Sunday, April 9, 2017

Facing Desertion

Facing Desertion

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

April 9, 2017

at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia

Luke 23: 13-25

1 Kings 19: 1-4

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.


This has been quite a Lenten Season, when we look back on it, quite a difficult season. We as a congregation have been hit with sickness from all sides, there have been surgeries, accidents, we’ve prayed for folks battling cancer at all stages, we’ve had folks in and out of the hospital, even the passing of dear Tom Southard, the list goes on and on. It was almost as if we did not need to artificially create the darkness, but we have been challenged by it. I know I have been. In successive weeks preaching on Facing Danger, using the image of the storm, preaching on Facing Disease, looking at the why’s and the why not’s, why now, why me, why this, why not cure me, why not me. . . surrounded by the gospel message of grace and healing so beautifully echoed by HARP, calling us to compassion. . . then preaching on Facing Death, how we experience it not through ourselves, but through the deaths of others, those close to us, how it makes us human, how there is indescribable strength and community that surrounds death. . . then ever stepping forward into more challenging, last week we talked about Facing Deception, feeling betrayal. . . living with and through the loss of trust of faith, the cynicism that can befall us, that we so much with everything we have to fight against in order to remain compassionate and faithful in this difficult world. I saved the hardest for last, yes harder than disease, more difficult than death, more devastating than betrayal, for today we take a look at Desertion, being left alone.

But this is Palm Sunday, and it is quite the celebration, waving palms, singing Glory, Laud, and Honor, calling out Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest . . . We recall the triumphant entry, the borrowed colt, the children waving their palms. . . even the stones unable to be silenced. . . I’ve always enjoyed the Palm Sunday story, but what I think is most meaningful is the transition that takes place. We as pastors are always in a bind, because on one hand the Palm Sunday celebration is an important one to recall, to remember, to cherish, to take great joy in, but on the other hand, Holy Week falls fast afterward, and in just 7 days, 1 week, we will already be up and taking great joy in the empty tomb, celebrating our risen Lord, and much takes place between. . . I’ve always thought it was important to live into that transition, to remember the fact that two crowds play an important role in this transition, and that the same crowd that on Sunday is waving palms and shouting Hosanna, come Friday are the ones yelling Crucify him, and choose to free Barabbas. . . this morning I want us not to feel the guilt of that transition on ourselves and our own potential to take part in both of those mobs, but instead for us to attempt to experience this from Jesus’ perspective, and not of the torture and the crucifixion, none of the physical trials, but instead merely the desertion, the idea that he had followers, that he had disciples, friends, crowds singing his praises, but walked to his death not supported by those throngs, but instead alone and forsaken. . .  the gospel message from today shows the beginning of that desertion. Luke 23: 13-25

 13 Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people, 14 and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him. 15 Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. 16 I will therefore have him flogged and release him.”[d]

18 Then they all shouted out together, “Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!” 19 (This was a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.) 20 Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; 21 but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” 22 A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.” 23 But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed. 24 So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted. 25 He released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder, and he handed Jesus over as they wished.

So Pilate gives the crowd what they want, washes his hands clean of the event, and in due time Peter, the chief among the disciples will deny knowing Jesus three times. Little by little all who had followed Jesus turn their back on him, and he is alone, forsaken, deserted. I do not think we can even imagine what it was like to be tortured and crucified, that is so far outside of the power of our minds to imagine, but we have all been left alone, and we know what it feels like. . . and there is something in our nature that truly fears above all else this idea of being completely and utterly alone. It actually is the picture, the greatest Old Testament image of punishment. . . Psalm 1 says:

Happy are those
    who do not follow the advice of the wicked,
or take the path that sinners tread,
    or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and on his law they meditate day and night.
They are like trees
    planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
    and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.

The wicked are not so,
    but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
    nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked will perish.

The way of the wicked is not to be planted but to be left to be blown by the wind, not rooted, not enveloped in community or of the arms of God, but left, forsaken. . . . Dante, on the sign at the gate of his Hell describes it like this. . .



Dante’s Hell is populated not necessarily by the damned, but instead by the forsaken. . . Jesus from the Cross says, “My God, My God, why have your forsaken me?” To be forsaken is to be left alone, uncared for, unguarded, unloved, and forgotten. There is no accident here, so much of our greatest worry is not death, but exile. . . lost forever from our friends and families. . . separated and alone, and it is no accident that the punishment inside of our punishment system, the jail inside of jail, is a space for solitary confinement. . . I recall from Cool Hand Luke the long list of offenses that will end in a “night in the box.” The fellow inmates sing to help Luke move the dirt from Boss Keene’s ditch and then back again out of the other boss’s yard, Just a Closer walk with thee. . . but when he is put in the box, he is alone to himself, isolated, and comes out broken. . . being alone has real power because it sends us into our minds. . . the Raven in Poe’s masterpiece comes saying his ominous “Never more” to the lonely and forsaken man, who is the speaker of that poem on that midnight dreary, while he was left to ponder weak and weary. . . of his lost Lenore.

Perhaps it is why so many songs, the ones that just rip at our heartstrings have this lonely theme as its message.

Lonely, I’m Mr. Lonely, I have nobody to call my own,

I’ve been forgotten, yes forgotten, O how I wonder how is it I failed


All alone am I ever since your good bye, all alone with just the beat of my heart

People all around but I don’t hear a sound, just the lonely beating of my heart


Ah Look at all the lonely people, de dum de dum de dum

Ah Look at all the lonely people. . .


Now my room has got two windows
But the sunshine never comes through
You know it's always dark and dreary
Since I broke off, baby with you

I could cry, I could cry, I could cry (ooh)
I could die, I could die, I could die (I need help from somebody)
Because I live on a lonely avenue
(Lonely avenue) oh, yes sir

Or maybe

That I'd been crying over you, crying over you
Then you said "so long". left me standing all alone
Alone and crying, crying, crying crying


Only the lonely,

Know the way I feel to night

Only the lonely

Know this feeling just aint right

There are so many, I could really go on and on, and they transcend genre and time. Folk songs, the Blues, country, the high and lonesome sound of blue grass, even rap, all have these songs about being deserted because we all have felt this emotion, the abandoned and alone emotion. . . it is truly devastating, to be rejected and alone.

And it isn’t just the idea of being alone. . . there has to be that rejected. . . there has to be that desertion element to get us this way. One of my favorite all time records is Frank Sinatra’s “A Man Alone.” Frank was big on what he called concept albums in the height of his career, and idea later taken to new heights by rock and roll bands like the Who and Pink Floyd, but Sinatra was one of the first, to have an album where all of the songs relate on some theme. . . A Man Alone, all hangs on just what the title suggests, being A Man Alone. . .and it is so beautiful, in its mix of spoken words and songs, seamlessly floating back and forth as the album progresses.

In me you see a man alone.

Held by the habit of being on his own.

A man who listens to the trembling of the trees.

With sentimental ease.

In me you see a man alone.

Behind the wall he's learned to call his home.

A man who still goes walking in the rain.

Expecting love again.

A man not lonely.

Except when the dark comes on.

A man learning to live with. memories of midnights.

That fell apart at dawn.

Perhaps my favorite line in that is the one that sings, A man not lonely. . . not lonely, just alone. . . because there is a difference. We all can be alone, being a lone is not a problem, there is a difference in being lonely, and it is that desertion difference. . . . I can be alone, but if I’m ever lonely I can’t sit still. . . have you ever been like that. . . you get the paces, you get the distracteds, you can watch TV, it bores you, it loses you, why is that? I remember being single, why were Tuesday nights alone after work so much easier to deal with than Fridays or Saturdays. . . you feel like you need people, you want people, and for some reason you are by yourself, and time creeps, so slow. . . I think that is why those songs are so popular, so widespread, and so important. . . they give comfort in the idea that there are others around, who are lonely too. . . why in a world populated by billions of people is anyone lonely, is any one alone. . . but we are, even in crowds, forgotten and alone.

Why do we convince ourselves that others are either fine, would rather us stay out of their business, do not want to be bothered? It is something that kids don’t understand, kids would always want to be with friends, surrounded by friends and family, always playing, but often adults seem to be too busy. . . there is always something to do, something that must be done, and it is hard. . . but yet we know deep down our greatest fear is to be left alone, abandoned and alone. . . it makes every one of the other of the ideas we’ve talked about facing, all that much worse. . . Facing Danger alone, Jesus wake up we need you, Facing Disease, alone it would be unbearable, Facing Death, no one wants to die alone, and there is always such an outpouring of community in the face of death, at least in the funeral, Facing Betrayal, the worst that it can do is leave  you completely alone. . . isolated. . . shut off completely from the world.

But this is the great promise of Holy Week and Easter, that Jesus, faces this lonesome valley and faces it by himself, nobody else could walk it for him, nor with him, but through it he makes it so that we will never walk alone,

that we can walk through the storm with our head held high,

And not be afraid of the dark
At the end of a storm is a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark

Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
Tho' your dreams
Be tossed and blown
Walk on
Walk on
With hope in your heart
And you'll never walk alone
You'll never walk alone

Christ walks with us, the Risen Christ walks with us,  and we should learn through his example to be better at walking with each other,. Though it is difficult, with the thousand insecurities that our flesh is heir to, we can get better. Again and again compassion has been our call, and it is no different here, compassion, to feel with. . . if nothing else it shows that we are not alone in our suffering, but instead are connected in everyway, in this way to all who have ever lived, and all who ever will.