.

Ha ha, pointing toward the rising sun, is a cloud shaped like a bird. . . and rightly so. . . they were here, and sang the first hymns of the morning, to which we only echo. And I think I never would have experienced this had it not been Easter. I never would have taken the time. I never would have dreamed it could matter. I wouldn’t have seen the way that light spreads in waves, and the way the birds don’t just sporadically chirp as they do later in the day, but how they truly are the trumpets of the morning, that one rooster began all this. . . we take for granted so much in this world. . . and Easter is a part of it. We are so engulfed in 2000 years of the hope that Easter brings that we cannot remember the root of it all. . . we think that it was our own audacity that brings hope, that we can do this on our own, but I’ve heard Mozart and I’ve heard Beethoven, and they are just the copy. . . I’ve seen what Man can make on our own, and it does not have half the potential that I saw this morning. . . . We need to awaken and remember, that we owe so much to what we have no control over, but is freely given. . . just like the dawn breaking, daily each morning. . . . his eyes are on the sparrow, the old song sings, and perhaps that is because each morning their eyes are on him.

But we don’t look. I’m reading a book now about gardens, and the writer is a professor at Stanford, and I just love his point of view and the way he connects ideas from literature and humanity throughout the generations. In the book he talks about “his garden” there on the Stanford campus, it is a beautiful piece of land, small, he says usually empty. He finds himself drawn to it, to go to rest, but he says more than one time, in the hurry of his day, or usually at night, he’d walk by, and swear he’d seen the virgin Mary, or the shade of his own mother across there on the other side of the pond, but he said he never would stop to take a second look, because he said the funny thing about ephiphanies, is they usually lead you to changing in our life in major ways, and how rarely human beings are willing to take such a chance. . . perhaps that is why the dreams of the last fleeting minutes of sleep are more appealing to us than the amazing witness of birds, the trumpets of the morning, as they sing the symphony of our Risen Lord. . . . perhaps. Amen.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

A Prayer on a Better Day

A Prayer on a Better Day

Please judge me,
Hold me to account,
Recount the times
All the times
Slipped and falling,
Or Stuck and stalling,
I cry out calling,
I quit
This is it,
I admit,
I’m shit,
I quit.
But judge me as well
On my best days,
Where I’m striving,
Long from thriving,
Still only arriving,
But where something’s driving
Me to be
Beyond myself,
For there are those days
Still those days,
There will still be those days,
Where faith recedes
Doubt succeeds
And my ego pleads
For control,
Since even adults
Seek results,
Are sensitive to insults,
Desiring proof
I’m not bulletproof
Nor shatterproof
Nor weatherproof,
The rain on my roof
Threatens to cave in
This self-made haven
Wherein I’m craven
Playing defense
Seeking evidence
Ever on the fence
With no confidence
That my presence
Is honored, respected,
Not neglected
I’m affected
By what you say,
What you do,
How you react to me
Loving you,
If I’m shoving you
It’s just a test
In the contest
Ever between us,
I don’t want to push
But there are days I do
And I can’t take them back,
But if I could
I know I would,
They’re all there
On the report
Freely submitted to the court
And I on the mercy of the court
Lay it all.
Judge me, but know,
I’m ever striving still
I won’t give up until
I pay the last bill
Climb the last hill
Rising higher
My fire
Is burning,
Not earning,
Just yearning
To be the me,
You created to be me,
Though I falter,
I place on the altar
Of grace
And face
What I’ve put my name on
What I’ve based my game on
What I’ve built my fame on
From the first to the last
Much lies ahead
Much is past,
All that I ask
Is that you know me
Every piece,
The greatest and the least,
And I will do my best
Until I’m laid to rest,
My mouth from my mind
Humbly prays
On this,
One of my better days.


Sunday, April 9, 2017

Facing Desertion

Facing Desertion

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

April 9, 2017

at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia

Luke 23: 13-25

1 Kings 19: 1-4

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.


This has been quite a Lenten Season, when we look back on it, quite a difficult season. We as a congregation have been hit with sickness from all sides, there have been surgeries, accidents, we’ve prayed for folks battling cancer at all stages, we’ve had folks in and out of the hospital, even the passing of dear Tom Southard, the list goes on and on. It was almost as if we did not need to artificially create the darkness, but we have been challenged by it. I know I have been. In successive weeks preaching on Facing Danger, using the image of the storm, preaching on Facing Disease, looking at the why’s and the why not’s, why now, why me, why this, why not cure me, why not me. . . surrounded by the gospel message of grace and healing so beautifully echoed by HARP, calling us to compassion. . . then preaching on Facing Death, how we experience it not through ourselves, but through the deaths of others, those close to us, how it makes us human, how there is indescribable strength and community that surrounds death. . . then ever stepping forward into more challenging, last week we talked about Facing Deception, feeling betrayal. . . living with and through the loss of trust of faith, the cynicism that can befall us, that we so much with everything we have to fight against in order to remain compassionate and faithful in this difficult world. I saved the hardest for last, yes harder than disease, more difficult than death, more devastating than betrayal, for today we take a look at Desertion, being left alone.

But this is Palm Sunday, and it is quite the celebration, waving palms, singing Glory, Laud, and Honor, calling out Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest . . . We recall the triumphant entry, the borrowed colt, the children waving their palms. . . even the stones unable to be silenced. . . I’ve always enjoyed the Palm Sunday story, but what I think is most meaningful is the transition that takes place. We as pastors are always in a bind, because on one hand the Palm Sunday celebration is an important one to recall, to remember, to cherish, to take great joy in, but on the other hand, Holy Week falls fast afterward, and in just 7 days, 1 week, we will already be up and taking great joy in the empty tomb, celebrating our risen Lord, and much takes place between. . . I’ve always thought it was important to live into that transition, to remember the fact that two crowds play an important role in this transition, and that the same crowd that on Sunday is waving palms and shouting Hosanna, come Friday are the ones yelling Crucify him, and choose to free Barabbas. . . this morning I want us not to feel the guilt of that transition on ourselves and our own potential to take part in both of those mobs, but instead for us to attempt to experience this from Jesus’ perspective, and not of the torture and the crucifixion, none of the physical trials, but instead merely the desertion, the idea that he had followers, that he had disciples, friends, crowds singing his praises, but walked to his death not supported by those throngs, but instead alone and forsaken. . .  the gospel message from today shows the beginning of that desertion. Luke 23: 13-25

 13 Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people, 14 and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him. 15 Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. 16 I will therefore have him flogged and release him.”[d]

18 Then they all shouted out together, “Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!” 19 (This was a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.) 20 Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; 21 but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” 22 A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.” 23 But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed. 24 So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted. 25 He released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder, and he handed Jesus over as they wished.

So Pilate gives the crowd what they want, washes his hands clean of the event, and in due time Peter, the chief among the disciples will deny knowing Jesus three times. Little by little all who had followed Jesus turn their back on him, and he is alone, forsaken, deserted. I do not think we can even imagine what it was like to be tortured and crucified, that is so far outside of the power of our minds to imagine, but we have all been left alone, and we know what it feels like. . . and there is something in our nature that truly fears above all else this idea of being completely and utterly alone. It actually is the picture, the greatest Old Testament image of punishment. . . Psalm 1 says:

Happy are those
    who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
    or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
    planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
    and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.

The wicked are not so,
    but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
    nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked will perish.

The way of the wicked is not to be planted but to be left to be blown by the wind, not rooted, not enveloped in community or of the arms of God, but left, forsaken. . . . Dante, on the sign at the gate of his Hell describes it like this. . .



Dante’s Hell is populated not necessarily by the damned, but instead by the forsaken. . . Jesus from the Cross says, “My God, My God, why have your forsaken me?” To be forsaken is to be left alone, uncared for, unguarded, unloved, and forgotten. There is no accident here, so much of our greatest worry is not death, but exile. . . lost forever from our friends and families. . . separated and alone, and it is no accident that the punishment inside of our punishment system, the jail inside of jail, is a space for solitary confinement. . . I recall from Cool Hand Luke the long list of offenses that will end in a “night in the box.” The fellow inmates sing to help Luke move the dirt from Boss Keene’s ditch and then back again out of the other boss’s yard, Just a Closer walk with thee. . . but when he is put in the box, he is alone to himself, isolated, and comes out broken. . . being alone has real power because it sends us into our minds. . . the Raven in Poe’s masterpiece comes saying his ominous “Never more” to the lonely and forsaken man, who is the speaker of that poem on that midnight dreary, while he was left to ponder weak and weary. . . of his lost Lenore.

Perhaps it is why so many songs, the ones that just rip at our heartstrings have this lonely theme as its message.

Lonely, I’m Mr. Lonely, I have nobody to call my own,

I’ve been forgotten, yes forgotten, O how I wonder how is it I failed


All alone am I ever since your good bye, all alone with just the beat of my heart

People all around but I don’t hear a sound, just the lonely beating of my heart


Ah Look at all the lonely people, de dum de dum de dum

Ah Look at all the lonely people. . .


Now my room has got two windows
But the sunshine never comes through
You know it's always dark and dreary
Since I broke off, baby with you

I could cry, I could cry, I could cry (ooh)
I could die, I could die, I could die (I need help from somebody)
Because I live on a lonely avenue
(Lonely avenue) oh, yes sir

Or maybe

That I'd been crying over you, crying over you
Then you said "so long". left me standing all alone
Alone and crying, crying, crying crying


Only the lonely,

Know the way I feel to night

Only the lonely

Know this feeling just aint right

There are so many, I could really go on and on, and they transcend genre and time. Folk songs, the Blues, country, the high and lonesome sound of blue grass, even rap, all have these songs about being deserted because we all have felt this emotion, the abandoned and alone emotion. . . it is truly devastating, to be rejected and alone.

And it isn’t just the idea of being alone. . . there has to be that rejected. . . there has to be that desertion element to get us this way. One of my favorite all time records is Frank Sinatra’s “A Man Alone.” Frank was big on what he called concept albums in the height of his career, and idea later taken to new heights by rock and roll bands like the Who and Pink Floyd, but Sinatra was one of the first, to have an album where all of the songs relate on some theme. . . A Man Alone, all hangs on just what the title suggests, being A Man Alone. . .and it is so beautiful, in its mix of spoken words and songs, seamlessly floating back and forth as the album progresses.

In me you see a man alone.

Held by the habit of being on his own.

A man who listens to the trembling of the trees.

With sentimental ease.

In me you see a man alone.

Behind the wall he's learned to call his home.

A man who still goes walking in the rain.

Expecting love again.

A man not lonely.

Except when the dark comes on.

A man learning to live with. memories of midnights.

That fell apart at dawn.

Perhaps my favorite line in that is the one that sings, A man not lonely. . . not lonely, just alone. . . because there is a difference. We all can be alone, being a lone is not a problem, there is a difference in being lonely, and it is that desertion difference. . . . I can be alone, but if I’m ever lonely I can’t sit still. . . have you ever been like that. . . you get the paces, you get the distracteds, you can watch TV, it bores you, it loses you, why is that? I remember being single, why were Tuesday nights alone after work so much easier to deal with than Fridays or Saturdays. . . you feel like you need people, you want people, and for some reason you are by yourself, and time creeps, so slow. . . I think that is why those songs are so popular, so widespread, and so important. . . they give comfort in the idea that there are others around, who are lonely too. . . why in a world populated by billions of people is anyone lonely, is any one alone. . . but we are, even in crowds, forgotten and alone.

Why do we convince ourselves that others are either fine, would rather us stay out of their business, do not want to be bothered? It is something that kids don’t understand, kids would always want to be with friends, surrounded by friends and family, always playing, but often adults seem to be too busy. . . there is always something to do, something that must be done, and it is hard. . . but yet we know deep down our greatest fear is to be left alone, abandoned and alone. . . it makes every one of the other of the ideas we’ve talked about facing, all that much worse. . . Facing Danger alone, Jesus wake up we need you, Facing Disease, alone it would be unbearable, Facing Death, no one wants to die alone, and there is always such an outpouring of community in the face of death, at least in the funeral, Facing Betrayal, the worst that it can do is leave  you completely alone. . . isolated. . . shut off completely from the world.

But this is the great promise of Holy Week and Easter, that Jesus, faces this lonesome valley and faces it by himself, nobody else could walk it for him, nor with him, but through it he makes it so that we will never walk alone,

that we can walk through the storm with our head held high,

And not be afraid of the dark
At the end of a storm is a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark

Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
Tho' your dreams
Be tossed and blown
Walk on
Walk on
With hope in your heart
And you'll never walk alone
You'll never walk alone

Christ walks with us, the Risen Christ walks with us,  and we should learn through his example to be better at walking with each other,. Though it is difficult, with the thousand insecurities that our flesh is heir to, we can get better. Again and again compassion has been our call, and it is no different here, compassion, to feel with. . . if nothing else it shows that we are not alone in our suffering, but instead are connected in everyway, in this way to all who have ever lived, and all who ever will.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Induced Digression

Induced Digression

Students, charged with any task,
Will seek to divert and distract,
Thinking, else, ever to be better
Than any task at hand, that if
The teacher and mates can join
Them in distraction, their own
Would then be justified. A teacher,
Who knows the game, must go
Along, an apparent accomplice,
Ever knowing all ways are one,
So lead, by following, and guide,
Trusting them and the way to be
Always present throughout, though
Coming into focus, only in moments,
Somewhere in the future, at rest stops
On the never ending journey of life. 

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Facing Deception (Betrayal)

Facing Deception

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

April 2, 2017

at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia

Judges 16: 15-19

Luke 22: 47-53

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.


With just two weeks left in Lent, we continue this morning with our Facing Darkness theme, but we head in a slightly different direction. We’ve faced apparent danger, we’ve faced disease, ravaging our body, and even last week we’ve faced death, and you might think, how could it get any worse because certainly those are the height of facing darkness from a physical standpoint, but in many ways, we could say that the emotional darkness can be much, much worse. . . to be here, and to be disillusioned, dismayed, disenchanted, depressed, and embittered, these often are worse because they like a physical disease can if it is contagious, emotional darkness hits us deeply and it leaves wounds and walls of division that sometimes last for generations, and lead often times to cynicism, which is truly one of the most destructive forces we have in this world. . . . so today we talk about facing deception, or more truthfully betrayal. Erick read the story of Samson, betrayed by Delilah, who uses his love for her as the tool to bring about his destruction, and now perhaps the most famous betrayal, that of Judas against Jesus. Luke 22: 47-53, betrayed with a Kiss. . .

47 While he was still speaking, suddenly a crowd came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him; 48 but Jesus said to him, “Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?” 49 When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, “Lord, should we strike with the sword?” 50 Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. 51 But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. 52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple police, and the elders who had come for him, “Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit? 53 When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness!”

Dante in his masterpiece, the Divine Comedy, places betrayal as the worst of the sins, placing those who commit betrayal in the deepest ring, the 9th circle, and he breaks it down to betraying different categories of people, the worst being betrayal of someone who was your benefactor. . . and it is here that Dante puts Judas, Judas who betrayed Jesus with a kiss, and he also puts there Cassius and Brutus, those assassins of Julius Caesar, and their eternal punishment is to be slowly devoured in the three heads of Satan. . . incidentally, Satan himself is imprisoned in this same circle. . . for the Demons in Dante’s vision are not rulers in Hell, but are condemned there as well, and Satan, the former Arch Angel Lucifer, likewise was a great betrayer, according to the tradition of him as a fallen Angel. . . . Do you agree, is betrayal the worst of the sins?

And if so why? Have you ever been truly betrayed? Have you ever put your trust in someone and they let you down? Sure, but does that fit the level of betraying, no its more than that, they have to willingly and purposefully let you down, to smile in your face while they are turning the knife in your back. . . like the OJays sang about, “They smiling in your face, all the time they want to take your place, the back stabbers, back stabbers,” or as the psalmist paints it with that great imagery, from our Call to Worship. . . their speech smoother than butter, but with a heart set on war, with words softer than oil, but in fact were drawn swords. . . that really captures it. When we are talking betrayal, we are talking about a purposeful, possibly elaborate plan to undermine and destroy while all the time claiming to be 100% Loyal, your friend, your confidant, someone in whom you have laid your entire trust, and well-being. It hurts like no other, and it leaves lingering long term effects. . . it makes it hard to trust someone ever again, it makes you build walls, it makes you hold back, it creates a prison, it creates this world, with all of its distrust and cynicism. It perpetuates these cycles, and these are downward cycles that we desperately need to break.

We need to break them because being cynical and guarded and distrusting is also a betrayal. . . it is a betrayal of our nature. We’ve come back to the idea during this series again and again that what it means to be human is to be compassionate, and to be compassionate is to be trusting, to be compassionate is to be open and vulnerable, to be compassionate is to be unguarded, in order to be compassionate we have to be willing to break down the walls that we build to guard ourselves from harm, but we find it so very hard to do. Because when we do, we often get betrayed again, betraying our trust, and we get harder, when we are so desperately trying to soften and care, and have empathy and compassion. This is some of that radical love stuff that Jesus talks about in the Sermon on the Mount, when he talks about having love for your enemies. . . love for your betrayers. . . when he talks about not returning evil for evil but overcoming evil with good. . . to me this is the depths of darkness, one of the most challenging things to do, to forgive and love someone who has betrayed you. . . is it even possible?

Because revenge is so tempting. . . I know it isn’t the best to quote Bill Cosby because he has seemingly betrayed his comedy with his behavior, but it is no less funny on its own merit, there was one story he told about a kid he grew up with called Junior Barnes. . . you see Junior Barnes broke one of the major rules of kiddom. . . he hit the young Bill in the face with a slush ball. . . wham, and it was stinging, and hard and cold and wet. . . and so Bill wants to get his revenge, he goes looking for Junior Barnes, . . . Junior Bar—arns, but he can’t find him, so he makes the roundest, hardest, packed as tightly as possible iceball you could imagine, and he goes home and puts it in the freezer, and he waits, patiently waits, and he says, he went to great lengths to prove to Junior Barnes that he was his greatest friend, he laughed at all his joke, ooohh Junior Barnes you are sooooo funny. . . and he waited until mid July, not a cloud in the sky, 104 degrees, in the shade, he says Junior Barnes you just wait here, I’ve got to get something from the house, and he goes in there and opens the freezer, reaches for the snowball, and his mother had thrown it out. . . but look at the story, one betrayal created another one. . .

Perhaps one of my favorite movies of all time is The Godfather, and even the Godfather 2, where Fredo betrays his brother Michael. . . and he keeps him close. . . and he kisses him, down in Cuba, Fredo, you broke my heart, and eventually he is on a boat out in the lake fishing by himself and it explodes. . . one betrayal equals another. . . and the killing of his brother destroys Micheal, by destroying Fredo, he destroys himself, the tragic spiral, the cost of the American dream is paid, the saga of an Italian Immigrant just trying to protect his family, whose choices for survival, lead to success, but there is always a cost, right, and sure we have to protect ourselves in this world right, people have got to know that we cannot be betrayed with impunity, lest it would happen again, lest we be suckers, lest we be gullible fools. . . but again Jesus’ teaching on this subject is radical. . . love your enemies, do not repay evil for evil, but over come evil with good. . . . can we even begin? Do we want to?

When I was at Hampden-Sydney in College we had a strict and student run Honor Code, and it worked, no one locked their doors, and no one ever worried, we were building community and trust was at the center of it, and it was something we prized highly. . . I still prize it, and I would still prefer to live in such a community. And so often I have sought such levels of trust at the schools where I have been a teacher, and yes both of them also have honor codes. . . no lying, no cheating, no stealing, at the center of the values. . . and so I have always left the room freely while my students take tests and quizzes. . . sometimes I give them a speech ahead of time, how if the cost of their honor is so cheap for an extra couple of points on something as insignificant as a test or a quiz, that they would have to live with it, and I defined Hell for them, not like Dante, no fire, no brimstone, just the sort of hell that is about not being able to look at yourself in the mirror because you would know that your honor was so very, very cheap. . . so yeah, I’d give a speech like that occasionally, but I’d leave, go get a cup of coffee, go talk to the librarian, just to go, to let t hem know they were trusted, I thought that went a long way to teaching and building the kind of community that I so prized at Hampden-Sydney. . . but I remember on two occasions where that trust was betrayed. . . the first time that someone ever cheated on one of my assignments. . . and the time that my ipod was stolen straight from my desk. What do you think I should have done at that point. . . some would argue that I should have learned my lesson, that I should have locked my doors, that I should after that never leave the room, that I should watch my students like a hawk. . . supervisors at the school have told me that. . . but if I were to do that it would be me who would suffer, and suffer much more than the loss of an ipod. . . I’d suffer the loss of my faith, my hope, my sense of community, my sense of compassion. . . awe but come on man, what are you saying? It sounds foolish to me. . . and perhaps it is, but it truly comes down to what you value in life. . . and what you allow people to take from you. . . if you look back on your life, what have you allowed the people who have betrayed you to take from you, often it is much more than the betrayal itself. . .

But that was just kid’s stuff, tests, and electronics, not really the high stakes, and certainly nothing to trade against a betrayal. . . but sometimes it is quite quite worse. IN the last few month I was betrayed greatly. . . betrayed greatly by someone who has power over me, someone I trusted, and the cost wasn’t an ipod. . . it was the cost of a major opportunity for my family. . . and it hurt badly, the kinda hurt that can leave some scars, can leave you embittered, can leave you faithless, and cynical, disillusioned and scared, the kind that can make you rethink what you believe in and how you think of people in general. . . and I’m still not sure how I feel about it, and I’m still not sure what I’ll do about it if anything, or how in the future I’ll behave differently if at all. . . will it harden me? I don’t know yet, but in many ways I hope not. . . because then I will have lost much more than he ever could have taken away from me on his own. . . God’s will, right? Have you ever thought that God sometimes works through the Pharaohs of your life the same way he works through those heroes and rolemodels, teachers and leaders. . . sometimes it is the people who don’t treat you the best who make you change direction and find the path that you were always meant to be on. . . and if so how can you blame them, and what good would it do anyway? I can reason it out in my head, but in practice it is so much more difficult. God’s will. . . look at Jesus

Deceived by Judas, but knows it ahead of time and tells him to go ahead and go through with it, couldn’t he have staved it off, having prior knowledge. I think back to my situation, I probably could have staved it off if I had prior knowledge, I probably would have staved it off if I had prior knowledge, but I’m not sure I should have staved it off if I had prior knowledge. Jesus does have it and he doesn’t. . . He walks his path. . . but what about Judas, does he forgive Judas, would he have forgiven Judas if he didn’t kill himself, and give up entirely?

If he didn’t give up,

Would Jesus have

Called even Judas,

By name,

To meet Him in Galilee?

For all had gone away,

None stayed,

All had denied,

even Peter,

And Peter was called.

It didn’t happen,

We don’t know, but

I’d like to believe

He would have,

Removing all limits to grace.

It truly would remove all limits to grace, but it would do something more than that as well, it would give us a real and true example of Jesus overcoming a betrayal, returning betrayal with love and forgiveness, overcoming evil done against him with good, truly turning the other cheek and going the extra mile. . . and that would be nice. . . but maybe we do have one. . . and maybe it is better even than that one because it isn’t forgiving Judas, it is forgiving us. . . carrying the cross, bloody and beaten, flogged and tortured, mocked and ridiculed, crown of thorns cutting into his head, Jesus says, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do. . . “ quite an example huh. . . perhaps I could say that to the unknown kid that took my ipod, perhaps I can say that to the man who betrayed and blocked my path, and perhaps I can say that to myself, for even I, and we all fall into that category if we are truly honest with ourselves, and if we feel we don’t perhaps, we just have betrayed ourselves. . . we all betray in some way, but an act of love breaks the cycle, can break the cycle, and heals us. . .