Image Description: A photo of El Capitan and the Merced River at Yosemite National Park. It is a public domain photo from the website http://www.pdphoto.org/PictureDetail.php?mat=pdef&pg=8324.
This sermon was preached with First Presbyterian Church in Warren, Michigan and was focused upon Hebrews 12:-12. An audio recording is above and a written manuscript is below.
Within Yosemite National Park, El Capitan stands tall. Very tall. It is one of the most well-known rock formations within the United States. It rises 3,000 feet from the valley floor, and it’s 2.5 times as tall as the Empire State Building. It’s a large, beautiful thing to behold, but some people do much more than view it on the ground.
Each year, people climb it. Using a variety of established routes, people pull themselves to the top. It takes a lot of gumption and a lot of strength. In fact, it takes so much exertion, that many people don’t do it in one day. They take a couple of days and actually sleep on El Capitan. They establish hammocks of sorts and sleep on the side of a mountain; it’s called vertical camping. I can’t imagine ever doing this myself — like ever, ever — but I am truly impressed.
Bit by bit, all these climbers use cables and pull themselves up El Capitan. Well, that is, everyone except Alex Honnald. And here’s where my never, ever grows even stronger. In 2017, climbing phenom Alex Honnald performed a free solo of El Capitan. And if you’ve never heard language like free solo (I hadn’t until recently) let me share the absurdity of what this means: Alex Honnald climbed El Capitan with no ropes or safety measures at all. It was just him, freely solo-ing. He used his own muscles entirely, balancing on tiny jutting forms of rock. (Truly, you should see how flat El Capitan looks to an observer.) He also did this in just four hours.
Just to be clear, I do not recommend this. Like, at all. But it was a wonder to behold. Just a few weeks ago, I watched a documentary about this particular climb by Alex Honnold. It’s rightfully called Free Solo. It was nerve-wracking to watch him do this. It was also truly impressive.
I also found myself thinking about this: This takes an abundant amount of trust.
Now, of course, most obviously, it takes a lot of trust in one’s self. He had to believe that he could do it. He had to believe that he could keep his anxiety at bay, at least enough, to get through and make it to the top. He had to trust El Capitan. He had to trust those areas he chose to grip. He had to trust his footholds.
All of this is true. But he also had to trust others who had come before him. He had to trust the people who made the climbing routes — those who had at one point, charted new territory. He had to trust his previous climbs. He had taken time to climb El Capitan a number of times with ropes and safety measures, and when he did this, he didn’t do it alone. He brought some seasoned climbers with him, including Tommy Caldwell, who has climbed all the routes on El Capitan and established a new one. (There’s also a documentary about this called, The Dawn Wall).
Alex Honnald gained accolades for climbing El Capitan alone. I mean, that’s why it’s called free solo. But he also didn’t climb it alone. Many people helped that happen. And he may have had people on his mind and heart too as he made that climb, though I’m going to assume his full attention was on the climbing itself. Alex Honnald had to trust others.
Our scripture text from Hebrews gives us a similar vision:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,” it says. This great cloud of witnesses is much more than a bunch of spectators, standing back, hands off at a great distance. This great cloud of witnesses includes those who have gone before us and charted pathways of faithfulness. It includes those who surround us now in love — those whose support, care, and influence are truly with us, even now during a period of social distancing and isolation. It includes this community, this family of faith. Before us and around us, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.
And the text continues to say, “and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus as the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” Jesus has gone before us, and Jesus is with us. And this doesn’t have to sound like some pithy saying we might say simply to comfort ourselves. It is the kind of truth we can take inwardly in ways that are transformative. Jesus is a pioneer, charting a way of faith and charting a way of living. This is about more than church niceties of some kind. This is Jesus, a pioneer and charter of a way of living that loves God and loves our neighbors as ourselves. And he took risks to live this way.
Jesus endured a cross. He died by state violence. The author of Hebrews says that he also disregarded its shame. He cast that shame aside as it clung so closely, and he did so for love of his neighbors. Let’s get real here: Jesus loved so deeply and so expansively that it began to initiate change, and that threatened the power of the Roman Empire. They abused him with shame, torture, and an excruciating death that lasted many hours. Despite this violence, or rather, emerging from it, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews joins the great cloud of witnesses in honoring the power of resurrection. Jesus is no longer on the cross, or strapped to an execution gurney, or under the knee of state power. Jesus is at the right hand of God, pioneer and perfecter of our faith, praying for us and always charting the course of being with us — with us when we suffer; with us when we climb the summit of many challenges; and with our neighbors when they run the race before them, when they are persecuted for their faith, when they suffer state violence, and when they and we love so deeply and expansively that it dreams and initiates a whole world of changes where love abounds and persists deeply and expansively.
The community behind this letter needed to hear words like these. They were experiencing persecution for their faith. At times, they were in danger because the risk of love can sometimes take us there. But we, like them, can lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely. We can look to Jesus as the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, and we can trust him. We can look to the great cloud of witnesses — our family of faith in this congregation; our faith ancestors, both recent and long ago; our neighbors who loved God, some in the midst of heartache and suffering; and those who like Jesus, are before us, existing within the heart of God. We may need to hear words like these. We may need to be gathered before these, knowing they are with us and cheering us on.
Within these words and within this vision, where do you find yourself today? Do you feel like you’re climbing a personal mountain all alone — facing difficulty, heartache, fear, or loneliness? We are with you. The Pioneer and Perfecter of our Faith is with you. Do you feel this deep-seated calling to love God and love neighbors in ways that dream and initiate change? We are with you. The Pioneer and Perfecter of our Faith is with you. Do we feel numb and unmotivated in a world that is overwhelming right now? That’s understandable sometimes. We are with you. The Pioneer and Perfecter of our Faith is with you.
We do not leave you there alone. Our faith ancestors do not leave you there alone. Jesus, the Pioneer and Perfecter of our Faith does not leave you there alone.
We are that great cloud of witnesses. We are supported and surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. And we can trust. We can trust that calling we feel. We can trust the God who makes that calling alive within us. We can trust each other. We can trust our neighbors. We can trust that as impressive as it may seem, climbing alone is a total myth. We don’t make it on our own.
So friends, lean into that trust. Put your weight upon it. Put your heart upon it. Act upon it.
Thanks be to God — the One who is with us, the One who calls us, the One who frees us to life abundant. Thanks be to this God.
— Here’s information about El Capitan from the Yosemite National Park website: https://www.yosemite.com/what-to-do/el-capitan/
— Here is a video about the making of Free Solo: