Feast of the Transfiguration, Year B: Prayer is What God Does in Us
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Transfiguration Sunday, Year B
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
The Feast of the Transfiguration sets squarely before us the divine-human nature of Jesus Christ. Up until this point, the disciples see Jesus through Moses’ veil—the veil of military king, wonder-worker, or simple healer. Here, however—away from the hum drum realities of the life on the plain—the disciples see Jesus without a veil, just as he is in all his radiance. The scales of their preconceptions (Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t this Jimmy from Galilee?) fall from their eyes and they perceive Jesus’ humanity as shot through with the transfiguring light of the divine. But the Transfiguration is not just about Jesus. It’s also about the calling of each one of us to take up our identity as “people of the way,” as the first Christians we called, and to embark upon the spiritual journey from image to likeness, that our lives might shine forth with the blazing, whiter-than-white glory of the God whose meaning is love.
It turns out, wonder of wonders, that the tradition of the Church has figured out some basic dispositions that open us to journeying through the land of likeness. Mystics, saints, and ordinary Christians like you and I have learned something over the last two thousand years and passed it from warm hand to warm hand in an effort to transmit the light of Tabor that is our true nature to the next generation. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s The Way of Love: Practices for a Jesus-Centered Life, recently rolled out at General Convention in Austin, is the Episcopal Church’s map of this ancient journey through the land of likeness, to becoming people of the light. The golfer Gary Player was fond of saying that golf is a game of luck but that, “The more I practice the luckier I get.” Dwelling in the light, being a place where the light shines through, is always a gift from God and not something we accomplish under our own steam through our brow-furrowing efforts. But (and it’s a big but) there are practices we can engage that dispose us to the gift, that earth-shattering realization that the full stature of Christ is available to each of us, without exception, right here and now.
Bishop Curry lays out the Way of Love in six different, yet interrelated, aspects, six spokes of the wheel that rolls towards deeper and deeper union and communion with God. We Turn--pause, listen, and choose to follow Jesus. We, Learn—reflect on Scripture each day, especially on Jesus’ life and teachings. We Pray—we dwell intentionally with God each day. We Worship—gathering in community weekly to thank, praise, and dwell with God. We Bless—sharing our faith and learning to give and serve unselfishly. We Go—crossing boundaries, listen to the stories of the least of these and practice living like Jesus. We Rest—learning to receive the gift of God’s grace, peace, and restoration. Turn, Learn Pray, Worship, Bless, Go, Rest. His call is for the whole church to see how our discipleship, evangelism, and mission might be deepened by reflecting on each of these basic movements of the Christian life and to embody them in the unique contexts of our lives.
So the Feast of the Transfiguration is an opportunity for us to reflect on one of the spokes of the wheel, the life of prayer. Real prayer. The kind of prayer each of us, as a follower of Jesus, is called to. Sometimes, I fear, we think that the life of prayer is all about our efforts. We think of prayer as somehow a matter of contacting God, of making God real to us, of getting hold of a secret key with which to open the mystic door. We labor under the mistaken perception that prayer is about capturing the attention of a distant God, flagging Him down as if God were a harried parish priest at coffee hour (present company excluded of course).
Almost without exception, when we talk about prayer we are thinking of something we do and, from that standpoint, questions, problems, confusion, discouragement, illusions multiply. With ourselves, the ego, at the center we fuss and fret over the techniques and methods of prayer thinking that prayer is something we can do well or badly. We instrumentalize prayer into a means-end way of thinking—effort in, experience of God’s presence out. We pray, and if we don’t get anything out of it, we think we must be doing it wrong and take up building ships in bottles instead.
The fundamental illusion that we labor under in this picture is that prayer is something we do. But that, of course, is entirely upside-down. Prayer is not about our efforts, but about what God has already done for us in Christ. Prayer is essentially what God does, how God addresses us, sees us. It is not primarily something we are doing to God, something we are giving to God that God doesn’t already have, but what God is doing in and for us.
On this Feast of the Transfiguration, I want us to notice two little details from St. Luke’s account atop Mt. Tabor that bracket the main event. First, notice that the narrative opens with the phrase, “Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up the mountain to pray.” Peter, James, and John aren’t climbing the mountain by themselves, as if they were trying to scale Mt. Tabor without oxygen in record time. Peter, James, and John are taken up the mountain by Jesus. They are accompanied, carried, short-roped up if you will, by the loving presence of Jesus.
With Jesus as their guide, the one who has gone ahead, the pioneer, it is almost as if the disciples find themselves carried up the mountain to a place apart where they experience Jesus for the first time in the fullness of his transfigured glory and the call upon themselves to become people of the light. The revelation of Jesus in raiment white and glistening is the result, not of the frantic, scrambling efforts on the part of the chosen witnesses, but sheer gift. Similarly, prayer is not about our own performance of techniques and methods either well or badly, but about what God is doing in us. Real prayer is about letting go of the controls. Our side in prayer is simply being there: open, exposed, laid bare and inviting God to do all God wants. Prayer is not our activity, our coming to grips with or making ourselves desirable to God. Prayer is essentially what God does.
The other thing to notice comes at the end of the narrative where we hear—“When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.” Jesus was found alone. There is only Jesus. All things are summed up in him. And what, we may ask is the revelation of Jesus? The unconditional love of God for us, for each one of us: God the unutterable, incomprehensible Mystery, the Reality of all reality, the Life of all life. And this means that divine love desires to communicate Its Holy Self to us. Nothing less! This is God’s irrevocable will and purpose; it is the reason why everything that is, is and why each of us exists. We are here to receive this ineffable, all-transforming, all-transfiguring, all-beatifying love.
We can get all turned around with the various methods of prayer. Should I pray the rosary or do the daily office? What about the Ignatian Exercises or Centering Prayer or Christian Meditation? When we realize that our prayer is not our prayer, that there is only one prayer—the prayer that is Jesus journeying to the Father in the Spirit—things get a lot simpler. If we are wanting God and not ourselves, there will be no problem at all. There is only Jesus alone and our prayer is simply to make His prayer our own, to open ourselves to that prayer that is already going on in the depths of the heart, to slip into the stream of love that flows between Jesus and Father and allow ourselves to be swept up the mountain.
Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, when we open ourselves to God it feels as if nothing is happening. The same old thoughts churn through our minds. We are restless, fidgety, and watching the clock for the entire time. The important thing is not to expect prayer to feel a certain way. We come to the Lord as we are, open ourselves, give our selves away, and let God do His work in us. Prayer has nothing to do with states of feeling. God’s work in us is a hidden work that takes place below the level of the faculties. Why should we expect it to feel a certain way? Who are we to say what God’s work should feel like? Who says we’re supposed to see spiritual fireworks and be inundated by waves of bliss? Deepak Chopra maybe, but not the Doctors of the Church!
The Feast of the Transfiguration and Bishop Curry’s The Way of Love present a bold, exhilarating challenge to the Church: to recover as individuals, as parishes, and as the Church, what it means to allow ourselves to taken up the mountain with Jesus, to look to Jesus alone and make his life our own. All we have to do is open ourselves, to step out of our boats, drop our nets, and invite the One whose only desire is be good to us pray in us, to live His life through us, that our blue jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers might shimmer with that same light the disciples witnessed on the holy mount.