Sunday, February 14, 2016

A Desert Flowing with Milk and Honey

 A Desert Flowing with Milk and Honey
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
February 14, 2016
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Romans 10: 8-13

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.

.8But what does it say? “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.”
12For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

As we begin our Lenten season, this Sunday, our epistle reading is all about faith, salvation by faith, justification by belief, when it comes to being saved, everyone who simply calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. It seems so easy and so simple: just “confessing with your mouth” just believing with your heart, just calling out with your voice. It seems easy, but it’s hard in real life. It is hard when the weight of the world falls on your shoulders, it is hard when things are not going well, it is hard when everything you see tells you that there is nothing more, nothing else, nothing to believe in, it is hard when darkness descends, and it’s cold, and fear creeps in, it is hard when everything goes wrong, it is hard when the ones you love are hurting, it is hard when you are faced with loss, it is hard when you are struggling against disease, sickness, injury, the politics of the world, when those you love don’t love you back, when you are waiting, powerless for a phone call, for a change of heart, for a word, or a smile, or just a glimpse of hope. . . it is hard when you are in the middle of the desert. And that is what we are called to do in Lent, to enter the desert, 40 days, a mirror to Christ’s own fasting in desert. . . . to embrace the fear, the doubt, the challenges, to face it all head on, standing against the wind, against the cold, against the darkness, open and naked, and real. That is difficult, but the Bible Story shows again and again that, that desert where doubt and faith meet, where hope and fear come together, where the lines between the visible and invisible world are blurred, is exactly where the fountain lies, exactly where the milk and honey flows, exactly where we find God, but many of us would rather stand on the safe side, and that safe side is on the outside of the desert. Our fear, or our fear of fear, our fear of doubt, keeps us from ever entering.
On Wednesday, many of us came together to mark our entrance into the desert with ashes. . . the words of that service, that traditional ritual alone, facing our sins, laying them bare in confession, it all evokes our greatest fears, especially those words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. . . “ That is facing it all head on, but they can be just words. Just like it is hard to have faith in the desert, it is easy to say the words in church, when everyone else is, when it’s safe and warm, when you can smell the coffee and the fellowship snacks wafting already through the door, when the candles are burning, when the music is playing, when that bell rings tolling, calling us into this safe space, out of the cold world from whence we come, but we must go back out there, and live, face the entire reality of the world, and live, face the entire reality of the world and believe and live.
In my brief homily on Wednesday I scratched the surface of what I want to call disillusionment, the idea that you leave here, strong in the faith, but something along the way, gets in your way, and that faith flees, and you’re faced again with what I’ve been calling the desert, this desert of doubts. I quoted of all places The Doors, Riders on the Storm, “into this house we’re born, into this world we’re thrown, like a dog without a bone.” How do you get to that place? Have you. . . have you ever had that thought, honestly? Who am I? Why am I here? Is there anything else? I seem to be helplessly unprepared, unprovided for, incapable of standing and doing what I need to do. There just is no way forward. I am lost. I’m lost and not only am I lost, but there was no way I could have not gotten lost, I was destined to be lost, I simply thrown into a  world, by accident, by mistake, at random. It is what it seems like. . . God are you there, or as the Psalmist of Psalm 22 wrote, and Jesus echoed from the cross, God, My God, why have you forsaken me. . . .? Why?
Have you ever been there? Those times when it’s hard. I have, and in the midst of them you just want to either fight or grasp, or hold on, or quit it all.
I talked about other descriptions of what that disilusionment desert is like. I quoted Wordsworth, the great Ode. . .
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight
                 To me did seem
            Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;--
             Turn wheresoe’er I may,
              By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

            The rainbow comes and goes,
            And lovely is the rose;
            The moon doth with delight
     Look round her when the heavens are bare;
            Waters on a starry night
            Are beautiful and fair;
     The sunshine is a glorious birth;
     But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.

I just love that poem, the sound of it, but he is describing something real and glorious that is now all of a sudden missing. . . the glory the majesty, God, he says that “glory has past away from the earth.” I love it because he is describing both beauty and the desert at once, as if he wants to believe, is trying to believe, still can see the shadows of faith, but can’t quite grasp it, the doubt is too strong. He goes on in that poem over many many stanzas going back and forth between images of great faith and beauty, and questions about why he just can’t see it any more. . . .
Both of them speak of something that is gone:
              The pansy at my feet
              Doth the same tale repeat:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting;
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
          Hath had elsewhere its setting
               And cometh from afar;
          Not in entire forgetfulness,
          And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
               From God, who is our home:

God is our home, we know God is our home, but there is this separation, this going to sleep and forgetting. Wordsworth is criticized often for writing this is manifestation of childhood and dreams and innocence, but I can see figuratively as more, not just childhood, but from faith, from that strong place we are here on Sunday morning, until we go back into the world, and forget and sleep because the world is too much with us. It is too much to bear in strong unwavering belief. We enter the desert.
This morning, this Lent, I don’t want to be your camel into the desert, the beast that is equipped more than you are for the journey, nor do I want you to stay safe on the path this Lenten season, but instead to let yourself go, because I know that on the other side of the desert is life. I know that on the other side of the desert is a land flowing with milk and honey, just as I know that on the other side of Lent is Easter. We’ll have time for that celebration, we’ll have time to be built back up. We’ll have time to be raised up, so let us first descend. Let us go down into depths of ourselves, our deepest darkest fears, and doubts, the real us, below the surface, behind the masks. Let’s bear our souls, and find that true and honest moment. . . and there pray. Tradition says that Kind David took himself on such a journey, and by doing so wrote Psalm 63:
1 O God, you are my God, I seek you,
   my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
   as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
2 So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
   beholding your power and glory.
3 Because your steadfast love is better than life,
   my lips will praise you.
4 So I will bless you as long as I live;
   I will lift up my hands and call on your name.

5 My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,*
   and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
6 when I think of you on my bed,
   and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
7 for you have been my help,
   and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
8 My soul clings to you;
   your right hand upholds me.

David goes into to the desert, and he finds God, and his soul clings, in the shadow of God’s wings he is protected and sings for joy! I don’t think you can sing with that kind of joy without feeling the thirst first. So we must head out into the desert.
I want to give one more image before I finish. . . I looked on Friday for just the right poem, the right prayer to put in the bulletin. I searched for deserts and darkness, and shadows, and doubts, and found many, but none quite right, and then just as I was about to quit, I stumbled across, this poem from C.S. Lewis, that said exactly what I was looking for. It is there in the bulletin in its entirety.
Arise my body, my small body, we have striven
Enough, and He is merciful; we are forgiven.
Arise small body, puppet-like and pale, and go,

White as the bed-clothes into bed, and cold as snow,
Undress with small, cold fingers and put out the light,
And be alone, hush'd mortal, in the sacred night,
-A meadow whipt flat with the rain, a cup
Emptied and clean, a garment washed and folded up,
Faded in colour, thinned almost to raggedness
By dirt and by the washing of that dirtiness.
Be not too quickly warm again. Lie cold; consent
To weariness' and pardon's watery element.
Drink up the bitter water, breathe the chilly death;
Soon enough comes the riot of our blood and breath.

That poem’s title is so powerful, maybe the most powerful of all the lines, “After Prayers, Lie Cold” It’s an important comma right. . . the prayers are not the subject, we are, we are to lie cold, bare, bearing, completely enfolded in the Father’s Hands, lying motionless, still, silent, that in that silence we will feel God’s presence, we will be filled, that is when we find the land flowing with Milk and Honey. . . but go to the desert first. . .  .