Impressive Foolishness – Br. Jim Woodrum

1 Corinthians 1:17-25
Matthew 25:1-13

Nat Geo’s ‘Free Solo’ Trailer:

In June of 2017, American rock climber Alex Honnold did the unthinkable: He climbed Yosemite National Park’s “El Capitan,” a rock face that rises 3,200 feet above ground level. For laymen, we might think that is pretty impressive, but then again, a lot of people climb El Capitan each year. The difference is that Alex climbed El Capitan, from bottom to top, without any ropes or safety equipment. The only thing he had on his body besides t-shirt, shorts, and climbing shoes was his chalk bag to keep his hands dry in order to grip the oftentimes slight crags in the limestone. This type of climbing is called “Free Soloing.” Climbing El Cap with ropes, harnesses, and even a climbing partner equals impressive. Climbing El Cap free solo equals…well, we might say that’s foolish.

Our lesson from 1 Corinthians may lead us to wonder more deeply about the relationship between wisdom, risk, and foolishness. Certainly, St. Paul seems to waxing eloquently about the foolishness of the cross, a Roman instrument of torture and slow certain death, which our Lord Jesus endured for the sake of all creation. With his resurrection and ascension, he won victory over sin and death and brought us into this victory by showing us the way, if we would but trust and follow. We might look at Jesus and say enduring the cross, death, and being raised up to new life: impressive! But us doing the same thing—would we say that is foolish? Paul says: “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”

Dubbed Alex “No Big Deal” Honnold by his friends and colleagues, Alex usually brushes off his free-solo climbs in what they experience as a humble gesture. But those who have observed Alex climb or have partnered with him in other safer climbs, know that Alex’s seemingly effortless free solo climbs are anything but effortless. In fact, they’re incredibly risky. In a Harvard Business School interview with Alex, he was asked how he decides which risks are worth taking. His answer: “The casual observer might think free soloing is all crazy and reckless. But you can’t have a long career unless you spend a tremendous amount of time thinking about risk and minimizing it to ensure your own safety.” In fact, Alex spent two years preparing for this climb, working with ropes first, picking a route up the wall, memorizing each move and recording those moves in a climbing journal. He goes on in the interview to aver the importance of preparation: “I’ve spent 25-years conditioning to work in extreme conditions, so of course my brain is different—just as the brain of a monk who has spent years meditating or a taxi driver who has memorized all the streets of a city would be different.” But I have to ask, even knowing that Alex has conditioned 25-years and trained for the one climb for 2 years—does that change our perspective about the foolishness of it all?

Perhaps. But our gospel lesson from Matthew teaches us the value of preparation. Five bridesmaids were foolish, because they did not calculate the risk of their complacency. The other five were prepared and did not fear any risk of being absent from the wedding banquet. Jesus, who has called us to be his disciples, is calling us to follow him. To meet Jesus in the moment and follow him through Good Friday and into Easter Sunday, is to be ready for the journey when he calls—to say yes to the one who has assessed the risk, climbed the route, who knows the steps and moves, and will guide us to perfect freedom from the fear of death into the safety and glory of the mountain top, with a view of Eden in it’s original goodness and perfection.

Alex Honnold, whose assent of El Capitan was captured in a movie by National Geographic, says: “Preparation is what stops the fear.” In today’s gospel we hear Jesus say, “Keep awake!” Be prepared and fear not.

Lectionary Year/Proper: Year C/Proper 16—Friday

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  1. Margo on March 25, 2024 at 09:46

    “Preparation is what stops the fear.” In today’s gospel we hear Jesus say, “Keep awake!” Be prepared and fear not.. I am not sure where we are going but I love this injunction. Thank you Br. Jim.

  2. Tudy Hill on September 10, 2022 at 03:19

    You nailed St Paul’s concept of “foolishness” and the cross for me, especially including the short film and story of Alex Honnold. I am grateful.

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