Wilkes, Yosemite Valley

I was rummaging through my pile of National Geographic magazines the other day (if you’ve ever been a subscriber, chances are you have a pile too) and an issue jumped out at me. Its was a 2016 issue commemorating the centennial year of the National Park Service. Each issue published that year featured articles and photography focused on the preservation of America’s “treasured wild places.”

The iconic image that comes to mind for me, and for most, I would imagine, when you think of one of these wild place , is Yosemite Valley in California. Ansel Adams’ high contrast, black and white photography of this area has made it famous worldwide, and it’s one of the most photographed sites for a reason. In reference to Yosemite, John Muir enthusiastically wrote: “John the Baptist was not more eager to get all his fellow sinners into the Jordan than I to baptize all of mine in the beauty of God’s mountains.”

Honestly, though, it’s hard to take a bad photograph in Yosemite Valley. I’ve been there myself with a simple point-and-shoot and come away with photos I wanted to sell. And, the cover of this copy of National Geographic featured yet another photograph of Yosemite Valley. But what landed it in the “save” pile was the fact that this photo was like none I’d ever seen. The detail was impossibly crisp, the lighting perfect, the color flawless. It was as if the photographer had truly captured paradise. And, as it turns out, he did a little more than just point and shoot. The photographer, Stephen Wilkes, wanted to “compress the best parts of a day and night into a single photograph.” He set up his camera at 3 a.m. and took over a thousand photos during a 26 hour period then digitally combined them into a panorama. The result reveals such details as the lights of climbers on the face of El Capitan, captured in the early morning hours, alongside a rainbow prism effect through Bridalveil Falls taken at midday. It even shows the day’s park visitors walking along a promenade in the foreground.

What Wilkes had done, essentially, is paint a picture, rather than photograph a landscape. It’s a picture of a world that doesn’t currently exist in nature — visionary art, more impressionism than realism. The viewer gets to see Yosemite Valley in an entirely new way, maybe as if even for the first time, kindling that giddy John Muir spirit. The same spirit that inspired Muir and others to dedicate their lives to the creation and preservation of the National Parks.

In today’s passage from Mark’s Gospel, we witness the work of another visionary artist. Jesus had just emerged from the Jordan river having been baptized by John and then led straightaway into the wilderness where he was tempted for forty days by Satan. He has now resurfaced in a Capernaum synagogue to teach. The version of this story in the Gospel of Luke lets us in on his content: Using the ancient, prophetic writings of Isaiah, Jesus paints a picture. “The poor will hear good news,” he says. “Prisoners will be released, the blind will see, and the oppressed will be liberated.” Jesus then goes on to bring this picture to life by dramatically casting out an evil spirit, setting the captive person free. Mark tells us that the onlookers were shaken and amazed by Jesus’ teaching and actions. “What is this? A new teaching with authority!”

At this point in time, around the year 30, things are not good. The Roman occupiers are treating the locals like second class citizens, taxing them severely and unfairly. They have practically nothing. Poverty is the norm. Judgement for those who cross the authorities is without mercy. Punishment is cruel and inhumane. And here we have this young man, a son of nearby Nazareth no less, standing up in front of a crowd boldly proclaiming and demonstrating a miraculous and hopeful vision.

Like Wilkes’s’ photograph of Yosemite valley, Jesus has painted a picture of a reality that doesn’t currently exist. It’s a hope, a dream that God has, and Jesus wants the people to dream it as well. On the one hand, hearing a vision of peace and freedom is a welcome gift and a balm for the berated masses. On the other hand, it could be seen as arrogant and short-sighted given just how bad things had become.

Jesus started something back there in that synagogue. He stood up and did something so remarkable that it would come to define the thoughts, motivations, and actions of his followers from then onward. What he did was to insist on hope. And he insisted on hope not when it was easy, not when dawn was just about to come or when the storm was just about to end — he insisted on hope in the darkest time of night. He insisted on hope among the poorest of the poor and the sickest of the sick. He insisted on hope when things seemed so lost that, to most, hope was at best embarrassingly naive.

As modern day disciples, we are inheritors of Jesus’ stubborn insistence on hope. Like those who were open enough to see 2000-years-ago, we have caught glimpses of this vision that God has for the world. Unfortunately, the world we live in is not all that different from the world in which Jesus first began to preach. The economic gap between rich and poor continues to widen, politics is more about posturing than production, and an unfounded fear of those who don’t look like us seems to be growing. It’s easy to be cynical. It’s easy to blame “the way things are” on the failures of others. That’s the common narrative these days. It’s much more difficult to stand up in a room of cynics and say, “no, I’m hopeful.” I believe we can be better than this. I believe that the poor, the sick, and the oppressed, can be made whole. I believe the blind can be made to see. I’m hopeful.

Stephen Wilkes’s visionary photography of Yosemite Valley is meant to motivate viewers to take another look at the National Parks, to be refreshed and inspired by the natural world, and then to take a bit of that inspiration back with them into their homes and workplaces — perhaps less anxious, perhaps more grateful.

The Christian vision is meant to give people hope, hope that it can never be too dark for redemption, no matter the circumstance. That’s a vision the people of this world need to see. Let’s show it to them.

Epiphany 4, Year B