Given on 06/25/2017
Scripture: Romans 6:1b-11
A few years ago, before I had a wife, or kids, or a job, or any of the responsibilities that come with moving into adulthood, my father gave me a copy of Jon Krakauer’s book, Into Thin Air. The book is an accounting of the time Krakauer spent trying to ascend to the top of Mount Everest and the tragedy that occurred the year that he was there. And Krakauer is a great writer. He’s now written, at least 4 books that have appeared on the New York Times bestseller’s list and before that he had enjoyed a successful career as a features writer for Outside magazine. And somewhere in between Krakauer’s writing, the subject matter, and the wanderlust experienced by a junior in college with a greater sense of imagination than personal safety, I quickly became enamored with the idea of climbing Everest. Now, a couple things to keep in mind, I am completely terrified of heights. Any higher up than a standard 6 foot tall ladder and I start to get a little nervous. Sweaty palms and brow, raised heartbeat, visions of plummeting to my demise, all of it starts to play in my head and so I’m not really the best candidate to attempt a mountain that routinely flummoxes the most seasoned of climbers. Also, it costs a lot of money, like a lot, to even arrange the trip to attempt the climb. It takes months and months of preparation and both the trip and the climb are done in several stages that require traveling by everything from plane to yak and while, I suppose, it is theoretically possible for a 20 year old man with just a little bit of knowledge about the internet at that time and a lack of ability to make calls to places around the world to arrange such an adventure, this 20 year old man was not the person to attempt it. All that being said, there was a time in my life in which, at least in my head, I could see myself going on such a voyage. And even now, there is a part of me that, again, at least in my head, believes that I would overcome all my clear and apparent shortcomings for a shot at standing on the top of the world and looking down over all of it at once. All that being said, if you study the concept of climbing Everest, even a little bit, you become aware of a number of things. One, it is a journey. It takes, at a minimum, months and months of traveling by the aforementioned plane and yak, of rising in elevation and then spending time acclimating to the elevation. There are a couple of different ways that one can get there but both require travel through either Tibet, a country that China would very much like to pretend doesn’t actually exist and that lives under the threat of Chinese annihilation like all the time or Nepal, a country that is desperately poor and lives on, among other things, the milk of the, again aforementioned, yak. I should stop at this point and mention that I’m willing to bet that I’m the only preacher in the world outside of Kathmandu who has made three references to the noble yak in his sermon today. Two, it is exceedingly dangerous. Each year climbers at multiple stages of the ascent fall, pass out due to lack of oxygen, become confused and lost because of lack of oxygen, and have other health related emergencies that leave them stranded in a part of the world in which the air is too thin for helicopter blades to actually work. In fact, the only way to get an emergency medical team up to one of the first stages of the climb is to start low enough to where helicopter blades will catch the air, produce enough velocity to fling yourself at the side of a mountain, crash into the mountain and slide into the landing area. Which, if that sounds bad, getting back down is even worse. In order to fly back down the mountain, you gun the engine of the helicopter hard enough that it lifts up the helicopter just a bit at which point you face back down the mountain and use some combination of gravity and gliding to get back to a point whereby your blades will once again function properly. And if you do die, climbers all know, that wherever you stop will, in all likelihood be your final resting place. It is simply too hard and requirers far too many resources to retrieve and transport bodies back down the mountain to attempt it. When persons do perish on the mountain, they join the others in a memorial to all persons lost trying to make this most storied of summits. Third, and most importantly, you cannot do this climb alone. Between the movement of one’s gear and rations, the supplies retrieved at each stage of the climb, the network of doctors, pilots, cooks, and, of course, sherpas, the native people who, because they are always used to the level of oxygen deprivation at that high an elevation, assist westerners with hauling all their stuff up the mountain. Even Sir Edmund Hillary, who famously became the first westerner to reach the top of Everest, had a sherpa named Tenzig Norgay to carry most of his stuff and assist in his climb. To date, the number of people who have completed the the climb without the use of assistance or oxygen is small compared to the overall number. You simply cannot do this by yourself. I’ve thought a lot about this idea about of needing one another as I read over Paul’s letter to the church in Rome and especially the passage that we have for today.
In today’s scripture, Paul begins with this notion that, no doubt, would have held a lot of sway in first century Rome, at a time in which hedonism and excess were simply the order of the day for many. It is this belief that if God is a God of love and grace, as Christians claim God to be, then doesn’t it make all the sense in the world for us to sin all the more knowing that to sin means that God’s grace, God’s love will be made all the more powerful. Think of it this way, if having to forgive a few things is good, having to forgive a lot of things is even better. God’s grace is made all the more powerful with the more sin that it must cover. But Paul is quick to reject this notion. “By no means!,” he retorts. In other words, simply because one can sin does not give one license to sin. Simply because forgiveness is offered freely and without merit does not mean that this is the life to which one should aspire. For those who have truly experienced the love of God, the forgiveness that is made possible by the life, and the death, and the new life of Christ, we, too, must be led to a place in which we are also dead to sin. Indeed, death to sin, is the first and only requirement to becoming truly alive in Christ. As believers, we bit-by-bit, inch-by-inch die to self that Christ might be born and reign over our souls. That we might have, as Paul says, “newness in life.” When we become united in Christ, with Christ and with one another, we each die to all that is not Christ. We each allow that part of us that has become separated from the love of God, to whither and to die and to fall away so that in Jesus we might experience life and experience it in abundance. We each allow those parts of us that cause stress and grief and dis-ease, to pass away that, in Christ, we might gain a peace that surpasses all understanding. We each allow that part of us that is temporary, that is finite, that thinks only of ourselves and our place and status in this world to pass on that that piece of each of us that is infinite, eternal, forever might begin living for God and for one another. We each stand at the precipice of eternity, but, in Christ, we must be willing to forego that which is finite, perishable, dead in order to take that step into the infinite.
But here’s the thing, we cannot do this by ourselves. Death is hard. It is hard to envision a part of us falling away in order for Christ to be born in us anew, in order for us to experience the newness of life that is offered in Christ Jesus. We cannot do this by ourselves because even as we stand before God, even as we take our seat at the great feast of heaven, even as we experience the spirit rising up in us again and anew, we do so surrounded by the company of the faithful who have brought us to this point. We do so surrounded by our brothers and sisters in this place who, with us, grieve loss, and celebrate gain. Who walk with us when we don’t know the way and who carry us when our strength has passed away. Who dry tears and laugh hysterically. Who share in joy and mourn in sorrow. And who, more than all of that, help us walk up the mountain towards greater awareness of the spirit of God moving through the world and our lives. All the great religious traditions of the world have been founded on this idea that the chief end of religion is to move the faith towards greater and greater experiences and knowledge of God in their midst. That with each passing day and step we are to grow closer to God, to ascend one rung after the next up Jacob’s lagged, to climb higher and higher on God’s holy mountain where no one will ever hurt or kill again. From our inception to now, from our time as a rogue offshoot of Judaism, to the present, this is the gift that we have to give to the world and the great thing about it is that we can do this at anytime and in any condition. All we really have in this life, all we really have for ourselves, all that is truly ours, is our time. And in our time we can choose to reach out to the one around us who is down and out, the one who is trapped in darkness and can no longer see the light, the one whose belly growls prevent the awareness of God’s love and light to shine through, the one who has never been granted the dignity that being a human and a child of God should entail. It is our blessing and our calling to stand on the mountain and point the way, to offer food and sustenance, to offer the breath and peace of the holy spirit, to give sight to the blind, release to the captives, hope for the hopeless, and above all to be conduits for and vessels of the love of God, upon which the whole of the world has been built and founded and to which we will all one day return. And you never know, you can never really know what a singular act of kindness, a lone hand reached out into the darkness to grab another and bring her into the light, a kind word that says, “I know you feel lost, but follow me, because I have been here before and I know the way out.” You can truly never know what a single seed planted in lovingkindness will grow to become. That is the magic and the mystery of our faith. That is the hope that is kindled in each new waking moment. That is the beginning and end of life in Christ. That is love. And we are called to love one another. Now and always. Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s peoples. Alleluia, amen.