Someone is running for their lives. A mountain lion is chasing them. (Now, I need to mention that running is not the right thing to do if you encounter a cougar … but too late, here we are in the story.) The person is running and the lion is chasing, and they come upon the edge of a rocky cliff. The human, being the more ape-like of the two, manages to get the advantage by quickly lowering themselves and start climbing down the rock face.
The person looks down and there’s a ledge not too far below that looks like it’s a path. But just then another mountain lion comes down that path and stops right under them, as they just hang on for dear life. So they look down and see that mountain lion looking back up, panting for blood. And they look up and see the first lion peering over the edge at them, salivating so much it’s just dripping over her fangs.
They look up, there’s a lion above. They look down, there’s a lion below.
Then they look to the side along the cliff face and they notice that right out of the sheer rock a flower has managed to root in and is growing out into the air. Its blossom is this blue, this lightning blue that just dazzles in the sun.
There you have it. That’s the story. It’s a Buddhist story, so it’s something you gotta sit with. In the original, I should say, there’re tigers rather than mountain lions – I adapted it to fit our neck of the woods. (Maybe it’s smart to run from a tiger, but I doubt it.)
So now here’s a Jewish story: A young man named Jacob is out in the desert fleeing for his life. His twin brother Esau is set on killing him, because Jacob is the younger of the twins and he has tricked their father – well, actually their mother coached Jacob into tricking their father – into giving Jacob his blessing and thus his inheritance as the first born.
That was Esau’s birthright – and Jacob stole it. So Esau is after him. And if he can’t end his life, he will at least be sure he never comes back home to collect on this inheritance. That means Jacob has to get out of there and set out on his own, away from his family, toward an uncertain future.
So out in the desert, he finds a safe place to rest. He lays his head on a rock. Then the most astonishing thing happens.
It’s like the northern lights unfold before him into this stairway spiraling up. There are these angelic forms flowing up this way into heaven, and then returning to earth like falling feathers.
Jacob opens like a flower before this splendor. And he receives a message:
All will be well. He will survive and have a family.
Then Jacob receives a glimpse beyond the horizon of his life and he sees his descendants rippling out, generation after generation, surviving and thriving and flourishing across the earth.
So that’s a Jewish story. A now a Christian story.
John the Baptist was this beloved person in Jesus’ life, the person who baptized Jesus, some say he was like Jesus’ Obi Wan Kanobi – he was his spiritual mentor – he was the first to recognize that here with Jesus was an extraordinary gift from God. John probably helped Jesus prepare for his ministry, which then culminated in John baptizing him. And from that point forward, when Jesus was in the fullness of his power, John was a kind of ally, a fellow worker, with Jesus in this coming Realm of Heaven work …
John the Baptist suffers execution. Gruesome, humiliating … John had confronted the king for being a hypocrite and a scoundrel, and the king had his head cut off.
When Jesus gets this news, you can only imagine how it hits him. Not only has this dear spiritual mentor, his elder died in this way, but it’s also a foreboding sign for what is in Jesus’ future, as he continues on this Realm of Heaven work.
What Jesus does next, after he gets the news, is get into a boat and go out alone, to pray.
The Gospels tell us that Jesus often did this – in the midst of stormy times he’d go off to “a desolate place.” Alone. To commune with the Holy One.
Then he comes back to meet with the multitude of people and continues to heal people who need healing.
These three stories – this story about Jesus going off into a boat alone after he gets the news about John the Baptist, the story about Jacob fleeing into the desert and laying down and having a vision, the story about the person who is stuck between two predators who looks over to behold an impossible blossom – these are all ways of showing that sometimes all we can do, all we should do, is just stop.
Stop. Lay down in the grass. And watch the clouds pass.
Listen to the wind going across the fields and through the trees.
And then the way will show itself.
I pray that this Sabbath time can be like that. Whatever frenzy of anxiety and fear has caught us up, whatever strife, whatever desperation, whatever appetite has taken hold of us and clenched down and constricted us, I pray that this Sabbath time is a way of to just stop. And breathe together. And pray together these old good words that are like river stones. Sing together these hymns that swing like trusty old tools that have that right heft and balance, have been well cared for, where the handle is warn to be snug in the hands. And then we can set down those tunes, those tools, and settle into silence, when we can ease open to some exquisite beauty that moves beyond ourselves, that breathes in rhythms much slower and bigger and deeper than our lives and the troubles of our age.
Then the way will show itself. Then the vision will come. Then the power will arrive for us to go out and do the work of God-rooted people, come what may.
(Delivered July 23, 2017 at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)
Image: Twilight at Ushibori, by Kawase Hasui, 1930
Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran.
He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Holy I Am Beyond Name stood beside him and said,
“I am the Holy I Am Beyond Name, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.
Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Holy I Am Beyond Name is in this place–and I did not know it!”
And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel (“House of God”).
Despite Jesus’ instructions to tell no one about his healing, now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad. Many crowds would gather to hear Jesus and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.
Now when Jesus heard about the death of John the Baptist, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd. He had compassion for them and cured their sick.