Sunday, May 8, 2016

Windows in the Sky


Windows in the Sky

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

May 8, 2016

at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia

Romans 5: 1-5

2 Kings 6:33-7:2



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.



 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.





I knew that I wanted to take a break from the Lectionary this week. After an Easter season full of forays into Revelation, it was passed time for a break, and it was time for a change, and Clara’s baptism gives me that opportunity. And then I knew that I wanted to talk this morning about hope, of all things, because of the unique opportunity that I have to baptize my second daughter this morning. I have begun a tradition in the last few years of writing poems for Coralee and Clara, and I probably will try with Susanna this August, on their birthdays, trying to capture my thoughts and feelings about them each year. As special as these poems are to me now, I really think they will be fun and meaningful to look at years from now, when we look back and want to remember those special times when the girls were young, but those times are now for us, and since we don’t have many years at this point look back on, we look forward, when kids are young you look forward, and despite it all, the struggles of this world, weeks like this that leave us puzzled, and concerned for the future, challenges that beset us, before a future that is unknown, we stand very much in need of hope. The poem that I wrote a year ago now for Clara, just over a year and week ago, I had read, and it put hope in my mind as the idea that I wanted to talk about today. That week last year was a struggle too, a challenge too, a dark time, too. . . fires were burning in the Baltimore streets, protests, racism, madness. . . the pattern of conflict that we have seen grow throughout the past few years, seemed to really be spiraling, and I was trying to give perspective to my bright eyed free spirited daughter’s life. I wrote these words, and they rang in my head this week as well:

When I think today about you turning three,

I can’t help but wonder what your life will see.

If what the world you live and learn life in,

Will look and be as it has always been,

For today the riot fires are still burning,

Just one of many lessons that still need learning.

How can I prepare you for what you’ll face:

The cynical drivers of the constant race,

The excuses for crimes, the injustice of fair,

The conflicts of interests, arising everywhere,

The labels people will use to tighten your chains,

The time you’ll trade, with no return for your pains?

How can I show to you all of that real,

And still instill in you the real I still feel?

That through the fight, we are always growing,

Despite what we see, and what today is showing.

Yesterday, we thought the world might just end,

And tomorrow’s sun would never rise again,

So despite what we see in the world today,

That there simply is one, leads me now to say,

"I can’t lie and protect you, no, with real you must cope,

All I can give for your armor in life is hope."





What did I mean when I wrote that? Such is the question I want to work through in my sermon this morning.

            Hope is an interesting term. I was amazed to find that the word hope only appears 202 times in the Bible, which may sound like a lot, but really it isn’t. The opposite of hope, fear appears over 500 times. . .  Love well over 700 times, and since we are doing the set. . . faith appears also 500, and so we see that Love in fact is the greatest of these. . . but beyond bad jokes, isn’t it interesting that the word hope is found so infrequently. . .

Another interesting fact is that the word hope is found nowhere in the first five books of the Bible and the Historical books of Joshua and Judges. . . It isn’t until the book of Ruth that Hope appears. So Garden of Eden, creation of the world in 7 days it’s all proclaimed good with no hope. . . I mean even the Greek creation myth about Pandora and the box includes hope. . . remember she opens the box, let’s out all the evil in the world, but as a cruel joke the gods also put hope in there, but it is an empty hope, an evil hope, a gullible hope, giving human beings some strange false sense of security in a world of conflict controlled by a pantheon of self-centered and very fickle all powerful gods and goddesses. . .  but here in Genesis nothing, fruit yes, snake yes, fig leaves, check. . . no hope. . . even forty days and forty nights on the ark with Noah, no hope. . .  Abraham, walking around the desert praying for a son. . . ,no hope, heading up the Mount Moriah with no lamb, just his Isaac and a knife. . . no hope. . . Jacob, cheating his brother Esau.  .  . no hope, Jacob working to earn Leah as a wife, just so he can work some more to earn Rachel as a wife, yup, no hope, returning to the land to face the brother he cheated, no hope. . . even wrestling with God. .  . no hope. . .   his twelve sons, two mothers, one hope . . yeah of course there would be no hope there. Joseph, dreams yes, technicolor dream coat yes, hope, not so much. . . even in the pit, even Potiphar’s house with his wife, no hope. . . .  Moses, crossing the desert, burning bush, returning to Egypt, facing Pharaoh, 10 plagues, led by pillar of fire, through the Red Sea. . . no hope. . . all those laws, the 10 and then the 257, no hope. They even get to the promised land living through the battles against the Canaanites, the battle of Jericho, all fitted with no hope.. . . Deborah, Gideon, Samson, no hope. That cycle of faith, turning away, punishment, turning back to faith, that whole cycle repeats itself throughout the book of Judges, all with no reference to hope.

And then finally you get to Ruth, and we have the word, but. . . it’s actually a pretty hopeless beginning. . . .

12 Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, 13 would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” 14 Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.



So when the word finally makes its first appearance it is the hopelessness of Ruth, clinging to her dead husband’s mother, who has no hope of finding a new husband, no hope of finding much at all, returning to her people. . . and to her God. . . perhaps it’s a silent hope, like the E. . . on the end of Hope. . . like the whispering hope. . . silently sleeking through the pages without putting it into words.

The Old Testament lesson that Suzanne read this morning is the second time the word hope is used in the Old Testament. . . and it was from that reading I found the title for this sermon. . . “Windows in the Sky” . . . it all circles around the prophet Elisha, who we all know is the protégé of the other great prophet Elijah. . . now  I won’t go through it all like I did the Pentateuch, but quite a lot happens between Ruth and here. . . all with of course no hope. . . Samuel, Saul, David, Solomon. . . yeah even Ahab and Jezebel. . . the Earthquake the Windstorm, and the still small voice. . . but back to Elisha. . . the situation is really bleak, disgustingly so . . . it appears that The Samarians, the northern Kingdom are having some trouble with the Arameans. . . they had recently defeated an Aramean city. . . but now the Arameans were getting some revenge. Under the leadership of Ben Hadad, they had brought together all of the Arameans in a great army, and they had lain siege to the great city. . . and inside it was really bleak. . . it doesn’t do it justice to summarize, so let me read it straight from the text. This is 2 Kings 6: 24 . . .

 As the siege continued, famine in Samaria became so great that a donkey’s head was sold for eighty shekels of silver, and one-fourth of a kab of dove’s dung for five shekels of silver. 26 Now as the king of Israel was walking on the city wall, a woman cried out to him, “Help, my lord king!” 27 He said, “No! Let the Lord help you. How can I help you? From the threshing floor or from the wine press?” 28 But then the king asked her, “What is your complaint?” She answered, “This woman said to me, ‘Give up your son; we will eat him today, and we will eat my son tomorrow.’ 29 So we cooked my son and ate him. The next day I said to her, ‘Give up your son and we will eat him.’ But she has hidden her son.” 30 When the king heard the words of the woman he tore his clothes—now since he was walking on the city wall, the people could see that he had sackcloth on his body underneath— 31 and he said, “So may God do to me, and more, if the head of Elisha son of Shaphat stays on his shoulders today.” 32 So he dispatched a man from his presence.



So in this story you have starvation, and starvation to the point of deals being made between mothers to eat their sons. . . (great pick Pete on Mother’s Day). . . It’s rough stuff. . . and put  yourself in Elisha’s shoes because it appears that the King is blaming it all on him. . . he sends men to kill Elisha, but when they fail he goes himself. . . and says to him, in what Suzanne read. . . including the second appearance of the word hope. . . “This trouble comes from the Lord, why should we have hope in the Lord any longer?” do you see why he wants to kill Elisha, he thinks that by doing so he can get rid of God too. . . that is how that Ancient Pagan mindset was. . . which has something to do with Pandora, and the Greek’s putting “hope” in the box”,  but basically he is saying, why should we listen to you. . . and Elisha tells him that the price of meat will be back down, in other words the scarcity will be over, and people can eat again. . . and the King says. .  . “Even if the Lord could make windows in the sky, could such a thing happen?” Now I don’t know about the colloquial phrases of the time, but I would imagine saying there will be windows in the sky is about like saying, yeah when pigs fly. . . or some of that Ocean Front Real Estate in Arizona, that George Strait used to sing about. . . I can hear Wayne and Garth, from my youth saying, “Shaa right, as if” . . .

And I thought about it in our context today, too. What does hope look like today? Does it even exist?  What can you actually say that you have real hope for in the future? I don’t mean the empty political hope and change nonsense that gets thrown about all the time. . . but I mean, real specific hope, the kind of hope that says that the siege will end tomorrow and all will be well again. . . The kind of hope that says we can actually win the war on terror, that we can actually pay off the 19 trillion dollars worth of debt we have accrued as a nation. The kind of hope that says that Social Security will still be around, functioning, and solvent when those paying into it still now get to retirement age. The kind of hope that says, that Israel and the rest of the Arab world are going to finally at once be at peace, that the lion will indeed lay down with the lamb and those swords will be at once beaten into plowshares. The kind of hope that says that churches will still be around in 10, 20, 30 years, despite declining membership in the mainline traditional churches, and  growing numbers in churches with a cheapened, empty consumerist gospel message of believe in God and your every wish will be granted, again Pandora, and that box of hope.  That’s false hope, human hope, the hope of idolatry and control. . .

You see it is hard, hope is hard, especially when your mind, like all of ours tends to be these days on the big rather than the real that is around us. These are big challenges we face, and the real dilemma is they are so big no one knows where to start. So we make up choices for ourselves between the lesser of two evils. . . no real plans to move forward, just fear of moving backward or making it worse. . . no faith in a real plan, just absolute certainy that the other guy’s plan is the wrong one. . . and the real work takes much too long. It is impossible for anyone to get it all moving in the right direction. . .

And yet today, despite it all we baptize a child into this church. DeAnna and I made a promise we didn’t have to make. . . and you all the congregation of this church made a promise you didn’t have to make. . . Too often we think of days like today as traditional parts of a system. .. the next step in a mindless continuum of its just what you do. . . but honestly we have other options.. . . there are other places we could all be this morning, but we are here. There are other things we could be doing, but instead we decided it was time to take oaths to each other and to God to raise a child in hope. Is it because we believe in windows in the sky? Is it because we have seen those windows in the sky in our own lives, that we don’t know always, we can’t always see them looking ahead, but when we look behind we see them, and we believe those windows in the sky were real. . . that God is the God who makes the impossible possible. . .

Paul’s letter to the Romans, that I chose as the New Testament lesson for today has some interesting ideas about where hope comes from He writes:

And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.



Look at that chain of events, suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope. . . that’s it, that is what I want to give my daughter. . . hope that is born in the real of life. . . from character, from endurance, and if suffering is what it costs, God give me  the strength to not rescue her from it, giving her that false temporary Pandora hope, but to suffer it with her, right alongside, to have that endurance. . . you see that endurance is born of faith and love. . . and the byproduct is then hope. Is our society hopeless because we don’t have faith, and are too self centered to really love, giving ourselves freely for another . . and so flee from suffering as much as possible because we don’t like it, and don’t see any value in it anyways? And so focus on the unsolvable huge problems. . . and take care of ourselves for today. This is where we as a church must run counter cultural. . . not in the political slippery slopes that take center stage. . . like bathrooms, and coffee cups. . . and even wedding cakes. . . there frankly is no hope in those battles. . . those wars are lost because they are the wrong wars. We have to challenge culture by embracing struggle, the fight, not the outcome (for that is in God’s hands), the outcome is on the other side of the endured struggle that has to shape our character. . . no we must embrace the struggle and every time we do so, we must know we are planting the seeds of hope. This is the basis of the oath we took today for Clara, to teach her about faith, hope, and love. . . and how they are all tied together with suffering, endurance, and character. . . in a unique mix that God made and called good. We believe it is.

I wrote a poem for the graduating seniors at Blue Ridge a few years ago called “Four Songs before You Go” giving three poems of bad advice, the advice of fear and the world, and then finally the advice of reality as I believe it is. The closing line is my favorite, it says. . .

And on that day in the future, we
Will be beyond these fears, you see,
For each step we take, we take in doubt,
Until after it has all worked out."



Each step really isn’t taken in doubt, it is taken in faith, which includes a little doubt. .. . if it were all doubt no step would ever be taken. Paul seems to suggest that such steps are the foundations for hope because they are the stuff of endurance and character.   . . We took a step today, and steps such as these make it easier for us to see the windows in the sky, that we so desperately need.

How can I show to you all of that real,

And still instill in you the real I still feel?

That through the fight, we are always growing,

Despite what we see, and what today is showing.

Yesterday, we thought the world might just end,

And tomorrow’s sun would never rise again,

So despite what we see in the world today,

That there simply is one, leads me now to say,

"I can’t lie and protect you, no, with real you must cope,

All I can give for your armor in life is hope."