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The First Congregational Church, Columbus Ohio
Sunday, October 8, 2006
A sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy Ahrens

Dedicated to the memory of the Rev. Carlyle Smith and always to the glory of God!
Into Thin Air
Hebrews 1:1-4, Mark 10:2-16

In the second week of May 1996, journalist and world class mountain climber, Jon Krakauer was part of a team of climbers who scaled Mt. Everest. Nine climbers perished on that expedition. In his book, Into Thin Air, Jon tells the story of his climb and those who were with him at the top of the world when everyone paid the price of ambition and glory. It is a moving account of a tragedy which unraveled because a "rouge storm" which struck on May 10th and blew across the mountain catching climbers high on the peak unaware.

In an interview following the release of the book, Krakauer told Alden Mudge:

Although much attention has focused on the $65,000 paid by some climbers to ascend Mt. Everest, . . . climbing Everest was by an order of magnitude the hardest thing I've ever done. It's mostly just slogging up slopes that aren't particularly steep, but its day after day of hard painful work and putting up with headaches and throwing up. On May 10, the day we set foot on the summit, most of us were in such terrible physical condition that had we been home we would have been in bed, wouldn't have gone to work, wouldn't have answered the phone, would have been just lying there in agony. And here we were, having not slept in 57 hours and not eaten in days, setting out for what is probably the hardest physical thing any of us has ever done. You really have to have this puritanical streak, this belief in the nobility of suffering and hard work, or you'd never do it. The drive to climb is extremely irrational. It defies logic . . . in the end . . . I spent less that five minutes on the roof of the world" (found in an on-line interview by Alden Mudge, a writer in Oakland, CA).

Shortly after beginning his descent, Jon turned to take a picture of the peak. In the background, to the south, where the sky had been perfectly clear just an hour earlier, a blanket of clouds now hid Pumori, Ama Dablam, and the other lesser peaks of Everest. A storm was fast approaching.

Many questions have been asked about what happened to some of the world's finest climbers on the worst day, on the highest mountain? Why had they not seen the storm coming? Why did the team behind Krakauer keep climbing the summit even when they saw the storm blowing hard (160 miles an hour) toward Everest? Then, why did certain people behave so badly when faced with the crisis that unraveled on the afternoon of May 10, 1996 at the top of the world? Did the climb for success blind them to the dangers of the day and the hour?

Krakauer answers this way:

Climbing is an individual sport but one which requires you to also account for each of your partners . . . How you climb is more important than what you climb . . . but on Everest the bond that develops with most climbs was just lacking. We weren't encouraged to look after our fellow clients and certainly not after our guides. I and those with me betrayed the ideals of climbing. For that I really beat myself up. I can't think of a single good thing that came out of this climb" (Ibid).

I have been thinking about Jon Krakauer and climbing Mt. Everest as we have advanced forward in this fall stewardship campaign: "Leap to New Heights in our Giving." Into Thin Air teaches us lessons for life and stewardship lessons as well. While climbing to new heights we must be aware of our environment and the climbers around us. We must make the trip with adequate gear and equipment, or we won't succeed. While trusting God to guide our individual steps, we must acknowledge that this is collective effort and we must stay close or we will lose each other in the ascent. We must work together going up and coming down. We must not assume that all climbers have the same ability - and that even those who have greater ability, at any given moment can face insurmountable challenges - which only the team can help overcome. In thin air, we must not let our climb for ambition and glory make us light-headed - or we will lose in our efforts to reach new heights.

I am not saying that the goals and directions of "Leap to New Heights in Our Giving" are Everest and we are Krakauer and his team of climbers. I am saying that as we LEAP to new heights in our giving - personally and congregationally we need to step up and meet the challenges before us. Our Stewardship Committee is calling all households to step up and increase their percentage of giving - or at the very least to give a higher dollar amounts. With a growing mission and ministry at First Church, we need to grow our giving, too.

Earlier this year, our church rolls crossed over the 1,000 membership mark. In addition we have more than 200 children on our Church School rolls. Last year, our theme was "grow in your giving." And, thanks be to God, we grew by 18%! Last year's growth in giving largely came from the volume of our newest members joining and pledging. This year, our hope and plan is that everyone steps up, everyone leaps forward and everyone increase giving. We hope that everyone invests in our church's mission and ministry with more commitment, more resolve and higher percentage of giving. I happen to believe this is important and this good for each of us.

It is good to give. Giving brings joy to the giver. And great giving gives you an abundance of great joy!

After 21 years of pastoral leadership ( almost seven here), I am still amazed by certain truths of giving and living in faith community. One of those truths is this: When we invest in the future of the church, we participate more fully. In other words, when you pledge and make a financial commitment to the church, you end up investing your time and talents as well. Another way of putting it - when you give your time and talent to the church - you also make the leap to make a greater financial commitment to the church.

I am excited about the growth of First Church! With our attendance over the summer up 20% from last year - only one year after our greatest growth in 50 years - I have been blown away by a growing number of people's excitement and commitment to this congregation. With the growth - and particularly with Rev. Bott's absence on sabbatical - I must tell you I am struggling to keep up with phone calls, meetings, memos, emails, home visits, contacts, and even thank you notes. While Elaine's increased hours and her pastoral heart has been a joy in these two months of Ron's absence, we only have enough funding to employ her less than ½ time.

Truthfully, our wonderful and blessed growth has overwhelmed our ability to keep up with pastoral care and meeting your needs as a growing congregation. We are not staffed for growth. Our growth in membership has not been matched by our growth in giving. If ever we needed the time and talent and treasure of this church, we need it now!

Let me be really clear. We need you to give more for your 2007 pledge when Consecration Sunday arrives three weeks from now. We need you to give at least 1% more of your annual income. If that is not possible, we need you to give 10-20% more on your pledge from this year. If you are making no pledge, we need to begin for 2007. I find it an uncomfortable truth to talk about money in this way. But, I also believe we have an unreconcilable truth in operation here as well - we have not yet reached our ability to give as individuals and as a congregation.

Years ago, I dated a woman who was reporter for National Public Radio. She always referred to their twice a year public radio solicitation campaigns as "Beg-A-Thons." I never feel that way about Stewardship in the church because God is Good! God has been so good to us that God has given us life and breath, love and grace, hope and holiness. As those who are recipients of God's amazing grace and love, we are blessed to in turn be a blessing. Our stewardship is simply a way to give thanks to God. We are fortunate to be able to return thanks in our giving. Our call is to live into our good fortune and return our giving to God!

The letter to the Hebrews reminds us of these blessings from God that we have received through Jesus Christ. It is a powerful testimony to these blessings. Hebrews' author names all the blessings that he has issued in his presence in this world.

Christ is the son of God, appointed heir of all things (vs. 2). Christ is God's assistant in creation (vs. 2). He is a reflection of God's radiance and glory. He is the imprint of God in nature (vs.3). Through his powerful word and sustaining presence, Christ all things hold together (vs. 3). Christ is the purification for sins (vs. 3). His resurrection is an exaltation to the right hand of God (vs. 3). In fact, the author of Hebrews tells us, Christ is superior to the angels. Through his suffering and death, he has lifted us as well. He is the pioneer of our salvation. He is the one who purifies us and cleanses us for all that we have to take on in life.

As he is elevated and lifted up over all creation, we once again climb into the sanctified, yet "thin air" of our faith. We are astounded by the pinnacle of faith we come ascend to know and experience in Christ Jesus. On a high and holy mountain (as shown in the highest point of our Jeffrey Windows), Christ was lifted up and ascended to the right hand of God. He went ahead of us to clear the way for our ascension of faith.

Isn't it ironic that in this highly exalted moment of ascending faith and glorification known in Hebrews that our Gospel text brings us back to earth? Here we are left to struggle with issues of divorce and remarriage. Here we tangle with the injustices of people judging one another and rebuking others - even the little children who are coming to Jesus. Like Krakauer's return to sea level having stepped on the pinnacle of the earth, in the end all of us must face the steps we take as we move through life.

Jesus' own words might be our guide - "let the children come unto me and do not hinder them, for to such as these belongs the Kingdom of Heaven." In the end, not only does Christ call us to become like children - to see, hear and know the simplicity and beauty of life lived in God - he proclaims that to "not receive the Kingdom of God, like a child, means to never enter it." So little children - let us climb to new heights - together. Amen.

Copyright 2006, The First Congregational Church