September 7, 2014
Pam Nash, a Mennonite Central Committee worker and activist from New Orleans, recently traveled to Ferguson, MO. She wrote a piece published in on the Mennonite Church USA website this week about how the people in Ferguson who wished to protest lawfully had to park a full mile away from the “approved assembly area” and hike in. How peaceful assemblies are being broken up. How Ferguson residents have been assaulted with rubber bullets and tear gas. She paints a dismal scene of violence and oppression and deep frustration and unrest.
But then she writes: “I saw good news in Ferguson. I encountered the Spirit of Truth and Love and Hope there. . . . I heard the whispers of a new world, stirrings of the promise of Hebrews 12:27, that things will be shaken up so that ‘what cannot be shaken may remain.'”
So that “what cannot be shaken may remain.” From Hebrews 12:27.
Now I don’t know how many times I have read the book of Hebrews. I do know that I read it all the way through just a couple of weeks ago in preparation for these sermons. And I had never noticed those words before: “what cannot be shaken may remain.” So I looked it up. And I don’t think I had ever noticed any of this beautiful passage from Hebrews 12:
You have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God . . . we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful . . .
Just lovely. And then I noticed the section heading. Now generally, I find the section headings in Bibles less than helpful. They are somewhat arbitrary labels that artificially divide what was intended to be a cohesive text. But in this case, the section heading provided interesting theological commentary on the contrast being made here by the writer of Hebrews: “The Mountain of Fear and the Mountain of Joy.”
That heading stopped me in my tracks. Because . . . wow . . . are we ever living on a mountain of fear.
Michael Brown has been in the news lately. And we’ve also read about John Crawford, Ezell Ford, Eric Garner–all unarmed; all black; all killed by police. And we’ve heard story after story of “investigative stops”–people of color disproportionately stopped by police “just because.” This all comes, ultimately, from a place of fear–particularly police and white people’s fear of black men; this all leads to an oppressive fear of the police within the black community. It’s a cycle of racial fear and violence.
And, of course, problems with gun violence aren’t limited to police misconduct. The gun culture in this country is out-of-control. People insist on their “right” to have any and every kind of firearm–and to take those arms, loaded, into any and every public place. (Of course, everyone exercising this right seems to be white, because a black man with a loaded weapon is viewed as a thug who is asking to be shot.) Maybe you’ve seen the picture of a guy at the store with his baby strapped to him in a little baby carrier and a machine gun slung over his shoulder. Or maybe you read about the 9-year-old girl who accidentally shot and killed the man who was teaching her to shoot an uzi. I’m not sure what exactly people are scared of, but I know they are scared. Crazy scared. Way up high on that mountain of fear where the air is too thin to think straight.
And speaking of not thinking straight, KU has been in the news this week because the university sentenced a self-confessed rapist to probation, removal from campus housing, and a four-page paper. In the meantime, the young woman suffers panic attacks whenever she sees this young man on campus. The University prefers to refer to the incident as “non-consensual sex.” Because, yes, “rape” is a scary word. It’s scary for universities worried about lawsuits and enrollment and rankings.
It’s terrifying for young women who live in such fear of rape that someone has invented a special nail polish that changes colors when it comes in contact with the “date rape drug.” So you just have to stick your fingertip in your drink to see if someone is intending to knock you out and assault you. And for those who do suffer assault, there is fear in reporting the incident– fear that she won’t be taken seriously; fear that her character will be attacked. Fears that are well-founded considering the outcome of the KU case and the fact that the guilty man’s lawyer argued that the woman wanted to have sex with his client because she had taken a birth control pill that day.
And then there is a different kind of fear around sexuality. The fear that some conservatives have of what will happen to the broader Mennonite church if pastors are allowed to officiate same-sex weddings; if gay people are allowed to serve as pastors. I don’t understand the reasons for the fear, but I know the fear is there. The fear I do understand is that of gay and lesbian youth in the church who are afraid of being rejected by their faith family–sometimes their biological family as well. A friend who works as a high school counselor told me recently about a young woman who carried a lot of fear when she went before her church. She wanted to be baptized. And she was gay. She didn’t know if her church would think she was “OK.”
The mountain of fear. I think we have all spent time there. More time than we like to admit. Perhaps it feels like we are there now–skirting around the base or even getting up into that thin air territory. That part of the mountain where my uncles would look at me and say, “Joanna, see that bush? It’s the last one we’ll see for a long while. We’ll just walk up ahead a little ways and you can . . . ” Some of us are close to the tree line. Feels like the air is getting a little thin.
We fear the types of violence we see on the news every day. We fear losing the life we have built–or not being able to build the life we want. We fear for ourselves and for our loved ones: our vulnerable children, our aging parents, our partners, our friends.
“The Mountain of Fear and the Mountain of Joy.” That’s what some Biblical editor decided to call this section of Hebrews. And wow . . . how I would love to spend less time on the Mountain of Fear and more on the Mountain of Joy.
The actual mountains being compared here are Sinai and Zion. Sinai is the mountain on which Moses received the ten commandments. It is an old-school holy mountain–smoke and a booming voice and the threat of death for any unrighteous who would dare to get too close. Sinai represents, for the writer of Hebrews, an outdated understanding of God as frightening and unapproachable.
Zion, on the other hand, is the Mountain of Joy. Where Sinai has fire and darkness and gloom and storm, Zion has thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly. Where Sinai represents the old covenant that God made with the Hebrew people, Zion represents the new covenant God has made with all people through Jesus.
Sinai and Zion. The Mountain of Fear and the Mountain of Joy.
We should note that the writer of Hebrews does not tell us to choose Zion over Sinai. The writer does not offer a path for us to get from Sinai to Zion. This is not an admonition or a how-to manual. This is a statement of reality: “You have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God.” The heavenly Jerusalem with the thousands upon thousands of angels–we’re already there. On the Mountain of Joy. That’s what Hebrews says.
We’re already there. But what does that mean? Does that mean we are always happy? Does it mean that the prosperity preachers are right–that the people who are most faithful will be rewarded with nice houses and boats and clean bills of health? Does being on the Mountain of Joy mean that, as mega-church pastor Victoria Osteen recently suggested, we should just try to make ourselves happy because that is what makes God happy?
Thankfully, there are a lot of good critiques of this prosperity gospel floating around out there right now–partly in response to Victoria Osteen’s sermon. One of the best lines I read said, “If our message cannot be preached with credibility in Mosul, it should not be preached in Houston.” It is a partial and weak faith that ignores suffering in the world; that views personal happiness as the end-goal of a faithful life.
This version of faith leads us to be, in Vincent Harding’s words, “missionaries of law and order, defenders of a status quo, and seekers for peace without a cross.”
Seekers for peace without a cross. Ouch. As Christians, we accept that the cross is real. that suffering exists. The truth is that when we try to ignore the fear–the racism, the militarism, the sexism, the hetero-sexism–we simply become part of the system that perpetuates the fear. We rest in our white and/or middle-class and/or male and/or straight privilege at the expense of those who are oppressed.
The Mountain of Joy presented here in Hebrews is not a place to pursue our own happiness while we ignore the pain and suffering in the world. On the Mountain of Joy, the cross is central. When we come–as we have come–to the Mountain of Joy, we do not leave behind the blood. The writer of Hebrews tells us that we come to the “sprinkled blood.”
The Mountain of Fear and the Mountain of Joy–both mountains are bloodied. I know, I know. It’s not my favorite image or metaphor either. But it is what we’re given. It relates to the image of Jesus as eternal high priest that we talked about last week.
Both mountains are bloodied. The mountain of fear has absorbed the blood of Abel while the mountain of joy is sprinkled with the blood of Christ. The blood of one who was murdered by his brother vs. the blood of one who willingly gave his life. The blood that cries out a curse vs. the blood of one who said, “Father, forgive them.”
We have come to Mount Zion, “to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”
On the Mountain of Fear, the violence begets more violence. In the darkness and gloom people cannot see where they are going. And God is, somehow, thought to be a part of the violence and destruction. That is not the mountain to which we have come.
We have come the Mountain of Joy. And even here there is blood. And even here there is pain and suffering. Here there is peace with the cross. Here we hear the better word. The word of forgiveness instead of vengeance. The word of faith instead of fear. The word of justice instead of oppression. The word of light instead of darkness.
We have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God. And when it feels like we are on that other mountain; when the darkness and gloom and storm–when the fear–threaten to overwhelm us, we must listen for the better word. For the good word, the good news, spoken through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
We must keep walking and breathing through the all of the shaking because we know that, in the end, what cannot be shaken will remain.
Thanks be to God.