The Reverend George C. Wong Sermon for the Last Epiphany, 14 February 2021
Each Last Sunday in Epiphany, we read a gospel account of the Transfiguration, where Jesus and the disciples climb up the mountain and encounter Moses and Elijah.
In conjunction, today, we also read from 2 Kings about Elijah in his final moments. Elijah’s experience with Elisha in those moments before his departure hold relevant insights for those of us on the faith journey—that is, all of us.
The mountain top is a place of transfiguration. But Jesus and the disciples had to climb the mountain first. Does the very process of scaling mountains unlock some faith related insights?
I am not an expert on climbing, but it is clear that an elite climber must possess an extraordinary amount of stamina, tenacity, skill and courage to succeed. And I have learned, there are mountain climbers and then there are free climbers, in many ways the most intrepid of climbers. One such climber is Tommy Caldwell.
Caldwell has long been regarded as the best free climber in the world. He was a climbing prodigy. His gift took him around the world.
To train further, he went to the mountains of Kyrgyzstan with some training partners, including Beth, his then girlfriend also an outstanding climber. They were in the midst of a hard climb when gunshots rang out. They were captured by a group of Kyrg rebels. Eventually, left with one guard and fearing for their lives, Tommy pushed the man down the cliff. The climbers were able to make a harrowing escape.
Tommy was deeply burdened by guilt over the man’s death, and took it hard. He was greatly dispirited by the terrible dilemma he faced--that was to take on the burden of killing in order to save his friends. Years, later it turned out that the rebel soldier had miraculously not actually died. Tommy did not know this and this might have been the end of his climbing but slowly he did return to climbing.
He and Beth, then his wife, decided to build a cabin in the woods and continue climbing. One day, late in the afternoon, he was cutting a piece of wood and accidently sawed off his index finger. It could not be re-attached. That should have been the end of his climbing career. Free climbers depend on having all their fingers as all the techniques depend on having a grip of crevices and small rock outcrops. Caldwell figured out a way to climb with the missing finger.
The most challenging free climb in the world is the Dawn Wall in Yosemite, a 3,000 sheer granite wall. Tommy could not climb parts of it even with 10 fingers. So, it would be object of a quest.
Along with his training partner Kevin Jorgensen, who was an incredible mountaineer, but actually had no previous big wall experience, Caldwell spent six years, pain staking planning and mapping out the Dawn wall climb. Each hand grab and each foot hold had to charted and then tested.
Most people in the climbing world felt the climb was an impossible feat. Yet, in 2015, they made their attempt. It went smoothly at first, but the weather started to worsen. They had to spend more time living on the side of the wall on a portage. Each day they got weaker.
Then they got to the most difficult section what is known as pitch 15 a blank spot as it offers almost zero places to grab onto—just tiny, jagged rocks in some stretches. Tommy went first and failed a number of times, but he eventually made it across through a highly creative but exhausting round about climb, less technically demanding but incredibly exhausting and time consuming. The ascent was a one person at a time deal, so Kevin attempted to cross the pitch 15 traverse. Time after time, he stretched across the rock face, holding on by his finger-tips often in a cruciform shape. He fell again and again— his safety ropes catching him each time. Exhausted after each try and fingers completely shredded and bleeding, each renewed attempt meant resting until the next day on the wall.
Tommy continued to ascend and stopped below the top as he refused to summit alone without Kevin even though his dream was within his grasp and the chance could have been lost with a turn in the weather or conditions.
As a large media contingent watched their every move below through long range lenses and telescopes, Kevin eventually made it on what was likely his last attempt. In the process, he mangled his fingers and split one in five places. But clear of the hardest pitch, they both made it to the summit.
Along with the accounts of Elijah and Elisha, the triumphant summit of Tommy and Kevin holds a lot of pertinent lessons, not just for climbers but also for those who aspire to be faithful.
It was quite remarkable that Tommy refused to summit alone without Kevin. Instead he risked the prospect of exhaustion or a surprise weather event either or both could have forced him off the wall. He was willing to risk his ascent out of a loyalty to his friend. This kind of loyalty is reminiscent of how Elisha refused to leave the side of Elijah, not once, or twice but three times. Elisha was warned and knew it might be dangerous to stay, but he remained by Elijah’s side.
Climbing also helps us see clearly the importance of community. They relied upon a large, dedicated support team bringing them supplies like food, medicine and other gear like replacement ropes. In the course of their time on the Dawn Wall, over 800 pounds of supplies were lowered down to the pair of climbers. There was also the filming team which recorded the whole endeavor. The climb could not have happened without the support of many. Don’t we know this in the church world too!
And, finally, sometimes the journey will push us to the limit and find us at a particular stopping point where we are stretched to the max. Despite all their planning, the traverse was the point where they needed to push beyond, against all the odds. Elisha did not think he could go on without Elijah, but he did.
In spiritual terms, a point (or points) of great difficulty may come in nearly countless forms. Maybe we find it impossible to get past a past hurt, maybe we find it too much to forgive someone, maybe we find it hard to put away bias and prejudice against certain groups, maybe we find it hard to confess our shortcomings to God,
The list could go on but it is certain that we all face something like pitch 15 in our spiritual lives. That is a place which we find nearly impossible to get over or through.
But perhaps we find our finest moment, our moment of transfiguration, if we tackle the most yawning and difficult spiritual spans in front of us.
To me climbing and the mountains have an incredibly spiritual dimension. In ways, it is not surprising that the Dawn wall, actually first called the Wall of the Early Morning Light, was given its name because when the sun rises the face of the wall is brilliantly illuminated. From the first time he saw it Tommy Caldwell described seeing the light hit the Dawn wall as a spiritual experience which changed him—perhaps you could say a moment of transfiguration.
The stories of Caldwell and Jorgensen, and scriptural account of Elisha and Elisha have much to teach us. These lessons come to us at a time when they can offer us much for our own journey, even if we are not mountain climbers like Caldwell and Jorgensen or prophets like Elijah and Elisha.
In the daily news and on social media we constantly, almost endlessly
-hear of people who refuse to recognize their indebtedness to anyone else
-we see an almost pervasive lack of willingness of individuals and institutions to take on challenges that are daunting and demanding, like immense imbalances in the distribution of wealth, poverty, injustice, environmental degradation, and the list goes on.
Even if we are comfortable and even if we hide out in the cozy, yet illusory cave called denial, there remains a sense that all is fraught with risk of loss and it feels to many like we face the impossible without any hope:
But none of this is how it has to be! That is not what God intends for us. The world would be a more harmonious, hopeful place if we each chose to walk the path of transfiguration. We do this not so much to become transfigured, but to live into our identity as the ones who are already transfigured.
For God intends for us to be self-giving and sacrificing, God intends for us to be supported by community and to support the community. And God fully expects us to take on and prevail over the “impossible” things that stretch us to the limit. Recall that Jorgensen’s body formed a cruciform shape on the wall, he gave all that he had to offer, and he came across the traverse.
In all these things, we have described, we have outlined, the life and mission of Jesus, our companion and model for the journey. So, as we end the season of Epiphany, let us resolve to walk in the footsteps of Jesus in the way he did, and then with certainty, we will meet our friend and Saviour on the mountaintop in the brilliant light of transfiguration.