A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
July 16, 2017
at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Zuni, Virginia
Deuteronomy 6: 28-34
Matthew 6: 4-12
For Video Recording of this Sermon click here
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
We continue our series that we started back a few weeks ago, this idea of a Presbyterian Revolution, where I spoke of the connections between the American Revolution and Presbyterian values, how many, both critics and supporters of the American Revolution dubbed our nation’s beginning a Presbyterian insurrection. And I called for the need for us as a nation, beginning with us as a community, to revive those values, to spread that world view, and to create a new Presbyterian Revolution by so doing, finishing that sermon with two questions, why not here, and why not now. And I posed three simple ideas that could become the framework for our revolution. . . the first, which we went into depth on last week was,
A Firm Faith and reliance on God, knowing that God is sovereign in everything that we do and all that is
We looked at how the past that has led us up to now is improbable, and that we shouldn’t be here, and that the only explanation for the story is the very miracle of God, and his providence. And this should give us hope and confidence, a true faith for living in each given moment. This idea is foundational for what we will talk about this week and then also next week, this week, focusing on the means and not the ends. . . and next week’ loving and respecting our neighbor.
So focusing on the means, and not the ends, because the ends are in God’s hands. . . I chose scripture readings in line with this idea. . . but I want to look at the Gospel reading first this morning because it makes the connection, it bridges the gap from last week to this week. Here is Matthew 6: 28-34:
28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
34 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
Do you hear it there ringing in our ears? Why worry about clothing? Why worry about what we will eat or drink, for the father knows that we need these things, and will provide, but look here at what Jesus says, here in this pivotal argument of his Sermon on the Mount, he says, “strive first for the kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. . .” or as the King James Version puts it so famously and memorably, “seek ye first the kingdom of God and his Righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you.” I can hear the old song, following that up with Allelu, Alleluia. . . seeking first the kingdom, is this the same as focusing on the means and not the ends? The official statement I made on this two weeks ago was. . .
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 that willingly and freely and repeatedly our entire lives
Could it be said that the action of seeking first the kingdom is, focusing on what we are being called to do, and who we are being called to be, at any given moment, and then living that calling, willingly, freely, and repeatedly our entire lives. If you think about it perhaps that is exactly what it means to seek the kingdom of God, for can you imagine what the world would be like, what the world look like if all, if everyone, if each of us lived according to nothing more than just exactly the person God made us each to be? Can we even imagine that though? Or is it something that is near to us, but at the same time just out of our grasp, out of even our minds’ ability to grasp? Is this what Jesus is talking about when he says the kingdom is near, but also that the kingdom is something that should be constantly sought. . . and look at how he connects the kingdom here to righteousness. . . which is one of those church words, that folks often use but rarely think about its specific meaning. . . it basically means “the state of being right” and what defines right other than what God defines. . . seek always the kingdom, seek always what is right in God’s sight, and the rest will take care of itself. . . and look he even describes it in the immediacy of today. . . do this today, for tomorrow will have its own challenges. . . today’s troubles are enough for today. Focus on the means, focus on what we are to do and be, today, and tomorrow will take care of itself, leave the ends to God.
This idea makes practical sense, though often the path is harder because it calls us to let go and have faith beyond the immediate moment. We live in a world of fake news, and the expediency of misdirection, a world of alternative facts. We live in a world where when our leaders lie to us it is simply accepted as what politicians do, the way it all works. We live in a world where the very meaning of words is constantly changing on the whims of public opinion. . . opinion shaped by a constant onslaught of ready on-demand 24 hour news media, driven not by accuracy and facts, but by ratings and agendas. We live in a world where doing what is right, simply because it is right seems out of style, and counterproductive. In short, we live in a world where the ends justify the means, and it is all about winning, no matter the cost, no matter the process, no matter the damage done in the process.
I taught high school English for 15 years, which means I taught writing, which I think is the most difficult thing in the world to teach. Some might say that Math is difficult, but at least in Math there is an answer, and you either get it right or you get it wrong, it either comes out at the end or it doesn’t, you either follow the set rules and find the answer, or you go astray at some point and mess up, and you can usually find where you went wrong if you trace your steps backward. Writing is not that way. There is no right answer, there is no perfect way of phrasing something, there is no perfect idea. . . you have to get comfortable with doing nothing less than your best and letting it lie, letting it be enough, even if there is no such thing as enough. Because you can know all the rules, you can have all the grammar set, you can understand vocabulary, and can have all the tools in place, but having that doesn’t quite get you there, it doesn’t ensure perfection because there is no such thing. You have to have an idea, and you have to seek to communicate that idea. . . that is all, that is what writing is, and so that needs to be your goal, and if you have another goal in place, the quality of the writing is going to suffer. I used to make that a rule, a covenant between me and them. . . They would need to have communication of an idea as their goal, not the grade, not just getting it finished so they could move on, those typical teenage mindsets. . . ugh can’t I just get this done, can’t I just call it done. . . I’d of course answer that with the question, is it done, can you call it done, can you honestly say you have sought to communicate your idea carried it through to the best of your ability. Because if they did, that was how they would get an A. . . and there was no other way. Seek first the kingdom of God. . . if they were seeking to get an A they couldn’t, they had to write a good paper to get an A, and the only way to write a good paper was to have an idea and seek to communicate that idea. . . something that was done word by word and sentence by sentence. There was no cutting corners, there was no skipping steps, there was no way to jump to the end and call it all done. It just wasn’t allowed. See it is tough to have a Reformed Calvinist Presbyterian Minister as a High School English teacher. . . applying those ideas to the classroom. . . freedom and responsibility and faith, man did they love me and hate me all at once, but you’ll hear those stories as we get to know each other better I’m sure.
So let’s think about it, if we want to have a Presbyterian Revolution, if we want to grow this church, if we want to spread our unique understanding of faith to our neighbors and then beyond to the community, and even then beyond that. . . the only way we can do it is to do our work, each day, each week, each year, the very best we can. . . and that will mean something completely different for each of us. We will each need to discern what it is that we are being called to do, and sometimes it isn’t even a doing, it’s more of a being, discern who it is you are being called to be, who God made you to be. . . the being and the doing, are one and the same. . . and I don’t mean doing nothing, and I don’t mean having no forward vision, but that forward vision should take it shape from the Kingdom of God, and His Righteousness. . . We must look to God, to Christ, who is the head of the church, for what we are being called to be as individuals and as a church.
We will get into specifics of what that means in more detail in the weeks to come, but let’s look at the Old Testament lesson because this can give us a framework for the general that applies to all of us in our own unique ways, this is the famous Schema from the Jewish Tradition, from Deuteronomy 6.
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
10 When the Lord your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—a land with fine, large cities that you did not build, 11 houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant—and when you have eaten your fill, 12 take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
Let’s put this into context. . . the Israelites have just been freed from their bondage in Egypt, or to be honest they have just wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, and now Moses is retiring to let Joshua lead them into the promised land. . .and these are the parting reminders for living and maintaining their community in the land, one could certainly make the parallel about the kingdom of God. . . and look at what they are to do. . . its connected very much to our own thoughts this morning. . . It starts, like we talked about last week, 1. remember who they are, and who God is, now 2. Love the lord with all your heart, soul, and might. . .
So this is what we are being called to do, love the lord with all our heart, soul, and might. . . Now I want to look deeper into these because I like them so much. I love their Hebrew equivalents, because like so many things, like Bara last week, much is lost in translation. So heart, soul, and might are three Hebrew words, Labab, Nephesh, and Meod. Let’s look at each one, first Labab, which is translated often as heart, but in Hebrew it actually means your inner parts, your guts, the deepest aspect of your physical body. . . so love the Lord with all of your physical body from within. . . Next Nephesh, is translated usually as soul, but it really means your essence the very stuff of your life. . . so we have the inner most of your body in labab, and the inner most of your spiritual essence in Nephesh. . . and now we have my favorite which is Meod. . . usually translated strength or might. . . might, I actually like better because it is more wholistic than strength, but literally what it means is the very end of your energy, the very end of you, like to your last breath, everything you’ve got, as if you’ve travelled across the desert only to collapse because you can’t go another step, and God does the rest, that is meod. . . now remember it is Moses telling the Israelites this, so in someways it invites us to remember Cecil B. Demille and his 10 Commandments movie, when Moses has been drummed out of Egypt, and Seti in that great voice of Sir Cedric Harwicke is saying, Let the name of Moses be stricken from every pall and tablet, every monument and obelisk, and on and on, and then Rameses gives him the staff to rule over serpents and scorpions and he is headed out over the desert, and the other great voice comes, the voice of DeMille himself, as the narrator
Into the blistering Wilderness of Shur, the man who walked with Kings, now walks alone, torn from the pinnacle of royal power, stripped of all rank and Earthly wealth, a forsaken man, without a country, without a hope, his soul in turmoil, like the hot winds and raging sands, that lash him with the fury of a taskmaster’s whip. He is driven forward, always forward, toward a God unknown, toward a land unseen, into the molten wilderness of Sin, granite sentinels stand as towers of living death to bar his way. Each night brings the black embrace of loneliness, and in the mocking whisper of the wind he hears the echoing voices of the dark, Moses. . . Moses. . . His tortured mind, wondering if they call the memory of past triumphs, or wail foreboding of disasters yet to come, or whether the desert’s hot breath has melted his reason into madness. He cannot cool the burning kiss of thirst upon his lips, nor shade the scorching fury of the sun. All about is desolation. He can neither bless nor curse the power that moves him, for he does not know from where it comes. Learning that it can be more terrible to live than die, he is driven onward, through the burning crucible of desert, where holy men and prophets are cleansed and purged for God’s great purpose, and then at last at the end of human strength, beaten in the dust from which he came, the metal is ready for the maker’s hand. . .
That is the very definition of Meod, that you cannot take another step, that every bit of your being has been spent. . . Loving the Lord like that. . . such is what Moses experienced, and such is what Moses is describing. Labab, Nephesh, and Meod, Heart, Soul, and Might, Your bodily depths, your spiritual depths, and the very extent of your active energy, perhaps that in itself, Loving the Lord such as that, is the first step toward seeking the kingdom of God, and His righteousness. . . It is surely enough for us to begin with. . . And it is enough that Jesus himself quotes those very words when he is asked what is the greatest commandment, though he adds to it the idea, that we will go into next week, saying, “and the second is like it, “Love thy Neighbor as thyself. Though it does hang that word Love out there doesn’t it, a loaded word for sure, and one we must seek to look at and wrap our minds around in the weeks to come.
So we know where we are headed, next week and beyond, but I wanted to end this morning’s sermon with one more illustration focused on today, for those other ideas, the ideas of the weeks to come will be challenge enough for that other day. . . so to close today’s idea, here is a musical illustration, that fits the idea. This is a song I wrote when I first entered seminary. . . it is very much about living the means and not the ends, for it is about loving God, not to be saved, but just because God is. . . salvation then is one of the many things added unto, down the line, a given not for today, but whenever God wills that time to come. This is called “God is and I Do”
I seek to love God,
Not just to be saved.
I seek to know God,
Not just to behave.
I want to find God, with a love that’s true,
Not ‘cause I must, not ‘cause I should,
But ‘cause God is and I do.
God made the Earth and Stars,
Made things near and far,
And still remembered a time and place for me,
In the greatness of the world,
The beauty all unfurled,
Perfection in everything I see.
God sent to us His Son.
Again showing us the love,
God has for us simply knows no end,
But we don’t understand.
We think it’s just a plan
To earn our love, the right to call us friend.
My heart is far from pure.
Sin in me endures,
But I wish to be a better man.
I work hard everyday
To get where I can say,
I really have done the best I can.