Text: Luke 9:28-36
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
Aug. 6, 2017
Recently, I read a story about an interview a reporter had with a Jewish man who had been praying at the Wailing Wall, all that remains of the Jewish Temple and which for Orthodox Jews is this their most holy place.
The reporter asked the man how often he prayed there. “Twice a day, for the past forty years.” “What do you pray for?” The old man replied: “I pray for myself, my family and my friends. Mostly I prayer for peace between Arabs and Jews so that our children can grow up in safety and friendship.” “And how to you feel, after doing this for forty years?” the reporter concluded. The old man sighed before replying, “I feel like I have been talking to a wall.”
Have you ever felt that way? I certainly have. Yet as I sure this faithful Jewish man would attest, prayer is central vital part to a life of faith.
Today we celebrate the Feast of our Lord’s Transfiguration. There are many themes in today’s readings which we could develop, but as I reflected upon the Gospel, I felt impressed to focus our attention on prayer and the importance of gathering together in His presence each week. I know I will not have to do much persuading for I am preaching to the choir!
Our Gospel opens by stating that Jesus took with him Peter, James and John and went up on a mountain to pray. Indeed, not only His transfiguration, but every important event in our Lord’s life is linked to prayer. He prayed before he was baptized by John the Baptist. He prayed in the wilderness before he began his ministry. He prayed before he chose his disciples. He prayed before he announced his pending death and again in the garden before he was arrested. Throughout his ministry, the gospels declare that he withdrew from the crowds to find himself alone in prayer.
Since prayer was such an important part of our Lord’s life, it should not be surprising to us that prayer is at the heart those who follow him as well. We should not think of this as an obligation, but as a privilege. It is an opportunity to be with someone we love and who loves us. In short prayer is that verbal expression, whether vocalized aloud our uttered silently within our hearts that provides the resources for an ever-deepening relationship with God.
It is when we commit to a life of prayer, however, that we encounter the obstacles. I so well remember my own experience. Although I was raised in church and felt a call to ministry at an early age, during my teenage years, my prayer life was intermittent and very haphazard. It was not until I began my formal discernment process for ordination in the Episcopal Church that I started to take it seriously. My spiritual director said that I must adopt a rule of life and stick to it as best I could. I was rather ambitious. I committed myself to an hour each morning in which I would read the daily office, spend time meditating on the scripture readings and conclude by reading several pages of a devotional book and then conclude with extemporaneous prayer.
I began full of excitement thinking that at last I had found the secret to spiritual maturity. That frame of mind lasted about a week. Soon I began to dread that hour finding it boring, monotonous and discovered that my mind was unable to focus on what I was reading. God seemed to be a million miles away. I complained to my spiritual director at our next meeting, sharing my experience. He laughed as he said: “Bill, do you think you are the first ordinand to experience this? He then pulled a book off his shelf. It was a book by Henri Nouwen entitled: Gracious! A Latin American Journal. He turned to page 69 and asked me to read Nouwen’s December 11th journal entry. Here is what I read:
“Often it was not an hour of deep prayer, nor a time in which I experienced a special closeness to God; it was not a period of serious attentiveness to the divine mysteries. I wish it were! On the contrary it was full of distractions, inner restlessness, sleepiness, confusion and boredom….but the simple fact of being for one hour in the presence of the Lord and showing him all that I feel, think, sense and experience without trying to hide anything must please him.”1
The passage had its desired effect. I thought if this man, who I considered a spiritual giant, experienced such dryness in prayer but still pressed on, so could I.
During the early years of my ministry, however, I learned that morning hour was not always a time of “distractions, inner restlessness, sleepiness and boredom.” More times than not, it was a time of rich fellowship with my Maker and I became deeply aware of His presence. Insights that came from my times of reflection and Bible readings often were source of sermon topics and lesson plans. I found that even in the times of dryness, I looked forward to that hour. The discipline brought focus to my day as I felt circumstances beyond my control pulling me in a thousand different directions.
Prayer has a purpose beyond simply getting to know God in a more intimate way. It is through spending those times in prayer that we come to know the purpose and mission he has for our lives, both in terms of our day by day activities and gradually unfolding in our long-term commitments.
It is from today’s Gospel that Christians come to talk about their “mountain-top” experiences – those times when God meets them in a very special way. Often it is in times of personal crisis, but sometimes His loving presence overshadows everyday living. Those times are very special, and we would love to live there all the time. In is not surprising that Peter said, “Lord, let us build three tabernacles: one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He wanted to stay in the midst of that glory that surrounded him.
As the People of God, we are the community of the mountaintop who are called to live in valley below. It is in the valley that God calls us to minister. Because of our encounter with God in Christ on the mountaintop that we have the strength and courage to work in the valley below.
A central reason we are called to have a disciplined prayer life and gather together as a community to worship is not to escape the world, to sit on our mountain and polish our shrines built for God. No! The reason we pray and come to church each week is to rejoice in what God has done for us and to regain our strength for the work we are called to do in the valley beyond our church doors.
Jesus descended from the mountain back into his needed work in the world and so must we. But before we go, let us partake of God’s presence on the mountaintop of word and sacrament. As Peter rightly said: “It is good for us to be here.” God is present among us today: He is with us in our prayer life. He is with us as we read His Word. He is with us in our sacramental life together as the community of faith. He is our source of courage. He empowers us to do go out into the world, pointing others to God’s most brilliant light.
So be on the mountaintop. Do God’s will. Be happy. Don’t worry about anything. Don’t fear anyone. Let your eyes behold the glory of the coming of the Lord. Amen.
1 Henri J. M. Nouwen, Gracious! A Latin American Journal (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983): 69.