Here's my homily for Sunday, August 6. The readings are Exodus 34:29-35 and Luke 9:28-36.
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“Master, it is good for us to be here: let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
Peter has just had a mountaintop experience. Along with John and James, he’s seen Jesus transfigured, his face changing and his clothes becoming dazzling white. He’s seen Moses and Elijah talking to Jesus. Having been granted the privilege of climbing up the mountain with Jesus, he’s been further privileged with amazing visions. He wants to maintain his exalted position. He wants to freeze this moment in time, to preserve it.
But as soon as he proposes his mountaintop subdivision, he and his companions are overshadowed by a terrifying cloud and buffeted by a booming voice. “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” The voice is God’s, and the message is clear: Maybe Jesus chose you, but I chose him. You don’t give the orders. He does. Listen to him.
We’re never told what Jesus says, but we can guess. “Guys, I know you want to stay here. But we can’t. We have to go back down the mountain. Remember when Moses received the covenant on Mount Sinai? His face was shining, just like mine. But he couldn’t stay on the mountaintop; he couldn’t help anyone that way. His job was to climb back down the mountain to give the law to the people who were waiting for him. And now we have to do our jobs. There’s a man waiting for me down there. His son’s been having seizures. I have to go heal his child, and you have to follow me and learn as much as you can, because I won’t be here much longer. I didn’t choose you so you could isolate yourselves from the world. I chose you to heal it.”
August 6, the Feast of the Transfiguration, offers a grim reminder of what happens when people choose isolation instead of relationship, disconnection instead of healing. Sixty-one years ago today, three small structures with men inside them appeared in high-altitude isolation above Hiroshima, Japan. One of these shelters, a B29 bomber named the Enola Gay, dropped an atom bomb on the city. Had the bomber pilots been on the ground, they would have witnessed a scene eerily similar to the transfiguration. Here is an eyewitness account from Tsuruyo Monzen, a peasant woman whose story is collected in the book Widows of Hiroshima. She lived in a farming community about six miles from the center of the city. Her husband, like many others, had gone into the city that morning to help dismantle some buildings, because the Japanese government wanted to create open spaces to slow the spread of fires from air raids.
“It happened when I was really putting my back into thinning out the millet. There was a blinding flash and I thought the sun had fallen out of the sky. I thought to myself that something terrible was happening, so I ran across the next field and threw myself into the bamboo wood. . . . When I looked over towards Hiroshima from the bamboo wood, a great mass of smoke rose up, tottering from side to side. Something white almost seemed to come floating over in this direction. I was completely dazed, and then [my son] shouted from the embankment in a big voice: ‘Mummy, come quickly! The house is falling down!’” (20)
Like the Gospel we just heard, this story includes blinding light, a terrifying cloud, and a loud voice calling out a command. But when Tsuruyo’s husband at last returned from the devastated city, his transfiguration from radiation burns was horrific, not beautiful. He quickly died. Many of the other eighteen women whose stories are collected in this volume never saw their husbands again at all, although most ventured into Hiroshima to search for them.
The translator of the volume comments, “One never hears [these widows] saying, ‘America was wrong. I hate America.’ What one hears instead is: ‘War was wrong. I hate war.’” (xiii). That refrain echoes throughout the book. “There mustn’t be another war. There mustn’t,” says one woman (52). Several others talk about trying to teach this lesson to younger people. “Unless you’ve experienced it,” says Sada Tatsumoto, “you can’t really understand the horror of the atom bomb. I’ve told my grandchildren about it again and again, but they don’t take it seriously. I’m an old woman now and I haven’t got much longer to live, but I could die with an easy mind if only people could understand how terrible the atom bomb is” (104).
“Unless you’ve experienced it, you can’t really understand the horror.” You had to be there. You had to be on the ground. People in the Middle East are learning that lesson all over again in the war between Israel and Hezbollah. Last Tuesday, the Anglican Bishop of the Diocese of Jerusalem sent out an anguished plea for humanitarian and diplomatic aid from the West. He describes two Israeli bombs dropped “on a house, crushing at least fifty-six people, including thirty-four children and twelve women.” U.N. convoys carrying urgently needed food and medicine have been turned back by the Israeli government. “The war rages on into the third week,” he says. “If fighting does not cease, the homeless count in Lebanon will soon reach one million people. Families and communities continue to be ripped apart.” Writing from Ground Zero, Bishop Riah reports that many people in Lebanon see the reaction of the West as “callous indifference,” and he urges us to come down from that real or perceived mountain. “We must not become complacent or . . . desensitized to the images of this human tragedy. Continue to appeal to your government representatives to demand an immediate cease-fire.”
Personally, I don’t respond well to letters like this. I find myself becoming paralyzed in the face of so much suffering. I’m tempted to close my eyes, stop up my ears, and remain on my mountain of distance and relative safety. What can I really do? How much difference can I make? The grandchildren of today’s survivors won’t take these stories seriously, anyway, because they weren’t there. They and their children will just wage war all over again, won’t they? How can we teach children who haven’t seen war how terrible it is?
But maybe there’s another option. Maybe we can provide and support a place where children who have seen war can meet their supposed enemies on common ground, on a level field, in safety and peace. Last Thursday, Public Radio International broadcast a story about the Creativity for Peace camp in New Mexico. Every summer for the past five years, Arab, Israeli and Palestinian girls, teenagers, have come here for three weeks to share their stories and to work together on art and leadership projects. They get to know each other. They become friends. If a girl from Palestine talks about a bad experience at a checkpoint, a girl from Israel will get up and hug her. When they go back home, the girls maintain these friendships, working for peace and reconciliation in their own families and in their communities. At this year’s camp, there was great grief and worry when the war broke out, but the girls are still determined to remain friends.
Among other art projects, the girls make masks of each other’s faces. On the PRI broadcast, a camp assistant talked about how much trust it takes for an Israeli Jewish girl to lie back in a chair while a Palestinian Muslim girl applies plaster strips to her face, covering her eyes and mouth, leaving a hole only for the nose, so she can breathe. When the masks have dried, the girls decorate them: their faces are transfigured by paint and glitter, by love and friendship. The masks shine. They are beautiful. When the camp has ended, the masks will be concrete reminders of how the face of an enemy can be transformed when it appears in a different light.
And if the war raging now keeps these friendships from developing further, if the girls never see one another again, if even the masks are destroyed, the girls will still have their memories: just as Peter and John and James had their memories of Jesus, just as the Hiroshima widows had the memories of their husbands. One of those women, Fujie Ryoso, says,
“I’m turned 70 now, but even so, if I hear a noise outside in the middle of the night, my heart starts pounding, thinking he’s come back. People say, ‘You should forget your husband now,’ but I can’t forget him. It’s unfeeling of them to ask me to forget a husband who disappeared without trace on the day the atom bomb was dropped. Even now I remember him as though it were yesterday. The older I get, the clearer become my memories” (42).
Fujie Ryoso’s husband left her a written testament, almost as if he foresaw his death. And we too, with Peter and John and James, have the gift of memory, and of a testament. “Do this in memory of me,” Jesus told us before he died. “Love one another as I have loved you.”
God loves us by coming down the mountain to heal us. God loves us by forgiving us, and by teaching us to forgive instead of retaliate. And God loves us by assuring us that we, too, can love as he does, looking through eyes that find all faces beautiful.