A Sermon by Michael Gelfeld

August 28, 201616 Altar Summer

Fiftheenth Sunday after Pentecost

Good morning and thank you all for having me here today. I’d like to begin my message with a verse from Revelations. Now, Revelations is a book of the bible that I, being Jewish, don’t often have much to say or think about. But when scouring the bible for a verse that summed up my message Revelations ended up having an overwhelming amount of candidates, hopefully you’ll agree that this one fits it well. Revelations 2:10 tells us,

Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.”

Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I find this to be an interesting challenge as it is implied that said suffering is unavoidable, yet we are instructed not to fear it. Doesn’t that make it even more frightening?

I suppose before I get too far into the lesson that I’d like to share with you, I should introduce how I came to learn this lesson myself. I took on a great challenge this past January. After graduating college I found myself with endless possibilities. Many paths were presented to me: go get a job, travel overseas, go straight to graduate school, and my personal favorite, go live with mom and dad again. Needless to say, I didn’t choose any of these. Instead, I chose to take a walk along the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mount Katahdin, Maine. Many people turn to nature in hopes of finding God, faith, and spirituality. I can attest that my experience living in the wilderness strengthened my relationship with my God. But what comes with finding that relationship? What I really am going to share with you all today is how going out into nature and getting closer to God can actually change oneself, and more importantly, the lessons that come with that.

As many young men in Takoma Park tend to do, I joined BSA Troop 33 as a young boy and spent much of my youth exploring, adventuring and learning with that troop. One of the most important things young men are taught in Boy Scouts is the Scout Law, the tenth point of which is bravery. I think we would all be in agreement that bravery is important. But why is bravery important? Bravery itself is a bit trickier to define than some other characteristics we might deem important. Bravery might mean doing something that we know is the right thing to do, even though it’s difficult – like calling a good friend out on breaking a rule or making a poor decision. It might take bravery to ask for help from someone. And of course bravery can always just be doing something you’re scared to do. Go on the roller coaster. Try the backflip off the diving board. Move across the country. Go to college. Talk to the pretty girl at Starbucks. Switch careers. There are plenty of great examples of bravery, but there’s more to it than just doing specific brave things. Bravery is a lifestyle.

If you google the word bravery, as any good 21st century researcher might do, the first synonym you will find is fearlessness. Living a life of bravery is about living your life fearlessly. So to talk about bravery, we also need to talk about fear. You can be afraid of specific things: heights, spiders, embarrassment, loneliness. But no matter what you’re afraid of, the root cause of that fear is pain. As human beings we naturally fear pain, be it physical, mental or emotional. Pain is what causes our fear, and thus can be a huge controlling factor in our lives, one we are often unaware of. So if pain is what causes our fear, we should avoid it, right? No. When Buddha reached enlightenment, it was when he accepted something that seems pretty morbid, “life is pain.” When I first read this message and studied Buddha, this was always the part of the narrative of his life that stuck out to me; it confused me. How could he reach enlightenment, ultimate wisdom and insight, which supposedly led him to inner peace and happiness by accepting that, “life is pain”, the one thing we truly fear? It was through my adventures hiking the AT that I finally was able to make the connection. Now, a thru-hike is a seemingly irrational thing to attempt. I just used the word adventures, but perhaps trials would be more fitting. In order to thru-hike, you give up the comforts of home; a bed, good food, cars, friends, games, vices, beer, company, all of the luxuries that give us the life we all enjoy, and in turn you go out into the wilderness, and essentially live a life of pain. Every day you wake up too early, get out of your sleeping bag when it’s too cold, eat a completely unsatisfying breakfast, and then spend your day walking up mountains, on blistered and sore feet, through rain and snowstorms, with a deep, aching hunger in your belly, all in order to do it again the next day. Long distance hiking is a minor form of physical torture, perhaps made even more torturous by the fact that it is self-inflicted. One might wonder what could possibly make someone choose to do such a thing. In the early days of my hike, I was wondering that myself. My first month on the trail saw two major snowstorms that were both difficult to hike through and incredibly discouraging. The weather was cold, the nights were lonely, and it was tough to enjoy an experience I was hoping to be pretty enjoyable. But as I pushed through all of those obstacles and slowly made it toward slightly warmer weather, something changed in my perspective. I started to accept the fact that my days were going to be full of pain. I began to wake up every day knowing my feet would hurt, knowing I would be hungry, and knowing that no matter what if I wanted to achieve my goal I was going to suffer every single day. As I reached this state of acceptance, I also reached something far greater: the happiest time of my entire life. Soon I woke up every day excited! For the first time in my entire life I truly loved what I was doing. And it was still the same miserable, painful routine as before. After a few weeks of this newfound happiness I finally understood how accepting, “life is pain” had lead the Buddha to enlightenment. When you can learn to accept that life is pain, full of challenges, difficulties, rainstorms and setbacks, but refuse to use this as an excuse to stop pursuing your goals and aspirations, you will be set free from that fear of pain that resides within us naturally. If you can find the strength within yourself to put your head down and hike through the pain and rain of life, you will find that without that fear, all that’s left, is an unattached mind, ready and open to enjoy all of the beauty that our world has to offer us. Now, I am not claiming to have reached the same enlightenment that Buddha did simply by walking the Appalachian Trail. But it gave me a perspective change in my life, one that since then has made me inherently happier. I don’t possess the wisdom of Buddha or any amount close to it really, but I finally understand that perspective. Life is pain, and that’s OK.

So, Revelations says “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer.” This is the same message as, “life is pain”. There will be challenges in life that only seem to get harder and harder. Quite metaphorical to the laborious work and challenges of walking up mountains, there will be periods in life full of loneliness, sadness and emotional pain. You will endure mental, emotional and even physical suffering. Just as Revelations suggests, this suffering will be unavoidable. But by accepting that pain, enduring through it and trusting that the trail of life will provide you with what you need, you will unlock new strength mentally. With that mental strength comes happiness, something we are all pursuing, and you will truly understand what it’s like to get, “life as your victors crown.” When I look at it the message in this verse I find it quite clear: Embrace the pain of life, accept that it is there. Through your faith and perseverance you will receive a victors crown in the form of a life that is worry free, and happy, enlightened.  

Living life as a brave person means being ok with pain that will be associated with life. Being brave means choosing not to wallow in that pain or run from it, but choosing to walk through it and trusting in God to get you through a painful experience. When you really learn how to do this, to live this life of bravery, you will find that it is the path to happiness.

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