Sunday, May 29, 2016

Spying Shadows in the Sun

Spying Shadows in the Sun

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

May 29, 2016

at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia

Mark 10: 17-27

2 Samuel 11: 1-5

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.


17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money  to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

So we continue this morning with our summer time journey, exploring the speeches of Shakespeare. Last week we looked at Henry V, and the battle of Agincourt, giving us a pep talk, a great king, a great hero, fighting with, rallying his men, with immortal words, inspiring us to have hope and face challenges. If last week was the pinnacle of human greatness, this week we go the other route, and look at one of the great villains of all time: Shakespeare’s Richard III. If Henry is one of the great kings, Richard is one of the worst, a picture of evil, meddling, betraying, plotting, sowing discord, distrust, even murder among members of his own family, brothers, nephews, cousins, betrayed, imprisoned, and murdered. He’s despicable, but clever, and it is his cleverness that draws us in. He is the original Frank Underwood, from Netflix’s House of Cards. He talks directly to the audience. . . he tells us his plans, making us his accomplices. . . we are drawn into his schemes, and we find ourselves all but rooting for him because he is making a fool of everyone else, and Shakespeare seems to know that a villain is more appealing than fools, or at least more entertaining. . . and it is for entertainment that people seek out the theater.

Last week I set the stage before giving the speech. I’d like to do that again. This play opens at the end of the War of the Roses. . . an English Civil War over the throne. You have the Lancasters on one side, and the Yorks on the other, each seeking to put a member of their family in power. The Hundred Years war, which included the battle of Agincourt, we talked about last week, did not go well eventually for the English. Agincourt was very much the high point. Joan of Arc becomes the savior of the French, and after 100 years of fighting the English are poor and divided, and Henry V’s son, Henry VI is young when he is crowned, and is not the strong ruler his father had been. Henry’s reign is challenged by the Yorks, who have a blood claim to power. To make a long story short. There is much fighting and intrigue back and forth, but eventually Edward IV is crowned king, the oldest of the York brothers. According to Shakespeare, Richard, one of Edward’s brothers, has played a great role in the fighting, has esteemed himself well, but is deformed and a hunchback. . . now that peace has come, Richard finds himself bored. . . the speech I chose opens the play and sets the stage, explaining just what Richard is set to do to assuage his boredom. He says:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visaged war hath smooth'd his wrinkled front;
And now, instead of mounting barded steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp'd, and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

I was drawn to this speech because Richard III is such a villain. He sells out his brothers, puts his nephews into prison, and sets the entire world against itself, and he tells you exactly what he is doing all along the way, so you get to see his plots coming to fruition. He is successful, up to a point. He does become king, but eventually is deposed, by who becomes Henry VII, father to Henry VIII, father to Elizabeth, the queen in Shakespeare’s own time. . . so Richard represents the last king before the establishment of the Tudor line, in power during Shakespeare’s time. . . so it makes sense to paint him as a villain, even if the history of the situation is not so clear. I want to focus on how Shakespeare paints him as a villain, and what it is that makes him go bad. . . hoping to find something tangible about Sin that we can grab onto and apply to ourselves. Is there some aspect of ourselves that we see in him, does he reflect some dark aspect of ourselves, and that adds to why we are drawn to him.

Richard talks about the winter of his discontent. . . he was happy fighting, and now he doesn’t know what to do with himself during peacetime. . .  he wants to be fighting and scraping. He says that he is ugly and deformed. . . not built for the pleasures of peacetime. . . like love, family, raising children. . . his deformity, means that no woman will have him. He is left unfulfilled, and so seeks “other” entertainments. . . it does not seem like he craves the power of ruling, just a simple cure to his boredom. . . in other words he wants the challenge, doesn’t want the fruits of his evil actions, just the desire for the actions themselves. . . . he does not like success. . . he does not want “Happily ever after. . . “ There is no such thing as “Happy Ever After” for him. Can we see something of Eden here in this “weak piping time of peace?” Everything too perfect, that human beings are not capable of being satisfied, or at least some aren’t, those who nature has left like Richard, people at whom, “dogs bark in the street.”  Do we pity Richard? Do we see him as a victim, and therefore justified? He is ugly, mistreated. . . was used while he was beneficial to the cause, but once the cause is won, just cast aside. Is he evil because he is ugly, or is he ugly because he is evil? Which came first the chicken or the egg, the villain or the deformity?

I wanted to look at some similar occurrences in the Bible, so the Old Testament and the New Testament readings are characters who at least have something in common with Richard and his speech. . . also my anthem, “Satisfied Mind” has something in common with him. He say he is discontent. . . he is not satisfied with victory, but rather wants more. .. . is this a symptom of the victory itself? Does winning, or success, or comfort breed discontent? You could make the argument for David. There is no more despicable act in all of the Old Testament then the story that Suzanne began this morning, the story of David and Batsheba. Here you have David, the man after God’s own heart, chosen, taken from his sheep and placed on the throne. . . he has overcome Saul, has one the battles against the Philistines, has brought the Ark of the Covenant into the city, dancing before it. He sits on his throne, and now he has fighting men to do his fighting for him. Uriah, a Hittite, does that make him a mercenary? A hired soldier? David sees this man’s wife across the way, bathing, and he must have her, so he does. . . now all of this is bad enough, but he goes farther. . . rather than owning up to his actions, rather than doing the honorable thing after the fact, rather than coming clean, repenting and turning back to God, instead David has Uriah the Hittite, Bathsheba’s husband killed, but he doesn’t do it himself, he doesn’t face him, instead he sends him to the front lines, where the fighting will be the worst, and lets the war, his war, where he should be, he lets the war kill him. This is pretty low. . . could we say that David’s success has led him to this despicable act, that he entered into his own winter of discontent, the moment he took to the palace, privileged life? There is another similarity with David and Richard, and that is the mire the mark that war places on you. When David offers to build a temple to God, he is told that he has the blood of war on his hands, and so should not build the temple. . . what does war do? Is there something about being apart of the evils of war that leaves its mark on you? Does that lead to the discontent, and the villainy? It is an interesting thought.

Jesus in Mark’s gospel, this morning’s gospel reading, deals with another similar idea. . . it is the great story about the rich man, and Jesus’ answer about it being easier to lead a camel through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to get to heaven. . . is this why? Does success lead to villainy. . . like Richard and like the song Satisfied Mind that I sung, is it hard for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven because the desire for success is only increased when a modicum of success is achieved, that it is addictive. . . an addict without a fix, is the picture of so called “discontent.” It makes you wonder about the dangers of getting everything you wish for. . . I watched ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” with the girls the other night, and at the end when Charlie has won the contest and will take over as the head of the factory himself. . . Wonka asks him, “Do you know what happened to the man who got everything he wanted?” Charlie says, “No.” and Wonka answers. . . “He lived happily ever after.” May that is true, but maybe it isn’t. The other 4 kids in the movie are all so called winners, and they fill their lives with excess. Augustus with eating, Violet Beauregard with gum chewing, Mike Teavee with TV, and Veruca Salt, with whatever strikes her fancy in the moment, and is desirous of each moment. They have everything they want, but it is never enough. . . but with Charlie, he has nothing. . . is the winning of the Golden Ticket and the winning of the tour contest. . . will it change Charlie? Will winning turn towards the winter of his discontent? We asked the question last week with the Battle of Agincourt, what would it be like on the next morning after you’ve the Battle of Agincourt? How long would that feeling of satisfaction and gratitude last before it turned into the Winter of Discontent. If we are to take Shakespeare at  his word it is only two generations later when here we are with Richard uneasy, unsatisfied with success.

There are many ancient texts that warn of this very danger, the danger of success, and what it does to you.  . . this from China’s Tao te Ching. . .


But how hard it is to retire like that when your work is done, to sit back and retire from the stresses of life, completely at rest, to let go.  . . satisfied with the work that you have done. But yet that is one of the great tricks of life, modeled so perfectly by people like Moses, who sees the promised land, but cannot cross it. . . or by George Washington, who after two terms in office as president, retires to private life.

Our nation, since World War II has been living in the world of success, the world of winning. It is and has been a great burden, and a great responsibility. There has been great power achieved, and it is important that we remember, what sacrifices were made to win that victory. . . .perhaps that is what can and should keep us humble. . . that we are not like Richard, pining for the days of fighting, but instead cognizant and grateful for the sacrifices that achieved our success. Our place and our ambition, what we deserve, what we think we are entitled to, our “discontent” when placed in the focus of such things, seems so out of place, so selfish, so much the villain. . .

Richard says that he does not want to retire, lest he spies his shadow in the sun. . . he does not want to quit because he would be forced to assess who he is and what evil he has done to get there. . . what the tremendous cost was to his character. . . the sun burns brightly and shows the darkness, it shows his guilt, and his shame. . . withdrawing from the field of battle unable to jump into other distractions would force you to look back and assess where you’ve been, what you’ve done and what it all means. Richard is not willing to do that, so he would rather keep fighting the battles.

I have been a huge critic of President Obama. I do not agree with much of what he has done, but going to Hiroshima this week, was quite powerful, going not to apologize because apologizing would be an act of arrogance I think, but instead to own the shadows that the sun shines on us. . . that success comes at a great cost, there is a great cost of success, and the good man, does not hide from that cost with his own continuous action, but must at some point stop face it, and live with those choices, and accept the grace that God offers. Jesus said that the rich man is missing one thing. He has kept all the commandments, he has won at life, he has accumulated all of the rewards of living a good life, but in order to achieve the kingdom of heaven, he has to get rid of all of those things, he has to get rid of all of the things he has earned through his living, his own good living, and accept the grace. . . to fact the dark shadows in the sun, and allow the son to redeem those dark shadows. You have to face those dark shadows, you have to. You can’t avoid them, You can’t escape from them through distraction. We do that every week in our confession. And if those are just empty rote words, things we read, then there is truly something missing. It is the bear your soul, facing the shadows in the sun, and allowing yourself to be forgiven. . . that is the good news of the Gospel. . . in Jesus Christ we are forgiven.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Your Mission Statement

Your Mission Statement

For the Blue Ridge Class of 2016

We gather together again as a community today,

Specifically, to send another group on their way.

Focus your cameras, you will want to remember

On days to come, how we all, since September,

Helping hands and loving hearts, united as one,

Boys and teachers, striving, are now finally done.

Reach your arms out, and embrace your brother.

Their steps, once joined to your own, now to other

Potential challenges, other journeys, now turn.

Through the many years to come you’ll learn—

Personalized from your own life’s ups and downs,

Structured by forces beyond sight, beyond sounds,

Innovative, for sure, no two ever alike—to dream.

Learning dreams, despite how hopeless they seem,

Practices a faith, a hope, unseen, rather embodied

In a soul’s being. This world needs men believing

A truth exists beyond any one mind’s conceiving.

College can’t teach you it, for they don’t own it. No

Preparatory system could ever hope to bestow

All you need to know, so while your body still is

Boarding here on this blue ball, which houses His

Community, ask, seek, knock, and you’ll find your

Mission. Then just do it. You’ll be making a sure

Statement of truth to a world always needing more.

by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

At Blue Ridge School, we specifically focus on helping boys reach their potential through personalized, structured, innovative learning practices in a college-preparatory, all-boarding community.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

and If to Live

. . . and If to Live
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
May 22, 2016
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
2 Corinthians 4: 16-18

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.

16 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

I was trying to think of something fun to do this summer, something different, something that would be compelling, and meaningful, something that would challenge us, make us think, connect to us in new way, and still be completely Biblically based as always. I remember that one of my classmates from seminary was planning a sermon series where he used Dr. Seuss books to develop his themes each week. I thought that had some merit. . . I’m sure he did “O the Places You Will Go” maybe even “Green Eggs and Ham.” He probably got excited about “The Lorax,” and I was always curious as to what he would have done with my favorite “Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose.” I thought that was a great idea, but I don’t really want to do that. Then I found inspiration at school. My friend Jerry wrote a piece for the boys to sing at the end of the year stuff. Being a boys school, Blue Ridge, has always had a “Band of Brothers” theme. . . and so he composed a piece that took the great speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V and beautifully brought the themes alive to our context. . . and of course it was, because Shakespeare is classic like that, it was fresh and new and certainly meaningful. That inspired me, that it may be fun and meaningful this summer to take some of the great speeches from Shakespeare and find their Biblical counterparts and see where it goes. I thought I would start this morning with where inspiration struck, from Henry V, and I think that this sermon is a great beginning to this endeavor. And after last week’s dose of bitter reality of the essentials of church and loss. . . a pep talk may just be what we need.

So let me set the stage. It is morning October 25, 1415,  you are a part of the invading British army,  under the leadership of the youthful King Henry, who according to Shakespeare was a rebellious youth, who spent more time carousing with a cast of characters and villains in taverns, than learning to be king, but he has since matured, come into his own, forced to make hard decisions, and has slowly begun to prove himself. Now his men are devoted to him, but they are hopelessly outnumbered. They have no heavy cavalry and no army had in memory ever defeated an another army at such odds. What you do have is a bunch of farmers and yeoman, but not many knights, it is a new kind of army, and one nobody thinks can win. . . and wouldn’t you know it, the rain has been falling all night, it is quite muddy, cold, dreary and wet. Henry has spent the night walking through the camp in disguise, taking stock of the feelings of the men. . . and so when this scene opens no one knows where he is. The few knights and lords there assembled, open the scene, saying goodbye and wishing eachother good fortune, they are lamenting their odds, one says they are outnumbered, but at least the French are fresh, unlike us. . . another is lamenting how he wishes that some of the men not working today in England were here to fight with them. They are not working in England of course because today is a festival day, today is the day of the feast of St. Crispian. . . when he says he wishes for more men, King Henry appears as if out of nowhere and speaks these words:

What's he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin:
If we are mark'd to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God's will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England:
God's peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more, methinks, would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.  

Wow that is great, so inspiring, so perfect. . . I think I’ve mentioned before that I wrote my honors thesis from college on the Battle of Agincourt. Even back then I was interested in the story of history, the way that history could be told sometimes better through poetry and fiction than it ever could be told in facts. . . that there is more truth in the narrative and its connection to the imagination, than there ever could be in footnoted history. So I looked at this speech, I looked at the legends surrounding the event. I looked at the ballads and folk songs about it. There is so much, but this speech certainly stands out, and it is so synonymous with the event that people would swear that Shakespeare was there somehow in 1415 taking notes. . . and possibly all of that was brought even closer to reality when Kenneth Branaugh brought the character to life for the 1989 film version.

The lines that always are pulled out are the “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.” Band of Brothers has taken on a life of its own with the HBO miniseries about GI’s in World War II, and others. But the line that spoke to me is much earlier in the speech. . . it sets the tone, its makes the parameters real, shows that he knows the situation they are truly in, and he doesn’t sugar coat it. He says, “If we are marked to die, we are enough to do our country loss.” That’s it right. . that is acceptance of fate. That is not trying to escape. That is not trying to avoid. That is accepting whatever happens, whatever God has in store, God’s will he says, whatever was to occur. I don’t know how many times during the course of the last five years of week after week, writing sermons, I don’t know how many times the Bible has called on me to preach, those very words, that very idea, that there is great faith, great power, that grace can come, when we stop seeking to escape, seeking to avoid, because escape and avoiding are our hands trying to control, trying to manage, trying to manipulate the world to fit our ends, but every once in a while we find ourselves in one of those real situations where there is no escape, and we find strength within us that we never knew existed. The cliché of today is, Let Go and Let God. . . it is one of those Let Go, Let God moments, and you can’t hold on any longer, you have to stand and face it. . . and you will either win or lose, live or die, succeed or fail. . . all that is left is the doing, and the deciding of fortune. Henry V is solid in that reality. There isn’t much hope. . . but what choice do we have at this point.

Paul in this morning’s reading is pointing the exact same idea. “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away. . . “ That’s it right. Everything around us is wasting away. . . we look around us and we think. . . there is no way this is going to work out. . . we are doomed to fail. . . the numbers just don’t add up. . . the odds are way too steep. . .  the demographics say no. . . no one is moving here. . . people have other interests now. . . what have we to offer. . . we can’t even make budget. . . we’re getting older. . . the country is changing. . . young people just aren’t interested in church anymore. . . and even if they were the larger denomination is pushing them away every chance they get. . . we have such a small number of folks that would even consider coming to a Presbyterian Church, and that number just got slashed in half over the last few years because of decisions made by people and attitudes of people far far away from here. . . “If we are marked today, at least we could do our country loss” people would miss us, the town would miss us, there would be a hole but not much, just some loss. . . but let’s not dwell on that, Henry doesn’t, he moves on quickly, and with words so simple, so true, the words we need to hear. . . and I chose them for the title this morning.

“And if to live” . . . and if to live. . . and if we live. . . if by chance we may just live. . . if by chance we overcome these insurmountable odds. . . then. . . . then what. . . then that makes all the difference. If we are meant to die, then there is no shock, nothing we can do about it now anyway, so we have nothing to lose. . . but just think, what if it does work out. . . think of how important our actions now would be, how crucial they could be. . . if we are marked to die, it doesn’t matter, but if by chance we are to live, that makes all the difference. We can’t avoid, we can’t shirk, our only chance is to go through it, to persevere, to stand under the fire, under the pressure, and take the steps forward. . . and if to live. . . that makes all the difference. Paul says, and it echoes Henry, or vice versa, maybe Henry, channeling that Christian strength in the time of need is echoing Paul, but Paul writes “our inner nature is being renewed day by day” and it is our inner nature that we know through Christ is the “and if to live.” Through Christ we overcome the insurmountable, we defeat death, we beat the cross, we roll the stone away, we win, the impossible becomes possible, Rome falls. . . and if to live. . . and if to live on the other side of the cross. . . that is and if to live. . . and that is the stuff of our inner nature, that is the stuff of the spirit we said is our only hope for being sustained. Paul goes on, “For this slight momentary affliction” hear it? Slight momentary affliction. . . our troubles are slight and momentary when we see them against eternity, and all those struggles I mentioned about numbers and money and demographics and the change, they are all surface struggles, slight compared to something like the loss of the Spirit, that they can cause through the doubt they instill, but we rise above because we live the. . . and if to live faith. These “slight momentary afflictions are preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure” . . . there is that beyond all measure quote from which Nelson Mandela spoke the words of Marianne Williamson when he said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure” hear it, there is the beyond measure. . . it goes on to say. . . it is our light not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.”:  Yes we are children of God, still, even here in Gordonsville, the young, the old, all of us, and we have a mark to make. . . and if to live. . . we need to make that mark. . . and if that mark is to die, then so be it, but let’s not shrink from it. We are too valuable for that, and too important for that and God has done too much for us already for us to be so ungrateful. 

We might not be able to see the future yet. . . Paul touches on that too. . .  “we look not at what can be seen, but at what cannot be seen”. . . the spirit, the power inside us, our heavenly nature as children of God, “for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” Such is the case all the time, but we can grow too comfortable in our visible surroundings that we can lose touch with it, lose faith in it, in those things that can’t be seen. . . and it often takes facing the precipice, the abyss, the unclimbable hill, the insurmountable mountain, the unwinnable odds, the certain defeat, to open our eyes to it. . . and if to live. . . then we live, we come through it on the other side and we are tested, road tested, stronger, in faith, as brothers and sisters in Christ, and we would then become very dangerous for good. And those that didn’t know that power, didn’t feel that love busting out from within them, sat themselves in fear and trembling and doubt, stuck in the momentary world, they are the ones we’ll need to pity and love. . . oh will they need us to love them, we can be the ones to show them the love that has brought us through the fire. . . let me close by returning to Shakespeare to echo the call. . .

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,

It is possible that some of the men took Henry’s offer to leave if they wanted to, and it is possible that some of them were grumbling and doubting, fearful and trembling, and it is possible that when the battle came some shirked their duty, but the only story we know is that they were victorious, and the impossible became possible. . . if we are marked to die, we are enow to do our country loss. . . and if to live. . . . amen.

Thursday, May 19, 2016


For all planters of seeds

Water clumping drops
Tread heavy on my garden,
As its greenness explodes,
Late this spring but sure.

The pea vines, tangled,
Knotted, flattened, pressed,
Struggle to stand and face
The bully’s quenching weight.

I placed a ladder there,
Above their leveled reach
For them to reach for,
And to pull against.

Lifting one up, myself,
Proved futile; they must
Have a spine, still stiff,
Though the rain bent it.

True gardeners, having seen
Before, remembering
July’s flowering harvest,
Move to other meddling.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Matryoshka: A Postmodern Moment of Honesty

A Postmodern Moment of Honesty

I am a nesting doll with seven or eight,
Somewhere inside me living, separate selves,
Together who are somehow me. I hate
To say it, but I do not know, if one delves
Too deep what they would find, or which is me,
The surface, or the he which dwells within.
The shell outside is bigger, louder, free
At least itself is its own limit, but then
I know I can put on a mask at any time,
Would that then be the ninth? I make each face
I show the world designed to face it. I’m
Aware I’ll never catch myself. I chase
From deep within, this ever growing shell.
Who’s in control? I can no longer tell.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Suffer Endure Hope

Suffer Endure Hope
A homily delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
May 10, 2016
Gibson Memorial Chapel
Blue Ridge School, St. George, Virginia
Romans 5: 1-5
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.

 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

As some of you may know, I had the unique opportunity to baptize my second daughter Clara this past Sunday. I must say that it was a special day in my life as a father and as a pastor. In my brief ministry she was my fifth baptism to perform. They are all special. In my tradition when the baptism is of a child, the parents take vows and the congregation takes vows. . . promising to raise the child together in faith. I chose this same text as the one just read from Paul’s letter to the Romans to preach from on that occasion because I wanted to preach about hope. I wanted to testify to the real reasons that my wife and I would choose to Baptize our daughters. I wanted to speak of hope in a world that all too often at face value seems so very hopeless. We have seemingly insurmountable challenges as humans on this earth, divided by violence, hatred, the desire to control, driven often by selfish rather than noble motives, all when combined together would seem by any account to be unlikely for us solve and impossible for us overcome, and of course in the meantime these problems are the cause of great suffering in this world. But Paul writes that hope is actually the fruit of suffering, which completely goes against the grain of what seems right. Most of the time we would think that suffering leads to despairing, and despairing is the very antithesis of hope. To despair is to have fallen into a pit, and have come to the conclusion that the pit is all that exists, whereas hope sees beyond the walls of the pit, beyond circumstances that seem impenetrable to more, that there is more, simply more than the pit, rather than less, rather than nothing.
I bring this to you all this morning, not because I want to preach hope to you, but rather the other parts of Paul’s dynamic, for they are the seeds of hope, and having been firmly planted, the rest will take care of itself. Paul strings together quite a sequence here. He says that suffering, leads to, no he says produces, endurance, endurance then produces character, and character produces hope. Now we spend a lot of time talking about character at this school, and I think it is by far the most important thing we do. We are always looking for ways to measure our success at instilling you all with this intangible quality, we call character. . . have we ever thought to use hope as that measuring stick? I wonder. . . .
But that is getting ahead of myself. . . let’s start at the beginning. Suffering. .. This is the real message I have for you today because it speaks to your situation. You all will suffer greatly over the course of the next three weeks. You will suffer because you will be so close to being done, to being out, to being home, for some of you for being graduates, for heading off to the next step. . . and the slowness of time will cause you to suffer as you bump your head against the chains of structure that has kept you here and in line all year. You will also suffer because there will be much work to do. The time to coast has long since passed, and now you have projects piling up, tests, you may be behind, and sitting beneath the burden of make-up work, all before the reckoning of exam week strikes. You may be begging for extra credit, which buys yourself another chance, but of course more work, and the time though dragging when you think of home, dramatically speeds up when you think of all that you must do first. You may be suffering because you have not prepared adequately, that you have procrastinated, that you have coasted, that you took a break the third week of April, but now you are expected to know that stuff. You may be suffering because between your lack of preparation, the lack of time left, your lack of knowledge in your brain, your lack of skills acquired, your learning differences, your excuse factory, your, what the existentialists call, “bad faith” and what that great philosopher baron, Yuichi Isaka so famously called evil Yuichi, you have every reason in the world to believe that you will fail, and that you can’t do it, and even worse that none of it matters anyway. You may be suffering like that. . . maybe not perpetually, maybe not every day, maybe not all the time, but you may have some of those moments in the next few weeks where you will be tempted to give in and give up.
Now what does giving in look like? Giving in can take the shape of escape. . . I can’t do it, it doesn’t matter, so I won’t start this now. I don’t know the first step, so I’ll convince myself that I don’t get it, then I’ll blame someone else for me not getting it, all to make myself feel better, and I don’t really believe myself, I don’t really feel better, but it will at least get me through the next few weeks. I’ll deal with it all later. I’ll learn it later. That’s one way it can happen. Another way it can happen is that the anxiety will start to come into play. You haven’t prepared, you haven’t done what you needed to do at this point, and rather than going all in, you allow the worry and fear to take over. . . you don’t really want to do the work, but feeling that anxiety makes it seem like you care, and then maybe someone will take pity on you and give you that “out” you’ve been hoping for all along. This is a loving environment, there is always someone who’ll let you out, right. Of course, but probably the worst of all is you cheat your way through it. You get that illegal copy of the test, you cut corners on your research paper, you cut and paste when you should have paraphrased, you write the answers on your hand, you sneak a peak at your neighbor’s paper. . . or you cheat yourself by cutting corners to the finish line, calling something clearly not your best, and you convince yourself that it is the better way, but again it is just putting off reality with illusion. . . and the real you, the real potential you, the real person gets beaten down into that pit I was talking about. . . but there is nothing there but despair because  you allowed this moment, these three weeks, and this suffering to be all that there is. And you traded all of the rest just to feel better about your pit. . . 
I always make my students laugh because when I talk about cheating I tell them that not only will I fail them, but I will do everything in my power to make sure that they get expelled, and that they know they are lower than scum, and not worthy to breathe the same air that the rest of us breathe. They laugh because it seems so extreme. . . but it makes sure that they know it matters. . . because to me, and I tell them this too, the definition of hell. . . so much worse than any punishment Dante dreamed up, or any eternal fire. . . is having to look at yourself knowing that you thought so little of yourself that you would trade the ability to look yourself in the eye for a test, or a project, or grade. . . or three weeks without struggle or conflict for the peacemof not being messed with. : .it may in fact be worse if you are never caught, and didn’t have to own it, that there were no consequences at all. . . because it robs you of everything of value. . . your character. . . and your hope, because for the rest of your life. . . or at least until you finally do own it. . . you will know that you could not endure the suffering, and so the suffering owned you. . . and then the suffering became for you all that there is, a hopeless, despairing, pit of life, and that would be a tragedy for sure, but it’s worse because people like that usually don’t just bring themselves down, but let their pit spread, try to pull others down into it with them. . . sharing the gospel of the pit, letting everyone know that despair is all that there is. . . Maybe Dante did know this. . . for the one thing that all the people in his Inferno have in common is a lack of hope.
So you’ve got three weeks. . . endure it, own it. . . fight. So you aren’t as prepared as you should be. . . fight. . . prepare as much as you can. . . and see what happens. So you haven’t . . . learned the material, you haven’t read the book, you haven’t learned the formula, nor practiced the process. . . fight. . . struggle. . . claw. . . own it. You’ve been avoiding that teacher because you’re worried about having disappointed them. . . or you’re worried they are going to hold you accountable, to limit your freedom. . . they are going to make you do it the right way. . . fight. . . face it. . . do it. . . or don’t, but don’t lie to yourself. Don’t avoid the truth. Own the fact that at this point in your life you don’t care because you may not, and you’re tired of every adult in your life telling you, you should care. But there are 40000 reasons why you may want to rethink that position.

The truth is every single one of you can do the work we give you. You can. It ain’t that hard. The honest truth is you can do it. . . if you can’t it is because deep down you don’t care, maybe. . . or you’ve convinced yourself otherwise because you’ve let the suffering own you in the past, and you stand today with no hope. The great thing about this world, and the grace that abounds in it, is that the pits of despair that we create for ourselves through avoidance are illusions. . . that character can be built each day. . . . the great thing about the abundance of suffering that we are surrounded by is that there is always another chance to endure. . . and so build character. . . and then be fortified by a new hope. May the force be with you. Amen. 

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Windows in the Sky

Windows in the Sky

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

May 8, 2016

at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia

Romans 5: 1-5

2 Kings 6:33-7:2

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.


 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

I knew that I wanted to take a break from the Lectionary this week. After an Easter season full of forays into Revelation, it was passed time for a break, and it was time for a change, and Clara’s baptism gives me that opportunity. And then I knew that I wanted to talk this morning about hope, of all things, because of the unique opportunity that I have to baptize my second daughter this morning. I have begun a tradition in the last few years of writing poems for Coralee and Clara, and I probably will try with Susanna this August, on their birthdays, trying to capture my thoughts and feelings about them each year. As special as these poems are to me now, I really think they will be fun and meaningful to look at years from now, when we look back and want to remember those special times when the girls were young, but those times are now for us, and since we don’t have many years at this point look back on, we look forward, when kids are young you look forward, and despite it all, the struggles of this world, weeks like this that leave us puzzled, and concerned for the future, challenges that beset us, before a future that is unknown, we stand very much in need of hope. The poem that I wrote a year ago now for Clara, just over a year and week ago, I had read, and it put hope in my mind as the idea that I wanted to talk about today. That week last year was a struggle too, a challenge too, a dark time, too. . . fires were burning in the Baltimore streets, protests, racism, madness. . . the pattern of conflict that we have seen grow throughout the past few years, seemed to really be spiraling, and I was trying to give perspective to my bright eyed free spirited daughter’s life. I wrote these words, and they rang in my head this week as well:

When I think today about you turning three,

I can’t help but wonder what your life will see.

If what the world you live and learn life in,

Will look and be as it has always been,

For today the riot fires are still burning,

Just one of many lessons that still need learning.

How can I prepare you for what you’ll face:

The cynical drivers of the constant race,

The excuses for crimes, the injustice of fair,

The conflicts of interests, arising everywhere,

The labels people will use to tighten your chains,

The time you’ll trade, with no return for your pains?

How can I show to you all of that real,

And still instill in you the real I still feel?

That through the fight, we are always growing,

Despite what we see, and what today is showing.

Yesterday, we thought the world might just end,

And tomorrow’s sun would never rise again,

So despite what we see in the world today,

That there simply is one, leads me now to say,

"I can’t lie and protect you, no, with real you must cope,

All I can give for your armor in life is hope."

What did I mean when I wrote that? Such is the question I want to work through in my sermon this morning.

            Hope is an interesting term. I was amazed to find that the word hope only appears 202 times in the Bible, which may sound like a lot, but really it isn’t. The opposite of hope, fear appears over 500 times. . .  Love well over 700 times, and since we are doing the set. . . faith appears also 500, and so we see that Love in fact is the greatest of these. . . but beyond bad jokes, isn’t it interesting that the word hope is found so infrequently. . .

Another interesting fact is that the word hope is found nowhere in the first five books of the Bible and the Historical books of Joshua and Judges. . . It isn’t until the book of Ruth that Hope appears. So Garden of Eden, creation of the world in 7 days it’s all proclaimed good with no hope. . . I mean even the Greek creation myth about Pandora and the box includes hope. . . remember she opens the box, let’s out all the evil in the world, but as a cruel joke the gods also put hope in there, but it is an empty hope, an evil hope, a gullible hope, giving human beings some strange false sense of security in a world of conflict controlled by a pantheon of self-centered and very fickle all powerful gods and goddesses. . .  but here in Genesis nothing, fruit yes, snake yes, fig leaves, check. . . no hope. . . even forty days and forty nights on the ark with Noah, no hope. . .  Abraham, walking around the desert praying for a son. . . ,no hope, heading up the Mount Moriah with no lamb, just his Isaac and a knife. . . no hope. . . Jacob, cheating his brother Esau.  .  . no hope, Jacob working to earn Leah as a wife, just so he can work some more to earn Rachel as a wife, yup, no hope, returning to the land to face the brother he cheated, no hope. . . even wrestling with God. .  . no hope. . .   his twelve sons, two mothers, one hope . . yeah of course there would be no hope there. Joseph, dreams yes, technicolor dream coat yes, hope, not so much. . . even in the pit, even Potiphar’s house with his wife, no hope. . . .  Moses, crossing the desert, burning bush, returning to Egypt, facing Pharaoh, 10 plagues, led by pillar of fire, through the Red Sea. . . no hope. . . all those laws, the 10 and then the 257, no hope. They even get to the promised land living through the battles against the Canaanites, the battle of Jericho, all fitted with no hope.. . . Deborah, Gideon, Samson, no hope. That cycle of faith, turning away, punishment, turning back to faith, that whole cycle repeats itself throughout the book of Judges, all with no reference to hope.

And then finally you get to Ruth, and we have the word, but. . . it’s actually a pretty hopeless beginning. . . .

12 Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, 13 would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” 14 Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.

So when the word finally makes its first appearance it is the hopelessness of Ruth, clinging to her dead husband’s mother, who has no hope of finding a new husband, no hope of finding much at all, returning to her people. . . and to her God. . . perhaps it’s a silent hope, like the E. . . on the end of Hope. . . like the whispering hope. . . silently sleeking through the pages without putting it into words.

The Old Testament lesson that Suzanne read this morning is the second time the word hope is used in the Old Testament. . . and it was from that reading I found the title for this sermon. . . “Windows in the Sky” . . . it all circles around the prophet Elisha, who we all know is the protégé of the other great prophet Elijah. . . now  I won’t go through it all like I did the Pentateuch, but quite a lot happens between Ruth and here. . . all with of course no hope. . . Samuel, Saul, David, Solomon. . . yeah even Ahab and Jezebel. . . the Earthquake the Windstorm, and the still small voice. . . but back to Elisha. . . the situation is really bleak, disgustingly so . . . it appears that The Samarians, the northern Kingdom are having some trouble with the Arameans. . . they had recently defeated an Aramean city. . . but now the Arameans were getting some revenge. Under the leadership of Ben Hadad, they had brought together all of the Arameans in a great army, and they had lain siege to the great city. . . and inside it was really bleak. . . it doesn’t do it justice to summarize, so let me read it straight from the text. This is 2 Kings 6: 24 . . .

 As the siege continued, famine in Samaria became so great that a donkey’s head was sold for eighty shekels of silver, and one-fourth of a kab of dove’s dung for five shekels of silver. 26 Now as the king of Israel was walking on the city wall, a woman cried out to him, “Help, my lord king!” 27 He said, “No! Let the Lord help you. How can I help you? From the threshing floor or from the wine press?” 28 But then the king asked her, “What is your complaint?” She answered, “This woman said to me, ‘Give up your son; we will eat him today, and we will eat my son tomorrow.’ 29 So we cooked my son and ate him. The next day I said to her, ‘Give up your son and we will eat him.’ But she has hidden her son.” 30 When the king heard the words of the woman he tore his clothes—now since he was walking on the city wall, the people could see that he had sackcloth on his body underneath— 31 and he said, “So may God do to me, and more, if the head of Elisha son of Shaphat stays on his shoulders today.” 32 So he dispatched a man from his presence.

So in this story you have starvation, and starvation to the point of deals being made between mothers to eat their sons. . . (great pick Pete on Mother’s Day). . . It’s rough stuff. . . and put  yourself in Elisha’s shoes because it appears that the King is blaming it all on him. . . he sends men to kill Elisha, but when they fail he goes himself. . . and says to him, in what Suzanne read. . . including the second appearance of the word hope. . . “This trouble comes from the Lord, why should we have hope in the Lord any longer?” do you see why he wants to kill Elisha, he thinks that by doing so he can get rid of God too. . . that is how that Ancient Pagan mindset was. . . which has something to do with Pandora, and the Greek’s putting “hope” in the box”,  but basically he is saying, why should we listen to you. . . and Elisha tells him that the price of meat will be back down, in other words the scarcity will be over, and people can eat again. . . and the King says. .  . “Even if the Lord could make windows in the sky, could such a thing happen?” Now I don’t know about the colloquial phrases of the time, but I would imagine saying there will be windows in the sky is about like saying, yeah when pigs fly. . . or some of that Ocean Front Real Estate in Arizona, that George Strait used to sing about. . . I can hear Wayne and Garth, from my youth saying, “Shaa right, as if” . . .

And I thought about it in our context today, too. What does hope look like today? Does it even exist?  What can you actually say that you have real hope for in the future? I don’t mean the empty political hope and change nonsense that gets thrown about all the time. . . but I mean, real specific hope, the kind of hope that says that the siege will end tomorrow and all will be well again. . . The kind of hope that says we can actually win the war on terror, that we can actually pay off the 19 trillion dollars worth of debt we have accrued as a nation. The kind of hope that says that Social Security will still be around, functioning, and solvent when those paying into it still now get to retirement age. The kind of hope that says, that Israel and the rest of the Arab world are going to finally at once be at peace, that the lion will indeed lay down with the lamb and those swords will be at once beaten into plowshares. The kind of hope that says that churches will still be around in 10, 20, 30 years, despite declining membership in the mainline traditional churches, and  growing numbers in churches with a cheapened, empty consumerist gospel message of believe in God and your every wish will be granted, again Pandora, and that box of hope.  That’s false hope, human hope, the hope of idolatry and control. . .

You see it is hard, hope is hard, especially when your mind, like all of ours tends to be these days on the big rather than the real that is around us. These are big challenges we face, and the real dilemma is they are so big no one knows where to start. So we make up choices for ourselves between the lesser of two evils. . . no real plans to move forward, just fear of moving backward or making it worse. . . no faith in a real plan, just absolute certainy that the other guy’s plan is the wrong one. . . and the real work takes much too long. It is impossible for anyone to get it all moving in the right direction. . .

And yet today, despite it all we baptize a child into this church. DeAnna and I made a promise we didn’t have to make. . . and you all the congregation of this church made a promise you didn’t have to make. . . Too often we think of days like today as traditional parts of a system. .. the next step in a mindless continuum of its just what you do. . . but honestly we have other options.. . . there are other places we could all be this morning, but we are here. There are other things we could be doing, but instead we decided it was time to take oaths to each other and to God to raise a child in hope. Is it because we believe in windows in the sky? Is it because we have seen those windows in the sky in our own lives, that we don’t know always, we can’t always see them looking ahead, but when we look behind we see them, and we believe those windows in the sky were real. . . that God is the God who makes the impossible possible. . .

Paul’s letter to the Romans, that I chose as the New Testament lesson for today has some interesting ideas about where hope comes from He writes:

And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Look at that chain of events, suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope. . . that’s it, that is what I want to give my daughter. . . hope that is born in the real of life. . . from character, from endurance, and if suffering is what it costs, God give me  the strength to not rescue her from it, giving her that false temporary Pandora hope, but to suffer it with her, right alongside, to have that endurance. . . you see that endurance is born of faith and love. . . and the byproduct is then hope. Is our society hopeless because we don’t have faith, and are too self centered to really love, giving ourselves freely for another . . and so flee from suffering as much as possible because we don’t like it, and don’t see any value in it anyways? And so focus on the unsolvable huge problems. . . and take care of ourselves for today. This is where we as a church must run counter cultural. . . not in the political slippery slopes that take center stage. . . like bathrooms, and coffee cups. . . and even wedding cakes. . . there frankly is no hope in those battles. . . those wars are lost because they are the wrong wars. We have to challenge culture by embracing struggle, the fight, not the outcome (for that is in God’s hands), the outcome is on the other side of the endured struggle that has to shape our character. . . no we must embrace the struggle and every time we do so, we must know we are planting the seeds of hope. This is the basis of the oath we took today for Clara, to teach her about faith, hope, and love. . . and how they are all tied together with suffering, endurance, and character. . . in a unique mix that God made and called good. We believe it is.

I wrote a poem for the graduating seniors at Blue Ridge a few years ago called “Four Songs before You Go” giving three poems of bad advice, the advice of fear and the world, and then finally the advice of reality as I believe it is. The closing line is my favorite, it says. . .

And on that day in the future, we
Will be beyond these fears, you see,
For each step we take, we take in doubt,
Until after it has all worked out."

Each step really isn’t taken in doubt, it is taken in faith, which includes a little doubt. .. . if it were all doubt no step would ever be taken. Paul seems to suggest that such steps are the foundations for hope because they are the stuff of endurance and character.   . . We took a step today, and steps such as these make it easier for us to see the windows in the sky, that we so desperately need.

How can I show to you all of that real,

And still instill in you the real I still feel?

That through the fight, we are always growing,

Despite what we see, and what today is showing.

Yesterday, we thought the world might just end,

And tomorrow’s sun would never rise again,

So despite what we see in the world today,

That there simply is one, leads me now to say,

"I can’t lie and protect you, no, with real you must cope,

All I can give for your armor in life is hope."