For five days in July I had the glorious experience of riding a horse along the lanes and beaches and country tracks of County Sligo in northwestern Ireland. As a novice rider, I can tell you it was an adventure, and I was glad to have my old friend and experienced horseman, Joe, along with me. It was Joe who reassured me, just as my horse was about to gallop as fast as I have ever moved on a horse, that I could manage it and wouldn’t fall off. It was Joe who led the way through terrain our horses were not sure they wanted to cover – and convinced them (and me) that everything was perfectly alright, never mind that cliff to your right. It was Joe, who convinced me that it if I was the one to open all gates and knock on all doors, I’d get a lot of needed practice mounting my horse from the ground, without a mounting block.
Joe’s experience and good humor were invaluable on the trip – three days of which saw just the two of us and our big Irish hunters riding from B&B to B&B, all our things stuffed into saddlebags. The horses were amazing; they managed to walk over rocky coastline, navigate a peat bog, gallop over mussel-strewn beaches, climb up sand dunes, wade across a tidal pool, stroll in the surf, and canter along country lanes.
One afternoon, we were heading up a wooded hillside along a very wet and muddy narrow trail. The further we got into the woods the deeper the mud became, and we could hear the horses’ hooves slurping as they pulled them out of the mud one step at a time. For a few yards at least it seemed the mud must be up to the horses’ knees, and they were moving slowly, gingerly, a little hesitatingly. Worried for the horses in this deep mud, I turned to ask Joe, “Should we dismount?”
“Are you kidding me?” he said “We can’t dismount; we couldn’t possibly make our way through this mud. Stick with the horses!” Sure enough, our horses, Diamond, and Garry Finn, steadily plodded along without ever seriously stumbling or losing a shoe in the deep mud.
Heading up a hillside along a very wet and muddy narrow trail – this could be a description of what some days in our lives feel like. It could be a description for the unemployment rate – or some other aspects of our economy at the moment. It could be a description of the war in Afghanistan. Except that mud doesn’t seem to apply in the desert, it could be a description of the work that faces our 50,000 non-combat troops in Iraq, who are curiously still being given combat pay (and rightly, so, I have no doubt).
Heading up a hillside along a very wet and muddy narrow trail. It could be a description of life in the church – in this diocese and beyond as we struggle with our various issues. It could describe the way our 7 million American Muslim brothers and sisters feel as they endure outrageous insult after insult from various political leaders, media outlets, church pastors, and probably neighbors, too.
Heading up a hillside along a very wet and muddy narrow trail.
Back on my Irish hillside, atop my Irish horse, I can tell you, that it never really occurred to me that I might be in trouble, that things could go wrong. Our horses had managed every obstacle so superbly. And what did I know about horses and mud. In fact, when I suggested that we dismount, I thought I was only doing the noble thing: being kind on a wet, uphill stretch of trail, to this wonderful beast who had carried me so confidently and gracefully. It was only when I turned to Joe, with what I thought was a beneficent suggestion that the light dawned. “Are you kidding me? We can’t dismount; we couldn’t possibly make our way through this mud!”
For many of us, who lead relatively comfortable middle-class lives, life is often like this. We fell relatively confident. Things get muddy, but we don’t imagine there is real trouble lurking; we suspect we could just dismount and walk the rest of the way, leading our horses by the reins. But lately, as the mud has gotten deeper, perhaps we feel a knot in our stomachs. The mortgage is harder to pay, the job you are looking for is harder to find, the insurance company still won’t pay that bill, you discovered another lump, his meds aren’t working so well, it’s harder to fall asleep every night, the anger isn’t subsiding, the cigarettes or the booze or whatever is harder to quit than you thought, the silences at home are growing longer and more unbearable, mother doesn’t always recognize you anymore, the pain just won’t go away, the ache of grief can still cripple you nine years later… heading up a hillside along a very wet and muddy narrow trail.
And it turns out that faith looks very much like this: like heading up a hillside along a very wet and muddy narrow trail; finding cause to wonder whether or not you can make it; considering the possibility that you should continue the rest of the way on foot; and realizing, “Are you kidding? You can’t possibly make it through this mud!”
Of course, the first step of faith is to realize that you have been riding a horse all along!
Back in what increasingly looks like the old days to me, we used to hear these words from today’s Epistle reading every Sunday: “This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” They were part of a tiny collection of verses called the “Comfortable Words” that the priest recited just after the confession of sin.
Today they are uncomfortable for us to hear, because we think the phrase is talking about us: sinners?!? Why must the church always be so negative!? Why this insistent focus on sin?! It’s so un-contemporary, so not what people are looking for! But of course, those words are not primarily about us; they are primarily about Jesus and his ministry of forgiveness and salvation. They are Saint Paul’s way of saying, “Are you kidding me? We couldn’t possibly make our way through this mud!”
And, of course, Saint Paul knows that a lot of the mud in our lives is not the result of exterior forces acting on us without our participation, like a heavy rainfall. Much of the mud we get stuck in comes from within, through some interior leak in our spiritual plumbing, which is why you can get stuck in the mud in the middle of the desert. He just calls that “sin.”
Back in Ireland, the muddy trail that Joe and I were riding along was sheltered by trees, and my focus, after I realized that this entire journey was really up to the horse, was down: watching his front hooves as best I could; listening to the slow, steady slurps of his progress, one step at a time. It wasn’t long - maybe ten or fifteen minutes – till we came out of the muddy patch and into a dry clearing where we could turn and look behind us. We discovered we had travelled much higher than we imagined we were going. The green checkerboard of the Irish countryside spread out beneath us, and a short distance beyond that, the sea. We consulted our map, and found that it was just for this that we had slogged up the hillside – this beautiful view, toward which we didn’t even realize we were headed - now we were heading down a paved path, back to the long, flat expanses of sandy coastline where our horses would run again, faster than I thought possible.
This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be receive, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I might as well be the foremost. Put it another way: we are heading up a hillside along a very wet and muddy narrow trail. Chances are good that we got ourselves on this hillside out of sheer willfulness, selfishness, greed, or some set of mixed motives. And by the time it occurs to us to get at all worried about the footing… Are you kidding me?!
But the good news is that you are riding a horse who is surefooted and knows the terrain. And you are headed for a clearing where you may well discover that you have travelled much further uphill, much higher than you realized or imagined.
And the view is grand, as they would say in Ireland. And the way that leads back down the hillside is easier. And it leads to the sea, and the broad flat beaches, where you can run as fast as you like, as long as you can stay on your horse!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
12 September 2010
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia