Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Monuments of Nothingness

video is also here:
Monuments of Nothingness
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
April 30, 2015
at Gibson Memorial Chapel
Blue Ridge School, St. George Virginia
Matthew 5: 13-20

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.

13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men.
14 “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. 15 Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
17 “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. 18 For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.[1]

Back in February I spoke to you about my belief that you are all amazing creatures, with infinite potential, but how we often choose the safety of chains rather than reaching and actualizing that glorious potential we were each made with and for. I have to admit today's message is very much on that same theme, back then I said how it fuels me to get you all to see that potential that I see, and I still believe that to my core, but on Monday I was having one of those cynical days of doubt where the circumstances and the evidence I was seeing all around me, made me question that faith if only for a moment. . . and as a perfect testament to the powers of Providence, I was asked yesterday to speak here this morning, and so all at once I had to address and fight against that cynicism head on, and put to mind and words the hope of my faith beyond that moment of doubt. I can tell you I have done so, and it is quite a journey, and I want to take you on that journey with me this morning.
The driving catalyst for my cynical feelings on Monday was excuses. I kept hearing them, and they all turned my stomach because they just hung in the air unquestioned, unchallenged, and completely accepted as, "just the way it is," and I felt the pressure on Monday to just throw in the towel and accept it myself, but I just can't do that because I know deep down what exactly excuses are, and the destructive force of them in our world.
A former colleague of mine, brought with him a definition of excuses, that I have used again and again, some of you may have heard this before during one my tirades either in class or on the football field, but he told me that excuses can be defined as "tools of incompetence that build monuments of nothingness, people who use them seldom accomplish anything." I want to think about breaking that down into its parts for a moment before I go further. . . if you think about the first part, "tools of incompetence." Tools are obviously things that you use to build, fix, repair, but the OF there, "of incompetence," does that mean that the tool builds incompetence, or does it mean that tool is built by, or owned by incompetence?. . . I think it is great to see it both ways actually, because it becomes a self perpetuating circle. . . incompetence + excuses breeds more incompetence which leads to more excuses, then so you have incompetence built by and building more incompetence. . . it is a vicious downward spiral. . . a self perpetuating system of failure, but the irony is that these tools are actually building something, they are building beyond mere incompetence, these things he calls monuments.
Now a monument is a structure, a marker, and a symbol, a witness, a testament, and that is what these really build, but these monuments are made of nothing, again more irony, a monument suggests size, scope, wonder, memorial, immensity, but nothingness suggests it is all a sham, invisible, fake, flimsy, and not real.  The real shame though is that these monuments of nothingness, these fake testimonies of accomplishment, become so real, so real at least seeming, that they become true for people, and like the great monuments and pillars of our society, that we look to for truth, and identity, and greatness, and self worth, we end up building our lives based on these empty monuments of nothingness, the mirages of seeming truth. It's sad. It's sad, and it is a disease that has reached almost every corner of our country, of our institutions, and especially through our schools into our youngest generations, you guys.
And I may offend, because no one likes to hear that what they built with their lives is a monument of nothingness, and no one likes to believe that what their lives are built upon are monuments of nothingness. . . but the evidence is glaring, and it slapped me in the face on Monday. I heard stories of seniors who are in danger of graduating because they've built their lives on excuses, seniors, whom we are about to send out into the world, with our stamp of approval on them, I heard from my students, student after student about why they can't write, why they can't do math, why they can't get to class on time, why they can't, can't, can't. . . and I saw people accepting those excuses, building up those excuses, allowing, fostering, serving those excuses, building a culture of excuses, rather than accomplishment, excusing those excuses and it turns my stomach, not because my homework wasn't done, but because the reflection of self it shows, and the lie it perpetuates. . . that it doesn't really matter, no one checks anyway, the rent never really comes due, it's just a monument of "nothingness" after all, all of life is, thinking otherwise is merely subscribing blindly to an artificial set of standards that someone just made up years ago, the chains of the past, and therefore it is ok to be less, and not only is it ok, but it's easier, it's the path of least resistance, it's comfortable, and safe, and therefore good, or at least the emptiness of "fine." How are you. . . O I'm fine. . . if you've ever said that you know just how empty such phrases and ideas actually are.
And then I go home, Monday night, and the effects of such things hit me in the face. I had gone to bed on Saturday night disgusted that the fans at the Oriole game Saturday night were told not to leave the stadium, because they'd be in danger, and I prayed for the situation on Sunday at church, but Monday night, I saw it escalate, protest turned riot, violence, looting, fires, destruction. . . and it hit me in the face again, the same cynicism that hit me here, the monuments of excuses coming home to roost, the rent coming due, and the character checks coming back with insufficient funds. And I thought excuses again, because if you followed the conversation on twitter, or facebook, or instagram, or on the news, you saw two sides forming quickly, and both sides looking to excuse these behaviors of destruction. For the rioters, you heard, well they are poor, they see no way out, they lack education, they are just young, they are black, and disenfranchised, and all that excuses their behavior, they might be acting rashly, out of anger, passion, frustration, but what else can they do, being what they are, their situation, their plight, excuses their behavior. They are just victims. Excuse me, but those are monuments of nothingness, and that leaves people bankrupt when it comes to character. Making excuses for people does nothing for them except chaining them to their plight. . . for they've sold out their future, in favor of an empty monument of nothingness, the kind you can build with violence, and the false empty promises of the pandering politicians, and we need our cities, our culture, our country, we need our world built not on monuments of nothingness, but on cornerstones of character, and nothing undermines a foundation like an excuse. It may seem to be loving, and accepting, and open, and tolerant, and all the other buzzwords, but the truth is it simply destroys people.
But they aren't alone because there are alot of people excusing the cops, too. Well, they  are under alot pressure, and it's a tough job, and they get frustrated, and. . . and. . . and. . . monuments. We should expect more, because if we are satisfied with less, less is exactly what we are going to get. But that would mean sacrificing our agenda, and facing the truth, the actual, entire, challenging truth, and the lies are easier, it'll be fine. . . monuments.
Ernest Hemingway wrote, in The Old Man and the Sea, that "man was not made for defeat, man can be destroyed, but not defeated," meaning that you can destroy the body, but you can't defeat the spirit, the fighting, grasping spirit. . . . I think he hadn't considered the power of excuses, for they don't destroy, instead they more sinisterly seek to defeat, and then enslave. Defeat the aspiration, and enslave to mediocrity. . . and it becomes a disease, like that which leaves our cities in flames, and our society, lost and looking for answers, and leadership, and character.
Now I have to be honest, sometimes there are reasons, and reasons are different from excuses. They do exist, and they are true, weakness and frailty are truly a part of being human,  and that just makes it all harder to deal with, because excuses are just the imposters of these reason. . . and it is hard to tell the difference. Which is really the other sinister quality, because those who truly need our compassion don't always get it because people are selling these "Wolf Tickets" (another saying by the same friend who told me about the monuments), wolf tickets comes from the story about the little boy who cried wolf, he lied so much that no one could see the truth, and that is the horrible other ugly side about excuses. They blind us to the distinctions. . .
"Lies unremmittingly repeated, can make us believe heaven is hell and hell is heaven" --- do you know who said that, Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf, which was a rephrasing of something Milton wrote Satan saying in Paradise Lost. And the greatest repeater of lies that we face is ourselves. . . I just can't do math, I'm not a good writer, I'm not smart enough, I'm a victim, I can't do it, you tell yourself that enough you'll believe it. There is a great song by Nickel Creek that says, "Others have excuses, but I have my reasons why." So true. . .
How do you tell them apart? How do you tell the difference between a reason and an excuse in a world overrun with imposters, a world overrun with people selling and buying up these wolf tickets even from themselves? Man it is hard. . .
But I believe the answer resides in grace. Wait a minute, isn't grace just forgiveness, and isn't forgiveness, the same thing as excusing, not holding people accountable. No, and here is the subtle but so important difference. . . grace forgives, grace gives second chances, grace understands, but grace never lowers standards. . .  "Not one iota will pass from the law, and woe to him who relaxes one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others. . ." now there is a danger here, especially for me, the old notion of practicing what you preach. . . because I like many of you fight the battle of excuses. . . so I could ask myself, who are you to preach such a message, for you certainly do not live up to it?. . . and I fought with that last night, but I had this thought, practicing what you preach is impossible if you are preaching perfection, and if you aren't preaching perfection, you are accepting less. . . no, grace is needed, especially too for me, but I cannot allow myself to preach the truth as limited by what I have achieved in my life so far, because it ain't much, but instead only limited by what I, and all of us, have the potential to reach and be. Mr. King and I were talking about the word Amazing, as it is in Amazing Grace, and I would like to think, that the word could be taken apart, into the root, a - above, without, apart from, and then "maze," the lost and struggling, twists and turns of this world. . . grace seeks to lift us up, beyond our excuses, and monuments, and wolf tickets, into our real potential. . . to be the salt of the earth, and the city on a hill, and shining our light for the world. . . don't let your light be darkened and snuffed by destructive forces of excuse. . . monuments of nothingness.
And the minute the excuses of Monday night were over, the sun rose on Tuesday, and it was my daughter Clara's birthday, and I was thinking about how I wanted her to see and be prepared for all the stuff she'll face in her life, I thought I want to wrap her in the armor of hope, and just then the stories of character began to come to light, people in Baltimore, not bound by excuses, rose to amazing heights of greatness, with simple but powerful acts. . . selfless acts. . . acts that raise the standards, building monuments of love. . . such is the amazing power of grace, it makes it possible for fallen creatures to once again rise from the ashes and live up to the image in which we are created, the kingdom of heaven is not built with monuments of nothingness, but instead the ever reaching, infinite, never faltering one iota, monuments of love. Which will you build today? Monuments of Nothingness or Monuments of Love. . . May it be so, Amen.

Here is the poem I referenced I wrote on Tuesday for Clara

Here is the sermon I referenced I gave in February for the boys: "Chains: Why it sucks to not do your homework!"

Image result for blueridgeschool

[1]The Revised Standard Version. 1971 (Mt 5:13). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.