A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
April 2, 2017
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Judges 16: 15-19
Luke 22: 47-53
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.
With just two weeks left in Lent, we continue this morning with our Facing Darkness theme, but we head in a slightly different direction. We’ve faced apparent danger, we’ve faced disease, ravaging our body, and even last week we’ve faced death, and you might think, how could it get any worse because certainly those are the height of facing darkness from a physical standpoint, but in many ways, we could say that the emotional darkness can be much, much worse. . . to be here, and to be disillusioned, dismayed, disenchanted, depressed, and embittered, these often are worse because they like a physical disease can if it is contagious, emotional darkness hits us deeply and it leaves wounds and walls of division that sometimes last for generations, and lead often times to cynicism, which is truly one of the most destructive forces we have in this world. . . . so today we talk about facing deception, or more truthfully betrayal. Erick read the story of Samson, betrayed by Delilah, who uses his love for her as the tool to bring about his destruction, and now perhaps the most famous betrayal, that of Judas against Jesus. Luke 22: 47-53, betrayed with a Kiss. . .
47 While he was still speaking, suddenly a crowd came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him; 48 but Jesus said to him, “Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?” 49 When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, “Lord, should we strike with the sword?” 50 Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. 51 But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him. 52 Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple police, and the elders who had come for him, “Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit? 53 When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness!”
Dante in his masterpiece, the Divine Comedy, places betrayal as the worst of the sins, placing those who commit betrayal in the deepest ring, the 9th circle, and he breaks it down to betraying different categories of people, the worst being betrayal of someone who was your benefactor. . . and it is here that Dante puts Judas, Judas who betrayed Jesus with a kiss, and he also puts there Cassius and Brutus, those assassins of Julius Caesar, and their eternal punishment is to be slowly devoured in the three heads of Satan. . . incidentally, Satan himself is imprisoned in this same circle. . . for the Demons in Dante’s vision are not rulers in Hell, but are condemned there as well, and Satan, the former Arch Angel Lucifer, likewise was a great betrayer, according to the tradition of him as a fallen Angel. . . . Do you agree, is betrayal the worst of the sins?
And if so why? Have you ever been truly betrayed? Have you ever put your trust in someone and they let you down? Sure, but does that fit the level of betraying, no its more than that, they have to willingly and purposefully let you down, to smile in your face while they are turning the knife in your back. . . like the OJays sang about, “They smiling in your face, all the time they want to take your place, the back stabbers, back stabbers,” or as the psalmist paints it with that great imagery, from our Call to Worship. . . their speech smoother than butter, but with a heart set on war, with words softer than oil, but in fact were drawn swords. . . that really captures it. When we are talking betrayal, we are talking about a purposeful, possibly elaborate plan to undermine and destroy while all the time claiming to be 100% Loyal, your friend, your confidant, someone in whom you have laid your entire trust, and well-being. It hurts like no other, and it leaves lingering long term effects. . . it makes it hard to trust someone ever again, it makes you build walls, it makes you hold back, it creates a prison, it creates this world, with all of its distrust and cynicism. It perpetuates these cycles, and these are downward cycles that we desperately need to break.
We need to break them because being cynical and guarded and distrusting is also a betrayal. . . it is a betrayal of our nature. We’ve come back to the idea during this series again and again that what it means to be human is to be compassionate, and to be compassionate is to be trusting, to be compassionate is to be open and vulnerable, to be compassionate is to be unguarded, in order to be compassionate we have to be willing to break down the walls that we build to guard ourselves from harm, but we find it so very hard to do. Because when we do, we often get betrayed again, betraying our trust, and we get harder, when we are so desperately trying to soften and care, and have empathy and compassion. This is some of that radical love stuff that Jesus talks about in the Sermon on the Mount, when he talks about having love for your enemies. . . love for your betrayers. . . when he talks about not returning evil for evil but overcoming evil with good. . . to me this is the depths of darkness, one of the most challenging things to do, to forgive and love someone who has betrayed you. . . is it even possible?
Because revenge is so tempting. . . I know it isn’t the best to quote Bill Cosby because he has seemingly betrayed his comedy with his behavior, but it is no less funny on its own merit, there was one story he told about a kid he grew up with called Junior Barnes. . . you see Junior Barnes broke one of the major rules of kiddom. . . he hit the young Bill in the face with a slush ball. . . wham, and it was stinging, and hard and cold and wet. . . and so Bill wants to get his revenge, he goes looking for Junior Barnes, . . . Junior Bar—arns, but he can’t find him, so he makes the roundest, hardest, packed as tightly as possible iceball you could imagine, and he goes home and puts it in the freezer, and he waits, patiently waits, and he says, he went to great lengths to prove to Junior Barnes that he was his greatest friend, he laughed at all his joke, ooohh Junior Barnes you are sooooo funny. . . and he waited until mid July, not a cloud in the sky, 104 degrees, in the shade, he says Junior Barnes you just wait here, I’ve got to get something from the house, and he goes in there and opens the freezer, reaches for the snowball, and his mother had thrown it out. . . but look at the story, one betrayal created another one. . .
Perhaps one of my favorite movies of all time is The Godfather, and even the Godfather 2, where Fredo betrays his brother Michael. . . and he keeps him close. . . and he kisses him, down in Cuba, Fredo, you broke my heart, and eventually he is on a boat out in the lake fishing by himself and it explodes. . . one betrayal equals another. . . and the killing of his brother destroys Micheal, by destroying Fredo, he destroys himself, the tragic spiral, the cost of the American dream is paid, the saga of an Italian Immigrant just trying to protect his family, whose choices for survival, lead to success, but there is always a cost, right, and sure we have to protect ourselves in this world right, people have got to know that we cannot be betrayed with impunity, lest it would happen again, lest we be suckers, lest we be gullible fools. . . but again Jesus’ teaching on this subject is radical. . . love your enemies, do not repay evil for evil, but over come evil with good. . . . can we even begin? Do we want to?
When I was at Hampden-Sydney in College we had a strict and student run Honor Code, and it worked, no one locked their doors, and no one ever worried, we were building community and trust was at the center of it, and it was something we prized highly. . . I still prize it, and I would still prefer to live in such a community. And so often I have sought such levels of trust at the schools where I have been a teacher, and yes both of them also have honor codes. . . no lying, no cheating, no stealing, at the center of the values. . . and so I have always left the room freely while my students take tests and quizzes. . . sometimes I give them a speech ahead of time, how if the cost of their honor is so cheap for an extra couple of points on something as insignificant as a test or a quiz, that they would have to live with it, and I defined Hell for them, not like Dante, no fire, no brimstone, just the sort of hell that is about not being able to look at yourself in the mirror because you would know that your honor was so very, very cheap. . . so yeah, I’d give a speech like that occasionally, but I’d leave, go get a cup of coffee, go talk to the librarian, just to go, to let t hem know they were trusted, I thought that went a long way to teaching and building the kind of community that I so prized at Hampden-Sydney. . . but I remember on two occasions where that trust was betrayed. . . the first time that someone ever cheated on one of my assignments. . . and the time that my ipod was stolen straight from my desk. What do you think I should have done at that point. . . some would argue that I should have learned my lesson, that I should have locked my doors, that I should after that never leave the room, that I should watch my students like a hawk. . . supervisors at the school have told me that. . . but if I were to do that it would be me who would suffer, and suffer much more than the loss of an ipod. . . I’d suffer the loss of my faith, my hope, my sense of community, my sense of compassion. . . awe but come on man, what are you saying? It sounds foolish to me. . . and perhaps it is, but it truly comes down to what you value in life. . . and what you allow people to take from you. . . if you look back on your life, what have you allowed the people who have betrayed you to take from you, often it is much more than the betrayal itself. . .
But that was just kid’s stuff, tests, and electronics, not really the high stakes, and certainly nothing to trade against a betrayal. . . but sometimes it is quite quite worse. IN the last few month I was betrayed greatly. . . betrayed greatly by someone who has power over me, someone I trusted, and the cost wasn’t an ipod. . . it was the cost of a major opportunity for my family. . . and it hurt badly, the kinda hurt that can leave some scars, can leave you embittered, can leave you faithless, and cynical, disillusioned and scared, the kind that can make you rethink what you believe in and how you think of people in general. . . and I’m still not sure how I feel about it, and I’m still not sure what I’ll do about it if anything, or how in the future I’ll behave differently if at all. . . will it harden me? I don’t know yet, but in many ways I hope not. . . because then I will have lost much more than he ever could have taken away from me on his own. . . God’s will, right? Have you ever thought that God sometimes works through the Pharaohs of your life the same way he works through those heroes and rolemodels, teachers and leaders. . . sometimes it is the people who don’t treat you the best who make you change direction and find the path that you were always meant to be on. . . and if so how can you blame them, and what good would it do anyway? I can reason it out in my head, but in practice it is so much more difficult. God’s will. . . look at Jesus
Deceived by Judas, but knows it ahead of time and tells him to go ahead and go through with it, couldn’t he have staved it off, having prior knowledge. I think back to my situation, I probably could have staved it off if I had prior knowledge, I probably would have staved it off if I had prior knowledge, but I’m not sure I should have staved it off if I had prior knowledge. Jesus does have it and he doesn’t. . . He walks his path. . . but what about Judas, does he forgive Judas, would he have forgiven Judas if he didn’t kill himself, and give up entirely?
If he didn’t give up,
Would Jesus have
Called even Judas,
To meet Him in Galilee?
For all had gone away,
All had denied,
And Peter was called.
It didn’t happen,
We don’t know, but
I’d like to believe
He would have,
Removing all limits to grace.
It truly would remove all limits to grace, but it would do something more than that as well, it would give us a real and true example of Jesus overcoming a betrayal, returning betrayal with love and forgiveness, overcoming evil done against him with good, truly turning the other cheek and going the extra mile. . . and that would be nice. . . but maybe we do have one. . . and maybe it is better even than that one because it isn’t forgiving Judas, it is forgiving us. . . carrying the cross, bloody and beaten, flogged and tortured, mocked and ridiculed, crown of thorns cutting into his head, Jesus says, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do. . . “ quite an example huh. . . perhaps I could say that to the unknown kid that took my ipod, perhaps I can say that to the man who betrayed and blocked my path, and perhaps I can say that to myself, for even I, and we all fall into that category if we are truly honest with ourselves, and if we feel we don’t perhaps, we just have betrayed ourselves. . . we all betray in some way, but an act of love breaks the cycle, can break the cycle, and heals us. . .