Transfiguration: The perspective from a Bolivian mountaintop
This is the text of the sermon I preached at Trinity United Church on Sunday about Transfiguration: an alteration, and things are never the same again.
Transfiguration: The Perspective from a Bolivian Mountaintop
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they say no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
What really happened that day on the mountaintop?
Was it a physical event so real that anyone who had been there would have seen it and been awed by it? Or was it more like a “vision,” like the Matthew version of this story suggests? Were Peter, James and John alone with this vision of a dazzling Jesus, so that others on the mountaintop have seen Jesus as just a man, praying?
I don’t know, so if you’re looking to me for a definitive answer, I’ll have to disappoint you. I’ll leave that for you to ponder at your own comfort level.
But something happened.
Maybe it was a little of both. And I know that there are people here today who can relate to what Peter, James and John experienced. Local author, Robert Sibley, calls it “glimpses of the underglimmer,” and Marcus Borg, among others, calls it a “thin place.” I know because I’ve talked to many of you who have experienced ordinary moments that have a shimmering overlayer of extraordinary. Through the soaring notes of an operatic aria, a still moment beside an ancient tree in the woods, a deep look into the eyes of a deer, or even a wild dance to Madonna’s “Like A Prayer” have led some of us to experience ordinary moments that have a crackling overlayer of extraordinary.
When we experience these moments, our rational brains struggle with it. We have to acknowledge the ordinary physical aspects of it. “It’s just a deer,” we say. Or, “It’s only music.” We know it’s ordinary, but we also know—we just know—there’s something more.
When we’re comfortable with it, when we can acknowledge the ordinary and surrender to the extraordinary, we enjoy the full balance of both.
Before I left for Bolivia, Ellie pulled me aside and said, “I’ve had to change my travel plans. Would you be able to preach about your experiences with Habitat?”
“Sure,” I said. “Give me the scripture for the day, and I’ll see how it fits.”
Ellie gave me the lectionary materials about Jesus’ Transfiguration on the mountaintop, and I didn’t think it exceptional. Later that day I finally had the time to begin to research the community in Bolivia where I would be working. The first Google image that appeared when I typed in “Cochabamba, Bolivia” was of Jesus on a mountain. And not just any mountain: La montaña San Pedro, or Saint Peter’s mountain.
That was the first epiphany moment. A chill run up my spine and the hair on my arms stand up.
It had a “meant-to-be-edness about it.
As you can imagine, the word “transfiguration” ran as a daily undercurrent as I worked in Cochabamba. But I was having trouble putting together the ever-present giant Jesus there with the idea of Transfiguration. Something altered so that nothing is the same again. What did it all mean? For Peter? For me? For you? What was I supposed to come back and tell you? Was I supposed to say anything at all? After all, Jesus told his friends: “Tell no one.” Tell no one? What was I supposed to do about that when I was scheduled to come and preach here?
And, you know, the glowing presence of Jesus on the mountaintop is almost inescapable in Cochabamba. He is called El Cristo de la Concordia, or Christ of the Concord. Jesus helping people to work together in harmony. The statue stands to the east of the city, so you can actually determine if you’re going the right direction according to Jesus. If he’s on your right, you know you’re going north. You can’t see Jesus all the time, but you catch glimpses of him between buildings as you move along the streets. On our bus ride to our building site, we would call out, “I see Jesus!” Standing on street corners in conversation, you would suddenly notice Jesus over the shoulders of your friends. An avid athlete in our group often went running in the mornings, and she returned to breakfast one day saying, “Today I ran all the way to Jesus.”
Here in Canada, if someone says, “Jesus is always with us,” they mean it metaphorically. In Cochabamba, it’s true.
n fact, I didn’t keep a statistical count, but it’s possible that I might have heard the word “Jesus” more in 2 weeks in Cochabamba than I have for the past decade here at Trinity. Jesus was everywhere there, but (and here’s something for you to ponder) where is Jesus in this room? Do you see him? Where is Jesus in this building?
We are a church that focuses on “life as lived like Jesus” rather than Jesus the icon.
Our church is consistently among the top three givers per capita to Mission and Service in the Ottawa Presbytery. We are known as a justice church. We are known as a mystical church. We strive for the charitable, justice-seeking, mystical life of Jesus.
But we don’t seem to need physical reminders of him to do that.
I was familiar with the Transfiguration story before my trip to Bolivia–I had taught it in Sunday School–and I had always thought of it as a “Jesus” experience. Something happened to Jesus on the mountain that day.
But when I immersed myself in what is a third-person telling of events, and as I stood on a mountaintop at the feet of the world’s largest representation of Jesus glowing, dazzling white in the South American sun, I realized that, for my purposes, the story is really about a witnessed experience. I started to think of the Transfiguration as more than something that happened to Jesus, but as something that happened in the presence of Jesus.
Because, while I’d like to report that when I stood at the feet of the awesome representation of Jesus, the skies parted, a voice spoke to me and I crossed the threshold into another dimension. Wouldn’t that have been convenient? But that didn’t happen. Jesus was just there.
Nothing was happening to Jesus, but something certainly was happening in the presence of Jesus.
The ten members of our Habitat for Humanity team straggled into Cochabamba from our homes across Canada. We arrived jet-lagged and fighting the thin air at altitude. Only 3 of us had ever done anything like this before, so we drove to our first day on the work site nervously.
The only people in Cochabamba more apprehensive than we, were the Bolivian masons awaiting us on the site. While Habitat has architects and masons that they work with regularly, in this case, the masons were acquaintances of the homeowner and had never worked with a Habitat team before.
It’s safe to say that when Bolivian masons seek labourers for their job sites, they don’t seek women. If only I could accurately portray to you the expression on the faces of our Bolivian mason co-workers when they saw a team comprised of 8 Canadian women and 2 men walk onto their build site.
We could pick up the vibe that said, “How on earth are we going to work with these people?” from 50 paces.
The barriers seemed insurmountable. Cultural differences. Language differences. Gender issues.
Daniel, the Habitat for Humanity volunteer coordinator for Bolivia, stepped in to translate, relay orders and smooth things over. Within half an hour, we were mixing mortar, cutting rebar, shovelling dirt and moving rocks. The ten of us did in one day what would have taken the Bolivian workers without us, well, ten times longer.
For our part, we felt fantastic. We all had the same reason for being there, and it drove us to work joyfully. We laughed and chatted. We savoured the reward of physical labour. We worked side by side with the family who would be living in the house, and we created their home with the same loving care they did.
At the end of the first day, Felix, the main mason on the site, our maestro, saw how much we had accomplished–far more than he had expected–and he felt our infectious joy. He quietly told Daniel that he would miss us when we left.
Each hour, each day, we became more and more comfortable with each other.
By Wednesday, Felix started to arrive on the work site each morning smiling and calling out, “¡Buenos días, mis maestros!” By Thursday, the masons were doing yoga with us in the park on our lunch break. By Saturday, Felix’s admiration for our teamwork and his appreciation for our contribution had grown to such an extent that he invited us to be a part of a centuries-old Quechua tradition with his family. In six days, we had gone from “How on earth will I work with these people?” to being included, embraced, and blessed.
The following Wednesday, when we completed our stay, an emotional Felix cried and gave each of us a bracing hug. The members of the family who would be living in the home cried and told us that we would be honourary members of their family forever. We all cried. Such a powerful bond in such a short time. Miraculous.
I don’t know if outsiders walking past the build site would have been able to see the glow as we cried and hugged each other—perhaps we just looked ordinary—but we glowed, alright, in a crackling extraordinary moment.
Nothing had happened to Jesus, the Christ of the Concord, solemnly watching over all of us as we worked together in harmony, but something had happened in the presence of Jesus.
But, let’s get real for a moment.
ll those centuries ago on an unknown mountaintop as Jesus stood infused in dazzling light, below him in the communities of his time, most people went about their business, oblivious. The people in those communities would have faced some of the same societal challenges that Bolivia does today. The disease in Jesus’ time was leprosy. In Bolivia I heard about HIV/AIDS. Poverty is rampant now, as it was then. Echoes of the patriarchal society of Jesus’ time can be see today in Bolivia.
So the transformational experience of a few on a mountaintop does not translate to the masses. For most people in Jesus’ time it was “same old, same old.” For most people around us in Cochabamba, it is “same old, same old.”
So, how do we balance the ordinary with the extraordinary?
How do I come away from a week in Bolivia where I witnessed the miracle of the melding of two cultures without feeling discouraged about all the work that still needs to be done?
This question, I think, lies at the root of Jesus’ instruction to his disciples not to tell anyone. This was after his third year of ministry. He had already been reported to heal the sick, walk on water and feed the masses. Perhaps he was getting a little publicity shy. Perhaps his advice was the ancient version of today’s, “Let’s not Tweet about this one, shall we?”
Because not everyone buys into epiphanies.
With each new extraordinary account of Jesus, suspicions about him grew in some quarters. Some people thought he was gifted. Others thought he was crazy. Would Jesus want everyone to know that he was talking to dead people?
Or maybe Jesus knew that the timing and the audience had to be just right. Anyone who has experienced these “thin place” moments knows that they aren’t stories to tell to just anyone at anytime. First, words can’t adequately describe them. No matter how eloquent we are, when we try to grasp the quality of the experience through words, it sounds lame. And, if we decide to share our experiences with cynical friends, they think we’re a little crazy.
We can assume that Peter, James and John eventually did tell the story, because we can read about it in three different accounts in the New Testament. But we’re still not really clear on what the special quality of that moment was, because words fail. And chances are good that plenty of people thought Peter, James and John were a little crazy.
But still they shared.
All these years later you and I can try to find a way to balance the ordinary with the glimpses of the underglimmer in order to find hope.
True, there are still many people in Bolivia without adequate housing. But one family has a home that they lovingly built with us.
True, masons in Bolivia still won’t look to women to populate their labour force. But the masons we worked with will work with other Habitat teams, and when they do, the bridges between culture and gender will be just a little shorter.
True, the unsteady relationship between Spanish influence, indigenous culture and North American presence in Bolivia will continue. But in 2012 a small group of people opened a small door to greater understanding.
When we’re comfortable with it, when we acknowledge the ordinary, and we surrender to the glimpses of the miraculous, we can welcome the full balance of both. In our own small way we can make one small difference in one small corner of the world, and then transfiguration continues.