Sunday, September 4, 2016

A Borrowing of Misery

A Borrowing of Misery
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
September 4, 2016
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Ecclesiastes 4: 1-12
2 Corinthians 1: 3-7
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.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ. If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering. Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our consolation.

I wanted to put Shakespeare behind us, for football and school are here and that means that the summer is over, and I’m sure that DeAnna and the girls are feeling that way too, as they travel back here this afternoon, having been run from the coast by the hurricane. We had a good run with Willie, and if you can think back to all of the ground that we covered this summer, it has been quite a lot. We were roused by Henry V’s pep talk, journeyed through the questions of action and inaction through three weeks of Hamlet. We looked at the villainous action of Richard III, Macbeth, Edmund from King Lear. We asked with Juliet about the importance of names, especially that name of Jesus. We pondered an idea of love alongside one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and we challenged the notion that all the world is a stage, and that we, human beings, are merely players. We covered most of what I wanted to get to. There was one episode from The Tempest I thought I wanted to do, but it never quite fit right.
So what next? I was thinking that I really enjoyed working with literature and having it send me into scripture. It has been great, not searching for proof texts, but using the themes of the literature to challenge or bring to life the poetic ideas. So I thought about continuing that, but heading out of Shakespeare. I thought, that at least this week I’d try it, and I was drawn to John Donne’s famous, “No Man is an Island.” And I wasn’t sure if it was right, until I got a phone call from Mom the other night, and like so many times before the events of life, even the small ones, seemed to align perfectly, and make my direction for this week’s sermon clear. To start let me read for you John Donne’s “Meditation 17,” but let me tell you a little about John Donne first. Donne was a contemporary of Shakespeare, though of a generation younger. He was a poet, and also a cleric in the Church of England. He wrote many sacred works, and the Meditations from which 17 comes, was part of a devotional type book that he wrote for his parishioners. Each of the Meditations would take an idea and delve into the spiritual and life ramifications of it. The idea is very similar to the devotional books that are often used today, like Guideposts, or “My Utmost for his Highest” . . . stuff like that. Meditation 17 is written based on the latin phrase:
Now this bell tolling softly for another,
says to me, Thou must die

I’ve always, and I don’t know how accurate it is, but I’ve always pictured, Donne, a somber man, listening to the funeral bells tolling, and allowing his mind to go out in empathy and love, trying to feel each bell tolling personally, as if he himself was participating in the death and funeral of a stranger. . . and then felt compelled to write this famous meditation:
PERCHANCE he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him.  And perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.  The church is catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does, belongs to all.  When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that head which is my head too, and ingraffed into that body, whereof I am a member.  And when she buries a man, that action concerns me; all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another; as therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come; so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness.

There was a contention as far as a suit (in which, piety and dignity, religion and estimation, were mingled) which of the religious orders should ring to prayers first in the morning; and it was determined, that they should ring first that rose earliest.  If we understand aright the dignity of this bell, that tolls for our evening prayer, we would be glad to make it ours, by rising early, in that application, that it might be ours as well as his, whose indeed it is.  The bell doth toll for him, that thinks it doth; and though it intermit again, yet from that minute, that that occasion wrought upon him, he is united to God.  Who casts not up his eye to the sun when it rises?  But who takes off his eye from a comet, when that breaks out? who bends not his ear to any bell, which upon any occasion rings?  But who can remove it from that bell, which is passing a piece of himself out of this world?

No man is an island,  entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were;  any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Neither can we call this a begging of misery, or a borrowing of misery, as though we were not miserable enough of ourselves, but must fetch in more from the next house, in taking upon us the misery of our neighbors.  Truly it were an excusable covetousness if we did; for affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it.  No man hath afflicion enough, that is not matured and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction.  If a man carry treasure in bullion or in a wedge of gold, and have none coined into current moneys, his treasure will not defray him as he travels.  Tribulation is treasure in the nature of it, but it is not current money in the use of it, except we get nearer and nearer our home, heaven, by it.  Another may be sick too, and sick to death, and this affliction may lie in his bowels, as gold in a mine, and be of no use to him; but this bell that tells me of his affliction, digs out, and applies that gold to me: if by this consideration of another's danger, I take mine own into contemplation, and so secure myself, by making my recourse to my God, who is our only security.

Have any of you ever heard those words before, either in part or in full? For Ernest Hemingway fans, his novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls” takes the middle paragraph, and uses it for his title and the epigram opening that great work. This is a statement about humanity, about how we are all connected, and involved in the lives of each other, that we are all in this crazy world together, and that we all share the same fate. He sees the affliction of others, and like we are to remember our Baptism when we see another baptized, he remembers his own death, his own frailty, his own vulnerability as a mortal on this Earth, and makes his “recourse to God” who he says is our “only security.” What do you think about his meditation? What do you think about the connectedness of all things? What do you feel inside when you hear of the death or affliction of another, of a loved one, of a friend, what about a complete stranger, what about someone on the other side of the Earth? Are we saddened? Or is it more? Or have we become numbed to it all? Have we gotten so callous by the news, and so jaded by the widespread violence and injustice in the world, or have we just seen too much, has it become unreal to us, because it is so vast, so in our face, so often, and much too, too big to do anything about? Are we reminded of our own mortality as Donne says he is, and if so what does that do to us? Would we rather run from such realizations, flee from morbid thoughts of our own ends. There is so much around us, so much pain, violence, confusion, affliction, if we were to be moved by it, could we even function? These are the questions that were flowing through my head this week as I was studying Donne. . . .and it didn’t take me too long to find some of Donne’s scriptural source material. This morning’s new testament lesson screams the same message
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ. If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering. Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our consolation.

Sharing in sufferings, sharing in consolation, hope unshaken, abundance in Christ, the connection between affliction and suffering. . . and then the Old Testament lesson from Ecclesiastes, DeAnna and I had it read at our wedding.
Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.

We certainly have a need for each other. . . a deep visceral and all encompassing need, friendship, companionship, community, these are the things of life. . . and in it all we share one amazing humbling end. . . . and it saddens us, does it bring us closer to God and to each other, or do our fears and numbness drive us apart? Is feeling too risky, too involved, too full of misery and pain, that we instead choose the numbness of oblivion and solitude. . . “I am a rock, I am an Island, and a rock feels no pain, and an Island never cries. . .”  Yes, Paul Simon touches on it too, it is too difficult to be a Bridge Over Troubled Water for someone, saying, “When you’re weary, feeling small, when tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all. . .” This is the language of compassion and empathy and love, and it takes on the risk of feeling head on.
So Midweek I had all of these ideas swimming through my head. . . and I’d come home to a quiet and lonely house. . . and I’d wonder to myself, what am I going to add here, where is this going, obviously there is a need, obviously we need each other, but how does it all work, where do I go from here? You don’t have much Pete, just the obvious longings and dangers of life, with no real specifics, nothing to connect it all together. . . and then as I said, Mom called.
She called because they’d been away and I hadn’t talked to them. She called because she knew I was by myself. She called because she had, had a dream. She has a dear friend, Carla. . . and Carla was just released from the hospital to go into hospice. . . She has a brain tumor, and the aggressive surgeries that she has had, just haven’t worked. . . and so she’s going home with a massive head wound, and still growing tumors, to slowly shake off this mortal coil, and pass on. It so sad, because she was so alive, just a few months ago. She was with her grandkids, she was living her life, she was very much alive, and then the diagnosis, the treatment, the surgery, left her in a hospital bed. . . without any positive change. Mom was sad about her friend. . . but she had this dream. I wanted to write it in verse form, to try and describe what she described to me. This isn’t what mom said exactly, but it is what I heard, and tried to make sense of beyond the words she spoke:
We came to visit,
With many friends.
There was a line, it seemed,
But everyone had their own
Unique and special moment
Here with Carla.

I didn’t know the others,
But when I stood there
With her arm in arm,
I felt as if there was only she and I,
And we shared this moment,
In peace, and gratitude
For having been given each other.

I don’t know what the others saw.
I only witnessed my turn.
We looked up into sky,
And clouds shown white
In the perfect blue,
Until it all started to spin.

The white exploded with color,
A spiraling kaleidoscope,
More breathtaking than I
Had ever thought
I had the power to imagine:
Colors, dazzling beyond definition.

But yet somehow
There still was white,
And out of the white came
Four angels, just like you’d think,
Like the one in the empty tomb,
Who said, “He is not here! Risen!”

Indeed, I felt peace,
And I hoped as I woke,
That my peace was meant
For more than me,
But that Carla, would be granted
For her remaining time, such peace.

I don’t know what dreams mean.
I don’t know what dreams
May come, when we have
Shuffled off this mortal coil,
But I have been given in this dream a gift
Because God let me feel deeply.

He let me feel the affliction of another,
Deeply as if it were my own,
Not leaving me in despair,
But clothed in abundant hope.
I know the depth of loss,
And I believe it still means peace.

This is what I heard in my mom’s description. This is what I heard in her breaking voice. This is what I heard through the grief of her pain. And just like Mom I felt connected and drawn closer somehow.
I don’t know what dreams mean. . . that was a question she asked me, “What do you think about dreams?” I don’t know, it’s mystical. . . and so much personal in the experience of something like that. . . that it’s easy and safe to dismiss. . . but I know there is more to the human mind than we have a grasp on. . . and in that mystery and not knowing is a lot of room. . . a lot of room. What she felt was a moment of empathy for another. . . so deep that it was beyond her control. . . and therefore came to her recognition outside of her waking hours. . . but enough for her to remember, and share it. . . and in so doing feel and spread the peace that she felt in the dream.
To me this is what John Donne is writing about, in what he calls “a borrowing of misery”. . . this is what Paul is writing about. . . this is what the Ecclesiastes passage is about. . . the blessing of affliction. . . the blessing of pain. . . the blessing of loving so much that you are brought to tears by another’s affliction. . . the blessing of life. . . to feel the pain of another person, and in so doing grow closer to God, and to them. Is this the heart and soul of loving God and loving our neighbor. . . may it by God please be so.
Let us pray. . .
May our hearts be made full
May our minds be connected
May our imaginations soar
May our dreams push farther than our limitations
May our souls be rivers made deep with tears of compassion
May our lives intertwine in bonds unbreakable
May we love.