Sunday, December 13, 2015

Joy in the Mystery

Joy in the Mystery
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
December 13, 2015
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Philippians 4: 4-7

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.

4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.  5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. [1]

Hope and we are still waiting, and while we wait we hope, believing to our core that God always keeps his promises. Peace and there is no peace, in world of struggle and turmoil and division and conflict, we pray for the prince of peace, the day when we can exchange our swords for plowshares, where we can see the lion and the lamb lie down together, we still wait, but we have known such peace, if just a glimpse, the faith of our very dreams, and now, today, Joy. Such is the flow of Advent, the glorious progression that leads us to Christmas, the birth, of God himself incarnate in a manger, in a stable, in Bethlehem. . . Joy. Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians, Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. . . You can even sing it. . . and sing it and sing it, Rejoice in the Lord Always, and again I say rejoice. Joy to the World the Lord has come, Joyful Joyful we adore thee, How Great their Joy, how great their joy, JOY, JOY, JOY, joy, joy, joy. . . Glory to God in heaven on high. Rejoice, Rejoice, Immanuel, shall come to thee, O Israel. Rejoice in the Lord Always, and again I say Rejoice. Do you ever wonder why he wrote it that way, with such emphasis, "again, I say". . . especially with where he goes next. "Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything. . . "
Such exhortation comes because we tend to forget. In the world with all that it is, all that surrounds us, the dangers, the uncertainty, the division, the fear. We may just forget to rejoice, and be mired in sadness and malaise. We may just forget to let our gentleness be known, and become aggressive and controlling, and forceful. We may just forget that the Lord is near, feeling that we need to do, that we need to shape our ends by any means necessary. We may just forget not to worry, losing our faith, worrying, grasping tight, holding on, anxious, panicked, broken.  But it is there, and Paul in his exhortation is reminding us, reminding us to be joyful, it is so simple, and that in our rejoice, connected to it, is prayer, supplication, and thanksgiving. Through which comes the peace that passes all understanding.
And right, it does, it does pass all understanding. Often it doesn't make sense. Often this world feels like a desert where peace feels like a mirage rather than an oasis, so even the idea of peace passes all understanding. And in such we are to rejoice, and if we are to rejoice, because it passes all understanding we are called to rejoice in the mystery. . . the very mystery that surrounds us in life. Have you ever thought about that idea mystery? So much in our world we want to know, because if we know we feel like we are in control. I've been thinking lately about trying my hand at another story poem, maybe for children, like my others, like Chesty, that groundhog that tries and fails to stay up for Christmas, like the bunny who won't give up his clothes, like my heroine, the princess melancholy pea. I was reading to the girls the other night, The Grinch, and I thought what if it was the opposite story, what if the Grinch didn't need to steal Christmas because the Whos had stopped singing, stopped believing. . . and thought the Grinch stealing all their stuff could never do it, but what could would be if they were to begin to take themselves too seriously, to lose the magic of it all, the pageantry of it all, the myth of it all, and of course replacing all of that with the facts, the knowing. Things like no Santa, of course, he'd be first to go, and it wouldn't take place in December anymore because, Jesus probably wasn't born in the winter anyway, and no presents of course because it just wasn't efficient to buy something for someone else, that they may or may not want, nah it would make more rational sense to just buy for ourselves. Basically what would be gone would be the mystery of it all, and I thought I'd call it "Christmas in the Village of Knowing."Believing, dreaming, hope, these are the things of mystery, these are the things which pass all understanding, whereas knowing is not, knowing lives right in the middle of understanding, safely defined. But God isn't that.
I was talking with one of my favorite students, and he happens to be Muslim, and we have found so much common ground talking about this very issue. We wonder why is it that the world seems to know so much, to be caught up in the knowing, thinking that knowledge, ourselves, and the world is some finite thing to be conquered. We've been studying Socrates, who was famous for saying that "knowledge is something to be continuously sought, though it can never be attained. . . that true wisdom is knowing that you know nothing." I wrote a poem that sums up the idea:
May I ever come to know
That what I know
Falls far short
Of what I need to know.

May I learn
That in my thirst
For what I don’t know
That I won’t forget
The truth that I do know,

And that is that I know
Considerably less
The more I am blessed
To come to know.

That's a poem about embracing the mystery. I call it welcome minded because the poem when centered makes a pineapple, the international symbol for welcome. But yeah that Muslim student and I lament why it is that so many in today's culture think they have the world so figured out, and are so horribly mistaken. After talking with him on Thursday I wrote this poem, about the mystery I wanted share it because it speaks to much about where we are today, and difficulties that seem to be coming to a head around us.
When faced with all the turmoil and conflict we see,
Surrounded by angry people, and the rhetoric of fear,
It is easy to get lost in despair, or caught in the frenzy
Of the mob, the flow of what just seems inevitable, us
And them, the divisions and rifts growing, breaking
The foundation on which all we know has been built,
But therein lies the rub, the knowing, the inevitable.
The truth is that what surrounds us is simply what has
Always surrounded us, mystery, so it is nothing new.
It joins all humans together, that in each moment lies
The combination of knowledge and mystery. We look
Back and we have learned much, through experience,
Memory, and conversation, and so have come to form
A basis for the decisions of the present, and we have
Confidence in the choices we make today, resting on
Knowledge we formed yesterday, but then tomorrow
Remains ever in the realm of mystery. How to face
The mystery of tomorrow is always the real challenge
Of our existence. Some have sought throughout time
To control the mystery, that if we can attain enough
knowledge, we can build a future of our own choosing,
But what accounts for enough, for mystery even lives
In the past because what we know is limited to ourselves,
Our experience, our point of view, and shackled by our
Ever fading and altering memory. We talk to others,
And come to know more, but never all, and the archives
Of human experience is as diverse as it is infinite, and only
Presents a fraction of all that has been, let alone what is,
And will be, but a little knowledge applied to little things,
Can lead to a little success, and a little success grows
Big heads. Little is mistaken for all, the mystery lost,
The awe forgotten, humility gone, and we set our sights
On grasping the future, thinking that with control we can
Finally beat back that ancient enemy, fear. We build
Structures around ourselves, shelters from the storms,
Fences, kingdoms, bureaus, systems, where we sit sovereign,
And we do not like our reign threatened, by rain, storms,
Outsiders, new ideas, other know-it-alls, the earthquakes
Of else. These are all the illusions, and they are what gets
Threatened in times like these, when our control, the same
We never ever actually had is revealed as such. We are
Again faced with the reality of the mystery. People of faith,
Whether they be Muslim or Christian in name, on their
Best and worst days have much in common. Neither
Is immune from the desire to control the mystery, and have
Again and again, then and now, fallen prey to such desires,
The actions of the tightening grip of fear and avoidance,
But also, both at heart, if we were to ever let our hearts
Get Involved, could have faith enough to embrace mystery,
Simply living, allowing the piece of knowing from the past
To give us peace enough in the present to let go of just
Whatever mystery tomorrow has in store for each of us,
Such is my prayer when I say, "Thy Kingdom come," or
"Guide us to the straight path" almighty, infinite, amen.

The world as God made it is filled with glorious paradoxes, like in dying we are born to eternal life, like more you come to know the less you actually know, like finding joy not in the things that you control, the things you know, but in the mystery. It takes humility, it takes courage, it takes patience, it takes faith, hope, and it passes understanding, but understanding is overrated anyway. Rejoice in the Lord Always, and again I say rejoice.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Php 4:4-7). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.