Saturday, May 21, 2016

and If to Live

. . . and If to Live
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
May 22, 2016
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
2 Corinthians 4: 16-18

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.

16 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

I was trying to think of something fun to do this summer, something different, something that would be compelling, and meaningful, something that would challenge us, make us think, connect to us in new way, and still be completely Biblically based as always. I remember that one of my classmates from seminary was planning a sermon series where he used Dr. Seuss books to develop his themes each week. I thought that had some merit. . . I’m sure he did “O the Places You Will Go” maybe even “Green Eggs and Ham.” He probably got excited about “The Lorax,” and I was always curious as to what he would have done with my favorite “Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose.” I thought that was a great idea, but I don’t really want to do that. Then I found inspiration at school. My friend Jerry wrote a piece for the boys to sing at the end of the year stuff. Being a boys school, Blue Ridge, has always had a “Band of Brothers” theme. . . and so he composed a piece that took the great speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V and beautifully brought the themes alive to our context. . . and of course it was, because Shakespeare is classic like that, it was fresh and new and certainly meaningful. That inspired me, that it may be fun and meaningful this summer to take some of the great speeches from Shakespeare and find their Biblical counterparts and see where it goes. I thought I would start this morning with where inspiration struck, from Henry V, and I think that this sermon is a great beginning to this endeavor. And after last week’s dose of bitter reality of the essentials of church and loss. . . a pep talk may just be what we need.

So let me set the stage. It is morning October 25, 1415,  you are a part of the invading British army,  under the leadership of the youthful King Henry, who according to Shakespeare was a rebellious youth, who spent more time carousing with a cast of characters and villains in taverns, than learning to be king, but he has since matured, come into his own, forced to make hard decisions, and has slowly begun to prove himself. Now his men are devoted to him, but they are hopelessly outnumbered. They have no heavy cavalry and no army had in memory ever defeated an another army at such odds. What you do have is a bunch of farmers and yeoman, but not many knights, it is a new kind of army, and one nobody thinks can win. . . and wouldn’t you know it, the rain has been falling all night, it is quite muddy, cold, dreary and wet. Henry has spent the night walking through the camp in disguise, taking stock of the feelings of the men. . . and so when this scene opens no one knows where he is. The few knights and lords there assembled, open the scene, saying goodbye and wishing eachother good fortune, they are lamenting their odds, one says they are outnumbered, but at least the French are fresh, unlike us. . . another is lamenting how he wishes that some of the men not working today in England were here to fight with them. They are not working in England of course because today is a festival day, today is the day of the feast of St. Crispian. . . when he says he wishes for more men, King Henry appears as if out of nowhere and speaks these words:

What's he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin:
If we are mark'd to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England:
God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more, methinks, would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.  

Wow that is great, so inspiring, so perfect. . . I think I’ve mentioned before that I wrote my honors thesis from college on the Battle of Agincourt. Even back then I was interested in the story of history, the way that history could be told sometimes better through poetry and fiction than it ever could be told in facts. . . that there is more truth in the narrative and its connection to the imagination, than there ever could be in footnoted history. So I looked at this speech, I looked at the legends surrounding the event. I looked at the ballads and folk songs about it. There is so much, but this speech certainly stands out, and it is so synonymous with the event that people would swear that Shakespeare was there somehow in 1415 taking notes. . . and possibly all of that was brought even closer to reality when Kenneth Branaugh brought the character to life for the 1989 film version.

The lines that always are pulled out are the “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” Band of Brothers has taken on a life of its own with the HBO miniseries about GI’s in World War II, and others. But the line that spoke to me is much earlier in the speech. . . it sets the tone, its makes the parameters real, shows that he knows the situation they are truly in, and he doesn’t sugar coat it. He says, “If we are marked to die, we are enough to do our country loss.” That’s it right. . that is acceptance of fate. That is not trying to escape. That is not trying to avoid. That is accepting whatever happens, whatever God has in store, God’s will he says, whatever was to occur. I don’t know how many times during the course of the last five years of week after week, writing sermons, I don’t know how many times the Bible has called on me to preach, those very words, that very idea, that there is great faith, great power, that grace can come, when we stop seeking to escape, seeking to avoid, because escape and avoiding are our hands trying to control, trying to manage, trying to manipulate the world to fit our ends, but every once in a while we find ourselves in one of those real situations where there is no escape, and we find strength within us that we never knew existed. The cliché of today is, Let Go and Let God. . . it is one of those Let Go, Let God moments, and you can’t hold on any longer, you have to stand and face it. . . and you will either win or lose, live or die, succeed or fail. . . all that is left is the doing, and the deciding of fortune. Henry V is solid in that reality. There isn’t much hope. . . but what choice do we have at this point.

Paul in this morning’s reading is pointing the exact same idea. “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away. . . “ That’s it right. Everything around us is wasting away. . . we look around us and we think. . . there is no way this is going to work out. . . we are doomed to fail. . . the numbers just don’t add up. . . the odds are way too steep. . .  the demographics say no. . . no one is moving here. . . people have other interests now. . . what have we to offer. . . we can’t even make budget. . . we’re getting older. . . the country is changing. . . young people just aren’t interested in church anymore. . . and even if they were the larger denomination is pushing them away every chance they get. . . we have such a small number of folks that would even consider coming to a Presbyterian Church, and that number just got slashed in half over the last few years because of decisions made by people and attitudes of people far far away from here. . . “If we are marked today, at least we could do our country loss” people would miss us, the town would miss us, there would be a hole but not much, just some loss. . . but let’s not dwell on that, Henry doesn’t, he moves on quickly, and with words so simple, so true, the words we need to hear. . . and I chose them for the title this morning.

“And if to live” . . . and if to live. . . and if we live. . . if by chance we may just live. . . if by chance we overcome these insurmountable odds. . . then. . . . then what. . . then that makes all the difference. If we are meant to die, then there is no shock, nothing we can do about it now anyway, so we have nothing to lose. . . but just think, what if it does work out. . . think of how important our actions now would be, how crucial they could be. . . if we are marked to die, it doesn’t matter, but if by chance we are to live, that makes all the difference. We can’t avoid, we can’t shirk, our only chance is to go through it, to persevere, to stand under the fire, under the pressure, and take the steps forward. . . and if to live. . . that makes all the difference. Paul says, and it echoes Henry, or vice versa, maybe Henry, channeling that Christian strength in the time of need is echoing Paul, but Paul writes “our inner nature is being renewed day by day” and it is our inner nature that we know through Christ is the “and if to live.” Through Christ we overcome the insurmountable, we defeat death, we beat the cross, we roll the stone away, we win, the impossible becomes possible, Rome falls. . . and if to live. . . and if to live on the other side of the cross. . . that is and if to live. . . and that is the stuff of our inner nature, that is the stuff of the spirit we said is our only hope for being sustained. Paul goes on, “For this slight momentary affliction” hear it? Slight momentary affliction. . . our troubles are slight and momentary when we see them against eternity, and all those struggles I mentioned about numbers and money and demographics and the change, they are all surface struggles, slight compared to something like the loss of the Spirit, that they can cause through the doubt they instill, but we rise above because we live the. . . and if to live faith. These “slight momentary afflictions are preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure” . . . there is that beyond all measure quote from which Nelson Mandela spoke the words of Marianne Williamson when he said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure” hear it, there is the beyond measure. . . it goes on to say. . . it is our light not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.”:  Yes we are children of God, still, even here in Gordonsville, the young, the old, all of us, and we have a mark to make. . . and if to live. . . we need to make that mark. . . and if that mark is to die, then so be it, but let’s not shrink from it. We are too valuable for that, and too important for that and God has done too much for us already for us to be so ungrateful. 

We might not be able to see the future yet. . . Paul touches on that too. . .  “we look not at what can be seen, but at what cannot be seen”. . . the spirit, the power inside us, our heavenly nature as children of God, “for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” Such is the case all the time, but we can grow too comfortable in our visible surroundings that we can lose touch with it, lose faith in it, in those things that can’t be seen. . . and it often takes facing the precipice, the abyss, the unclimbable hill, the insurmountable mountain, the unwinnable odds, the certain defeat, to open our eyes to it. . . and if to live. . . then we live, we come through it on the other side and we are tested, road tested, stronger, in faith, as brothers and sisters in Christ, and we would then become very dangerous for good. And those that didn’t know that power, didn’t feel that love busting out from within them, sat themselves in fear and trembling and doubt, stuck in the momentary world, they are the ones we’ll need to pity and love. . . oh will they need us to love them, we can be the ones to show them the love that has brought us through the fire. . . let me close by returning to Shakespeare to echo the call. . .

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,

It is possible that some of the men took Henry’s offer to leave if they wanted to, and it is possible that some of them were grumbling and doubting, fearful and trembling, and it is possible that when the battle came some shirked their duty, but the only story we know is that they were victorious, and the impossible became possible. . . if we are marked to die, we are enow to do our country loss. . . and if to live. . . . amen.