The Prodigal Parent

Dad wrestle

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 NRSV

One day, Jesus is confronted by some grumbling Scribes and Pharisees: “Jesus, why do we keep hearing these stories about you hanging out in some very shady places? Rumors are flying all over town about you eating and drinking and hanging out with known sinners!”

“And you claim to be a man of God!”

“Rabbi, if you are a Rabbi, let me tell you something, our God is an awesome God who will punish not only the sinner, but the sinner’s children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. God will strike you down with a lighten bolt, and if not that, send a cancer, a heart attack or maybe a stroke.  And, Jesus, you better watch out, because if you get too many sinners in one place, too many sinners at one local restaurant or pub, or in one city or in one nation, God might send a tornado or an earthquake, and take out everyone!”

When Jesus is confronted by these religious people who thought they had all the answers, he responds as he usually does—by telling a story.  Here, he tells three stories—one about a lost sheep, another about a lost coin and another about a lost boy.  The parable of the lost boy has been commonly referred to as the “Parable of the Prodigal Son.”  And he is called “prodigal” for some pretty good reasons.

Growing up in church, my home pastor would often use the dictionary when he came to a point like this in his sermon.  I think he defined a word for us every Sunday!  He would say, “Now, Webster defines ‘prodigal’ as…”  In that spirit, but with a 21stcentury twist, allow me to do the same. Dictonary.com defines prodigal as…

1.wastefully or recklessly extravagant

2.giving or yielding profusely; lavish

3.lavishly abundant; profuse

4.a person who spends, or has spent, his or her money or substance with wasteful extravagance.

The youngest son had the gall to demand his inheritance so he could leave home.  Demanding his inheritance meant that he had come to this point in his life where he did not mind regarding his father as being deceased.  “I want my inheritance!”  “Daddy, I want to live my life as if you were dead!”

Then the surprising part, the father hands it over to the boy who slips into a “distant country” where he wasted every red cent on selfish, wild living—thus, the designation “prodigal”— reckless, lavish, wasteful, extravagant.

After he spends all that he has, there is a famine and the young boy found himself in great need so found a job feeding pigs…

“Of course there is a famine,” says the religious leaders! That is what we are trying to tell you!  A famine! That is brilliant!  Oooh. God is soooooo good. I bet that boy starves to death! Or at least gets a bad case of salmonella from eating with the pigs. And serves him right! A just punishment for a prodigal—one who had everything only to recklessly lose everything. Death from lack! Death from scarcity! What wonderful irony.”

Jesus continues… “But there in great need, desiring to eat and drink with the pigs, the boy decides to goes back to the father and beg forgiveness…”

“Yeah, good luck with that!” the religious leaders howl, laughing at such a ridiculous scenario!

However, we know the rest of the story…

“And when he was “a long way off,” the father saw him and ran and embraced him.  Think about this. How did this father see him “a long way off?” It is certainly not because this father was busy going on with his life.  But because the father had been looking for him.

Some of my fondest childhood memories are sitting on the front porch of our home with my brother and my sister, waiting and watching for Daddy to return from work. We would position the chairs on the porch at just the right angle so if we squinted and strained hard enough, we could see through our dogwood trees and our neighbors’ crepe myrtles to get a glimpse of Daddy’s Green Ford LTD almost a half a mile away. Then we would be ready to run to pounce on Daddy to welcome him home.  As soon as he got out of the car I would jump on his back, while my sister and brother would grab his legs. On a good day, if we could muster just enough leverage, Daddy would fall into the grass where we would lavish him with hugs and kisses like three little puppy dogs.  Mama, used to to get on us. She’d remind us how tired Daddy was from working all day, and how one day when he drove up and saw us running and screaming towards the driveway, he was going to just keep going down the road! I think she was just jealous.

Every day this father sat on his front porch, gazing down the road, watching and waiting, hoping and praying, grieving for his boy to return home.  And while he was still a long way off, he was filled with compassion, and he started running! He ran and ran to meet his child, throw his arms around him and kissed him profusely.

I wonder how long the father waited for his dead son’s homecoming.  I wonder why the father waited. For all he knew, his son was dead. Can’t you just hear his concerned friends and neighbors, or maybe even his pastor telling him: “Old man, its time for you to move on. You’ve got to get past this.  Face the facts.  He’s not coming back. You got to get over it. You have to go on living your life. Concentrate on your older boy who’s still here with you.”  But the father still waited and watched, hoped and prayed and grieved.

And he really did not know that his son was still alive. A young kid with a pocket full of cash first time away from home traveling alone was an easy target to any would be thieves and murderers. Remember the story of the Good Samaritan? Still the father patiently and you might say recklessly waited. Everyday he kept looking down the road in front of his house. Straining to see, hoping to see, his son coming home.

Then the reunion! The biggest, most extravagant homecoming party you’ve ever seen! The sandals, the ring, the robe, the best one! The calf, the fattest calf! All of the stops pulled out, for this son who was thought to be dead is now alive, lost and is now found.

And the religious leaders are left scratching their heads. Still grumbling and complaining, ranting and raving, now with the older son.  Listen how the older son talks about his brother: How can you do this for “this son of yours?”  “How can you do this, not for ‘my brother,’ but for this one, as far as I am concerned is still in some distant country?”

This is when it dawns on us. We thought this was a story of a prodigal son, when in reality, it turns out to the story of a prodigal father.  It is a story of a very “reckless” “profuse” “extravagant” and “excessive” love. For when the boy left home, the father recklessly gave him his inheritance.

And while the boy was gone into the far country, his friends and neighbors would say that the father recklessly waited. And when the boy at last returned, the father recklessly threw a huge party, holding nothing back for himself. The father loved his son recklessly when he left home, he loved him recklessly while he was away from home and he loved him prodigally when he returned home.

The good news is that is how our God loves each one of us. Our God is a God who, when it comes to love, holds nothing back. God’s love for us is extravagant, excessive, relentless, even reckless. The one thing that this story reveals is that God’s love for us is profusely prodigal.

This is why I will never apologize for loving others in a way that some religious folks would characterize as “excessive.” For my God is profusely prodigal in God’s desire to draw all of us unto God’s self. God is relentlessly radical to have us in God’s arms so God can shower us with divine kisses. As the ranting of the religious leaders and the anger of the older brother reveal, it was this prodigal love that sent Jesus to the cross.

Perhaps the most prodigal statement ever made was made from the cross… “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  Then, like a father, turning over his property before he dies, giving away his life, to children who are undeserving, to people who are known sinners, Jesus died.

And the watching and the waiting and the grieving continues…

Let us pray…

God forgive us for the sin of the older brother, the sin of Pharisees and Scribes, forgive of our desire to distant ourselves from those in our family, in our community, in our world we consider to be sinners.  And forgive us for yearning that you somehow distant yourself, turn your back on, and forsake some, forgive us of our racism or classism or simple arrogance that hopes with the Scribes and Pharisees that you are an unforgiving God who punishes your wayward children and their offspring. Forgive us for believing that your love is anything but profusely prodigal.

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Turn Yo Sef ‘Roun Now

we alone get to choose

Luke 13:1-9 NRSV

Most of you know that I had the opportunity to serve with a congregation in Baton Rouge for three years.

One of the great things about living in southern Louisiana were the countless stories I heard about two infamous Cajuns named Boudreaux and Thibodeaux.

Reverend Boudreaux was the part-time pastor of the Boondock Bible Church and Pastor Thibodeaux was the minister of the Backwoods Gospel Church located directly across the road. One day, they were both standing out by the road in front of their churches, each pounding a sign into the ground as fast as they could. The sign read:

Da End is Near
Turn Yo Sef ‘Roun Now
Afore It Be Too Late!

As soon as the signs got into the ground, a car passed by. Without slowing down, the driver leaned out his window and yelled as loud as he could: “You bunch of religious nuts!”

Then, from the curve in the road they heard tires screeching and a big splash.

The Reverend Boudreaux yells at Pastor Thibodeaux across the road and asks:

“Do ya tink maybe da sign should jus say ‘Bridge Out’?”

Now, because I am a seminary-educated minister that has spent the bulk of my ministry preaching from mainline, city pulpits, I have always sought to differentiate myself from the so-called religious nuts. The repent-or-be-sent, turn-or-burn, reach-for-the-sky-or-fry, get-saved-or-get-microwaved style of preaching has never been a part of my repertoire.

Thus, when I preach a passage of scripture like our gospel lesson this morning, I have steered away from any interpretation that sounds like what Jesus is actually saying here is: “The end is near! Ya betta turn yo sef ‘roun now! A fore it be too late!”

For example, I have used this passage as an opportunity to have a deep, theological discussion on the problem of evil. I have said that here, in this passage, we have two basic types of evil in the world. There is natural evil, and there is personal evil.

The tower of Siloam, I have said, represents natural evil. In this fragmented world, sometimes tornadoes and floods destroy property and take lives.

And the Galileans massacred by Pilate, represent personal evil. In this broken world, sometimes a broken person will grab a gun, then walk into a peaceful of worship begin shooting everyone in sight.

And with Jesus’ very emphatic response, “No, I tell you!” Jesus is saying that God does not will such tragedy because of human sinfulness or any other reason. In this imperfect world, sometimes bad things happen to very good people, and there is no divine explanation or driving purpose for it.

However, maybe, to avoid sounding like a religious nut, I have actually missed the very simple point of this passage which is, “The end is near. Ya betta turn yo sef ‘roun now! A fore it be too late!”

Maybe the point that Jesus is really trying trying to make here is: “Unless you repent, you will perish.”

You have a little more time, but unless you start producing some figs, start bearing some fruit, at least start sprouting a bloom or two, you are going to die.

“But, Dr. Banks, that sounds too much like the hell, fire and brimstone sermons of those country backwoods churches, and you know that we moderate, mainline, sophisticated churches are way too smart for that.”

However, I have a feeling that through this passage Jesus is arguing that we may be too smart for our own good!

Luke tells us that people had gathered together, and they started doing what people do best when they gather together, even in the church. They began to gossip, especially about the sinfulness of others, the sinfulness of “those” people. “Those” people who had this tower tragically collapse on top of them.

Sadly, I believe this may be the only reason some people go to church these days: to hear about the sins of all those who are not in church, to feel good, religious, superior, righteous.

And Jesus is emphatic, “No, I tell you!”

It is as if he is saying: “You better stop judging your neighbors and start taking a look at yourselves. Stop worrying about the speck in your neighbor’s eye and worry more about the log in your own eye. Look, bad things happen this world. People die. It’s not a matter of degrees of rightness or wrongness, sin or sainthood. Everyone dies. And one day, you are going to die. So, you better repent. You better change. Ya better turn yo sef roun now. A fore it be too late!

And to drive the point home, Jesus tells the story about a fruitless fig tree. And the moral of the story is simple. Bear fruit or die.

Reverend Sharron Blezard believes this text is begging the church today to ask: “What are we doing to bear fruit, to bloom where we’ve been planted?”

She says that far too many congregations are merely existing like a barren fig tree, wasting the soil. There are no signs of any fruits, no promise of any blooms. These churches exist primarily to get together, and sadly to do what people do best: to gossip, to talk about the sinfulness of those outside the church, to lament about the moral decay of society, and to pine for the return of good old days.

And they’ve lost hope. They’ve grown too weary, too worn down, too disheartened to invest the energy, creativity, and passion to share the Good News of Jesus with a broken and hurting world. While many congregations do provide a place to take care of one another, they have no sense of mission to be the Body of Christ that is sent by God into the world bearing fruit.

She says, think of it this way: fruit always “grows outward from the plant into the light. So, too, a healthy church grows outward.”

Several years ago, my mother gave me a Rose of Sharon root. She told me to plant it, and it would grow to be one of the most beautiful plants in my yard, with its flowers blooming all summer long.

After planting the root, the plant grew, it did not produce a single bloom that summer. I called Mama and said, “I think you must have given me a dud.”

She said, “Oh no. It’s not a dud. It just needs a little TLC. You may need to dig around it, give it a little fertilizer. You may even need to dig it up all together and plant it in better soil. Make sure it is in soil that can soak up water and is growing in a place where it can get good light.”

As always, I did what Mama told me to to do. I ended up transplanting it to a spot that had better topsoil. I kept an eye on it, watered it, cared for it, and the next year, just like mama said, it produced the most beautiful blooms all summer long.

From the short time that I have known you, it is obvious that God has given this church many good gifts. The talents and resources that are here are astounding. There is not one dud in this room. And because of that, God expects us to be fruitful with those gifts. God expects our church to bloom.

I believe Jesus is asking us to take a lesson from a barren fig tree. To bloom and bear beautiful fruit will require some work, some sacrifice. We may need to dig around, put out some fertilizer, even transplant a thing or two. It may take some cutting back, pruning, shaping and nurturing.

Yes, it is scary. It is difficult. It is risky. But, Jesus says that it is the only way to life, the only way to bear fruit that nourishes the world.

Eddie Hammett, my friend and church consultant, loves to say that Christians need to stop going to church, and start beingthe church.

I believe he is talking about the difference between a church that is inward focused, therefore barren, and one that is outward focused, therefore bearing fruit for the world.

Hammett says:

Going to church is routine and easy. Being church in the world is challenging, difficult and calls for prayerful intentionality. Going to church keeps us safe…. Being the church makes us uncomfortable and challenges us to learn to BE salt, light and leaven. Going to church is familiar….Being the people of God as church is unfamiliar to many and overwhelming to most. May we press on in the faith…

And as much as I may want to avoid sounding country-fied religious nut in the boondocks and speak only articulate, sophisticated words that make us comfortable from this mainline pulpit in the middle of the city, maybe what we really need to hear is that the time is coming, the day is approaching, as it was for that barren fig tree, there’s going to be an accounting.

What we really need to hear is that we must bear fruit or die. What we really need to hear is: “The end is near, so ya betta turn yo sef ‘roun now! A fore it be too late!”

May we use the gifts God has given us to press on in the faith, step up and out in our discipleship, do the hard work of getting out the fertilizer and the shovel, doing some digging, getting our hands dirty to produce something sweet.

In the words of John Pavlovitz: “For in the end, when our time here on this earth is done, the world will be more or less kind, gentle, loving, joyous, peaceful generous and good because of our presence here, and we alone get to choose.”

There’s a big world out there, a world that is thirsting and hungering for the love of God. May we go out and bloom, bearing fruit in the image of Christ.

O God, forgive us for sometimes softening your words to make them more comfortable for our itching ears. Grant us a spirit of selflessness where we are selfish, a spirit of courage where we are afraid, and a spirit of urgency where we are complacent. Help us to change where we need to change, to work where we need to work, and to bloom, to bear fruit in a world that hungering and thirsting for your love.

We Must

mosque fort smith
Vandalism at a Mosque in Fort Smith, AR

Luke 13:31-35 NRSV

It’s one of the greatest sentences Luke attributes to Jesus: “Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way.” Notice, Jesus didn’t say, he might, he may or he’ll try. Jesus said, “he must.”

I love to read how the forbearers of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) stirred up thousands upon thousands of people in the late 18thand early 19thcentury. Some estimate that when Barton Stone held his revival at Cane Ridge, Kentucky in 1801, nearly 30,000 people showed up. That’s 10% of the entire population of Kentucky.[i]Can you even imagine that?

Today, I believe a good question we should ask ourselves is: What in the world were these folks preaching? How did they start a movement that would later become one of the largest denominations in North America?

I believe they simply had the audacity to fully commit themselves to following Jesus at all costs.

Following Jesus was not something that they did casually, haphazardly, timidly, or reservedly. They followed Jesus passionately and fervently, eagerly and urgently. And following Jesus was not something that they did privately. They followed Jesus very publically. And they didn’t care who they offended, or if those with political or ecclesial authority opposed them for it.

They unashamedly imitated Jesus who said: “Oh, King Herod, wants to kill me? Well, you tell that fox that I mustkeep doing the business of the one who sent me.

I must keep liberating people from demonic evil, systemic, cultural and personal.

You tell Herod I must keep bringing people healing and wholeness today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. And you tell them that I must take this mission all the way to Jerusalem.

That’s right, you tell that fox for me that I must do these things. Not that I mightdo these things,not that I am going to try to be on this way, but that I mustbe on this way.”

I believe Barton Stone simply put the word “must” back into a Christianity that had grown apathetic, moderate and mainstream.

He preached that Christians must put God’s word over the words of the culture, the way of Jesus over the way of the world.

We must denounce all man-made creeds and confessions, and we must commit ourselves to following Jesus at all costs.

“Oh, the presbytery thinks we’re going against the doctrinal grains of the church, do they? Oh, the government thinks we are bucking the unjust political systems, do they? Well, you tell those foxes that we mustkeep following Jesus today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. Wemustkeep fighting for the inclusion of all at the Lord’s table. We mustkeep preaching against the demonic evils of slavery, white supremacy, and anything else that does not jive with Jesus! You tell those foxes that we mustbe on this way.”

I do not believe we can overemphasize how committed our forbearers were to the gospel even when the gospel was directly opposed culture. At Cane Ridge, during a time when Presbyterians believed only like-minded Presbyterians could receive communion, Presbyterian Barton Stone invited an African-American slave, a Baptist pastor, to not only receive communion, but to actually serve communion. And if you could ask him why he included this man, I believe he would simply say, “As a follower of Christ, I mustinclude him.”

And later, when Stone inherited two slaves, he immediately emancipated them. Trouble was that they were living in Kentucky long before the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. So what does Stone do? He tells his family and his two former slaves, “Pack your bags, because we mustmove to Illinois, because our new friends must be free!”

And thousands of people from all over the then expanding United States responded to Stone by saying, “We mustjoin this movement!” And by 1960, the movement they started exploded into a denomination with 1.6 million members.

Now here’s the troubling news. In 2012, we only had 625,000 members. Since 1960 our denomination has had a 60% decline in membership.[ii]

There are many complex reasons for this decline. Other so-called “mainline” denominations have experienced similar declines. However, this morning, I want to suggest that one of the reasons the church seems to have lost its way is that Christians have removed the word “must” from our vocabulary.

We have lost our passion to follow Jesus at all costs.

We have lost our drive to place the supreme law of God to love our neighbors as ourselves, like our own flesh and blood, like sisters and brothers, over any other law for fear that it might cause some opposition.

We have lost a sense of urgency to be a courageous movement for wholeness that boldly speaks truth to power.

Our faith has become more of something that privately changes our souls instead of something that publically changes the world.

Consequently, our faith intends to mirror the culture instead of transforming the culture. Watered down by peer pressure, greed, and a lust for power, our faith has become mainstream, mainline and moderate.

In fact, when you look up the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) on Wikipedia, you will discover that we are described as a “mainline denomination in North America.”

Barton Stone would roll over in his grave! For Stone followed a Jesus who was far more upstream than mainstream, more radical than moderate, always swimming against popular currents of culture. He followed a Jesus who must be on a way of selfless, sacrificial, inclusive love, even if it upset folks along that way.

Do you remember the story of twelve-year old Jesus when he did the unthinkable by leaving his parents behind? When his upset parents finally found him in the temple, Jesus asked, “Did you not know that Imustbe in my Father’s house” (Luke 2:49)?

After healing Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, the crowds used all of the peer pressure they could muster to prevent Jesus from leaving them, but he replied, “I mustproclaim the good news of the kingdom of God in other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43).

Warning the disciples who resisted suffering and persecution, Jesus said: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and scribes and be killed and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:22).

When he encountered a man who needed to stop stealing from the poor, Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5).

Right before his arrest on the Mount of Olives Jesus describes his death by saying: “For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me” (Luke 22:37).

Jesus selflessly and sacrificially travels to Jerusalem, to the city that is known to kill the prophets, not casually, haphazardly, timidly or reservedly. But with passion. With eagerness. With urgency in his steps, conviction in his heart, and the word “must” on his lips: “You tell that fox that I must be on this way.”

Now, tell me, when it comes to your faith, when is the last time you have ever said aloud or silently: “I must!”

“I must share the love and grace of Christ with someone who needs it today!”

“I must find a way to include this one who has been demeaned and dehumanized for being different, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.”

I must find a way to forgive this person who has hurt me today, the next day, and the day after.”

“I must feed someone today who is hungry.”

“I must share hope today with someone who is hopeless.”

Truthfully, as a pastor, I don’t hear many folks use the word “must” very often in the church. I hear the word “might.” “I might, if nothing else comes up.” “I might, if everything else goes alright this week.” “I’ll check my calendar, and then I might think about it.”

And I often hear the word “try.” “I’ll try to help out, if I don’t have somewhere else to be.”

And I often hear “maybe.” “Maybe I’ll be able to work a little on that project. Maybe I will be able to give some of my time this week.

And sometimes I hear all three: I might try to be more faithful, maybe.”

But think about what kind of church this would be if we all had the same type of urgency and passion as our Lord. “Can you help with our youth group on Sunday night?” “I musthelp with our youth group!”

“Can you serve on this mission project? “I must serve on it!

Will you follow Jesus at all costs?” “We must!”

The good news is that I believe this urgency and this passion can be as contagious in the twenty-first century as it was in the nineteenth century.

I believe First Christian Church can bring revival to our city and encourage many others to say with us:

We must join this movement for wholeness in our fragmented world!

We must join this mission to use the gifts God has given us to bless our community!

We must speak up and stand against Islamophobia, racism, and hate in all of its forms—a terrorist attack in New Zealand, bigoted comments from friends and family, a vote from delegates in the United Methodist Church, even ugly Tweets from the White House!

We must take a stand for the Word of God, even if it gets us into some trouble.

We must do what we can to transform this this city, our region and our world with the inclusive love of God, even if it goes against the powers-that-be.

We must follow Jesus by loving our neighbors as ourselves, like our own flesh and blood, like sisters and brothers, even when it is not culturally popular or socially acceptable.

We must do unto others as we would have them do unto us, even if our friends forsake us and our enemies wish to do us harm.

We must deny ourselves, pick up our crosses, and carry it wherever our Lord leads, even if it means losing our lives.

Let us pray together.

O God, put conviction in our hearts, urgency in our steps and the word “must” on our lips as we serve selflessly and sacrificially all the way to Jerusalem, in the name of Jesus the Christ, Amen.

[i]Duane Cummins, The Disciples: A Struggle for Reformation (St. Louis: Chalice Press), 2009.

[ii]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_Church_(Disciples_of_Christ)

Bright-Eyed and Bushy-Tailed

Life is short

Luke 9:28-36 NRSV

One day, mama called me to tell me that her favorite first cousin had passed away.  He was only 63.  I then shared with her that I had just received news that a good friend who was in my class from college died very suddenly that week. I then proceeded to offer my sincere empathy.

It was then that mama started preaching as only my mama can.  There is never any sugar-coating with mama. It is always and only the truth and that truth comes at you so hard, sometimes is like getting hit upside the head!

Mama said, “Jarrett, your life could end any day just like that.”

I then heard this clicking sound. I said, “Mama, what is that.”

She said, “That was me snapping my fingers.”

“Jarrett, life is just a vapor, so you better be sure they make the most the little time you have left.”

As much as it pains me to admit it, the truth is, mama could not be more right.  She always speaks the truth whether or not she thinks I can handle the truth. This journey, this trip, this ride we call life is a relatively short one. And it would be a shame for any of us to miss it.

A preacher tells a story of sitting on airplane waiting to take off.  His seat number was 14D. The woman next to him sat in 14E.  No two seat mates could have ever been more different.

From her dress you could tell she was far from sophisticated. His finely pressed suit and shining shoes reflected affluence and sophistication. From her talk you could tell she was but a simple country woman.

He sat there beside her with his leather brief case and laptop computer.  She was surrounded by all kinds sacks and bundles.

It was obvious that she hadn’t had much experience with flying. “I don’t do this much,” she grinned. “Do you?”

He politely nodded a “yes.”

“Well, aren’t you lucky, that must be a lot of fun,”  She said.

He groaned—for he knew that it was going to be a long flight.

She volunteered that she was going to Dallas to see her son. And she filled in all the blanks—the boy has had the flu, a stomach virus really.  He’s had stomach problems every since he was a baby.  He has a back lab. The dog’s name was Wilbur. Wilbur is such a good dog. A little hand-full when he was a puppy, but now a lot calmer. As the plane climbed, she looked and pointed out the window. “Ooooooh—would you look at those trees down there; they look just like peat moss.”

People turned around in their seats and stared.  The preacher next to her wanted to crawl under his seat.

The flight attendant came by asking what they’d like to drink.  He quietly asked for a coffee.  His seat mate asked a second time about the choices. “Now tell me again what you’ve got.”

When her drink came she said she didn’t know that apple juice came in cans, but it sure was delicious. “I thought it only came in a great big jug.  I wonder if they got these little cans at the Winn-Dixie.”

And when the sandwich came by she said in way too loud a voice: “Why there’s even a little packet of mayonnaise in here.  Isn’t that cute?”

This went on the whole flight. The little woman did not miss a thing.

The preacher said that the men in front of them were discussing a business trip to Japan. The fellow behind them must have been a nervous wreck for he kept ordering two beers at a time. The woman across the aisle had important-looking papers stacked all around her. And as he opened his laptop and began to work, it occurred to him that the only person on the whole plane who was truly enjoying the trip was the crazy woman sitting next to him.

When the plane finally landed, she turned and said, “Now wasn’t that a fun trip?”  And as he watched her head down the aisle and leave the plane, he began to wonder: What was it that she had that he didn’t have?  What was it that she knew that he didn’t know?  Why had she enjoyed the whole trip from beginning to end while he was absolutely miserable?

Jesus took three disciples up to the top of a mountain. It was the midpoint in Jesus’ journey. The clouds were hanging over his ministry. The Pharisees and Saducees were making it increasingly difficult for him.  His disciples were constantly bickering with one another. Jesus was beginning to talk to them about suffering, Jerusalem and the cross. He talked about saving one’s life by losing it. He talked about dying to self to live forever.  And the disciples didn’t really understand any of it.

And then Jesus took Peter, James and John to very top of a high mountain, and there on the mountaintop something happened.  We’re not sure what occurred, but they called it transfiguration, which means transformation, change, metamorphosis. They began to see things that they had never before seen; more importantly, they began to see Jesus in a way that they had had never before seen.  Even Jesus’ clothes were transformed.

Then God spoke, saying, just as he did at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my son, the beloved…Listen to him.”  Listen.

This encounter turned the disciples inside out. It changed their lives and they were never quite the same again.

Now, you may be wondering what this story of Jesus has to do with the woman and the preacher on the airplane.  The answer is: Absolutely everything.

Roger Lovette has said that there comes a time when all of us need to disengage. From time to time all of us need to stop, look and listen.  We need to quit doing and just be. That’s very difficult for most of us living in the 21st century. For most of us believe we always gotta be busy doing something.

Robert Fulghum tells about a woman who was so stressed out she went to see a psychiatrist. After listening to her for a long time, he wrote out a prescription and handed it to her. She read the words the doctor had written: “Spend one hour on Sunday watching the sunrise while walking in the cemetery.”  Against her better judgment she followed the advice. One Sunday morning, as the sun came up, she stood in a cemetery, listening to the birds and watching the world come alive all around her. On that morning, she found herself back in touch with her life again.

We need to open our eyes to truly see the miracle of this wonderful journey we call life. On her journey, the woman on the plane saw. And the preacher sitting beside her missed the whole experience.

2 Peter 1:16 reads: “We have been eyewitnesses to majesty.”  What a wonderful thing to say about the Church!  One paraphrase says: You do well to pay attention. For when we pay attention, everything changes.  We may see things that we’ve never seen before.

Frederick Buechner has said in one of my favorite quotes:

if you really keep your eyes peeled to it and your ears open, if you really pay attention to it, even in the most limited situations, God through life itself has something to teach you.”  “Taking your children to school.  Kissing your wife goodbye.  Eating lunch with a friend.  Trying to do a decent day’s work.  Hearing the rain patter against the window. There is no event so commonplace that God is not present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving room to recognize him or not to recognize him, but all the more fascinatingly because of that, all the more compellingly and hauntingly.

Buechner continues:

If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say as a novelist and a preacher it would be something like this: Listen to your life.  See it for the fathomless mystery that it is.  In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness:  touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis, all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.

When we pay attention to life, everything changes. We are given a brand new perspective. The transfiguration text says that when it was all over the disciples saw only Jesus.  The disciples were able to see the big picture. They remembered God had said, “This is my beloved Son.”  Thus, even when Jesus suffered, they would later understand that God was in it.  Even if it did not work out the way they thought it would—God was in it.  Not causing the pain, not willing the suffering, but present, working in it, transforming it, changing it, resurrecting it.

Very slowly they began to see this was a large thing, —this Jesus, this thing called discipleship, this thing called the church, this glorious thing called life.  And it was all sheer grace—unmerited, undeserved.  And everything changed.

Before I started running with Ainsley’s Angels, I would play golf with a group of retired men from my church. Most were in their mid to late-seventies, some in their eighties. One was ninety.

One sunny morning, as I walked up to join the group at the tee box, I remember making as casual remark: “It sure is a beautiful day, isn’t it?”

One of the men said, “Preacher, every day I wake up is a beautiful day.”  The other retired gents were quick to respond by saying, “Amen.”

Like the woman on the plane, the woman in the cemetery and the disciples on the mountain, those retired golfers saw it, they saw it.  My prayer is that all of us will be able to see it too. May we take some time to stop, look, and listen. May we slow down and pay attention. Open our eyes to see the sheer grace of it all. And then thank God for it. And live our lives being eternally grateful for it. Taking nothing for granted.

Life is short.  Life is a vapor. Our lives are going to be over before we know it.  Just like that (snap fingers).  I pray that none of us miss it.