Sunday, February 3, 2008

A Sermon for the Last Sunday After Epiphany

Preached at Grace Anglican Church, Ilderton, and St. George’s, Middlesex Centre, 3 February, 2008

Exodus 24:12-18, 2 Peter 1:16-21, Matthew 17:1-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. (Matt 17:1)

Two of our readings this morning, from Exodus and Matthew, involve mountain climbing. It’s not mountain climbing as we might understand it, with pickaxes and ropes, and it’s not climbing as a sport, as an end in itself. Mountains in scripture are places of spiritual encounter, when people like Moses and Peter climb up out of everyday life and enter into a holy space. The person who goes down the mountain is not quite the same as the person who went up. The climber is changed by this encounter with the divine. He has a better idea of who God is and what God wants of them.

As I was thinking about this sermon and about mountains, I recalled that early in the New Year we lost one of the twentieth century's great heroes. Sir Edmund Hillary, the man who conquered Mt. Everest, died on January 11th. Hillary was a tall, ordinary New Zealander who listed his lifelong occupation as beekeeper, and who preferred being called Ed rather than “Sir Edmund”. He climbed Mt. Everest as part of a Royal Geographical Society expedition in 1953, just a few days before the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. I had always thought that he said he climbed Everest “because it was there”, but that saying actually belongs to George Leigh Mallory, who died on Everest in 1924.

Now those of you who know your history are thinking to yourselves, “He wasn’t the only man who climbed Everest in 1953”. The other man was of course the Nepalese sherpa, Tenzing Norkay, and Hillary always said later that the two men reached the summit of Everest as a team. Unlike today’s sports climbers who go to Everest for the bragging rights, Hillary was changed by his experience on the mountain. He remained lifelong friends with Tenzing Norkay and with the Nepalese people. He founded the Sir Edmund Hillary Himalayan Trust, which “raised millions and built more than 30 schools, a dozen clinics, two hospitals, a couple of airfields, and numerous foot bridges, water pipelines and other facilities for the Sherpa villages in Nepal”. Hillary paid a personal price for this lifelong commitment – in 1975 his first wife and daughter were killed in a plane crash while visiting some of their Trust projects. In 2003 Hillary became the first foreign national to receive the dignity of being made an honourary citizen of Nepal.

Edmund Hillary was changed by his mountaintop experience. He wasn’t changed for the worse by the crass, superficial transfiguration of celebrity and fame – he resisted that. Rather, he was changed for the better. Hillary devoted himself to the people who had helped him achieve his fame. As he said in a 1977 interview, the greatest thing about climbing was the comradeship of a team that shared risks and achievement together, and this comradeship extended to the people of Nepal.

Like “Sir Ed”, the mountain climbers in today’s scripture reading are also ordinary people. I doubt that any of them had ever climbed a mountain before, and they may have been surprised and even dismayed to learn that they had to climb one. For all of them, the decision to climb and the decision to follow God were one and the same. They could not do one without doing the other.

Our reading from Exodus comes just after God has spent several chapters telling the Israelites how he wants them to live as God’s people. Now God summarizes this teaching in a set of ten commandments, and summons Moses and Joshua to come up the mountain and receive the tablets. Going up the mountain to see God’s glory is not an end in itself. Receiving rules that will guide God’s people is the goal.

In Matthew’s account, there are no tablets or commandments. Rather, God once again (the first time was at his baptism) reveals his Son as the Messiah who will lead and save God’s people. The commandments will come from the teaching of Jesus, and so the voice from heaven ends with three stark words: “Listen to him” (Mt 17:5).

Both these accounts show the glory of God, but that glory is not a barrier that keeps humanity from God. Moses may be up there alone for forty days, but he will return from the mountain and the people will know God better. The disciples may fall to the ground in terror, but then there is the familiar touch of their friend, a hand lifting them and a reassuring voice saying “Don’t be afraid, get up” (Mt 17:7).

Several weeks ago I talked about the Baptism of Jesus, and of how Matthew describes Jesus walking down to the Jordan in the same muddy footprints of all the sinful people who have gone before him. I think we see something similar here. At the end of the gospel lesson, Jesus walks out of the bright cloud of God’s glory and he goes down the mountain with his friends. He knows that these are ordinary men. He knows that they will fall asleep in Gethsemane when he asks them to stay awake. He knows that they will abandon him, even deny him. But Jesus also knows that these men can be ordinary heroes. Later, in the very last words of Matthew’s gospel, he will stand on another mountain with his disciples, and he will send them out into the world to tell the nations about the Son of God who died and rose from the dead to save the world. He will give them this mission, and he will make one final promise to them: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20).

Our readings today are full of supernatural and miraculous events. Some people may find them hard to believe. Certainly the author of 2 Peter knew of people who dismissed these stories as “cleverly devised myths” (2 Pet 1:16). I think the most amazing thing of all about these stories is not their miracles connection to the real world. God doesn’t keep his glory to himself, up their on the mountains. God shares his glory with ordinary people and he sends them down the mountains into the world, to tell other ordinary people about God’s love. Moses and Joshua, Peter, James and John are changed by their mountaintop experiences and become angels, in the sense that angels are messengers of God.

I started by talking about an ordinary man, Edmund Hillary, who was changed by his mountaintop experience. For the rest of his life he remained a bloke, just “Ed”, but he did extraordinary things for the people who helped him climb Everest, and in doing so he made the world a better place. You and I will never climb Everest, but we are still God’s mountain climbers. God gives us all glimpses of his glory. We find them all over the place: in the beauty of worship, in the stillness of nature, in the kindnesses we receive or in our opportunities to serve others. Perhaps, like Edmund Hillary, we saw that glory in a particularly difficult time or place, when it was the comradeship and teamwork, the care of God’s people and our parish family, that got us through. Our challenge is to reflect that glory as best we can, as Patsy said last week, like little candles each in our own small corners.

Will we know how or when to reflect God’s glory? Well, we all hear the same voice that spoke to the disciples: “This is my beloved Son … listen to him” (Mt 17:5). How much attention will we give Jesus? How much listening will we do? God’s voice often speaks in quiet and gentle ways, and is easily drowned out by the world and its concerns. Fortunately for us we’re at the time of Lent, a time given to us to set aside our preoccupations and listen for God’s voice. Perhaps you need to find, if not a mountain, then some place where that voice may come more clearly to you. You may not think of yourself as a mountain climber, you may be just an ordinary person, but remember, God has glory to spare, and he can do amazing things with ordinary people. AMEN.

Michael Peterson+

1 comment:

nepalwriter said...

I had the privilege of meeting Sir Edmund Hillary twice, once in Colorado and once in Namche in the Everest region where I used to lead treks to the base camp. He dedicated his life to helping the Sherpas who were such a critical part of his first ascent. Beyond the Summit is the first work to dramatize their lives in fiction. Hillary's work in the area is mentioned frequently as well as his climbing partner, Tenzing Norgay.
Details of Sherpa culture and religion are interwoven in a tale of romance and high adventure. The story has something for everyone: a love affair between an American journalist and Sherpa guide, conflict between generations as the modern world challenges centuries of tradition, an expedition from the porter’s point of view.

Below are selections from reviews. To read the complete ones and excerpts go to

Beyond the Summit, is the rare gem that shows us the triumphs and challenges of a major climb from the porter’s point of view. The love of two people from diverse cultures is the fiery centerpiece of a novel that leads its readers through harshly beautiful and highly dangerous territory to the roof of the world. Malcolm Campbell, book reviewer

Conflict and dialog keep this gripping story of destiny, romance and adventure moving from the first page to the last paragraph. LeBlanc has a genius for bonding her readers and her characters. I found I was empathizing in turn with each character as they faced their own personal crisis or trauma.
Richard Blake for Readers Views.

A gripping, gut-twisting expedition through the eyes of a porter reveals the heart and soul of Sherpas living in the shadows of Everest.

A hard-hitting blend of adventure and romance which deserves a spot in any serious fiction collection. Midwest Book Review

LeBlanc is equally adept at describing complex, elusive emotions and the beautiful, terrifying aspect of the Himalayan Mountains. Boulder Daily Camera

LeBlanc’s vivid description of the Himalayas and the climbing culture makes this a powerful read. Rocky Mt News Pick of the Week

A rich adventure into the heart of the Himalayan Kingdom. Fantastic story-telling from one who has been there.

This is the book to read before you embark on your pilgrimage to Nepal. The author knows and loves the people and the country, and makes you feel the cold thin air, the hard rocks of the mountains, the tough life of the Sherpa guides, and you learn to love them too. This is a higly literate, but also very readable book. Highly recommended.”
– John (college professor)

Memorable characters and harrowing encounters with the mountains keep the action moving with a vibrant balance of vivid description and dialogue. Literary Cafe Host, Healdsburg, CA

This superbly-crafted novel will land you in a world of unimaginable beauty, adventure, and romance. The love story will keep you awake at night with its vibrant tension and deep rich longing. Wick Downing, author of nine novels

Such vividly depicted images of the Everest region and the Sherpa people are the perfect scenario for the romance and adventure feats narrated. It’s a page-turner, so engrossing you end up wanting to visit Nepal! Not just novel, but perfect for those seeking to get acquainted with the culture of this country.
By Claudia Fournier (América, Bs. As., Argentina)

Available through Barnes and Noble, Borders,,, and the web site

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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