Sunday, July 23, 2017

Each Conscience

Each Conscience

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

July 23, 2017

at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Zuni, Virginia

Ecclesiastes 4: 8-12

Romans 12: 3-8

Let us pray,

Help us to see despite our eyes

Help us to think outside of our minds

Help us to be more than our lives   

For your eyes show the way

    Your mind knows the truth

    Your being is the life.


So far in this our Presbyterian Revolution series, we have looked at the connections between the Presbyterian historic principles and those that founded our Nation, lamenting that many of these principles have gone missing, and are greatly missed, as we have become a divided and polarized nation of late, and actually to be honest we are a divided and polarized denomination, and that being the case there is a great need for these principles to be refound and reclaimed, and our own revitalization, our own spiritual renewal, our own deepening of fellowship and faith, greatly depend on them as a Christ centered foundation. We said that the first is a firm reliance on the providence of God, remembering that God is Sovereign and his perfect will is working all things toward Good. And then second we said, knowing that what becomes important is our emphasis on the means rather than the ends, that we can do our daily work, that we can discern and follow His Sovereign will for our lives, and can know that the ends are very much in His hands, that knowledge frees us to give of ourselves fully, risking, taking leaps of faith, that we can become very much empowered to be ourselves. . . discerning what we are to be and do at any given moment, so that we may offer exactly that willingly and freely and repeatedly our entire lives.

Now in this final installment of this Presbyterian Revolution series, we will focus on what all that means for how we are to see and act toward each other, for we have been set free by Christ to discern and follow and offer up our unique vocation, and now we are called, for that is what vocation means to do so together, not as divided individuals, but as a community. . . for that is what we are called to be. . . but first let us look to scripture. Our Old Testament reading comes from the Book of Ecclesiastes, one of my favorites for it contains passages like this of vivid if realistic wisdom. Listen to this, Ecclesiastes 4: 8-12

There was a man all alone;
    he had neither son nor brother.
There was no end to his toil,
    yet his eyes were not content with his wealth.
“For whom am I toiling,” he asked,
    “and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?”
This too is meaningless—
    a miserable business!

Two are better than one,
    because they have a good return for their labor:
10 If either of them falls down,
    one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
    and has no one to help them up.
11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
    But how can one keep warm alone?
12 Though one may be overpowered,
    two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

I just love Ecclesiastes, for in the face of what he continually calls vanity and meaninglessness, the vanity and toil of our endless work under the sun, he comes back to two enduring nuggets of meaning, one is the wisdom and fear of the Lord, and the other is what is described here, the need for each other, the need for other people, the need for community. Now I want to take this time to specify and pose a definition for this term community because I think that it is an important term, and one that I feel is often misused. . . or at least can be understood in multiple ways, and I want to use to be clear with what I mean when I use community because there is a slight but crucial difference between a community which is at the basic level an assembly of people, and other terms that we could use to describe assembled peoples. Now when I was teaching my English classes at some point during the year I had to teach the difference between the connotation and the denotation of a word. . . now to refresh your memory because most of you have long since absented yourself from the doldrums of the high school classroom, for more real world pursuits, let me tell you that a denotation is the flat exact dictionary definition of a word, and a connotation is the associations that a word picks up through usage over time. So when I was teaching this distinction I would often use the assemblage of people words as my example. . . so for example if I were to pick the words group, crowd, and mob. . . at the denotation level they all mean as we have said an assemblage of people, but a the connotation level a group is non-descript, neutral, a crowd is usually seen as loud boisterous and excited, whereas a mob is intent on anger and destruction. So if I would say there is a group of people outside, you wouldn’t get nervous, and if I said there was a crowd outside, you might feel inclined to be curious, but if I said there was a mob outside, you may have to rethink your afternoon. . . like it might not come to be. . . the word community is the same, it has a slightly different connotation. . . what do you associate with the word community? Do you hear commune or communal, communion, dare I say eek communism therein? You may, but for my mind there is one major difference that distinguishes a community from a crowd and a mob, and that is, that a community is a group of individuals whose individual identity remains intact. Whereas in a crowd or a mob, that typically is not the case. A crowd may get ripped up into an emotional frenzy and usually has an energy of its own that buries the individual within. . . and a mob, likewise, consists of one loud and angry voice. . . but a community has all the strength of the group, it is the threefold cord that is not easily broken, and the warmth of the compassionate embrace, but the people there in hold onto themselves, and do not give because they must, but because they choose to, freely. . . it is a group of people formed by love, and love must always needs be free, but we will talk of that more in the weeks to come. Look at how Paul describes this new community of the church in his letter to the Romans. . . this 12: 3-8

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Listen to his words there, and the flow of them. . . he starts with humility, let not every one among you think more highly than you ought to think, but think with sober judgment, each according to the faith God has assigned. . .  notice the call there to humility. There is the sense that you know that you have need, you know that you cannot do it all yourself, you know that you need help, you know that your faith and abilities come not from yourself but from God as he created you, Jesus Christ as he has set you free, and from the Holy Spirit that filled you and supported you in faith. So you come together to form a body, but this body has many members, and not all members are the same nor do they have the same function. It is not a monolithic mob, but instead a diverse community of individual members. . . we, who are many, are one body in Christ, AND, and here is the word, “individually, we are members one of another.” And we have gifts, all coming from God, that are not the same but rather are different, and we need all of them. He takes up the very same line of argument and metaphor in his first letter to the church at Corinth too, he writes in chapter 12

14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; 24 whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25 that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. 27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it

Even there as well Paul writes again, individually members of it. He says we each have different jobs to do, and that each of those jobs is indispensable, each as important as any other, but there at the end of our reading in Romans he implores his people to do it. It is of course one thing to be called, and another to do it, The New International Version captures this essence really well, this is Romans 12: 6-8

We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.

A community is a place where people can come freely and should feel empowered to fully live into their unique self, the fullness of their unique identity, formed and made individually unique by God himself.

Now this is why I am called to serve in the Presbyterian Church rather than another denomination. I believe that we, at least historically, and at least in our ideals, at least on paper, hold to this definition of community and seek to form and embody the same. Sure in practice we falter. . . our brokenness comes out as we either push our own wills and agendas forward and run rough shod on others, or on the other end of the spectrum become complacent and fall into thinking “it is not my job, someone else will do it for me.” The two work together and create a cycle of those who do becoming burnout, and many others feeling left out. Yeah in practice we falter, but written on paper, in our Book of Order are these principles. The idea of “Freedom of the Conscience” where we understand that a person’s personal feelings on many issues may be his or her own, and be between them and God, and that this leads to another principle that we have written down that of “Unity in Diversity” which is how we put the notion that though we are each unique individuals we are brought together as one body. And that though there is truth, people’s grasp of certain aspects of it may differ, and therefore we are to have “Mutual Forbearance” towards each other. In other words you do not have to check your brain at the door. You should not have to feel like you have to hide who you are or put on airs, but instead come humbly, from wherever you may be at this very moment, we seek you where you are, wherever you are, and we simply, each of us, seek to become open to become exactly what God is calling each of us to be. . . and as we said last week, give up to God, the totality of that self, freely, completely, and repeatedly, our entire life.

So, we must ask ourselves, is Bethany Presbyterian Church a community? Do our members, friends, and visitors feel empowered to seek and share the fullness of their gifts? You may feel like screaming out Amen and yes! But does each member here find that to be the case? Does each member seek for that to be the case for each of the others? Do we have an active few who feel the burden of doing set solely on their shoulders, carrying the ball, thinking if they were to let it drop no one else would pick it up? Do we have others who have not found their niche? Have not sought out a chance to get involved? Have decided that others could and would do it better and therefore should do it, instead of me? Do we truly have a community? If the answer is still yes when it is broken down like that we are well on our way! If not we know the basis of our task ahead. We need to find ways to empower each other. . . We need to find ways to discern and learn our unique gifts, and sometimes we will find things we never knew we had. . . We need to find ways of letting go in faith believing that others are called to act like we have been, and to let go even when they do it differently. . . We need to each shoulder the burden of our own conscience as well. We need to wrestle with the challenges of scripture. We need to each wrestle with the challenges of faith in this broken world. We need to each be willing to help and engage each other along the way!

To be honest, if we are living out these principles in a Spirit led way, it is probably going to be a little messy. It may become more messy than we are used to or are comfortable with. . . when you talk about Freedom of the Conscience often conflict can form, so be it, conflict weathered under God’s grace binds people more tightly together. When you talk about Unity in Diversity, sometimes the person next to you is very very much different than you. . . loving them anyway that can be messy,. . . and when you talk about Mutual Forbearance, that means you have to listen to a viewpoint different than your own. . . you don’t have to agree. . . you just may have to listen. . . I hate the term open minded, I use the term Welcome Minded instead. . . because I think when people tell you to be Open Minded” they just want you to think like them. . . but Welcome Minded is different. . . you open up your house, you welcome in guests—those other ideas—but then at the end of the day it is your house and you get to decide what remains there.

It can get messy. . . can we handle a little messy. . . I hope so. . . remember we are building all of this upon a faith that God is sovereign and that He has the ends in his hands. . . I do think that God prefers the mess. . . history is enough proof of that. . . there is that old joke about the man who was tending his garden to his garden when a door to door evangelist comes up to visit, and he says hello brother, this is a wonderful garden that you and the Lord have made here. . . and the man doesn’t miss a beat, says, “Yeah you should have seen it when the Lord had it by himself. . . “ The mess. . . picture in your mind two maps, one the map of a city, every road straight in perfect symmetrical blocks, you can just see the design and ingenuity evident in the engineering of each detail. But if you look at a natural map, with the slow meandering curves of each river, no pattern that we can see. . . to us a mess, to God a masterpiece. Alexander Pope wrote

To him no high, no low, no great, no small—
He fills, he bounds, connects, and equals all....
All nature is but art, unknown to thee:
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see:
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good.

To his I will add my own and leave you with the image. I wrote this a few years ago when preaching on the Tower of Babel. . . another great story of the danger of conformity, where God imposes different languages. . . imposed diversity. I thought about the idea of building with stones, each different, and somewhat messy, with holes where the wind can blow through. . . how it wouldn’t be as efficient, but may be write.

May we build with stones and not bricks,

Remembering that through each nook,

And within each cranny, made by uneven

Edges, the wind blows, flowing freely,

As it has since time's beginning

On the newly formed and divided waters,

That though the lines may be crooked,

Each holds a unique space and place,

Filled by each as only each can, leaving

A vacancy when absent that cannot be filled

By any other piece. There is a value

Such a wall knows, that its finely

Crafted descendants have forgotten,

Through the mind numbing conformity

Of molded bricks, with all the right angles

Of efficiency, facility, and progress.

No here at Bethany, with living stones, each uniquely shaped, and crucial to the plan, we will build our revolution, and we will build on top of the stone that was rejected and has become for us our cornerstone, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. May it be so, Amen.