The Church is full of characters. One of the things that makes being a priest endlessly fascinating and never boring is this variety of people Jesus has called to follow him. In the King James Version of Scripture in the book of Exodus, those who hear God’s voice and obey are called, “peculiar treasures.” In Pauls’ letter to the Corinthians those who are vessels for the glorious grace and presence of the Holy One are identified as carrying God in earthen jars, in other words, “clay pots.” And we all know how easily those are cracked.
The Church is a storehouse for peculiar treasures, a cupboard full of cracked pots, a hospital for those who know they are not well, a place of mending for the broken, the refuge for the forsaken and discouraged. The Church is for frail, flawed and failing human beings who, by God’s grace, are agents of the life-changing power of God.
We get to see this when we hear the stories of Jesus’s first followers. They are alternately faithful and doubting; confident and fearful; trustworthy and clueless. They are just like us. They careen between belief and disbelief. They promise to follow and then run away. They finally seem to understand what Jesus is teaching them and then they get it all wrong.
On what we now call “Transfiguration Sunday” we remember how Peter, James and John went up the mountain with Jesus in order to pray. And it’s amazing. While they’re praying they have a mystical experience. Jesus is transformed before them with light, a cloud and a voice from heaven. Time and space collapse as Moses, the great lawgiver and Elijah, the major prophet join Jesus in a glimpse of eternity and the awesome power of God.
It’s a mountain top experience, one that will change them forever. They’re on a high, greater and more profound than they’ve ever experienced. They even keep silent for a change, pondering with awe and wonder what has happened.
The very next day, after they’ve descended from the heights, they find themselves deep in the valley with a desperate man and his gravely ill son. They’ve known the power and glory of God and yet are unable to help this young boy who is overtaken by convulsions, terrible tremors, and great suffering. Nothing they do seems to make any difference and the situation seems hopeless. In fact, the desperate father shouts out how useless the disciples of Jesus have been in front of a large crowd. They must have felt ashamed and disheartened at their failure, embarrassed that they were unable to help.
Jesus walks into that valley of hopelessness, suffering, despair and death to bring healing and wholeness, the full restoration of the boy. And in that moment, all are astounded at the greatness of God.
The glory of God was revealed on the mountain top in the transfiguration of Jesus. That is true and it was witnessed by his three close disciples. And the glory of God is revealed in the healing and deliverance of those who are suffering, wounded and disheartened. In both cases, God’s glory is here, on this earth, in the midst of flawed and frail humanity.
In Christ God is revealed, not primarily through thunder and lightning, not in a disembodied voice, a cryptic message in a book or a secret revelation. God is revealed in Jesus, in human flesh, in the interaction between human bodies, in the relationships that come through contact and connection.
Ultimately, the glory of God is revealed on the cross, in the suffering and death of Jesus. This profound mystery of redemption in the midst of pain, sorrow and death is at the heart of Christian faith. God’s complete and ultimate identity with humanity at its very worst is ultimately the greatest power for transformation and salvation.
In another Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples that the boy troubled by seizures can only be healed through prayer. We’re all aware of the potentially trite sentiment, “our prayers are with you.” Right now there are messages all over the internet assuring the people of Ukraine that we are sending our prayers. A cynic might respond, we’d rather have your troops!
We may share the experience of the disciples, when our prayers seem ineffective, when it seems we or God has failed the one who is suffering. Why pray in the face of so much evil and destruction? What possible difference will it make? How can we tell if God even hears or responds to such prayer?
Even though the disciples were unable, on their own, to heal and help the man and his son, we can learn from their experience as they did and come away astounded at the greatness of God.
During the Sundays of Lent, we will have a special focus on healing prayer, the laying on of hands and anointing with oil during our Sunday worship. Instead of the traditional attention to confession, repentance and penitence that accompanies Lent, we will be naming the suffering and sorrow of these past two years of pandemic. Each week will focus on a particular aspect of the wounds and losses we have experienced, beginning with the first Sunday of Lent, next week when we name all those who have died during COVID, those who grieve them and those who have and are suffering from the virus. And we will continue to pray for Ukraine and for all those impacted by the horror of war and violence.
We will pray. Prayer is the practice of both the mystic and the missionary. It has both contemplative and active components. In prayer we encounter mystery and then are called to mission and purpose. We breathe in the holy and exhale our concerns and intentions.
This is corporate prayer, the prayer of those who are gathered together in person and virtually, here in this place and across the world. It prayer built upon thousands of years of practice and fresh with the inpouring of the Spirit. Here are just four reasons why praying together matters.
First of all, prayer changes us. It is in prayer that we are transfigured. Our petty resentments and complaints are eased. Our minds and hearts are expanded. We see ourselves and others in the light of the love of God. We discover connection when there has been separation and a greater compassion. Praying with others puts us in touch with the heart of Jesus.
In prayer we encounter the living God. Just as time and space collapsed for the disciples and they were able to see Moses and Elijah, we are in communion with the past, present and future, with the living, the dead and the yet unborn. Prayer breaks down the temporal boundaries and moves us towards the eternal. Our view of the universe expands and we touch not only our planet but all of creation. Prayer brings us into contact with the infinite.
In prayer deeper truth is revealed. Often there is guidance, a way forward, a next step to take. We come in contact with what is truly real about ourselves and others, that we are beloved and of great value. Prayer can help us to see the humanity of our enemies and lead to forgiveness and reconciliation. Prayer can break down the walls of nationalism, sexism, racism and all the other barriers that separate us from one another and all living things.
Finally, in prayer God is speaking if we are able and willing to hear. The prayers of God’s people enable us to know God’s heart and to respond to God’s commands. Through prayer we gain clarity on the action we are to take and receive courage and power to do it.
This week we prayed for Eric. For the past few years Eric has been sleeping in a variety of doorways throughout Ballard. Often he spends his afternoons sitting on a particular bench in our courtyard, which he calls his sanctuary. He calls me “Pastor” and often comes to me when he is concerned about someone else on the street who is in need of help. He is invariably kind, considerate and friendly. But I hadn’t seen him for a few weeks.
Last Sunday in the late afternoon he was released from hospital with two infected feet, a wheelchair and a sleeping bag. He had nowhere to go and was unable to get up or walk. If he had slept in the doorway of a business, he would have been forced away so asked to be dropped off at his sanctuary, the church. He curled up outside our front doors, under the awning and that’s where I found him two days later when I came to church on Tuesday after the President’s Day holiday.
He was freezing and it was going to get down to 21 degrees that night. Our wonderful Edible Hope volunteers had been bringing him food but he was hungry and thirsty. He had no phone, no money, no ID, no case worker and nowhere to go. The shelters were only open at night and he couldn’t get there and then get discharged at 6:30am every morning. Every bed was full and with the cold weather, nothing was opening up.
We called our contacts. Our Ballard Outreach Worker, James tried a number of places but couldn’t even get his call returned. I put out messages to our Prayer Team and the Health and Safety Team. Within minutes, people brought extra blankets and a sleeping bag. Others prepared hot drinks or brought food. Carol and Brian checked on him through the night.
The next day I got a despairing message from James. He asked us to pray since absolutely nothing was available and we knew that Eric couldn’t survive without shelter and nursing care for his feet. We prayed.
Within an hour James called me in amazement. Somehow a tiny house in Friendship Village had come open and would be made available for Eric. It was only a couple of miles away on Aurora and a visiting nurse could come and check on him regularly. The only problem was that there was no way to get him there.
Sara Bates, our Edible Hope Director took out Willa’s car seat and cleared space for him. Carol, our Groundskeeper helped to get him up and into the car with all his stuff. By Wednesday afternoon he was settled in his tiny house, the first time in many years that he has had a roof over his head, heat and a bathroom. He is so very grateful to God and for all who helped him.
Prayer changes us. It brings us into relationship and deep connection with those who are suffering. It expands our boundaries and helps us to see what is really real and truly true. God speaks to us in prayer and makes clear our mission and calling. Let us pray, experience the greatness of God and be transformed by love. Amen.