Sunday, June 19, 2016

Let Be

Let Be

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

June 19, 2016

at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia

1 Chronicles 17: 16-22

James 3:13-18

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.


Two weeks ago we started into Hamlet. We looked at the ghost’s message, the ghost of Hamlet’s father coming from Purgatory to convince Hamlet to get revenge for his murder. Then last week we heard from the murderer. With both the theme of God’s sovereignty and providence was front and center. With the ghost the fact that there is a system of divine and natural justice in place, and then with Claudius, the idea that he is trying his hardest to create a world for himself, his way, as Shakespeare puts it he pitting his discretion in a battle against nature. . . believing that he can himself decide what is, and he can decide how other people react to it. . . but then there was Hamlet. It is Hamlet, the prince that I want to look at today, again with an eye to the theme of God’s Created Natural World, but I’m not going to look at any one speech today, but rather look at how Hamlet as a character goes from, “O cursed spite, that I was ever born to set things right,” to saying, “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. . . let be.” It is quite a turn around, for sure. And it is I would say, the very turn around that speaks to what we believe about God and the world.

Let’s take a look at this morning’s New Testament lesson. . . it speaks to where I want to go eventually with today’s sermon. This from the epistle of James 3: 13-18:

13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace. . . such is not the case in the world of Hamlet, at least not for the characters who each meet their end by the end of the play. It is interesting to think about wisdom when you think about the character Hamlet, because he is very intelligent. . . he is always the smartest, cleverest character on stage. He talks circles around character after character, but there is something missing. . . He lacks wisdom and understanding, like James is describing, mostly because he doesn’t know who he is. He doesn’t know what he should do, and he becomes then ineffectual and hates himself for it. He is bitter, and selfish, and it just slowly cuts him down until his end, but something happens before the end because he has the right change of heart, he comes to accept who he is, but many things are already in motion by that point. I want to trace his growth because I think it can give us good insight into how we deal with grief and hardship, how we can turn inward, how it destroys our relationships when we do, but how we can also find peace within the storm. . . It is all there for us.

Now remember, when the play opens, Hamlet’s father is dead, we find out later by murder, and his mother has quickly married, her former husband’s brother (the murderer of the king, who all is in on it we don’t know). . . but now he is king. Hamlet doesn’t like it, he wishes he could end it all he says, “

O that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!

Think about that, he believes in God, wants to follow God’s laws, I would kill myself now but God doesn’t like it, but right after says that God’s creation is weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable, and pointless. It is kinda like the Catholic teenage unmarried couple, who gets pregnant because birth control is against the rules. . . but there we see one of the big themes coming forward, selective piety. . . following rules, but not seeing the bigger picture. . . at least not now, but with all of that frustration and pain and anger, he finally says,

It is not, nor it cannot come to good.
But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue!

 He knows it is wrong, he feels it is wrong, he knows it is going to end badly. . . but again ineffectual, he is going to do nothing. . . but that all changes, at least in his mind when he sees the ghost. . . .

So the Ghost comes, as we’ve talked about two weeks ago, and tells him, look your uncle, who married your mother, and wears my crown and sits on my throne, is actually my murderer, and I want you to avenge me. . . And this fires Hamlet up. . . He says:

I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix'd with baser matter.

In other words, now I’m going to act, I’m going to get this done, I must do it, and I will do it. . . and I’m going to do it right now, and until I get this done I’m not going to think about anything else, I’m not going to worry about anything else, I’m going to get this done, so help me. . . He finishes the scene with the line I mentioned before. . . “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite that I was ever born to set things right. . . “

Now think of how far Hamlet has come, he has gone from this is bad, and it is going to end badly, but it isn’t my place. . . and then to the entire weight of the world rests on my shoulders. This is my work to get done, and no one else can do it, and the entire world is depending on me. He says he is going to get it done, he says he is going to stop worrying, but he doesn’t. . . In the next scene he is talking about how horrible the world is still. . .

I have of late- but wherefore I know not- lost all my
mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed, it goes so
heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth,
seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the
air, look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical
roof fretted with golden fire- why, it appeareth no other thing
to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a
piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in
faculties! in form and moving how express and admirable! in
action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the
beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet to me what
is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me

Hardly focused on revenge right. . . no contemplating creation and the world. . . God’s work of creation. . . his words echo the words of Genesis, stuff like “firmament” and he calls human beings “the paragon of animals” not a bad way of saying image of God when you mix it with all the other images. . . but he again is not impressed. . . is it others he hates, or is it himself? There is self loathing in a statement like that, because he sees himself as ineffectual on one hand, and a traitor to his mission on the other, but something stops him from committing the murderous revenge. . . what is it? It isn’t the mental will, because it seems like that is there. . . he beats himself up about these things, saying “What a rogue and peasant slave I am. . . am I a coward? Why what an ass am I! This is most brave, that I, the son of a dear father murther’d, Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell, must like a whore unpack my heart with words.” See he feels that he should be a man of action, but all he is, is a man of words. . . with no action. In the most famous speech, that begins with “To be or not to be” he says, 

And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action

And he has lost the chance for action. . . he has one more time to try with no more excuses, but he chooses not to. . . all because his uncle is in the act of Confession. . . and he does not want to kill him and send him to heaven. . . do you see how warped he has become? Do I act? Do I not act? It all hangs on my shoulders. . . I am the only one. . . o cursed spite. . . to be or not to be. . . Man delights not me. . . what an ass I am. . . . These are the thoughts we have when grief is mixed up with internal conflict over who we are and what we are supposed to be and do. . . Why does he say one thing and do another? Why are the actions and the words not aligned? Which represents his true self. . . his words or his actions? His discretion or his nature? You see Hamlet is fighting the Claudius battle. . . the battle of the sin of this world. . . that we are in control and that it is all about us. . . his circumstances. .  . the world that his uncle has created. . .the world of sinful delusion. . . he is blaming on God and cannot see God’s power, presence, and justice. . . just like he couldn’t hear it when the ghost spilled the beans about Purgatory. He is too caught up in his own stuff. . . to see through it, to see beyond it to the world outside Denmark’s walls, the world beyond his own seeming control. . . or at least the world that seems to depend on his action. . . He says two other things, and they both foretell of the cure to his issues. He says, “Denmark’s a prison” and then he says “for there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.” Yes, he is stuck in a prison. . . but think about the other thing he says. . . “our thinking” makes things so. . . again there is discretion over the is. . .we get to decide what is. . . our minds are in control. . . the problem with this thinking, of course is that it creates prisons, because our brains and our worlds are so very small. And if we are caught up in ourselves. . . as James says, in our envy, selfish ambition. . . the friends he is talking to say it themselves, saying that it is his “ambition that makes it a prison.” Hmm had Shakespeare been reading his James?

So what makes the change? What makes the difference? Have you ever been in that situation like Hamlet. . . probably not with revenge and murder. . . but with something else. . . some other relationship problem. . . some personal crisis. . . some time when you were caught between two choices, unable to pick and do either. . . and so in the moment beat yourself up for not choosing. . . until is causes you to lose track of yourself? Sometimes these are large issues, and sometimes they are small, but we all face them. . . I think. . . . Don’t we. . . The issue seems so important. . . it envelops us in the moment, but looking back it really wasn’t a big deal anyway. . . it seemed like the weight of the world was on your shoulders, that the next turn of the earth on its axis was waiting for you to decide and act, but it really wasn’t. . . it is delusion, deception, disorder, or as James puts it “earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.”

I love this one Chinese anecdote about the missing axe. . . I’ve used it before. . . this man loses his axe and he sees a boy, and he looks like a thief, walks like a thief, and talks like a thief, but then he finds the axe, and the boy turns back to normal. The whole idea of the anecdote is to show that sometimes what we think determines what we see, though we are sure that what we see determines what we think, and if both are true, you can get caught up in a cycle of delusion. . . where the delusion compounds and forms off itself in a spiral, and it is not easy to get out of that kind of cycle. . . how does Hamlet go from “O cursed Spite,” and all the rest of that self-destroying, and relationship killing behavior. . . to “Let be” and “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.”

Yes. . . he gets out of the prison. . . he accidentally kills another character, on accident. . . or at least mistaken identity. . . and he is being sent away to England he thinks as part of the cover up. . . but unbeknownst to him he is to be executed upon arrival. He gets out of the castle. He sees the world. He sees an army going to fight for a piece of land that isn’t valuable. . . he finds himself in a pirate battle, and for some reason that he cannot explain, he checks the papers that are accompanying him. . . not suspecting. . . just led to it. He says “IN my heart there was a kind of fighting that would not let me sleep.” And he gets up in the middle of the night and finds out that he is going to be executed, and changes the orders, then providentially he is able to escape because his ship is captured by pirates. . . And listen to what he says. . almost in direct defiance of “so far hath discretion fought with nature, he says “Let us know, Our indiscretion [there is that word again] sometimes serves us well when our deep plots do pall; and that should learn us There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will.” You see he get’s outside of the situation, and lives a little bit of life, and he realizes there is more to it. . . he sees the hand of providence. . and there is great comfort in relying on it. So the next time he gets the chance to control an aspect of life, later on, when he could get out of the fencing match at the end which will mean his death, he says,

Not a whit, we defy augury; there's a special providence in
the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be
not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come:
the readiness is all. Since no man knows aught of what he leaves,
what is't to leave betimes? Let be.

And then when he dies. . . and yes he will die. . . he says. “But let it be,” echoing this peace again. He finds peace in his death. . . if only he had found this peace before he would not have destroyed so many relationships along the way. . . which I think is the real tragedy, not necessarily Hamlet’s death, but all of the relationships he destroyed. . . or Claudius destroyed. . . or this idea of discretion and nature destroyed. . . it leaves a path of destruction. . . instead of what James describes as a “harvest of peace.” But that harvest of peace is possible, and prescribed for us by God if we could just let it be. . .

I want to close with a final quote from Hamlet because there is a character who gets it right, and Hamlet can recognize it. . . His friend Horatio is really the sole main character to survive the play. . . Hamlet describes him this way.

For thou hast been
As one, in suff'ring all, that suffers nothing;
A man that Fortune's buffets and rewards
Hast ta'en with equal thanks; and blest are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled
That they are not a pipe for Fortune's finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him
In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee.

This is the perfect description of someone, no not passion’s slave, but instead sowing the seeds of righteousness and harvesting peace. Nothing shakes him, no circumstance ever could because he knows who he is, he knows whose he is, and he knows that it is all in the Father’s hands. He can simply let things be. . . and spend his time loving. Amen.