Most of you don’t know this, but I love rock climbing. I do not do it very often, and you won’t find me bivouacked to the side of a cliff face like the heroic free climbers that spent 19 days on the face of El Capitan in Yosemite. At best, I might make it to a rock wall at camp or a climbing gym every now and again.
If you have ever been rock climbing, then you probably know the call and response that starts every climb.
On belay? Belay on! Climbing. Climb on!Falling. Fall on!
To belay is to hold the rope for the climber and secure the tension that saves you if you fall. Once you’ve confirmed that your “Belay” is on duty it is then a courtesy to be sure they know that you are beginning to climb. The response of the Belay person assures you that they are really ready for you to climb. If you have the luxury of telling someone that you are falling, it means that you aren’t actually doing it yet. It’s also a way to let your Belay know that you’ve had enough, and you're ready to come down.
I love climbing because it is natural to me. I’ve always been a climber – even as a child – and I’m only here by the grace of God. Climbing is also a deeply spiritual experience for me. Maybe it’s because I am actually afraid of heights – like vertigo inducing afraid of heights – unless I am in a harness. Perhaps that is because whether I am on belay or climbing a wall I find a deep connection between physical actions and spiritual realities that I just do not experience anywhere else.
It’s even in the language of the climb. On belay? Expect God to be there. Not only in the way we call out, but in the way God calls out to us. Belay on! Answer the call of God. Be encouraged that God is with you. Climbing. Announce your actions because we act in community. Climb on! Support one another - we are not our own. Falling. Whether you make it to the top or not, you have to come down. If we never acknowledge our limitations, we can never expect God to help us overcome them. Fall on! The most sincere experience of God is found in our vulnerability, and the vulnerability we share is the path of redemption.
That’s what I believe our scriptures proclaim today. Samuel speaks of calling and responding – of listening to and receiving from the voice of God. He is guided by his mentor, Eli. And when he climbs into the presence of God he finds out that God will truly hold Eli and his sons accountable for misleading the people. The news is too terrible and Samuel feels like he is falling until Eli tells him that the Lord is indeed good. Eli knows that the abuse of power and religious rite for personal pleasure do not glorify God. Well, duh. Who doesn’t? And yet that seems to be what we do when we justify our culture through the lens of faith and when wars are fought in the name of the God of peace.
And in the midst of our fear and confusion, and even our joy and our clarity, the Psalmist reminds us that God is with us in all things. Whether we turn from God or embrace God like a long lost love – God is. God was. God will always be. And in this ever present God we are held like a climber in a harness whether we fall or rise. We come to the end, and God is there.
When we realize that God is truly with us in all of our tragedy and triumph, something just clicks into place, and life becomes more ordered and purposeful – even if only for a moment. We all have those moments that seem to define and order everything else. A child is born. A parent dies. A marriage is celebrated. A divorce is finalized. A house is bought or sold. So many life events happen in a way that seem like the world should stop and take note, or at least in a way that makes you forget that anything else is happening in the world at all.
Of course the world keeps spinning. Instead of stopping, the story changes. Our story changes, and when our story changes the whole story changes - not because of what we do or what has been done to us, but because of who God is. And because God has been revealed to us in some new way. That’s why I love the story of the call of Nathaniel.
He’s a little snippy about this Jesus from Nazareth, and Jesus respects his honesty. But when Nathaniel realizes that Jesus has seen him and knows him, he realizes that he is in the presence of God. Suddenly the narrative changes from “nothing good from Nazareth” to “my Lord!”
That’s why Jesus is so important to our story. He changes the narrative. He moves us from doubt to worship – from longing for God to experiencing God!
That’s what I have seen here, at least. Sure, I experience something deeply spiritual on a rock wall, but it is in Christian community that my story gets re-written. I saw that in our recent Session retreat. When listening to the wisdom of our Elders I realized that, over the last four and a half years, our story has changed dramatically.
Mostly it is our essential question that has changed. Sometimes it is the question we ask that defines us more than the answers we supply. Eli’s question changed from, “What do you want?” to “Speak, for your servant is listening?” Nathaniel changed from “What good thing could come from Nazareth?” to “my Lord!” Even Paul in his letter to the church in Corinth urged them to change from thinking about personal agendas and infidelities to a shared experience of God.
For our congregation, I believe the essential question has changed from “How can we keep from dying?” to “How will we give life?” Really. Our outlook continues to change from scarcity to abundance – not just in resources, but in the opportunities to serve and glorify God.
That’s what we are here for! We are called to be a life giving community. And in the coming year we are going to explore the calling to give life in new ways that we have yet to imagine. Fullness of life is found in our ability to trust in God, in the fidelity in our relationships, and in our expectation that God will move us through failure into redemption – again, and again, and again.
On belay? Belay On.Climbing. Climb On.Falling. Fall on.
Failure is a distinct possibility as we move forward, and that’s OK. We are a people defined by redemption. And to God be the glory for that. Amen.