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 places, is Yosemite Valley in California. Ansel Adams’ high contrast, black and white photography of this area has made it famous worldwide. And if you’re having a hard time conjuring up one of Adams’ shots, just open up an Apple Computer and more likely than not, your stock desktop image is of Half Dome or El Capitan, one of the shear rock faces rising out of Yosemite Valley. 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 Matthew’s gospel, we witness the work of another visionary artist. Jesus has just returned from a grand tour of Galilee, Jerusalem, Judea, and lands beyond the Jordan to speak to the crowds on the mountainside. The words he speaks, the Beatitudes, are deeply familiar to us: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” The picture Jesus paints with these words is of the Kingdom of Heaven, a Kingdom that dramatically reverses the fortune of God’s people, where the mighty are cast down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up, where the wolf lives with the lamb.

It’s easy to forget just how powerful—even radical—these words were. When Jesus originally preached from the mountain, around the year 30, things were not good. The Roman occupiers were treating the locals like second class citizens, taxing them severely and unfairly. Poverty was the norm. Judgement for those who crossed the authorities was without mercy. Punishment was cruel and inhumane. You can imagine how listeners might have met Jesus’ vision with a bit of skepticism. At the same time, some people in the region enlivened by Jesus’ amazing vision.

Like Wilkes’s’ photograph of Yosemite valley, Jesus’ picture of the Kingdom of Heaven depicted a reality that didn’t currently exist. It was God’s dream, and Jesus wanted the people to dream it as well, and then to live their lives as if it were reality. On the one hand, hearing a vision of peace is a welcome gift and a balm for the berated masses. On the other hand, it could be seen as foolishness given just how bad things had become. As Paul says to the Corinthians in today’s epistle, “for the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

Jesus insisted 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 seemed at best embarrassingly naive.

As modern day disciples, we are inheritors of Jesus’ “foolish” insistence on hope. We have caught a glimpse of the vision that God has for the world, and we like it. 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 personal power than governance, 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 believe that the meek will inherit the earth. 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. This may seem like “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” I say we risk a little foolishness and spread the Good News. I certainly know some folks who could use some.

Epiphany 4, Year A