Date: Sunday Oct. 9, 2016
Scripture: 2 Timothy 2: 8-15 and quote from George Mallory
Sermon: The Mallory Mystery
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
Quote from George Mallory that was read after the scripture.
“Climbers who, like myself, take the high line have much to explain, and it is high time they set about it. Notoriously they endanger their lives. With what object? If only for some physical pleasure, to enjoy physical movements of the body and to experience the zest of emulation, then it is not worth while. . . The only defence for mountaineering puts it on a higher plane than mere physical sensation.” [Because It’s There: The Life of George Mallory, Dudley Green, p. 64]
Why climb Mount Everest? The most famous answer came from George Mallory. “Because it’s there.” Mallory was part of three English expeditions to Mount Everest in 1921, 1922, and 1924. As an admired climber in Europe, Mallory was a likely candidate for these Everest expeditions. The first trip was for reconnaissance. There was much mapping, charting, and getting to know the area in order to scope out a possible route to the top.”
The second effort, the 1922 expedition, included several attempts to get to the top with no success. When asked to participate in the third expedition in 1924, Mallory at 37 years old, knew it would be his last chance. In the end, he and Andrew Irvine made the bid for the top and they headed up but never returned. Did they make it to the top? We don’t know. Mallory’s body was found on Everest in 1999. There was a fall and the two bones of his leg above the ankle were broken. Irvine has not been found. Neither has the camera that Mallory took with him. If they got to the top, surely he would have captured the moment on film. But that film has not yet been found and may well never be.
Whether or not Mallory reached the summit of Everest, we know that he lived out his dream. He wanted to be part of climbing the highest peak in the world. For Mallory, as we heard in the quote from the article read earlier, climbing was about much more than just the physical challenge. He was a teacher and a writer. He was very much concerned with culture, history, and human affairs. He had been part of World War 1, the war to end all wars. In the aftermath, it was a time of great optimism for humanity. There was prosperity and hope for lasting peace. Mallory supported the idea of the League of Nations. He saw himself very much as part of the whole human race. In a lecture at Charterhouse, where he was a teacher, he argued for a new kind of patriotism:
If the individual man is conscious of himself as belonging to various groups, to the family, the trade, the class, and many others, why should his group consciousness stop with the state? Why should not an Englishman become conscious of Europe as a group and then of the whole world; become, in fact, a citizen of the world? [Green, p. 83]
For Mallory, a gifted climber, being part of the Everest expeditions was about being a citizen of the world and advancing humanity as a species. Those involved felt that this was a step in the progress of humankind toward achieving its full potential. It was a symbol of human promise and capability. Climbing Everest in their eyes was a noble aim. A triumph for humanity as a whole.
This is a much different understanding than there seems to be today about climbing Mount Everest. Climbing the highest mountain in the world today has become much more about personal, individual achievement than about the betterment of humankind as a whole. It has also become big business. The heaps of garbage and the trails strewn with used oxygen canisters attest to this. Today, climbing Mount Everest is no longer thought of as a noble quest of the universal human spirit and a symbolic gesture of the potentiality of the human race as it was in Mallory’s day and the years following.
So Mallory and others left livelihood, home, family (Mallory had a wife and three children), and the comfort and safety of their lives in Europe to venture into the wilds of the Himalayas. They were gone for months slowly traversing sea and land. Gear was, to our sensibilities, primitive. There were none of the fancy new synthetic materials that are lightweight and warm. Tents were cotton canvas. Shoes were leather. Clothes were wool and tweed. Oxygen delivery was cumbersome, heavy, and unreliable. They were risking their lives for a greater good, in their eyes. A conquest for humanity.
And there was no promise of personal glory in the undertaking. These expeditions involved dozens of people, Europeans and local people from the Everest region. There were doctors, scientists, and a variety of climbers involved. There were camps established at regular intervals up the mountain supplying food, gear, and information. This supply chain made it possible to press ever upward toward the noble goal of doing something significant for the betterment of humanity. Lower camps could see weather issues from afar. And they had systems of communication – without satellite phones or walkie talkies. At one point there was a symbol system devised using two sleeping bags. Laying out the bags in a cross meant one thing. Laying them parallel meant another. And so on. In this way, they sent messages from camp to camp. When supplies were needed, there was contact with the camps below. Supplies were stowed along the way. It wasn’t until everything was in place, after weeks of setting up and putting out ropes, and identifying good camping locations, and acclimatizing for the altitude, that the actual summit bid could be made. There were many unknowns along the way including the physical condition of the climbers: Some got sick. Some couldn’t handle the altitude. Some were injured. And weather was a factor. They had to pick a day when the weather was just right. There were so many variables. So, who would actually make a summit bid was determined at the very end through an appointed chain of command. But the team as a whole always worked together. They were all committed to the challenge and contributed in every way they could. It was a perilous business and they knew they were dependent upon each other for survival. There was a great degree of trust and selfless dedication. And this was all in service to the noble aim of summiting Everest as a symbolic conquest celebrating the potential of the human spirit.
This image of the climbing expedition with team work and base camps helps us to think about the role of the church in our lives. For us, we are joined together in this community for a noble aim – to share the love of God. It is a high and holy calling. It requires our all and all of us are needed. We join together in the work with mutual support, hope, and trust.
In the verses from Second Timothy, we heard that beautiful line, the word of God is unchained. Here in church we listen for that word of God. That word of pure, unadulterated love. We look for that gift of grace. No limits. We listen for the unexpected word of hope and promise calling us beyond a current morass of grief, regret, or shame. The word of God unchained draws us into the faith community to be a source of solidarity and support for one another in our mission to love and serve God.
Here, we listen for our calling. How are we needed to serve for the good of the world? How are we made whole through our commitment to the way of Jesus? Here we have our sense of mission confirmed. We orient our lives toward the good of the world and in so doing find our highest good. Our internal spiritual work helps us to see our calling and to commit ourselves to noble aims. Here we learn to work together, without the need for recognition, fame, or glory. We look out for each other and seek the highest good of the other. We find our calling to live for something beyond our personal satisfaction, comfort, and pleasure. Here we identify resources, financial and human, to mobilize for mission. The church is really the base of support for our lives. We can count on getting the help we need and the support we need for the challenges of our lives. We feel a sense of solidarity with those who are living for a higher purpose than individual pleasure and comfort.
When we think of the story of Mallory, we are moved because we know that he gave his all to what he considered the betterment of humanity. He gave his greatest gift – his skill and talent for mountaineering – for the good of the world. We know he was true. And, here at church, that is what is asked of us. We are asked to listen for our calling; for how we are needed in the world. We tune our ears for the cries of the world as Jesus did. Here we are a part of a community of growth and commitment to life’s highest goals. Here we have team support for the challenges of life’s journey and for our mission through life for the good of the world. Here we are encouraged to give our lives to something beyond our personal pleasure, satisfaction, and glory.
Later this month, on Sunday October 23, the church will host The BIG Event. This is a special Sunday that involves a celebration of the life of the church and an opportunity to support the church with our financial resources, our time, and our talents for the year ahead. This year the theme is Base Camp: Mission Support. We are celebrating how, as a church, we are engaged in an expedition of sorts bringing God’s love to the world. And this community functions as our base camp. Here we find the supplies and support that we need. Here we find comfort and healing when we are hurting. Here we realize that we are not alone but are part of a community of solidarity. Here we know that we are needed. Here we offer support and encouragement and healing to others on the journey. Here we rest and take stock and assess our situation so we can proceed in a way that is true to the Gospel.
For the Everest expeditions of the 1920’s there were those who followed the proceedings from their armchairs in London giving substantially of their financial resources. There were those, like Mallory, who gave up earning a livelihood and endured financial sacrifice as well as risking their lives for the quest. A mission like getting to the top of Everest for the first time takes contributions of all kinds from many people all investing in a common dream.
Sometimes the mission of the church feels even more daunting than those first attempts at summiting Everest. We see the level of division, hatred, greed, and violence in our world and feel that the love of God is desperately needed in a hostile environment. And all of us are needed in that effort with our contributions whatever they may be. That beautiful phrase, the word of God unchained, reminds us that everyone is needed. God can use everyone. Everyone has a role to play in caring for each other and this precious world. There is no one who is not good enough or does not have resources enough to be part of God’s mission in the world. If you can breath, you can be of use to God for the good of the world.
Did Mallory and Irvine make it to the top of Everest? We don’t know. Mallory took a picture of his beloved wife, Ruth, with him to Everest. He pledged that he would leave the picture at the top when he got there. The picture was not found at the top when Tensing Norgay and Edmund Hillary got there in 1953. That’s not a surprise after so many years. When Mallory’s body was found in 1999, it was very well preserved as were his clothing and personal effects. There was a wallet with documents but no sign of the picture of his wife.
We trust the word of God unchained, within us and among us, and follow the leading of love, whatever the outcome, however perilous, or unlikely the circumstances. . . Amen.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.