Denali is the highest mountain in North America. Like me, you probably grew up calling it Mount McKinley. The indigenous people named it Denali long before we claimed Alaska as the 49th state in 1959.
The first attempt to scale Denali was in 1903. Renowned climbers vied to be the first to make it to the top. In 1906, Frederick Cook claimed success. Pictures of Cook standing on the summit of Denali appeared in newspapers around the globe.
Almost immediately fellow explorers like Robert Peary raised doubts, calling Cook a fraud and the alleged achievement a hoax. The controversy remained unresolved for decades. Finally, years after Cook’s death, a researcher recovered the original photograph of Cook supposedly atop Denali.
Cook himself had provided the picture that appeared along with the newspaper accounts of his feat. Before sending his photograph to the papers, Cook had cropped it.
When looking at the full picture, you can see taller peaks in the distance. Cook was clearly standing on a shorter mountain elsewhere in the Alaska Range. In the picture he provided to newspapers, those higher peaks had been cut away. Cook was distorting the true picture.
There’s a lot to consider here. The temptation to embellish our accomplishments. The fear of being found out. The personal cost of hypocrisy.
But I invite you to join me in considering something else. Cook’s story illustrates a challenge inherent in the spiritual life, the very challenge that Jesus’ Transfiguration presses us to ponder.
In the Transfiguration, Jesus reveals to us a way of living to which we are all drawn. Jesus is radiant with God. He is utterly God-infused. Jesus has held nothing of himself back, so that God can fill every cell and every membrane, every thought and every emotion, every heartbeat, tear, and breath.
Jesus is both the way and the destination. We get to the God-saturated life by following Christ.
So far so good. But here’s the challenging part.
Following Christ takes a certain shape. We discover again and again that there is more to God being God, more to humans being human, more to each of us being ourselves than we had ever thought.
For a time we settle into a stable picture of things. At some point Christ shows us that we have been looking at an artificially narrow picture. To grow, we have to allow our view of things to become more inclusive. In the process, we grow from a narrower life to greater life.
I’ll say more about the Transfiguration and what it teaches us about growing from narrower to greater life. But first, let’s reflect—with some imaginative license—on the example of Robert Cook.
When God stretches us—when God nudges us toward seeing a bigger picture—part of us is likely to resist. We may cling with surprising fierceness to a narrow picture that we know to be inadequate to the breadth and depth of reality both human and divine.
It’s hard for me to believe that Cook struggled to get deep into the Alaska Range just to pull off a hoax. Remember, this was 1906. There was no dropping in by helicopter. Cook and his team exerted enormous energies and took harrowing risks to get to the false peak where the disputed photo was shot.
Somewhere along the line he gave up pursuing Denali’s summit. Or more to the point, he settled on a lower elevation. A significant part of him knew this. But imagine for just a moment that a more powerful part of himself resisted the idea that he could have gone higher.
On photo day, that resistant part of him won. Cook posed for the picture, insisting to himself and to the rest of his team and finally to the whole world that he was standing on Denali.
Once the negatives were developed, Cook surely saw the higher peaks in the picture. Imagine with me for a moment that he could not conceive of himself as anything other than the man who reached Denali’s summit first. So, he insisted that the picture in front of him—the fully inclusive picture—was a lie.
Those peaks couldn’t possibly be higher than where he stood. If they were, he would have to radically reevaluate who he was. So instead of stretching to embrace a new understanding, he cut his picture of things down to a size that suited an understanding of himself with which he was comfortable.
God created us to stretch us. We are finite. God is infinite. And yet, God wants to abide in us, and God framed us with a desire to receive God fully into our lives.
Something’s got to give, and that’s what walking the way of Christ is all about: giving ourselves to God so that God can stretch us from narrower to greater life.
Death and resurrection is the definitive passage from narrower life to greater life. But the pattern of dying to narrower life in order to rise to greater life begins already in our daily rounds on planet Earth.
God stretches every part of our being. Our heart. Our soul. Our mind. Our imagination. As Richard Rohr puts it, Jesus came to change our minds about God, not to change God’s mind about us.
For instance, God stretches our heart and soul.
We frequently define who we are by who is for us and who is against. We draw lines and choose sides. We seek our security by joining small circles of familiarity and allegiance, affection and loyalty on the basis of affinity and sameness.
Jesus pulls and stretches our hearts toward greater and greater networks of love, encompassing ever greater differences of race, gender, sexual orientation, social class, and political persuasion. We don’t get to love our neighbor and hate our enemies. Jesus says that God’s love embraces even our enemies. And God means for his love to flow through our veins.
God stretches our minds and our imaginations.
Many of us have assumed that because truth is eternal there can be only one way to approach that eternal truth. So, some cannot reconcile science with scripture, evolution with creation.
In time we see that our finite minds approach the infinite God in a variety of ways: scripture, science, art, music, philosophy, and poetry. A finite mind cannot always discern the harmony of these approaches, but rejecting any of these for the sake of one is to willfully narrow our view of God.
God is stretching us toward greater life. Toward eternal life. Paradoxically, our capacity for eternal life involves the power to resist God’s stretching. We can cling to a narrower life. But God knows this. And he is patient and persistent.
When our hearts break, our minds falter, and our souls ache—when we are certain that the truth will crush us and leave us diminished—God will be there to make us whole by making us more.
This sermon was preached at Epiphany Episcopal Church in New Iberia, Louisiana.