Sunday, September 18, 2016

What Burden Then?

What Burden Then?

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

September 18, 2016

at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia

Luke 17:5-17

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.


The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” And the Lord said, “If you had faith as a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this sycamore tree, ‘Be rooted up, and be planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

“Will any one of you, who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep, say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and gird yourself and serve me, till I eat and drink; and afterward you shall eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”

11 On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. 12 And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance 13 and lifted up their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” 14 When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; 16 and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. 17 Then said Jesus, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine?

Last week in my sermon I talked about gratitude, that in the darkness, when we are faced with darkness, we find ourselves to be most grateful for the light. . . and that the other response is humility. The darkness when it falls brings us to our knees, and we remember how much in need we are, but other times, when everything seems to be going right, and we feel like we’ve got it made and are invincible, and blessed, and strong, how often we forget. We forget our need, and we forget to be thankful. . . it is no longer priority one, but somewhere down the list. I know that nothing gets me to my knees in prayer like a sleepless night of worry, but when things are going well, and sleep comes fast. . . how often do I forget to pray? Are you like that? Why is that?

About a month back, when I preached my sermon from the Macbeth speech, I refound a video that I had first watched about year ago. I told some of you about it in conversation following that service that day. It was a contest show, for fun, a debate, a challenge between two scholars, one for Shakespeare, and one for John Milton. . . the debate was, who is the best writer in the English Language, who is the best English Poet. Shakespeare was the great favorite, and Milton the greatly overshadowed underdog. . . the way it worked is, that the scholars would make their arguments, and then they would set up actors, to act out scenes. . . or read lines from Milton’s Paradise Lost, to dramatize and make their points. It was great for nerds like me, but even if you weren’t going to be captivated by the debate itself, you could get blown away by the actors. . . they were so good. And it was interesting hearing Paradise Lost, which is not a play but an epic poem read by actors, as if it were a play. . . and it surprisingly lends itself well to it, because like a play the characters of Paradise Lost, give long speeches, very much reminiscent of Shakespeare. I found myself hearing passages take on new life for me, like I was hearing them for the first time, where epic poetry can drag on, even for a fan of language like me, these actors were bringing them to life. One of the ones they did was this speech given by Satan. . . and I wanted to use it this morning to help us see this morning’s scriptural passages on gratitude in a new slant of light.

Perhaps the brilliance of Paradise Lost, what separates it from other works, is that Milton seeks to get into the head of Satan, who he follows some of the extrabiblical mythology, characterizing him as the fallen Angel Lucifer. . . Milton unlike other poets, like say Dante, who renders the devil mute, Milton tries to get inside the mind of the fallen angel, and he does so quite interestingly. Satan feels hatred of course, but also within that hatred is an intense feeling of regret. . . and the regret almost is worthy of pity, for perhaps a second, before he falls back into the intense hatred that he completely embodies and represents. There is regret there, but it is only fleeting because he will make the same choice again. . . he has become so embittered and hatefilled, fueled by his rebellion. . . like Dante’s devil imprisoned by pride in the bottom pit of Hell. . . the wind from his flapping wings freezes the water that he is frozen in, that if he could bring himself to stop flapping his wings, the lake would thaw and he could escape, but such humility could not come. . . Milton gives Satan the same personality, but goes beyond situational metaphor to communicate it, instead putting it into words, like a Shakespearean soliloquy. . .

I will read the speech. . . listen for the points that he makes. . . listen for the regret. . .but also listen for the hatred. . . the blame game. . . the comparisons that he makes to the other unfallen angels. . . he remains innocent in his own eyes. . . well maybe not innocent, but at least fueled by hatred towards self justification. . . he feels justified in what he has done. . . God is to blame. . . of course:

O thou that with surpassing Glory crownd,
Look'st from thy sole Dominion
like the God
Of this new World; at whose sight all the Starrs
Hide thir diminisht heads; to thee I call, [ 35 ]
But with no friendly voice, and add thy name
O Sun, to tell thee how I hate thy beams
That bring to my remembrance from what state
I fell, how glorious once above thy Spheare;
Till Pride and worse Ambition threw me down [ 40 ]
Warring in Heav'n against Heav'ns matchless King:
Ah wherefore! he deservd no such return
From me,
whom he created what I was
In that bright eminence, and with his good
Upbraided none; nor was his service hard. [ 45 ]
What could be less then to afford him praise,
The easiest recompence, and pay him thanks,
How due! yet all his good prov'd ill in me,
And wrought but malice; lifted up so high
sdeind subjection, and thought one step higher [ 50 ]
Would set me highest, and in a moment
The debt immense of endless gratitude,
So burthensome,
still paying, still to ow;
Forgetful what from him I
still receivd,
And understood not that a grateful mind [ 55 ]
By owing owes not, but still pays, at once
Indebted and dischargd; what burden then?
O had his powerful Destiny ordaind
Me some inferiour Angel, I had stood
Then happie; no unbounded hope had rais'd [ 60 ]
Ambition. Yet why not? som other Power
As great might have aspir'd, and me though
Drawn to his part; but other Powers as great
Fell not, but stand unshak'n, from within
Or from without, to all temptations arm'd. [ 65 ]
Hadst thou the same free Will and Power to stand?

The speech goes longer, but I think you get the picture. . . here he stands. . . fallen.. . sworn to be an enemy to God, and what reason does he give? Pride? Ambition? He says that he grew tired of paying his debt to God. . . and what was that debt. . .eternal. . . endless. .  . limitless. . . unceasing gratitude. . . a simple debt. . . to simply be thankful for what he had been given. And Lucifer, according to the story was given everything. . . beauty, strength, power, the highest of all the angels. . . and yet so fell. . . the beauty of Milton, is that we can see a thought pattern here, and a pattern not for angelic sin, but for human sin. . . we can see our own debt in his. . . gratitude, for we too have been given the world. . . our lives, our very breath, gifts and blessings too limitless to name, for which our debt is to be grateful. . . and endlessly so. But are we grateful. . . are we always, or is that too great a burden for us to bear. . . Milton’s character even lets us know something about the gratitude that we owe to God. . . that it truly is no burden at all because the law of love itself forgives us this burden. .. . he says that a “grateful mind by owing owes not, but still pays, at once indebted and discharged, what burden then?” He seems to be saying that when you feel gratitude it doesn’t feel like a burden, but a regenerative balance, where the gift and the payment is all one and the same. . . but it is so easy to fall out of that cycle of regeneration.

Look at where he goes next, after saying this. . . he says. . . O had his powerful Destiny ordained me some inferior angel, I had stood then happy.” If I wasn’t so great then I wouldn’t have rebelled. . . what a tremendous statement of pride right. . . If I wasn’t so marvelous then I never would have rebelled. . . but how true is that. . . how human is that. . . we get in this human life a false sense of greatness. . . our responsibilities. . . our gifts. . . tremendous as they are. . . rather than feeling blessed by them. . . we see them as a burden. . . we think of the phrase. . . to whom much is given much is expected. . . and we don’t wish to rise to it. We wonder, couldn’t I be just blessed a little bit less? Again just a little feeling of this removes us from that gratitude cycle of giving and receiving without burden. And finally he wonders how those other angels didn’t fall. . . thinking they must not have been given the same freedom of will he was. . . he can barely even understand how those who are still in the fold could have stayed. . . from this point the speech goes on an increasingly downward spiral. . . to where this statement that started with him saying that God didn’t deserve his rebellion, his hatred. . . this God who had done nothing but bless him. . . that is where he started, but he eventually goes to a place where he says “I am Hell” I am the embodiment of the separation and punishment I feel. . . and then his hatred grows, and he again vows to continue to do evil against God and His creation.

We can learn a lot here about the downward spiral of sin. . . and we see here how the lack of gratitude seems to be an important root, an important beginning to the downward spiral. Lack of gratitude certainly seems to be the beginning of all of the bad that comes. And I look at my life, and I look at the world around me, and I see a lot of wisdom here being spoken from the mouth of Satan, because this isn’t the serpent Satan yet, and this isn’t the tempter Satan. He isn’t trying to fool anyone, other than himself, really, and watching him try to fool himself is quite revealing. . . so we can glean much here for ourselves. Again Milton is showing us the depths of human depravity, and how it can start. . . a simple debt. . . a burden placed and removed instantly. . . it reminds me of Abraham walking up that mountain with Isaac and now lamb. . . the willingness is all. . . and faith removes the price . . . instantly. Gratitude. . . it seems like a small price to pay. . . even if it wasn’t repaid immediately. . . what makes it hard?

Look at the gospel lesson for today. . . chapter 17 begins with Jesus saying, “temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to him by whom they come. . .” and the whole deal about the mill stone around his neck. . . cast into sin. . . by leading others astray. I thought that was apropos for Satan’s speech, but it goes on, and Jesus is talking to the disciples and the Pharisees gathered it seems at the same time. Both burdened with the blessing of leadership. . . right. . . elites. . . remember the Pharisee who said, thank you for making me not a sinner like that other guy, the tax collector. . . yes that comes in the next chapter. . . and in the previous chapter. . . you have the importance of the teachings of the law and the prophets. . . as well as the parable of the dishonest manager. . . so we are here in the midst of the great parables of Jesus. . . hard hitting and harsh to his biggest critics, the Pharisees. . . but here in this chapter we see the apostles asking for increased faith, and Jesus says, oh but with only the faith of a mustardseed. . . but right on the heels of that he tells them a parable about servants and masters. . . and how the servants do what the masters ask and should not be given any thanks. . . of course not right. . . who should be praised for stuff they are supposed to do. . . . no, no extra praise right. . . interesting. What does Jesus mean by this? Why are all these teachings here together? What does increasing faith. . . mustard seeds. . . and servants doing what they are supposed to do without thanks. . . have to do with each other?

And then we get to it. . . Jesus is walking and passes 10 lepers. . . he is on the border of Samaria and Judah. . . and he heals the lepers, sending them all away, saying go show yourselves to the priests, and they are all made clean. . . out of the 10 only 1 comes back. . . Jesus wonders where the other 9 were. . . he says was only 1 willing to come back and give praise to God. . . and the one who comes back is a Samaritan. . . a foreigner. . . an outsider. . . but yet he gives prayer to God. . . why not the others?

It occurred to me while I was reading this that maybe the parable in the middle here should be flipped around. . . that so often we look at this from our own point of view. . . that we are the servants. . . that we should go about our business. . . not expecting praise. . . that we should. . . just give and give without reward. . . that it is something like the Elder brother in the Prodigal Son parable. . . that if we see our devotion to God. . . doing what we are supposed to do as a burden. . . or as he puts it. . . I’ve worked here for you as a slave. . . and you kill the fatted calf for this your son. . . that we shouldn’t be like that. . . and I think that is good teaching, but as I was reading this together, with the speech from Milton on my mind, and looking at all different parts of this chapter and the surrounding chapters in context, I can’t help but wonder if we are the master in our minds and God and Jesus are the servants. . . and we expect Jesus to do what he does. .  . God to do what he does. . . Look at the parable then again that way

“Will any one of you, who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep

Good Shepherd?

say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down at table’?

Do we invite God into our tables. . . our daily lives. . . with grace and thanksgiving. . .?

Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and gird yourself and serve me, till I eat and drink; and afterward you shall eat and drink’?

Demand to be served. . . give me what I want. . . feed me then I will feed you

Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded?

Do we thank God or is it just expected?

 10 So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”

It’s wild to think about it this way. . . but is this exactly why the 9 lepers do not return. . . did they expect to be healed, and therefore had no reason to say thank you. . . to come back and worship? What is different about the 1. . . a Samaritan. . . an outsider. . . a stranger. . . not living in the expectation of the promises of God, but finding the blessings new to him, overcome with gratitude.

How can we get better at this? Not taking things for granted? Not treating God like our servant, doing what is expected. . . but instead seeing it as the blessing that it truly is. So simple. . . so important! May God give us that grateful heart, Amen.

Gustav Dore - from Paradise Lost