Thursday, September 29, 2016

What the World Needs Now

What the World Needs Now

a homily delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

at Gibson Memorial Chapel, Blue Ridge School

St. George, Virginia

1 Corinthians 13: 4-13

Ecclesiastes 4: 9-12

Here is a sound recording of this message:

Let us pray,

Help us to see despite our eyes

Help us to think outside of our minds

Help us to be more than our lives   

For your eyes show the way

    Your mind knows the truth

    Your being is the life.


I wanted to do something a little different this morning. I want to play some music and sing some songs, and I want to give a positive message. I want to talk about love, what it is, what it takes, and why it is so important. . . so let me jump right in. . . I want you to listen to the words of the songs because I want them to speak for me this morning. So let’s set the scene. . . It is not hard for us to know these days, turn on the tv, watch the news, we are a world very much in need.

What the world needs now, is love, sweet love,

It's the only thing, that there's just too little of.

What the world needs now, is love, sweet love,

No, not just for some, but for everyone.     ~ Dionne Warwick

And it’s not just something we need, but truly the one thing, for:

All you need is love
All you need is love
All you need is love love love. Love is all you need.  ~ John Lennon

And you may be asking yourself. . . love. . . really. . . I don’t buy it. . . all love is a touchy feely emotion. . . something from a Valentine’s Card. . . but not real. You may be thinking:

What's love got to do, got to do with it,
What's love but a second hand emotion,
What's love got to do, got to do with it,
Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken,    ~ Tina Turner

Who is love about anyway. . . is it about me. . . for I am the center of my world, maybe:

Because the grea____test love of all is happening to me...e
I  found the grea____test love of all inside of me
The greatest  love of all
Is easy to  achieve     learning to love yourself
It is the greatest love   of all     ~ Whitney Houston

So loving yourself. . . is that all it takes. . . just a safe place. . . loving me. . . in my world. . . if that is all it takes then I can make it on my own. . .

I have my books, and my poetry to protect me;        

I am shielded in my armor, hiding in my room, save within my womb.

I touched no one and no one touches me.

I Am a Rock, I am an island.

And a rock feels no pain;

And an island never cries!     ~ Paul Simon

But that kind of solitude leaves us empty. . . we need more. . . we need each other. . .

Why? why? Tell them that it’s human nature.
Why? why? ‘Cause he do me that way? (If they say);
Why? why? Tell them that it’s human nature.
Why? why? ‘Cause he do me that way?      ~ Michael Jackson

So if it is necessary for us. . . if love. . . in some form is necessary to human life. . . then what is it?

In my life  there's been heartache and pain.

I don't know if I can face it again.

Can't stop now.  I've traveled so far to change this lonely life.

  I want to know what love is.       I want you to show me.

  I want to feel what love is.       I know you can show me.   ~ Foreigner

So What is Love? Anyone have an idea?
Perhaps love is like a window
Perhaps an open door
It invites you to come closer
It wants to show you more
And even if you lose yourself
And don't know what to do
The memory of love will see you through
   Oh ! Love to some is like a cloud
   To some as strong as steel
   For some a way of living
   For some a way to feel
   And some say love is holding on
   And some say letting go
   And some say love is everything
   Some say they don't know   ~ John Denver

Perhaps. . . but what about.

Love is clockwork

And cold steel

Fingers too numb to feel

Squeeze the handle

Blow out the candle

Love is blindness

Love is blindness

I don't want to see

Won't you wrap the night

Around me

Oh my love

Blindness   ~ U2

So all those possibilities. . . all those theories on what love is, but . . 
How do I know when it's love?  I can't tell you but it lasts forever
How does it feel when it's love?  it's just something you feel together,
When it's love   ~ Van Halen

And so since it’s hard to know for sure. . . we keep our love to ourselves, we are intimidated by it. . . we laugh it off treat it too lightly or. .  perhaps with too much respect. . . afraid to pull the trigger.

Love's a word I never throw around
So when I say I'll love you til' the end
I'm talkin about until the day they lay me in the ground
Love's a word I never throw around  ~ Robert Earl Keen

And don’t forget. . .because as sweet as love can be. . . as puppy love. . . as fairy tale and hallmark card. . . we shouldn’t forget:
Love bites, love bleeds, It's bringin' me to my knees 
Love lives, love dies ,  It's no surprise 
Love begs, love pleads,  It's what I need   ~ Def Leppard
Right it is hard. . . it’s tough. . . love is important, it is all we need, but it isn’t always sweet. . . it takes our all it takes commitment. . . it takes sacrifice. . . because we all need to know 

On a perfect day, I know that I can count on you

But when that’s not possible, tell me can you weather a storm

 ‘Cause I need somebody, who will stand by me

Through the good times and bad times, who will always

Always, be right there

Sunny days, everybody loves them,

Tell me baby can you stand the rain,

Storms will come, this we know for sure

Tell me baby can you stand the rain?  ~ New Edition

But in order to have someone there for you like that you need to be there for them. . . here is the one question that love demands. . . and it goes both ways. . . listen.
If I needed you, would you come to me?
Would you come to me and ease my pain?
If you needed me, I would come to you
I'd swim the seas for to ease your pain  ~ Townes Van Zandt

The world is difficult. . . it is hard. . . we need each other. . . I’ve heard no better statement of what love is than this:

Wrong or right be mine tonight

Harsh world be damned, we’ll make a stand

Love can bind, but mine is blind

Other’s stray, but I won’t walk away. ~ Jewel

How amazing would that be to have someone say that, we’re in this together.. . . no matter what happens. . . no matter what comes. . . we will stand together. . . other’s will walk away. .  . abandon you. . . but I never will. . . this is what we need. . .the loyalty we need. . . the friendship we need. . . but again it’s reciprocal. . .

And in the end the love you take

is equal to the love you make. . .  ~ Paul McCartney

So men. . . what are you willing to give? Who are you? You’ve got to know it because someone out there needs you to say. . . I won’t walk away. . . no matter what comes. I’ll stay I won’t walk away. . . are you up for that challenge?

God I feel like hell tonight
Tears of rage I can not fight
I'd be the last to help you understand
Are you strong enough to be my man?        
When I've shown you that I just don't care
When I'm throwing punches in the air
When I'm broken down and I can't stand
Will you be strong enough to be my man? ~ Sheryl Crow

It is by far the biggest commitment you will make, the hardest, the most trying, the most difficult, challenging, at times pride swallowing endeavor of your life, but such it is to be human, and we’ve already said it. . .

What the world needs now, is love, sweet love,

It's the only thing, that there's just too little of.

What the world needs now, is love, sweet love,

No, not just for some, but for everyone. ~ Dionne Warwick

Every one of us, each of us, all of us. . . this world needs love, and we need love, are we up for the challenge of love, the challenge of life? Amen.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

'Course He Isn't Safe, but He's Good

'Course He Isn’t Safe, but He’s Good
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
September 18, 2016
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
1 John 1: 1-5
Isaiah 44: 24-28

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.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing this that our joy may be complete.This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all.

My anthem today echoed, mirrored those words. . . I want to walk as a child of the light, I want to follow Jesus. . . in him there is no darkness at all, the night and the day are both alike. Here John writes in his epistle, that this is the message we have heard from him, and that we now proclaim to you, “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.” But we find that there is darkness. There are things that we just don’t understand about this world and how it works. There is pain that we feel, that we see others feeling, empathy that we feel for the struggles that our brothers and sisters are going through, and we cannot help but wonder why. Today with Isaiah we proclaim the creation, proclaim that the creation of everything that is, is God’s. . . that this world is the handiwork of God, and that God is good. We hold up God as the creator of all things. We hold up God as all powerful. Good, all powerful, creator of all things, and somewhere in our mind wonders. . . if those three things are true. . . if they are each true in themselves. . . held up. . . evident to us in the miracle of creation. . . testified to us by the Bible again and again. . . memorized and taught in Sunday School and catechism. . . we can’t help but wonder in our less faithful moments. . . why then is our world not good. We have disease, senseless violence, pain and distress, injustice, bad things happening to good people, good things happening to bad people, suffering, hunger, corruption, greed, crime, cancer, drugs, even maladies we cannot explain to the most innocent of us all. . . those in the womb who have not even breathed their first breath are not inoculated against the pain that we see in the world. It drives us to our knees, screaming out why, God, why? Why is this? Why must such things be? And it challenges us on a deep and honest level.
At this time in the year I am teaching my students origin myths. . . and I use them, these stories of how the world came to be, to teach the basics of world views. I want my students to be able to understand works of literature we will read later in the year. I want them to know how the author of the work sees the world at its most basic level. So far we’ve looked at two different ones. The first a polytheistic worldview, that of the Greeks, the poet, Hesiod’s Theogyny, a Greek Word for a title which means simply, “The Birth of the Gods.” In that worldview the problem of pain is easy. . . it is easy to explain. . . the gods are not good. . . they are fickle, they are cruel, they do not care at all about people, Zeus didn’t even create human beings, they were made by another, in an act of defiance towards Zeus, so you can imagine what that means about humans. . . the world is simply a collection of personified gods and goddesses each with their own natural force to manage, waging wars against each other in perpetual conflict, and human beings are hanging in the balance, precarious to say the least, and therefore all of the evil and bad that humans face is easy to explain.
But then we read Genesis 1, and Genesis 2, 3. . . and the problem of pain and suffering is harder to understand. Genesis 1 shows an all powerful God, speaking things, speaking the entire world into existence. Let there be light, and there is light. . . and the same God who speaks light into existence, proclaims that light to be good. The Hebrew word for creates, is the word, “BARA” and no one can BARA other than God, the word doesn’t work for anyone else. And the poetic image of God’s creation is him separating the waters, holding back the waters, and creating space, space for his creatures, to live and not just to live, but to thrive. . . his first commandment is to Be Fruitful and Multiply. . .  he pulls back the waters, and brings order to the chaos. . . these are the images painted by the poetic Hebrew words of creation. . . God separating the water from the water, and bringing order. . . order, which is the opposite of Conflict.
So this is where I was with my students, this past week. . . one night for homework, I had them go outside and find something in nature, in the natural world that is evidence, that all the world is, is conflicting forces. . . I got things like trees growing next to each other. . . the larger one shading the smaller one from the sun, their roots fighting for nutrients. . . the coolness of the wind fighting against the hot rays of the sun. . . the water slowly eroding the shore. . . one kid wrote about the mosquito they slapped from their neck while they were looking for something. All good stuff. . . Then the next night I asked them to go outside and find evidence of order in the world. . . evidence of a greater plan. . . evidence that there is a benevolent all powerful loving God pulling light out of darkness, and setting the conflict, the chaos, into order. . . I was amazed at what I got. . . I got the food chain, and the cycle of life, which I took to mean life and death. . . birth and death. . . it made me think about my niece, she had raised some pollywogs, to tadpoles, to frogs. . . and then they took them to the park to let them go. . . and as the little fellow was swimming along. . . a fish came up and slurped him up. . . in one big gulp. . . I guess there is always a bigger fish. . . and she looked at it and started singing. . . from Lion King. . . It’s the circle of life. . . this is what I got from these boys about proof of order. I was hoping I’d get some poetic notions like I wrote in the poem read at DeAnna’s and my wedding, that there was this cool breeze, and that caused these two doves to huddle close to stay warm, that even though there was cold, and discomfort, out of that came love and need and caring for each other. . . Or I thought I might hear about the myna bird and the rhino. . . or that other bird the lives in the crocodiles mouth cleaning his teeth. . . or the fish that does the same for sharks. . . that there is more to the world than the strong devouring the weak. . . but glimpses of the meek inheriting the earth, and the last being first and the first being last. . . no I got the male black widow being devoured by the female after helping with egg fertilization. But they are right. . . that in its own way is an ordered system. . . not just born out of conflict, but born out of set and delicate patterns. . . harsh patterns, but patterns. . . and it put the poems I chose for today in my head as things I wanted to touch on . . . two poems by William Blake. . . both coming from his collections usually meant for children. . . his “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience.” The Lamb from Innocence. . . and the Tyger from Experience. . . because this gets at it really. . . God. . . the nature of God. . . and the nature of the nature God created. . . both. . . including both the lamb and the tiger: Let’s look at them.
Little Lamb who made thee 
         Dost thou know who made thee 
Gave thee life & bid thee feed. 
By the stream & o'er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice! 
Little Lamb who made thee 
         Dost thou know who made thee 
         Little Lamb I'll tell thee,
         Little Lamb I'll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb: 
He is meek & he is mild, 
He became a little child: 
I a child & thou a lamb, 
We are called by his name.
         Little Lamb God bless thee. 
         Little Lamb God bless thee.

There is the innocence of creation. . . the kindness. . . the gentleness. . . for that is a part of the natural world for sure. . . and a part of the nature of God. .  but there is more. . .

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

It poses that question. . . what immortal hand or eye dare frame they fearful symmetry. . . that kind of perfection. . . beauty, strength, a perfect stealth, powerful killing machine. We went on to read Genesis 1 and 2 in class, and the boys kept wondering why would it be that God would create the snake. . . if the snake would lead human beings so hopelessly and desperately into sin and degradation. . . even death. . . why put us through that?
Many have looked at the 20th century, with its world wars and devastation, its pollution, its loss of faith, its falling into a postmodernism where the validity of all that had been held fast as fact for centuries is doubted and questioned. . . with all of that going on. . . feeding the fire. . . wondering how could a good God allow such things to happen. . . how could an all powerful God allow such things to happen. . . it has made people doubt the three great truths we posed earlier. . . God is Good. . . God is all powerful. . . God creates all things. . .  cut out any one of those and the problem of pain is solved. . . God is not good. . . like the Greek Gods. . . there may be power up there. . . but it can’t be benevolent. . . it can’t be good. . . God is not all powerful. . . there is a God. . . God is good, but he just can’t do anything about the pain. . . he isn’t strong enough to stop it. . . or lastly. . . God didn’t create the world. . . doesn’t create the world. . . ie. There is no God. And it may just be the pain you face is more personal than the global. . . the pain that you are suffering is deep loss. . . pain. . . the unimaginable. . . and it can lead you to that point where you question any one of those three ideas. . . God is Good. . . God is all powerful. . . God creates all things. . . it can be difficult.
But yet we are all here this morning. Here we are gathered together. . . and we hear ringing through our heads this morning. . . In him there is no darkness at tall the night and the day are both alike. . . and here we are. . . the world would say that we ignore these questions, that we fear these questions. . . that we don’t take these questions seriously. . . but rather go to church because we always have. . . that we put on our rose colored Sunday Morning glasses, and choose not to think of such things. . . we read our Little Lamb, who made thee. . . and we fill our lives with hugs and happy thoughts, and we ignore the struggle we face. . . blinded in a denial of reality. . . that is what the world would say. . . but here we are, and now we’ve posed these questions. . . where do you stand. . . what do you think. . . why are you here? Why believe still in the goodness of God. . . even with your eyes wide open. . .
In him there is no darkness at all the night and the day are both alike. . . there is that chorus again. . . that refrain again. . . does it help us. . . one thing the Bible shows us is we are not alone in these thoughts. . . if  you wonder about the problem of pain. . . there is a ton of pain in the prophets. . . the kingdoms, which was originally the one kingdom promised by God are destroyed. . . outside invaders destroy the two kingdoms piece by piece. . . the Assyrians to the northern kingdom of Israel. . . the Babylonians to the Southern Kingdom of Judah. . . Jerusalem is burned, razed, destroyed. . . and ancient warfare, as you probably can imagine is a brutal thing. . . probably what  you can imagine times ten. . . and the remnant. . . the survivors of the destruction find themselves exiled in the invaders great city. . . Babylon. . . and you better believe there is doubt. . . there is fear. . . there is questioning of the goodness of God, the power of God. . . the idea that God exists at all. . . but in come these prophets. . . Jeremiah. . . Ezekiel. . . Isaiah to name a few. . . and look at what Paula read this morning from Isaiah. . . after again saying that idol worship is worthless, this prophet is testifying again to the creatorship, the reality, the power, the goodness of God.
Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer,
    who formed you from the womb:
“I am the Lord, who made all things,
    who stretched out the heavens alone,
    who spread out the earth—Who was with me?[e]
25 who frustrates the omens of liars,
    and makes fools of diviners;
who turns wise men back,
    and makes their knowledge foolish;
26 who confirms the word of his servant,
    and performs the counsel of his messengers;
who says of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be inhabited,’
    and of the cities of Judah, ‘They shall be built,
    and I will raise up their ruins’;
27 who says to the deep, ‘Be dry,
    I will dry up your rivers’;
28 who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd,
    and he shall fulfil all my purpose’;
saying of Jerusalem. ‘She shall be built,’
    and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid.’”

In other words. . . God is great. . . God is the creator. . . and all those wise men. . . all those foolish diviners. . . all those who claim to know the truth. . . the whys. . . the wherefores. . . they all don’t know a thing. . . God’s truth runs deeper. . . And then this bit about Cyrus. . . and Cyrus is important because he goes on about Cyrus into the next chapter
Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
    whose right hand I have grasped,
to subdue nations before him
    and ungird the loins of kings,
to open doors before him
    that gates may not be closed:
“I will go before you
    and level the mountains,[a]
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
    and cut asunder the bars of iron,
I will give you the treasures of darkness
    and the hoards in secret places,
that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
    the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
For the sake of my servant Jacob,
    and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
    I surname you, though you do not know me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other,
    besides me there is no God;
    I gird you, though you do not know me,
that men may know, from the rising of the sun
    and from the west, that there is none besides me;
    I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness,
    I make weal and create woe,
    I am the Lord, who do all these things.

All those promises are still true. . . it doesn’t matter how dark it gets. . . God is the light. . . in him there is no darkness at all. . . but who is this Cyrus. . . do you know? He is the king of Persia. . .another of the great empires of the ancient world. . . the one who destroys Babylon. . . can such a one be the instrument, the anointed tool of God. . . can you imagine what that would be like if it would happen today? I can’t. . . a foreign ruler being the chosen deliverer? I think we would jump the faith ship before such things could happen. . . but this is the message Isaiah brings. . . and it all comes to pass. The Persians displace the Babylonians, and the Persian policy of local religious toleration allows for the reconstruction of the temple. . . and the reconstituting of Jerusalem. . . but the people would still be waiting of a King, Messiah. . . but he would come three Empires later. . . and he would fall into the freshly washed hands of a Roman Governor and his cross. In him there is no darkness at all the night and the day are both alike. ..
I can’t answer the why and the wherefore officially, at least not from here, because I don’t know. . . I have some faithful theories. . . mostly having to do with the amazing power of love and what it can do in the world, what I’ve seen it do. . . but I really don’t know how to answer the problem of pain. . . other than to say that even with the pain in the world it is possible that the world is still Good. . . and that a Good God is in control of it after all. . .
Alexander Pope put it this way. . .
ALL are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body Nature is, and God the soul;
That, changed through all, and yet in all the same,
Great in the earth, as in th' ethereal frame,
Warms in the sun, refreshes in the breeze,
Glows in the stars, and blossoms in the trees,
Lives through all life, extends through all extent,
Spreads undivided, operates unspent:
Breathes in our soul, informs our mortal part;
As full, as perfect, in a hair as heart;
As full, as perfect, in vile man that mourns
As the rapt Seraphim, that sings and burns:
To him no high, no low, no great, no small—
He fills, he bounds, connects, and equals all....
All nature is but art, unknown to thee:
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see:
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good.

John wrote it that God is the light shining through and out of the darkness. . . in him there is no darkness at all. . . William Blake said that he made both the lamb and the tiger. . . History shows him making the Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and Romans. . . Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus, and Pilate. . . My niece Julianna, sang. . . It’s the circle of life. . . and my students saw it in the food chain and the cannibalistic male eating black widow spider. . . and it is there in the Cross and the Empty Tomb. . . I took the title of this sermon from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. . .
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

There are many things we don’t understand. . . God made both the tiger and the lamb. . . but he became the lamb amidst the tigers. . . not safe, no, but Good.

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