A Sermon by Robert E. Dunham
University Presbyterian Church
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
August 16, 2009
During a family trip to the Southwest some years ago, I made my way down the steep walkway that takes one from the hot New Mexico sunlight into the deep recesses of Carlsbad Caverns. Those of you who have made the trek know how spectacular that geological treasure is, with its subtle illumination of stalagmites and stalactites that have formed over hundreds of thousands of years. It was my second visit, and this time, in addition to admiring the beauty and grandeur of the formations, I was also struck by the thought of what it must have been like to have been the first to descend far into the depths of the earth with only a rope ladder and a kerosene lantern. Timid soul that I often am, I could imagine myself swinging that lantern at the edge and saying, “Well, just a big hole in the ground! Probably not much down there! Let’s move on.” I’m perfectly at ease letting those of you who are into extreme sports and high-risk adventures pursue such things. Send me a postcard, or post some photographs on Facebook.
I had a similar thought when I read Stephen Ambrose’s fascinating account of the opening of the American West, in the book Ambrose called Undaunted Courage. In part Ambrose detailed the amazing journey of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and the explorers who comprised the Lewis and Clark expedition in the early years of the nineteenth century. I remember one compelling and decisive moment in that expedition; it came the day the band of explorers sent their large keelboat back down the river to St. Louis. To that point in the journey, the boat had provided them with transportation, but more importantly with security. It had carried all their supplies. Now it had faded from view and had headed back east, while they had set out to find a route to the West Coast. That night in his journal, Meriwether Lewis reflected on that day and what it meant to the expedition:
Our vessels [now] consisted of six small canoes and two [larger row boats]. This little fleet, altho’ not quite as rispectable [sic] as those of Columbus… were still viewed by us with as much pleasure as those diservedly [sic] famed adventurers ever suffered theirs; and I dare say with as much anxiety for their safety and preservation. We were now about to penetrate a country at least 2,000 miles in width, on which the foot of civilized men had never trodden.
The picture that now presented itself to me was a most pleasing one, entertaining, as I do, the most confident hope of succeading [sic] in a voyage which had formed a darling project of mine for the past ten years, I could but esteem this moment of my departure as the most happy of my life.”
Remarking on that journal entry, John Buchanan said it seemed to him that instead of being happy, Lewis should have been scared stiff.
He had just watched all visible means of support and sustenance, all security, all contact with the world, sail down the river. And yet he called it the happiest day of his life. It’s almost as if he knew it was his defining moment – the convergence of his particular gifts with a challenge that required those gifts. It’s almost as if Lewis knew, in that moment of radical abandonment and radical trust, the purpose of his life.
Perhaps it takes too much of a stretch to compare that day in Meriwether Lewis’ life with the coming days when some of you will begin a new middle school, or a new high school, or a new college. Maybe it is too much to claim to suggest that that moment in the Lewis and Clark expedition could be compared to the experiences of those of you who have been cast adrift from your jobs in these times of economic turmoil. But I’m not so sure. There come in the lives of all of us defining moments, turning points, when we relinquish the securities we have known and upon which we have depended and strike out by choice or by circumstance in a new direction, vulnerable to that new world into which we enter. Such moments almost always present themselves as opportunities for great excitement or great fear, and maybe, if we are honest, an admixture of both.
This week I had lunch with a remarkable young woman who has begun the battle of her life – the battle for her life. Her name is Anna, and I would say she is “singularly remarkable,” except I’m afraid her story is all too common. She has cancer, at age 24…a non-Hodgkin’s type lymphoma. In her blog, she has written honestly of her fears – fear of the treatment regimen that lies before her, fear of this huge interruption in her life – and yet she also conveys a wonderful wit and an unflinchingly courageous spirit. Courage is never the same as fearlessness. I gave Anna a little poem written by the Danish philosopher Piet Hein, who described something of the way courage manifests itself:
To be brave is to behave
bravely when your heart is faint.
So you can be really brave
only when you really ain’t.
For most of us, the source of bravery, the source of courage in our defining moments lies not so much in our own wit and wisdom, not in pure bravado, but in our being true to our purpose, true to our calling. I’m not sure my young friend would use those terms, but I am sure that her baptism, her nurture in the faith, her sense of family, of home and of community will help forge her courage in these next months, and even if her courage falters, will help keep her tethered to grace and love and strength. The hope the same will be true for those of you I named earlier who stand on the cusp or in the midst of life-changing moments. For those of us baptized and schooled in the Christian community, courage is to be found in claiming the promise of Christ’s presence in all circumstances, even in the midst – especially in the midst – of the storms that rage all around us. Such courage and grace under pressure are what we all hope for in our own defining moments.
In his farewell discourse to the elders of the church at Ephesus, the apostle Paul spoke of facing a defining moment in his ministry. He was ready, he said, as “a captive of the Spirit,” to head for Jerusalem, not knowing what would happen to him there, except that the testimony of the Holy Spirit had been for him that it might involve imprisonment and persecution. Still, said Paul, he would press on in the ministry that he had received, “to testify to the good news of God’s grace.” (Acts 20:22-24) It was not necessarily his choice to face such tumult in his life, but Paul understood it as his calling. He understood in such frightful prospects the ultimate purpose for which he had come. And in that purpose he discovered his courage.
John F. Kennedy was a Navy commander in World War II long before he became the commander-in-chief. In August 1943 in the Solomon Islands, an enemy destroyer rammed his ship. Kennedy and some of his men reached a nearby island, but found it was held by the enemy. So he and another officer swam some distance to another island, where they persuaded the inhabitants to send a message to the American forces, who rescued them. When asked to define the source of his courage and to comment on his heroism, Kennedy smiled and said simply, “It was involuntary. They sank my boat.” Involuntary, perhaps, but rooted in a deep sense of purpose.
It wasn’t voluntary for the apostle Paul either, his calling to preach and to share the good news. He was summoned to it. And his courage in responding to that calling was not something he conjured up on his own. It was something he discovered in being true to his vocation and in the sense that he was accompanied by the presence of Christ.
We claim such a presence and such a promise every time we baptize a child in the life of the church. As children grow and make their own pilgrimages through the persistent perils and pitfalls of childhood, adolescence and adulthood, they are going to need their share of courage and strength, and for children, as for most of us, such character traits are developed and sustained best within a community of support. The promise we claim for our children is a promise I claim for all of you – children of God -- who find yourselves setting off in some new and uncharted wilderness in these days.
Like old Meriwether Lewis, like the apostle Paul, you may be setting out on a journey that is both hazardous and joyous. You are perched on the edge of the unknown, leaning into the future, not knowing yet how it will all turn out. But take courage. For this journey you undertake is a journey we share. We are in this together. And more importantly, we are in it with Christ. He is in it with us. It is He who has called us to it. And so it is a holy and joyful journey we undertake. And one we shall make together.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that you – or we – will have no fear along the way. New Testament scholar Beverly Gaventa says:
The reflex that causes even newborns to startle at a sudden motion suggests that fear is deeply rooted in the human species. Children who fear monsters in the night are only adults in training, learning the chill that accompanies night terrors. Our fears are reasonable and preposterous, acted out and repressed, acknowledged and denied.
The variety of faith granted to human beings does not banish fear. No amount of moralizing or pleading will make it so. Faith does, however, teach us whose name to call and who waits to calm us, for faith knows who is powerful over the deep of our fears as over the deep of the waters.
It is a peace we never fully embrace, I suspect, but we come closer to doing so in community with one another and in remembering Christ’s promises… in discovering that we are not alone... that this One with whom we have such a significant relationship of trust has affirmed that life is ultimately good and that we are in good hands… that our fears are in good hands. John Mogabgab tells a thoughtful parable that reminds us of those affirmations:
There was a seeker who met Jesus on a lonely road. “Lord,” inquired the pilgrim, “after all the people had been fed with the bread and fish, you said to your disciples: ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ What are the fragments that must be gathered up so that nothing will be lost?” Jesus gazed at the wayfarer a long moment and then answered:
“The fragments are your fears, which multiply like the loaves and fishes and fill more baskets than you can carry by yourself. These must not be lost. Instead, they must be brought to Me, so that I may bear them with you. In this way, nothing that is part of you will be left unfound.” [Not even your fears.]
So, for the journey before you…the journey before us… Godspeed. But don’t think you have to travel down that road all by yourself. You don’t. You don’t.
 Stephen Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1996, as cited by John M. Buchanan in The Christian Century, July 4-11, 2001, 3.
 John Buchanan, cf. Note 1.
 Piet Hein, Grooks 2, Garden City, NY, Doubleday, 1968, 16.
 As cited in the Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes, New York, Little, Brown and Company, 1986, 326-27.
 John Buchanan, cf. Note 1.
 Beverly R. Gaventa, “Doubt and Fear,” The Christian Century, July 14-21, 1993, 709.
 As cited by Melinda Bresee Hinners, “Facing Fear,” The Christian Century, June 5-12, 2002, 20.