Monday, November 7, 2016

Perseverance: Come What May

Perseverance: Come What May
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
November 6, 2016
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 24: 18-27
Hebrews 12: 1-3

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.

We’ve come to the midpoint in our 7 aspect journey, the hump, the Wednesday, right smack dab in the middle, and wouldn’t you know it is the one that is about making it through, when everything goes wrong, up against adversity, when time is ticking slow, and it seems like it’s not ticking at all, when the rain is pouring, the wind is at you face, and you are climbing, climbing, climbing, ever upward, up hills, both ways, and you feel like giving up. Today we talk about Perseverance. To this point, we started with humility, admitting that you don’t know it all, that there are questions, questions about who we are and what we should do, that we must ask, and then the asking, which we called discernment. . . the asking, the seeking, the knocking on the door, opening your ears, your heart, your mind to be led along the path, and then last week we took a look at Resolution, that moment when there has been enough discernment to take a step. . . and now we take the next steps. . . we carry the load. . . we shoulder the burden. . . we screw our courage to the sticking place. . . we carry our cross. . . all the way to Calvary. . . because today we talk about Perseverance. And what better Bible passage for Perseverance than this one: Hebrews 12: 1-3. . . 
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.  

It’s a famous statement, preached often because perseverance is truly one of the biggest, call it character, call it integrity, call it morality, it is one of the biggest human teachings there is. . .  because it transcends life, it transcends culture, it transcends religion, philosophy. . . it encapsulates the human experience. Human beings live in this life, time can move slow, time can move quick, seasons change and there is pain and struggle, and it is the person who can withstand the pain and carry on that can be counted on, looked to, and therefore very much needed when the crises arises. And this Scripture passage says it all, the “Great cloud of witnesses” we’ve seen them all around us, examples of strength and perseverance, leaving their legacy, like we will talk about in two weeks from today. . . let us run with perseverance the race. . . for a race is set before us. . . but we are not alone, in addition to the cloud of witnesses, we have Jesus Christ, the pioneer – the first the example, the pathfinder, and trailblazer—perfector of the faith. . . a perfect, unflinching example. . . who bears all, endures all, and takes all, all the way to the cross. When we look to Christ we ourselves should never grow weary or fainthearted. . . powerful stuff. . . and if I had read one more verse we would have heard this: “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” To the point of shedding our blood. . . in the face of Christ who went beyond the mere shedding of blood all the way to his death, without turning back.
Now last week I talked about Resolution, and how we put things from the discernment pile to the resolution pile, like Job we seek a leaden chisel to carve what we know into stone. . . we do so, so we can persevere. . . but I didn’t talk much about the realization about the idea of perseverance should have on your coming to resolution. . . and that is how we cannot mistake discernment for weighing the cost, basing our decision on the easier path, the more assured outcome, the desired fruits. . .  it is not to results we resolve, but to duty. . . and this is completely shown by just who the pioneer and perfector of our faith is, and what he bore for our salvation. . . the cross. The cost is often high. And Jesus isn’t shy about telling us ahead of time. He says to his disciples:
“If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, 30 saying, ‘This man began to build, and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends an embassy and asks terms of peace. 33 So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.

That’s quite a statement. . . the cost of true discipleship is all, and it is truly the basis of the commandment to love God. . . all your heart, your mind, your strength. . . remember that strength here is the Hebrew word Meod, which literally means to the end of yourself. . . like you have crossed a desert with nothing left, collapsing in the dust, completely spent. Do you see the echo with “to the point of shedding your blood.” Yes we must be careful with choosing our paths based on the perceived ends. . . seeking so much the trophies, the victories, the fruits of our labors, and not those labors themselves, or even the avoidance of pain. .. no we must base our resolution instead on the calling of God, discernment of God’s will for us, discernment of ourselves as the child of God, known to him before we were born, with plans and thoughts for us already in the womb. . . that is what we seek to find, and then resolve to be.
Now, but what about this perseverance stuff. . . it is the stuff of human beings. . . we talk about it all the time at school. There are tons of buzz words for it these days. . . probably the most popular one these days is grit. We ask ourselves. . . how can we make our students more gritty. . . how can we get them to face their challenges head on. . . how can we get them to choose the path of greatest and not the least resistance. . . how can we get them to not skip steps. . . to have patience? And of course we look to ourselves and remember ourselves as so much more gritty. . . saying, “these kids today.” But this is not a new problem. It is very much a human problem, and always has been. So many characters in literature, why because it is a human problem, come up against perseverance problems. . .
Dante, in the beginning of the Divine Comedy finds himself in the wood of error. . . then the Easter sun rises over the mount of Joy, and he is at once drawn to it, he sets off at a run to the foot of the incline, when he is at once beset by three beasts. . . a lion, representing violence and ambition, a leopard, representing fraud and malice. . . the sins that he has yet to face, but though those two scare him, it is not them, but the shewolf of incontinence that sends him back into error and despair. . . incontinence in this sense is the absence of perseverance. . . in order to climb the mountain he must go the longer way, he must learn to persevere, otherwise he cannot climb to joy’s summit and beyond. He must descend in order to rise, descend and survive, still with hope, and then climb steadily upward. . . in other words he must learn grit. . . learn to persevere.
Christian, in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, finds himself not in the wood of error, but instead in the city of destruction, he knows he must flee, he tells others to come with him, his family tells him he is crazy, but yet he is convinced, he must leave them behind, he tells is friend to come along, and he convinces him, but his name is pliable, so in the first piece of resistance, the friend turns back, but Christian presses on. . . always onward.
IN the story of St. George and the Dragon, George, The Red Cross Knight together with Una, true faith, is on a quest to slay the dragon, but a rain storm sends them seeking shelter in the woods. He finds that in this wood the paths are wide, and well travelled, and the deeper he goes, the darker it becomes, he loses his way. . .he too is in the wood of error, do you see the transcendent pattern, he gets runs into all kinds of trouble, trouble with Pride, illusion, he gets separated from his faith, he finds himself in despair. . . but if he could join with Una and keep going, ever hopeful, he would find himself back on the path, actually he would find that he had never left the path, only that he thought he did. . . illusion, delusion of defeat, antidote, to keep on, to press on further. . .
Ernest Hemingway wrote the Old Man and the Sea, his hero Santiago hasn’t caught a fish in a long time, but he has faith, he goes deeper, he hangs the fish, he fights it and fights it. . . look at the passage I put in the bulletin.
For an hour the old man had been seeing black spots before his eyes and the sweat salted his eyes and salted the cut over his eye on his forehead. He was not afraid of the black spots. They were normal at the tension he was pulling on the line. Twice, though, he had felt dizzy and that had worried him. “I could not fail myself and die on a fish like this,” he said. “Now that I have him coming so beautifully, God help me endure. I’ll say a hundred Our Fathers and a hundred Hail Marys. But I cannot say them now. . .

And then he comes to the conclusion:

. . . but man is not made for defeat,” he said. “A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”

Destroyed but not defeated. . . to not be made for defeat means, that you do not quit, you press on, you keep fighting, until the very end of your strength, your meod, the point of shedding your blood. This is perseverance, this is discipleship.
And it’s not just these classics of literature, it is in so many children’s literature pieces. . .  like the little engine that could. . . “I think I can I think I can” . . . or The Little Girl who touched the stars in the Sky” she travels, on and on, and up and up and up. . . or the Tortoise and the Hare. . . slow and steady wins the race. . . Or the little dutch boy staying out all night saving the city with his finger in the dyke. . . . Or song. . . . “Come what may. . . “ from Mulan Rouge. . . or “Come what may, she believes. . . “ from Air Supply. . . Or Can you Stand the Rain, or If I needed You, or To Beat the Devil. . . . the list goes on and on and one.  
But what does the alternative look like? Quitting, giving up. . . and the lies that come with it. . . and there are lies that usually do come with it. . . and the most common lie is that nothing has changed. . . I just quit, no big deal, everything is the same. . . . but it is not because when you quit, what is true now is that what you thought was true, just cannot be. You are not the same person, you have doubted what you discerned and resolved, that would mean that what you discerned and resolved was never true in the first place. And the fear of that possibility is usually what actually causes people to quit in the first place, or to never actually resolve anything. . . for Dante, for pliable, for Hamlet remember, for so many young people, they would rather not make a decision, not make a commitment, not take the risk of going all in because the fear of that “I am not who I thought I was” moment is crippling, much too crippling to risk, so no commitment made, no quitting. . . no we therefore keep the world safely on our own terms. . . but that is not the path we are talking about, that is not the path Jesus is talking about, that is not the faith that Jesus pioneered and perfected. . . because it avoids the cross, it talks away the cost, and it denies. . . . all before the cock crows the third time. . .
And that is where I want to go with this next. . . .I chose for the Gospel reading the road to Emmaus reading from Luke. . . .there is the darkness moment, the rain storm moment, the wood of error moment, because in that moment the doubts are looming large. Jesus went to the cross, everyone abandon him, Peter denied him, and he was crucified and died, and was buried. Everything they thought was true, everything they heard him say, everything they had struggled with for so long, but then had come to believe, they had finally been able to chisel into the stone of their souls, the words of Job, “I know my redeemer liveth,” they had run that race, but now what. . . we lost, those words were wrong, the Romans won, the establishment won, the end has finally come, well it was fun while it lasted, I guess we should go back to Galilee to our nets and our fishing. . . but then a stranger comes up to them, and seems not to know about their tragedy, they wonder why. . . and he teaches them again about the prophets and the law, but they cannot hear beyond their grief, and then he again breaks the bread with and for them, and their eyes are open, and he disappears. . . . just enough of a glimpse of the truth to go further. . . and just when they needed it. . . now they can go further. . .  I’m going to talk more about this idea of a sign, just when we need it next week and a little bit more of perseverance because it is never done, but next week we are going to talk about those little glimpses of hope. . . what I choose to call Fulfillment. . . until then let us fight on, focus on the cross, follow the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, keep hope, and persevere, step by painfully glorious step.