The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
June 27, 2021
Ben Patterson and three friends were climbing a 13,000’ peak near Yosemite, Mt. Lyell. Two of them were veteran mountaineers; Ben and another, novices. At one point, they were laboring up a steep glacier, and the veterans got well ahead of the novices. To “show” them, Ben looked for a short cut by which he might beat them to the top. He thought he saw one by a rock outcropping off to the right – and aimed for it, deaf to the protests of his companion. Thirty minutes later, Ben was stuck in a cul-de-sac of stone, unable to go back or ahead, at the edge of a 300’ 45˚ slide of slick ice. Security lay two yards away; but he couldn’t figure out how to get to it.
An hour later, one of the mountaineers finally found Ben, now in utter panic. The friend stood on the rock Ben needed to reach, leaned out over the ledge and, using an ice axe, chipped into the smooth-as-glass ice two footholds. He then told Ben to swing over one foot into the first one and immediately the other foot into the next one, while raising his right hand so the friend could grab it and pull him to safety. Every part of these instructions terrified Ben, but what nearly petrified him was his friend’s adding, “As you step out, don’t lean toward the mountain. In fact, lean out away from it, lest your feet slip out from under you and you drop to your death.”
Ben later said, “On the edge of that cliff, my every instinct was to lie down and hug the mountain, not lean away from it. But my good and knowledgeable friend was telling me how to proceed, and I had faith in him. So I chose to say No to my feelings, take the risk of trust and lean away from the safety of hugging the mountain. In two seconds my faith was proven well founded.”
There’s both foolhardy and wise risk-taking. The former is based on ego and leads to disaster. The latter is based on trust and love, and leads to reward.
One day a man who had a lot to lose took a risk on Jesus. Jairus was a leader of the synagogue, a prestigious position whose occupants were highly esteemed. In reaching out to Jesus, Jairus jeopardized his social standing. After all, Jesus was a controversial figure and viewed by many as evil. Jairus further endangered his reputation by asking Jesus for a favor in a very undignified way! He fell at His feet and “begged” Him “repeatedly” for help!
What moved Jairus to take that risk was his love for his 12-year-old daughter, on the brink of death.
As Jairus and Jesus set off together, someone at the other end of social rank took a great risk as well, a woman who hadn’t stopped menstruating for 12 years. Because her bleeding kept her, and anyone who came into contact with her, from attending religious services, she was ostracized and made as much of an outcaste as any leper. But she played a long shot on Jesus and sought to fulfill a hope she loved. Keeping a low profile to stay unnoticed, she slipped into the crowd, snuck behind Jesus and touched the hem of His coat in the faith that His power might pass through her fingertips to heal her. It was a dangerous “hail Mary pass” for, if she were found out, her neighbors would hate her for infecting and disqualifying them from attending worship. Just as Jairus had taken a big gamble to pursue a big dream for a daughter he loved, she was taking a big gamble to pursue a big dream for a miraculous possibility she loved. And both risk-takers received great reward!
We value staying safe too much. It matters less than fixing systems of justice, improving the lives of folks and following Jesus in the way of self-sacrificial love.
Once in a TED talk, psychologist Susan David lamented how we over-privilege our desire for comfort and over-prioritize our avoidance of risk and its stress. She said that, when people speak to her about wanting to evade risk and stress, she replies, “You have the goals of a dead person! Only dead people never get stressed, never get broken-hearted, never experience the disappointment that comes with failure. Tough emotions are part of our contract with life. You don’t get to have a meaningful career or raise a family or leave the world a better place without risk. Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.”
As the followers of Jesus, as people of purpose, as servants of bigger goals than keeping ourselves safe, we of all folks ought to get this. We who believe we have everything in Jesus ought to be those with the lowest aversion to risk. We who love people and God’s beautiful dreams for them ought to be the first to put everything on the line to bring them grace, justice and hope, and to do whatever it takes to see families healed, communities uplifted, and neighbors empowered to fulfill their destiny.
We’d do well to remember that Jesus said, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” We’d do well to embrace a life of wise risk-taking, refusing to hug our mountains and leaning out into possible disaster for the sake of impossibly big rewards!
Let us then lean out as we reach out. Let us learn to do church anew by trial and error experimentation, celebrating our failures as steps by which to close in on how best to achieve God’s purposes.