Exodus 34:29-35, Psalm 99, 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2, Luke 9:28-36 [37-43a]
Mountain Shelters , Preached by Fr. Rev. Peter Courtney
Jesus took his disciples up on the mountain to pray, to converse with God. Instinctively we know this is the right place to go. How many people think “basement” when they think of prayer? Since God is clearly in the sky it makes sense to go up to a high place.
My father was terrified of flying. He was a person who could have made a dozen Steve Martin movies based on the mishaps that befall neurotics who think they are going to fall out of the sky. He knew his fear was irrational. He knew, as we do, that driving to the airport was a lot more dangerous than flying anywhere, anytime.
As an antidote to this neurosis he took flying lessons. He actually told me that if he was going to die, he wanted to be closer to God when it happened. I pointed out to him that the dangerous part of flying wasn’t up where God was, but down on the ground if he landed sooner and harder than he had planned. That was the first time in my life I learned that being right and being lonely are related phenomena.
But things are often inside out. A man got a permit to open the first tavern in a small town. The members of a local church were strongly opposed to the bar, so they began to pray that God would intervene. A few days before the tavern was to open, lightening hit the brand new building, and it burned to the ground.
The people of the church were surprised and pleased -- until they received notice that the would-be tavern owner was suing them. He contended that their prayers were responsible for his building burning down. In a strongly-worded deposition the church denied the charge.
At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge wryly remarked, "At this point I don't know what my decision will be, but this appears to be the situation: The owner of the tavern believes in the power of prayer, and these church people don't."
--From The Prairie Rambler, June 1993, 6.
Then there is our hero Simon Peter; how could you not love this guy? Once again he is trying to do the right thing and getting it all inside out and backwards.
He gushes, “Jesus, man, wow, it is so way cool that you are here. I mean, like, you know, we are all here. You know, like on this mountain, you know like, you know Moses was on this very spot way back then. He came up to talk with God. It was so, you know, like, cool. And here we are and look, Moses is here too. And Elijah.”
The tradition held that when the Kingdom was to come Moses and Elijah would get in first. The reason was because they, unlike everyone else in history, did not die. Nope, they didn’t. They were assumed into heaven. Kind of like sublimation where a substance changes from a solid to a gas without melting into a liquid first. I learned about this in upstate New York where the snow, the constant snow, never melted. It evaporated; it blew away. So did Moses and Elijah. They just blew away into heaven. Lucky them.
So not only were Moses and Elijah exempt from death, they got to be first in line for the kingdom as well.
To signal this wonderful event, Peter wants to erect prayer booths for each of them and another one for Jesus too. He assumes that Jesus merits the same preferential treatment as his illustrious predecessors Moses and Elijah.
Now, the Bible teaches in a gentle way. Instead a great GONG sound as Peter offers his theory, the writer simply says: “He didn’t know what he was saying!” Very gentle. Not only did he not know what he was saying, he was wrong too.
Jesus is going to Jerusalem to die. Unlike Moses and Elijah, Jesus is not bigger than life. He gets no special treatment. He has to serve in the army of life just like the rest of us and has to live life in the face of death just like you and I do. The privilege of being human is to know that we are going to die and to live there anyway.
Peter makes another mistake that is not quite as obvious although analogous to the first mistake he makes. He assumes that going up on the mountain to pray means he and they are going to get something. After all Moses went up to pray and got the Word of God in the 10 Commandments. He had seen the movies with Charlton Heston and trusted it.
Moses went up to pray and met God. He met God so intimately that when he came back down from the mountain he had to cover his face because no one could stand to look at him. No one had ever seen God, and it appears that even looking at someone who had had seen God is more than anyone could stand. Even second-hand God is too much to bear.
Jesus never went anywhere to get anything. Stuff happened, but he didn’t go to get anything. Prayer is like that. Prayer, practicing the presence of God, is not about getting anything. Least of all should we assume that prayer will result in ecstasy. Make no mistake, when people, like Jesus, are transfigured by their encounter with God, extraordinary things happen. They learn to live with death for one. No wonder we don’t want to pray. We know from deadly experience that prayer is not ecstatic. When we really encounter God, we find God inside us, the same us that one day will die.
Prayer is not about getting stuff. It is about allowing God to change us. And usually the change doesn’t happen when prayer is officially going on. It happens later as we live out our prayer in life.