Two men recently completed a free climb of El Capitan in Yosemite. It was the first time anyone had ever done that and it made the news quite a bit this past January. It was a truly phenomenal achievement and in honor of that I am not going to tell you the names of the climbers, even though one of them was from Sonoma County, because I intend to make fun of them here in a bit.
How many of you remember Steve Fossett? I think he’d be a bit disappointed at that result since he spent a fair bit of his life trying to be memorable. He is the first person to complete a circumnavigation of the planet, non-stop with no rests, breaks or refueling, a task he completed in 2002 in a balloon. He followed that one with a solo, non-stop unrefueled plane trip around the world in 2004.
Steve Fossett died during one of these attempts and was declared dead although his crash site and remains were not identified for years afterward, in 2008.
Sailing a boat around the world solo is now so commonplace that it hardly rates a mention. Teenagers do it now. Once was a time though, when the maps had labels on them like “here be dragons” to mark the unknown reaches of the planet, that sailing around the world was the height of daring and bravery and doing it alone was unfathomably reckless and manly.
What is it that makes us do these things? Not us per se but humans at all. What is it that makes us try and do things that seem impossible, dare things that are sure to kill us, and seek to stand on top of the heap as an achiever of something great? George Mallory famously answered the question “Why do you want to climb Everest?” with the most famous three words in all of mountaineering, “because it’s there.”
“There” is the limit. “There” is the goal on the horizon, the medal, the trophy, the achievement that will set us apart from the madding crowd of everyday life and the people who live it.
“There” is the limit of us, the place where we stop, where we can go no further. In the case of these folks mentioned, it was a place of nerve and grit and physical ability but also a place of madness and obsession and a single mindedness that goes past concentration and enters into absurdity. Is it enough to just be famous as the first people to free climb a big rock face? Is it enough to be the first, the fastest, the best? What will be enough, if not that? From whence will your distinction come?
That’s what it is, you know. Aside from all of the brave talk about pushing the boundaries of humanity and achieving something great, it is about being the one who does it, the one who stands out from the crowd and get the attention, the recognition that they are . . . . what? Better? Faster? Braver? Best? Fastest? Bravest?
Anything except ordinary, like the rest of us, that’d be terrible.
Sure people will celebrate and acknowledge and lift you up on their shoulders. But how many of you remembered Steve Fossett? or George Mallory? or Vasily Alexeev, at one time the strongest man on the planet by a considerable margin, or Sultan Rakhmanov, the man who surpassed him?
The fame of these achievements is fleeting, and will one day be nothing more than a notation in a book on the shelf of your local library assuming we still have local libraries. How many people still even glance into the Guinness Book of World Records?
There is a limit. There is a limit to all of us and to what we can achieve and someone is always there pushing against it and in some sense that is what it means to be human, to always be trying to exceed whatever limitations our flesh imposes upon us.
Well, not every limit. Vast expanse of humility lies largely untrodden upon, its frontiers are safe from invasion by humanity because at the end of that terrain, at the very limit of humility, there is no parade, there is no prize, there is no trophy. The most humble among us are not going to receive our adulation, or even our respect and not just because they are not seeking it, but because that’s not what’s going on.
When it comes around that a Bible Study goes after this particular Gospel, and people try and explain away that there are no rich people in heaven, why it is so hard for a rich person to enter heaven, what Jesus means by “The eye of a needle” and so on, I have always found it odd that nobody ever just asks the simplest question of all, “What’s stopping them?”
After all, that’s a limit, wouldn’t you say? That’s a frontier we could explore and conquer and finally stand in heaven, planting our flag like Mallory did, or Neil Armstrong, or Cortez or any of the others who braved a frontier and claimed a victory.
What’s stopping the wealthy from entering heaven?
The obvious answer is wealth but that seems a little too obvious, a little too simple. After all, we’re reading Ecclesiastes in Bible Study these days and one of the things it tells us is that God has made the riches and that they are bestowed upon people according to God’s will. It is not for us to cast aspersions on God’s blessing just because they fall upon someone else, is it?
Maybe we could ask Steve Fossett, well maybe Lazarus can ask Steve Fossett because he’s dead now. Or maybe the others who’ve braved the frontier of human endeavor, maybe we could ask them except that most of them would think of it as a silly question. Of course they’re going to heaven; they’re just using what God gave them after all.
One of the things that binds the names and people I mentioned at the beginning together is money. They might not all have the kind of funds that Mr. Fosset did, I assume that being dedicated to climbing enough to conquer El Capitan precludes you from taking that job as a hedge fund manager, but think of the freedom you’d have to have to train that much. I’ve got a pretty flexible schedule but that would push it pretty far.
One of the articles about a woman who sailed around the world tried to make her sound like the plucky underdog but it was the phrase “Armed with an in-depth education in sailing, and a lifetime at sea with her family’s boat” that caught my eye. If your family has a boat I’m going to guess that Lake Berryessa is more likely your destination than Fiji, but maybe I’m wrong.
Pushing the limits of human experience is a game that is most likely played by people of means, by the rich man in today’s gospel trying to find out how extreme his lifestyle has to become in order for him to conquer the frontier that is eternal life.
People with more modest means are already at the limits of human experience, it’s just that they are at the other end of the spectrum.
Much has been said from this place already about the lost, the left out, the left behind, the homeless, the hungry, the widow and orphan. It bears saying again, however, that they are also people, also created in God’s image, also sisters and brothers in Christ sometimes and above all else, they are the ones who know, intimately and personally, how close God can feel at times, and how far away.
They are not trying to push the boundaries of human existence, they live at the boundary of human existence it just isn’t a boundary we think about very often because we are so far removed from it.
It’s one of the reasons that we have had our young people help serve at Elisha’s Pantry in the past and why I encourage folks to come out and join me in feeding the folks at Camp Micaela on Friday.
The view from our vantage point upon the world where they live can get pretty blurry; our prejudices and our pride making assumptions about what we will see. When the Greenway campaign held one of its first meetings here in this room one of the main concerns voiced by the people living on properties that backed up onto the Greenway was that it would bring “those people” right up to their back gate. Nobody wanted to elaborate as to what they meant by “those people” but the vantage point of up here on the hill overlooking the hoi polloi and “those people” was pretty obvious.
The thing is, you don’t have to explain grace to the lost, to the hungry or the homeless. Grace is another day. Grace is warmth on a cold night. Grace is food when your belly rumbles. Grace is being seen eye to eye instead of down the nose, being seen as human instead of as a problem, being seen at all instead of being driven past on the corner.
To some of the folks at that meeting a long time ago, grace is as far away as the moon, as foreign as curry because they live lives at the other end of the spectrum, concerned with other priorities, other achievements and they are sitting atop a pile of the rewards of their own efforts.
What keeps the rich man from getting into heaven? Nothing more complicated than pride, the hubris of the self-made man in a world that is entirely God’s creation. All that he has worked for and all that he has earned, the awards and the rewards, the accolades and the trophies are all indications that whatever it is he wants, he can have it if he does what is necessary in order to get it.
There is no room for grace in that sentence.
Jesus doesn’t ask the man to give up what he has, his possessions in order to attain eternal life. Jesus just answers the man’s question. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” I’m going to do this on my own, how do I get there?
That is what keeps him out, not the money. That is what builds the yawning chasm of understanding, the impossibly large gap of compassion between the lost and the found, so to speak.
The poor understand their need for grace because they are closer to their need, more familiar with it. If you can sail around the world by yourself, or pilot a balloon or climb the highest mountain, or a smaller one with just your bare hands, what need have you of a savior? You are the master of the universe with none to challenge you; you are at the pinnacle of human achievement, king of the hill with no one to know you down.
Too bad eternal life is not a human achievement, eh?
The story is not about money, it is about pride fighting a war with humility and pride winning. The man who asks this question of Jesus doesn’t realize that the end of the journey, the final step in inheriting eternal life if you are doing it yourself is to die, to die for the sake of others, to literally leave it all behind and follow he will of God.
The disciples think that they have left everything behind but they still have the ability to turn back and so they too, need the grace of God. They are bold but the boldness that the author of Hebrews speaks of is the boldness that comes from understanding that Christ is out ahead of you, out past the limits of human achievement, waiting to carry you across the un-crossable boundary between life and death so that you need never fear it.
That boldness is easier if you have nothing, sorry to say in a room filled with a people more blessed than that. Christ is naturally closer to those who have nothing because they have nothing in the way.
How then is it possible? What hope do we have who have lived our whole lives in a world of effort and achievement, of striving after a goal and conquering it?
Jesus says it the most simply, with God all things are possible, and with Christ close to your heart you can see that, feel the grace given to you, and walk boldly, knowing you cannot win this battle and knowing that you won’t have to.