God put Abraham to the test. How can we bear to hear this passage from Genesis, this terrible story of child sacrifice required by God? We can look at it from a distance and say that yes, it’s a story about leaving behind an ancient and horrible tradition of sacrificing the first born son, leaving behind the image of a God who would require that sacrifice. But we’re still faced with the unimaginable horror of that moment when Abraham turns to bind his son and lay him on the altar in his obedience to a bloodthirsty God.
But at that awful moment on the mountaintop there’s a pause, then a shift, the light changes and the angel says NO, no, put down that sword, here is your beloved son, here is your future. Who could bear such a moment?
We are all put to the test in our lives, facing questions of who we are and who we’re called to be, facing into grief and loss, or finding ourselves in a moment when what’s asked of us – going with someone we love through a terrible crisis or caring for someone we love who is dying – seems far beyond our power to give. This happens often enough to those of us who live in the rich world of North America, but how much more often are our brothers and sisters in the poor world, in countries like Haiti, Somalia, El Salvador faced with tests that you would think no one could pass
Many of you know that I have been living in El Salvador for three years now, coordinating PeaceHealth’s medical mission program and getting to know the people and the tragic history of this small Central American country. El Salvador means “the savior,” of course, “el Salvador del mundo,” the Savior of the World. And the feast of the Savior of the World is the feast of the Transfiguration, an event celebrated with a week of vacations and celebrations and processions every August. …So as I reflected on today’s readings I began to ask myself what my Salvadoran friends and neighbors will be making of them.
They won’t, I think, find the sacrifice of Isaac as strange, as horrifying, as archaic as we do. It’s going to remind them too clearly of the realities of their history and of their lives – and of the way their lives are part of God’s story. It will remind my friend Lita of watching from a refugee camp in Honduras as villagers fleeing Chalatenango were mowed down by Salvadoran and Honduran troops. It will remind Doña Licha of the nights she spent huddled hungry and terrified with her children in what’s now our pleasant little tourist town, Suchitoto, listening to rockets and bombs and gunfire. It will remind Doña Mercedes of the day she found the headless body of her son in a Suchitoto park. It will remind Doña Tulia of San Antonio Los Ranchos that she lost nine of her eleven children during the Civil War.
Rogelio will remember, as he does every day of his life, that he witnessed the massacre of his family and his village, Copapayo, escaping only because he – a 10-year-old boy - fell back among high grasses and played dead.
it will remind them all of the story of their beloved pastor, prophet and martyr, Monseñor Oscar Romero, who knew he was marked for death in 1980 and asked only that his blood become a seed of liberty for his people.
The sacrifice of Isaac might also remind my Salvadoran friends of the terrible choices and realities they often face in the present moment: to know that your child’s life could be saved with a new heart valve that you cannot possibly afford; to love and raise children who may well grow up and join a gang; to pay protection money to the gang so you can keep your little store open; to save money so you can send a family member north for the hope of remittances.
But in their terrible experiences – in the past of the civil war, in the present of poverty and violence and limitation – they know God who stands with them, God who is for them. “If God is for us, who can be against us?” asks Paul. This is not the God who demands sacrifice, but the God who loves and saves – the God of the Transfiguration, who saves Isaac, who loves and reveals Jesus, who leads us up the mountaintop to the place where truth can be known.
The God revealed to us all in the Transfiguration is not a God who saves us by keeping us from suffering. Just before this passage in Mark’s Gospel Jesus says, “whoever wishes to save her life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.” And coming down the mountain, he reminds them that the story leads to resurrection – but only through death. Still the disciples are allowed to see what my Salvadoran friends know in their hearts and souls: here is the Beloved. Through Jesus we are all the Beloved.
I find it hopeful that Peter, the Rock on whom our church is built, is such a bumbler. He’s been taken up to the mountaintop with James and John and he sees the reality revealed, the dazzling white clothes, the conversation with Moses and Elijah (and what would be the sound of that conversation – birdsong, falling water, fire?) and he’s terrified – they are all terrified – at this fearful reality. Peter, it seems, can’t just fall on the ground in silence before this Jesus, he has to do something – let’s keep this going, let’s make some tents, let’s have a party, he says.
But then they are overshadowed, Peter and all, by the truth within the truth: “This is my beloved son. Listen to him.” And suddenly there’s nothing to be seen anymore but Jesus alone with them, the truth within the truth on the mountaintop.
I believe that’s the Jesús my Salvadoran friends know, the beloved one, the one who loves them even though AND BECAUSE they’re bumblers too, as are we all, who loves them even though AND BECAUSE their lives are lived at the margins of the world’s great events, who loves them even though AND BECAUSE, like the disciples, they don’t understand theology and don’t know how to make a liturgically correct response to the Transfiguration.
Instead, like Peter, they make a party, a fiesta. No one makes fiesta like my neighbors in El Salvador, with costumes and firecrackers and processions and speeches and dances and food and drink. They celebrate being alive, even though it’s hard, this life. They celebrate the truth within the truth, that they are seen and known and loved, just as they are.
My friend Lita – the woman who witnessed the massacre at the Rio Sumpul - comes to visit Margaret Jane and me most Thursdays. Lita got to know our Sisters Andrea and Margaret Jane when she lived in the Calle Real refugee camp during the civil war and they were providing some safety by being an international presence. Now she’s a health promoter, a pillar of life in her El Bario community, a woman who, given half a chance, could manage the world. When she comes to call we have lemonade and cookies and talk about her disabled granddaughter, about the trouble she’s been having for months with a sinus infection, about the hard work.
La vida no es facil, she says, life isn’t easy, la vida no es facil. And then she laughs and lets down her beautiful long hair, black streaked with white, and she gives us a great hug and maybe some mangoes or tamales and says “Primero Dios nos vemos el otro jueves” – God first, we’ll see each other next Thursday. Primero Dios, God first: that’s what Lita and my Salvadoran neighbors get right, what we gringos often get wrong. We want to think it depends on us whether we’ll meet on Thursday. Lita knows that our meeting, everything, depends on God. And then we laugh together because we know that la vida no es facil, but it is transfigured by love and laughter, by the truth within the truth and, primero Dios, we will meet.