Up to the Mountain
Exodus 24:12-18, Matthew 17:1-9 and Excerpts from The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
Gracious God, Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.- Psalm 19:14
Last Sunday we heard from Mara Rose and Farmer Fern about the vision of Boundless Landscapes, the organization that turned a large patch of our lawn and the lawns of some of our neighbors into a beautiful garden that produced food that was harvested and sold by local teens. We are joyfully entering our second year with this collaboration and we can safely say that this experiment has worked. In a time when so much of our food comes from thousands of miles away, creating not only a large carbon footprint, but a disconnect from nature, lifecycles and gardening, the vision of Boundless Landscapes is huge, seeking to inspire a movement in this neighborhood, throughout Boulder County and beyond to produce food here that stays here. It has already been a huge success- engaging young people in the important work of regenerating the soil, feeding the hungry, and being a part of a building a network of local sustainable agriculture.
When the church was first approached about the idea of turning a portion of our property into a large garden, many of us were skeptical. A lawn, while not exactly an environmentally friendly form of landscaping, is safe, predictable and obvious how to maintain. Having a lawn is basically an uncomplicated relationship. But a garden…
For months, it wasn’t clear if this project would actually happen. Not all of us could agree on whether to move ahead. Who could really pull this off? We didn’t want to be a guinea pig. We didn’t want an ugly fence. We didn’t want to create a neighborhood fight over a big new ambitious adventure...that truly just might not work. We imagined the worst case scenarios together. We anticipated all that could unravel… We were afraid of things going terribly wrong. The truth is that we didn’t want to fail. Especially not publicly, on bold display.
I suspect it is a deep human impulse to want to avoid failing. Especially in Western culture, what is most often rewarded is getting it right. So we avoid some relationships and adventures, we steer clear of certain things simply out of fear of getting it wrong. And yet there is another truth, maybe one that is present in these mountain top stories that we heard this morning and one that is also found in the Alchemist, a book that follows the journey of an Andalusian shepherd boy named Santiago. Paulo Coelho writes, “There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.”
It was in seminary when a worship professor posed this question to a classroom filled with those of us training to be spiritual leaders, “What would you do, if you knew you would succeed?” Or put another way, “What would you do, if you knew you wouldn’t fail?” I have often returned to this question, placing it before me in various situations. At this point in life, I certainly feel regret not about things I did, but about things I didn’t do, things I didn’t try, didn’t say, people I didn’t see.
It was fear- fear of failing, or being let down or being hurt, fear of a variety of conceived possible ways things could go wrong that stopped me.
And for me, the converse is also true, the most beautiful and life changing experiences I have had were all about the things I did try, the things I did say, the people I did see, the adventures I did embark upon, not when I waited until the fear was gone, but rather when I was okay with not knowing for sure where I would end up…
What if mountain tops can only be reached when we are willing to climb with uncertainty? With fear?
This morning we heard two mountain top stories from our sacred texts. Poetically and theologically the author or authors of the book Matthew want the listeners in the Jesus movement to feel the connection to the stories and traditions of the Jewish people. You have heard this story, now hear another chapter… The similarities are striking.
In the book of Exodus, we hear, “The LORD said to Moses, "Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction." In this story, Moses is under the oppressive rule of Pharaoh and he brings companions up a mountain and there are clouds. Four times we read of the presence of a cloud.
And in the book of Matthew we read, “Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.”
In this story, Jesus is under the oppressive rule of Herod and he brings companions up a mountain and there are clouds. Here we read that “suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud” the Divine speaks.
What if mountains can only be climbed when we are willing to go through the clouds?
Not around them. Not waiting until they are clear and the path is more certain.
Because for Moses, after the clouds, comes the fire and the law.
And for Jesus after he burns hot and bright and then “he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white,” then a cloud comes and a blessing rains from the Holy.
Here’s the other thing I notice about these mountain top stories: no one climbs alone. Moses goes with Joshua and Jesus goes with Peter, James and John.
So what if the important mountains can only be climbed with a crew?
Because it wasn’t as if fear was no longer a part of their experience. In fact we read that after all of this Jesus’ friends “fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.”
So perhaps this means fear might always be along for the journey. And yet we have to keep getting up, keep going, keep following the lure of God beyond comfort. Once again from Paulo Coelho, “The secret of life, though, is to fall seven times and to get up eight times.”
That is basically what Jesus says when he offers what feels to me like a cool response to his fearful friends, “Get up and do not be afraid."
For months, it wasn’t clear if this Boundless Landscapes garden project on our site would actually happen… But then we realized that failing would basically just mean turning the rectangle back into a lawn or something else. And if it didn’t work, at least we would be failing at something worthwhile, a garden to save our planet and feed our kids. Whatever struggle might come would be small and we just might learn something and fail our way to something cool.
Paulo Coelho again, “Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second's encounter with God and with eternity.” Sometimes the fear is worse than the falling or failing.
But the garden didn’t fail… We researched, formed a Green Team, created neighborhood alliances- embarking on the experiment, the search itself was something good. It is showing us that we have what is needed to climb mountains with clouds! It is showing us that we can venture beyond what is safe, predictable and uncomplicated. We are learning what it feels like to keep going even when fear is along for the ride. And we are learning that important mountains can only be climbed with a crew.
Gerhard E Frost wrote, “The reason mountain climbers are tied together is to keep the sane ones from going home.” What does it take to get to the top of the mountain?
A willingness to be tied together, to be hitched to the ones with the biggest dreams, to have an encounter with God’s vision for our world, as we dare to climb through clouds of uncertainties and impossibilities, not around them, not waiting until they are clear and the path is more certain. We climb willing to take risks for our conscience and our call, refusing to let our fears prevent us from continuing on, getting up again and again and again and doing it together. After all, we don’t have to move mountains, but I do believe we are called to climb them, all the way up, up to the top. May it be so.