At the Summit of El Capitan

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February 15, 2015

At the Summit of El Capitan

Passage: Mark 9:2–10

Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”  —Mark 9:7

I’ll bet many of you have been to the summit of El Capitan, but probably not by the shortest and most direct route. El Capitan is a granite monolith that rises 3,000 feet, or more than half a mile, or about two Empire State Buildings, above the Yosemite Valley floor to an elevation of 7,000 feet above sea level. El Capitan was carved out by glaciers over a million years ago; the granite itself is 100 million years old.

Last month Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson transfixed the world by summiting El Capitan via the shortest and most direct route–up the sheer face of the Dawn Wall, so called because it looks southeast and lights up when it catches the morning sun at break of day. In some places the granite of the Dawn Wall is so smooth it looks like the Greek God Zeus polished it to a high sheen with a god-sized, high-speed sandpaper polishing disk.

Mr. Caldwell and Mr. Jorgeson climbed 3,000 feet up this polished granite surface without the assistance of any equipment but climbing shoes and safety ropes, also super glue and sandpaper, which they applied to their hands each night to repair their chafed fingers. They’d been preparing for this adventure for five years and had failed to reach their goal on five prior attempts. It took them 19 days to get to the summit.

The Ahwahnee people who have lived in Yosemite Valley for 7,000 years called this granite monolith Tutocanula, which means “Chief” or “Boss.” No one seems to remember why they called it Tutocanula, maybe in honor of an ancient tribal chieftain, or maybe just because the rock is so impressive you want to call it ‘Boss.’ In any case, when the Europeans came along in the nineteenth century, they decided to keep the native meaning by giving it the Spanish name El Capitan–the Chief, the Boss, my Captain, or the Lord. You’ve heard of The Lord of the Rings. El Capitan is The Lord of the Rocks.

So this year, I am calling my Transfiguration sermon At the Summit of El Capitan, because Peter, James, and John heard the voice and saw the face of God with their Captain, with The Lord of the Rocks.

When Jesus climbed a mountain to meet his God, he was following a sacred tradition as old as the hills, pardon the pun. Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, and Elijah all went there before him to meet God. Mohamed too. I guess this is because there is something sacred about mountains, right?

Perhaps this is because at the top of a mountain it feels like we are closer to heaven. We know this is not literally true, because from a cosmic perspective there is no such direction as ‘Up,’ but it feels that way. We are closer to God at the summit of a mountain. The air is thinner there, literally and figuratively; the curtain separating heaven from earth and humanity from divinity is not thick velvet but diaphanous gauze, a translucent scrim.

Or maybe mountains are holy because the surfaces are steep and pitched and vertical. A mountain reminds us that life, literally and otherwise, is not flat as the Illinois prairie or shallow like Long Island Sound, but vertical as the Dawn Wall of El Capitan, unapproachable as Everest, and deep as the fathomless trenches of the Stygian Pacific, literally and otherwise, and it is possible for the human spirit to soar to stellar zeniths but also to plummet to the inky abyss.

So one day very near the end of Jesus’ life–my guess is that he has about two weeks left–he takes his three best friends on a little hiking expedition to what he thinks of as a holy place. Perhaps he knows what’s coming and needs to meet his God to gather strength for the punishing ordeal of the last two weeks of his life.

None of the Gospels tell us where the Mount of Transfiguration is, but one guess is the lonely summit of Mount Hermon in northern Galilee, which rises to the impressive height of 9,100 feet above sea level and is covered with snow for much of the year. Did you know that there is a ski resort in Israel?

When they reach that place at the top of the world where the air is thin and so is the curtain between this world and the next, Jesus’ whole appearance is radically altered. His visage blazes like the sun in July at noon and his clothes are whiter than my beautiful expert Korean Presbyterian dry cleaner Hannah could ever wash them.

What we say is that he was ‘transfigured,’ but that’s a Latin word; what Mark originally wrote was that he was ‘metamorphosed.’ See, I keep telling you, you know more Greek than you think. Jesus morphed, like that quicksilver, flowing mercury guy in the Terminator movies.

Then a further mystery: Jesus, Peter, James, and John get company. Moses and Elijah, the two towering heroes of Hebrew history, stand there chatting with Jesus: Moses who represents the law and Elijah the prophets–the law and the prophets, together the whole story of God with God’s people, the whole covenant of God with God’s people.

Moses and Elijah who, just like Jesus after them, once had their own mountaintop experiences with God, Moses at the top of Mount Sinai when God comes so close, Moses has to hide his face in the cleft of a rock so as not to be incinerated by God’s blazing glory, and Elijah in the same place 300 years later when he finds God not in the whirlwind, not in the earthquake, not in the fire, but in the still small voice that sounds a lot like silence.

Moses and Elijah who, like Jesus after them, died, presumably, but never left any evidence of it. You remember the story of Moses. One day at the hoary age of 120, Moses wanders off to summit Mount Nebo, to survey like a mountain goat the Promised Land of Canaan that God will not let him enter after a minor indiscretion forty years back. Moses goes to the top of Mount Nebo, and never comes back. He’s never heard from again. They go looking for him, or at least for his remains, but never find any evidence of his life or his death.

And Elijah in the story we just heard. When it’s time for Elijah to pass the mantle (quite literally; this is where the phrase comes from) when it’s time for Elijah to pass the mantle to his lieutenant, chariots of fire and stallions of flame come charging out of the sky and spirit him away to God only knows where.

Suddenly alone, Lieutenant Elisha is standing there stunned and almost speechless, with nothing more to say than, “Father, Father! The chariots of Israel, the cavalry of the Lord!” Fifty men spend three days searching for his person or his corpse, but they can find neither breathing prophet nor decaying remains.

Moses, Elijah, Jesus: where did they go? Nobody ever found the bodies. Are they dead? Who knows?

Well, as you might imagine, this is a terrifying experience for three fishermen. Mark tells us that Peter the Impetuous doesn’t know what else to say, so he blurts out a real estate development proposal. “Rabbi,” he says, “ it is good for us to be here; let’s pitch some tents and preserve this experience. Yeah, that’s what we’ll do; we’ll build a retreat center with dorm rooms and meditation chapel; we can charge admission. Let’s trap this euphoria; let’s tabernacle this glory; let’s ensnare the wonder by immobilizing it in resin for the enjoyment of future generations.”

But Mark wants to tell us that this is not the way it works. Just then an opaque, suffocating fog envelops the summit and a voice from above cries out, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him,” and when the fog skitters away, the celebrities Moses and Elijah have absconded, and Jesus is left alone with his three fishermen friends like usual. And then Jesus tells his friends never to whisper a word about this experience to anyone, and they head back down the mountainside to the valley floor to begin their sad, flat, horizontal journey to Golgotha.

I think what Mark is trying to tell us is that mountaintop experiences are wonderful and empowering but private and ephemeral. Only three people saw Jesus’ Transfiguration and then he told them to keep it a secret. Ecstatic theophanies are not the point of the Christian life; they don’t travel well; they’re neither shareable nor transferable nor mutually intelligible. They are almost always private and otherwise inscrutable.

And mountains are magical and mysterious, but we weren’t meant to live there. Life is not sustainable at the summit of El Capitan or Everest; it’s just granite or ice up there. It’s wonderful to summit El Capitan via the Dawn Wall, but you can only do that for 19 days and then you have to come back to your family. Human life was meant to be lived on a horizontal, not a vertical, plane. Faithfulness is not a fleeting and fugitive euphoria, but a plodding, patient, perseverance, “a long obedience in the same direction,” as Frederick Nietzsche put it.

When Dean Smith retired in 1997 after 36 years as the Men’s basketball coach at the University of North Carolina, someone asked him how he wanted to be remembered. “What do you want on your tombstone, Coach?” asked this reporter. And the Dean thought about that for a moment, and then said, “He knew a little basketball, did a good job, and lived happily ever after.”

Knew a little basketball!!?? When he retired, Dean Smith had 879 victories, more than anyone else in history at the time. Dean Smith had two national championships and was runner-up three more times. He made it to 11 Final Fours. He had 27 straight 20-win seasons, and only one losing season, his first, when he was 30 years old, and after which he was hanged in effigy in Chapel Hill.

He coached 30 All-Americans and sent 50 players to the NBA, including Michael Jordan, the greatest player ever. He won an Olympic Gold Medal and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. How many times was Coach Smith ejected from a game? Three times in 36 years, about once a decade. How many recruiting violations did he accrue in 36 years? Zero. How many of his players graduated with a degree from the University of North Carolina? 97% . That is almost miraculous.   Don’t you wish the University of Kentucky would sit up and pay attention to that statistic? Two college basketball deities–Michael Jordan and John Wooden–say Dean Smith knew more about basketball than anybody on the planet. Michael Jordan! John Wooden!

“What do you want on your tombstone, Coach Smith?” “He knew a little basketball, did a good job, and lived happily ever after.” Dean Smith just could not have been more wrong about how he’d be remembered. He just completely miscalculated. Did you see The New York Times headline announcing his death on the front page Monday? This is how it reads: “Coach Dean Smith, Champion of College Basketball and of Racial Equality, Dies at 83.”[1]

That, for all practical purposes, is his headstone. That’s how he will be remembered until no one plays basketball or speaks English any longer: Champion of Basketball and of Justice.

They never said that about Adolph Rupp, whose record of most victories Coach Smith eventually shattered. They never said that about Bear Bryant. They will never say that about Chief Justice Roy S. Moore of the Alabama Supreme Court. What do you think they’ll put on his headstone?

Coach Smith integrated a diner in Chapel Hill. He abhorred the death penalty and went to war with it in North Carolina. “What do you call the worst human being you’ve ever met?” he used to ask. “Someone who is loved by his Creator just as much as you are.” Dean Smith was a Southern Baptist, or he was until his congregation got kicked out of the Southern Baptist Convention for ordaining a gay man.

His was just a long obedience in the same direction, just small acts of faithfulness day after day after day. Not ecstatic epiphany, but persistent excellence.

At his Transfiguration at the summit of Mount Hermon, 9,100 feet above sea level, Jesus’ face shone like the sun at noon in July, and his disciples got a brief glimpse of who he was and where he came from. But it wasn’t until a few days later, on a much smaller hill, that we definitively understood who he really was and why he came to us.

It was just a little bump in the earth, just a garbage heap, a pile of shale and rock. It looked like a skull. It’s not very high. There’s plenty of oxygen. But on that hill that day, the air was so thin you could barely breathe. And it’s where we belong too, not among the mystics, but among the epileptics, touching the untouchables, loving the unloved, speaking truth to power, refusing to save our own lives, because we know that’s the surest way to lose it. That’s where we belong. That’s where we learn definitively, that he really is the Chief, the Lord, El Capitan. That is where we learn that he is indeed The Lord of the Rocks.


            [1]Richard Goldstein, “Coach Dean Smith, Champion of College Basketball and of Racial Equality, Dies at 83,” The New York Times, February 9, 2015. Also helpful was the article “Dean Smith Dies at 83,” ESPN News Services, February 9, 2015.