Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration, which falls on August 6th every year, though we usually only celebrate it if it falls on a Sunday, as it has this year. It isn’t the only day in the year that we hear the story of Jesus’ transfiguration, however. We also hear this story every year on the last Sunday of the Epiphany before Lent begins. It is read on the last Sunday of Epiphany because the story of Jesus’ transfiguration on the top of a mountain marks the turning point in his ministry when he turns his face toward Jerusalem and the cross. Thus, it is an important story to hear just before we begin the season of Lent during which we walk with Jesus to his betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion. However, it feels weirdly out of place to be talking about the transfiguration in the middle of ordinary time when we are walking with Jesus in his ministry prior to him setting his face on Jerusalem. Perhaps that is why I found myself focusing on more ordinary aspects of the transfiguration story for this sermon.
As I meditated on Luke’s narration of Jesus’ transfiguration, I didn’t find myself drawn to the ancient figures sitting with Jesus—Moses and Elijah. My imagination wasn’t activated by the image of Jesus’ face and clothing shining and changing to a dazzling white. I didn’t find myself curious about why his followers had fallen asleep or why Peter might want to build booths for each of them so that they could stay on the mountaintop indefinitely. I wasn’t caught up in thinking about God’s voice booming from the cloud surrounding them. Instead, I found myself dwelling on the image of Jesus praying. “Jesus took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” (Luke 9:28)
Isn’t it interesting that Jesus prays, and in Luke he prays a lot. When he is baptized, he prays, and the heavens are opened. After his baptism, he goes into the desert to fast and pray for 40 days in order to prepare for his ministry. He prays all night before choosing his 12 apostles. As he becomes increasingly well-known and crowds begin to gather around him seeking healing, he withdraws to pray. In fact, he frequently goes off to pray alone or with just a few of his followers. He prays that Peter’s faith won’t fail. He prays from the cross—once for forgiveness for those whose actions placed him on the cross and once when he dies. He prays a prayer of blessing over his followers as he ascends to heaven. And of course, he prays in our gospel reading for today before he turns his face to Jerusalem.
The Son of God prays to God. The one who is God incarnate prays to God. Why on earth would Jesus need to pray? I read one commentator who said that Jesus’ prayed simply to instruct his followers and us to pray and how to pray. In other words, Jesus didn’t really need to pray, he simply did it for our sake. But to say that Jesus didn’t need to pray is to say that Jesus wasn’t truly and fully human, because every human being prays, at least every now and then. The urge to pray is universal. Prayer is in our blood. People in every culture and faith tradition, dating back to the very beginnings of humanity, have called upon a power or wisdom greater than themselves in times of crisis and need. As the saying goes, “there are no atheists in foxholes.” For Jesus not to pray would make him something other than human. We may not understand prayer. We may think it is unnecessary. We may not like it. We may wrestle with it. But we will still pray at some point in our lives.
So, I think Jesus prayed because he was human, not because he wanted to teach his followers something. He couldn’t not pray. But what was he doing, and for that matter what are we doing when he and we pray? That is the deeper question, maybe even the deepest question, isn’t it? For to answer this question we have to first examine and understand who we think God is and who we are in relation to God. How we think of God affects how we pray and what we expect our prays to accomplish, or if we think praying is even worth the effort at all.
Think about it for a moment. If your image of God is that God is like Santa Claus, watching our every move from far away ready to reward us when we are good and punish us when we are bad, then your prayers will reflect this. “Please God give me enough money for the new house I want. I promise I’ll go to church every week if you do, and I will put money in the plate.” “God please don’t punish me for that lie I just told, I am really sorry.” If you get what you prayed for, then that means God was rewarding you for being good. If you don’t get what you prayed for, then that means that you are being punished for being bad. But what if you pray for a good thing, like the healing of someone you love, and the person isn’t healed? What does this say about God? God wouldn’t heal a sick person because you did something wrong? Or what if you can’t figure out what you did wrong? This image of God doesn’t work well for me.
Or maybe you picture a God that is all-powerful and in full and perfect control of everything and everyone. This God already knows what is going to happen right now and, in the future, because this God is the creator of everyone and everything. Nothing happens that wasn’t willed by this God. You might decide that prayer isn’t needed at all, since everything is preordained to begin with. What’s the point? Or maybe you would pray simply to have a connection to God and align yourself with the Divine. But this image of God loses me too. God wills the suffering and death of innocent children? God has preordained suffering and distress? Loving parents wouldn’t do this to their human children, why would God, who is the originator of all love, do this to their children? And how can we love if we have no freedom? For to love you must be able to freely choose to love. You must be able to choose not to love. Love can never be coerced. Once it is coerced it is no longer love.
Or maybe you see God as distant and far away, so therefore prayer for you is an attempt to get God to pay attention to you and act on your behalf. This God is the great clock maker in the sky who set creation going and then walked away. This God doesn’t act in history. In fact, this God doesn’t seem to care about us a whole lot. So, prayer is a matter of being loud and persistent until God notices and does something. Again, I believe that God is love itself, and I don’t see a whole lot of love in this image of God.
But what if God is none of these things—God is not Santa Claus. God is not all-powerful and all-knowing. God is not distant and uncaring. What if God is as close to us as our skin, our bones, and our organs? What if God is like the air that surrounds everything? What if God is like water, flowing around, in and through all of creation? What if God is not something out there where the center of the universe lies, but is perhaps the center of the universe themself? Everything is centered, because God is the center and is around, in and through all things. What if God is not all-powerful and all-knowing because God is love itself and love never seeks to dominate, coerce, control, or overpower? What if all of creation is free because God seeks to love and be loved by all creation and to love one must have freedom? What if God wants us to participate at some level in what we become? What if God has chosen to create a world with an open future and therefore the future is conditional upon our actions? What if God knows all the possible ways the future might go but not the way it will go? What if this means that God is dependent on our choices or to put it another way that God responds to our choices? This would mean that God always desires love, is always seeking to draw us to the good, but since God does not act coercively, we have to follow God’s lead, and if we don’t God has to and will adapt.
This sheds a different light on the act of praying. No longer is it an act to get God’s attention or to beg God to do something they would otherwise be reluctant to do. Instead, it becomes a dialogue between the creator and the created. In a world in which all of creation is interdependently tied together with and through God, our prayers become part of this larger tapestry of life. Prayer then is one way that God works with the world as it is to bring it toward what it can be. Maybe prayer changes the way the world is, and therefore changes what the world can be. Of course, God is limited by us—our histories, prejudices, attitudes, openness or closedness—our freedom to be who we chose to be. But God guides us by giving us possibilities for our existence. Then as we make our choices and God experiences us, God gives us more possibilities. In the words of the theologian, Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, “A world in which prayer is going on is not the same as a world in which it is not.”
We pray to create an opening in ourselves and in the world that God can work with. We pray to align ourselves with a presence that is already there. We pray to connect ourselves with all of creation. And when we pray we cannot control God, just as God cannot control us. We release our prayers to God, trusting that God will use our prayer for the creative good of the world. We will never be able to see the big picture that is God’s creation. We will never understand the sometimes-conflicting realities each person faces. Life is always far more complicated than we could ever imagine. And these are the same reasons that Jesus prayed.
The Muslim mystic Rumi once asserted that there are at least a hundred ways to bow down in prayer. There are no right or wrong ways to pray. So, if you find yourself praying to the Santa Claus God or the Clock Maker God or struggling to pray at all, it is ok. What is most important is that in prayer you bring yourself to God just as you are, exactly where you are and trust that God will work with you just as you are. And, wherever and whenever we pray we add to the beauty of life and enable God to be more transformative of our lives and the lives of those for whom we pray.
I leave you with the words of the poet Mary Oliver:
It doesn’t have to be the blue iris,
it could be weeds in a vacant lot,
or a few small stones;
just pay attention,
then patch a few words together
and don’t try to make them elaborate,
this isn’t a contest but the doorway into thanks,
and a silence in which another voice may speak.
 Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, In God’s Presence: Theological Reflections on Prayer. Chalice Press, St. Louis, Missouri, 1996.