Got Anything Good? – Learning the Lord’s Prayer 3

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Third Sunday in Lent • February 28, 2016

What do you need every day? I suppose most of us have a daily routine: clean up, something to drink, something to eat, something to do. Most of this is a matter of choice: what do you really need? We can go about three minutes without air; more if you are a trained diver. The average person can go three days without water, although some have survived longer. We can go about three weeks without food; Mahatma Gandhi survived a 21 day fast. We can go a long time without light but it disorients us and distorts our time sense. Solo sailors on long voyages often report hallucinations; Joshua Slocum, the first person we know to have survived a solo circumnavigation, reported a period when he believed someone else was on board, helping him navigate. Simon and Garfunkel famously sang, “I am a rock, I am an island” but in fact we can’t survive in isolation: we need things, we need each other.

The first human experience is a fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer. An infant must be fed, must be cleaned, must be held or the child will not survive. An infant can’t provide these things. Instead, as we all know, babies develop a complex way of signaling their needs and making life unpleasant for unresponsive parents. “Give me” is in that sense our very first prayer, and if it isn’t for bread, it is the same prayer. Give me what I need. The need is supplied: the supply is gift and in the gift a bond of love is formed. “Give us our daily bread.” Last Sunday we talked about the first request of the Lord’s Prayer: thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Just as that prayer turns to the heavenly father, this prayer asks the heavenly father toward us, toward our needs. Like an infant asking for milk, like a child hungry for dinner, we come to God: “Give us our daily bread.”

Bread was both symbol and fact of daily life in Jesus’ time. Surely he means to remind us of Israel’s time in the wilderness, when the cry for bread was answered by manna, a bread like substance on which the people fed and which came as the gift of God. Surely he means to remind us of the great feast Isaiah imagined. Bread there is what sustains, and the feast itself is the gift of God, a gift to be given to everyone: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!” Surely he means as well to remind them of the great time when they believed a crowd would go away hungry and miraculously all were fed.

On their return the apostles told Jesus all they had done. He took them with him and withdrew privately to a city called Bethsaida. 1When the crowds found out about it, they followed him; and he welcomed them, and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed to be cured. 12The day was drawing to a close, and the twelve came to him and said, “Send the crowd away, so that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside, to lodge and get provisions; for we are here in a deserted place.

There they are, in a deserted place, a place that must have felt to them like a wilderness. No McDonalds, no Stewarts, no Dunkin Donuts, not even a gas station in sight. Yet even there, bread is provided. They bring what they have to Jesus, intending obviously for him to get the message: five loaves, a couple of fish, not enough, not nearly enough. Yet when he blesses what they have, somehow everyone is fed and there are 12 baskets of leftovers. “Give us this day our daily bread” reminds us that our source is not ourselves but the gift of God.

The importance of the gift is part of the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Do you remember the story? Jesus is baptized; immediately, he is called into the wilderness. Some versions say he was led there; some that he literally “thrown into the wilderness”. The wilderness is more than geography or climate, it is the place where Israel met God, where God formed the people and gave the covenant. Jesus is in the wilderness, according to the story 40 days, a Biblical number that really means “complete”.

While he’s there, he’s hungry, and the tempter comes. Jesus has just been embraced and heard the Spirit call him the son of God; now the tempter takes this great blessing, this wonderful moment, and turns it around: “If you are the song of God, command this stone to become bread.” You know this temptation, don’t you? You’re at home; there’s food in the fridge you could make, but you’re hungry and there are potato chips so… What would it mean to be hungry and told you could easy as waving turn stones to bread? Stop relying on God and God’s way: just do it yourself. Most of us know this temptation because so often we’ve given into it. We substitute things we make for bread that satisfies: the list is endless, from career success to how we look, how much we make, how many likes we have on Facebook. Jesus replies to the temptation by turning to God’s Word, saying that we do not live by bread alone.

“Give us this day our daily bread.” Bread is easy for us to get today. We stop into a store, pick some up off a rack, the only difficulty all the choices: white, whole wheat, rye, whole grain, cinnamon, so many types. But in Jesus’ day, bread had to be made, then as now, from basic ingredients: flour, oil, yeast, baked in an oven. Most people didn’t have these things on their own. You might raise the grain; but it had to be milled, and for that you traded grain. You might have olives to make oil, but you needed a press, and you might trade for that. Ovens weren’t individual, they were a community resource, a place where people gathered together to bake together. They were a focus of community life, like the village well, a place to go and talk and laugh and share and gossip and finally take the hot loaf of bread from the oven. So when Jesus speaks of being given our daily bread, surely he has in mind this sort of community. You can raise lentils and make lentil stew on your own but it takes a whole community to make bread. This is the effect of bread. So it is with us. We sing, “One bread, one body, one Lord of all”, at communion, reminding ourselves that sharing the bread of communion binds us into the body of Jesus Christ. For as the Apostle Paul said, “The bread which we break, does it not mean [that in eating it] we participate in and share a fellowship (a communion) in the body of Christ?”

So: packed into this one prayer we remember and acknowledge we live not alone as a result of our own efforts but within a community, where so much of what we need comes not as reward but as gift. There is one more thing this prayer has to teach: it says, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Jesus teaches here as he does elsewhere a focus on the dailyness of life, the nowness of our lives. I’ve been going to the yoga class here on Tuesday nights for a little over a year, off and on. I’m not very good at yoga; I have trouble keeping up with the poses. I struggle along, better some weeks than others. But the hardest thing for me at yoga isn’t the poses or the effort or the stretching it is the constant encouragement to be present, to focus on that moment and not let my mind wander off to other places. I live with a constant future tug; there’s always next Sunday’s sermon, next month’s worship, next year’s strategy. So given the chance, my mind will happily go off there, thinking about what’s going to happen Sunday, what’s going to happen Easter. Jesus means to bring me back, I think, as he does with each of us. The manna in the desert was a daily thing; in fact, only on the day before sabbath could more than today’s need be gathered, anything over would go bad. “Give us this day our daily bread” means to bring us back to today: what do we need today to live as God’s people?

We have seen already how Jesus’ prayer means to turn us to a relationship of loving intimacy with God when he begins, “Our father”, or as I suggested, “Hiya Dad”. Then he moves to inviting God’s rule in our lives: “Thy kingdom come”. Now in the prayer he asks us each day to focus on today, to remember thankfully how we are sustained by God’s gifts; to remember that live from God’s gifts. So this week, each day, every day: let us indeed pray with Jesus, seeking to live as the body of christ, sustained by the bread of life.


Who’s In Charge Here? – Learning to Pray the Lord’s Prayer, Lent 2


by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Second Sunday in Lent • February 21, 2016

A fisherman and his wife lived in an old dirty hut alongside a lake in Bavaria. Every day the fisherman went out to the lake and every day he returned with his catch. One day, the fisherman’s net caught a golden fish. The fish spoke to him and said, “If you throw me back, I will grant you any wish you desire.”
The fisherman thought about it, and being of simple means he could think of no want, so he let the fish go. Upon returning to the dirty old hut that night, he told the tale to his wife.

“You should have asked him for a nice cottage,” she said. “I would love to move out of this filthy hovel.”
So the next morning, the fisherman approached the lake and called out for the fish. The water bubbled and the fish surfaced. It asked, “What do you want?”
“It’s not for me, but my wife. She would like a nice cottage to live in.”
“Your wish is granted. Go home and see.”

The fisherman returned home, and sure enough their filthy hut was replaced with a nice cottage.
The next morning his wife said, “Go back and ask that fish for another wish. I want to be the Princess of Bavaria and live in a fine castle!”
The fisherman said, “Oh no, wife. That is too much. Do not make me ask the golden fish for such a thing. Let us be happy in our nice cottage by the lake.”
But his wife insisted and persisted, and eventually he agreed to ask the golden fish for this wish.
He went down to the lake, and the water was choppy. He called for the fish and its head appeared above water. It said, “What do you want?”
“It’s not for me, but my wife. She wishes to become Princess of Bavaria and live in a fine castle.”
“Your wish is granted. Go home and see.”

The fisherman returned home, and sure enough the cottage was replaced with a castle. There were battlements and guard towers and soldiers all around. His wife greeted him splendidly dressed as a princess.
The next morning his wife said, “Go back and ask that fish for another wish. I want to be Empress of Prussia and live in a grand palace!”
The fisherman said, “Oh no, wife. That is too much. Do not make me ask the golden fish for such a thing. Let us be happy in our Bavarian castle.”
But his wife insisted and persisted, and eventually he agreed to ask the golden fish for this wish.
He went down to the lake, and the water was boiling and turbulent. He called for the fish and its head appeared above water. It said, “What do you want?”
“It’s not for me, but my wife. She wishes to become Empress of Prussia and live in a grand palace.”
“Your wish is granted. Go home and see.”

The fisherman returned home, and sure enough the castle was replaced with a grand palace. It was larger, with more soldiers, more battlements, and more guard towers.
He went in to see his wife and said, “Surely you are happy now. There is nothing greater than being the Empress of Prussia, and no palace greater for you to live in.”
She said, “We shall see. I want to sleep on it and discuss it on the morrow.”
In the morning, she roused the fisherman and said, “Go back and ask that fish for another wish. I want to be the Pope, and live in the grandest palace of all.”
The fisherman said, “Oh no, wife. That is too much. Do not make me ask the golden fish for such a thing.”
She said, “Why not?”
“Well, for one thing, they only let men become popes.”
But his wife insisted and persisted. He said, “Let us be happy in our Prussian palace!”

But she said, “I want to become like God, and order Nature to do my bidding, and tell the sun and moon when to rise and command the stars in the sky above!”
She extolled and cajoled, and eventually he agreed to ask the golden fish for this wish.
He went down to the lake, and the water was dark and roiling. He called for the fish and its head appeared above water. It said, “What do you want?”
“It’s not for me, but my wife. She wants to become like God.”
“Go home. She is sitting in your filthy old hut.”

So the fisherman returned home, and all was as before. He and his wife cleaned the old hut, and lived out their days in peace.
There are many versions of this story, the one here was taken from
The Story of the Golden Fish

What did you think while you heard this story? Did you sympathize with the fisherman or the wife? Can you imagine just wanting more, like she did, more space, finer things, more power? Did you know from the beginning how it would end? I went searching for stories of people who wanted to be in charge this week and there were so many I was overwhelmed. I knew from the beginning in each how it would end. So did you, I expect. Here’s my question: if we know how it will end, why do we keep doing it?

The Bible has stories of people like this. One is right near the beginning, but we often remember it wrong. Adam and Eve are newly created, without anything covered. They live in a beautiful garden doing a little weeding here and there, taking care of it and in the middle of the garden there’s a tree they’ve been told not to touch. One day a serpent points out the tree to Eve and Eve, who is the first theologian, expounds God’s Word regarding the tree. But at the end, Eve takes the fruit from the tree and shares it with Adam. Why? It’s not clear from the story exactly. But we all know don’t we? I told this story to a group of children once. One of them said, “Why did God tell them not to take that fruit, it just makes you want it more when someone says don’t eat it.” Yeah: she had it right—we just want more, until like the woman in the story we have so much that we have nothing. We fall. We live in the midst of the storms of life, and we think if we just had more, more power, more money, more something we could still the storm and sail safe.

Theologians have names for this: “original sin” is one, “total depravity” is another. Those are deep dark concepts, caves that take some time to explore, you need to put on a head light and have some equipment to go spelunking there. But you don’t need all that to know what we’re talking about; you really just have to look in your own heart. You just have to think about why we buy powerball tickets when the prize gets over a hundred million dollars. You just have to look at how we run things when we’re given the chance. Look at our own history. The Puritans are kicked around England until they finally leave and come to Massachusetts. “They came for freedom!”, our happy history teaches us. Truth is, once they got settled in, they turned around and started kicking other people out, sent them to Rhode Island. Yes, we want to be king and sometimes even that isn’t enough.

Jesus lived in a highly structured society, a hierarchy where wealth and gender and where you came from mattered. It mattered that you were male; it mattered that you had money. It mattered whether you were Roman or Jewish or Samaritan. All these things and many more were set against the human desire for more and the competition was often bloody and violent. It was a time of peasant revolts, it was a moment when Roman soldiers crucified thousands up and down the roads around Jerusalem. So we read these words in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come”, calmly, quietly. But to Jesus and to the ones who first heard them, these were fiery words, fighting words, scary words. For kingdom is a political term and kings that will tolerate wandering preachers take action when the preaching turns to kingdom.

But Jesus doesn’t seem to be raising a political movement. Instead, as he does so often, Jesus is speaking beyond politics to the deeper reality of human souls. Living in a moment when the Roman empire was worshipped as a God, he calls his people back to this one fundamental reality: we are here to serve God, praise God, worship God. All the human agencies, all the human divisions, everything human is nothing compared to the majesty of God’s rule. That’s part of the lesson in the story of the fisherman. A poor couple are given an unbelievable chance to better themselves. Imagine them waking up in the nice cottage described at the beginning: running water, a beautiful setting. But it doesn’t satisfy. So the places get bigger and better: a castle, a palace. The drive focuses on power, as it always does. What is more? Be a queen, be an empress, until finally it ends with the desire to be God. We are back to the garden at that point: seeking the thing that will make us not just more but most.

Jesus calls us back from this journey to destruction. “Who’s in charge here?”, he implicitly asks. Is it the relentless drive for more?—or can we choose to understand ourselves in a different way? “Thy kingdom come” says first and foremost that we are not living on our own; we are living in the realm of a greater power, subject to a greater command than our own desires. To honestly pray “Thy will be done” is to say my own will, my own desire is not the most important. And in that moment, all those human things matter less than that one fact, that one will, God’s will. What is God’s will? That’s easy, it’s written all over the scriptures, all over the religious traditions of thousand years. “Love God, love your neighbor as yourself.” All the human categories of Jesus’ time and ours fall apart before this great command. Gender, money, celebrity, race and where you came from—they mean nothing compared to this one great command and the desire to live not from our own wills but from the will of God. It’s hard to live this way. Yet this is the choice Jesus puts before us: live from yourself, in the world where differences matter and the great drive is more, or live in the realm of God’, the kingdom of God, asking every day, “Thy will be done.”

This week I saw a movie that expressed this thought fully. It’s called The Finest Hours and it tells the story of a group of four young Coast Guardsmen in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, who were charged in a great storm to go out into the North Atlantic and rescue men on a ship that was sinking. I’m a sailor; I stay home when the waves mound up, when the wind blows beyond a certain point. “Small craft warning” means stay in port. But I’m just sailing for myself; these men had a higher calling. So knowing they are risking their lives, they go out into the terror of the sea to redeem the lives of strangers they’ve never met. “They say you have to go out, you don’t have to come back”, is an old Coast Guard mantra. These are people living from a greater ethic than more; they know what it is to give your life to a greater cause. In the event, they were successful; 32 men were saved that day. They were saved because four men lived not from what they wanted but from what they were called to do.

“Thy kingdom come,” Jesus prays and invites us to pray: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The transition is clear and critical. For it is when we live from God’s will, when this prayer condenses into lives that bits of heaven become evident on earth. When we lives out this prayer, we are making heaven on earth. For the true heaven comes not from miracle fishes or bigger and better palaces, not from more, not from us at all. Heaven comes when the kingdom of God appears. This is the mission of Jesus Christ. The gospel of Mark says it all:

Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ [Mark 1.14bf]

Jesus comes to bring heaven to earth by proclaiming God’s rule, living from God’s rule. And his words and his life confront us with this choice: will we make his prayer our lives? This morning we read the story of a storm he stills. We all face storms; they blow into our lives and challenge us and ask, “Who’s in charge here?” When we pray, when we live, saying indeed, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done”, the storms are stilled; heaven is brought to earth.

Hiya Dad – Learning the Lord’s Prayer 1


This past week New Hampshire conducted its presidential primary and the thing that struck me most was not the results but the process: individuals going to candidates at forums, meetings, even on the street and asking questions. It made me wonder: what would you like to ask Jesus? Suppose he appeared to you as he did to Peter, to John, to Mary, to Paul. Suppose you had just a moment, as they had, what would you ask?
The gospels are full of questions. Rabbinic teaching to this day is a dialogue: a question is posed, the rabbi, the teacher, ponders the question in the light of Torah and tradition. So the greatest prayer in our worship comes, not as a teaching from nowhere, but as a response to a question.

One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples.”
Jesus answers, according to Luke, with what we now call, The Lord’s Prayer, beginning, “Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

But this prayer comes not only as a response to the disciple’s question, it comes as a response to God. The sailor in a storm, the soldier in a battle, the spouse in a hospital waiting room, pray in response to something larger, some great event that moves their spirit. In the same way, our prayers are evoked, our prayers come in response to God’s great creative work. Wherever we go, there are moments of beauty that call to us, that speak to us, and the response is a prayer.

Surely the disciple asking the question knows how to pray. Prayer has a long history, so long we can’t mark it’s origin. Anne Lamott famously said there are just two real prayers: “Help me help me help me” and “thank you thank you thank you”. Surely in the dawn of human consciousness, both prayers were offered. For in that dawn, living on the edge of survival, humans must have felt the same fear we feel when we are threatened. And in that fear, their souls must surely have cried out for help, help from some power greater, some force stronger, some actor who could change things in their favor: “help me help me help me”. So too, in times of satisfaction, when the hunt was successful or perhaps appreciating the beauty of a moment, of a scene they had come upon, their hearts opened like ours and they said, as we do, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Over centuries, those simple prayers became ritualized, formalized into specific words. Humans imagined a rich former time when gods walked and they invoked them with prayers and worship they believed would benefit their communities and themselves.

In Jesus’ time, prayers were public performances. Ancient near eastern religion included the adoration of statues meant to symbolize gods and ceremonies that were intended to mimic their actions. In Babylon, for example, a New Year’s festival involved leveling the great dirt road outside the city, constructing a platform on which the king rode into a stadium where he slew a lion, replicating one of the stories of the god Marduk. Roman religion was practiced at great temples, through a system of sacrifices of animals. Much of the ancient near east practiced such prayer. We have a reflection of those ceremonies in Jesus’ teaching. Matthew’s gospel precedes the Lord’s Prayer with Jesus’ condemnation of ceremonies his disciples must have seen. He speaks of a procession of prayer, with a trumpet going first; he speaks of people standing in synagogues and on street corners, loudly proclaiming their prayers. Instead, he tells his followers, go to some place private and offer a prayer that looks like this—and then he teaches the Lord’s Prayer.

With this history of ritualized, public prayer, where the words of the prayer themselves are specified, where the point is the effect on the crowd, and the honor the prayer receives, the prayer Jesus teaches and its context is striking. First, he teaches that prayer is private: its location is in the quiet room of the soul. Prayer is not a public ceremony, it’s a private conversation.

Second, he begins his prayer with a shocking statement of intimacy: “Our Father”. It doesn’t sound that intimate in English, does it? We miss the effect. In Jesus’ original language, however, the opening word is “Abba”. Now Abba is a term of intimacy; it doesn’t so much mean, “our Father”, as “Daddy” or “Poppa”; you can supply another word if you wish. The Bible is perfectly comfortable with images of God that imagine a mother’s love, in fact the prophet Hosea pictures God like a woman working in a field, drawing us with what are called cords of compassion. What the text really means is a sort of leather leash mothers used to keep track of children while they worked. In loving families, parents are often called by some word, some name, that is less a name than a claim of relationship. Instead of saying, “our father”, I think sometimes we should begin this prayer, “Hiya, Dad”.

Imagine that; try it out in your head: “Hiya Dad”. It claims something about God, and at the same time it says something about you too, doesn’t it? It claims a relationship imperishable, unbreakable. It speaks not only the identity of the one addressed but also our own place. For no equal calls someone Daddy, no other power speaks this name; it is a child thing, to say it is not only to say who God is, it is to say that we are children of God. This is the meaning of “our Father”: that we have an imperishable, intimate, unbreakable relationship with God defined by God’s care for us and God’s intention to help us grow up. It is to say that we are before God children, who may at times run off, get into trouble, but ultimately are called back and cared for by a power greater than we can imagine, nurtured by a love we cannot escape. Calvinists have a name for this love, they call it “violent grace”. It means simply that God can save us even when we don’t want to be saved. So indeed, to pray, “our father”, abba, is to recognize God loves us even when we don’t want to be loved, even when we, like an angry adolescent, say to God, “You’re not going to walk with me, are you?”

“Hiya Dad” claims a relationship and the relationship precedes anything else. There is no thank you here, no request for help, nothing but that one shocking claim: you and God together are bonded in some way that is beyond any earthly attempts to break the bond. Perhaps that’s why he immediately locates this parent “Our father who art in heaven.” Where is heaven? Another time thought of the universe as layered, earth here, heaven above, some kind of underworld below. But heaven is much more than geography. Heaven is the place where God’s intention is fully realized, where God’s rule, God’s will, is fully expressed. To say “who art in heaven” is also to claim a relationship, it is to say that we have a home there, we have a home in heaven with this dad, this parent, this mom. For part of the heart of the relationship is to say, this is who our people are, this is where we come from. One of my favorite camp songs says, “I’ve got a home in glory land that out shines the sun…” Maybe you know it. Heaven is home, a true home, and like home, we come home through this prayer. It’s meant to transport us, remind us who we are: children in the home of the loving God.

So the final part of the opening of the prayer shouldn’t surprise us: “hallowed be your name.” I guess more misunderstanding comes from this than any other part. When I was a kid, I didn’t know the word ‘hallowed’, I thought it meant ‘hollowed’. I didn’t understand why God’s name would be hollowed out, like a gourd. Hallowed is actually, of course, just an old English way of saying, “Great!” or “Praised!” It is a reminder, right form the beginning, of God’s greatness.

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Hi dad, I remember home, and how great you are. Perhaps Lamott is right in general about prayer but this prayer does not begin with anything God has done for us, or anything we hope God will do. It isn’t about doing at all at the opening. Before the doing, before the hope, there is just this great, ringing affirmation of relationship. Hiya dad—I’m yours, I’m your child; I know you’re in heaven—I know you are my home. Hallowed be thy name—I know your greatness, your goodness, and I live within it. This is the beginning of Jesus’ prayer and it’s meant to be prayed as the beginning. Right from the beginning, before we ask, before we are asked, we are meant to remember: whose we are, who we are.

This week, I want to give you an assignment, and it’s simple. Just prayer this one line, this one sentence, each day as a prayer. Do it right: go somewhere private, alone, no cell phone, no TV, no screens at all, just you and the quiet. Breathed, wait until you are calm and then pray the prayer. And then, see if you can find your own words. What word expresses the intimate caretaker for you? Where is the home of that one? What praise would you give? “Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” We are meant to pray this in our homes, in our hearts. Let us indeed claim our relationship and our home with God for we do indeed, have a home in glory land that outshines the sun.

What Happens?

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Transfiguration Sunday/C • February 7, 2016

“You are my beloved”. Twice, the gospels tell us, heaven opened and Jesus heard in his deepest soul God speaking these words. Once at his baptism; again, late in his ministry, when he took his closest friends up a mountain and they saw how like the great prophets Moses and Elijah he was. Because we aren’t reading these stories in order, we miss some of the context. Before this, he has healed and offered hope; before this he has taught his friends his path will lead to a cross. They have argued with him, feared for him, followed him. Now he shines with the vision of this mission, now he is transfigured, altered, like the wick of a candle, as the love of God burns and sheds light in the world. What happens on the mountain? How many have asked this? Yet if we truly look, we will know what happen because we see it ourselves at times. We have been thinking about how to live together in the covenant community of Christ and last week we heard the most important principle of all: to live from the permanent love of God. What happens on the mountain? What happens when we live in the love of God?

Let me tell you a story. There was once an old stone monastery tucked away in the middle of a picturesque forest. For many years people would make the significant detour required to seek out this monastery. The peaceful spirit of the place was healing for the soul.
In recent years, however, fewer and fewer people were making their way to the monastery. The monks had grown jealous and petty in their relationships with one another, and the animosity was felt by those who visited. The Abbot of the monastery was distressed by what was happening, and poured out his heart to his good friend Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a wise old Jewish rabbi. Having heard the Abbot’s tale of woe he asked if he could offer a suggestion. “Please do” responded the Abbot. “Anything you can offer.”

Jeremiah said that he had received a vision, and the vision was this: the messiah was among the ranks of the monks. The Abbot was flabbergasted. One among his own was the Messiah! Who could it be? He knew it wasn’t himself, but who? He raced back to the monastery and shared his exciting news with his fellow monks. The monks grew silent as they looked into each other’s faces. Was this one the Messiah?

From that day on the mood in the monastery changed. Joseph and Ivan started talking again, neither wanting to be guilty of slighting the Messiah. Pierre and Naibu left behind their frosty anger and sought out each other’s forgiveness. The monks began serving each other, looking out for opportunities to assist, seeking healing and forgiveness where offense had been given.

As one traveler, then another, found their way to the monastery word soon spread about the remarkable spirit of the place. People once again took the journey to the monastery and found themselves renewed and transformed. All because those monks knew the Messiah was among them.

Let me tell you another story. Almost 16 years ago, I stood in the chancel of another church, a church where I had been the pastor for five years, a place I knew well. But on that day, another minister was at the center, directing our worship, a man who is like a father to me. And as I stood there and looked out at the congregation, Jacquelyn appeared in a white dress at the back and there was a light around her. In moments she was next to me, a few moments later we were married. We were changed, changed by love, and that has made all the difference.

One more story. Two years ago, I was still healing from a wound from which I thought I’d never recover. I was only just beginning to believe the astonishing sense I’d received from God that I wasn’t finished, that God had more for me to do. I read the information about this church and set it aside; Jacquelyn insisted I read it again, contact the committee and I did. A few months later I came here for the first time, stood in this pulpit and addressed you and, just like the day with Jacquelyn, we made a new covenant. We were changed, changed by love, and that has made all the difference.

What happened on the mountain?. In those moments, those disciples saw Jesus in a new way and a new covenant began. We often live in the past. We use it to draw lessons, we use it to guide us, to help us avoid hurts. But the gospel wants us to see ahead, not just behind. Transfiguration is a glimpse of the future, of where we are going, of a moment when we can see that God has been doing the same thing all along, in Moses, in Elijah, now in Jesus: reaching out to embrace us, inviting us to embrace each other.

I tell these stories this morning because transfiguration doesn’t just happen on a mountain far away, it happens in our lives, it happens when we open ourselves to God’s love, when we take a moment to look up from our wounds and let God’s love embrace us. John Sumwalt tells of a friend who had a powerful experience of the holy. She wasn’t sure who she could tell. She couldn’t think of anyone in the church and ended up sharing it with a Buddhist priest. He told her “not to try to dissect it for meaning, pick away at it or anything else – but just to let it sit. His words were “Hold it in your heart. It may be years before you even catch a glimmer of understanding.” Whenever heaven opens and God’s love is so evidently, clearly, showered down, a difference is made; all the difference is made.

What happens on the mountain is that the disciples see Jesus in a new way. They see him as the child of God, embraced, loved. What happens when we see each other that way? We gather in the name of Jesus who was transfigured on the mountain and as the continuing expression of that covenant community of disciples. Like them, I think we often misunderstand him; like them, we aren’t always ready to follow immediately where he’s going. But when we do, when we ourselves hope in that love, have faith in that love, practice that love, what happens? Christ comes; God blesses. And the kingdom is here, right here, among us. Today I want to close with a poem from Malcom Guide.

For that one moment, ‘in and out of time’,
On that one mountain where all moments meet,
The daily veil that covers the sublime
In darkling glass fell dazzled at his feet.
There were no angels full of eyes and wings
Just living glory full of truth and grace.
The Love that dances at the heart of things
Shone out upon us from a human face
And to that light the light in us leaped up,
We felt it quicken somewhere deep within,
A sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope
Trembled and tingled through the tender skin.
Nor can this this blackened sky, this darkened scar
Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.

What happens on the mountain can happen, does happen.
May it happen in your life this week.

Your turn!