Homily: Life-Giving Fear
When, in my first parish when I was also the hospital chaplain at our local hospital, the calls I dreaded most did not come from the emergency room, the psychiatric ward or even the morgue. They came from the pediatric floor, where little babies lay in cribs with bandages covering half their heads and sweet-faced children pushed IV poles down the hall. One day I received a call to come sit with a mother while her five-year-old daughter was in surgery. Earlier in the week, the girl had been playing with a friend when her head began to hurt. By the time she found her mother, she could no longer see. At the hospital, a CAT scan confirmed that a large tumor was pressing on the girl’s optic nerve, and she was scheduled for surgery as soon as possible.
On the day of the operation, I found her mother sitting under the fluorescent lights in the waiting room beside an ashtray full of cigarette butts. She smelled as if she had puffed every one of them, although she was not smoking when I got there. She was staring at a patch of carpet in front of her, with her eyebrows raised in that half-hypnotized look that warned me to move slowly. I sat down beside her. She came to, and after some small talk she told me just how awful it was. She even told me why it had happened.
“It’s my punishment,” she said, “for smoking these damned cigarettes. God couldn’t get my attention any other way, so he made my baby sick.” Then she started crying so hard that what she said next came out like a siren: “Now I’m supposed to stop, but I can’t stop. I’m going to kill my own child!”
This was hard for me to hear. I decided to forego reflective listening and concentrate on remedial theology instead. “I don’t believe in a God like that,” I said. “The God I know wouldn’t do something like that.”
The only problem with my response was that it messed with the mother’s worldview at the very moment she needed it most. However miserable it made her, she preferred a punishing God to an absent or capricious one. I may have been able to reconcile a loving God with her daughter’s brain tumor, but at the moment she could not: If there was something wrong with her daughter, then there had to be a reason. She was even willing to be the reason. At least that way she could get a grip on the catastrophe.
Even those of us who claim to know better react the same way. Calamity strikes and we wonder what we did wrong. We scrutinize our behavior, our relationships, our diets, our beliefs. We hunt for some cause to explain the effect in hopes that we can stop causing it. What this tells us is that we are less interested in truth than consequences. What we crave, above all, is control over the chaos of our lives.
Luke does not divulge the motive of those who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices. The implication is that those who died deserved what they got, or at least that is the question Jesus intuited. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?”
It is a tempting equation that solves a lot of problems. (1) It answers the riddle of why bad things happen to good people: they don’t. Bad things only happen to bad people. (2) It punishes sinners right out in the open as a warning to everyone. (3) It gives us a God who obeys the laws of physics. For every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction. Any questions?
It is a tempting equation, but Jesus won’t go there. “No,” he tells the crowd, “but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” In the South, this is what we call giving with one hand and taking away with the other. No, Jesus says, there is no connection between the suffering and the sin. Whew. But unless you repent, you are going to lose some blood too. Oh.
There is no sense spending too much time trying to decipher this piece of the good news. As far as I can tell, it is meant not to aid reason but to disarm it. In an intervention aimed below his listeners’ heads, Jesus touches the panic they have inside of them about all the awful things that are happening around them. They are terrified by those things — for good reason. They have searched their hearts for any bait that might bring disaster sniffing their way. They have lain awake at night making lists of their mistakes.
While Jesus does not honor their illusion that they can protect themselves in this way, he does seem to honor the vulnerability that their fright has opened up in them. It is not a bad thing for them to feel the full fragility of their lives. It is not a bad thing for them to count their breaths in the dark — not if it makes them turn toward the light.
It is that turning he wants for them, which is why he tweaks their fear. Don’t worry about Pilate and all the other things that can come crashing down on your heads, he tells them. Terrible things happen, and you are not always to blame. But don’t let that stop you from doing what you are doing. That torn place your fear has opened up inside of you is a holy place. Look around while you are there. Pay attention to what you feel. It may hurt you to stay there and it may hurt you to see, but it is not the kind of hurt that leads to death. It is the kind that leads to life.
Depending on what you want from God, this may not sound like good news. I doubt that it would have sounded like good news to the mother in the waiting room. But for those of us who have discovered that we cannot make life safe nor God tame, it is gospel enough. What we can do is turn our faces to the light. That way, whatever befalls us, we will fall the right way.
Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor
February 27, 2013 2nd Sunday in Lent Always Another Climb
Genesis 15: 5-12, 17-18 Philippians 3: 17- 4:1 Luke 9:28b-36 The Message
Over the years, many of us likely have heard lots of sermons on this story about this Gospel story of the Transfiguration. Most of the sermons have taken one of two tacks. Either the story
has been on the Glory itself, the ‘tremendous Mystery’ at the heart of the story, as Jesus is transfigured and becomes dazzlingly radiant before Peter, James and John, foreshadowing his eventual glorification as the Son of God. Or, its focus was on the need that faces Jesus and the disciples at the end of this wonderful mountaintop experience as they return in their descent from the mountaintop.
There are many sacred texts that speak of mountains as holy spaces where one might encounter the living God, and almost all of them speak of experiences on those mountains, at those summits, and of what happens upon descent from the mountain. But none of them speak more than a whisper about the ascent.
What about the trek up the mountain? Now, I’ve climbed mountains of varying heights and degrees of difficulty before, and I have to say that there’s more to it than these texts suggest. And, indeed, if we think of the mountain as a metaphor for the human encounter with God–and Scripture offers plenty of reasons for such an understanding–the climb up the mountain in itself is a worthy metaphor for the human approach to God.
I am drawn this day to the ascent–not so much to the clouds and the light and the mystery at the summit, as central as they are, nor to the descent at the other end of the experience, as important as it is to Christian discipleship, but to the climb itself as a way of talking about our approach to the experience of God. Robert Morris writes that the mountain ascent is:
“a particularly apt symbol for the challenge of changing vistas, climates, and dangers the psyche is likely to face as our…capacity for God is stretched and strengthened. As in climbing a mountain, the conscious encounter with spiritual reality may begin easily. The unskilled mountain climber setting off into the foothills with naïve excitement at this “wonderful” experience quickly discovers, upon reaching [even] the lower slopes of the mountain, that the body has limits and the soul has fears brought out by the very climbing itself. Both body and soul need to be challenged, stretched, and strengthened for the journey to continue.
A few years back, I read Bill Bryson’s ‘A Walk in the Woods’, a wonderfully funny story about the author’s attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail. Early in the book Bryson described his first day of hiking, which began on the gently sloping access trails that lead to the trailhead on Springer Mountain in north Georgia and then on toward an ultimate destination some 2,100 miles away on Mount Katahdin in Maine. Despite all his excitement and all his planning and all his preparation, Bryson said that first day on the trail was simply awful:
“First days on hiking trips always are [he said]. I was hopelessly out of shape– hopelessly. The pack weighed way too much. Way too much. I had never encountered anything so hard, for which I was so ill prepared. Every step was a struggle.”
“The hardest part”, said Bryson, “was coming to terms with the constant dispiriting discovery that there is always more hill. The thing about being on a hill, as opposed to standing back from it, is that you can almost never see what’s to come. Between the curtain of trees at every
side, the ever-receding contour of rising slope before you, and your own plodding weariness, you gradually lose track of how far you have come.
“ Each time you haul yourself up to what you think must surely be the crest, you find that there is in fact more hill beyond, sloped at an angle that kept it from view before, and that beyond that slope there is another, and beyond that another and another, and beyond each of those more still, until it seems impossible that any hill could run on this long. Eventually you reach a height where you can see the tops of the topmost trees, with nothing but clear sky beyond, and your faltering spirit stirs–nearly there now!–but this is a pitiless deception. The
elusive summit continually retreats by whatever distance you press forward, so that each time the canopy parts enough to give a view you are dismayed to see that the topmost trees are as remote, as unattainable, as before. Still you stagger on. What else can you do?”
If I hadn’t known Bryson was describing a hike on the Appalachian Trail, I might have thought that he was describing metaphorically the journey of human life or of human faith…at least the kinds of life and faith journeys many of us have experienced. When we are young, our lives may seem most of the time like level paths, smooth-going with scarcely a tree root or an icy patch to trip us up. But as we grow older and the plots and treks of our lives get more complex, our lives and our faith are more often defined by the hills we must climb, by the sweeping upslopes, the sometimes steep and rocky mountain paths, the strenuous treks we must take, fraught with perils and pitfalls.
There are times in such hikes when not only reaching our destination, but even our survival is in question. In our advanced years, the climbs may seem relentless, wearying. We may find it easy to ignore God in the flatlands where everything is smooth and we are betrayed by our own progress into illusions of self-sufficiency. When the path gets steep and treacherous, in anxiety and fear we are more likely to cry out to God. Ultimately, in those times when we do reach the summit, when we do come to the end of an arduous and frightful journey, or at least to a plateau or resting place, there…there is where we may catch a glimpse of grace and even glory…there where we may experience profound gratitude.
It’s no wonder that when one does finally reach the high ground, one wants to stay. That was surely the case with Peter in Luke’s story today. Having reached the summit–not just the top of the mountain, but a profound experience of holiness and mystery and glory–he didn’t want
to leave. He wanted to stay, to freeze the moment in time.
One scholar of Christian spirituality, John Mogabgab, understands the metaphor of the mountain in our spiritual journeys. After all, in encounters between natural geography and human endeavor, Mogabgab asks, what is more remote, more unapproachable, and more immoveable than a mountain?
“Mountains rise out of the lowlands in a massive show of power. Ancient, solid, imposing, they permit only the most minimal human footprint. Mountains wear a stunning succession of ecospheres, from forests and high meadows to scrub brush and sheer rock adorned with
perennial snowfields. At high altitudes, air becomes as thin as a veil. Larger mountains are a presence so prodigious they create their own weather systems.”
The Bible portrays mountains as settings for God’s self-disclosure. Moses receives the Law and looks upon the Lord on Mount Sinai. On Mount Horeb, Elijah communes with God in a mysterious silence. From a wilderness rise, Jesus teaches the blessed ways of the kingdom. Atop a mountain, Peter, James and John see Jesus in the fullness of his divine glory. Mountaintops are regions in which discernment sharpens an contemplative visions crystallize, but only after the rigors of the ascent.
“When confronted with an increase in altitude,” writes mountaineer Jon Krakauer, “the human body adjusts in manifold ways, from increasing respiration, to changing the pH of the blood, to radically boosting the number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells–a conversion that takes weeks to complete.” © Rev. Robert Dunham
The physiological changes needed to sustain life in the higher reaches of the great mountains have their spiritual counterparts in the soul’s ascent to God. Love’s desire for intimate communion with the Holy One will demand adjustments to the frame of our thinking, the
content of our feeling, the direction of our willing–a conversion that takes years to take hold.
No wonder Peter didn’t get it immediately! It takes time, you see…a long time…maybe years…maybe a lifetime.
I can’t say for certain how long it takes. I only know that it is worth the climb, and that at the end of the path we may well see the glory of God, that we may well know God as never before. But such a goal surely does not reduce the dangers or difficulties of the ascent. There is so
much to learn and understand about our limits, so much to grasp about proper discipline and preparation, and so much strength needed beyond our own perceived strength if we are ever to reach the summit.
The fourth-century mystic Gregory of Nyssa said, “The knowledge of God is a mountain steep indeed and difficult to climb.” I know first-hand that it’s a difficult climb. That much I know. How long it will take, or what kind of effort, I don’t know and can’t say. I don’t know because, like most of you, I am still climbing. And some days the ascent is treacherous and demanding, and I find myself more than a bit shaky and frightfully short of breath.
But it is worth the relentless climb; of that I am absolutely convinced. It is worth the climb.