Parker Palmer is someone who often writes about life changes and how to navigate them with faith. In college, his book, “Let your Life Speak” became required reading for all students as they thought about what vocation was calling their name. And in his book, The Active Life, he writes about a moment of insight and transformation in his own life:
I took the course in my early fourties, and in the middle of that course I was asked to confront the thing I had fears about since I had first heard about Outward Bound: a gossamer strand was hooked to a harness around my body, I was backed up to the top of a 110-foot cliff, and I was told to lean out over God’s own emptiness and walk down the face of that cliff to the ground eleven stories below.
I remember the cliff all too well. It started wit ha five-foot drop onto a small ledge, then a ten-foot drop to another ledge, then a third and final drop all the way down. I tried to negotiate the first drop; but my feet instantly went out from under me, and I fell heavily to the first ledge. “I don’t think you have it quite yet,” the instructor observed astutely. “You are leaning too close to the rock face. You need to lean much farther back so your feet with grip the wall.” That advice went against my every instinct. Surely one should hug the wall, not lean out over the void! But on the second drop I tried to lean back; better, but not far enough, and I hit the second ledge with a thud not unlike the first. “You still don’t have it,” said the ever-observant instructor. “Try again.”
Since my next try would be the last one, her counsel was not especially comforting. But try I did, and much to my amazement I found myself moving slowly down the rock wall. Step-by-step I made my way with growing confidence until, about halfway down, I suddenly realized that I was heading toward a very large hole in the rock, and- not knowing anything better to do – I froze. The instructor waited a small eternity for me to thaw out, and when she realized I was showing no signs of life she yelled up, “Is anything wrong, Parker?” as if she needed to ask. To this day I do not know the source of my childlike voice that came up from within me, but my response is a matter of public record. I said, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
The instructor yelled back, “Then I think it’s time you learned the Outward Bound Motto.” Wonderful, I thought. I am about to die, and she is feeding me a pithy saying. But then she spoke words I have never forgotten, words so true that they empowered me to negotiate the rest of that cliff without incident: “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.” Bone-deep I knew that there was no way out of this situation except to go deeper into it, and with that knowledge my feet began to move.
No matter how old we are, or experienced we are, or how familiar with the world we may be, there is a moment in each of our lives when something shifts – when we begin to see things in a whole new and transformed way. A moment where we let go of our fears and our old way of seeing things and suddenly the whole world opens up.
In many ways I had one of those moments at Annual Conference this year. For the most part, it was your regular old, run of the mill conference. We debated issues and voted on little keypads, we worshipped together and got to spend time with colleagues. But there were a few moments – here and there – where my world got turned upside down by the turn of a phrase or by a challenge issued forth from the pulpit or lectern, or a passage in the book that I took along with me.
After worship today, if you are able to stick around for our Administrative Board meeting, I’m going to be sharing a few of those challenges with the congregation. But for this morning – in light of our scripture readings I want to focus on just one… something that Bishop Trimble said from the pulpit…
“I don’t want you to tell me what’s impossible.”
Bishop Trimble was asking all of us to take a leap of faith, to take a risk and to step out on behalf of the God that we worship and to stop saying the word can’t. Things like…. We can’t start a ministry with the local Hispanic community because none of us know Spanish… He doesn’t want to hear it. We can’t grow our church because we live in a dying and aging county… He doesn’t want to hear it. We can’t be renewed and revitalized and transformed because we are a church that is already here and doing what we are supposed to be doing… He doesn’t want to hear it.
That last one is actually my own take on our Nicodemus story from this morning. In John’s gospel, this religious leader seeks Jesus out in the middle of the night to ask him some questions. He’s curious. He probably believes in many ways that Jesus – the young upstart that he is – has something to teach him. He’s willing to listen. But when Jesus starts talking metaphorically about being born again, suddenly this inquisitive Pharisee puts on his jaded glasses of disbelief and doubt.
What on earth are you talking about? You can’t be born again after you have grown old already? What, am I going to crawl back into my mother’s womb?
And Jesus looks him square in the eye – Don’t tell me what’s impossible.. Yes, you HAVE to be born of water and the Spirit to enter the Kingdom of God. You have to be reborn, replenished, revived by God’s grace… you have to accept the gift of life that I am offering you. All you have to do is say yes… and it’s yours. Don’t tell me what’s impossible.
Judith McDaniel suggests that this passage in John is as much about our ruts of disbelief and doubt as they are about those of Nicodemus. “we collect pennies from heaven when what is being offered is unimagined wealth… the very kingdom of God,” she writes. “Jesus is telling Nicodemus, and us, that God’s kingdom is here. The kingdom of God is not some far-off goal to be attained, for there is nothing we can do to attain it. The kingdom is present now, as a gift from God. Only God can gift us, can beget us as a totally new being in a new world.”
In other words, just take off those jaded glasses of disbelief and doubt and try these ones on for size. These Christ-colored glasses of truth and reality will open you up to the radical transforming power of God’s Spirit and I promise you… everything will be seen in a new light.
“In fact,” Emmanuel Larety writes, “to be in tune with God’s reign and presence we all need a transformative overhaul of our traditional ways of seeing and being… knowing and experiencing the world… [and] when this happens, it is as if we have begun life all over again.” (46, B-4)
As I think about what is happening in this congregation, I absolutely see signs of rebirth and awakening. And you know what the first clue was for me… Not once has someone said to me… We can’t. Not once has any committee or group or person said that we couldn’t do something – that it was impossible.
But I think that transformed way of seeing started long before I ever got here. I think that the summer before I arrived, when you were seriously contemplating with one another what the future of this church would be, you found yourselves on the side of the cliff with Parker Palmer. You were stuck dangling there by a thread, not being able to go back to the way things were before… perhaps not even wanting to, but also not quite knowing the steps to take next. And that motto from Upward Bound comes to my mind… “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.”
And so you dug your heels into it and took the leap of faith and were willing to find some way to move around on that cliff. That step of trust happened long before I got here, and in many ways, it is that transformation in the way you see and experience the world that has allowed me to do what I need to do.
So we definitely are on track for the first part of the Bishop’s challenge… and for responding to Jesus plea with us and Nicodemus from our gospel reading today. We are open to the possibility of transformation, of being made into something different. We are ready to say – Yes, Lord… Melt us, Mold us, Fill us, Use us… just send your Spirit upon us!
I think we are ready to see ourselves in a new light… but this morning, I want to extend that call just one step farther… I want to challenge us to look at the world and its people in this new light too.
That’s the challenge presented to us in our letter to the Corinthians this morning. Paul is begging his brothers and sisters not just to see themselves as transformed, but to see everything in a whole new way… For the love of Christ, Paul writes, urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them… From now one, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view… if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!
What Paul is saying is that if you are in Christ, if you are wearing your Christ-colored glasses, the whole world and everyone who is in it is transformed before your eyes. As John Stendahl puts it, if we see in the imagination of our hearts, ourselves, our foes, and this old world all thus transfigured by the death of Christ, will we not deal differently with each? (138, B-4)
If we are going to be transformed… if we are going to be the living Body of Christ in this community… then we have to see everything differently. We need to see that cliff we are on not as a challenge, but as an opportunity. We need to dig in our heels and dive in deep to this part of the world that we find ourselves.
This past week, we had a horrible tragedy in our community. In fact, as we were driving home from Annual Conference late on Sunday afternoon, we drove right by the house on L Avenue where the unspeakable happened. And I got to thinking about the theme of our whole conference – radical hospitality – and what it means to invite and welcome people into our midst.
As your pastor, I knew that there were people hurting in this community following this tragedy. I knew that there were people feeling forsaken who needed to be surrounded in prayer. I knew that we were lost in how to respond. And so I set up a space for prayer here in the building. And I contacted a few of the people I knew who had been personally affected and let them know about it.
I had no idea if anyone would show up. I had no idea what I could possibly say or offer – except I knew that Christ was here.
I’m not sure that anyone physically showed up. But I know people were affected by the fact that such a place even existed – that there was a place – whether they decided to come or not – where they could go. A place where people who were lost and hurting would be welcomed with open arms.
That is after all, how we started this worship service… with a cry to gather us in.
Here in this place, new light is streaming
now is the darkness vanished away,
see, in this space, our fears and our dreamings,
brought here to you in the light of this day.
Gather us in the lost and forsaken
gather us in the blind and the lame;
call to us now, and we shall awaken
we shall arise at the sound of our name.