Sunday, February 7, 2016

Panthers, Parties and Prayer

Sermon for Holy Trinity, February 7, 2016.
I’m what’s known as a bandwagon Panther fan. I haven’t paid any attention to them whatsoever since I moved here in 1998, and now that they’re about to win the Super Bowl, here I am, cheering them on.

Up until the beginning of December, I didn’t know who Ron Rivera was. In fact, just a couple days ago I was corrected when I referred to him as Don Rivera.

I had heard the name Cam Newton and knew he had something to do with the Panthers, but that was it. So, when Panther fever was running rampant through the community, I finally decided to sit down and watch a Panther game. I learned that Cam Newton is the quarterback. And then I saw, “Oh my gosh, our quarterback is black. And he’s big. He not only throws, but he runs the ball. And he’s smart and fun to watch!” And just like that, I caught the fever, too. So, yes, I’m a bandwagon fan.

Now, people who have been following the Panthers for years, through the dark days of losing seasons, are resentful of those of us who jump on the bandwagon in time for the Super Bowl. And I don’t blame them. This is their team that they’ve followed through thick and thin. They’ve earned the right to be at the Super Bowl with their Panthers. People like me, not so much.

It’s kind of like the attitude I notice from a lot of Christians on Easter Sunday. We come to worship in this place, and the pews are packed. Our attendance more than doubles. And those of us who are here week in and week out—the faithful remnant who came to worship on Labor Day weekend, and the Sunday after Christmas, and Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and the ones who will be there the Sunday after Easter—we look around on Easter Sunday and, although few would admit it openly, if we’re completely honest, we know that we feel at least a little bit of resentment toward those who haven’t been a part of the community all along and then show up for the big party. There’s something not quite right about that.

Yeah, sure, we truly are happy to have everybody together for the party, even those who only show up for the party. But deep down inside, we have to admit that we’re at least a little annoyed by the audacity of those who only show up for the spectacular events and are nowhere to be found for the mundane ones.  

Of course, what we need to acknowledge is that it’s human nature to jump on the bandwagon or show up for the party. People like to be present for the spectacular finale, even if they weren’t around for all the preparation that went into it. And that’s certainly true for people of faith, as well. We love the splashy spectacle but aren’t so crazy about the day-to-day drudgery of plodding through this life as a person of faith.
Just look at the story of the transfiguration from Luke. Jesus takes his friends Peter, James and John with him up a mountain so he can pray. I have to wonder how exactly Jesus prayed in a situation like this. Did he and his friends all join hands? Did he pray aloud so they could hear him? Did he end every petition with the word, “Lord in your mercy…” and did the disciples respond, “…hear our prayer.” Was it silent prayer, or maybe a contemplative style of prayer? The story doesn’t tell us. But what we do know is that for some reason, when Jesus brings his disciples along to pray with him, they can’t keep their eyes open. They’re weighed down with sleep.

Now, does that remind you of another story where Jesus takes his disciples up a mountain to be with him while he prays? Not too long after today’s story, Jesus will withdraw to pray on the Mount of Olives, and when he returns to his disciples, they’ve all fallen asleep.

I can’t be too hard on them because I’ve been known to fall asleep during prayers, or during worship or during a sermon. (It’s really embarrassing when you’re the one preaching.)

So, Peter, James and John are just about to nod off when, Bam! Jesus’ appearance is transformed and he is shining like the sun. And then all of a sudden he’s talking to Moses and Elijah. Well, the disciples were wide awake now! This was the coolest thing ever, and Peter wanted to build a shrine up there on the mountaintop, to preserve the glory of the moment, so it would never end.

The prayers may have put them to sleep, but the spectacle got their attention. And here’s the thing… Jesus needed both to prepare himself for what was before him.

Notice that today’s text begins with” “Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and they went up on the mountain to pray.” About eight days later than what sayings? Well, if you back up in your Bible, you’ll hear Jesus talking to his disciples about his death and resurrection. He has his mind set toward Jerusalem. In fact, during his conversation with Moses and Elijah on the mountain, they’re not just shooting the breeze. They’re talking about his departure and what he’s going to accomplish in Jerusalem. Much like Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he’s praying for guidance and strength to face the cross, Jesus is struggling here as well. God gives him that guidance and strength through a spectacular moment with Moses and Elijah.

Jesus needed this to prepare himself for what was ahead. I suspect Peter, James and John did, too. But the spectacular alone wasn’t going to carry them through the days ahead. They also needed the day-to-day connection with God that came through quiet times of prayer.

That’s the way the life of faith works for us, too. It’s not all about the big moments; it’s also about the small ones. It’s not all about the grand acts where we see God doing amazing miracles in the world around us. It’s also about acts of mercy and compassion that are quietly bringing healing to the people everywhere.

The life of faith isn’t just about going out into the world and doing great works in the name of Jesus. It’s also about visibly doing nothing at all, but simply resting in the presence of God. The life of faith is expressed outwardly and inwardly. It’s God meeting us in times of the glory of the transfiguration and in the struggle of the cross.

I’m afraid we have a tendency to be either/or people when the Jesus Way is both/and. So our spiritual lives get out of whack. They become unbalanced and incomplete. As we enter into the Lenten season on Wednesday, it’s a good time to examine that for ourselves. Where our lives are out of balance spiritually, we have an opportunity during the Lenten season to focus on bringing them into balance.

Some of us are all about serving. We’re volunteering at Merry Oaks and caring for elderly parents, we’re coaching soccer or building a house for Habitat for Humanity. It’s all an expression of faith. But it’s all about doing. If your faith life is all about doing, I need to tell you that you’re missing something. You’re missing the relationship with God that a deeper prayer life can bring.

Or you may be all about a quiet spirituality. You may devote yourself to reading the Bible and other spiritual reading and prayer every day, but you never really do anything in the world to express your faith.
During these upcoming weeks of Lenten self-examination, take some time to consider whether your spiritual life is balanced. And where it’s lacking, strive to make some changes so that your whole self is in relationship with God.

Of course, God loves us whether we’re totally with him, or only fractionally with him. But when challenges come—and we know they will, we can’t escape them—we’ll be better able to face them when we are wholly in relationship with God.

Ours is a God of the spectacular and the mundane. Ours is a God of wholeness. May we grow to experience a deeper connection with God during the weeks ahead.

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