Sunday, August 7, 2016

Signifying Nothing

Signifying Nothing

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

August 7, 2016

at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia

Psalm 22

Matthew 7: 24-27
Sound file click below

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.


I knew that I couldn’t do this summer of Shakespeare extravaganza without touching on one of my favorite plays, Macbeth. But some of my favorite lines, some of the more famous lines, really don’t have anything to do with scriptural truths. It’s a dark play, and a powerful play, and there are really great lines that are so poetically brilliant, but usually they are all about what not to do rather than what to do, so it’s hard to take direct wisdom from them. On one hand, Hamlet is a play about what happens when you don’t act, when you are constantly discerning what to do, and never get around to doing anything. . . it may be that the not doing is the right thing, but the pressures of the world and the pressures to act weigh hard on Hamlet’s mind throughout. Macbeth on the other hand is about acting on the wrong decision, the wrong discernment, taking the bad advice, and then going full force, “screwing your courage to the sticking place,  and then letting the chips fall. . . holding on tight, and watching it all crumble about you. Just like Hamlet, there is a supernatural motivation, but for Macbeth it is three witches, three servants of Hecate, three demons, are they to be understood as real, or as just figments of Macbeth’s ambition, symbols of his ambition, the voices in our head that tell us to go about winning at all cost. I want to read the speech first, before I get to the scripture because I want us to have the frame of mind right before we get there because this morning’s sermon is going to be a little bit different. . . we are going to come at one of the more well known parables, one of the more well known teachings of Jesus, one of the more well known sections of the sermon on the mount, but we are going to come at it the opposite way it is normally done, not the what to do, but the flipside, the what not to do of it all. . . .

So the speech from Macbeth. Let me give a little background. This speech comes from the end, after all the best laid plans of mice and men have failed, and the end is near for our anti-hero. He has listened to the witches, with their, “double double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble.” He has murdered the king, his guest, he has ascended to the throne, but now all of his ambition, all of his paranoia, all of his plottings have come home to roost, and his wife is dead. . . not just his wife, but his wife who acted as his motivating force, a voice of go for it, a challenging voice, and strong voice, possibly the reason for his action, but that voice is gone and past, and he realizes all of his work has come to naught, she had said, that if he screwed his courage to the sticking place they would not fail, but they have, not in the short term, but in the long term where it all matters. . . the ends were supposed to justify the means, but it all fell apart. He is lost, disillusioned, weary, and resigned to his fate, having lost faith in everything he had ever hoped to be true. Listen to what he says. . . having just heard the news about his wife:

Seyton says:

The queen, my lord, is dead.

And Macbeth says these words. . .

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

That last line just sings. . . life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. . . but look earlier, and it is all there in your bulletin,  he says, “she should have died hereafter” hear that word “should”, it is an important word in our vocabulary, when we say that things should happen, we are claiming some kind of knowledge about the world, the way the world works, the way the world is set up, a claim on justice. . . this is what should be. . . have you ever said that about something. . . he should do this, she should do that. . . the world should be this way. . . the world should be that way. . . why isn’t the world the way it should be? We constantly get caught up in the shoulds, but so often those shoulds are built on the weak foundation of our own point of view, our own flawed point of view, our own limited point of view. . . and the next line sets it up so well, he says, “there would have been time for such a word” the word there he is referring to is the “should”. . . there would be time for shoulds to come to be. . . but he says tomorrow. . . and tomorrow . . and tomorrow, it always comes tomorrow, but tomorrow creeps in the slowness of time, always to the last syllable. . . but what then? They simply turn into “yesterdays” and “our yesterdays, all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death.” He says, “out, out brief candle” echoing his wife’s refrain of out, out damned spot,” when she is trying to wash the invisible imaginary blood from her guilt ridden hands put there by the paranoia of guilt, the danger of biting off more than you can chew, entering into a world beyond what you can handle, a world where you thought you were in control, but find yourself to be hopelessly. . . not. This the world based on vain, flawed, misguided, undiscerned, incorrect, small, ambition-laid, self-interested “shoulds.”

So often we as people throw around that should word. . . and maybe we shouldn’t. . . oh there we go again, what do I know? But back to the speech. . . after finding his should empty. . . it leaves his vision of life empty as well. . . which is telling about the dangers of the should. . . he says the bit about the light and the fools, then he says that life is a bad actor on the stage, acting taking up time and space for a bit, then forever forgotten. . . and then my favorite, the “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing. . .” William Faulkner took the title for his famous book, The Sound and the Fury from this line, and it is a powerful book, a bleak book. . . a book that, like Macbeth, also finds and shows the emptiness of misguided shoulds. Living a life of misguided shoulds leaves you disillusioned when you find just how empty they all were. . . I know it’s a bleak message, huh. . . I wondered whether I could preach such things. . . and not bring everybody down. . . but I thought there was something to it, something in there of value. . . we shall see. . . Let’s turn to scripture:

Before I get to the gospel lesson that I finally ended with, which I think fits this situation so perfectly, I must admit I didn’t start there. . . and I had the bulletin all done, and would have sent it to Gerri to print with a different passage, had I not waited to get DeAnna’s music information until Friday night. . . I would have gone with my original thought, because what captures this idea better than any. . . what captures the darkest pit, the darkest moment of life, the moment when it all hangs in the balance, and it seems the balance has come up empty. . . I thought of the cross. . . the moment of the most darkness, the most pain. . . I tried to put myself in Jesus’ shoes at that moment. . . hanging on the cross. . . abandoned by his friends. . . condemned by those he was trying to save. . . nails through his hands and feet. . . scars and blisters from being beaten. . . dying of thirst. . . asphyxiation. . . starvation. . . and exposure. . . Jesus screams out, or does he whisper it. . . the Bible doesn’t say. . . and I don’t know which one would be more dramatic. . . the scream of pain. . . or the whisper of defeated disillusioned disappointment. . . whispering “Eli, Eli Sabachthani. . . My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” That’s it right, that’s that moment of this world is a ship of fools, heading south, sound and fury. . . certainly signifying nothing. . .

And you can see where that all was heading. . . with the Call to Worship coming from Jesus’ source material for those words, Psalm 22. . .and I thought it powerful enough to include all of it, making the rest of the verses of Psalm 22 the Old Testament lesson. . . I wanted you to hear those images of disillusion and pain. . . the chorus of the pit. . . the chorus of despair, despondence, and disdain. . . the echoes of the disillusionment. . . they shouldn’t have crucified him. . . his disciples shouldn’t have abandoned him. . . Pilate shouldn’t have washed his hands clean. . . they should have freed Jesus instead of Barabbas. . . they shouldn’t have beat him. . . they shouldn’t have crucified him. . . he should have let the cup pass. . . God should not have given his only begotten son to this end. . . it shouldn’t be. . . I wanted you to hear them all from the Psalmist:

“crying with no answer. . . night after night with no rest. . . a worm. . . no longer human. . . scorned. . . mocked. . . despised. . . encircled by the bulls of Bashan.. . . their mouths watering like a ravenous lion. . . poured out like water. . . empty. . . bones out of joint. . . heart like wax. .. melted. . . dried mouth. . . tongue sticking to my jaws. . . laid in the dust of death. . . (where have we heard that image today? Again Shakespeare knows his Bible right, “the way to dusty death”) dogs around me. . .evil doers encircled. . . hands shriveled. . . feet shriveled. . . counting every bone. . . dividing my clothes. . . casting lots for them. . . It’s all there. . . it echoes Jesus’ very situation, though written at least 600 and maybe closer to 1100 years earlier. . . why because the pit is a human situation. . . we know it well. . . but there is one reason that I found that this passage, these images. . . this beautifully grotesque and whole image of human suffering didn’t quite work this morning, didn’t capture Macbeth. . . is what surrounds the images of despair, both in the Psalm, and in Jesus’ words, it’s actually why Jesus alludes to this Psalm especially. . . it is because there is hope here for him. . . hope for psalmist. . . despite it all. . . the pain and suffering. . . and sweat and challenge and fear and pain. . . there is a hope. . . and it comes from the Lord. . . there is a But and it comes from the power of God. . . there is a, “not so fast my friend” all is not lost. . . ringing loudly from the creator of the universe. . . why my God why have you forsaken me? In saying these words. . . there is enough faith. . . to turn the ship around. . . because He, the Psalmist, We. . . have not been forsaken. . . God’s steadfast love remains, and it is never too late. . . unless and this is the difference between Jesus, the Psalmist, and God allow it us. . . and Macbeth. . . he has allowed despair to defeat him. . . and all then is lost. . . he has given up hope, and hope is gone. . . the world to him signifies nothing. . .

Now we’re ready for the gospel, friends the gospel difference. .  . Matthew 7: 24-27, the very bitter end of the Sermon of the Mount:

 “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!”

Why is Macbeth lost, why is he without hope, why is he despairing to the point of nullification and defeat. . . because he is a fool who built his house on the sand. . . and now it has gone splat. . . the winds came. . . the rains poured. . . and the foundation was blown under by the waves. . . he built his world on ambition. . . he built his world on deceit. . . murder. . . broken hospitality. . . lies. . . and if that were not enough, Shakespeare even includes the Witches to show that his motivation comes from below, from evil. . . like the temptation in the Desert. . . the temptation that Jesus has passed through. . . Macbeth has been tempted alike, but he is not strong enough to stand. . . the devil offers him the kingdom, to rule as far as the eyes can see. . . and he took the deal. And when you take that deal. . . the world gets upside down, wrong becomes right, good becomes bad, virtue becomes sin, heaven is hell and hell is heaven. . . it is a lie unremittingly repeated. . . and in such a world it is not long before you are lost, searching, with no rock to stand on, all there is, is sinking sand. . . and how can you ever in such a world discern what you or anyone else should do, but you are blinded and that is all you can do. . . you wonder why other people can’t see the same world you do, why don’t they agree with your path forward, why can’t they just all get on board. . .  but they can’t and they never will see it because you created this world. . . it is a world build on lies. . .it is a world of the lost. . . it is a world of sin. . . and it is a world with no hope. It is a forsaken world. . . like Psalm 1. . . it echoes Psalm 1. . . right. . . the way of the wicked is lost and scattered by the wind. . . that is so much like lost in the flood waters with no foundation. . . or living in the world where all you see is darkness, and all you hear is the clamor of fools, with all of their sound and their fury. . . signifying nothing. . .

But we are not Macbeth. We have not killed, deceived, or usurped the throne from our guest. . . we don’t even have a king. . . and if we did he certainly wouldn’t visit us in our homes. . . . where do we fit in all of this? Do we feel like there is no hope? Do we feel like our world is spiraling like wild out of control? Do we feel like we have to choose between two evils? Do we feel like we have to buy gold, a gun, and some food to last us through the next crisis? Do we feel like there is nothing we can do about it anyway? Do we feel that the teller of our story must be an idiot, full of sound and fury? Do we feel like our lives signify nothing? No. . . me neither. . . at least not on my best days. . . and it is on those best days where I am clinging to the rock, where my eyes are open to the past. . . to the great wonders I have known. . . to the great and amazing miracles that have brought this world to this moment. . . not the world that should be. . . because none of this should have been. . . perhaps I was wrong when I said Jesus shouldn’t have been crucified. . . because thank God he was. . . otherwise we would not be basking in the amazing glow and grace and hope of the Resurrection. . . the knowledge of the depth and wideness and power of Love. . . and if I really say that. . . if I was really so wrong on that whole Jesus shouldn’t be crucified thing . . how much more wrong am I when I deign to say what should or shouldn’t be now at this moment. . . because none of this should be. . . in my perspective none of this should be. . . I wouldn’t have done it like this. . . none of it. . . who am I to say how things should be? . . . we are a miracle, we each are miracles that should never have happened. . . life itself. . . and the story of history. . . so much of it shouldn’t be. . . our coming together on this day at this moment. . . it shouldn’t be. . . but it is! It is! It is. . . God is not the God who should be. . . but God is the God who is. . . now and forever. . . And if our eyes are open to it, or as Jesus says if we have ears to listen and to hear it as it is. . . then we can start building on the rock of our salvation. . . and that means building according to the sermon on the mount. . . I could go through it and each teaching, every single one is broken by Macbeth. . . one by one. . . and it all goes splat for him. . . what is our world built on? Where shall we set our eyes? To whom shall we listen? The answer is painfully obvious. . . and is not on a ballot, not on TV, not found in our systems at all. . . but that is where most people these days seem to find their hope. . . and it makes us so cynical. . . and cynicism is the depths of hopelessness. . . and the meaning of cynicism. . . the definition is. . .that the world signifies nothing. . . sounds familiar right. . . I said the answer is painfully obvious. . . and that it isn’t found where we typically look, the easy choices the world presents to us in our own deserts of temptation. . . perhaps that is what makes it so painful. . . but then again our fear of pain has built many a sandcastle in the desert. . . built of sand on sand. . . and time and tides always wash them away. . . you’d think we’d learn. . . . Yeah I know I mixed that metaphor. . . water shouldn’t flow in the desert.. . . hmm there is that should again. . . father forgive us we know not what we do. . . let us bend our knees, find the humility we deeply need to find, forget the shoulds that fill our mind, and bathe ourselves in the waters of grace. . . and come again in humble supplication. . . where? To the table, why? Because even so. . . even so. . . we are invited. . . it is never too late. . . hope is never far away. . . we turn. . . and begin to walk again hand in hand in the cool of the day. We are not made for defeat. . . we are not made for despondence. . . we are not made to be forsaken. . . we are made for, by and in Love. . . in which lives our hope eternally. Amen.