As I sit in front of my lap-top today, I want to say “Thank You” first of all to Al for agreeing to give voice to my words.
Today is Transfiguration Sunday. You have listened to the story of The Transfiguration of Jesus as Mark described it to the early Christian community.
The elements contained within the Transfiguration story have always fascinated me, but today that story is even more poignant because I have stood at the base of the Refugee Camp at Mae-Lah – once the home of Henai-Thoo and Rosalie. I have looked up the hillside to house after house built upon the steep slope, and I have climbed at least half-way up to Henry’s School, perched on the slope of the hill that leads to Burma and what was once a safe home for the Karen Folk, now forced to live in exile, deprived of their farms and their livelihoods. The alternative to life in the Camp is death! There is no other choice.
Mark and the other Gospel writers tell us that when Jesus stood on the mountain surrounded by three disciples, he was “transfigured.” That part of the story is familiar to all of us. We know, too, the reaction of the disciples . . . especially Peter . . . in response to that experience. They wanted to do something special – to “mark” the space; to capture this unique experience for all time.
Standing at the base of the refugee camp, I realized for the very first time that the Transfiguration experience is about more than Jesus being surrounded by light. If it were only that, then the story would be similar to – and just as fantastical – as the tale which J R R Tolkien describes in The Two Towers, where Gandalf the Grey is illuminated for his friends as Gandalf The White. It would be a wonderful story, in and of itself, but there it would end.
What makes The Transfiguration Story meaningful for us is that the disciples have a response to it! They have seen Jesus transfigured – seen Jesus in a light they have not seen before; and this experience has transformed THEM! How can one who is faithful not be changed by such a vision? The beauty of the story rests not so much in the mystery of the light that surrounds Jesus; it resides in the ways in which the disciples themselves change because of what they have seen!
Peter himself alludes to this in his first letter to the early Christian Community, when he writes, “We have seen for ourselves. We ourselves have experienced this.” And Peter has come down to us in history his post-Easter work have been possible without the experience on the mountainside? Easter Sunday propels the disciples into the world to tell their stories; the Transfiguration gives them the shape and the scope that those stories will take, as well as the confidence – in time – to tell all the stories to others.
One of the experiences that has touched me most deeply here in Thailand when meeting refugees from Burma is their willingness to sing for us! I cannot help but think of the Psalm that talks about the rivers of Babylon where we sat down and wept. How can we sing to the Lord our songs in a strange land? The Karen folk have no difficulty singing to the Lord in a strange land – be it a small group of children; an entire school of children; several classes of children; or even a dozen men maimed by land-mimes . . . the songs ring out, and they are full of confidence and hope. A group of school children, gathering first thing in the morning, stood on a patch of bare soil in front of their classroom and sang to us, “We are the world. We are the children. We can make a brighter day, so let’s start living!” It is the first time I have heard this song in a context that moved me. These were not self-indulgent rock musicians singing out of their ego-centricity; these were children, recognizing that their world could be better, and that if it is to become better, then they, too, are part of the solution! How moving is that! And how in keeping with the experience of the disciples who see something new and recognize that they are part of the telling of the stories that would give shape to that illumination.
How can we sing songs in a foreign land? We sing because we must! Music is a primary force, and it is integral to the human experience. We sing because it gives us strength. With voices raised together, we are stronger than we would be as individuals. We sing also because it fills us with hope. To sing “We are the World!” is also to sing about our vision for the world and our dreams of a better place for you and for me. We sing, because it gives us power! Others can take away our homes, our freedom, our documents, our rights; but our singing remains ours alone, and so long as we can sing to our God, we have power to express our vision and our love! This is what the People of Israel discovered in ancient times; this is what the people of the Karen Community are expressing as they stand before us. It might be their gift to us, but it is just as surely their gift to themselves!
The other aspect of The Transfiguration Story is that Jesus invites witnesses to the mountainside to experience it. Not everyone; not all of the 12; but a select few. Over the past few months, I have wrestled with the question of whether I should be paying so much money to come to Mae Sot, Thailand, myself, or whether I should in fact just have written a cheque for the same amount, which would go to Global Neighbours to support the work that is going on here. Being here for the past week has reassured me that it is not only my money that is needed; what is also needed, and this might be even more significant, is our presence! The Karen communities in Thailand need us to see for ourselves what they are experiencing, so that we can go home and tell their stories to those around us. They also need us to be here as an affirmation that they have not been forgotten! The 15 members who form this trip’s Global Neighbours group represent the reassurance to the Karen villages that the world continues to care for them and with them. That is a gift beyond price, and that, too, is an example of Transfiguration – an illumination that shines a light on a situation and helps us look at it in different ways.
I have been moved to tears once during this trip. It happened when I listened to the men who have been blinded by land-mines and who have lost limbs … with the exception of one – a 13 year-old boy who is blind because of child-hood measles. I cried because these are victims of humankind’s brutality to one another, and it could be – no, SHOULD be – prevented. I cried because, unlike the children I have seen to date, I question my ability to have any hope for their future. I cried, also, because their singing was so powerful and so harmonic and so inspirational that it seemed – even for a moment – that nothing else mattered except the singing and the gift of the song. Whatever
Rev Tony Thompson