Sermon, August 25, 2019
“Backpackin’ with God”
Old Testament Scripture: Jeremiah 1:4-10
Now the word of the LORD came to me saying, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations."
Then I said, "Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy."
But the LORD said to me, "Do not say, 'I am only a boy'; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD."
Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, "Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant."
New Testament Scripture: Hebrews 12:18-29
You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them.
(For they could not endure the order that was given, "If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death." Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, "I tremble with fear.")
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven! At that time his voice shook the earth; but now he has promised, "Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven."
This phrase, "Yet once more," indicates the removal of what is shaken-that is, created things-so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.
Sermon: “Backpackin’ with God” Rev. David Hawkins
Around 20 years ago, I remember taking a walk with my family on top of the world.
Well, technically, it wasn't on top of the world, it was only around 12,000 feet. But, if it wasn't at the top of the world, it was darn close.
My family, that is, my parents, brother and sister, and assorted cousins and some friends had settled into a habit of hiking the Crag Crest Trail every couple of years, just to prove we could, I suppose.
The Crag Crest Trail follows the highest ridge-line on Grand Mesa, which is a very large flat top mountain near where I grew up in Western Colorado. The Mesa itself tops out at an average of around 10,000 feet, but it occasionally rises a couple of thousand feet more to provide some spectacular vistas and coincidentally, a challenging 7 mile hike.
As I said, we had done this hike a few times before, and so it was with perhaps the casualness born of familiarity that I decided that this was the year that our toddler son, Wiley, would go with us. Now, with him being not quite two years old, I wasn't expecting Wiley to hike to the top with me, but, I knew that he would enjoy the views. After all, what child doesn't enjoy the sight of a terrifying 1000 foot drop on either side of a 4 foot wide lava rock and gravel path? And what mother doesn’t like to watch her barely-able-to-walk child wandering on the edge of the cliff? It would be an adventure that we could talk about for years to come.
So, I found a backpack big enough for him to ride in, which was not an easy thing to do. He has always been a tank. It's hard to believe that he was born 4 weeks premature. And along with the backpack, I, being the manly man, also took along some essentials, like several water bottles, snacks, a poncho in case it rained, emergency diaper accessories, bug spray, a first-aid kit, and a change of clothes. You know, the normal 100 lbs of gear that a half-day walk in the mountains requires.
And so we began our hike.
The first part was OK, except for alarming signals from my lungs that there wasn't enough oxygen in the air. But, I shrugged this off, knowing that after I had walked the first couple of miles, surely I would be acclimated to the 6,000 feet difference in elevation from our home down in the Grand Valley.
And this was true, at the beginnin. The first part of the hike was a lovely meander past crystal blue lakes and pastoral meadows. If you listened carefully, you could hear Julie Andrews singing in the rustle of the trees and the songs of the larks. It proved to be a good warm-up, a loosening of the muscles, and getting the old blood a-pumping.
And then we began to climb. And climb. And climb. And climb.
Then, oh thank God, we began to descend. For a hundred yards. And then we would climb again. And climb. And climb.
This pattern continued for what seemed like many years, until we finally reached the very top of the trail. From this point, one can see the Bookcliffs stretch a hundred miles into Utah in the west; the glittering, snow-capped San Juans in the south, guarding the treasures hidden deep in the mines of Silverton and Durango. To the East were the West Elks, the old and proud gateway mountains of the Rockies, standing between us and Denver.
On a clear day, which it was, one could see places to which it would take hours to drive, laid out in front of you like a Thanksgiving dinner. It was a feast for the eyes, a view than really can only be experienced in order to imagine.
At least that's what my family told me they saw. I could only stagger around with my backpack, my eyes, filled with sweat and tears, firmly fixed on the ground before my feet, as my vision slowly turned to black, and I desperately tried the make the world stop spinning around me. There was pounding in my ears, pulsing in my stomach, and panic in my heart, and I knew that I was not long for this world.
But then, the path started to go down again, and by the time I reached the bottom, I was almost able to breathe normally, and my heart rate returned to double digits.
I realized that I had tried to carry too much baggage up the mountain. So much baggage in fact, that I couldn't enjoy the journey, and was in no condition to help my son take part in the experience. In fact, I believe that he slept the entire time.
I was carrying too much of a load, and consequently missed out on the entire reason for the trip in the first place. Yes, technically, I had completed the hike. No, I hadn't seen what I came for. Yes, I proved how wonderfully tough I could be, but, if anyone had needed help on the trip, I would have been in no position to help them. And if Wiley had been any trouble at all, which he wasn't, what a good boy, it would have been the end of me. I had no strength, nothing left to give to anybody else.
Five years later, I was getting ready to climb another mountain, this one called seminary. I remember carefully packing all my theological baggage, thinking that I needed this, and needed that, preparing to defend the 'real' faith, the original faith of the 12 disciples, the burning, zealous faith that can only be achieved through a disciplined, hard-working, tenacious, some might even say, dogmatic grip on my own personal belief system.
You see, I had heard it said that seminary should be called, 'cemetery', because that's where true faith goes to die. And, I was determined to not let that happen. I was determined to maintain my perfect, pristine, even apostolic faith all the way through seminary, regardless of what those heathen, pagan, atheistic seminary professors might try to do to me. And so, I packed my bags full: of doctrine, assumptions, laws, fear, rules for worship, rules for living, rules for everything.
And when I got to seminary, I began the steep hike up the slopes of theological exploration.
And it was difficult. At every turn I was confronted by switchbacks of new perspective, by ascents of cultural exegesis, by surprising obstacles thrown up by loving, pastoral professors, who made me read parts of the Bible I had never seen before. After a while, I felt the straps of my theological backpack digging into my shoulder blades as I climbed the cloudy path of spiritual discovery.
And slowly, I began to realize that there were some things in my backpack that I didn't need.
There were some things that I was carrying with me that I needed to take out of my pack, and set on the ground. Mind you, I was careful to remember where I put them, so I could pick it up again, if I wanted to, on the way back down the mountain.
But, there was one thing that I realized that I really needed, something that I hadn't brought with me. It was something I evidently couldn’t find room for in my backpack, with all the assumptions, rules, and expectations that I had packed. It was something that I had forgotten about in my preparations for seminary, and it had nothing to do with hard work, true faith, zealous worship, perseverance, or integrity of character.
That one thing was grace. I had forgotten to bring grace with me to seminary. And I began finding grace, growing wild on either side of the path up the mountain. Behind the trees of my poorly written essays, I would find grace. Underneath the rocks of my exams that reflected insufficient study, I would find grace. In the middle of a meadow of failure, I would find flowers of grace.
Just when I thought that I would have to give up under the gathering thunderclouds of uncertainty and doubt, a ray of graceful sunshine would fall on the path in front of me, and remind me of why I had come in the first place. Grace was in my textbooks, in my friends, and in my teachers, as they held my feet to the fire, and lovingly put me back together again after shattering insights into the mystery and incomprehensible nature of our God.
And so, I started collecting the little pieces of grace that I found. I gathered as much as I could. And surprisingly, my load grew lighter the more I gathered. The more grace I accumulated, the more I could carry.
Around the last year of seminary, I began the journey back down the mountain. And on the way, I saw some of the clutter that I had taken out of my backpack. Some of what I saw was stuff that I had inherited from my childhood, experiences of anxious, fearful theologies that had to do more with fear of punishment than with faith in promises.
Some of these things I would pick up, and I would look that them, a little wistfully, and some of them I put back in my pack. Most of it I just left on the ground. Yes, I was a theological litterbug.
I saw other stuff that reflected the culture in which I grew up, a culture preoccupied with material success, with perfection, with an overwhelming sense of guilt at the slightest hint of failure. I was more than willing to let most of that stay on the ground. But, I have to admit that over the years I've picked up some of that as well, and tried to fit it back in my pack.
When I reached the bottom of the mountain, after four years of climbing, I realized that I was still carrying a load, but it was a different load, a lighter load than the one with which I had started, and it was a load that I had chosen to carry. It was the kind of load that I felt I could re-organize, re-evaluate, and re-assess, if I needed to.
Above all, it was a load that was made bearable by the gift of grace, gravity-defying grace, liberating, freeing grace. Grace that made those other things in my pack make sense. Grace that makes the whole journey make sense.
I suppose that I was reminded of mountain climbing by today's scripture passage. The author of Hebrews is also talking about what we bring with us as we approach the mountain of God.
He describes two mountains, one, the mountain of the law, Mt. Sinai, where the commandments for the patterns of life for a people where given, in a cloud of fire and smoke.
He also describes another mountain, Mt. Zion, a mountain-top worship experience, a joyous feast, a party beyond imagination, good food, good singing, good company, and an everlasting audience with God.
And it's easy to think of these two places as being completely different from each other, incompatible, in fact. I suppose that we could, if we wanted, think of these two mountains as the Old and New testaments, Sinai and Zion, Law and Mercy, or perhaps as the difference between Jewish and Christian ways of thinking.
But I wonder if that's really true. Because the more we look at these two mountains, the more we find that perhaps they're not as different as we might want them to be.
For one thing, it's obvious that both of these mountains lead to the same God. A transcendent God, an awesome and frightening God, a God who shakes the heavens and the earth, a God of fire and law, a God of blessings and demands, a God of life and death.
We can't forget that at Sinai, the law was a gift, not a burden. It formed a people, and it reassured them that God was still with them. The gift of the law shaped their understanding of how to live with one another, and gave them hope that their ultimate destiny was not 40 years of wandering in the desert, but entry into the promised land, an eternal covenant with God. There was fear, certainly, but there was also the reality of God with them, Emmanuel, at the top of the mountain.
And at Zion, even in the midst of joyous worship, we cannot forget that there is a pointed reminder of God's consuming fire, and an exhortation to remember God's call on our lives, a call that cannot be ignored, a call that we refuse at our peril. There is worship, certainly, a festival of joy and exultation, but the worship we offer is to a mighty, fearsome God who still makes claims on his people.
To suggest that there are different Gods at the tops of these mountains denies the reality of God's power, God's love, God's justice, and God's mercy. Whether at the top of Sinai or Zion, it's the same God waiting for us.
Yet, there is a small difference between the two mountains in today's passage. The author of Hebrews draws a distinction between these mountains based on the blood on Abel, and the blood of Christ. Do we remember what Abel's blood was crying out for? Do we remember that old story?
Back in the book of Genesis, we remember that Abel's brother Cain was angry because his sacrifice was not as acceptable as Abel's was. So, he killed him. And when God came asking for Abel, Cain replied that he wasn't his brother's keeper. But God could hear Abel's blood crying out from the ground. Crying out for vengeance. Crying out for justice. And God granted it. Cain was cursed to the end of days.
The author of Hebrews compares this blood to the blood of Christ. The blood of Zion, the new covenant mediated by Jesus Christ is crying out a better word. And what is this word, this one little word that is the only difference between these two very intimidating mountains?
That little word is grace. Grace instead of revenge. Grace instead of curses. Grace instead of violence. Grace instead of death. Grace that forgives. Grace that allows for failure. Grace that reaches out to embrace, rather than rebuke. Grace that gives people time, grace that pulls the sinner close, grace that opens hearts and doors.
Abel called out for revenge. Jesus called out for grace. And that makes all the difference.
We are all climbing our own mountain to God.
It's a tough journey. We might want to think before we pack.
Do we need everything that's in our satchel? Or can we let go of some of it? Do we cling to the stuff that weighs us down, or do we trust God's promise to burn away the dross of our tarnished lives? Does the weight we carry prevent us from looking up and seeing the beauty of our Lord? Does it keep us from looking around, and helping others with their burdens?
You know, the reality is we will never be able to get rid of all our stuff. No matter who we are, Jew or Christian, Gentile, Arab, Greek, male, female, young or old, we all have stuff that we carry. Some of it we think we need, and some of it we don't. Sometimes it weighs us down so much that we think that we can't keep going. It keeps us from seeing the view, from having the energy to take joy in the journey. It keeps us from seeing that other folks are carrying the same kinds of loads.
If this is how we approach God, we become peasants, grunts, drones, carrying our self-imposed burdens up the mountain, frustrated, exhausted, and bitter. We carry the punishment for our own sins, heavy, dark, and worthless. This is the mountain we climb when our perspective is governed by the rules of a grinding and merciless religiosity.
And that's where grace comes in. Today's scripture reminds us that if we cling to God's grace, all the shaking, all the chaos, all the confusion of our lives cannot separate us in life, or in death from God.
And if we continue our climb, in courageous fear and trembling confidence, it will be God's refining fire that will burn away those things in our life that we don't need, and we will arrive at the mountain peak refreshed, whole, the authentic person that God intends us to be.
In the next couple of months, our church will be considering budgets and plans for the next year. We will be asking, "What are our priorities? What are our dreams? What resources do we have to make those dreams reality?"
These are important questions. But ultimately, these questions can only be answered if we first consider the deeper questions raised by today's scripture passage:
What is it that we really need for faith in God?
What word will our lives as a congregation call out to the world, revenge, or grace?
What are those things we can lay aside that will give us room to carry grace?
Let's shoulder our backpacks, trust in God, start climbing, and find out.
Thanks be to God. Amen.