I love to read because delving into books opens up new worlds to me. Recently I discovered a book that both intrigues me and calls up my deepest fears: Alex Honnold’s “Alone on the Wall.”
Honnold is the most extreme of extreme sport enthusiasts. He climbs impossibly high cliffs with no ropes; pulling himself up with no safety line. I’m so scared of heights that I can’t imagine rock climbing; but I certainly couldn’t stomach it without a belay.
A recent review of his book shared my concerns. The reviewer observed, “Why is it not enough to be one of the best climbers in the world? Why remove the protection? It’s as if Tom Brady declined to use pads and a helmet, or Serena Williams played a Grand Slam tournament in which the penalty for losing a set was beheading.”
What Honnold does remains amazingly hard to comprehend. Many solo climbers - that’s the phrase for those who climb without ropes - make practice attempts with ropes. Only after they have mastered the climb and memorized the holds do they attempt it without ropes. But Honnold found this approach took the joy out of the climb. So he climbs without practice runs while moving faster and more gracefully than those with ropes.
Like many sport-star memoirs, Honnold provides little insight into his motivations or understanding of what sets him apart. But as he describes his thoughts about climbing without protection, a pattern emerges: he doesn’t think much about death. I’m the opposite: I can barely climb a ladder because I can think of all the ways something can go horribly wrong. But Honnold seems uniquely oblivious to all those dangers; it's less that he mastered the skill of climbing than that he climbs without fears. Honnold can do such amazing climbs because he doesn’t worry as most of us would about death.
Alex Honnold’s amazing climbs - no ropes - are not a matter of technical skill. It’s all about his lack of fear. We often talk as if knowledge were the key to doing things; but with Honnold we see how the amazing depends on our lack of fear. It makes me wonder: what could I do if I were not afraid? What could you do if you did not have fear?
That’s the question with which we ought to read Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia. What would it mean to live without fear? The church in Galatia lived buffeted by fears, fears for safety as a religious minority and fears about God’s acceptance. More than any other letter in the New Testament, we can tell what concerned the church in Galatia. Paul founded the church and then continued on his journeys around the Mediterranean.
When he left, a new apostles arrived, “the Missionaries.” The Missionaries said the Christians in Galatia had to become Jews before they could become Christians; for men this meant undergoing circumcision, for all it meant keeping the Jewish religious laws. The message of the Missionaries was clear: unless you do this, God will not accept you.
Too often that’s the message we continue to hear in Christianity. Do this or you don’t measure up. It’s a language of shame, guilt, and fear. One of the classic American sermons by the colonial revivalist Jonathan Edwards spoke of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” And in some fashion or another that’s the same sermon preached far too often in our country.
But Paul followed a different spiritual path. He didn’t try to scare people into good behavior. Rather, Paul’s path was shaped by the absence of fear. “Since God loves us, who can condemn us?” he asked in his letter to the Romans. And in that same letter he gave us our familiar words, “What can separate us from the love of God? Nothing.”
In Galatians this played out in the two competing lists Paul offered: the works of the flesh vs. the fruit of the Spirit. I think we might better understand Paul if we rephrased works of the flesh as works of fear. For all the things he names - jealousy, anger, envy, addictions - come out of our struggles with fear.
But in hearing his list, we might have stumbled on the first work of the flesh he mentioned: fornication. Our translation makes Paul sound like just another prudish Christian delivering a “sex is bad” message as part of the shame, guilt, and fear piety. Translators did a disservice to Paul. The word our Pew Bible translates as fornication is really the Greek word “porneia,” the root of our word pornography. In Greek it meant prostitution. With all the damage we know prostitution causes, and all we know of people trapped in the sex trade for fear of violence, I’m comfortable having it on Paul’s list.
Opposite the list of the works of fear, Paul lifts up the fruit of the Spirit. It’s his attempt to describe what a life rooted in the love of God looks like. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
None of us embrace these virtues perfectly. Indeed, only showing forth love, joy, peace, patience and the rest might even be more impossible than Alex Honnold’s rock climbing stunts. Still it helps to imagine what our life could be like if we were completely free of fear.
I think the central purpose of our congregation, the ethos that underlies all that we do, is the hope of helping everyone, including ourselves, live lives shaped by love instead of fear. It’s why we sponsor so many addiction recovery groups. It’s why we support one another in times of grief and loss. It’s why we reach out to help homeless and at-risk youth. It’s why we speak up for justice and hold the hands of friends in the midst of crisis. It’s all about helping each other live amazing lives rooted in love instead of fear.
Our continuing testament reading points to why this matters. Howard Nemerov’s poem “Rope’s End” speaks to a sense of progressive, relentless unraveling.
Admitted, who can leave
Since Adam's fall
His words connect this sense of unraveling to a broad sense of human brokenness. Since Adam’s fall / unraveled all.
The Galatians felt unraveled too. Discordant, separated, frayed by the conflict within and around them. In the letter, Paul lifts up the a line that can guide them home. “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’”
It’s the same verse from the Old Testament that Jesus referenced when explaining the Greatest Commandment and the same we use in our church covenant. No matter how frayed we may feel, that golden cord remains strong and true: love your neighbor as yourself.
Normally we read this verse as, “you shall.” A command, an imperative, an order. You shall. But Paul probably read the Old Testament and heard this line differently. First, he didn’t call it a “commandment.” Instead, he used the Greek logos, or “word” or “thought.” The whole law is summed up in a single thought. Next, what we translated as you shall was not actually an imperative but rather a future indicative: you will instead of you shall. It may sound like a small difference until we think about it. Instead of a command, Paul prophesied a future. Paul wanted the Galatians to strive to this future, to commit to loving neighbors as they loved themselves.
You shall is like a pointed finger; you will! But Paul spoke with tender hope, “you will;” a father to a son, “you will do great things;” a mother to a teen, “you will survive this;” a grandparent on a wedding day, “you will be so happy together.”
If the central purpose of our congregation is to help people live lives shaped by love instead of fear, then all of it can only happen through our commitment. All that Plymouth can be depends on our commitments.
We care about many kinds of commitment as a congregation: volunteering, turning out for events, and financial support. This Sunday, Stewardship Sunday, we focus on one particular kind of commitment, asking everyone in our community to make a financial commitment. Your generosity supports the mission and ministry of our congregation.
Parker Palmer once described how our commitment becomes our work. Palmer once remembered the way farmers in the upper midwest dealt with winter blizzards. No matter how deep the snow or how harsh the storm, the farmers needed to care for and feed the cows in the barn. So the farmers would run a rope from the back door of their house to the door of the barn. Every farmer knew stories of people heading out in a storm, losing sight of home, and freezing to death in their own backyard. Farmers knew: you need a rope to guide you home through the storm.
Palmer reflected on that old tradition. He said, “Today we live in a blizzard of another sort. It swirls around us as economic injustice, ecological ruin, physical and spiritual violence, and their inevitable outcome, war. It swirls within us as fear and frenzy, greed and deceit, and indifference to the suffering of others. We all know stories of people who have wandered off into this madness and been separated from their own souls, losing their moral bearings, and even their mortal lives.”
Time was when farmers ran that rope from the house to the barn so they could always make it back home. Palmer made me wonder: who’s going to string the rope so those who’ve lost their way can come home?
If the central purpose of our congregation is to help everyone live rooted in love instead of fear, and we are committed to what Plymouth will be, then our work as a congregation is to guide people home.
This work to bring people home is expressed in our congregational goal to grow the size of our Sunday morning service. We want to bring more people into worship. Recently, our Board of Deacons were discussing this goal. “Why do we want to grow?” someone asked. I wish I had heard better answers that night. But I know why I want us to grow; I know why this work matters to me.
There are people in our community buffeted by storms or just seeking a refuge where they can be known and loved, and I want these folks to find a home. I want to lay out the rope so no matter what, they can find their way home.
Now: I believe God loves everybody. I don’t think we have to do something magical or mystical to make God love us. I think it’s already happened; God’s already fallen in love with us. Maybe it would be easier to goose up attendance if we pretended you had to come on Sunday in order for God to love you. That’s not just our way. We’re not about shame, guilt, or fear.
My belief in God’s already present love is why I want our church to grow. I know God loves people. They don’t have to come here to be loved. But I don’t want them to have to wait until they die to discover it. I think at the end, we all come to realize God’s unending love. But why wait? I want people to know now - the UWM student struggling with loneliness, the new mom figuring life out, the guy out of work, the person who just wants to figure out how to have meaning, and folks committed to making the world better. I want to gather us all together, so we can feel in the depths of our bones the expanse of God’s love.
Join me in taking on this vision, making a commitment, and doing our work as a congregation. Alleluia and Amen.