Sunday, June 4, 2017

Down to Believing


Down to Believing

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

June 4, 2017

at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia

1 John 5: 1-6

Genesis 15: 1-8



Let us pray,

Help us to see despite our eyes

Help us to think outside of our minds

Help us to be more than our lives   

For your eyes show the way

    Your mind knows the truth

    Your being is the life.

Amen.





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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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



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

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

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



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

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



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

Let’s look at verse 2:

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



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

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

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



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

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


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

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

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

Q. 4. What is God?

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



The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it this way

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



And the Confession of 1967 says this:



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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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





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

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

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



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