Falling Upward

February 11, 2018

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Preached by Canon Roly Riem, using Exodus 24, at Evensong on Sunday 11th February 2018, the Sunday  before Lent.

 Falling Upward is a book by the Franciscan writer Richard Rohr, which I heartily recommend to you for Lent. It’s subtitled, ‘A spirituality of the two halves of life’, and its thesis is that life can be divided into two contrasting phases. The first is when we’re establishing our foothold in the world, defining who we are both with and against others, and finding our cause and priorities; the second phase, often entered into through suffering or failure, is more hidden; it has more to do with giving ourselves away and giving up our achievements and identity, and finding, instead of our own agenda, something other.

This is not new news. In the early 14th Century Dante completed his epic account of a journey from the Inferno, through Purgatory, to Paradise, which he called The Divine Comedy – a comedy because it ends well for the soul who completes the journey; but it begins badly, with a dawning realisation:

Halfway along the road we have to go,

I found myself obscured in a great forest.

Bewildered, and I knew I had lost the way.

It is hard to say just what the forest is like,

How wild and rough it was, how overpowering;

Even to remember it makes me afraid.

So bitter it is, death itself is hardly more so;

Yet there was good there, and to make it clear

I will speak of other things that I perceived.

This ‘yet – yet there was good there’ that Dante gives us is exactly what Rohr expounds. On our journey we may stumble in the thicket, but we are called deeper into this stumbling, to fall upwards.

Perhaps once, you had a clear idea of what it meant to walk with God. The idea was to grow closer to God, to please him more and more, by becoming increasingly disciplined and becoming more capable of following him and making a difference to the Church and world. But somehow now this project lies in dust and ashes. Good!

You are lost in the forest. Good! You have fallen. Good!

Next week is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. And you may think that this is the time to redouble our efforts to be pure and holy by setting sin aside and embracing extra disciplines, so that by Easter, after our seven-week diet, we can present ourselves fit for service in the spirit of his resurrection. This sounds to me like a project for the first half of life.

Lent is not really like that. It begins with a call for us to remember that we are dust and that we will return to dust. This reminder of our frailty and mortality is etched onto our foreheads. And yet – there is a yet – we’re not simply marked with ash, but with the sign of the cross. We’re not alone in our condition; God has shared it with us in Christ, and in Christ our condition – we, as we really are – has been raised up. We have fallen upward.

So Lent is not about living the dream of our own perfectibility; it’s about waking up from the nightmare to see that our dustiness is good, because it opens us to the raising of God.

To help us understand this better let’s turn to the Old Testament lesson, about Moses receiving the commandments.

Importantly it begins by God’s invitation. Moses is told to come up the holy mountain to receive the tablets of stone on which the commandments have been written. He goes up with his assistant Joshua while the people are looked after by Aaron and Hur.

There are two natural features associated with God’s presence in the story of the Exodus, one is fire and the other cloud. You’ll remember that the people of Israel are led through the wilderness by day by a pillar of cloud and by night by a pillar of fire. Here both themes are combined to show us that Moses is invited into the very heart of God’s presence to receive instruction from him.

It’s a journey for Moses into the unknown. Not so long ago I was in the clouds on my way to Lithuania. Going through thick cloud is always turbulent. It feels as if the aircraft is continually losing its footing in the air and those who don’t fly well get very anxious. Above the clouds it’s a different story, but we are told in the Bible the God’s cloud covered the mountain, so there was no prospect of Moses being in plain sight of God. Like William Walker the diver, who worked under the foundations of this Cathedral over a hundred years ago, Moses’ work was carried out in conditions of minimal visibility.

In the cloud Moses receives lengthy and detailed instruction about how the Tabernacle was to be constructed, in which the tablets of the law would be kept. All this would be a blessing to God’s people, helping them to share in God’s own holiness.

We shouldn’t crudely contrast the Law given to Moses with the grace given through Jesus Christ. The Law was never intended to be a way of whipping the people into shape; it was there to give them access to God’s inmost pure and powerful life. That’s why the first thing that we hear of from God’s conversation with Moses is not a set of commandments, especially not a set of prohibitions, but an invitation to build a holy space where God can be present with his people at ground level.

As Moses went up into the mountain, into the place of cloud and disorientation. We are not told what difference this made to Moses, as the focus is not on him but on the gift of the Law; but in another sense we do learn a lot about Moses, who started his ministry by heroically leading the people out of slavery, but which is now hidden in obscurity, his role being simply to receive something that is totally other, to be a vessel and bearer of the holiness of God.

To realise that we are dust before God is destabilising. In Richard Rohr’s terms it involves unlearning a lot of the habits of the first half of life, when we convince ourselves that whatever sin is it is something we can be rid of or set aside. But we are sinners from beginning to end; we are bound up in a world in which we will inevitably fall. And the choice for us is whether we fall from grace or into grace, whether we flee from the Law or bind ourselves to its benefits.

Dante goes on:

And, as a man who, practically winded,

Staggers out of the sea and up the beach,

Turns back to the dangerous water, and looks at it,

So my mind, which still felt as if it was in flight

Turned back to take another look at the defile,

No living person had ever passed before.

We may well be winded by the realisation that we’ve lost our way, that we’ve fallen short, that there is no health in us, but the first step upward is to realise that way ahead, though new to us, has been trod before. Moses has stood in the breech, on the holy mountain, and so has Jesus, on the holy cross, and their way is ours.

It is neither easy nor painless, but it is a way of grace and consolation. Lent is God’s invitation to us to enter into the cloud, to receive his commandment, and in the mystery of this intimacy to rise with him. Nothing of this is our own doing, except perhaps the confession that we are dust indeed, that God loves our dust, and can in Christ make something glorious of it, which can stand and stay forever in His holy presence.