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.