Sunday, August 27, 2017

Your Complete Self

Your Complete Self

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

August 20, 2017

at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Zuni, Virginia

Genesis 22: 1-14

John 3: 11-16

John 15: 12-17

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’ve reached the end of our defining Love series, though we may go one more next week, looking at the imposters of love, that which is not love, but looks like it, or that which the world thinks is love. I think there is great value in doing that perhaps, like there is value in learning what something is by finding out also what it is not. When Thoreau heads into the woods at Walden Pond he says that he is going to. . .

live deliberately, I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, To put to rout all that was not life and not when I had come to die Discover that I had not lived.”

He’s talking about studying life, but love would be the same, that it is good to learn to love deep, to suck out all of the marrow of love, but that we also need to put to rout all that is not love. . . I think it helps, but that will be next week. This week we will be looking at our third and final aspect of love, the idea of giving of your complete self.

We started by seeking to expand the definition of love, realizing that there is the danger of too much confinement when you are trying to define something infinite like love, that it is infinite because the experiences of love are infinite, but though it is infinite, all/everything is not love, there are specifics within, patterns that connect us to what is and what is not love. We used the idea “God is Love” to expand, by looking at all of the actions that God takes throughout the Bible, and then attributing them to our idea of love. It stretched the boundaries for sure, but then for the last two weeks we’ve looked at specific aspects. One that Love, is steadfast, it says to another, “I will not walk away” no matter what comes, I am here. Then last week we looked at the effects of love, that love, real love, leaves a trail of life behind it, and that the funny thing about love is that it does not empty of itself, but rather grows as it is given, paradoxically so. . . but this week we will look at the aspect of love that is perhaps the greatest, as Christ says that Love hath no such one than this, to lay ones life down for a friend. . . and that is what we see today in the two Scripture lessons. The Old Testament lesson is one of the more dark passages, and the New Testament is perhaps the most well known and positive statement of our faith, but they are both linked by sacrifice. Let’s look at the Old Testament first, here is Genesis 22: 1-14, the Abraham and Isaac on Mount Moriah. . .

22 After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill[a] his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13 And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”;[b] as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

Now this story is certainly heart wrenching, and the details are just so impressive, especially since it was originally written in a language like Hebrew, where there just aren’t a lot of words for stuff. It’s an old language and there was not much time for abstract wording, but humans have always had a great capacity for expression, and Hebrew is poetic like that, much is expressed in the simplicity of details, and the way they are paralleled and repeated. The first I’d like to bring to your attention is the phrase, “Here I am.” It actually appears three times in this text. It also incidentally appears 30 times in the Bible. . . and I bring that up because it is always connected to an important concept, that of call. . . when it appears. Usually God is calling, like he does the first time here, Abraham, and Abraham responds, “Here I am.” It happens like that with Moses, God says, Moses Moses, and Moses replies, “Here I am, Samuel, Samuel, Here I am, Jacob, Jacob Here I am, even Isaiah and Jeremiah the prophets both respond when called by God, Here I am. . . it even reaches the New Testament, when Ananias is called he responds, “Here I am.” The Hebrew Word repeated is a simple one, “Hineni” always simply translated, Here I am, but based on the context, and how it is paralleled in each case, we can infer something more about the meaning, basically when someone says hineni, they are saying three things, 1. I acknowledge your voice 2. I hear what you are saying 3. I’m ready to respond. . . all that is packed into the phrase Hineni. . .but it isn’t always God calling when it is used. . . there is another category that makes up the other part of the 30, and that is between fathers and sons. . . and that pattern is introduced here with Isaac, it happens again with Jacob, with Joseph, and with Samuel. . . in this case with Isaac, Isaac is going along with all this, but notices something very wrong and says, Father. . . and Abraham answers, Hineni, right I acknowledge your speaking, I hear what you are saying, I’m ready to respond. . . . but this time Isaac says, um dad, how come there is all this wood and fire, but no lamb to be sacrificed. . . perceptive kid. . . something is fishy. . . but Abraham answers, with such a statement of faith, and one important as we go forward, he says, the lord himself will provide the lamb. . .how true right, especially since we know the rest of the story, for the 3rd heneni, here I am, comes at the end of this, Abraham has the knife, and the angel of the Lord says, Abraham, Abraham (and that is the typical pattern, name twice, followed by, “Here I am” Heneni, I acknowledge your call, I hear you, I’m ready to respond. . . . put down the knife. . . the Lord provides, and thus Mount Moriah is named. . . and that brings us to our New Testament Lesson. . . John 3: 11-16

11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you[a] do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.[b] 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.[c]

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

We know that passage so well right, God so loves us that we he gave his son as a sacrifice, his only son, so that we shall not perish but have eternal life. . . the story that was begun back in Genesis is now brought to fruition here. . .  God himself has provided the lamb. . . how poignant that the Old Testament passage is clear on it, that simple detail in a story where details are few. . .as is the case in most Hebrew tales, what is there is, must be important, so the Himself, added to God, God himself will provide the lamb is prophetically beautiful paired with the Christian understanding of John 3: 16, is it not? The Lamb that was slain was God’s only son, no he spared Abraham’s only son, and gave his own instead. . . himself, God self, given for you and for me. . . impressive stuff, and the very high definition of Love, must be right. Christ himself later in John’s gospel says,

 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

And he says this completely surrounded by love commandment language, it is preceded by the command, he says, this is John 15: 12-13

12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

And then 14

14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.

So this raises the question, is following in Christ’s literal footsteps, laying down your life for you friends, following in this greatest of loves, is that actually required of us for salvation? I mean there is no mistaking it right, the greatest commandment is to love God and love your neighbor, we are to love because Christ first loved us, but there is not greater love than to lay your life down for your friends. . . . Christ in the other gospels talks about carrying the cross, pick up your cross and follow. . . what would the cross be for, excect for the full sacrifice of one’s life. . . and our Christian faith to be honest if we were to think about it is founded upon such sacrifice and following in Christs footsteps, thousands of early Christians were martyred for their faith by the Romans, horrible deaths. . . Romans pitting Christians against the lions, and those lions were undefeated. . . following in Christ’s footsteps. . . the call to love. . . perhaps, but what about this story of Abraham and Isaac? Is there something to the idea that Christ himself is the lamb who is to be slain, so that we would not perish. . . that God calls for Abraham to stop the knife. . . does he do the same for us? Maybe. . . . I don’t want to down play and short change the notion of literal sacrifice, but I think there is nuance here, and part of it has to do with the notion of “have to” “must” etc. . . because look at the language Christ uses. . . he says friends. . . and friends shouldn’t do out of compulsion, not out of guilt, not out of manipulation, but out of gratitude. . . an important distinction. Let’s look at the rest of the John 15 passage, and I’ll read the verses I’ve already read again, so we have the context. Remember he starts with. . .

12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants[d] any longer, because the servant[e] does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

Not servants but friends. . . yes there is command language, but commands between friends. . . look at what Jesus says is the difference, I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything. . . you see the free decision, not a test, not an onerous necessity is given, not out of the withholding of information, for some kind of manipulation, but because all has been revealed. . . and what is revealed is the amazing power of love, the I will not walk away, and that the cup is never empty, death is not the end. . . but that is just the way it is. . . love is not then required, it is not quid pro quo, rather it has been done, all this has been done, how do you respond? When were you saved? 2000 years ago! There is no game. There is no trick. There is no guilt, this is not the carrot and the stick, this is not controlling behavior, this is not master and servant, this is friends, this is love, Jesus says, I have done this, this is the way the world works, I am giving these commands, so that you “may” love one another. . . . it doesn’t make it necessary, it makes it possible. And his command is the same as the first commandment in the Bible. . . do you know that? Pop quiz? What is the first commandment in the Bible? . . . . Be Fruitful and Multiply. . . I appointed you to go and bear fruit. . . you see that is that trail of life. . . bear fruit, create a trail of life.

Now how do you do that? What is it about? Now first we have shown that it is not about earning anything, it is not about living up to any standard, other than love, and love if we want to be honest does require the giving of your complete self. . . so if we truly want to be honest, it is a gift you are never finished giving, it is not one where you can say, yep, I’m done, I paid that debt off. . . now I can do what I want. . . it doesn’t work that way, that way at its heart is self serving. . . trying to pay off the debt is self serving, trying to earn it is self serving, doing it so you can go to heaven is self serving, and love is not, cannot, will never be self serving, it requires doing completely for others, giving of your complete self for others. . . you see it doesn’t even exist on the give and take, quid pro quo basis, doesn’t even live in that world. And this is why we must confess our sins every week here together in worship, because as long as we are still breathing, we are not done, and are withhold a part of ourselves, we haven’t completely picked up that cross yet. . . ok we haven’t done it yet, but how do we begin to do it, where do we start, how do we give of our entire self?

Remember that word, Hineni. . . Here I am. . . I acknowledge your call. I hear what you have to say. I am ready to respond. . . this is the loving stance. . .

 I acknowledge your call. . . now what’s going on there. . . just like with Abraham, or with Moses and the others, God calls you by name, you are his sheep, he is your shepherd, and he knows you by name, he call you by name, and his sheep they hear his voice. . . you see it all connects together. What does it mean to acknowledge this call though. . . one is that you know the voice of the one calling, you know God, you know what amazing things he has done, and you cannot help but be grateful if you’ve come to know the amazing works. . . but it also means you know yourself. . . you know the gifts that God has given you, you value them, you realize that they are yours, given freely to you, to do what you are called to do, and that if God was taking this moment in time, to #1 create you, #2 give you those gifts, and #3 call you. . . you must be pretty special, pretty important, and crucial to the world that God has made, and all of that is wrapped up in Acknowledging your call. . .

I hear what you have to say. . . there is the discernment, what is God calling me to do and be. . . this open dialogue between you and God is happening through all the ways God has to speak to you, through events, through circumstances, through gifts, scripture, others, people and places, everything. . . we call this dialogue discernment, but that is what it is. . . we used to talk to our football players about having their head on a swivel. . . looking for the ball, looking for would be blockers, looking for the play as it unfolds trying to anticipate, to read. . . that is what discernment is about. . . doing the same thing in life about life, if you can come to know, then that is the second part. . . you can say, I hear what you have to say, God . . .

Then finally. . . I will respond. . . I will take the first step, and then each step after, wherever they may lead, even if it leads to the giving of my entire self, until I am completely spent, or taking up my own cross. . . again not for my own gain. . . I have already been given all gifts imaginable. . . I respond to God’s call to love because I have come to know the love he has shown for me, because as a friend He has let me know, and I then simply do. . .

I put in your bulletin a poem from Whitman, 5 years ago, my how the time flies, 5 years ago I was asked to speak at the graduation at Blue Ridge where I used to teach. My speech was entitle “Love as if your life depended upon it” it came from a quote from a poem I had written for the previous years’ graduation. . . but in that speech I used this Whitman poem. O Me O Life! Take a look at it.

O Me! O life!... of the questions of these recurring;  

Of the endless trains of the faithless—of cities fill’d with the foolish;  

Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who  more faithless?)  

Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the objects mean—of the struggle ever renew’d;  

Of the poor results of all—of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;         

Of the empty and useless years of the rest—with the rest me intertwined;  

The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?  



That you are here—that life exists, and identity;  

That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.

I love that poem. . . mostly because the last two lines. . . the rest is talking about the sadnesses and frustrations, the heartache and the natural shocks that flesh is heir to. . . to borrow words another great writer. . .(another pop quiz if you can name him). . . ha ha. But the last two lines state the culmination of the good, what good amid all this, he asks. And the answer, that you are here and life exists. . . right gratitude for creation, the gift of life. . . and identity. . . that we are individuals, uniquely made, with our own self to give, otherwise we could not love. . . there must be a self to give. . . God gives us that self, and it has great value. . . that the powerful play goes on and you get to contribute a verse. . . you must contribute a verse. That is what life is about, and that is what love is. . . it is not that we are required to love so that we may earn eternal life, it is that we love because that is the stuff of eternal life, it is the cup that runs over, the oil that is never empty, the manna from heaven, the cup of salvation, and the tomb that could never hold it inside. God has made you, given you life, and identity, and a self, to give in love. . . what amazing verse has he given you to write. . . for God so loved the world. . . and all God’s people said. . . no not amen this time. . . all God’s people said, and let us say it together today and every minute going forward in our lives. . . what word. . . yes, Hineni. . . Here I am!

Sunday, August 20, 2017

A Trail of Life

A Trail of Life
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
August 20, 2017
at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Zuni, Virginia
1 Kings 17: 7-16
Matthew 14:13-21

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 we’ve been working at defining love for the last few weeks. And as we go in our defining we do not want to conf ne love too much, because there is great danger in limiting infinite things, and love is an infinite thing, mostly because it is connected to experience, and experience is something that is occurring ever in the eternal present. . . in other words we are constantly experiencing things, and across this world, and across all of time, people have been experiencing love in immeasurable, unfathomable ways. And so we can get at the definition of love only through narrative and poetry, because they both take into account this intangible notion of experience, but it is also important to make the distinction that everything is not love, infinity does not assure saturation, and we must realize that as well, love can and must be defined, so that we can grow closer to knowing it, especially since Christ himself states that the greatest commandment is wrapped up in doing this very thing, to simply love God and love our neighbor. So after setting those paramenters about love and its definition, we set out to work, and pushed our boundaries a little bit by taking the notion that God is Love, and applying it, looking at the actions of God in the Bible, and raising them up, and thereby challenging ourselves, and understandings of love, greatly, but raising up the actions of God in the Bible and calling them love. It pushed us, greatly. . . but now having done that, these last few weeks of this sermon series, beginning last week and ending I think next week, we are being more specific, trying to bring those boundaries back, again not to confine, but to give us an up close and tangible idea of what love is, and how we might go about doing it. Last week we talked about the idea that Love is saying, “I will not walk away” which is a mirror of God’s steadfastness. God does not walk away, he is always there with powerful and meaningful presence in and through the lives of the Biblical Characters, no matter what they do, and we testify to the same about God in our own lives today, that no matter what God will not walk away. . . God is steadfast.

Today I want to bring to light another facet of Love, and that is that it leaves a trail of life behind it. It is abounding and overflowing with life. Now to help me bring out this idea, I’m going to seek to show another idea about love that is greatly connected, and that is that it never runs out. . . let’s look at the Old and New Testament Lessons for today, for they are both stories revealing this amazing quality that love and its power has. . . the very miracle of radical fullness.

The first is from the Old Testament, the story of Elijah and the widow, and the ever filling jars. . .

 But after a while the wadi dried up, because there was no rain in the land.

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” 10 So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” 11 As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” 12 But she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” 13 Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. 14 For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” 15 She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16 The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.

Now before I go on to the New Testament lesson, I want to expound on this one. There is a novel that I read this past spring that takes this story and expands it, taking what is only a paragraph or two from the Bible and imagining it in its fullness. It is called The Fifth Mountain, and it was a short and easy read, and a good read. It really did bring to life this story, bringing to life the political realities that Elijah was dealing with, the idea that this woman, this widow and her son were not living alone but in city, in a community, and that the idea of sheltering a Prophet of Yahweh, was not only bad from an economic (hey we don’t have any bread to spare aspect) but that also a political, in other words, not only would they starve, but they’d be outcast, shunned, or perhaps much worse. And then what else would happen during this time. Elijah is running away from Jezebel, but even Elijah’s own faith is tested, he has yet to fully come into his own as a prophet, he has yet to work his amazing act with all the priests of Baal, and he has yet to hear God’s still small voice. . . but this act of faith on his part, and her part bears the fruit of real sacrifice, because it bears out life really out over the edge, but what the writer, Paulo Coehlo, who is more famous for writing the book The Alchemist, what he does is show how those jars not emptying is truly connected to their faith and humanity, their love, growing for each other built on this shared act of faith out over the edge. Impressive stuff, Fifth Mountain, great book. I’m sure it is in a box at this point, but when I get to it I fully recommend it and can lend it, or maybe share it in a book circle at some point.

But now let’s turn our attention to another, jar never emptying story, that being the feeding of the multitudes from Matthew’s gospel, this is Matthew 14: 13-21, I’m sure at least slightly more well known than old Elijah’s:

13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Now both of these stories share in common something that is truly miraculous, for in both what is expected fails to occur. When you go out with only five loaves of bread and two fish, you cannot expect to feed five thousand people, and when a widow only has a little bit of oil and a little bit of meal, and they are about ready to eat their last meal before starving to death. And that is what the text says. There are not many details in the story as it comes to us from 1 Kings, but that one does, it clearly says, out of the mouth of the woman that they have got it into their minds that this will be their last bite, that their food is completely gone, and not just that this will leave them out of food temporarily, no this is their last bite of food, and their last prospects of having any food, this is it, she says, I was saving it for my son and me, so that we can eat it and then die. Now that is poverty, and that is starvation, and that is supposed to be all she wrote, that is supposed to be the end, but yet she shares, and the food abounds, and it lasts everyday until Elijah is finally ready to move on. Amazing, it shouldn’t be like that. The disciples said, Jesus it’s getting late, and there are all these people here, they are going to want to be fed, and we ain’t got it, just a two fish and a few loaves of bread, but somehow, just like with Elijah, it all worked, when the need was there, what was provided abounded. . . and the Israelites shared common stories in their time in the desert, what with Manna falling from heaven, and the water coming out of the rock. It shouldn’t be like that but it is. . . Now you may be asking yourself, what does this have to do with love, and I thought you were talking about leaving a trail of life behind you, or some such thing, what does this have to do with love?

Have you ever noticed, or again we’ll focus on experience, have you ever experienced a time when you were seemingly loving, and your energy to do so didn’t give out, what you had to give was absolutely necessary for what it was that you needed to do? Have you ever noticed that feeling in yourself? Have you ever noticed it in someone else? Have you noticed it differently in your life when loving was a part of the recipe. . . and by love, let’s use for sake of this week, one of those words connected with the great commandment, we talked about it the other week, the Hebrew word Meod, which is translated often as might, love the lord your God with all your might. And remember that this word means to the end of your energy, like you’ve crossed the desert, and had no understanding of why your feet kept moving, but they did. . . that is meod, giving of your complete self, how come is it then that when you truly love with meod, you never run out. . . by definition you are giving to your very last breath, your very last bit of energy, your very last, but that last never actually comes?  

It’s a paradox . . . and that is the title of the poem that I put in the bulletin as this morning’s meditation. . . The Paradox. . .

The city standing on the hill is not
The goal. The people there do shine without,
Not for themselves the center of the plot;
For those who see, instead, it's all about.
The city shines its light unto the world;
The light itself the beacon that it gives,
That light grows dim when inward focus furled,
For love, outpouring stokes the strength, it lives!
But love we give is not love that is lost;
It grows, the more it leaves the one whose love
Is given freely, d'spite reward or cost,
Though always seen by unseen eyes above,
So shine your light, and shine it not for you,
And they'll be filled with light, but you will, too.

Now as the writer of this poem I am in the unique position to tell you a little bit about it. First off it is a sonnet, and the sonnet is a tight structure. There is set meter and a rhyme schemed, but also there is a structure to the idea. Normally in a Shakesperean Sonnet like this, there are three major parts. The first part is made up by the first two stanzas, in this case the first 8 lines, and they are supposed to develop an idea. Let’s look at the idea that is being developed. . . biblical imagery, city on a hill, and its job to shine light, not for itself but outward. So this light is not for themselves, but sent outward. . . and it speaks initially of the paradox, without explaining it, it says that light shines out, but if it were to shine in for the people inside the city the light would dim. . . interesting to think about. . . I remember being in high school and learning the difference between external and internal family economy. . . for instance if I was doing chores around our house for money that was coming from our family. . . but if I were to go out and cut the neighbor’s grass or get a job at the mall that would be money coming in. . . and of course money coming it is better than money going out, because it adds to the coffers, but in this case it is reversed, the light grows in strength only when shining outward. . . hmmm. Now in a Shakesperean sonnet comes the fancy Italian word, Volta, which just means changing point. At this point the question being asked, or in this case the irony being raised, gets explained, and in this case it connects it to love, that love is not lessened when it is given, but rather grows and grows, and that being the case with love given in connection with meod, it would also give back at that same heightened level. Again I ask have you ever found this to be the case? In yourself? In others?

Another story, and another poem. . . keeps coming back to narrative and poetry doesn’t it, you see there is a method to this madness. . . in my former church there was a woman, and I noticed that she was “Bleeding love on three sides.” When we are born we gain the first aspect of our identity, we become daughter or son. . . our identity is connected in that way to another. Then if we get married we gain a second, we become husband or wife. . . and then if we are lucky enough to follow this proscribed order, we have kids and gain a third, we become mother or father, there are three sides then to identity, and she had the three, she was daughter, husband, and mother. . . and she was in a situation where her mother was 99 years old and battling the rapid decline of her body, she needed constant care. . . it would turn out that the end was near, but at this point it hadn’t come yet. Also her husband who had some chronic health problems anyway, had also fallen, slipped on the ice and broke his foot and ankle, needing constant care, and her son had just been diagnosed with the rapid onset of cancer, needing constant care. . . now that is what I mean by bleeding love on all sides, not just three sides, but all sides. . . yet as weary as she was, her energy never waivered, she was strong, she was a rock, she loved them each and even had love outpouring beyond those three sides to the people of her church whom she truly loved as well. I was so moved I wrote this for her:

Have you ever been bleeding love on all sides,
Pouring out your heart in three directions at once,
Where all that makes you, you, needs all of you,      
Completely, wholly, and there is no end in sight,
Where the immediacy of now is real, encompassing
Every corner of your body, flowing through every 
Vein and leaking out, your fluid force of life, given,
Offered, none held back or hoarded, overflowing,
Breaking down walls and barriers, at once forever?
You should feel empty, but if you have, you get it:
There is nothing that could fill you so much. Perhaps,
This is living in the house of the Lord, a house 
Where walls have long since come down, invisible,
But real, an embrace, where all that flowed out
Returns, as if it never left. There is no way to know
Such things: they must be experienced, felt, believed.
My prayer is not to deliver you from such things,
But to send you into their glorious center, so you
Can come to love like that and become fully human,
For this alone is the grace-filled image of God. 

At the end of the poem I state, again maybe paradoxically that I would not want to deliver someone from such things, though there is great pain, though there is great effort, though suffering is at a premium, a high, those are the times when we look back on them that we feel the most alive. . . I remember funerals where there was such life present. . . actually I don’t remember any funerals connected to church, where I have been apart of them where there wasn’t extreme life present, an energy, an unmistakeable power just emanating from the people present, in the outpouring of help, but also in the outpouring of just being there, just realizing that there isn’t an escape hatch, but reality must absolutely be endured, and it is and it does, and love and life, inseparable as they are absolutely abound.

I once had a friend ask me what I thought the meaning of life was. He said, “Pete, I’m fifty years old and I’ve done a lot, I’ve got a good job, I’m making a difference here, I’m happy at home, great wife, love the kid, and I’m here teaching these kids, but I don’t know what life is all about.” I said, yes you do, he was like what do you mean? I see it, you couldn’t exude the energy and passion that just comes out of you unless you had some clue, What in the world are you talking about. . . I said life isn’t about any unifying secret that all people have to live to. He said wait a minute preacher man isn’t the meaning of life connected to church and religion? I said yes and know. . . he said what do you mean? Well in church we talk about love right, loving God and Loving Neighbor. . . he said yeah, but what is love? He said, hell I don’t know, being nice to people. . . come on you can do better than that. . . I said its about giving of yourself completely. . . knowing yourself, your talents, your environment, your experiences, how they have shaped you, and giving that, just that to the world. . . he said, ok yeah, but that is what I mean I’m 50 years old, relatively happy and living a balanced life, but I don’t know what it is for me. . . I said, have you ever had a moment where you were doing something, and connected to it with such passion and energy, giving your all, but in the middle you realized that the energy put in and the energy taken out were at a balance, and it felt like you could do it forever. He said, yeah. . . I said, of course, no kidding I’ve seen you. He said, what do you mean you’ve seen. I said it is unmistakable when someone is like that because the life that it spreads around them is infectious it just spreads, it leaves a trail. . .

The girls play this game on our phones or our ipads, its called or something like that, but basically it works like this you are a snake, and all the other people who are playing the game at the same time are also snakes, and you have to move around, now as you eat these little dots you get to be bigger, now you at some point realize that the little dots are coming from the tail end of all the snakes and you have to eat more dots than you give up, and if you run into another snake you die. . . and your body turns into a feast of these little dots, and if you eat them you grow really big really fast. . . the other thing you can do is speed up your snake, but if you do that the rate that you snake is shrinking is larger, and you lose control. . . so you have a bunch of snakes trying to kill each other and then live off of the death of each other because if you can kill a bigger snake you can get bigger and take their life force. It’s a great game, and it reflects in many ways the way of the world, and if we were only looking at the way the world works and operates it would be really easy to think that this is all the world is, a bunch of conflict, everyone taking from everyone else, running the race and trying to go fast, but going fast and running out of energy and control. . . knocking others down so you can take their place and gain from their fall. . . we talk in church often about being in the world but not of it, this is what we mean when we say that, because Love works the opposite. . . the faster you go, the more energy you have, the more energy you give, the more energy you have, and then there is that one similarity, others do benefit from the trail you leave behind but it doesn’t make you smaller it makes you bigger, and when you finally do give it all, others do benefit, but Jesus shows us that even this is not the end, doesn’t he. . . and that is where we will end next week with our series on Love Defined, but not Confined, the notion that Love is sacrifice. . . . until then. . . what kind of vapor trail are you leaving behind you? Amen. . .

Sunday, August 13, 2017

I Won't Walk Away

I Won’t Walk Away
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
August 13, 2017
at Bethany Presbyterian Church, Zuni, Virginia
Jonah 2: 2-9

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.


As we continue this series about Love, defining it without confining, we will start with this week and next week getting into more of the specifics about love. In the first sermon in this we looked at how love is one of those infinite words that is hard to define. It is hard to put into words what exactly it is and be specific about it because when you do so you tend to leave much of it out, but that the way to break through those limitations is with poetry and with narrative, for they each bring to bear experience, which is constantly occurring, new and distinctive in and to each one of us. So last week, we looked both, taking the metaphor about God is love, and hashing it out against one of the Biblical poems about God, Psalm 136, recalling the chorus about the “steadfast love of the Lord” Ci Laolam CHosdi. . . and then we looked at the sweeping Biblical narrative of God’s actions, relating them, each of God’s actions to what then must be aspects of love. If the purpose of the last two sermons was to push outwards, expanding the definition of love, it was, but at some point you must begin to reign it in, because despite the fact that Love is infinite, i.e. without ends, it does not mean that love is everything. If Love was truly everything then it would really exist, no we can discern that which is and that which isn’t love, and so since we have pushed the limits outward, now I want to begin to talk about aspects of exactly what love is, not that it is only this, but that is really this. I want to introduce this idea by looking at the Old Testament Lesson first. This is the famous prayer of Jonah from the belly of the great fish. Jonah 2: 2-9.

 I called to the Lord out of my distress,
    and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
    and you heard my voice.
You cast me into the deep,
    into the heart of the seas,
    and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
    passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am driven away
    from your sight;
a] shall I look again
    upon your holy temple?’
The waters closed in over me;
    the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped around my head
    at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
    whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the Pit,
    O Lord my God.
As my life was ebbing away,
    I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to you,
    into your holy temple.
Those who worship vain idols
    forsake their true loyalty.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
    will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
    Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”

Now I use this story and episode and prayer to bring out one of the great aspects of love, and that is its steadfastness. We paid homage to it last week with our reading of Psalm 136, the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever. . . What God is saying, what God is doing, What God is showing through His actions is in fact, I will not walk away. I will be with you. I will be faithful to you. I will be your God. And he shows this again and again. Once Adam and Eve falter, God shows up, asking “Where are you” though Cain has murdered, he is marked, though Jacob is a swindler, though Abraham makes mistakes, though the Israelites, having just been freed, mutter and ask to be put back in their chains. Though during the time of Judges, the people forget and turn away from God again and again. Though Saul, then David, then Solomon all sin in the eyes Of the Lord he is still faithful and steadfast, remembering the covenant that he made, even in the face of the Exile and the destruction of the temple, as the Prophet Ezekiel teaches, and as we looked at in Bible Study on Monday, God is still in charge, still ruling, still upholding his covenant, he has not gone anywhere, and he says that “they will know that my name is the Lord.” God is still present, no matter what may befall, because love is unconditional, steadfast, and therefore, will not walk away.

And this continues to be the case in the New Testament as well, look at the last words of Christ in the Gospel of Matthew, this being the lesson for this morning, Matthew 28: 16-20, some call it the great commissioning because it gives the disciples their job to do, but it does one thing more.

16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

I am with you always to the end of the age. I am with you, I will be with you, I will not walk away. And it isn’t a conditional statement, it is not I will be with you if, you are faithful, you are true, you go to church, you lead sinless lives, you follow my commandments, sure he has commissioned them, they, we are to make disciples of all nations and Baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but the next statement is predicated not with a so, or a therefore, but with a “remember” don’t forget I am, definitely, assuredly, bet your life of it, I am with you to the end of the age, always. . . the steadfast love of the Lord endures forever. God is with us, we may run like Jonah, we may turn away, we may cheat, be unfaithful, forget, but it changes nothing about God, God always shows up, and is always with us. His presence is sure, steady, unwavering and true, and therefore one of the necessary aspects of love is this steadfastness, this notion that says, come what may I will be here. And we know this. . . two reasons we know it. One is that we see here God doing it, and the other is that it truly is one of the great human needs in the world. We have the need to have other human beings say to us, I will not walk away, why? Why is that? . . .

Now for the answer I want to have a little bit of fun this morning and change it up. I want to show how this aspect of love isn’t something that the church has a monopoly on, but something that every human being understands and knows, and I’m going to show it through some songs, showing how the idea that love means, not walking away, and being steadfast is something that human beings know very well at their very core, even if they for some reason of history do not connect it to God. . . we affirm and we do connect it to God, and the way God made us, so why do we have the need to have other human being say to us, I will not walk away. . . .

Why? why? Tell them that its human nature.
Why? why? Does he do me that way? (If they say);
Why? why? Tell them that its human nature.
Why? why? Does he do me that way?

You see, its there, right, human nature, the way God made us is why we need love, and why we can seek for our greatest needs and wants to get a further understanding of what love is. We know deep down there is something in us that is empty without someone else, and that being abandoned is one of our greatest fears.

Don Williams puts it this way

G) ‘Till the rivers (C) all run (G) dry,

‘Till the sun falls (C) from the (G) sky,

‘Till life on (C) earth is (G) through,

I’ll be (D) needing (G) you,

Paul Simon tried to write the opposite, but we know that it is folly just when we hear it. . . he writes

I Am A Rock, I am an island.
And a rock feels no pain;
And an island never cries!

No that song is about the folly of a human being thinking that he can live on his own, that he can some how shield up and protect himself from love.

[Verse 1]

Please,  lock  me  away  and  don’t  allow  the  day.

Here,  inside  where  I  hide  with  my  loneliness.

I  don’t  care  what  they  say,  I  won’t  stay 

in  a  world  without  love.

This writer, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, of All you need is love fame, knows that living in a world without love just doesn’t work for human beings, we aren’t made that way

So what remains is the question of love, the statement of love that works both ways. The question of Love, as I put in the bulletin as the meditation for today is quite simple, as captured by my favorite songwriter, Townes Van Zandt

If I needed you, would you come to me?
Would you come to me and ease my pain?
If you needed me, I would come to you
I'd swim the seas for to ease your pain

And swimming the seas to ease pain, must not only work when everything is sunshine and lollipops but also through the hard times. . . the rain. . .

On a perfect day, I know that I can count on you

But when that’s not possible, tell me can you weather a storm

 ‘Cause I need somebody, who will stand by me

Through the good times and bad times, who will always

Always, be right there

Sunny days, everybody loves them,

Tell me baby can you stand the rain,

Storms will come, this we know for sure

Tell me baby can you stand the rain?

So love may be intimidating to us, it may be something that is great with meaning, a word that we dare not uses to often for the very reason that it means not walking away through the hard times, maybe even forever. Robert Earl Keen puts it this way

Love's a word I never throw around
So when I say I'll love you til' the end
I'm talkin about until the day they lay me in the ground
Love's a word I never throw around
I actually said it to my wife in this way. . . from Frank Sinatra

Today I may not have a thing at all, 

Except for just a dream or two;

But I've got lots of plans for tomorrow,

And all my tomorrows belong to you.

I’m going to finish now with two songs, two songs that I think really capture this aspect of love the best. One is from the secular world and rings of it, and the other from the gospel world. Let me start with the secular one first. Listen to this, this is from a song by Jewel called “I Won’t Walk Away” aptly titled for today don’t you think. . .

Wrong or right be mine tonight

Harsh world be damned, we’ll make a stand

Love can bind, but mine is blind

Other’s stray, but I won’t walk away.

That is it, other’s stray but I won’t walk away, If you needed me I would come to you, I would swim the seas for to ease your pain. I can stand the rain, come what may, I will not walk away. Wouldn’t it be great to have someone say this to you? Have you ever dared say it, and mean it, while saying it to someone else. . . . such is the stuff of the love of God, as is shown in this gospel classic.

Once I stood in the night
With my head bowed low
In the darkness as black as could be
And my heart felt alone and I cried
Oh Lord, don't hide your face from me

Like a king I may live in a palace so tall
With great riches to call my own
But I don't know a thing
In this whole wide world
That's worse than being alone

Hold my hand all the way
Every hour, every day
Come here to the great unknown

Take my hand, let me stand
Where no one stands alone

Take my hand, let me stand
Where no one stands alone