Preached by Rev. Linda Dolby
I was in Philadelphia once for a church meeting. I thought all the stars and excitement in the world were in Hollywood, but when I arrived at the Philly airport, I learned that the NBA All Star game was going played there that night. The news coverage was full of celebrity sightings around town. That caused some of us at the meeting to reflect upon stars we’ve met. When I was a student, I once shared a small dance floor with Cat Stevens, then there was the time I kissed folk singer Harry Chapin, and I once rode in an elevator with George Carlin.
One of my colleagues said that once he and his wife were in Cape Cod. It was summertime and they had stopped to get ice cream. While his wife was in line, she realized that Paul Newman was standing in line, right behind her. Although she was thrilled, she decided to remain cool and collected. She got her ice cream cone, paid for it, turned around, but her ice cream was missing. Paul Newman said to her, “Ma’am, are you looking for your ice cream cone?” “Yes,” she nodded. “I believe you will find it in your purse,” he said. So much for calm and collected.
In today’s scripture, Peter, James, and John have a brush with celebrity. They don’t remain calm and collected either. That’s what I love about the Gospels. They don’t portray the first disciples as saints who do no wrong and always say the right things. No, the disciples are human, just like you and me, and more often than not, they bumble their way along, making mistakes, misunderstanding Jesus, doing the wrong things.
Jesus leads these 3 up a high mountain. Suddenly, Jesus is transfigured before them – his face shone like the sun, his clothes become dazzling white. Then Moses and Elijah appear. Peter, enthusiastic Peter, gets so excited he says, “Wow, this is great. Let’s stay here! I’ll make dwellings for us!” Then another voice speaks, that of the Almighty, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” At this, the disciples did what you and I would do – they got scared and they fell face down to the ground. Jesus says to them, “Don’t be afraid. Get up.” So they did, and there was Jesus standing alone. Then they come down the mountain and Jesus says, “Shh, don’t say a word about what just happened.” A strange story. Doesn’t make much sense. Why did it happen in the first place? Then, why doesn’t Jesus want them to say anything about it?
Well, first I want to say, that if you take any of the Gospel stories out of their context, they might not make sense. What is the context for this one? In the preceding chapter, Jesus is asking the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” “Well, some say your are John the Baptist and other are saying your are Elijah, and others think you are Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “Well,” says Jesus, “What do you think? Who do you say I am?” Peter gets it right. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” “Right! But you know what, to be Messiah means that I am going to suffer and die.” “No. God forbid it Lord,” says Peter. “Get away from me,” says Jesus. And he even calls Peter Satan, because he “has his mind on human things, not the divine.” Then, following the transfiguration, after they come down from the mountain, Jesus cures a boy with epilepsy. The disciples have tried to cure him, but they weren’t able to. But Jesus could. Why? Jesus says it’s because they don’t’ have enough faith, their faith isn’t’ even as big as a mustard seed.
You see, the disciples by this time have figured out that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. What they couldn’t’ get through their heads is that to be Messiah meant that Jesus was going to suffer and die. They were caught up in old ways of thinking, that to be Messiah meant that Jesus was King and Lord, and they expected Jesus to act like a human king and Lord, to be full of power, that he would act majestically and royally and that he would save his people as human kings do, with political and military power. Wrong. Jesus is saying, “I’m going to save you by giving myself up for you. I am going to die – for you. I am going to suffer – for you. I love you this much.” This is suffering love. This is real power. The disciples had a hard time understanding and accepting that.
The worst thing politicians can do today is to change their minds. They’re called flip-floppers and thought to be untrustworthy, people who change their thinking with each gust of political wind and the opinion polls. And yet I believe to be a Christian is to change and to grow, to be open to the winds of the Spirit, to have an open heart and an open mind. We are growing in discipleship when we learn, making more mature decisions and judgments. Which is exactly what happened to the disciples when Jesus was transfigured before them. They saw Jesus in a new light and they are forever changed.
So why the secrecy? If Jesus were the Son of God, why didn’t he want them to talk about it? Peter, James, and John not only have seen Jesus transfigured, they’ve seen Elijah and Moses. They’ve heard the voice of God. Why can’t they come down from the mountain and tell everyone? Isn’t that the point? Doesn’t Jesus want the world to know him and who he really is? Why does Jesus order them to keep quiet?
Have you ever had a mountain top experience? Something that happened that was so powerful it was transforming for you, your mind was changed so that now you understood – now life make sense, now you know your place in the world and why you were put on this earth in the first place? If you have, you know this is a very precious experience indeed. It could be something simple – a prayer answered, a right word spoken by a loved one at the right moment, perhaps it was when your son or daughter was born, maybe when you first fell in love, maybe a time when you felt lost in darkness and then a light appeared, small at first, but enough to help you make your way to the end of the tunnel….
These are special times, hard to speak about. Best pondered. Remember what the Bible says about Mary after the birth of Jesus? And she took all that had happened and pondered them in her heart. Some experiences are too precious for words – at least right away.
Perhaps Jesus wanted Peter, James, and John not to run down the hill and tell everyone about the amazing spectacle. Perhaps Jesus wanted them to ponder, to process the moment, and then, instead of talking about it, Jesus wanted to see them transformed, with changed minds and lives, different actions, because now they understood. Now they had seen with their own eyes, heard with their own ears, and now they lived differently because now they knew, at a bone-deep level, that true strength doesn’t lie in power or majesty. True strength is the power of suffering love, a life lived out, given our, poured out, for others.
My grandparents waited their whole lives to visit the Holy Land. They, who had followed Jesus their whole lives wanted to go and walk where Jesus walked. They finally made the trip, and when they came home, they hung on their walls their certificates of “Attestation of Pilgrimage to the Holy Land.” Some years ago, I got to go too. It was marvelous to see the places I’d so long heard about. I wish I could take all of you on a trip to the Holy Land. I wish we could together go and walk where Jesus walked, but that is not possible. But wait. Do you want to walk where Jesus walked, or walks? Would you like to go up on the Mountain of Transfiguration? Would you like an experience like that of Peter, or James, or John? Would you like to change your mind?
Is our faith only a memory book of things that happened over 2000 years ago or, does Jesus live among us today? Is Jesus only a historical figure, or are we a resurrection people? Do we believe his promise that, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the ends of the earth?”
Transforming moments. Times when light shines in the darkness. They happen today, or yesterday, or maybe tomorrow. You can’t predict. Not only in the Holy Land, but in places like the corner of 6th and North Streets, places made holy because the divine is here. Pay attention to the lumps in your throat, or when you are moved to tears. Those may be transfiguring moments, when God is revealing the divine to you. Enough to change your mind. Enough to move you to tears. Suffering love. Lives given for others. Our eyes have seen the glory. The light shines in the darkness. Amen.
Our Father Who Art In Heaven.
[pause and hesitation] Our Father who art in Heaven.
Yes. You called?
You spoke to me. You know. You said,
"Our Father who art in Heaven"
Well, here I am. So, what's on your mind?
But I didn't expect you to answer. I mean, not like this.
I was, you know, just saying my morning prayers.
I always start my day by saying the Lord's Prayer.
It makes me feel good, kind of like fulfilling a duty.
A duty, huh? So do you think of speaking to me as a job or a task to be done?
Well, no. I don’t mean it like that.
Well, all right. Go on.
Okay, Hallowed be thy name. .
Wait a minute. What do you mean by that?
By "Hallowed be thy name"?
It means, it means… uh,
I’m not quite sure what it means. How should I know?
It's just a part of the prayer.
I learned it when I was five, you know. That’s a pretty complicated word for a five-year-old.
Yes, I remember when you learned it.
Ok, so, what does it mean?
It means honored, holy, separate from the ordinary, everyday stuff.
Well, that makes sense.
I never thought about what 'hallowed' meant before. Thanks.
Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.
Do you really mean that?
Sure, why not?
So, what are you doing about it?
Doing? I thought that was your job.
Come on. Work with me here. We’re in this together, aren’t we?
Well, I’m not really doing anything in particular, I guess.
But I do think it would be kind of cool if you got control
of everything down here like you have up there.
We're kinda in a mess down here you know.
Yes, I do know; So, have I got control of you?
Well, sure. I mean, I go to church and I’m praying right now as a matter of fact.
What about all the other aspects of your life?
What do you mean?
Well we could start with your impatience with people?
You've really got a problem there, you know.
And then there's the way you spend your money --
all on yourself.
And what about that conversation you had last week with Sally?
Now wait a minute! Stop picking on me!
I'm just as good as some of the rest of those people at church!
I’m sorry. I thought you were the one praying,
praying for my will to be done.
If that is to happen, it will have to start with the ones
who are praying for it. Like you-- for example.
Oh, all right. I guess I do have some issues.
Now that you mention it, I could probably work on a few things.
So could I, since you’ve asked me to. We can work on these things together, alright? When you’re trying, I’m right there with you.
You know, I haven't thought about it very much until now,
but I really would like to change some of those things.
I would like to, you know, be really free, be less worried,
less jealous, more patient with what other people do and how they think and feel.
Good. Now we're getting somewhere.
We'll work on all of that together – YOU and ME. I'm really pleased and proud of you.
Look, Lord, if you don't mind, I need to finish up here.
This is taking a lot longer than it usually does.
Give us this day, our daily bread.
You need to cut back on the bread. You’ve got a day’s worth and then some. You’ve been really cleaning out those grocery aisles.
Well, I’m just really busy. I hate going to the grocery store. So when I’m there, I stock up. And, this time of year, you never can tell when they’ll be a bad storm and we’ll be snowed in. I mean, that storm in New England was awful. Have you seen the pictures on the news?... Oh, I guess that’s kind of a silly question for you. But anyway, what if something like that happened here? I’ve gotta be prepared, you know?
So you’re stockpiling, huh? I think right now you’ve got enough to last you through the whole winter. Is that because you don’t think I’ll take care of you?
Well no; God, it’s not like that at all. I just, um… I just… OK, you’re right. I think some of that food will expire before I ever get to eating it.
Well here’s an idea; maybe you could think about bringing some of those canned goods with you to church next week. You know, it’s Trinity’s month to collect food for the Bauer Center. Don’t let good food go to waste. While it’s still good, bring it in and put it in the box for the pantry.
I guess that’s a pretty easy way to help people.
It is. And here’s another idea… You know Mrs. Jones?
Sure. The widow at the end of the street?
Her only son lives in California. She eats by herself every evening. Maybe you should think about inviting her over for dinner. Share some of that daily bread… or the canned peas at least.
You know, this prayer stuff is really turning into a lot of work.
Well, praying is a risky thing. And powerful.
Be careful. You just might get what you ask for.
And, remember, YOU called ME-- and here I am.
It's too late to stop now. Please, keep praying. ( . . pause . . )
Well, go on.
I'm afraid to.
Afraid? Of what?
I know what you'll say next.
Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.
What about Ann?
See? I knew it!
I knew you would bring her up!
Why, Lord, she's told lies about me, spread stories.
She never paid back the money she owes me.
I’d really like to teach her a lesson.
But -- your prayer --What about your prayer?
I didn't -- mean it. Well, I meant most of it; just not all of it because Ann is so difficult to forgive. I mean, don’t you think it’s exhausting when people just commit the same sins over and over and over again? Do you know how that feels?
Um hmm… I think I do.
Well, at least you're being honest with me.
But, it's quite a load to be carrying around all that bitterness
and resentment, isn't it?
Yes, but I’ll show her.
And, I'll feel better as soon as I get even with her.
No, you won't. You won’t feel any better. You'll feel worse.
Revenge isn't sweet. You know how unhappy you are with her right now --
Well, I can change that.
You can? How?
Forgive Ann. And, I'll forgive you. And the anger and the sin
will be Ann's issue-- not yours. You’ll be free of it.
You will have settled the problem, at least where you’re concerned. And Ann and I will have a talk together… a little like this one... That is, if you can trust me with her?
Oh, I know, you're right. You always are.
And more than I want revenge, I do want to be at peace. All my irritation with her has been making it hard to get to sleep at night.
I want to be right with You. . (sigh) and I want to feel better too.
OK. I forgive her.
There now! Wonderful! How do you feel?
Hmmmm. Well, not bad. Not bad at all!
In fact, I feel pretty good!
You know, I don't think I'll go to bed so uptight tonight.
I haven't been getting much rest, you know.
Yeah, I know.
But, you're not through with your prayer are you? Go on.
Oh, all right.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
Good! Good! I'll do that.
Just don't put yourself in a place where you can be tempted. Sometimes you make some poor choices for yourself.
What do you mean by that?
You know exactly what I mean. Do you want me to spell it all out?
No. I do know what you mean… and you’re right.
Okay. Go ahead. Finish your prayer.
For Thine is the kingdom, and the power,
and the glory forever. Amen.
Do you know what would bring me glory --
What would really make me happy?
No, but I'd like to know.
I do want to please you now.
Sometimes I really make a mess out of things.
I really do want to follow you.
I can see now how great that would be.
So, tell me. How do I make you happy?
YOU just did.
A few weeks ago, I began reading a book entitled “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality.” The premise of the book is this: that our relationship with God can be significantly impacted by our experiences in our relationships with others. This morning’s gospel reading is a clear example that earthly relationships can serve as metaphors for our relationship with God. You’ll notice in your bulletin that the scripture listed only goes through verse 10. But I presented two additional verses; a decision I went back and forth on through the course of the week because they are verses that cast God in the image of a father figure… which, if you had a good father who provided for you and encouraged you and helped you develop a sound faith and ethics; well, if that was your experience, than “father” is an awesome image to represent God. If, however, you had a father who neglected you, or abused you or shamed you, “father” becomes a horrible image to represent God. And, although in our minds we can comprehend that a disappointing earthly father is not an accurate image or metaphor for God, our hearts do not always line up with our heads.
Author Brennan Manning writes: “It is always true to some extent that we make our images of God. It is even truer that our image of God makes us. Eventually we become like the God we image…” Eventually, we become like the God we image. Keep that thought, that statement, in mind, alright?
The parable I shared with you this morning is a parable Jesus tells in response to his disciples’ question about prayer. When the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, Jesus responds by teaching them about the nature or character of the one to whom they pray. You’ve heard me say before that the word disciple means “one who learns” and that disciples of Jesus learn from Jesus how to know God, how to love God, and how to serve God. Now, one of the primary ways we develop and nurture our love for God is through the practice of prayer; prayer matures our relationship with God.
Now, first of all, since parables are not something we hear every day, let me present just the parable itself one more time.
Suppose one of you has a friend and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread for a friend of mine has arrived and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is already locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his avoidance of shame, he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
So, this parable presents us with another metaphor – another earthly relationship between two neighbors. But, in this case, it is not about similarity; it is a study in contrast. In other words, the relationship between these two friends in NOT representative of our relationship with God.
Now there is a great cultural divide between a 1st century Palestinian and a 21st century Hoosier. And, if we’re going to understand what Jesus is trying to teach through this little parable, we do need to know some things about the culture of 1st century Palestine. Before we can apply this parable to our lives – specifically our prayer lives – we need to unpack some of those cultural details.
· The first detail is this: Hospitality is of extreme importance, even today, in eastern and Middle Eastern cultures. I have friends in Dayton that I visit with from time to time. When I spend the night with them, I usually need to get up pretty early. So, before we hit they hay, they generally ask me what I want for breakfast. They remind me where the cereal boxes and the coffee are. And that is plenty of hospitality for me. I don’t expect them to roll out of bed with the chickens to whip me up some fancy breakfast. But, life is very different in hospitality-driven cultures.
A few years ago I traveled to Jordan and went to see the ancient city of Petra. Now, when I think Middle East, I think deserts and when I think deserts, I think heat. That morning when I woke up in Amman, it was snowing. I had not packed for that. As we walked through Petra, my guide noticed me shivering. He took off his shawl and tied it around me. At the bottom of the gorge, some locals were sitting by a fire. With one subtle glance from our guide, they all cleared a spot for me closest to the fire. Later, when we got back on the bus, I tried to give the scarf back to our guide. But I wasn’t at all surprised that he refused to take it back. It was his gift to me. So, that’s our first cultural distinction: hospitality is of extreme importance in the Middle East.
· But, I wonder if you noticed something else in that illustration I just gave. Did you notice that hospitality is not an individual or private kind of thing? I had never before seen those men at the bottom of the gorge huddled around the fire and I can’t imagine I will ever see them again. We didn’t know one another from Adam. But, because I was under the care of our Jordanian guide, they had no less responsibility for me than our guide did. So, that’s our second detail: hospitality is the job of everyone in the village. So, hospitality is of extreme importance AND it’s the job of everyone.
· And that leads us to the next detail: in Middle Eastern culture, people do not think of themselves as individuals. They think of themselves as part of a group – their family, their clan, their village. As 21st century Westerners, we think in terms of the individual. We want our children to grow up and live their lives independently. We praise our children for their unique gifts and skills. We encourage them to pursue their individual goals and dreams. And we are a culture riddled with clichés focused on individualism: “every man for himself,” and “look out for number one” – those are negative clichés. But there are plenty of positive clichés. Here are a few: “be true to yourself,” “don’t follow the herd,” “do your own thing,” “blaze your own trail,” right? I mean, we could go on all morning rattling off clichés to support American individualism. And all of it would sound like a bunch of crazy talk to people in eastern or Middle Eastern culture because in that culture, people define themselves in relation to their group. So, there’s a third cultural distinction: In the Middle East people define themselves in relation to their group. So, hospitality is of extreme importance; it is everyone’s job AND it is everyone’s job because people don’t think of themselves as individuals. They think of themselves in relationship to their group.
· And that brings us to the final cultural distinction of the morning: Nothing is as important as ones reputation, their honor. Again, there some significant cultural differences. We try to teach our children to not worry about what their peers think of them. It doesn’t matter what other people think. But, in Middle Eastern culture, it matters a great deal what others thinks of me – especially those who are part of my group. So, the final distinction is this: Nothing is as important as ones reputation.
So now, if we come back to the parable, we can better understand it. It makes perfect sense that a traveler, even late at night, could knock on someone’s door and expect to be taken in. It’s all about hospitality. And it makes perfect sense that the host goes and bangs on his neighbor’s door to get bread for his guest because hospitality is the job of everyone in the village. And the very suggestion that this man would risk the reputation of himself and his village by not helping his neighbor would be completely unthinkable. It would be crazy because he would never want to risk his own reputation by bringing humiliation to everyone in his village. Sure he’s fast asleep and sure he finally managed to get the kids down for the night and sure he doesn’t feel like getting dressed and turning on the lights and waking up the whole house. But you better believe he’s gonna do it because even if he’s not motivated by a personal fondness for his neighbor, at the very least, he will not want everyone talking trash about him around the water cooler at work in the morning. He doesn’t want to be that guy. This man knows what his culture expects of him and he knows he’ll look like a smuck if he denies his neighbor’s request. He knows what’s expected of him and so he behaves true to form.
And, my friends, if a tired, grumpy neighbor can still be counted on to get us what we need, how much more can we count on God to respond to our needs; how much more can our heavenly Father be trusted to take good care of us? Even a grumpy neighbor does what she needs to in order to stay out of trouble. And even an earthly Father, flawed though he may be, doesn’t hand his kids a snake when they ask for fish.
Friends, you better believe we can count on God to be God. It is in God’s nature to be merciful and compassionate. That’s how Jesus behaves as he represents his father and acts on his father’s behalf. Jesus’ ministry teaches us and reveals to us the nature or character of God. Jesus tells his disciples to “be merciful just as your heavenly Father is merciful.” Jesus tells us not to worry or be anxious about God’s care for us. He points out that God cares for all of his creation. He provides for the birds and the flowers and he most certainly will take care of us. Jesus heals the sick; he feeds the hungry; he blesses the people society kicks to the curb. And, in all of that, he demonstrates the character, the nature, of the heavenly Father. Friends, God responds to our needs not begrudgingly like a neighbor awakened in the middle of the night. God is not that guy. God responds to our needs gladly – eagerly and earnestly.
Friends, it makes all the difference in the world how we image God. It matters a great deal to us and to the people around us because how we image God and how we image ourselves in God’s presence has an enormous impact not only on our prayer life, but also on the way we live. If we believe God’s love for us is dependable and reliable, we can live free from fear; we can live cooperatively with others, instead of competitively; we can be generous with our resources instead of hoarding them.
Friends, Jesus tells us straight up that we ought not to be afraid to ask, to seek and to knock on heaven’s door. When Britt and I were in seminary, we had a friend from the young adults group in our church. During a bible study, he commented that he never prayed for himself. There were so many people with so many problems and sorrows; his concerns seemed like nothing by comparison. But brothers and sisters, God doesn’t have a quota and he doesn’t use some kind of scale to measure misery. Prayer is about building our relationship with God and God wants a relationship with each one of us.
“It is always true to some extent that we make our images of God. It is even truer that our image of God makes us. Eventually we become like the God we image…” So, may we image the God that Jesus reveals to us. Amen.
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