Monday, February 15, 2010

Time with God

Sermon for Transfiguration, 2.14.10

Please pray with me: May we turn and listen when you call; may we open our eyes to see what you have given; may we let you live in us so that people, knowing us, may also know you. Amen.

From today’s Gospel: “And while [Jesus] was praying, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white.”

You’ve made a choice to come here this morning—at least I assume most of you have come of your own free will. Many of you make that choice every Sunday. In doing so, you’re like Jesus. You’re making the Jesus-like choice to dedicate a time to God on a regular basis and to see what God has in mind.

In Luke this morning, Jesus takes his best friends up a mountain—in other words, away from the crowds—so that he can have some piece and quiet and get down to what he really needs, which is to pray. Peter, John, and James probably could have used some prayer time too, but what happened to them is what can happen to me: Given a little time for prayer, a chance to close my eyes and relax, my system tells me it’s the perfect time to take a nap, and off I go. That’s exactly what happens to the disciples. Now naps are the chocolate of the soul—but prayer is too, and sometimes it’s helpful not to be too comfortable when you’re serious about it. The disciples start to nod off and miss some of what happens next. Jesus, on the other hand, enters deeply into prayer as he always does at crucial times. Here he is preparing to begin the trip to Jerusalem that will end in crucifixion.

As he prays, something wonderful happens: His face and even his clothes begin to glow. There’s a radiance about him. We don’t really know what he’s feeling or even how conscious he is of how he has changed. But the disciples notice; there’s no more talk about how sleepy they are. They also see that he’s not alone. They’re able to identify the two striking men who are with him as Moses and Elijah, two great heroes from the past. They probably don’t hear the conversation. They don’t grasp the significance of this “departure which Jesus was able to accomplish at Jerusalem,” and they’re not ready to accept that Jesus will have to die. All they know is that something important is happening. It’s big enough so that, for the time being, they keep it a secret.

It’s important that Jesus is not alone at this time in his life. The friends in whom he often confides—Peter, John, James— are with him, even if they don’t quite get what’s about to happen. But even more important is that Moses and Elijah have come to be with him and to speak about what will happen during Holy Week and Good Friday. They’re as close to being his equals as we can imagine. Are they offering comfort? Supporting his determination to do what he must do? Giving him moral support? We don’t know. What we do know is that God has the last word: From a cloud the disciples suddenly hear, “This is my Son, My Chosen. Listen to him.”

Sounds like marching orders. And I don’t think the experience is totally new. Remember the crucial times when, during prayer, you haven’t been alone either. Sometimes memories come of people important to us—a strong sense of their presence or of words they’ve spoken. Sometimes during or after prayer, there’s a wonderful knowledge that God is with us; everything around us seems brighter and clearer. Sometimes there’s an unexpected phone call that seems like an angel message straight from God.

My mother had a particular love for one of her grandmothers. She was always in some physical pain and her life was sustained by prayer. Every morning after breakfast, she would go back to her bedroom to pray. As a small child, my mother would wait outside until she had finished. She loved seeing her come out of her room because, she said, Grandma’s face always glowed. I believe this was something that my mother really saw. She realized that private morning prayer was this woman’s way of life. Even a young child like my mother was impressed by how this time alone with God was a strength and comfort. I have seen faces glow during a church service, and this is all the more striking because I have sometimes known that the person was in real physical or emotional pain.

Regular prayer can be part of a way of life, as it was for Jesus. For centuries, the Church has called doing so a Rule of Life. Sometimes in monasteries, the rule was pretty strict. But really a Rule of Life is not a matter of ought and should. It’s more like a measuring line that we can use as a guide, the way we do when laying out plans for a room or a building. In his autobiography, St. Augustine prayed that God would make him into a house, fit for God to enter.

Like Jesus, when we feel a longing or a need to feel God’s presence with us, a regular practice of having already done so can be a huge help. I’m thinking of the role that the 23rd Psalm has played in my life. I pray it every morning and sometimes I know I’m just saying the words. Then suddenly there will be that day when a line will strike me in a totally new way. One morning, several months before I had even heard of Port Ewen, I realized that rather than saying, “God restores my soul,” I was saying, “God is restoring my soul.” With those words, I was aware of a lightening and a healing of my spirit, and it was wonderful. I don’t think it’s an accident that the call to come to this church followed soon after.

So the best way to start a Rule of Life is probably to notice what we’ve been doing all along, to be proud of it and to claim it as an important part of our life with God: Church on Sunday, prayer when we wake up in the morning and right before sleep, regular thanks to God during the day and when we sit down to eat, some reading of The Upper Room and of Scripture, finding ourselves humming a hymn every once in a while. If we’re doing any of this, we’ve already begun the awesome practice of a Rule of Life, a relationship with God aided and abetted by the Holy Spirit. We are being formed by God. St. Paul would say, we’re “being transformed… from one degree of glory to another.”

Can each of us do more? Can we fight the temptation to fall asleep on God and miss important moments of our own possible faith journey? Of course. You know I’m not going to let us enter Lent without hoping that each of us will extend ourselves a little. The point of Lent isn’t deprivation, subtraction. And here’s the thing: Because it’s a limited period, it can be a safe window in which to try an additional devotion as a grace or a blessing. Far better than fasting during Lent—with the real intent of losing weight—might be making more time to write in a journal, or go for a walk or a run to secure a place apart for ourselves where we can be attentive to God and God’s creation. If we want to fast, we can fast from our cell phones or the internet or—you name it—to make more space for actually getting down to prayer. We can fast from our consumerism and make different spending and giving choices. All that we do can be transformed.

Here’s another thing about a real McCoy Rule of Life: It’s nobody’s business but yours and God’s. Discuss it with a friend or pastor, but only if you like. It isn’t something to beat yourself up over and it certainly shouldn’t be a way to set yourself up for failure.

It also isn’t only prayer and study. The third ingredient is the kind of deeds that you, as a congregation are so good at. I was thinking this week that our Mailbox Ministry is a glorious way in which prayer and outreach become one. I am hoping that we will be able to welcome the larger community of Port Ewen to a simple supper at some point during Lent.

After all, the Gospel this morning doesn’t end until Jesus connects his time of prayer, transfiguration, and holy, distinguished conversation with an act of mercy and of healing. The very next day, he’s verbally assaulted by a man crazed with grief over his son’s dementia. For whatever reasons, the other disciples have failed. But Jesus heals him, transforms—even transfigures—him into a normal boy. You can’t tell me that the faces of both father and son didn’t glow.

We too can be formed in the presence of Christ. This will be our Easter blessing and our Easter challenge. And even before Jesus reaches Jerusalem, he shows us how to be faithful in spiritual disciplines that bring him and us into the presence of the Father. It is Jesus’ promise that as we are faithful to his example and to his mission, we too, here and now, will be transfigured. And then, you may be sure, there will be a call to use this gift!

Let us pray: Lord, it is good to be here and to remember your faithfulness as well as your glory. Help us to see you for who you really are, the Chosen One of God. Help us to listen to you, to walk in your light, and to carry your mercy into the world. Amen.

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