Feeding Our Hunger for DIVINE PRESENCE Amid a Pandemic – Matthew 14:13-21

When I was a teenager, I was always in a hurry. I wanted to see and do everything there was to see and do. When I was nineteen, I knew that I just had to get out there and see what the world had to offer. So with nothing more than a backpack, a three-month Euro-rail pass, and eight-hundred dollars in travellers cheques, I boarded an airplane bound for Amsterdam. I was searching for adventure and I was convinced that Europe held the excitement I was looking for. 

Inside my backpack was the book that would make it all possible,  a little book entitled,  “Europe on Ten Dollars a Day.” I was determined to make my eight-hundred dollars stretch the length and breadth of Europe. I was going to see and do it all!  It wasn’t easy. In fact, when I look back on it now, it seems like such a lot of hard work. Up early in the morning sightseeing all day long. Meeting new people. Fighting my way through the crowds of tourists. Searching for cheap places to eat and sleep. 

After two months of traveling from one European city to the next, I just couldn’t face one more castle or museum. I figured that it was time to get away from the cities so I headed for the Alps. After a long train ride from Munich, I arrived in the Swiss town of Interlaken. There I boarded a coggle train that would take me to the Alpine village of Grindelwald. The train was filled with tourists anxious to fill their rolls of film with pictures of the mountains. When I arrived in Grindelwald, I was told that the youth hostel was only about three kilometres from the station, so I and several other young backpackers which I had met on the train decided to walk to the hostel. What we didn’t know was that the hostel was three kilometres straight up the side of a mountain.  As we trudged up the mountain, we were embarrassed by the speed with which villagers three times our age just passed us by. Despite our youth, the senior Swiss locals were much more adept at climbing than we were.  

When we finally arrived at the hostel there was a lot of complaining about how tired we were.  We were exhausted.  Tired of the demands of traveling. Too tired to be impressed by the fact that here we were, in a Swiss chalet in the middle of the magnificent Alps. It was only two o’clock in the afternoon, but we collapsed onto our beds in the dormitory and promptly fell asleep and didn’t wake up until morning. 

Breakfast tastes incredibly good when you eat it in a Swiss chalet surrounded by friends you have only just met. People from all over the world with just two things in common: youth and an incredible thirst for adventure. There was only one thing for us to do. We had to get a closer look at the mountains. So about a dozen of us decided to climb to the top of what was called the Glacier Gorge  so that we could get a better look at the famous Eiger. We had been assured by the hostel manager that we could easily walk to the top of the glacier that lay adjacent to the Eiger and from there the view would be magnificent. Right after breakfast we set off, newfound fiends from the farthest reaches of the earth.  

Canada, South Africa, Tokyo, England, Finland, Australia, New York and California, and there wasn’t a real climber in the bunch. The first part of the journey was pleasant enough.  

The alpine meadows were delightful, and the conversation was playful. The switch back trail was a bit more of a challenge as our calf muscles began to feel the strain. But when we reached the cliffs, I wondered if we were up to the challenge. Before us lay a series of cliffs into which the Swiss had embedded a series of wooden ladders. My fear of heights began to surface. But I was determined to give the first cliff a try. So, one by one we began to climb. Each rung of the ladder was a challenge and I resolved never to look down. As I climbed hand over fist, step by step, I kept my vision firmly fixed on the butt that was up ahead of me willing myself up the cliff, one rung at a time.  

When all of us had safely negotiated the first ladder, several people, myself included, suggested that perhaps we were overreaching ourselves. Maybe the glacier gorge was more of a climb than we could handle. But the keeners in the group encouraged us to go on. After we had slowly made our way up about half a dozen ladders, there was more dissension in the ranks, but we had come this far and so we headed towards the next ladder. It was a doozy.  We moved ever so slowly.  I resolved that I had had enough and once I got to the top of this particular ladder, I wasn’t going to go any higher.  

As I scrambled to the top, I was relieved that my climb at least was over. My legs were a little shaky as I straightened up and took a look around. It took my breath away. There we were on top of a plateau opposite the Eiger.  We had made it to the foot of the glacier gorge. The view was magnificent. I was awe-struck. Our once talkative little group, was silent as each of us tried to take it all in.

I found a spot of grass and sat down. The air was fresh and clear, the sun burned bright, and the snow glistened as though it were a sea of diamonds. Over-whelmed by the beauty, no one spoke a word. I wish I could share the wonder of that moment with you. It was a glimpse of the CREATOR’s  power and majesty. Everywhere I looked I saw the evidence of DIVINE splendour.  

It was truly a once in a life-time mountaintop experience. One of those rare moments when you are totally conscious of the presence of something so much bigger than yourself; something DIVINE, something that has been described for generations as “God.” One of those moments that has the power to transform you.

Eventually our silence gave way to slumber as we rested our weary selves. When the warmth the afternoon sun woke me from my slumber, my eyes tried desperately to adjust to the vivid colours. Before me stood the Eiger.  I looked out across picture post-card Switzerland and I marvelled at the glory and majesty of CREATION. Slowly I became aware of my traveling companions. We had gathered together just a few hours earlier.  We came from the farthest reaches of the earth and together each of us felt the wonder of the experience.  

There on the top of a mountain a rag tag group of travellers was transformed by a glimpse of DIVINE Creation. Without words we began to dig around in our daypacks for something to eat.  With little or no preparation, we created a feast from what we were able to scrounge together.  Out of one pack came two apples, out of another a crust of bread, some salami, lots of cheese, an orange, a banana, a few Swiss chocolate bars and even the remains of a bottle of red wine. In silence we passed around the ingredients of our feast. I was conscious of the reality that we were in the presence of something much larger than we could possibly imagine; a DIVINE presence, as we enjoyed this holy communion. It was just an impromptu meal shared without much forethought, but it was as holy a communion as I have ever partaken of.

These past few months, we have not been able to gather together in our sanctuaries to share communion with one another. The journey back to worshipping in-person, seems even more insurmountable than climbing a mountain. Public health protocols surrounding in-person gatherings mean, that for the foreseeable future, the rituals we have developed over two millennia must be set aside. Even when we do go back to our sanctuaries, much of what so many of us have come to love about worshipping together will not be possible, no warm welcoming embraces, no singing, no passing the peace with hugs and kisses, probably no communion, or at the very least no wine at communion, and definitely no sharing all those goodies that we normally share after the formal worship is over, no coffee, no sandwiches, no cookies or cakes and sadly still no more farewell embraces. As I contemplate staring out at a masked congregation from behind my own mask, those Zoom squares which for months now have been my only view of my beloved congregation, well those screen images don’t seem so bad.

During our lock-down we have found new ways of being the Church, new ways of seeing the DIVINE in one another, new ways of communing with one another. They may not exactly be the mountaintop experiences that we long for, but then I suspect that whatever the meal that Jesus and his first followers shared by the lakeshore so long ago, came as an unexpected surprise.

But it was indeed as sacred an experience as any ritual partaken of in the Temple. It was just an impromptu meal shared without much forethought, and yet all those who partook of that feast did so in the presence of the DIVINE. What made that experience SACRED was the reality that they were in the presence of something much larger than any of us can possibly imagine; a DIVINE PRESENCE.

Becoming conscious of the DIVINE PRESENCE which is the source of all that IS, nourished, grounded and sustained Jesus’ first followers who were able to meet the challenges of living under circumstances far harsher than we privileged North Americans can even begin to understand. 

I’m sure that each of us can recall sacred moments spent in the splendour of Creation in which we were conscious of the PRESENCE of something much greater than we can imagine. Some of us are blessed to have experienced such sacred moments aided by the rituals which have nourished generations of seekers of such DIVINE encounters. Many of us have missed our familiar rituals and practices. We have been forced to find new ways of being the Church and new ways of encountering the DIVINE.

For months now, seekers of the DIVINE have flocked in numbers not seen for decades to worship services that are being offered over the internet. Screens of all sorts have been utilized as worship leaders have attempted to open seekers to the SACRED MYSTERY which many of us call “God”. Churches everywhere are reporting unprecedented numbers of viewers. Our own congregation’s online offerings are engaging between 20 and sometimes 50 times more people than we were engaging before we had to close down our sanctuary. Church leaders of every denomination are asking all sorts of questions about what this means for the future of the Church. The truth is none of us really know.

I can’t help wondering what those 5,000 well fed followers of Jesus actually knew about what was happening in and around them. The truth is none of us really know any more than they did, what the experience of the DIVINE PRESENCE can lead to. We know that the rag-tag bunch of Jesus’ followers managed to change the world and their impact continues to provide hope to millions and millions of people generations upon generations after they ate their fill. My own life was forever changed after an impromptu meal on a mountaintop; to this very day I am nourished by that long-ago experience.

So, as I contemplate what the coming months and indeed years may bring to our shared hunger for the DIVINE PRESENCE, I realize that even though so very much of what we have relied on over the years to nourish us, may not be available to us and so each and every one of us will need to reach into our back-packs to discover what we have to offer to provide nourishment to one another. Just last week, as new public health policies allowed for socially distant visiting, I was blessed to share not one but two meals with two sets of dear friends.

Figuring out the logistics of how to safely prepare and serve food to one another was complicated and I’m sure we made a few mistakes. We certainly missed the warm embraces. But oh, how nourishing those gatherings were. Despite the challenges we were fed. The LOVE we shared nourished, grounded and sustained me in ways beyond measure.

As we look ahead to what may be, let us embrace the challenges. Let us dig deep into ourselves to discover what gifts we have to offer to nourish one another. Let us have the courage to grieve what may be lost without letting our grief keep us from discovering new ways to nourish, ground, and sustain one another in the presence of the DIVINE. Everywhere we look there is evidence of DIVINE SPLENDOUR. Let us prepare the feast for one another and let us partake together however, wherever, and whenever we can, trusting that the ONE we seek is ever ready to welcome us into the LOVE which is the MYSTERY we call “God.”

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