Sunday, June 12, 2016

Equal Scale

Equal Scale
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
June 12, 2016
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Isaiah 44: 9-20
Matthew 7: 24-27

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.

We started last week into Hamlet, and we looked at the speech of the ghost, how he comes back from the grave to convince his son to avenge his murder, but what Hamlet misses is the fact that the ghost spills the beans inadvertently about the existence of Purgatory, because that is exactly where he has come back from. And it all introduces into the universe of the play the idea that there is a God and that God has put into place as the creator of the universe a sovereign system of divine, I want to call it natural, because natural is a word that will be important this morning, divine natural justice. I want to expand on this theme this morning because I believe it is an important one in the play, but more importantly our Reformed Worldview is based in the idea that God is sovereign, that God creates, redeems, and sustains this world, His world. He’s got the world in his hands, after all. Now, if that is what we believe, about God, about His world, about ourselves, what does it mean? This will be the theme of this morning’s sermon and next week’s as well.
This morning we take a look at the villain of Hamlet, Claudius, and in his speech we get to see where he messes up. . .obviously the killing of your brother to take his queen and his throne is pretty bad, but this speech gives us the mindset behind the murder, and the arrogance that makes him think he can get away with it. Arrogance, or hubris is Claudius’ downfall, but we’ll get to him in a minute. . . first let’s start with the New Testament Lesson. . . I chose the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 7: 24-27:

24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25 The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”

The three scripture readings from this morning each point to an aspect of Claudius’ speech and tragic mistake. Psalm 1 talks about building your life on the law of the Lord rather than being blown by the wind with the wicked. The passage from Isaiah talks about Idolatry, and building your faith on something that your own hands have crafted rather than on the Lord. And this Gospel message is about building on a shaky foundation, instead of the rock. You will see that Claudius does not build on a solid foundation and his rains are gonna come down and the floods are gonna come up, until the house he is building goes splat. Aristotle in his Poetics that real dramatic tragedy must be a downfall based on a tragic mistake. . . Claudius certainly fits that distinction.
A little bit of background. . . this speech actually happens in the play before the ghost speech we looked at last week. We, the audience, have seen the ghost, but it is yet to speak. The scene opens, this is scene 2 of the first act and characters named in the opening scene are now making their appearance in the flesh. All we know before Claudius opens his mouth, is that the old king is dead, a new king sits on the throne, and there is some strange things going on, and the country of Denmark is preparing to be attacked by Norway, so they are in national crisis mode. So the scene opens and Claudius, the new king is speaking. . . . we will find out later that he killed his brother to become king, and that he has married his brother’s widow. . . seemingly pretty fast. . . but you’ll hear that from him. . . so without further ado.
Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother's death
The memory be green, and that it us befitted
To bear our hearts in grief, and our whole kingdom
To be contracted in one brow of woe,
Yet so far hath discretion fought with nature
That we with wisest sorrow think on him
Together with remembrance of ourselves.
Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen,
Th' imperial jointress to this warlike state,
Have we, as 'twere with a defeated joy,
With an auspicious, and a dropping eye,
With mirth in funeral, and with dirge in marriage,
In equal scale weighing delight and dole,
Taken to wife; nor have we herein barr'd
Your better wisdoms, which have freely gone
With this affair along. For all, our thanks.
Now follows, that you know, young Fortinbras,
Holding a weak supposal of our worth,
Or thinking by our late dear brother's death
Our state to be disjoint and out of frame,
Colleagued with this dream of his advantage,
He hath not fail'd to pester us with message
Importing the surrender of those lands
Lost by his father, with all bands of law,
To our most valiant brother. So much for him.
Now for ourself and for this time of meeting.

Now I want to pull out some important phrases here, because they get at what Claudius is really saying. What he is explaining at court, to the people, and of course to us the audience is the fact that the reason for the hasty marriage between he and the former king, his brother’s wife was that we should be sad, but we have decided instead to be happy. He says, it befits us to bear our hearts in grief, but instead he says that discretion has fought with nature. . . now here is the line and the crux of his argument and the crux of the play. . . the question is do we simply get to decide who we are, what we feel, what our station is, what our life is like, how we are going to react to things. . . etc. the list goes on and on, and could include every aspect of our lives. . . do we get to decide it all, or are their aspects of the world that are as he puts it “nature”. . . discretion vs. nature. Who decides what is. . . to be. For Claudius, he was born second, and therefore not King, he was not married to his brother’s wife. . . and he is not the father of prince Hamlet. . . but he can just decide that he wants that to change, and with one action he can become king, become his brother’s wife’s husband, and become the father to Hamlet, and make everyone like it. He can also decide that he will not be sad about his brother’s death any more, and more than that, he can make sure that no one else is sad either. It may be natural to have a funeral and mourn the loss of the king, but what good does that do us, we would rather be happy, so instead of a funeral, let’s have a wedding, a party, a celebration. . . why not. . . the dead don’t care (we certainly don’t believe in ghosts) we should instead focus on the living, we are the ones who make the decisions afterall. We can just decide. . . and not we, but me. . . I’m the king. . . what I say goes, and all of you are going to go along with it. This is the plan, but Shakespeare shows how upside down the world becomes because he fills Claudius’ speech with Oxymorons and paradoxes. . . . wisest sorrow. . . sister now queen. . . defeated joy. .. mirth (happiness) in funeral. . . dirge (sad songs) in marriage. . . and the line that I chose for the title: equal scale weighing delight and dole. Night is day, up is down, black is white, nothing is the way it should be. . . there is no basis for truth, instead truth is simply a matter of discretion. . . there is no nature. . . we make of it what we want. You may ask yourself, why doesn’t someone speak up, why doesn’t someone say the emperor has no clothes on. . . why, why, why? But then again, why don’t we do that? It is hard. . . and look Claudius gives them a chance, right, he says. . . “nor have we herein barr’d your better wisdoms, which have freely gone with this affair along.” IN other words if you were going to say something you should have already, but you didn’t,. and now you all are accomplices to the world that Claudius has created, if you were going to speak up you should have done it, but now to do it means putting the nation at risk because, how convenient, there is a national crisis. . . and it is time to act. . . we need to save the kingdom. . . speaking out now would not be patriotic, and of course what is understood is that there will be no speaking out now. . . one can wonder if there ever was a time when people were given a chance. What we see in Claudius is a politician, working the angles and taking advantage of a crisis. . . never letting such a thing go to waste. . . if he can save the people from this foreign threat, then no one will care any more about the former king, whose death seemed a bit fishy. . . no one will care because the new king will have had saved them. . . and when things are good no one cares about who used to be in power, at least that is the plan. He’s got it well in hand, except for one thing. . . Hamlet is sad about his father’s death. . . Hamlet does think that the marriage was too fast. . . and Hamlet doesn’t buy all of Claudius’ lies, he smells a rat. Hamlet, foolish, old fashioned Hamlet, is a child of nature. . . and it is natural for a son to mourn the loss of his father, and no one can tell him to just stop being upset. Wherein lies the problem. . . you can change your name, change your station, change everything about yourself, but you can’t control the world because other people exist. . . there are aspects of the world that your discretion did not create.
Even the most secular of understandings of this situation would see the truth in it, that you can’t control others, but it is multiplied to a greater degree of importance when belief in a creator of the world comes into play. The reaction should be humility. . . knowing your place in the world, discerning your role, understanding how you fit within the created world. . . and that is the soul of what Claudius Nature. . . how the world was created to be. . . . and breaking that nature would be sin. . . willful or otherwise. . . trying to create your own world, your own rules, your own identity, rather than accepting your place as a child of God made in God’s image. . . and the fact that the rest of creation is also made by God, and that the other people also have been made in God’s image. . . it means obviously that killing them to take their throne would be way over the line, but also controlling them, using them, forcing them to fit into your categories, instead of what they were created to be would also be problematic.
Shakespeare’s Claudius, I hope shows us this tendency in ourselves. We want to shape the world around us, maybe because we can feel like we are in control, maybe because of envy, maybe because we are bored, maybe because we just want to, maybe it makes us feel better, that we can shape a world that seems right and just to us. . . why because we have discretion, and it can fight against nature, why not let it fight against nature. . . nature is weak, flawed, shouldn’t we just fix it and create a better world, a just world, a Utopian world. . . but again most attempts at doing such things are fraught with the limitations of perspective. . . I make it perfect for me, and everyone else can just deal with it. . . they should be forced to see that my vision of things is the right one. . . . why because I said so.
I briefly mentioned the three readings. . . Let’s think about Psalm 1. . . it says to root yourself to the law, to study the law, daily, to meditate on it. . . this is not saying to use your discretion, but instead to focus on the nature, the laws that God created and put into place, the same God who created the world, created the rules. . . . and if you do this, if you can align with nature then you will be planted, rooted by living streams. . . rooted, instead of being blown by the wind like the wicked. . . Ecclesiastes says that the pursuit of wisdom is like trying to chase the wind. . . instead it says to meditate on God. . . similar, yes. . . then in the Isaiah, it talks about idolatry. . . worshiping gods of your own creation. . . your own crafting. . . why not. . . after making the world around you, the world of discretion. . . might as well make a god to rule it, too. . . then you might be able to wield that god to get other people to buy into your creation. . . and just maybe it can all work out this time. . . but no. . . much like it we build on the rock. . . on the foundation. . . on the truth. . . on nature. . . on the world as God created it. . . and then come what may, we will be rooted, solid, safe.
There is much in our culture that says, go out make yourself what you want, make the world what you want, seek out Utopian versions of your ideal place, and call it the kingdom of God. . . there is much done in the name of progress, but often it fights evil with evil. . . replacing one evil with another evil, perhaps the lesser two evils, but yet still evil itself instead of rooting itself in good, and the kingdom of God doesn’t do that. . . the kingdom of God does not use evil to create good, it doesn’t pit one version of truth against another, because it is all one. . . and it doesn’t make one person’s life, who may disagree with you, it does not make one person's life insignificant. . . there are no lesser evils, there are no victimized sacrifices for the greater good, instead there are children of God made in God's image, seeking to reclaim their true nature, and freedom is the ability to live into that potential. Christ makes us free. . . everything else is ignorant construction of worlds that cannot be, ignorant only as limited to our own perspective, and so may have all the knowledge in the world, but remains in part ignorant none the less. May we remain ever humble in that truth. amen.