Mountain Climbing

Pentecost 23 Year C Proper 28    Isaiah 65: 17-25  Luke 21:5-19    

A sermon from Linda Mackie Griggs     



Often when I read a book I kind of temporarily obsess over it. I’ll see connections with it in news stories and in conversations, and this keeps up for awhile until I pick up the next book on my stack and find a new obsession. So it shouldn’t surprise those of you who I’ve been chatting with lately that David Brooks’ book, The Second Mountain has been part of my pre-sermon pondering.

In a nutshell Brooks suggests that many of us lead a two-phased life; the first phase is like a mountain, which we climb when we are younger and establishing our unique identities and accomplishments. We strive for the right career, the house, the family, the nest egg, the dog… Summiting that first mountain is a big accomplishment. Later, we may find ourselves questioning those ego-driven priorities of first mountain achievement, acquisition and individual self-fulfillment.

Whether brought on by life transition, financial or health crisis, loss of a loved one or relationship, the journey toward the second mountain involves existential questions like “Why am I here?” “Is this all there is?” “What now?” Confronting these questions, says Brooks, takes us downward into a valley of humility, vulnerability, and often pain that, if we let it, eventually leads us to the new heights of the second mountain, governed not by the ego, but by heart and soul—a new life of generosity, creativity, joy, and renewed relationships.

Spoiler alert: Brooks is telling us that our world is desperately in need of an army of Second Mountaineers. We can possibly intuit this. But lest we need persuading, the facts that he lays out are stunning and stark. 

I only heard the term “deaths of despair” recently, and didn’t know that it’s actually a medical phrase that includes three behavior-related medical conditions; drug overdose, suicide, and alcoholic liver disease, all of which are connected to social isolation. Loneliness. Brooks says that we’ve done too good a job of empowering our individuality—we’ve gotten so hyper-individualistic that we’ve come to think we don’t need anyone—and now, to borrow the title of Robert Putnam’s book, we literally and figuratively bowl alone—emblematic of a serious decline in community and civic engagement. And it’s taking a toll. Here are some numbers: Overall the suicide rate in this country has gone up 30 percent since 1999. Between 2006 and 2016 the suicide rates for those between ages 10 and 17 rose by 70 percent.

Please let that sink in. Ten-year-olds are included in suicide statistics.

Life expectancy in this country has declined for the third year in a row. The last time that happened was early in the last century, and it was influenced by a world war and a global flu pandemic.

I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime…

These words of hope are offered to a people intimately acquainted with despair. The beautiful yearning passage that we’ve heard today was written for the  people of Israel, who had been traumatized by the destruction of their home and a generation spent in exile. The Temple—the center of their faith and icon of everything they trusted, had been thrown down; not one stone left upon another. And now Isaiah writes for a people returned from Babylon, and he is excited.

“…be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.”

Isaiah expresses a vision of complete renewal of Israel; the erasure of traumatic memories and the creation of a world that is safe and just. God will be ever present and responsive: “Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.” A world at peace. Beautiful. Achingly beautiful for anyone who has felt that their world was falling apart.

I learned a couple of interesting things when I consulted our wise neighbor Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman about this reading. First, and most important, he confirmed the sense of immediacy in the passage. While it is common to read through a Christian lens and assume that Isaiah is referring to some kind of a heavenly vision of what the world will look like after it ends, this would be wrong. As Rabbi Howard says, “We’re not about heaven.” The Christian idea of heaven is not the “new heavens” that Isaiah is writing about.

What he’s writing about is a world that is to be co-created by God and God’s people together. This passage is a joyful reminder that God’s people, inspired by their Creator, are the builders of the wondrous, just, fair and peaceful world that Isaiah envisions. And then, when that world is created, God will bestow the gift of long life: “for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be…”

The prophetic call is for now. Now, when the world seems to be crumbling around us. Now, when social isolation is killing us. Now, as society retreats into the echo chambers of our tribal fears. Now, as Luke says, among wars and insurrections, famines, plagues, and persecutions. Now, when we are sunk in the valley, is when we are called to look in hope toward the Second Mountain.

David Brooks writes of Second Mountain people as the ones who–neighbor by neighbor, conversation by conversation, potluck by potluck, community action meeting by community action meeting– the ones who are re-weaving the fabric of American society by establishing and re-establishing relationships.

Brooks writes of the importance of “thick” institutions, communities and societies, which are defined by people who are keenly aware of their interdependence and the importance of meaningful relationships. Thick organizations and institutions are centered around a physical location where people meet regularly. They have collective rituals, shared tasks, a creed of some kind, and watch over and care for one another. Brooks continues,

They often tell and retell a sacred origin story about themselves. Many experienced a moment when they nearly failed, and they celebrate the heroes who pulled them from the brink…They point to an ideal that is far in the distance and can’t be achieved in a single lifetime.

Sound familiar? He’s talking about Church! Of course he’s not just talking about church, but if he’s going to posit the need of thick institutions to help reweave the fabric of society, who can possibly be better positioned to do that than the Body of Christ?

If he’s going to talk about the importance of relationship and interdependence as an antidote to fear-based tribalism, who better than those whose life of faith centers on a Trinitarian God who defines the very concept of relationality and interdependence? Who better? We’re already here; we don’t need to be invented. We only need, with the grace of God and the guidance of the Spirit, to be renewed and transformed to meet the challenges that confront us.

We just need to believe it of ourselves. The task is bigger than a single lifetime, but that simply means there’s no time to waste.

Luke’s vision of a world in its last days is not the only thing that confronts us in today’s Gospel. The world is ending for someone, somewhere, every day; the numbers don’t lie. One more number: sixteen. The perpetrator of the latest school shooting in California on Thursday—it was his sixteenth birthday.

We can’t keep losing our children.

We are called—today, now—to testify to the hope that is in us—the hope that is our foundation as the Body of Christ. We are called to testify in word and action to the love of God who sustains us; to hold on to hope; to proclaim it, and most important, to become it.

The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox…they shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord.

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