Sunday, April 27, 2014

Why Darkness? Why Chains?

Why Darkness? Why Chains?
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
April 27, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Numbers 14: 1-3
John 3: 9-21

Let us pray, for a welcome mind and a loving heart
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.

14 Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. 2 And all the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron; the whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! 3 Why is the Lord bringing us into this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become booty; would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” 4 So they said to one another, “Let us choose a captain, and go back to Egypt.” [1]

I testify to the fact that over and over again when I am planning on preaching on something, when I am going through my weekly process of subconsciously and consciously going over an idea in my head, so often something that I read puts everything in total perspective for me. Sometimes it says, hey  you're crazy, what are you doing? Get out of your head, that's not it at all, and other times like this week, it puts directly into words something that I was trying to get at, giving me a new way to see and to say what I was longing to figure out. That  happened this week with a poem from T.S. Eliot called "Choruses from The Rock."
Now as most of you know, if you've been here the last three weeks, that today's sermon is the third part in a plan, a plan that has been developing since January, and in some ways maybe even before that. And this one, today, this sermon was and is the one I've been looking forward to the most: looking at the question of why do the Israelites want to go back to Egypt after finally being set free?  Why according to Jesus in the Gospel of John, do people choose darkness to the light, and most importantly for us, why do we also seem to do the same thing now, choosing slavery and choosing darkness, rather than living in the light of the Risen Christ? Why do we forget what the chains were like, how bad the darkness was, what it was like to be despairing trying to do it all ourselves? Why do we forsake the light we called for with shouts of Hosanna, in our desperation calling out Save Us Now? Why do those Israelites forget the taskmasters' whip, being told to make bricks without straw, bitter bondage, edicts about first born children having to die? It's an important question, because here we are Easter people, some 2000 years later, 2000 years of basking in the light of Easter truths, and we still mire ourselves in darkness. . . the cycle comes again and again. Human beings seem to continually seek to creep backwards into the chains of the darkness, rather than leap forwards into the light of the truth, that Easter truth, that God so loves the world?
And that all brings me to Eliot, who writing in a time like ours was wondering why his modern world was walking away from the light, away from truth, away from Church, when he had of late just found the light himself, where once there was in this world  for  him only a "Wasteland," which is the title to one of is most famous poems, a poem he wrote in 1922, in 1934 he wrote what I found this week, his "Choruses from the Rock" a few years after  his Christian conversion, and in it, I found the words that I had been looking for. . .though I hadn't really sought it there, though I cannot explain why of all days I picked up Eliot, why I turned to this lesser known work, and why my eyes were captivated by exactly what I was not searching for but desperately wanting to find. . . all I can say is that I found the book, decided to pick it up, found a bookmark in it, and opened to the page that the bookmark was marking. I know I didn't put the bookmark in it, and it wasn't even my book mark. . . and it was this one, with the "Footprints" poem on it, but what was really interesting was the two Bible passages on the back. . . Isaiah 9:2 "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. . . " and" 1 John 1:5 "that God is Light. In him there is no darkness at all." Really strange. . . and it was all marking this poem for me, as if all wrapped up in a neat providential bow because here I was planning to preach on darkness and light.
I chose part of it for the Prayer of Preparation, the part that most talks about us growing tired of the light, needing a break, etc. , which you can take a look at and I hope you do, but these few lines here really jumped out at me, speaking volumes to me mid week.

Why should men love the Church? Why should they love her laws?
She tells them of Life and Death, and of all that they would forget.
She is tender where they would be hard, and hard where they like to be soft.
She tells them of Evil and Sin, and other unpleasant facts.
They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.
But the man that is will shadow
The man that pretends to be.
—T. S. Eliot, “Choruses from ‘The Rock’”

Now obviously he is lamenting that people are leaving the church, and he accounts the church to the light. He's positive that people leaving the church is choosing to live in a kind of blissful ignorance to the truth. . . but this blissful ignorance is the shame of the poem, and the source of the darkness to follow, because it is darkness, it is darkness to ignore, try to hide, to falsely forget about, the fact that the darkness exists, we attempt to escape from the reality of the darkness, he says that we "try to escape the darkness outside and within by dreaming of systems so perfect that  no one will need to be good." Oh it's so perfect. . . it's not making people better, it's making them not have to be good, as a solution to the darkness. And I think there is a clue here to what the darkness is, and why we end up choosing it, despite ourselves. But we'll get back to it in a minute.
Now Erick and Nancy sung so beautifully what I read earlier. John 3: 16, For God so Loved the World that he gave his only begotten son,  that by believing in him we would not perish but have eternal life. Now this is what we celebrate during Easter, and try to live and believe the rest of the year. It is what the empty tomb symbolizes. . .that God is indeed more powerful than death, and that most importantly God loves us, that is Easter.
How do go from that to fear? Because fear is what sends us running back to the darkness? Strange isn't it, we are afraid of the dark, but it is the darkness that we go running toward. Because it isn't running toward at all, it is running away.
What do we fear? We fear that it isn't real? We fear that it isn't true, and if it isn't true what do we have? Because if it's true it takes all of us, and there is just a little bit of us that doesn't want to go all in. There is that little bit of us that wants to hold back. There is that little bit of us that just doesn't think we can make it through the desert of life, the long slow, walk of life, that is through the desert. That little bit of us that is unwilling to be completely born anew in this new life, holding onto the old life, because it is what we know.
Now there is context to John 3:16, Jesus is actually having a conversation with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and leader of the Jews, and Nicodemus is asking Jesus about being born of the spirit, or being born again, Jesus says, the "wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." And Nicodemus says to him, "How can these things be?" Jesus says, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?" I wonder if what Jesus would say to me, on this day, wondering about Resurrection and Truth, and Light and Darkness, Are you a teacher of the Gospel but don't understand these things? And as if needing to explain it all to him, he gives that famous quote. . . as if herein is what you need to know, what you should already know, but don't. Jesus then says. . .

11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you 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. 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.

He goes back to Moses, a story that Nicodemus should know. . . he is suggesting I think that the truth of God should be known. Yes God loved you then, too, enough to hear your cries of bondage, deliver you from that bondage, led by a pillar of fire, and through a parted Red Sea. God is more powerful than the Earthly powers, those Egyptians, and loves you, to come bring you out. . . it all happened, Nicodemus, why don't you know it? And then to be more clear he goes right into John 3:16, "For God so Loved the World. . . . " on and on, all the way to but people "choose the darkness over the light."
Because life is hard and it is slow. . . days are long. . . and nights are too. And we become afraid. People can be strong for bits of time, but it is hard when time drags on. Why do you think that Hebrews talks about with Perseverance running the race, because it is long, and there are deserts. When the Israelites get out of slavery, out of Egypt, the Red Sea parts, sure a miracle, but on the other side is a desert. Really, did you part the sea just to have us die? How can we ever cross this desert? What will we eat?  manna from heaven. . .ok great, but how many days is that going to be there, better get a bunch and store up, what, no it withers after each. . . but there it is again tomorrow. . . ok sure, but what about water? coming out of the rock, really? What is the sum of the Red Sea, the Manna, and the water from the rock. . . what is the common thread. . . faith. What is the opposite of faith. . . you may say doubt, but it is more deadly than just doubt. . . it's fear. Faith and fear. . . what does Jesus say to the disciples again and again, fear not, do not be afraid. . . ye of little faith. Fear. . . it gets us, the darkness, we are afraid of the dark, but if we are afraid of the dark, why do we choose it.
It's a funny thing the desert. . . we don't live in deserts, do we. At least not literal ones, but if we think about our worries and our fears, they are the same that Jesus faced in the desert during his temptation, and they mirror the Israelites, too to some extent. Food, power, safety. Again and again, Jesus says that the Lord will provide, Jehovah Jireh, remember that from Abraham and Isaac, with perfect faith he overcomes the temptation of fear, and of the darkness, but that is difficult right. Put yourself there, you are hungry, why not make yourself some food, you have power in your grasp, why not just take it and exploit it. You can provide for yourself, and everybody else. Why not it's there, you can do it, so do it. Depend on God, why, God's the one who has brought you to this desert. Does he not care? What am I to do? In the middle of the night, what am I to do? When I'm up against the wall what am I to do? Broke? Sick? Lost? Suffering? Enemies at the gates? Heartbreak? Frustration? It's all about fear, and what is the opposite of fear. . . faith. The fact that we are, should remind us but it doesn't. . . The fact that we are no longer slaves should remind us but it doesn't. . . the fact that Christ is Risen should remind us but it doesn't. . . how else can Easter people end up back in the same chains again and again?
Because it's what we know. It is of us. Hard habits are hard to break. When you have been seeing the world a certain way a long time, it is hard to all of a sudden see it another way. . . It's hard to believe that manna will just fall from heaven. So when it does you grab it, you hoard it, you worry that it won't come again, and it withers in your hand. It's hard to believe that water can be taken from a rock. It's hard to believe that you can be dependent upon something much more powerful than yourself. It's hard because all you have ever known screams the opposite. And so we fear, and it is human nature when we fear to try to fix it. . . to panic and do, rather than be still and know. The fear creeps in, but fear is too stifling, too limiting, so instead we create in our minds ways out of that fear. We create for ourselves illusions that it is ok, that we can handle it, that we are in control. The opposite is much too scary. The worst fear isn't the fear that makes you fight, the worst fear is the fear that makes you run, that makes you hide from it, that makes you ignore it because you just can't face it.
18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

Do you see that, not believing is condemning already, not in a punishment sense, but in a lost sense, in a hopeless sense.

19 And this is the judgment,

Do you see it, this is the judgment, the condemnation. . .

that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”[2]

Condemnation is a choice. . . choosing to live in fear, to create the cycle again, when it need not be. That is choosing the darkness. . . now the light then is the opposite. . . if the darkness is ourselves. . . then the light is God. Choosing to live in the light is all that matters, but the problem with it is. . . in him there is no darkness at all. . . that darkness can't stand in the light.. . . it can't stand. And so the illusions that we create have to disappear when faced with the reality of God, but those illusions, call them idols, call them whatever you want, call them darkness though, they fade way, they burn away in the light.
So what do we know because of Easter. . . that God created us, loves us, sent his Son to us, not to condemn us, but to show us light, to bring to us the light of the world. Now the light is the image of God, and it shines within us, that is what it is to be loved by God, to be a child of God. . . but now who is God. . . who is the light of the world. . . God is the one who made everything. . . all things. . . God is the one who promises, and keeps the promises. . . God is the one who pulls the Egyptians from slavery, Part the Red Sea, provides food and water in the desert, makes laws to show people how to live free in the land. . . and not only that is more powerful than death. . . in him there is no darkness at all, not even the cold dark grave. . . the night and the day are both alike, and that is all there is and all that matters.
God has made us worthy to stand in the light. God has made it possible for us to be good standing in his light with him. . . in him we can do all things. . . now let me return to the Eliot poem, because our world is much like his, where we run from the light, because it is too bright for us and we grow weary, we think we are not good enough to stand in it, we think our neighbors are not good enough to stand in it. . . and so we create a new safer illusion in the darkness. . . 

Why should men love the Church? Why should they love her laws?
She tells them of Life and Death, and of all that they would forget.
She is tender where they would be hard, and hard where they like to be soft.
She tells them of Evil and Sin, and other unpleasant facts.
They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.
But the man that is will shadow
The man that pretends to be.
—T. S. Eliot, “Choruses from ‘The Rock’”

Systems, economic systems, political systems, we have even made John 3:16, we have even made Easter and salvation into a system. If God has made us good, why then would we choose to build systems where we no longer have to be good, thinking those systems apart from God, built apart from God, could stand. . .no that is the illusion. . . that is darkness. . . which do we choose? That is the question of the desert, the question of the cross, and it is our question, in a world forever changed by Easter morning's light. 

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Nu 14:1-4). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Jn 3:18-21). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Deeply Imprinted

Deeply Imprinted
(for Dad on his 65th birthday)

When a son becomes a father
He can’t but look to his own
Father, his own raising, to know
What to do, how to be, why
It all matters, and where to start.
And so have I, and so do I,
And there, in you, I find
Treasured memories of example,
Of work, of respect, of duty,
Of love, the blessing from which
All things flow, and so
In times of doubt or fear,
Of indecision, I can look back
In my memory and see a path,
Not perfect, nor smooth, nor straight,
But worn with footprints of feet
To follow, pressed deeply marked clear
For the burden is heavy to bear,
But each print is a testament
That it has been walked before,
And as my feet follow, now,
And in the future, going forward,
My steps, the fact I take them,
Also shows the path’s promise
Is secure, and not forsaken,
Nor taken, alone, on my own.
Instead, a cloud of fathers and sons
Are present in the relationship
Of we two, and so my Dad,
The love you gave, I cannot
Just give back to you, I do,
But though I do, the real gift,
The real lesson and proof
Of love is the father I am,
The man and teacher I am,
As a reflection of the father,
You are, and as we walk the path,
Of fathers and sons and daughters,
Now together, as two fathers,
I’m glad to carry my burden,
Take my turn, walk those prints
With your arm around me still,
For our steps continue together,
And will forever, Amen.
                                 ~ Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Ideal Is Real

Ideal is Real
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
April 20, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Exodus 13: 3-10
John 20: 1-20

Let us pray, for a welcome mind and a loving heart
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.

3 Moses said to the people, “Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, because the Lord brought you out from there by strength of hand; no leavened bread shall be eaten. 4 Today, in the month of Abib, you are going out. 5 When the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, which he swore to your ancestors to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall keep this observance in this month. 6 Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a festival to the Lord. 7 Unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days; no leavened bread shall be seen in your possession, and no leaven shall be seen among you in all your territory. 8 You shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ 9 It shall serve for you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead, so that the teaching of the Lord may be on your lips; for with a strong hand the Lord brought you out of Egypt. 10 You shall keep this ordinance at its proper time from year to year. [1]

Last week we screamed Hosanna, Save us now, and my message was bleak. It was a cry of desperation. For only the desperate call out to be saved, and I posed the question of how desperate we are. So we looked at our world, and we looked at how hard it is, how much pain is there, how much confusion, and fear, and people holding on too tight, but always to the wrong things, how much injustice, and greed, and people living for themselves at the expense of others, enough to make even the most optimistic of souls, disillusioned and fearful, despairing, in need, in desperate need of saving. "Clinging to glimmers of hope amid the darkness" (the news was on while I was typing, this was exactly what the reporter said), finally some truth on TV. We cling to glimmers of hope amidst the darkness, and we are sure that the darkness is gathering, surrounding us, burying us, consuming us, enveloping us, choking us, leaving us trapped and hopeless, falling, flailing, faltering in fear. . . but Easter begs to differ.
Imagine what it was like for the Hebrews, enslaved for generations. They had called out, for years, and nothing, so much for promises, so much for hope, so much for God. How popular do you think hope was there for those slaves? I'm sure there were voices that taught the young to accept their station, to work hard, to hope for favors from the master, for a leg up, for privileges, fighting for the scraps of the table, both literally and figuratively, accepting less, selling out, getting what you could, believing that this is the way it is. This is real. This is the only real that exists. . . slavery, the master's will, what he says goes, nothing will change, nothing can change, nothing ever will change . . . God, who is that, oh you mean that superstitious stuff, who is Jacob, who is Abraham, yeah believing in them and their God, our heritage. .  what has it ever gotten us? God is dead, believing otherwise just isn't intelligent, it isn't practical, it's old fashioned, its superstitious nonsense, it's not modern, this is all that is real, these mud pits, these bricks and this stone, my new position inside the palace as a servant, sure it's not great, but it could be so much worse, and what have I to care what happens to them?
Then all of a sudden they have a Moses, and he is telling them that their God cares about their plight, that he has heard their cries, that his promises are real, that the land flowing with milk and honey, all that is still up for the taking, that they will be in this generation set free. Would you believe it? Do you think they did? How far would you need to go to believe? What all would you need to see? Moses the once prince, exiled and returned? Would that be enough? How about a staff turning into a snake? some plagues? frog, locusts, blood in the water, hail and fire? Would the lambs blood be on your door by the tenth plague? Would that have been enough? Imagine that night . . .  it is always the darkest before the light rises, but when the sun does rise the next day .  .  . the world changes, and everything that you thought was wasn't. Everything right is wrong again, the world is turned upside down, and you are now free. Would you even have realized? How would  you tell? Would you just follow the herd, going through the motions because everyone else is, or would you know personally that you are now free, would you be able to take it all in, understand completely, live anew in the light. . . not because anything you did, but because of an act of God? Would you even know?
It's a difficult question, because that's the Easter story too! Set free, not because of you, but because of Christ and the stone rolled away, the empty tomb. While you were sleeping in the real world, or what  you thought was real, Christ was defeating death, so much for the unquestionable truths of the world being just death and taxes. . . no now just taxes I guess. Yeah, tough week, long way to go. . . the story is so familiar to us, has it become just that, a story. The despair of Hosanna, died on the cross, doubling into further doubt, no more cries of despair because there is nothing left to cry out to, that died on the cross, and with it all hope. All that is left is to show up and dress the body, so you wake up early, holding onto the tradition, thinking if you could just be in the presence of the body, him, Jesus, one more time, that you could hold on for just a bit longer, that hope would not be completely extinguished, that you could just hold on, before going back to the dark world that is worse than despair, it is destruction, defeat, done.
But when you get there a stone that was much too heavy to move is moved. A tomb that should be dark and desolate is bright, light shining from within it. And the body, his body is gone, resurrected, the tomb is empty, the world is different than you thought, it is as Jesus said, and the new temple is build on the faith of this moment, and it only took three days to complete. The world is now different, not because of you, but because of Christ.
The Easter world is a different world because God has acted, and through that action, has revealed to us so much about the world that we didn't know, and not just that we didn't know, but that it is the opposite of everything we thought was real. Just like the Hebrews enslaved had been conditioned to see the world in a certain way, and the Exodus showed them a new world, Easter does the same for us. What we thought was, isn't. Instead we see a very different world, or we could see a very different world, if we could only come to believe in the truth of Easter. Do we see it? Do we believe? Do we have the faith to believe, giving us the eyes to see?
A few weeks ago I asked my students to consider whether it was better to be an idealist or a realist, and write their answer in an essay of fewer than 350 words. We were, at the time, reading Don Quixote, thinking about the idea of an old man, a lunatic, going out from his comfortable home, to head out on an idealistic crusade, to right the wrongs, to fight for the right, no matter the cost, to dream that impossible dream, windmills and all. So he was our test case, and I tried my best to argue both sides, like yeah obviously it's a windmill, but he sees a poor lost and broken girl, and he doesn't see the kitchen wench, but his lady dulcinea. Who is the crazy one? Who is seeing things as they are? And who is seeing things as they aren't? It's simple when it's a windmill, but turning the blind eye to the uncomfortable, the challenging, the wrong, may be just as crazy. What does God see when he sees the kitchen wench? Is God crazy? Believing that awful and bleak is the truth is the real fantasy land. . . Easter suggests that. The job you lost and the hopelessness you feel is the fantasy land. The family arguments that you think will never go away is the fantasy land. The marriage you are sure is over, and the person that you are being defined by the success or failure of all of those issues. Without my job I am nothing, If I can't make my family get along, what have I done, if I can't make this marriage work, what good am I , who am I anyway? That is the fantasy. . . who you are isn't determined by any of that, Easter shows us that too. Of course the first dilemma of the paper they had to write was defining the terms. Why is it that idealism is usually synonymous with optimism, while realism is the pessimism? Easter would suggest the opposite. Easter creates a very different version of reality. Easter would suggest that all those idealistic notions like love, and justice, and truth, are in fact the reality, which would make things like practicality, and might makes right, and only the strong survive, you only live once, and God is dead hopelessly unreal, mere fantasies, products of the flawed status quo, the world gone amuck, fallen into sin and misery, that desperate world where prayers go unanswered. Think to yourself, how would Hitler answer the idealism question, how would Stalin? They would see themselves as great idealistic heroes, or they would sell themselves as such, but people like Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, the prophets, Moses, the heroes of the world, they weren't idealists, they were simply Easter realists. They knew that God had made them powerful beyond all measure, and a world that was theirs to love in.
I'd heard that the youth are typically supposed to be so idealistic. . .  I guess nobody told my students, and frankly it's not just them. The problem with today's so called idealistic youth is that they have been beaten down by too many false images of a bleak existence, false ideals and broken promises, when the real, the actual, the Easter reality is unknown to most of them. That's the genius of the darkness, it appears to be real, it appears to be all consuming, and it appears to care, but it just isn't and it doesn't. It leaves us floundering and despairing again and again. Disillusioned, which should be misillusioned, missing the reality for the illusion. The Exodus from Egypt showed the Hebrews that there was more than their slavery, with Red Seas parting, manna from heaven, water pouring out of a rock, and being led by a pillar of fire. Jesus, our Risen Lord shows us the same. Our world is better than we think, or it could be, it is, how much could seeing it that way go to making it that way? He shows us that there is more, and if  you ever put your hands in his wounds like Thomas, break bread with him in Emmaus, or some other place, and venture to feed his sheep, loving as he loved, you may just find that the bread of life real life will fall again from heaven, that in him there is no darkness at all, the night and the day are both alike.
If I were to answer my own question and write my paper, it is best to be a realist. It is better to be a realist because we can create some pretty scary unrealities in our minds. There is an old anecdote about a man who lost his axe. He saw a young boy, and he looked like a thief, walked like a thief, talked like a thief, but then the man found his axe and the boy then looked like any other boy. It goes to show that what we see is dependent upon our minds. We like to think the opposite, that what we see shapes what we think, that is the claim of science, right, the modern world, that we can find truth by observing it, but the problem is that we see what we are trying to see, our vision is shaped by our mindset. So if our mind shapes what we see, and what we see shapes our mind, see how easy it is to fall into a cycle of blindness and despair, lacking one important thing. . . perspective, the ability to see outside of ourselves. . . one could say love does that. One can say love is that, looking outside of yourself. And love is the best real thing in the world of Easter.
That is why it is best to be a realist. It is best to live in a world knowing that God loves us, that we are provided for, that love endures, and brings death to life, that life doesn't exist outside of love, that without love we have nothing, that the material things of this world are an illusion of the darkness, drawing us away from the possibilities of what this world is, teaching us to grab and hoard and clasp rather than let go, that we aren't called to live in fear, for fear infects our behavior, it poisons our relationships, it paralyzes our lives, it seeks to enslave us to false realities, born in our minds, not of God's created world, that our minds shape the falseness of the illusions around us, limited to our own flawed perspective, trapped in our own narrow minds, Christ breaks free from that trap, like he does the tomb, and offers to take us with him to the heavenly kingdom, on Earth as it is in heaven. . . the ideal has become real. . . hey it always was, we just couldn't see it.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ex 13:3-10). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Desperate Cry

The Desperate Cry
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
April 13, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Exodus 1: 1-14
Mark 11: 7-10

Let us pray, for a welcome mind and a loving heart
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.

23 In the course of those many days the king of Egypt died. And the people of Israel groaned under their bondage, and cried out for help, and their cry under bondage came up to God. 24 And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. 25 And God saw the people of Israel, and God knew their condition.
9 And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. 10 Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring forth my people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt.” 11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?” 12 He said, “But I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought forth the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God upon this mountain.”
13 Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” 15 God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: this is my name for ever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.
 Over the next three weeks I hope to bring to us the experience of what Easter means. This week, this holy week, we will come together to worship four times, in the next week Sunday to Sunday, I want us to try to experience, in our minds, in our senses, in our memories, in our hearts,  the truth of Easter, alongside the parallels that are there in the Exodus story, and the parallels that we as human beings, created by God, feel in our own lives, in this God's world, for this is the way that God created the world to be, and how God creates it each day anew. Since the beginning, we have seen, looking this year especially starting back in January, there at the creation story at the beginning of the Bible, the beginning of Genesis, we see God bringing light where there was darkness, as if from the darkness, God works, bringing the light, not merely introducing light where there used to be darkness, but instead bringing the light out of the darkness itself, speaking the light into being and it being, as if the darkness is part of it, part of it yet no match for it within God's control. And we see that pattern again and again throughout the Biblical narrative. We see God continually bringing light out of darkness. And we see it in the person of Jesus Christ, as the Gospel writer John calls him the light shining in the darkness, John also says that the darkness could not overcome that light. . . but then he suggests that people choose the darkness over the light, having forgotten the light, having misunderstood the light, having become blinded to the truth of the light. This is the Exodus story, this is the Easter story, and this is our story.
 Over the next three weeks we will see this cycle. We will see the darkness, we will see the light, and then we as human beings  will make our choice. . . is there safety in the darkness, is it comfortable, is the light too blinding, is it too perfect, too free, too true for us? And so of these three parts, we have to begin somewhere, and so today is the darkness, and today will be dark, and today will be bleak, and today will be harsh. . . for today includes the cross, the lash, the taskmaster's whip, the toil, the burdens, the thorns, the burning vinegar, betrayal, sin, the scorns of time, and the proud man's contumely, the heartaches and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, the laws delay and the pangs of despised love[3], corruption, and injustice, and control, and frustration, and tax day, and war, and violence, and declining church attendance, and active shooters, and terrorism and extremists, and political correctness and bullying, and on and on and on. . . the picture will be intentionally bleak, intentionally sad, intentionally desperate. . . for though we wave our palms and celebrate, shouting hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. . . we cannot forget that hosanna is not hallelujah, hosanna is not amen. Hosanna calls out from the pit, out from the belly of the fish, out from being surrounded by our enemies, out from fear and slavery. Hosanna is as old as humans and as old human need. Hosanna means "save us now!" Hosanna is not the call of the strong, but the weak, not the together but the broken, not the perfect but the sinner, not the call of the master but the call of the slave, not the call of the free but of the oppressed. We must remember always that Hosanna is the cry of the desperate! The desperate calling out for God to save us now! Save us now from each other, save us now from them, save us now from us, save us from us and them, and save us from ourselves, from the darkness that we choose. Save us now. Hosanna!
Are you desperate enough to wave those palms throw down your clothes and hope that the man riding the colt is who he says he is? If not its most like that you will instead call out crucify him later, that before the cock crows it will be safer to deny, that on the other side of the parted Red Sea, with the newness of the desert looming, the shadows of doubt spreading, the giants of fear growing, the known, no matter how dark, may seem to be better. No never I Lord, never I. . . but yet it's part of the story, just as much as the other. Forgive us we do know what we do.
The Israelites have been in heavy bondage, building cities they will never live in, made of marble they've hauled on their broken backs, like stone, stone they've broken to build, like bricks made of mud and straw they've marched, dancing it, mixing into being with their shackled feet and legs. Their strength, building with tasks completed, but for someone else. Fruitful and multiplying as their God commanded them, they have filled the land, but it is not their land, and now they are paying the price for threatening those in control with their strength. Oppressive labor crushes them, not owning themselves demoralizes them, challenging their sense of self, their sense of accomplishment, and their sense of dignity, their pride. And if that weren't enough their children were being taken, killed, murdered, but just the boys, the girls suffered a fate worse than death, the slavery of their bodies for the young, the taking of children from the mothers, and those somehow living long enough, new days filled with the toil of each day, sunrise, sunset. It is these people that cry out to God, save us now, send us a deliverer, we struggle to believe that there is a God who keeps promises, for here we are, where are you, and where is our hope, from whence does your promise come, Lord? They the desperate cry out Hosanna!
The people who flocked the streets of Jerusalem when Jesus rode in on the donkey, were occupied by the Romans, and though for the Romans it was the beginning of the Pax Romana, that Roman peace, like the cities of the Egyptian Pharaohs, was built on the backs of the people that they had conquered. Taxes, tribute, protection, blood  money, this was all required as payment for the Roman way of life, that the conquered people didn't want. This was the price of progress, the price of empire, the price of civilization. Like their forebearers, these people knew the danger of being born a threat to the powers that be. Herod, like that old Pharaoh had once sought to kill every child in a little town called Bethlehem, hoping to end the threat, the challenge to his rule as puppet, the sweet sellout deal that put him above his fellow man as their king. . . all under the Roman authority of course, but being king certainly had its privileges, and privilege  is not something anyone parts with easily. The last thing I need is a Messiah, stirring up these people, making them challenge the way it is, think that their ideals, their hopes their dreams, the promises of old might just be real, no better not to dream, empower, and seek life, better that everything stay as it is, and if a few children have to die to seal my authority, so be it. Yeah, but he didn't get that child after all that, and now here he comes. The mighty shake, but here comes this man, with an army of twelve, fishermen, no swords, words, more promises, more faith required, no mighty steed, just an old borrowed donkey, but in my desperation I'll believe, what have I left. . . Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna. . . look Caiaphas their right outside your door. . . . Tell the Rabble to be Quiet, we anticipate a riot, this common crowd is much too loud. . .  they are a curse they should disperse[4]. . .  Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna. . . Save Us!
 Are we desperate enough now to call out Hosanna? Or do we prefer the order of the status quo? Do we want the riot to be quiet? Do we only whisper Hosanna in secret, afraid to offend? These are the hard questions of palm Sunday, and they are the hard question of our world today. People write all the time for the need for something to step in and break the cycle, but how often do we just create a new system to avoid cycle busting change?
Remember Advent. . . remember the need, the waiting, the anticipation, the prophets, people like Isaiah, the hope for a new possibility and a new world. . . that feeling that something had to come, something had to change, God needed to act. Consider these descriptions of our world taken from not just now, but the last hundred years. They scream out a need to break free from the cycle, a need for change, and if we aren't in desperation, we have ask ourselves why, and we comfortable Christians may not like the answer? Listen:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.[5]

The evil and armed draw near;
The weather smells of their hate
And the houses smell of our fear;
Death has opened his white eye
And the black hole calls the thief
As the evil and armed draw near.
Ravens alight on the wall,
Our plans have all gone awry,
The rains will arrive too late,
Our resourceful general
Fell down dead as he drank
And his horses died of grief,
Our navy sailed away and sank;
The evil and armed draw near. [6]

The eastern world, it is exploding
Violence flarin', bullets loadin'
You're old enough to kill, but not for votin'
You don't believe in war, but what's that gun you're totin'
And even the Jordan River has bodies floatin'
But you tell me
Over and over and over again, my friend
Ah, you don't believe
We're on the eve
of destruction.[7]

The sale of pills are at an all time high.
Young folks walking round with their heads in the sky.
The cities ablaze in the summer time.
And oh, the beat goes on.
Evolution, revolution, gun control, sound of soul.
Shooting rockets to the moon, kids growing up too soon.
Politicians say more taxes will solve everything.
And the band played on.
So, round and around and around we go.
Where the world's headed, nobody knows.
 Ball of confusion, that's what the world is today[8]

There's too many men
Too many people
Making too many problems
And not much love to go round
Cant you see
This is a land of confusion.[9]

And it is, confusion, fear, loneliness, hunger, skepticism, pessimism, cronyism, extremism, hate, and violence, and war, and blind eyes, and kids not  being taught the truth, but how to pass tests, not how to think, but how to conform, how shave off corners of square pegs, to fit the ever shrinking round holes, and if they can't do it with discipline and love, we have drugs for it, better living through chemistry, new chemical realities, new politically correct realities, I read this week in a Dietrich Bonhoeffer Sermon, he was talking about how often we seek to try to cover over truth, ignoring its difficult reality, preferring to gloss over rather than deal with it. He says love never does this, love requires truth, no matter how it hurts us, why mask evil in a pretty package, it only makes it more ugly.
In 1934, don't you hear it, what has changed. . . nothing. It is like Jeremiah's time, when he wrote, "Men crying Peace, Peace, when there is no peace." We still blind ourselves to the realities with new terms and euphemisms, thinking that if we get rid of the words we can get rid of the thing, but we don't. . .  we just blind ourselves to our desperation, thinking we can do it all ourselves, that we are in control, but yet we lack perspective, we lack knowledge, we lack understanding of eachother and eachother's needs, we need to break these cycles, these chains, this world is broken.
And the lonely voice of youth still cries what is truth? Many people in the world have no clue, and that has led so many people to believe that there is just no such thing as truth. Truth has become an ugly thing, a restrictive thing, a divisive thing, a thing misrecognized and called hatred and ignorance. . . I could go on and on, but I don't want to. . . I want you to. I want you, and all of us to recognize our desperation this week. Recognize that we don't have it under control. That it is bigger than any of us, and much bigger even than all of us. . . the solution is not found in our doing, in our systems,  in our drugs, in our force fed progress, or our taxes, or our elections, not in Washington, and not in the States, but in our realization. . .  finally. . .  of our desperation. . . crying out Hosanna. . .
And before the words come out of your lips, before the synapses of the thought cross your mind, completely unconnected, but now in view because our eyes are finally open. . . we see a bush that does not burn. . . and we cast off our shoes. . . kneeling on the holy  ground. . . and we are called, and our life is put into motion, awake, eyes open, motion in the light of day. . . and we are told that the God we serve is the God who has been. . . the God of our Ancestors, the God of history. . . but not relegated to just history. . . but I Am, in the eternal present. . . then, now, and always. And he hears when we call because he never leaves us, even in the darkest places, in the valley of the shadow of death, in the desert, and on the cross. . . And so our desperation is not desperation at all, but a realization that the world we thought was isn't, the darkness enveloping us isn't, our fear isn't, what is, is God, who loves us enough to show us, in our slavery, in our oppression, in our fear, on the cross, in the ever growing light. . . that the light is winning and will win, the contest is just another illusion, a dream, a nightmare born in the darkness, the children of idle brains, composed of nothing but vain fantasy[10]. The light is real, and light is ready to be born into the world. . . That's what those palms signify, that's what the communion we gather to take on Thursday signifies, that's what the cross that we seek to experience on Friday signifies, and that's what the empty tomb screams. . . it screams it. The Son rises, and is risen and it brings the needed light to our desperate world again. So now that we know what it means, can you, will you, pick up a branch with me, pick up a branch next to each other,  pick up a branch and cry out Hosanna to the king of kings, loud for the entire world to hear. . . cry it in your weakness, cry it in your desperation. Cry it, knowing that you are loved. Amen!

[1]The Revised Standard Version. 1971 (Ex 2:23). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
[2]The Revised Standard Version. 1971 (Ex 3:9). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
[3] Shakespeare, William, Hamlet, "To be or Not to be. . . "
[4] Rice, Tim. "Hosanna" Jesus Christ Superstar.
[5] Yeats, William Butler. "The Second Coming" 1919.
[6] Auden, W.H., "For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio" 1941.
[7] Sloan, PF, "Eve of Destruction" recorded by Barry McGuire, 1965.
[8] Whitfield, Norman and Barry Strong, "Ball of Confusion" recorded  by the Temptations, 1970.
[9] Rutherford, Mike, "Land of Confusion" recorded by Genesis, 1987.
[10] Shakespeare, William, Romeo and Juliet

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

To Bottle the Breeze

To Bottle the Breeze

The cool lingers longer in the mountain breeze
Like an embrace when loved ones have to leave,
Holding to the peace of last night, an extra moment
Stolen. The Sun’s sleepy rise brings light later here,
And the slow morning wakes gently. Shadows loom,
But in the gathering light, the night bugs sing
In harmony with the bird’s of morning, and I,
Likewise, feel composed in heavy-eyed  industry.
As the morning air fills my lungs, restoring,
Giving life, just like the first breath breathed,
I am, at once, awash in more than self, and see
The world around me with greater perspective,
From this height we can just see more of it,
Though some would say we see less, but if
I could somehow, someway, bottle this air,
Capture this moment, package this feeling,
And give it to the world, much would be healed.
Is it the slowness, or merely the cool comfort
That fills the soul, or is there something more,
A closeness to heaven, in the natural rhythms
Of sunrise and set, unfettered by ticking time?
Ahh, but there is the bell, it calls us to task,
Its toll for me, and I go with others to start
My day, thankful for the prelude, an antecedent
Reminder of myself, as I am, before I must do.
                                               ~ Rev. Peter T. Atkinson