Sunday, August 6, 2006

Practicing Prayer: A Sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration

Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up to the mountain to pray. Amen. Luke 9:28-29

When you think of Jesus, what comes to mind? Do you imagine him teaching one of the parables to a crowd of eager listeners? Is he engaged in healing the sick or curing someone possessed by a demon? Do you recall one of the miraculous feeding stories? Maybe you picture Jesus confronting the religious authorities, chasing the bankers out of the Temple, generally stirring up trouble. And, of course, anyone with any exposure to the art of the Western world carries within herself an image of Jesus on the Cross.

This morning, I want to offer another, sometimes overlooked, image of Jesus. Running like a thread throughout the gospel narratives are moments in which Jesus steals away to pray. Following his baptism, he goes to the wilderness alone to pray. At various times throughout his ministry, as in today’s Gospel story, he leaves the crowds behind for a time of solitude. He prayed in the synagogue and the Temple. Before his arrest, he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane with such intensity that Luke says “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.” Now that is some serious praying! Clearly, prayer was very important to Jesus.

Jesus is many things to many people, but I invite you this morning to see him as a man of prayer, and consider what it means for us to be people of prayer following his example. Prayer is the foundation upon which we build a life of faith, hope and love; the thread that weaves together the disparate elements of our lives into a meaningful whole.

As Brian Taylor notes, Life has a way of presenting us with opportunities for prayer every moment. A “life of prayer” is therefore simply a transparency to the divine in everyday life. This is the purpose of all practices and disciplines of prayer: to be spontaneously responsive to God in life.[i]

From what we know of Jesus’ teaching and practice, praying doesn’t have to be complicated or follow a particular formula. It isn’t something to be forced or imposed on us. It is meant to be natural, spontaneous, simple and direct, growing out of the stuff of everyday life with its worries, needs, opportunities, and joys.

Such prayer assumes an intimate relationship with God based on child-like trust. If my son is sick, he comes to me to make him feel better. If he is hungry, he asks for food. When he does something well, he wants me to celebrate with him. If he finds something interesting, he wants to share it with me. In other words, he lives life in the moment, with awareness, and desires a loving presence to share this magnificent and sometimes scary experience of life with him.

Our prayer can be like that, without affectation or worry about whether we are doing it “right.” With childlike trust and confidence, Jesus prayed to God as “Abba,” “Papa.” He claimed an intimacy with God that some thought blasphemous, and he invites us to share this same intimacy with God. He teaches us that God desires such closeness with us, that he wants us to consciously share our lives with him – all of it.

This kind of spontaneous transparency to God rarely comes easy for us as adults. To a greater or lesser extent, we learn over time to protect ourselves from the vulnerability we felt as children, a vulnerability that left us open to sometimes painful experiences. We close in on ourselves, becoming preoccupied with hurts from the past or fears of the future. Our prayer becomes a defense mechanism, a way of placating God or hedging our bets. Maybe, in our cynicism or despair, we stop praying altogether.

In such circumstances, we must pray our way into a second naiveté and learn to acquire an undefended heart again; a heart that is open to the divine in each moment. Paradoxically, many of us find that we must set aside time for intentional prayer, embrace certain formal practices and forms of prayer, accepting the need for training wheels until we can regain our balance again in prayer.

You may never forget how to ride a bike, but many of us do forget how to pray, how to be aware in the moment, in the way that children are naturally. Perhaps this is why Jesus tells us, “Unless you become like children, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” We must regain the childlike trust that allows us to enter into each moment with an undefended heart, transparent to God. Until then, there is no shame in praying with training wheels on.

Even Jesus set aside certain special times for prayer and solitude. If Jesus found such retreat time necessary, surely we might benefit from regular times of prayer and contemplation, with or without words. Such times are not an end in themselves; they prepare our hearts to accept life on life’s terms, and to hold ourselves open to God’s compassionate presence at work in the world around us.

This, I think, is the point of the story of the Transfiguration in Luke’s Gospel. That mountaintop experience that Jesus shared with Peter, James and John was transforming. Sometimes, prayer can be a powerful experience of intense clarity in which we see deeply and truly into the nature of reality. The Transfiguration was just such an experience of prayer, in which the disciples saw the presence of God in Jesus. In fact, the glory of God enveloped the entire mountaintop. Suddenly, the whole world looked different.

Peter wanted to freeze-frame the moment, to build a monument to the experience. It is tempting to remain attached to such “peak experiences.” God, however, has other plans. The point of prayer isn’t to have an “experience.” The point is to go back down the mountain and learn to see the presence of God in everyday life. Prayer trains us to see deeply and well, to be open to the presence of God in all circumstances.

As a Zen master once said to his student, “It’s not how high you can jump in meditation, but what you do when you hit the ground.”[ii] In Christian terms, the point isn’t to revel in rapturous mystical connection to God, but to be mindful of the divine presence in every moment and in all things, and to allow that mindfulness to inform our action in the world.

Another Buddhist master, Thick Nhat Hanh, describes perfectly what such mindfulness looks like in practice.

We have to practice awareness of each thing we do if we want to save our Mother Earth, and ourselves and our children as well, writes Nhat Hanh. For example, when we look at our garbage, we can see lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, and flowers. When we throw a banana peal into the garbage, we are aware that it is a banana peel that we are throwing out and that it will be transformed into a flower or a vegetable very soon. That is exactly the practice of meditation.

When we throw a plastic bag into the garbage, we know that it is different from a banana peel. It will take a long time to become a flower. “Throwing a plastic bag into the garbage, I know that I am throwing a plastic bag into the garbage.” That awareness alone helps us to protect the Earth, make peace, and take care of life in the present moment and in the future. If we are aware, naturally we will try to use fewer plastic bags . . . This is living mindfully.

Nuclear waste is the worst kind of garbage. It takes about 250,000 years to become flowers. Forty of the fifty United States are already polluted by nuclear waste. We are making the Earth an impossible place to live for ourselves and for many generations of children. If we live our present moment mindfully, we will know what to do and what not to do, and we will try to do things in the direction of peace.

Something as simple as recycling can be an act of prayer if done with mindfulness of the glory of God, whose presence fills the whole creation. It can be an expression of our capacity to see deeply into the goodness, beauty, and interconnection of all things. As Nhat Hahn observes: If you are a good organic gardner, looking at a rose you can see the garbage, and looking at the garbage you can see a rose . . . without a rose, we cannot have garbage; and without garbage, we cannot have a rose. They need each other very much. The rose and the garbage are equal. The garbage is just as precious as the rose.[iv]

Our challenge today is to see the Transfiguration of Christ as a cosmic event; as a revelation of the holiness of the whole creation. Our practice of prayer can train us to see this holiness manifest in rose and garbage, friend and enemy, endangered species and fertile fields. We must learn to see with the eyes of Blessed Hildegard of Bingen, who wrote:

The earth of humankind
contains all moistness,
all verdancy,
all germinating power.

It is in so many ways
All creation comes from it.
Yet it forms not only the basic
raw material for humankind,
but also the substance of the incarnation
of God’s son.

To see the world in this way and to act based on such insight; that is what it means to pray. Amen.

[i] Brian Taylor, Becoming Human: Core Teachings of Jesus (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 2005), p. 146.
[ii] Taylor, p. 149.
[iii] Thick Nhat Hahn, Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life (Bantam Books: New York, 1992), pp. 107-108.
[iv] Nhat Hahn, p. 97.
[v] Earth Prayers From Around The World: 365 Prayers, Poems, And Invocations For Honoring The Earth, Elizabeth Roberts & Elias Amidon, eds. (HarperSanFrancisco: San Francisco, 1991), p. 46.

1 comment:

Rev T. said...

Hi Father John:

Just found you blog when I was researching for my Sunday sermon. I'd already decided to do three primary points: transparency, a little bit of possessiveness and the willingness to get back to work.

I'm a Presbyterian clergywoman working in a very small church in Farmington MN. I've been ordained since 1990 and have served large and small Presbyterian churches.

Thanks for sharing your wonderful thoughts on the relationship between transparency and the transfiguration. Do you mind if I quote you in my sermon with the appropriate citations?


Terry Roos