Monday, February 22, 2016

On All Sides

On All Sides
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
February 21 2016
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Philippians 3: 7-`4

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.
Amen.

7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.8 Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

Last week I talked about the idea that Lent is about going into the desert, that place where there is nothing, but you and God, and you face your doubts, your faith, your reality, all of it on the line, that it all comes together. That without fear you go forward, without hesitation, without worry over outcome, you just go into the place that is difficult and you see. I want to continue that idea today. The specific challenge that I want to talk about is when you are faced with hardship on all sides, you are faced with people on all sides, people who want to attack you, surround you, hurt you, end you, when you are faced with challenges and choices and dilemmas and crises on all sides, and you feel like any direction you go, you can’t. There are consequences to every decision you could make and you are just plain stuck. And somehow in that situation we are to somehow, someway believe that it is all for good, that it is all part of a plan, that we are very much still in the hands of God.
The Call to Worship is taken from the Lectionary Psalm for today, Psalm 27, look at verses 2-3, it describes this very situation
When evildoers assail me,
    uttering slanders against me,
my adversaries and foes,
    they shall stumble and fall.
3 Though a host encamp against me,




That’s it the very feeling. Surrounded, enemies, slanderers, adversaries and foes. . . a host encamped, and enemies at the gate. But the Psalmist says the words of faith at that moment, the words of faith in the time of desperation:

    my heart shall not fear;
though war arise against me,
    yet I will be confident.

 Again that faith is hard in that moment. Have you ever been there? What was it like for you? What was it like to be surrounded, and have issues not just in front of you or behind you, but coming at you from all sides, that host, encamped, like a siege?
We have a bunch of Biblical examples. The first is probably Abram, from our Old Testament reading. He has gone out from Ur, taking that walk of faith, leaving behind everything that he knew, into what we might call the wilderness, or the dessert, armed with only a promise from a God he has never seen, a promise that somehow he was to become the legitimate father of a great Nation, through which a blessing would come to the entire Earth. But he’s had no son, and his wife has grown quite old, and is still quite barren. He has in his doubt, fathered a child with his slave Haggar, but the promise still remains. He is a stranger in the land, he’s been a stranger in other lands, in Egypt, again and again he seems to be surrounded with no hope, but eventually the promise comes to be. Joseph knew about Egypt, but he found about it after having his brother surrounding him on all sides, selling him from the pit, into slavery, and then with Potiphar, and his wife, then in jail, then with Pharaoh, against all odds saving everybody, even his brothers who betrayed and sold him from starving to death.
Moses was in Egypt too, and he has to deal with a hard hearted Pharaoh, with all the majesty and power and chariots, while in Egypt, but then the grumblings of his own people once he gets out of Egypt. Where are we going? Where are we going to get our food? Where are we going to get our water? Do you even know where we are going? This is crazy, you’ve never seen God, why can’t we see him, why would he lead us out here to die? He even has people wanting to go back to Egypt, back to the chains of Pharaoh, but Moses somehow faced it all. David, with Goliath, then Saul, then Absolom. Elijah, with Ahab and Jezebel. Daniel with Nebechudnezzar, in the fire, in the den of lions, and also in the court, with that brood Vipers whose jealousy, anger, and ambition wants to rid the court from that, yet another,  interpreter of dreams. But before Daniel even comes around, his ancestral homeland is surrounded, and falls, putting him in exile to begin with. For years, Israel and Judah themselves as a nation, a divided kingdom, the glory days of David and Solomon long behind them, and they have the Assyrians to the North, the Babylonians to East, and the Egyptians to the South and West, again only a promise of a Messiah to deliver them, but the bottom falls out first, and they are sent into exile. . . there in Babylon, only to be delivered by another empire, from Persia, and then the Hellenes, with Alexander, the Ptolemies, and finally the Romans, Jews spread in diaspora. . . strangers still, surrounded on all sides.
All of this, people waiver again and again, but it seems that somehow someway, here we are celebrating and believing that same promise, though we have seen in recent history some of the worst destruction human beings have ever been capable of: genocide, world war, Holocaust, Nuclear Weapons, terrorism, a world in turmoil, beset on all sides with major existential questions about faith, and life, and whether these ancient promises are true. It’s not easy, and many churches, many Christians, have avoided such topics because they are scary. . . the questions come flying, how could God let that happen? How could a good God let that happen? Is God not powerful enough to do anything? Is God not willing? Does he not feel our pain? Does he not care? What kind of God does that? Maybe there is no God. So many have asked and answered these questions definitively for themselves already, and are living their lives accordingly. Some have not preferring to ignore the questions, preferring to not enter the desert, possibly for fear that their faith will not persevere to the other side. We went there. We’ve gone there, at least in our minds, and Easter still approaches. We haven’t latched onto an answer, necessarily, but we did not shy away from the question.
I was inspired to write this sermon because I was thinking about Margaret, and her situation, and her strength. I was really inspired to think and feel empathy for her. She is loving on all sides. I heard a radio show this week about heaven on earth, and how human beings on one hand desire it,or seem to, to be completely free from pain, from care, for concern, but on the other feel the most alive, the most human when we are farthest from that peaceful place. He talked about Odysseus in Homer’s epic. That the story opens, at least his part in it, with Odysseus, safe in an Edenic paradise on Earth, safe secure, immortal, given immortality by the Goddess Calypso, out of her love and care for him. She is beautiful. . . literally a goddess, and is waiting on him completely, giving him all his heart desires, fulfilling his every need, but yet he longs for home, because he cares. To be human he must take part in his identity, and the thing that identifies him as a human being is what identifies us all, it is that he is the Son of Laertes, The Husband of Penelope, and the Father of Telemachus. Our identity, and our humanness he said is in our connection, or relations to others. The host on the radio didn’t include this, but possibility also you could include, King of Ithaca. . .then you have who you are from all sides, and what you are called to do as well. . . .  a child, a parent, a spouse. . . those are three directions of love that a person may have in life. Of course other relations can define us as well, but Margaret’s situation filled me with those. . . as she as a daughter takes care of her mother who needs her completely, as a wife, supports and takes care of her husband, who broke his foot on a fall on the ice, and then now at once as a mother is supporting her son in his fight for cancer. That is surrounded on all sides, and that is love being poured out on all sides. She is loving hard on all of the sides of love.  I stopped at this point and wrote this poem, and when I was finished I wasn’t sure where to go next. So much was expressed, that I had to stop. I decided that I would decide where this would go in the moment. So I’ll read the poem, and then see. . .
Have you ever been bleeding love on all sides,
Pouring out your heart in three directions at once,
Where all that makes you, you, needs all of you,
Completely, wholly, and there is no end in sight,
Where the immediacy of now is real, encompassing
Every corner of your body, flowing through every
Vein and leaking out, your fluid force of life, given,
Offered, none held back or hoarded, overflowing,
Breaking down walls and barriers, at once forever?
You should feel empty, but if you have, you get it:
There is nothing that could fill you so much. Perhaps,
This is living in the house of the Lord, a house
Where walls have long since come down, invisible,
But real, an embrace, where all that flowed out
Returns, as if it never left. There is no way to know
Such things, they must be experienced, felt, believed.
My prayer is not to deliver you from such things,
But to send you into their glorious center, so you
Can come to love like that and become fully human,
For this alone is the grace-filled image of God.
           

(taken from what I actually said on Sunday)
And here I am on the other side, and do not think that I have more to add to it still, but I do want us to take another look at the passage from Philippians because I think we will understand what Paul is saying a different way.
7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.8 Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.


Amen.