I recently hiked up Mt. LeConte with a group of hikers, mostly made up of Good Samaritan Knoxville members. There were nearly 60 of us and we chose different trails to make our way up to the Lodge, where we spent the night. My group chose the Boulevard Trail. Somehow, our trail required you to walk uphill BOTH ways. I’m really serious. Both going and coming, there were stretches of uphill, even in the descent. My quads are only now speaking to me again.
Once you arrive at the top of Mt. LeConte, if you plan to spend the evening at the Lodge, you enter into a ritual performed by countless hikers over the past several decades. You find your bunk in one of the cabins, you unpack your overnight gear while the sun is still up, and you prepare for the dinner meal. I am sure it had a great deal to do with the eight mile hike, but the mashed potatoes we were served that evening were the best mashed potatoes I had ever eaten. I want them served at my funeral.
Before dinner, Fr. Cal Calhoun suggested that he and I take a brief walk to the spot where we would celebrate the Eucharist the next morning. As someone who likes to be prepared, I took him up on the offer.
Upon arriving at the location set aside for worship, I quickly realized why you would pick such a site for an early morning Eucharist. We looked out over a beautiful view, a big open sky above with mountainside and valley floor below, all dressed in forested green. It was a breathtaking scene, one that would help anyone to believe in God.
Then, Cal pointed to the place where I was to stand as the preacher and presider at the Eucharist. He pointed down below us, to the edge of the cliff. The preacher has always stood there, on the edge of the cliff, with your back to the nothingness behind you.
He wasn’t kidding.
By this point, it was too late to hike down to the car, since it wasn’t my car at the parking lot. Also, it is poor form for the preacher to skip church, though I am sure it has been done somewhere before. No, I was supposed to lead worship outside, on the edge of a cliff, with my back to all of creation, trusting that I would safely hike back down to the car, uphill most of the way.
I can report to you that no harm came to me on the edge of the cliff. I gave a reasonably good sermon, while remaining completely aware where I stood and how close to the edge I was. And I led in the Eucharistic prayer, reflecting on the death and resurrection of Jesus, while pondering my own end, hoping it would not be that day on that East Tennessee precipice.
When we gather for worship, we speak of sacred space. When we speak of sacred space, we also sometimes add the need for the space to be safe and welcoming. Yet, after having gone up and down LeConte and worshipped on a cliff, I am convinced that we need also to remember that worship is a dangerous act, too.
We have gathered to worship the Almighty. Do we not expect to be changed? We have come to eat from a meal that Jesus has given us by giving his own life for us and the world. Do we expect all that to transpire from a safe and easy distance?
When we gather to worship the Living God, we come with our vulnerable and open selves, exposed to the Divine, if not always to each other. If we believe God has made us and loves us, then in worship God also touches us again and heals and binds. That healing and binding, while intended for our good, might initially come with some pain, with a sense that we are standing on the edge.
Yet, even on the edge, remember it is the Christ, the Resurrected, Reconciling Christ who stands with us and all around us.
“Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me. Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.”
Christ who walks with us, uphill both ways.