Sunday, July 2, 2017

A Presbyterian Revolution

A Presbyterian Revolution
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
July 2, 2017
at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Zuni, Virginia
1 Samuel 8: 10-18
Galatians 5: 1, 13-15

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

2 Samuel 8: 10-18
10 So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; 12 and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15 He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16 He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

Galatians 5: 1, 13-15
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

Historian, George Bancroft once wrote, “The Revolution of 1776, so far as it was affected by religion, was a Presbyterian measure. It was a natural outgrowth of the principles which the Presbyterianism of the Old World planted in her sons, the English Puritans, the Scotch Covenanters, the French Huguenots, the Dutch Calvinists, and the Presbyterians of Ulster,” and at the time in 1778, a Hessian mercenary fighting for the British wrote in a letter home, “Call this war by whatever name you may, only call it not an American rebellion; it is nothing more or less than a Scots-Irish Presbyterian rebellion." And the secretary to British General Howe, while occupying New York City, soon after Independence was declared, wrote to inform the Secretary of State back in London, no make no mistake about it “this war has been a Presbyterian War from the beginning.” It is even long time been rumored, but not verified in primary documents from the time, but that George III himself called it a mere Presbyterian insurrection.
I bring this up not to claim some status for our denomination in the founding of this country, nor to place us somehow in a high seat of honor, but rather to look at what is meant by this, because what we celebrate when we think back to what occurred on July 4, 1776, is not a flag, nor a government, nor the songs we sing, the fireworks we use to celebrate, the burgers and hot dogs we’ll grill and eat, not even the men and women who have given their lives for it, to secure and sustain it. No what we celebrate on the 4th of July is an Idea, for that is what America is, not merely a nation, not only the purple mountains, whose majesty rises high above the fruited plains in between the seas white with foam, not only is it your land and my land, made for you and me, but America is an Idea, and brothers and sisters that Idea is rooted in our Reformed understanding of Christianity.             
It is rooted in the belief and actuality of there being a Provident God, who creates, redeems, and sustains all life, who has made human beings in his image, all men created equal. . . and individually, “fearfully and wondrously made” with unique gifts and talents. A God, whose thoughts of us are more than the hairs on our heads, more than the grains of sand on the beach, and whose care for us is sure, as we consider the lilies of the field, arrayed in their splendor, and as we look to the sparrow, on whom his eye constantly rests. We know that he knows us, having formed our inward parts, and that he has plans for us, dating back to when he formed us each individually in the womb. . . so we dare not say we are too young, nor too slow of speech, nor do we run away from his call, but seek, ask, and knock continuously. . . We know that his steadfast love for us is sure, that he leads us by the still waters, that his rod and staff they comfort us, that we need fear no evil, though we walk through dark valleys, for our cup runs over, and we dwell in the House of our Lord now and forever. We know that this love transcends time, living not only in history, but through history, for what was true, is still true, and will be forever true, and this love also transcends Earthly limitations like death, for this God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son, so that who so may believe in him, shall not perish, but have eternal life, and that though sin is real, and sin is strong, though evil rears its ugly head, it is at all times overcome not with evil, but with good, with love, with mercy, with a peace which passes all understanding, a wonderful and mysterious, messy yet perfect, earthy yet heavenly, full of conflict yet order, dissonance yet harmony, not always understood, but very very good, created world in which live. You got all that, yes that is our world view, our Reformed world view, a world view based in a belief in the very sovereign design of God the Father Almighty, Jesus Christ, His only Son our Lord, and the Holy Spirit, breathing and renewing life constantly, endlessly, flawlessly, in the very here in now, in me, but not just in me, but in those all around me, in you and in me. . . and so you see. . . in such a world we must needs be free. We have been set free in Christ, and therefore we must be free. We hear ringing in our ears the New Testament Lesson for today. . .
For freedom Christ has set us free.

For in such a world as we believe in there is no one person who has more or less value, nor import. There is no status one can attain that is higher than being a child of God, and such we all are, every single one of us. As I said to the children, there need be no Priest above you, no keeper of religious secrets, no special knowledge of rituals, the right passwords to the kingdom, no secret handshakes, no sacrifices beyond that which Christ has done already, for Christ has filled that role, becoming the lamb himself. There need be no prophets, for Christ has filled that role as well, and his Holy Word is sufficient, and I can attest, one can spend a lifetime seeking therein, and when he does, he truly finds a thirst quenching cup that is ever running over. And finally, and maybe most important to old King George III, no King, because Christ fills that role, too. Calvin called this the threefold office of Christ.
Christ Jesus is worthy of our highest allegiance because all that He does for us. As our prophet, he guides in the paths of righteousness through his Word. As our Priest, He guarantees the salvation of those who trust him through his atonement and intercession. As our King, He leads us to final victory over sin and death.

Corum Deo, living in and under the eternal presence, what more could we ever need? And so these ideas led to the notion that there need not be a king in place over us, that we are each equally children of God, and therefore endowed by God with certain inalienable rights, Life, Liberty, and at least the pursuit of happiness. . . which to us would mean to seek us first the kingdom of God and His Righteousness, and then all these things would be added unto us. . .and the song goes, Allelu, Alleluia. Praise be to God. Amen.
Now, Christ has set us free, for freedom Christ has set us free. . . that is where Galatians 5 verse one begins, but it does go on to say,
“Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

Ay there is the rub, for there is where we find ourselves having trouble. We have cast off the shackle, and on our best day we believe, we seek, we see the good in everyone, we see the good in this world, we feel God’s providence flowing all around us, but not every day is our best day. Often there are those other days, where we find ourselves on the precipice, high and alone, there hanging on the edge, ready to take the leap in to faith, but our resistance is strong, and fear takes over, and we worry to ourselves. . . can such things be? And we don’t live up to our ideals, we don’t live up to our principles, we don’t see the world as we say we do, and we hold tight to that which gives us comfort and apparent control, we return back to the old ways because our faith wanes. . . just as it did with the disciples who were walking there with Jesus in the flesh in his own time, and how many times, again and again does Jesus say, oh ye of little faith, or fear not. . . and this is where sadly we find ourselves as a nation. Like the cycle in the book of Judges, towards and then away from God, then culminating in the time of Samuel, when they wanted to be like all the other nations, give us a king they said, and though as we read in our Old Testament Lesson, Samuel told them what it would be like to have a king, those old familiar chains, that old so comfortable yoke, they could not be dissuaded, for the yoke of slavery can often be appealing, for even the Israelites having been freshly freed from their bondage in Egypt, with the pillar of fire still leading them, and having come through the parted Red Sea, ask to be returned to their Egyptian taskmasters, rather than starve in the dessert. . . you see sometimes it is difficult to believe in Manna from heaven, even after you have seen the waters part right in front of you. Why is that?
We will sing “God of our Father’s Whose Almighty Hand” right after this, to close our service today. Listen to those words, for it was penned in 1876 on July 4th, and already then were we the people not living up to our ideals. . . for Daniel C. Roberts, the writer is already saying, “Refresh thy people on their toilsome way. . .” that though, “Thy love divine has led us in the past. . .” in these days our faith is waning. . . and as Ecclesiastes says, “there is nothing new under the sun.” We have been here before. There have been times of great faith in our nation’s history, of great triumph, but also of great division and doubt. We find ourselves in one of those times now, don’t we? Our nation is divided, people don’t choose to think for themselves, often the easy road is taken rather than the right road, we kick the can of reckoning down the curve with bailouts and national debt, we do not trust each other, we do not listen, we live by fear instead of faith, and so we build walls, build systems, make new rules, laws, thinking that if we can just tweak, if we can just fix, if we can just progress, we can build a new nation, fix it ourselves, but we can’t. . . at least we can’t without forging those old chains, because we have lost our foundation of faith in the power of God to act on our behalf, and we have forgotten that not only are we, but our neighbor as well, are both uniquely, but no less equally children of God, in other words we have forgotten about folks. . . one of my favorite short stories is by William Faulkner, called “The Tall Men” he talks about it in 1941, another time when American faith saw darkness and then rebirth. . . but in that story is this passage
Yes, sir. A man gets around and he sees a heap; a heap of folks in a heap of situations. The trouble is, we done got into the habit of confusing the situation with the folks. Take yourself, now, you mean alright. You just went and got yourself all fogged up with rules and regulations. That’s our trouble. We done invented ourselves so many alphabets and rules and recipes that we can’t see anything else; if what we can’t see can’t be fitted to an alphabet or rule, we are lost. We have come to be like critters doctor folks might have created in laboratories, that have learned how to slip off their bones and the guts are gone. We have slipped our backbone; we have about decided a man don’t need a backbone anymore; to have one is old fashioned. But the groove where the backbone used to be is still there, and backbone has been kept alive, too, and someday we’re going to slip back onto it. I don’t know just when nor just how much of a wrench it will take to teach us, but someday. . . yes Sir. We have done forgot about folks. Life has done got cheap, and life ain’t cheap. Life’s a pretty durn valuable thing. I don’t mean just getting along from one WPA relief check to the next one, but honor and pride and discipline that make a man worth preserving, make him of any value. That’s what we got to learn again. Maybe it takes trouble, bad trouble to teach it back to us; maybe it was the walking to Virginia because that’s where his ma come from, and losing a war and then walking back, that taught it to old Anse. Anyway, he seems to learned it, and to learned it good enough to bequeath it to his boys. Did you notice how all Buddy had to do was to tell them boys of his it was time to go, because the Government had sent them word? And how they told him good-by? Growned men kissing one another without hiding and without shame. Maybe that’s what I’m trying to say.

You see there is something to it right. We’ve forgotten in these days that God made us, and made our neighbors too. . . all of them, even the one we disagree with, but you see that’s there in Galatians 5, too. . . there is the part about Christ setting us free, and then there is the part about Standing firm and not going back to the yoke, and finally there is the part about, well listen, verses 13-15
13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

So what I am saying today is that we need another Presbyterian Rebellion. . . not necessarily in denomination, because the modern state of the PCUSA has man of these same problems, but we need a true Presbyterian Revolution of the Idea, the same idea that formed the American Revolution. You see we call it a revolution because that is what you call a rebellion or an insurrection after its all worked out, and of course ours hasn’t worked out yet, but as Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, we must enter into it “with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence,” and we must “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” And so doing how can we not be successful? We will be successful. . . and what we have to give to the world and to this nation, and to this community is essential, and crucial, and important.
Now what is that? Three things. . . and I don’t mean Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, though those three certainly fit.
  1. A Firm Faith and reliance on God, knowing that God is sovereign in everything that we do, can give us the security and confidence to live out the other two. . .

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

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

Seems so simple right, but such is the stuff that this nation was founded upon, and it starts with the smallest of things, that we can do here, and if we do I know that we will be successful in our endeavor because God has great things in store for this church. At the time of the Revolution 13 backwater colonies took on the greatest empire the world had ever known, they relied on Providence, did their daily work, and depended on each other, and the world was changed forever. Isle of Wight County may be flat, but such revolutionary ideas, tend to raise cities and place them on hills for the world to see, and the light God will make through us cannot be hidden under a bushel nor in the shadow of a silo, but will resonate. I will have hanging in my office a painting of Don Quixote, which reminds me that I am an idealist, a romantic, or in other words, a man of faith, who knows that if I only seek to live out my principles it all matters. . . here at Bethany we will believe that it all matters. . . and we will kindle the fires of a new Revolution together. . . such things always start somewhere, why not here, such things always start some time, why not now?