Rock, Rope and Faith
What is the opposite of bad? Good.
What’s the opposite of dark? Light.
What’s the opposite of fear?
Now, many of you will answer courage, and I’m not saying that’s wrong. But in our scriptures, and perhaps in our lives as well, the opposite of fear is not courage, but faith.
Our readings this morning are all about fear. Abram, who has just demonstrated plenty of courage in battle, is nonetheless afraid that he and Sarah will never have children. The psalmist, surrounded by enemies and adversaries, is dealing with his fears. And Jesus, as he journeys towards Jerusalem, has every reason to be afraid as the Pharisees urge him to flee, for Herod the king wants to kill him.
What are you afraid of? We all have fears, don’t we? Fears that wrench at our gut, fears that make us avoid certain situations in life, fears that keep us awake at night, fear that we do our best to ignore. Fear is an important part of our lives, even if we don’t like to admit it. And this is a particularly challenging time – the pandemic, the war in Ukraine – it all makes for a very fearful moment in our world today.
“Do not be afraid” – it’s a phrase that is repeated often in the Bible, and it might just be the one that we need the most. But how?
In school I was taught that the opposite of fear is courage. But I think that the readings today teach us that what overcomes fear, and gives us courage, is faith.
But what is faith?
Some years ago my brother to Steve who lives in BC took us all out rock climbing while we were visiting. Steve, he’s into all sorts of outdoor adventure stuff. But me, I have a fear of heights. I’m the sort of person who hates going to the edge of a cliff and looking over. Needless to say, when Steve showed us the cliff face that we were going to climb, I had a few reservations. But I figured that if my kids could do it, I was at least going to give it a try!
The most important piece of equipment in rock climbing is the rope. The way it works is that a long rope is drawn over a fixed pulley anchored at the top of the cliff. One end is attached to a harness at the climber’s waist, and the other end is held by the climber’s partner. In the event of a fall, that rope can be the difference between life and death. And what I want to talk about this morning is the relationship between the climber and the rope, because I think it gives us a good illustration of what faith is.
The first stage of faith in the rope starts with an inspection. We lay the rope out on the ground, and check it for any nicks or frayed spots. Once we see that the rope is in good condition, we fasten it over the pulley, and make sure that it’s long enough for the cliff we’re climbing. So far so good. At this stage, I can say that I have faith in the rope: we’ve got a rope, it’s long enough, it’s a good rope, and it’s strong enough to support my weight. But this is only a very early stage of faith. If you like, it’s a faith that’s all in my head. I believe certain things, but I don’t really have any relationship with the rope yet. Let’s call this stage one of faith: knowledge-based faith, the belief in certain facts about the rope.
Stage two starts when I clip that rope to my waist and start climbing the cliff. I’m climbing on my own, I’m supporting my own weight but the rope is there “just in case”. I know that if I fall, the rope will support me and keep me from crashing to the ground. I wouldn’t climb without the rope, but if all goes well and I don’t make any mistakes, I don’t need to use the rope to get to the top of the cliff. This second stage of faith is “just in case” faith. The rope is kind of like an insurance policy. In this stage I start to have more of a relationship with the rope, but it’s a relationship that I’ll really only use if I get into trouble.
Stage three happens when I get to the top of the cliff and need to come back down. In order to rappel down the cliff face, my hands, which have been clinging to the rock wall for dear life, need to let go of the rock and I need to lean back, away from the cliff into the air, allowing the rope to support my weight and my hips to drop into a sitting position with my feet still pressed against the rock. It’s at this point that you really experience the tension between fear and faith.
A lot of people who were on the cliff had troubles at this point. Fear makes you want to continue to cling to the rock. Letting go and leaning back means you really have to trust the rope, since now it’s the only thing that keeps you from falling. The faith in the rope at this crucial moment is no longer just about knowledge, and it’s no longer a ‘just in case’ kind of thing. This third stage of faith is an existential faith; it’s an active, life or death relationship. It’s a faith in action which allows you to overcome your fear and gives you the freedom to finish what you began and lower yourself back down to the bottom of the cliff.
So when I tell you that it’s faith that overcomes fear, I don’t mean knowledge-based faith, which is the belief in certain facts about the rope, or “just in case” faith, which is knowing the rope is there as an insurance policy. What I mean is the third stage of faith, faith as an existential relationship which is alive, active and engages all of your being.
The readings today give us glimpses of three individuals living their lives in that tension between fear and faith.
Abraham is the model of faith in the Old Testament. He’s the one who left everything behind to travel to a new land in response to God’s call. In our reading today however, we hear that Abraham is afraid, afraid that he will never have a child. In the ancient world, not having a child was understood to mean that nothing of Abraham would continue after his death, and therefore God’s promise to Abraham that he would make him a great nation could never come true. But God reassures Abraham that he will have a child, and that his descendants will be as many as the stars. Abraham believes God. And in the midst of a deep and terrifying darkness, that promise and the relationship between God and Abraham is given concrete expression when God makes a covenant with Abraham. Abraham’s faith, his trust in God which is grounded in that covenant relationship, enables him to overcome his fear.
In our psalm this morning we hear that the psalmist, David perhaps, is in big trouble. Evildoers assail him. Armies surround him. False witnesses rise against him. But David is able to overcome his fear like Abraham by trusting in his relationship with God. God is the one who will be as a father and mother to David. “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid?” David’s faith is a living, dynamic relationship with God which enables him to overcome his fear.
And in our gospel today, Luke paints a very human picture of Jesus as one who also lives in that tension between fear and faith. In the days leading up to today’s gospel, Jesus has told his disciples what stress he is under and has lamented that his message and mission is dividing households and setting relatives one against the other. In today’s text he is told that it’s time to run, because Herod, who has recently beheaded John the Baptist, now wants to kill Jesus. Jesus laments that the very people that he wishes to protect are those who will soon call for his death in Jerusalem. He has every reason to be afraid. And yet, he shows nothing but contempt for the threat posed by Herod, and resolves to continue with his God-given mission, to heal and to cast out demons and to continue on to Jerusalem, despite knowing that when he arrives there, the authorities will surely put him to death.
And though our situation may not be as dire, we too live in the tension between fear and faith. What are we afraid of? We’re afraid that harm might come to our loved ones. We’re afraid of being hurt by others. We’re afraid of death. We’re afraid of the unknown, we’re afraid of being wrong, we’re afraid of losing control, we’re afraid that the world is falling apart . . . The list goes on.
How do we normally respond? Sometimes we feel paralyzed and don’t seem able to respond at all. Often we ignore or suppress our fears. Other times we withdraw. Sometimes we build walls to protect ourselves. Often we grab on even tighter to the rock wall in front of us.
But surely the courage that Jesus displays in today’s gospel was only possible because of his faith, by which I mean faith as an existential relationship with God, a relationship that is alive, active and engages all of your being.
We too need to respond to our fears with faith, a faith that is a living, dynamic, trusting, relationship with God.
Sometimes we need to let go of our grip on the cliff, lean back into mid-air, and let our relationship with God bear our weight and get us back on our feet.
Homily Yr C Lent 2. March 13 2022. Trinity
Readings: Gen 15.1-12,17-18; Ps 27; Philippians 3.17-4.1; Luke 13.31-35
Image by Ruth Hartnup