Monday, June 6, 2016

What Do We Hear?

What Do We Hear?
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
June 5, 2016
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 22: 14-20
Exodus 13: 3-10

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.

This morning being a Communion Sunday, I thought it was a good time to enter into the part of the summer Shakespeare series that centers around my favorite of all the plays, my favorite probably because for at least nine years, seven at Blue Ridge and my final two at Christchurch, I taught it. It is a rite of passage of sorts for many Juniors in high school to read Hamlet, which many consider Shakespeare’s best. It is a play about philosophy and religion and life, a tragedy with at the same time a very simple and complicated set of themes. I’ve grown over the years to see it more and more as a play that espouses an interesting brand of Reformed Theology, something that no one looks for in Shakespeare, but like I said the more I read this play the more it jumps out at me. Reformed Theology at its best points to and derives from the central idea of a Sovereign and Provident God, which is an idea very central to Hamlet as well. Over the next four weeks as we look at some of the speeches from this play in tandem, I hope to show you exactly what I mean. It is in this area also that I think this play at its heart speaks to us.

But before we get to this morning’s speech from the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, I selected the words of institution at the Last Supper according to Luke, once I read both, I think you will begin to see the connection. Here is Luke 22: 14-20

14 When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. 15 He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; 16 for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; 18 for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19 Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20 And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

We’ve heard those words before. We and Christians from all over the world in every time and place have recited them when we come together to break bread, commemorating and taking part in the meal that Jesus shared with his disciples, the meal that he invites us to, so that we remember. We do it here in Gordonsville on the first Sunday of every month, and at a few special occasions and services throughout the year. What do we hear when we hear those words? What do we remember? What do you hear? What do you remember? Not generally, but specifically. What exactly enters your mind when you hear. . . do this in remembrance of me? Keep that question and answer in your head as we proceed, we’ll be coming back to it.

Now to Hamlet. A little background is probably necessary, since most of you are long since removed from a high school classroom. I tell my students that the plot of Hamlet is the least important part, in Shakespeare, what happens is always secondary in my mind to the language. It is poetry after all, and there is much more going on behind the words, than is actually acted out. I tell them if they want to worry about the plot, they should go watch The Lion King because it is really similar. The prince’s uncle kills his father and takes the throne, denying the prince his right to the throne in the process. In Hamlet, there is an important twist to this, after murdering the former king, Hamlet’s father, his uncle Claudius marries the former queen, his former sister in law, and Hamlet’s mother. . . so the family ties that bind become quite tangled. . . thus the claims of incest. . . the ghost refers to, though it is not incest by blood, only that of inlaws. . . which is enough to cause Hamlet to obsess over it for most of the play. So as the play opens all we know is that the king is dead and that his brother has taken his place. . . we don’t know about the murder, but people, especially Hamlet, suspects as one character suggests, “something is very rotten in Denmark.” – the source of that famous phrase. A ghost has appeared to some soldiers, they tell Hamlet about it, and now Hamlet has gone to see for himself, sure enough the ghost comes again, and talks to Hamlet – and the audience – alone. This is what he says, the speech we will focus on this morning. . . try to listen carefully. . . we will get the description of what happened, and what the ghost wants Hamlet, his son, to do. As I said, listen carefully, as the title of this sermon is “What do we hear?”

I am thy father's spirit, 745
Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confin'd to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purg'd away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison house, 750
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part,
And each particular hair to stand on end 755
Like quills upon the fretful porcupine.
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood. List, list, O, list!
If thou didst ever thy dear father love- . . .

Revenge his foul and most unnatural murther. . . .

Murther most foul, as in the best it is;
But this most foul, strange, and unnatural.

Now, Hamlet, hear.
'Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,
A serpent stung me. So the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forged process of my death
Rankly abus'd. But know, thou noble youth, 775
The serpent that did sting thy father's life
Now wears his crown.

Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast, 780
With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts-
O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power
So to seduce!- won to his shameful lust
The will of my most seeming-virtuous queen.
O Hamlet, what a falling-off was there, 785
From me, whose love was of that dignity
That it went hand in hand even with the vow
I made to her in marriage, and to decline
Upon a wretch whose natural gifts were poor
To those of mine! 790
But virtue, as it never will be mov'd,
Though lewdness court it in a shape of heaven,
So lust, though to a radiant angel link'd,
Will sate itself in a celestial bed
And prey on garbage. 795
But soft! methinks I scent the morning air.
Brief let me be. Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursed hebona in a vial, 800
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment; whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body, 805
And with a sudden vigour it doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood. So did it mine;
And a most instant tetter bark'd about,
Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust 810
All my smooth body.
Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother's hand
Of life, of crown, of queen, at once dispatch'd;
Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhous'led, disappointed, unanel'd, 815
No reckoning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head.

If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not.
Let not the royal bed of Denmark be 820
A couch for luxury and damned incest.
But, howsoever thou pursuest this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven,
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge 825
To prick and sting her. Fare thee well at once.
The glowworm shows the matin to be near
And gins to pale his uneffectual fire.
Adieu, adieu, adieu! Remember me.

Now, what did you hear? No doubt you heard what Hamlet heard. . . he heard that his uncle had indeed murdered his father, usurping the throne, taking the crown, the queen. He heard the details, that he was sleeping in the orchard, and that he was poisoned in the afternoon. He heard that the ghost wants him to get his revenge. . . to take his uncle’s life. . . you heard how the ghost is saddened by the behavior of his queen, “what a falling off was this” he, the ghost, knows and believes himself to be much the better man than his brother, but then he is also told to let the queen alone. You may have even heard that he was killed without getting a chance to absolve his sins in the Catholic tradition. . . he was unhouseled, unaneled, with all his sins on his back. . . and last but not least, he says Adieu, Adieu, and in words reminiscent of Jesus’ own words we read this morning and repeat every month during our Communion services, he says, “Remember Me.” Does that about rap it up? Details of the murder, lamenting over his wife, marching orders to get revenge, and Remember Me. . . is that what you heard? Is that the gist? Is that all? If so, then you heard exactly what Hamlet heard, but in doing so missed the most important thing he said. . .  something that should have shaped the rest, something that should have told Hamlet everything he would need to know, something that would cancel out the rest. . . did any of you hear it?

I put the first part of it in the bulletin, in the prayer of preparation place in the bulletin. Look at what he says. . .

I am thy father's spirit, 745
Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confin'd to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purg'd away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison house, 750
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part,
And each particular hair to stand on end 755
Like quills upon the fretful porcupine.
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood

Think about this for a second and let it all sink in. . . I know that this is a fictional play, but within all fiction there is a universe, and it is a universe much like ours with beliefs and realities. Now it just so happens that this universe of Denmark, Catholic Denmark, is a Christian place. . . at this point in the play many characters have alluded to their faith. . . Hamlet himself is a student in Wittenberg. . which is a city of course famous for being where Luther lived and began the Reformation. . . now think about what that means, and what Hamlet’s world view should be, being officially Catholic, but leaning towards a protestant education. . . What would it mean to you if a ghost came back and said, like this ghost does, that he is freshly back from Purgatory? What would it prove?

Exactly right, that there is an afterlife, and that this afterlife is exactly like what your church has taught you. . . and then there is a God, and that there is a God who made a system where there is justice, where punishments are served out in time. . . and if there was a system of justice created by God, then that system would be perfect, God would be sovereign, and we could take God at his word when he says, I don’t know, things like, “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord.” And that could and should render the rest of what the Ghost says null and void. Why would Hamlet need to get revenge, if he knew that Justice in fact is going to be served? Why would he need to take things into his own hands? Why would he need to say later in this scene. . . “The time is out of joint, O cursed spite that I was ever born to set things right” ? Do you ever think in those terms. . . if I had evidence that there was a sovereign God, staring me in the face, would it, could it, should it change completely the way that I see the world, the way that I would act in the world, the way that I would behave toward other people, the way that I would feel the need to control, could I then let go, and let God as the phrase so succinctly puts it. It is funny, it is like Hamlet doesn’t even hear that part, he is so obsessed with his mother’s situation, the murder, the revenge, all of that stuff, he completely misses the point, that he has an eyewitness account of God’s eternal justice staring him in the face, someone who has already spilled the beans about the afterlife, even though he says that doing so is forbidden. The ghost gives Hamlet enough of a clue that he could have heard but he didn’t. . . and the funny thing, as I’ll show you in the weeks to come, is that Hamlet finally does come to that conclusion, that God is in control, and that there is providence, and so there is no need for us to seek revenge, etc. because there is a God and vengeance is his. . . it is a tragedy though, so Hamlet learns this all too important lesson too late. And in the mean-time destroys every relationship he has around him, turning inward rather than loving.

Just like the ghost, when Jesus’ teaching of the disciples is through, he tells them to remember him. He puts a full bodied spiritual sacrament in place to help them remember him, but it is interesting to think about what they hear. Do they hear body broken/new covenant? Or do they hear tonight one of you will betray me? Do they hear you will deny me three times? When Jesus is arrested Peter grabs his sword, did he then not hear the words, or did he already forget them? We human beings seem to have at least one thing in common, and that is that it is hard for us to block out our own situation and hear. . . to listen. . . to take in the words we are being told for their own sake. . .

And it matters, it certainly matters for Hamlet, and it matters for us. How crucial is it for us to be able to hear not what we already know, or what we are sure is being said, but what is actually being said, by our friends, in our families, in all of our relationships. . . how important is it here for us to here. . . to hear each other. . . to hear the scriptures when they are being read. . . not what we already know, but the new, the actual, the message we haven’t heard yet. To encounter the Risen Christ in the world, to listen to the Holy Spirit within us. Let’s start with Communion. . . in a minute we will be invited again. . .listen to the words, listen to the actions behind the words, listen to the promise that they make to us. . . listen for something that you haven’t heard before. . . listen for something outside of yourself. . . figure out exactly what it is we are to remember today, and tomorrow. . . Amen.