Choral Eucharist on the Sunday before Lent
The Very Rev'd Andrew Nunn, Dean of Southwark
Exodus 24.12-18; 2 Peter 1.16-21; Matthew 17.1-9
The Dean of Southwark's sermon, preached at the 11am Eucharist on Sunday 19 February.
I’m no mountaineer; I can’t really stand heights; I’m not at all adventurous. So when, a few years ago, I stood outside the walls of St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, at about 4am in the morning, in the dark waiting for the guides to appear I was not, as they say, in my comfort zone.
The desert is a cold place at night; the environment we were in was harsh, unwelcoming. Joseph appeared out of nowhere, it seemed, he was to be our guide. He was very young; this was our first meeting and it felt to me as though I was putting my life in his hands. There was the option of riding a camel up the first stage of the mountain, but they could only go so far. As someone unable to stay on the back of a donkey at Blackpool I thought better of trying to get on board a camel and decided that to walk was my only option.
So we began, in the dark, the journey up to the summit of Mount Sinai. At times Joseph seemed to disappear, running off to meet his mates who were leading camels or with other small groups. I quickly felt lost, abandoned, then out of the gloom he would reappear and get us back on track.
The sun was rising, and the mountain began to appear out of the darkness. At the summit were crowds of people who had gone up really early or late at night, depending on how you look at it, to be there for sunrise. But we’d been advised to hold back so that we could have the summit to ourselves. So, as we were still going up, they were coming down.
It was good advice we’d received. When we got to the summit we were on our own, just our group of pilgrims. It hadn’t been easy but we’d done it. The riders had got off their mounts at the little rest stop half way up. A couple stayed there until we came back down, but the rest of us continued the climb together.
I won’t ever forget it. All you can see around you are bare rocks and hills, mounts like the one that we were on. They were like grey waves in a sea of rock. It was a harsh, uncomfortable, holy place. All I could think was, Moses has been here and Moses met God here, and this is where the Ten Commandments were written down. It was staggering, the place of the most extreme and decisive moment of divine encounter that humanity has really known. I kept wondering what had really happened there, as opposed to what was written down for us to read, but whatever the answer was to that question, it was so profound that it changed our knowledge of God.
The Jewish poet Merle Feld wrote this about Sinai in her poem ‘We all stood together’
As time passes
The hard data
The who what when where why
Slip away from me
And all I’m left with is
In the Gospel for today we hear of another encounter with the divine on a mountain. For Peter, James and John, taken up the mount by Jesus there must have been a resonance with their history. In fact, as we heard in the Second Reading from Peter’s Second Letter when he speaks of the Majestic Glory on the mountain, Sinai and Tabor – if that’s where the transfiguration, this moment of divine disclosure took place – came together for him.
But as for Feld in her poem, it is not the ‘hard data’ that’s important, not the ‘who what when where why’ as she describes it, but the feeling, the feeling of knowing God, of being with God, the feeling of being taken beyond yourself to some where powerful, to a place of deeper understanding, a place of encounter that really matters.
We’re at this amazing point in the year again, Lent is about to begin. In just a few days we’ll be invited to enter into the harshness of the wilderness, the challenge of the desert, to sit with Jesus and to travel with Jesus. We’re being invited to enter the place of self-discipline, of denial and engagement, the place of fasting and prayer, the place where we’ll be taken deeper into ourselves and deeper into God. That’s why we read this gospel on this Sunday because the mountain was the pivotal moment when Jesus left Galilee and set his face towards Jerusalem, changed direction and began the final journey.
And we prepare for all of this here in the liturgy, in communion, at the Eucharist. This is always the place of powerful encounter as we meet Jesus in the word, in the bread, in one another, in the place where hard data is not what matters but that deeper encounter, that deeper understanding of the reality of the divine that leaves us with – the feeling.
That’s what my climb up Mount Sinai left me with – the feeling. That for me is the most valuable thing and, to be honest, that’s what I want to find whenever I worship, the feeling. That might not satisfy the intellectual, those who look for things to be verified, the fact finders and the fact checkers. But for me the feeling of God is everything.
As T S Eliot said in his poem Little Gidding
You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.
We know, I hope, what it feels like to be loved, we know what it feels like to be found. We know what it feels like to be rejected; we know what it feels like to be lost. We know what it feels like to be hungry, we know what it feels like to be thirsty. We know what it feels like to be fed; we know what it feels like to be sated. Our feelings are valid, our feelings of God are valid.
Peter says something very powerful to us in that Second Reading
‘men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God’
They spoke out of that profound encounter with God, that deep encounter with God, that knowledge that they’d been with God, as we are now with God, the people who’ve come to worship, who, as it were, have climbed out of last week, through whatever darkness is around us and have come into this place of light and love and refreshment – and like the disciples and like Moses we descend the hill, climb down the mountain and take the feeling with us.
It was a hard climb down Sinai as it had been a hard climb up. The sun had risen and the air was quickly warming up. But we were different people for we knew we had been in the place where heaven had touched earth and earth had touched heaven. We had felt it and we were left with the feeling.
Enter Lent, knowing, feeling that God is with you; travel the hard route of the forty days sustained by what we share together, now. Hunger and thirst and know them both – and know that the God of the encounter will be with you, with bread and wine for the journey, God’s self for our self.