August 7, 2016

Pentecost – Proper 14

Genesis 15: 1-6; Psalm 33: 12-22; Hebrews 11: 1-3, 8-16; Luke 12: 32-40


In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  AMEN.

About a year ago I woke up around 1 AM in Colorado, climbed out of bed, put my hiking boots on, a backpack, and a headlamp, walked out to the car, and drove to the trailhead for Long’s Peak in the Rocky Mountain National Park. I arrived at about 2:30, and started a gradual hike in the darkness, with the light of my headlamp to guide me along the forest trail.  It was cool, and quiet the way the world is early in the morning. By the time the sun rose, I was above the tree line and could gaze across the horizon for miles, looking out at other mountains, the city of Denver far below. 

As the sun rose, the winds started to pick up, and began blowing very hard. Soon the speed of the wind became so strong as make my two hundred pound body feel unstable, and it became obvious to me that I needed to turn around. Which I did – but it was hard. I swallowed my summit fever, and began walking down the trail, disappointed that I was unable to make it to the top. My feet began to hurt, which probably had something to do with the fact that my hiking boots were nearly twenty five years old. When I arrived back at the car, I took of my hiking boots, looked at my bruised feet, felt the tiredness and pain in my legs, and felt – disappointed. Something I had planned to do, and hoped I would accomplish, I was unable to do.

Last week, back in Colorado, I tried the same hike again. I woke up at 1 AM in the morning, drove to the Long’s Peak trailhead, attached my headlamp, turned it on, and began walking. By the time the sun rose, again I found myself above the tree line, gazing across the horizon before me. Beneath me was a blanket of white clouds extending as far as my eye could see, with the occasional mountain peak piercing through. It was quiet and beautiful.  Fortunately, there was no wind, and so I pressed onward from the point where I had turned back the year before. At this point the climb became physically very difficult, as I was now around 13,500 feet. If I had a nickel for every time I thought to myself “There is no way I can do this, this is stupid, I need to turn around” I would probably be a millionaire. It perhaps was not helpful for me to read the warning sign at this point on the trail which said: “this trail requires scrambling on exposed narrow ledges, loose rock, and steep slabs. A slip, trip, or fall, could be fatal.  Rescue is difficult and may take hours or days.” Not exactly a pep rally: “you’re almost there!  You can do it!”

My hike to the top of this challenging mountain became a prayer, not of words, but of steps. I found myself stopping, frequently, as I approached 14,000 feet. At each stop I would pray sometimes with a breath, sometimes with a thought, or sometimes with just another step higher. The journey became for me one of faith, a prayer each time my hand touched a rock to climb higher, each time my boot pushed upward. Finally I made it to the top of Long’s Peak, around 9 AM. You can get a really good cell phone signal there, and if you have really good eyesight, you can perceive the curvature of the earth’s horizon below. Upon the top of the mountain I felt humbled, small, and grateful.

While making the careful journey back down, careful not slip or slide on the rocks and boulders below, an older man, let’s call him sixty quickly darted from behind me and passed me down the trail.  He stopped, in front of me, and turned around and asked this question? “What time did you start your hike this morning?” he asked. “Oh, probably around 2 AM, I said.” He smiled, and the expression on his face suggested he wanted me to ask him what time he started his hike.  So I asked him, “What time did you start?” He said, with a smile, “6:15 this morning, about four hours ago. I guess we all have different paces.” I smiled, uncomfortably, and made the kind of sound you make when you are vaguely certain someone just insulted you, but you’re so high up you don’t really care, which is “whhhhh.”  The man continued to trot down the hill, like a mountain goat, and disappeared around the rocky bend. I remember thinking to myself, I just met an angel. 

“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” writes the author of the book of Hebrews. As much as I felt my journey to the top of that mountain was a journey of faith, I would argue that a more true expression of a faith journey was my first attempt, where I did not reach the top. That first attempt, the one where I failed to summit, that was more indicative of the life of faith. The author of Hebrews reminds us that Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac, died in faith without seeing with their own eyes, the fulfillment of God’s promises to them. Abraham was promised he would have as many descendants as there are grains of sand by the sea shore, and that did happen, but well after he died. Moses, chosen by God to lead the people of Israel to a new land, was forbidden by God to enter it.  

We are all promised the top of the mountain, but that doesn’t mean we are promised it in our lifetime. Faith is complicated – the results of faith do not happen when we would like, and they are not beholden to our schedules. 

I think my experience in faith is probably somewhat similar to what you have thought or experienced in your own life.  For me, I have experienced a lot of uncertainty in my life. I think I have experienced enough uncertainty, that I prefer it to being certain about anything. I view my uncertainty as a blessing, a gift. Too many people, I imagine, believe otherwise.  Much of what passes for Christianity at least in America is this absolute certainty that we are right and that God is on our side.  Is God?

So, if you are uncertain, know you are in good company, for so was Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Moses. For faith to thrive, it needs uncertainty to grow. Uncertainty is the pitre dish where all good faith grows. That’s what gives faith energy, that’s what makes it vital, that is what makes it alive. 

As a Christian priest, I admit that I am not certain of very much. Certainty doesn’t really interest me. I was never certain I could reach the top of that mountain. It was the faith; it was the uncertainty that compelled me on a prayerful journey, step by step, that ended by God’s grace, and a whole lot of Powerade, Cliff Bars and water, at the top. I surrender my certainty about God, because that is something my small, feeble mind, will never achieve.  What I have in my convoluted, imperfect amalgam of faith and uncertainty, is to me, of much more value. 

Presbyterian priest, author, and memoirist Frederick Buechner writes that our uncertainties “are the ants in the pants of our faith.” My prayer for all of us is that we see God’s beauty reflected back to us in our doubts, and in our faith. That we me know and trust God when we are permitted to the top of the mountain, and that we know God more intimately when we our path to the top is blocked. For God is in all things: certainty, uncertainty, faith, and doubt. At the beginning, and at the end. AMEN.