I have never known or ever heard a more inspired, inspiring, deeply authentic spirit. John Auer and his dear departed wife, my friend and ally in heaven, Julie – supporting compadres on the path of peace, justice and joy. He is not “just” for followers of Christ or religious people. If you have a heart, please open it and drink. I invite you to indulge in delicious words that will lighten your hearts and energize your missions. Enjoy it!!!
Just One More Mountain: Promise and Power of Prayer
Exodus 24:15-28, Matthew 17:1-9
Four years ago this Ash Wednesday, I came back to worship for first time since Julie died. Were it not for the gracious love of this particular congregation, and of this particular pastor, I might well not be back yet.
As I preach in my way today, please humor me by imagining I am standing freely at the pulpit. Then imagine I am beginning to move about. Some call it stepping, others call it prowling. Suddenly I’m growling. Some call it howling. In my heart and soul, that is the preacher I wannabe, the preacher I dream to be, a dancing preacher, a shouting preacher.
This “Transfiguration” signals both the deep and whole-bodied alteration of Jesus by the intensity of his prayer; and our own fast-passing perception of Jesus’ fiery closeness with God, the singular Source of All Energies. This Transfiguration begins, at least, to convey to us the rising costs of following Jesus through Lent. If we make it through Mardi Gras, are we prepared to face, with Jesus, arrest, condemnation, and death? For we participate as those who betray, deny, and abandon him on the cross.
Peter speaks for us this morning: Jesus, can’t we just set up eternal shop on a safe mountaintop? Moses and Elijah are there, in part because their lives and works endure through the same persecution and threat. Like Jesus, they know what it’s like to live with sure knowledge of their mortality; to live with a heavy price on their heads. Both had to run and to hide for their lives.
At last they receive radical reassurances , also on mountains — Moses at the burning bush, Elija in the cave – God has not forgotten them. God will give them, share with them, strength and resources they need to resume God’s mission for them. Is such reassurance not just what Jesus is seeking on this mountaintop?
He wants to be sure as can be that his decision to turn toward Jerusalem and certain death is, in fact, the decision God calls him to. God begins calling us with words heard above our baptisms; words confirmed, where and when? Right here, right now, on the mountaintops of our own lives, and of our life together, as congregation and larger community. How are we feeling up here at the moment? Is it scary? Scary good? Scary bad? And check this out: Who are the three biblical characters whose “final resting places” we do not know? They went straight up to God: Moses, Elijah, Jesus. What do we think of that? Is that holy company, or what?
In January, 1967, Julie and I were halfway through our second year of Peace Corps service. We taught English as a Second Language intensively, and put on plays, with 10 to 16 year-olds in a government boarding school on the banks of the Tigris River in far southeastern Turkey. Ours was a huge walled city, Diyarbakir, population, predominantly Kurdish, three million then, eight million now. We tried to keep our home open and hospitable to oft-sought visits by volunteers assigned in remote and isolated villages around us. So it’s not surprising that a dozen or more of us huddled around the shortwave radio my Uncle Jim gave us for our wedding, a few days before we began training, and listened in near-rapt silence to Super Bowl I, between Green Bay and Kansas City.
Our family’s from Chicago, so we’re mindful it is exactly 30 years ago this Super Bowl that the Chicago Bears “shuffled” their way through a dominant season and to the world championship. Remember? “We didn’t come here looking for trouble; We just came to do the super bowl shuffle.” Only a few of that season’s rollicking, frolicking Bears – incendiary coach, Mike “Dikka,” as Saturday Night would immortalize him; William “Refrigerator” Perry; Jim McMahon, “the punky QB;” and perhaps the most talented runner, most respected player in NFL history, Walter “Sweetness” Payton.
Of course, today the Bears “don’t have much of a prayer,” even a “hail Mary,” as we say about teams we love but can’t help. We live in a ball-brained culture where prayer is more luxury than necessity. Fans thank God for teams; and teams thank God for victories; and players thank God for every touchdown, every home run. Speaking of super bowl shuffles, my son-in-law, a professional dancer, suggested this week that we might imagine the players today dressed in tutus. He shared a post entitled, “If dance were easier, it would be called football.”
Robyn and I saw the movie “Concussion” the other week, NFL players retiring with PTSD-like conditions, league owners remaining, largely, in profitable denial. Believe me; dancing can be just as manly, and infinitely less brutal. So what, you may ask, would Jesus do? What would Jesus do? Sisters and brothers, I dare declare unto you, with all of the fallible powers vested in me, JESUS WOULD DANCE! What would Jesus do? What would Jesus do? What would Zorba do?
Here’s what John Aurelio sees Jesus and company doing on the mountain top this morning —
When they reached the mountaintop, Jesus with his arms extended was dancing and laughing and calling out to Elijah to carry him home. The wind was blowing and the dust he kicked up swirled around him like a great cloud. The sun blazed behind him so they had to squint to see him.
“I have never seen him like this,” Peter said to John. “Nor I. Isn’t it wonderful?” John and James took Jesus by the hand and they circled and danced together. “Master,” Peter called to Jesus, “Let us never leave this place. Let’s stay here forever. Let us set up our tents . . . in Galilee.” They sat down to rest. The effort had exhausted all of them. They were still breathing heavily yet relishing the magnificent moment. “Master,” Peter said again, “Why not stay here.” He tried not to look in the direction Jesus had set his gaze, south toward Jerusalem. The sun was setting. It had been an extraordinary and eventful day. They were tired and happy. Jesus stared toward Jerusalem. “There is one more mountain to climb,” he said. “In Jerusalem,”
What can we say? Were it not for Jesus, at least as we see it from here, the world would definitely not have a prayer. In fact, for us, Jesus IS the prayer of the world. Jesus is that free-dancing spirit – of life, of love, of justice, of joy – who refuses to let the world die. Jesus has been there himself. God refused to let him stay dead. The point of this Transfiguration of Jesus, setting out toward certain execution in Jerusalem, makes clear that his resurrection is NOT the reward for his life.
Rather, his resurrection serves as his life’s very motive and power. Jesus lives his whole life in what might be called a respectful defiance of death. He defies his own death. He defies all the powers of death he encounters – by sickness, by lameness, by blindness, by poverty, by pain, by violence, by war. Jesus meets all with self-giving, life-giving love.
Harriet Tubman, the Moses of her people in slavery, describes how she prayed her way along the Underground Railroad: “Most times I pray with my heart in my throat. Sometimes I pray with my lips, out loud. But I can always pray with my feet!” Prayer is this perpetual “Freedom Movement” of Spirit in us. Often we find we pray with what Paul calls “sighs too deep for words.”
We might like to think Jesus sugarcoats, makes palatable, his approach to prayer. Hardly. Jesus’s favorite illustrations were, first, the penniless, friendless, old widow lady who gets all up, loudly, rudely, in face of the judge every day, until out of sheer desperation, he gives her what she demands. Jesus says, Pray like that!
Second, the friend of a neighbor arrives, unexpectedly, at midnight. The neighbor has no fresh bread, as required by hospitality. So he goes to the door of his neighbor and bangs on it incessantly, till the whole household wakes up, and the neighbor gets the fresh bread! How’s that for praying?
Jesus asks. And, of course, the daily prayer he gives us, to be known as his disciples, proves deceptively simple, direct, concrete and complete. There is no right or wrong way to pray. There is only the offering up to God our fullest, truest selves, as if our lives depend upon both: God and prayer.
Prayer takes the form of free conversation with God, Source of Creation, and all that is in it. Prayer serves as free conversion to promise and future of God, now and what we call Forever. Finally, prayer opens us to free comprehension of all that is. Conversation, conversion, comprehension: Watch out for them next time you pray.
Prayer is always a leap of faith by imagination. Imagination points to our constant calling to be in the image of God. In prayer, we come to imagine both what we may have to say to God, and what God may have to say to us. In prayer, we try to grasp, gently but urgently, the viewpoint, the vision, and the voice, of God in and for our lives. Prayer is self-opening; prayer is self-offering, full disclosure, full exposure. Prayer is that “appropriate vulnerability” in all aspects of our lives – mind, body, spirit, relationships.
We pray to be as freely in God as God is in us – uninhibited, unself-conscious, yet unafraid, unashamed. Prayer urges us to be “enlightened” by Jesus, as Jesus here is enlightened by God. Jesus brings light to our worlds. Jesus makes the invisible visible to us, both inside us and around us. We become all the more aware and attuned, likely to see and hear what and how we never have seen and heard before.
We would love never to have to see in our old dim and lost ways ever again. But our God, thank God, is not done with us yet. There is always another mountain, another valley, deep and dark, even “the valley of the shadow of death, even Jesus’ death, though we refuse to contemplate that, or even look with Jesus into that deadly direction. All we know, as we move into Lent, is the dancing voice of Jesus, as he, too, has looked out over and and seen “the promised land.” He may not get there with Dr. King preaches the night before he is assassinated. But we as a people shall dance in the promised land, singing —