Sunday, May 29, 2016

Spying Shadows in the Sun

Spying Shadows in the Sun

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

May 29, 2016

at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia

Mark 10: 17-27

2 Samuel 11: 1-5

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.


17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money  to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

So we continue this morning with our summer time journey, exploring the speeches of Shakespeare. Last week we looked at Henry V, and the battle of Agincourt, giving us a pep talk, a great king, a great hero, fighting with, rallying his men, with immortal words, inspiring us to have hope and face challenges. If last week was the pinnacle of human greatness, this week we go the other route, and look at one of the great villains of all time: Shakespeare’s Richard III. If Henry is one of the great kings, Richard is one of the worst, a picture of evil, meddling, betraying, plotting, sowing discord, distrust, even murder among members of his own family, brothers, nephews, cousins, betrayed, imprisoned, and murdered. He’s despicable, but clever, and it is his cleverness that draws us in. He is the original Frank Underwood, from Netflix’s House of Cards. He talks directly to the audience. . . he tells us his plans, making us his accomplices. . . we are drawn into his schemes, and we find ourselves all but rooting for him because he is making a fool of everyone else, and Shakespeare seems to know that a villain is more appealing than fools, or at least more entertaining. . . and it is for entertainment that people seek out the theater.

Last week I set the stage before giving the speech. I’d like to do that again. This play opens at the end of the War of the Roses. . . an English Civil War over the throne. You have the Lancasters on one side, and the Yorks on the other, each seeking to put a member of their family in power. The Hundred Years war, which included the battle of Agincourt, we talked about last week, did not go well eventually for the English. Agincourt was very much the high point. Joan of Arc becomes the savior of the French, and after 100 years of fighting the English are poor and divided, and Henry V’s son, Henry VI is young when he is crowned, and is not the strong ruler his father had been. Henry’s reign is challenged by the Yorks, who have a blood claim to power. To make a long story short. There is much fighting and intrigue back and forth, but eventually Edward IV is crowned king, the oldest of the York brothers. According to Shakespeare, Richard, one of Edward’s brothers, has played a great role in the fighting, has esteemed himself well, but is deformed and a hunchback. . . now that peace has come, Richard finds himself bored. . . the speech I chose opens the play and sets the stage, explaining just what Richard is set to do to assuage his boredom. He says:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smooth'd his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barded steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp'd, and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

I was drawn to this speech because Richard III is such a villain. He sells out his brothers, puts his nephews into prison, and sets the entire world against itself, and he tells you exactly what he is doing all along the way, so you get to see his plots coming to fruition. He is successful, up to a point. He does become king, but eventually is deposed, by who becomes Henry VII, father to Henry VIII, father to Elizabeth, the queen in Shakespeare’s own time. . . so Richard represents the last king before the establishment of the Tudor line, in power during Shakespeare’s time. . . so it makes sense to paint him as a villain, even if the history of the situation is not so clear. I want to focus on how Shakespeare paints him as a villain, and what it is that makes him go bad. . . hoping to find something tangible about Sin that we can grab onto and apply to ourselves. Is there some aspect of ourselves that we see in him, does he reflect some dark aspect of ourselves, and that adds to why we are drawn to him.

Richard talks about the winter of his discontent. . . he was happy fighting, and now he doesn’t know what to do with himself during peacetime. . .  he wants to be fighting and scraping. He says that he is ugly and deformed. . . not built for the pleasures of peacetime. . . like love, family, raising children. . . his deformity, means that no woman will have him. He is left unfulfilled, and so seeks “other” entertainments. . . it does not seem like he craves the power of ruling, just a simple cure to his boredom. . . in other words he wants the challenge, doesn’t want the fruits of his evil actions, just the desire for the actions themselves. . . . he does not like success. . . he does not want “Happily ever after. . . “ There is no such thing as “Happy Ever After” for him. Can we see something of Eden here in this “weak piping time of peace?” Everything too perfect, that human beings are not capable of being satisfied, or at least some aren’t, those who nature has left like Richard, people at whom, “dogs bark in the street.”  Do we pity Richard? Do we see him as a victim, and therefore justified? He is ugly, mistreated. . . was used while he was beneficial to the cause, but once the cause is won, just cast aside. Is he evil because he is ugly, or is he ugly because he is evil? Which came first the chicken or the egg, the villain or the deformity?

I wanted to look at some similar occurrences in the Bible, so the Old Testament and the New Testament readings are characters who at least have something in common with Richard and his speech. . . also my anthem, “Satisfied Mind” has something in common with him. He say he is discontent. . . he is not satisfied with victory, but rather wants more. .. . is this a symptom of the victory itself? Does winning, or success, or comfort breed discontent? You could make the argument for David. There is no more despicable act in all of the Old Testament then the story that Suzanne began this morning, the story of David and Batsheba. Here you have David, the man after God’s own heart, chosen, taken from his sheep and placed on the throne. . . he has overcome Saul, has one the battles against the Philistines, has brought the Ark of the Covenant into the city, dancing before it. He sits on his throne, and now he has fighting men to do his fighting for him. Uriah, a Hittite, does that make him a mercenary? A hired soldier? David sees this man’s wife across the way, bathing, and he must have her, so he does. . . now all of this is bad enough, but he goes farther. . . rather than owning up to his actions, rather than doing the honorable thing after the fact, rather than coming clean, repenting and turning back to God, instead David has Uriah the Hittite, Bathsheba’s husband killed, but he doesn’t do it himself, he doesn’t face him, instead he sends him to the front lines, where the fighting will be the worst, and lets the war, his war, where he should be, he lets the war kill him. This is pretty low. . . could we say that David’s success has led him to this despicable act, that he entered into his own winter of discontent, the moment he took to the palace, privileged life? There is another similarity with David and Richard, and that is the mire the mark that war places on you. When David offers to build a temple to God, he is told that he has the blood of war on his hands, and so should not build the temple. . . what does war do? Is there something about being apart of the evils of war that leaves its mark on you? Does that lead to the discontent, and the villainy? It is an interesting thought.

Jesus in Mark’s gospel, this morning’s gospel reading, deals with another similar idea. . . it is the great story about the rich man, and Jesus’ answer about it being easier to lead a camel through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to get to heaven. . . is this why? Does success lead to villainy. . . like Richard and like the song Satisfied Mind that I sung, is it hard for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven because the desire for success is only increased when a modicum of success is achieved, that it is addictive. . . an addict without a fix, is the picture of so called “discontent.” It makes you wonder about the dangers of getting everything you wish for. . . I watched ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” with the girls the other night, and at the end when Charlie has won the contest and will take over as the head of the factory himself. . . Wonka asks him, “Do you know what happened to the man who got everything he wanted?” Charlie says, “No.” and Wonka answers. . . “He lived happily ever after.” May that is true, but maybe it isn’t. The other 4 kids in the movie are all so called winners, and they fill their lives with excess. Augustus with eating, Violet Beauregard with gum chewing, Mike Teavee with TV, and Veruca Salt, with whatever strikes her fancy in the moment, and is desirous of each moment. They have everything they want, but it is never enough. . . but with Charlie, he has nothing. . . is the winning of the Golden Ticket and the winning of the tour contest. . . will it change Charlie? Will winning turn towards the winter of his discontent? We asked the question last week with the Battle of Agincourt, what would it be like on the next morning after you’ve the Battle of Agincourt? How long would that feeling of satisfaction and gratitude last before it turned into the Winter of Discontent. If we are to take Shakespeare at  his word it is only two generations later when here we are with Richard uneasy, unsatisfied with success.

There are many ancient texts that warn of this very danger, the danger of success, and what it does to you.  . . this from China’s Tao te Ching. . .


But how hard it is to retire like that when your work is done, to sit back and retire from the stresses of life, completely at rest, to let go.  . . satisfied with the work that you have done. But yet that is one of the great tricks of life, modeled so perfectly by people like Moses, who sees the promised land, but cannot cross it. . . or by George Washington, who after two terms in office as president, retires to private life.

Our nation, since World War II has been living in the world of success, the world of winning. It is and has been a great burden, and a great responsibility. There has been great power achieved, and it is important that we remember, what sacrifices were made to win that victory. . . .perhaps that is what can and should keep us humble. . . that we are not like Richard, pining for the days of fighting, but instead cognizant and grateful for the sacrifices that achieved our success. Our place and our ambition, what we deserve, what we think we are entitled to, our “discontent” when placed in the focus of such things, seems so out of place, so selfish, so much the villain. . .

Richard says that he does not want to retire, lest he spies his shadow in the sun. . . he does not want to quit because he would be forced to assess who he is and what evil he has done to get there. . . what the tremendous cost was to his character. . . the sun burns brightly and shows the darkness, it shows his guilt, and his shame. . . withdrawing from the field of battle unable to jump into other distractions would force you to look back and assess where you’ve been, what you’ve done and what it all means. Richard is not willing to do that, so he would rather keep fighting the battles.

I have been a huge critic of President Obama. I do not agree with much of what he has done, but going to Hiroshima this week, was quite powerful, going not to apologize because apologizing would be an act of arrogance I think, but instead to own the shadows that the sun shines on us. . . that success comes at a great cost, there is a great cost of success, and the good man, does not hide from that cost with his own continuous action, but must at some point stop face it, and live with those choices, and accept the grace that God offers. Jesus said that the rich man is missing one thing. He has kept all the commandments, he has won at life, he has accumulated all of the rewards of living a good life, but in order to achieve the kingdom of heaven, he has to get rid of all of those things, he has to get rid of all of the things he has earned through his living, his own good living, and accept the grace. . . to fact the dark shadows in the sun, and allow the son to redeem those dark shadows. You have to face those dark shadows, you have to. You can’t avoid them, You can’t escape from them through distraction. We do that every week in our confession. And if those are just empty rote words, things we read, then there is truly something missing. It is the bear your soul, facing the shadows in the sun, and allowing yourself to be forgiven. . . that is the good news of the Gospel. . . in Jesus Christ we are forgiven.