“While he was praying …” (Luke 9:27) During my time in Kenya, one of my friends was missioned in Guatemala among the Quechua people. That is a part of the country where people are poor, easily overwhelmed by the authorities in Guatemala City and the provinces, the maze of governmental forms and foreign laws of another culture.
Our missioner was working with a women’s co-operative in a small village. The women had received a micro-loan to start a textile co-op that would produce and sell fabrics and local crafts abroad as well as products for the local markets in Guatemala. After several years the co-op was a success in all measures – empowerment of women, profitability, and in helping to stave off the grinding poverty of their situation.
Perhaps in a Lenten story of temptation, one of the co-op members by placing a bribe here and there, was able to acquire documents that took “legal” possession of the co-op’s building, equipment and assets. The co-op members were unable to receive help from the government (after all they were the recipients of the bribes). So the woman began an old-fashioned sit-in in the co-op building; a non-violent protest in the face of injustice. Our missioner took her turn in the protest. Eventually they were all arrested and jailed. The local authorities, not wanting interference from the US Embassy or the Church, offered to let our missioner out of jail. Her work permit and VISA would be revoked, but she would be free to return to the United States.
Perhaps she could do more good in the United States; maybe she should take her own exodus and return home. But those women needed her in Guatemala – she should stay in jailed solidarity with the women’s group with which she had journey. Perhaps you have faced a similar situation – stay for the good, leave for the good. Which is the greater good? What to do?
Such a choice faces Jesus in today’s Gospel. The episode is set at an important turning point in the Gospel. Jesus has been teaching, preaching, healing, exorcising demons and gathering disciples as he traversed Galilee. But soon he will “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51). Something happens on the mountaintop in prayer. Something that helps Jesus to know what is his next step in his mission.
I would suggest a clue to the nature of Jesus’ prayer comes in the content of the conversation with Moses and Elijah. They “spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” There is still much to do in Galilee, and he could continue to minister there. Yet Jesus knows his destiny lies in Jerusalem: “The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.” (Luke 9:22, just before our text today). Last week our gospel of the Temptation in the Wilderness said that the devil left him, for a while. Perhaps the lure of the good of teaching, preaching, healing in Galilee is the new temptation to turn away from the Cross. And so Jesus goes to the mountain in prayer, into a deep communion with God as he discerns what to do.
My missioner friend in Guatemala found her answer in prayer in the jail. The women jailed with her told her that her face was radiant like Moses on Mt Sinai, like Hannah in prayer in the temple at Shiloh. And so she stayed in Guatemala to “do right and to love justice, and to walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8). The people of that community remember that day and even though my friend has returned home, their memory of her sustains them as they continue to struggle in their work, their lives, and in building the kingdom of God.
Jesus found his answer in prayer on the mountain top. The apostles saw that “While he was praying his face changed in appearance…[appearing] in glory.” And Jesus made the prophetic choice to continue to “proclaim release to the captives” (4:18), as he had declared in his hometown synagogue, to make the exodus towards the Cross – not an inevitable fate but a choice for freeing love. The apostles remember that moment; it is recorded in our gospels. And I have no doubt as they faced their own temptations to turn away from gospel, like Jesus they turned to prayer, to encounter the love of God poured into their hearts. I have no doubt that their memory of Jesus’ moment of prayer, his radiant face, sustained them in their mission, their temptation, and their times of decision.
Our Gospel this day does indeed reveal the glory of our Savior. It reveals Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets testifying to Jesus as their Messianic fulfillment. It leaves us with the clear command from God: “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.” And all of this comes, as it says in Scripture, “While he was praying…”
The moment of prayer are the ones that sustain us
And more, they are the moments we become radiant with the presence of God that others can see – and it sustains them. Such is the power of prayer.