india. a place that we often see in the movies as one of romance, color, poverty, and many of the words that mark twain describes in his quote above. last month, i spent two weeks in this country that will leave a lasting impact on my life. i would like to share with you the sermon that I preached this last week on the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-9) where I talk a bit about my experience there.
Let us pray: God, be present in this place. Open our hearts and our minds by your presence to hear what you say to us today. Amen.
The church calendar today finds us on Transfiguration Sunday — just a few days before Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent – a season of contemplation, and a journey toward the cross and Easter Sunday. A Journey, a time of contemplation about who we are, whose we are, what we are called to do in the world. However, historically, and in places like New Orleans, the night before Ash Wednesday many people will celebrate Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday where people would historically eat rich, fatty foods before the ritual fasting of Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday. A fun, loud, exciting experience that is followed by a season of contemplation. A mountain top experience where eventually we have to come back down, back to reality. While Jesus’ experience on the mountain wasn’t quite one that we would consider to be Mardi Gras, it was one that Christians hold with high importance, and significance.
Jesus’ transfiguration is the story we read in our gospel lesson today. It’s one of the many revelations by God of Jesus’ importance. Not only does Jesus become dazzling and illuminated, but God comes AGAIN. It seems like only a few chapters before, God comes down like a dove telling Jesus that ‘you are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” However, this time, God comes as a cloud and announces to not only Jesus, but also his followers that “This is my son, the beloved. LISTEN TO HIM.” It’s interesting, that God tells the disciples to listen to him. If we go back a chapter in the gospel, we find that it comes right after a time when the disciples were almost starting to understand what Jesus’ mission was (I say almost…because they really didn’t seem to GET IT). However, then Jesus explains with a bit more emphasis on death, and rising, and Peter tries to tell Jesus he is wrong. Well, Jesus doesn’t like that very much, and rebukes Peter for not listening, telling him he is too focused on human things, not divine things. So, it was time for God to intervene.
In the time when these stories were written, clouds signified direct encounters with God. We know this in the stories of the Old Testament, especially when God appeared to Moses and the Israelites as a pillar of cloud – it’s a direct encounter with God. God is telling them that this is really happening: it’s a glimpse of what is to come. The journey we are beginning towards the cross – the journey toward resurrection.
But what about all the glistening? And the sight of Elijah and Moses? And Peter wanting to build all of these houses for them? To the disciples, Jesus is now appearing as a vindicated martyr, in the same way Elijah and Moses did. And then? Jesus gets transformed – into a white that “no one on earth could bleach so white.” I think my mom would be the only one to challenge that one. This transformation of the cosmos – of Jesus’ being — is beyond our understanding. Something that could only be done by God – something new, something illuminated in a new way. Nothing that we are used to. But also, something that Peter wasn’t used to. Peter was called up the mountiain with jesus, and it says that he became TERRIFIED. These kind of mountain top experiences can be scary and are moments that may lead us to where we never thought we would go. However, we eventually come back down the mountain and become willing to enter the pain and brokenness of creation bringing with us the promise of life, hope and resurrection. That is what Jesus and the disciples brought back down. They went up, saw a glimpse of something new that God was doing, and eventually came back down because we can’t stay on the mountain. We descend, continuing on our journey towards new life in a world that is so broken.
That’s the beauty of resurrection. Something coming to new life. Our hope as we are on the mountain, and coming down the mountain is for what God can do. We find ourselves dreaming, hoping for something new, something different than what we assumed. It’s at this point that we also begin to see ourselves in the midst of something bigger. I can imagine that at this point in the story, the disciples up there with Jesus saw something new. A glimpse of what was to come, that perhaps made them see themselves in a broader picture. They saw themselves rooted in the realities of creation – and perhaps this tapped into their deepest longings to be a part of that new thing that God was doing.
But what does that look like for us, 2000 years later in a society that doesn’t go to the mountain. Well, perhaps God doesn’t send us to a literal mountain. Perhaps God sends us to a place that is different from our own, perhaps a place like India. I remember the first time I became fascinated with Indian culture. It was in Elementary School, when my friend Vaishali came to school with henna on her hands. I was amazed! The story doesn’t pick up again until college, when my friends travelled on a service learning trip to India. I was so jealous, and wanted to be a part of it. But something inside me said, your time will come. I remember watching the movie Slumdog Millionaire and falling more in love with the culture, the people, just everything. Just 2 years ago, I decided to sponsor a child in India. And then? I started at Drew University and learned I would be able to GO to India. It was as if God was getting ready to send me to the mountain.
Mentally preparing yourself for a new culture is not easy. Every time I told someone I was going to India, I was met with hesitation, and questions of “why did you want to go THERE?” My Dad suggested that maybe I should take a trip to Hawaii instead. However, I assured them it was where God wanted me to be. After all, Mark Twain describes it very well in his journal from the late 1890’s:
“This is indeed India; the land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence, of genii and giants and Aladdin lamps, of tigers and elephants, the cobra and the jungle, the country of a thousand nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of tradition, whose yesterdays bear date with the mouldering antiquities of the rest of the nations—the one sole country under the sun that is endowed with an imperishable interest for alien prince and alien peasant, for lettered and ignorant, wise and fool, rich and poor, bond and free, the one land that all [people] desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for the shows of all the rest of the globe combined.” – Mark Twain on his visit to India in the late 1890’s.
However, no matter how excited, how prepared you are, nothing can prepare you for India. I was just as the movies the other day, and saw a preview for a movie called The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which I’d like to show you this morning as a glimpse into a bit of what I was feeling when I was in India.
I have to admit, I got very excited when I saw the preview, as I had seen all of those things. The feelings of those characters — the excitement, then the hesitation while there, and the thriving was the way I felt through my trip. My favorite quote from that clip is when the woman says “this is a new and different world the challenge is to cope with it; not just cope with it but thrive.” I will be honest — I didn’t love India when I first arrived. Much like Peter in the transfiguration story, I was terrified by what I saw. My senses were overwhelmed: The poverty I saw, the smells on the roads, the tastes of the food, and the feeling of the hot blazing Indian sun. It was beyond anything I could have ever expected. At these first moments where India became real to me –I was terrified, much like Peter in the gospel story we heard today. I had no idea what to do or what to say. For a good 8 days I wasn’t sure why I was in India. I wanted to come home, and never ever go back. I questioned God – asking why God had sent me here to this place, and asking God to send me home
However, then everything became Illuminated when we visited the slums. We drove up, I got out of the car, and couldn’t contain myself at the sight. It’s like you see in the movies. It took everything in my power to contain myself and keep my mind focused on the church service we were about to attend. It wasn’t until a few days later that I realized why I had been called to go to India — to go to a place unknown to me — a place where something would become Illuminated. A Mountaintop experience where my world would be completely transfigured. And who would have thought this would be illluminated by a young girl’s smiling face. A young girl wearing a green outfit, with braids in her hair. A young girl whose eyes were never opened when I took her picture, yet smiled at me with her eyes radiantly when I was with her in that slum in Bangalore.
Her face didn’t leave my mind for days. I lay restless on the overnight train right thinking about her. I couldn’t remember her name — maybe it started with the letter D? But it didn’t matter. I came home from India sure that I went there to see her face — to make everything illuminated. I was terrified, like the disciples, at what would happen there. Like the disciples on the mountain with jesus. I was in India, staring into the eyes of this young girl, asking her what her name was. SMACK. No, it wasn’t Jesus in dazzling white clothing, but a young girl with a dazzling white smile. And it was at that instant, i got it. I heard God whisper using a still small voice — this is my beloved child. i love her, just like I love you. I love the children of God here in India!
And then, in a fleeting moment, it was time to leave. I will never see her again, but her dazzling, illuminated, smiling face will never EVER leave my mind. I will take with me forever the lesson I learned about how connected we all are. It was time to come back down the mountain in order to figure out what to do with all that information.
Like the disciples, and like jesus, we all experience mountain top experiences. Whether that be with the small face of a child, or your own personal experience where you meet, hear, or feel God. And then? God doesn’t stick around. God makes us go back into the world to figure out what God wants us to do with this information, to figure out how we can make sense of it all in this broken, hurting world. And that, my friends, is where we are headed. Into a season of contemplation, into a time where we sense and feel the hope rising in each one of us, the hope that God dreams up something new — something different. We come down from the mountain yearning for that day of new dreaming.
May it be so. Amen.