Sunday, August 11, 2013

Do Not Be Afraid, Little Flock

Do Not Be Afraid, Little Flock
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
August 11, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 12: 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 last week we studied the passage that precedes this one, which included the parable about the rich fool whose crop came in and in his greed built barns to hold it, but he passed away, leaving all of his savings laid to waste. We looked at how greed is a form of idolatry, because things become replacements for God. Things become what we look to for protection, for sustenance, for our lives, etc. We build up worthless protections around ourselves, amassing treasures for our future, but leave untended our relationship with God, which according to Jesus is what really matters. Love is what really matters. Jesus follows up that parable with this morning's reading, Luke 12, beginning at verse 22, in which Jesus makes some bold promises about how God works in our world, and therefore how we are to live in faith and love and relationship.

22 He said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24 Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 25 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  26 If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? 27 Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 28 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! 29 And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. 30 For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. [1] .

This week as I have been studying and thinking about this text, I couldn't help but think of how God's love manifests itself in our lives, and on the contrary how we often consider love, at least in some of our most basic relationships. Many people view love as a tax, as responsibility, as chains, as slavery. They avoid relationships because they don't want to be tied down. Often people refer to their spouse as the "Old Ball and Chain." These phrases are familiar to us because they are all around us. They ring with truths, at least to some extent. Life changes when you find love, that is for sure, and truth be told I've always thought, despite what many Theologians and Philosophers claim, that love is love, and therefore there are many parallels and unity in the love we have for our spouses, the love we have for our parents, the love we have for our children, and the Christian love that we are supposed to talk about in church, the love that God has for us and we get to reciprocate. I think they are the same when "true", yes I am a Romantic enough to believe in true love, when love is true it is the same, there is not difference between love and love, but at the same time all around us there are many love imposters. And the church throughout its history and certainly today is not immune to imposters of love. Isn't it ironic that love, romantic, familial, and Christian, all have histories of enslaving, ball in chain, guilt ridden responsibility, and superficiality in them, when love at its heart must be free. Love is supposed to set free, as God does, but how often people use it to control, but I guess that goes lock step with people using God to control. Is this a symptom or the cause of our fall?
I'm going to use in this sermon, in concert with the scripture, the literary ideas that are swirling around my head this summer. I'm currently reading about 6 books, but two of them at least the last few days more consistently, for Blue Ridge Summer Reading, A Farewell to Arms and because of an interest, Anna Karenina. Interestingly enough both of them deal with love, both true and imposter love in this world, and what happens when "life" gets in the way of love. By life, I mean, how war, social norms and structures, allegiances and friendships, and that big stumbling block of love: gossip, get in the way of true love thriving. The other things swirling around my head this week have been music, especially country music,  as I was preparing for the concert yesterday, and because I have a three year old daughter who goes through rotating princess phases, I also have going through my head the story of this week's princess, Rapunzel, as her story is told in Disney Pixar's Tangled, the movie made a few years ago. Bear with me as all of these swirl together in my mind to make a formative commentary on this morning's so well known text about "not worrying, and ravens and lilies of the field, arrayed in clothes rivaling Solomon" 
So earlier this week I read in A Farewell to Arms this line:
When you love you wish to do things for. You wish to sacrifice for. You wish to serve. "I don't love." "You will. I know you will. Then you will be happy."

The priest is telling the narrator Lt. Henry about what love is because he says he does not love and has never loved. The priest is trying to ward Henry away from one of the impostors of love, in this case sex. Lt. Henry does not want to love, because in the midst of the war he does not want anything real, anything to stir his emotions, anything to care about, love seems to do those things, but how then can it make you happy? Sacrifice, service, happiness: which one of these three doesn't belong? Doesn't make sense right. But he says:

She went out. God knows I had not wanted to fall in love with her. I had not wanted to fall in love with anyone. But God knows I had. . .
I guess then he should be happy now, and he is, in little moments. His life is fulfilled in ways he couldn't imagine before, serving, sacrificing, loving, but all in the midst of war. Doesn't make sense, too complicated, too much irony, and it becomes way too powerfully painful for him, at the end through loss and the seemingly randomness of death in our world.. Bringing me now to Anna Karenina, woman in a love imposter marriage, at least on the surface because of the walls that her husband has built around himself, driven by true love, what she thinks is true love, or is it simply the desire to be alive and in love, which is it, especially since it leads to her self destruction? I've barely scratched the surface of this super super long novel, but have read quotes like this one. Talking about marriage:
Marriage for love? What antediluvian notions you have, can one talk of love these days? The only happy marriages I know are marriages of prudence.
There is a big theme in the novel amongst many of the people who have become realists, believing that love is simply a foolish idealism, and now they have logic replacing love. Can it happen? And then this:
He felt that he was standing face to face with something illogical and irrational, and did not know what was to be done. He was standing face to face with life, the possibility that his wife loved someone other than himself, and this seemed to him very irrational and incomprehensible because it was life itself.
For the first time this man was feeling the emotions of love, and couldn't handle it because it shook him through and through, it made him feel, it made him come alive, no longer sheltering himself from life, but again opening himself up to pain in a way he had never before experienced. Is this what love is? Both Hemingway and Tolstoy depict a world that is anti love. Hemingway because he doesn't believe in love any more, lost generation, not believing in anything anymore, as famously in one of his short stories wrote, nada, who art in nada, nada be thy name, and on the other hand Tolstoy, who is one of the last romantics in a world he finds hopelessly lost in logical delusions of so called realism. But why, why do we not believe in love. What has happened? Because in essence to not believe in God is to not believe in love, and it's power, or to idolize one of its impostors. Why does real and true love have trouble being recognized and longed for in today's world? This is an important question for church people to address because sadly it goes hand in hand with the antipathy many people today have towards organized religion.

So now on to country music. There is this great song called "Riding for a Fall" written and performed by Chris Ledoux, who was a singer and rodeo rider actually, so he knows something about falling. I love the song, love singing it, and was trying to figure out a way to make it relatable to us here at church, so I could sing it yesterday, not that I needed an excuse, but it got me thinking, and even though I didn't sing it, I had this notion about how our desires for freedom cause us to not be willing to love, very much in line with what I'm talking about today. Ledoux opens the song with. . .

Last night you told her, you could never hold her.
'Cause a cowboy's just gotta be free.
Her heart was breakin', yours was achin',
But you saddled up to follow your dreams.

Again why does something that is supposed to set us free like love, seem like something that could drag us down and keep us from our dreams? He goes on in the second verse:

Midnight the moons up, hands around your tin cup.
The frost settles in on the sage.
The nights gettin' colder, well, man you're gettin' older.
T'night you're feelin' you're age.
Well, why don't you turn back, just saddle up and backtrack.
You know you'll never find a love quite like hers.
And tell me, on a cold lonesome evenin', what the hell good's your
Don't you think it's time you hung up your spurs?
You can make a run for the border, try to hide up the hole in the wall.
But don't you know your arms are achin' to hold her.
And cowboy even though you're ridin' tall...You're ridin' for a fall.[2]

So even though he decides to go back to her, it's not a choice of freedom, but of finally just acknowledging the fact that he needs love, he needs the chains, better have comfortable chains, now that he's getting older. Now I love that song, but is that love, or another imposter? More chains. . .
So that brings us to Rapunzel. Rapunzel gets at the problems we have with love, and the way the impostors of love have abused us of the notion, leaving us wallowing and defensive, and faithless about its existence. (Do you see the connection to contemporary Atheism?) Now we all are familiar with the story of Rapunzel right, girl, long hair, trapped in a tower. Now Disney puts a spin on the story, by putting forth that Rapunzel's hair has magical healing powers that not only can heal wounds, but can also restore youth, so this witch kidnaps Rapunzel as a baby and locks her in the tower, so that she keep the hair to herself,  using it to keep herself young. Now she is manipulative though, and instead of having Rapunzel trapped and in chains she instead uses what it often called in politics, a "soft tyranny" on her. In the guise of caring for her and loving her, she makes Rapunzel believe that she is naive and helpless, and in such completely dependent on her "Mother's" protection. There is a song from the movie that truly gets at what I mean. It's called, "Mother knows best." Rapunzel wants to leave the tower to see these floating lights she has dreamed about seeing her whole life, and the witch sings her this song:

You want to go outside
Why, Rapunzel?

Look at you, as fragile as a flower
Still a little sapling, just a sprout
You know why we stay up in this tower
(I know but)
That's right, to keep you safe and sound, dear

Mother knows best
Listen to your mother
It's a scary world out there

Mother knows best
One way or another
Something will go wrong, I swear

Ruffians, thugs
Poison ivy, quicksand
Cannibals and snakes, the plague
(But )

Also large bugs
Men with pointy teeth and
Stop, no more, you'll just upset me

Mother's right here
Mother will protect you
Darling, here's what I suggest

Skip the drama
Stay with mama
Mother knows best

Mother knows best
Take it from your mumsy
On your own, you won't survive

Sloppy, under-dressed
Immature, clumsy
Please, they'll eat you up alive

Gullible, naive
Positively grubby
Ditzy and a bit, well, hmm, vague

Plus, I believe
Gettin' kinda chubby
I'm just saying 'cause I love you

Mother understands
Mother's here to help you
All I have is one request

Don't ever ask to leave this tower again
(Yes, mother)

Oh, I love you very much, dear
(I love you more)
I love you most, hmm

Don't forget it
You'll regret it
Mother knows best[3]

Is that one of the imposters of love? Have you ever experienced it? Dependence, guilt, fear, all  used to keep you enslaved. It happens throughout history, in families, but also by nations, governments and kings, and saddened I have to say it, also in churches, and it has left people reeling faithless and underwhelmed because nothing destroys something like an imposter. Why do  you think Jesus was so hard on hypocrites in the gospels? Two faces, play acting, fake, going through the motions. . . do you see it? It's what Mother Gothel is to Rapunzel. She doesn't really love her she is using her, keeping her in place, using guilt and fear, imposters to love.
But here in church we say that God is love, this we know for the Bible tells us so. Little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong. Not an imposter, but real, so we say. How do you know the difference? How can you tell real love from the imposter? How can you tell God from the idol? For like we've said love demands change, it deals with service and sacrifice, it involves dependence and being weak and seeking strength, just as these imposters do. What is the difference?
Don't worry. Don't fear. Don't strive for the wrong things, chasing the wind as we talked about last week, for aren't you greater than these things? Oh how much more value you are than the birds? Do you hear the difference? Love builds up. It doesn't trap you in feelings of inadequacy. It doesn't scare you into submission. It doesn't break you down so as to get your loyalty. It doesn't mire you in feelings of guilt. Instead real love builds you up. It shows you how great you truly are, so that you are free in all your greatness and wonder to choose, hoping that you will give freely in return. God made us in His image, "a little lower than God, ever mindful, like the grains of sand on the beach, crowned in Glory and honor" as psalm 8 renders so poetically. This is God's position, and how God works. This is the kingdom of God which is his "good pleasure to give us" without strings only love. Faith sees the world of love very differently, not logical, not always apparent, but real and the true source of happiness, the true source of life..
Once you see love for what it is, the imposters become apparent. They surround us, beware of them, they can, have, and will break us down. We must be aware of them, they are the stuff of the desert, Jesus faced them there, where the source of life was barren, and he hadn't eaten for forty days, and the temptation towards love's imposters was strong, but Jesus knew that we don't live by bread alone, but by our father's love, and the imposter went away, completely powerless. There is a great scene at the end of Tangled, when Rapunzel finally realizes who she is, she says,

"I am the lost princess, it was you, it was all you, I spent my entire life, hiding from people who would use me for my power, but I should have been hiding from you, You were wrong about the world, and you were wrong about me, and I will never let you use my hair again.

Imposters have no power against the truth. Once she knows who she is Mother Gothel shows her true colors and is defeated, much like Satan in the desert. Once we know who we are. . . would it be the same for us? Jesus answers that question for us here in verse 32 when says, "do not be afraid little flock for it is your Father's pleasure to give you the kingdom." Remember  the source of this talk from Jesus, two brothers fighting over their inheritance. "It is your father's pleasure to give you the kingdom." It is your birthright as a child of God, for God truly loves, giving us all the answer we ever need. Do not be afraid little flock. . . for in Jesus name, we may say. . . God is real, and God is love, Alleluia, and Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 12:22-34). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2] Chris Ledoux, "Riding for a Fall"
[3] Songwriters: Alan Irwin Menken, Glenn Evan Slater