Scripture: Matthew 17:1-9
I can still remember all the details—downtown Atlanta. The summer of 2004. Walking around town, the backs of my hands were sweating—something I’d never experienced before. It was my first time with The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries—the Pentecostal, African American, LGBTQ movement- and I was transfixed. In particular, I can still close my eyes and see the moment when a young man with full-blown AIDS walked into the ballroom and Bishop Flunder stopped everything else we were doing. She had been told that he was very, very sick and had boarded a bus in St. Louis the day before and taken it overnight to be with us because he was gay, had been rejected by his family and he knew he needed a healing. When he was invited into the middle of the gathered church and we were invited to lay on hands and pray, I felt a power of the Holy Spirit like I’ve never felt in my entire life. Amidst tears and shouts, we prayed him back into love and community. I don’t know if we invited any kind of a cure. But we, together, healed him.
I can still remember all the details—inside the sanctuary of Christ Lutheran Church on Capitol Hill. It was a Wednesday night in early May of 2013. It was raining outside, but not too hard. It was warm inside as over 800 people packed in for the joyous, multifaith service the night before the Minnesota House was to vote on the Marriage Equality legislation that was before them. Rabbi Latz and members of Shir Tikvah held a chuppah and talked about the sacred blessings he had bestowed upon so many couples underneath its cloth. Pagan leader, Robin Mavis cast a circle which sought to protect us all from that which wished harm and welcomed all in who sought to celebrate love. And the entire congregation sang, from floor to rafters, “And God will rejoice when we are creators of justice and joy, compassion and peace. Yes, God will rejoice when we are creators of justice…. justice and joy.” And then all 800 of us walked in the rain across the street to leave paper hearts with our messages of love on the steps to the Rotunda so that legislators who would vote the next day might enter the Capitol along a path of open hearts.
I imagine that Peter and James and John could remember every detail of that time on the mountaintop, too. I imagine that the experience of a kind of power and connection they had never known before was something that lived on in their cells as a palpable memory. The dazzling light that I imagine they could close their eyes and see for years to come. The sight of Moses, the listener to burning bushes, and Elijah, the discerner of still, small voices. I imagine Peter and James and John would look at mountaintops and bushes differently from that day on. And I imagine that the connection with the ancestors and the foretelling of all that had come to pass were experiences that shaped them since that moment.
Indigenous and African American activists talk about First, Second and Third Space. First space is the conditions of oppression and violence that mark much of daily life. Second space is the resistance, the knowing that something isn’t right, the refusal to settle for First Space. And Third Space are those experiences and times when, if only for a moment, or a day, or a collection of days, an experience of liberation, of healing, of wholeness of deepest connection that is free of oppression, happens.
It is those moments of Third Space that fortify and encourage our living in Second Space in order to resist First Space.
The story of the Transfiguration is a story of Third Space. It is a story of Peter and James and John being gifted by Jesus with a vision of the future that will be but also already is. And it is not coincidence that Jesus allows them this experience of Third Space as a way to fortify them for the journey they must accompany him on through his arrest, trial and execution. He knows they need it to have any chance at holding on to hope amidst their despair.
This question of how we hold on to hope in a world that provides us with so much evidence for despair is one that has gripped and guided me most of my life. It is especially close to my heart each year during the Lenten journey.
On this second Sunday in Lent, as we consider our Lenten theme of Practicing Interbeing, I am drawn to this reality of First, Second and Third space. We are living amidst a lot of things that could cause us to despair—both personally and collectively. I think about the second year of Russia’s war on Ukraine, of Israel’s attacks on Palestinians, the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, the assault on trans+ kindred in Florida, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska and many other places, the assault on truth itself through the censuring of accurate historical truth-telling about our country’s history of racism and violence… there is a lot which could cause despair.
And, throughout my life—in Lent and at other times (hot, humid summers and rainy Springs)— I am always drawn into worshiping with kindred souls seeking hope. Collective praying, communal singing, shared eucharist, public acts of healing and love. Sometimes they are experiences whose every detail I remember that literally transport me toward that promised future that is already here. But sometimes they strike me as regular or even mundane or boring. But the practice of setting aside time and gathering together so that small and large Transfigurations might happen is what I feel called to this second Sunday of Lent.
There is another thing about the Transfiguration and its Third Space that seems important to name here as we ponder what “Practicing Interbeing” might mean for us. Interbeing is marked by a deep sense of interdependence: I am because you are. Interbeing is the reality that power is mutual; and reciprocity is how we relate: to our kindred humans and to all of creation, including our animal and plant kindred. Interbeing is about realizing that our very bodies are made up of the same matter that make up the stars and the planets and the company of all creation. Interbeing reminds us that we are not separate or individuated parts, instead, we are deeply connected.
The trees breathe in our carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen which we breathe in. Then, we breathe out carbon dioxide which the trees breathe in. We live in a relationship of reciprocity with the trees. These relationships of reciprocity are repeated throughout all of creation. That which is harmful to one is medicine to the other. And it is only together that we are able to live. Together, we can metabolize and transform that which is harmful into that which is healing.
But Jesus knew he had to bring Peter and James and John to the mountaintop because far too much of his world was in First and Second space. Living under Roman Empire, there wasn’t a lot of mutuality and shared power. Instead, power-over and violence were the rule of the day. Executions of those who resisted Rome’s rule were common. Crucifixion was the punishment of those who were seen as a threat to Roman Empire power. And often, the victims of Rome’s violent crack-downs were left hanging on the cross along the road in order to scare others into obedience.
But the Jesus way is the way of interbeing. Jesus was trying to help Peter and James and John, and all of us, see that his life and ministry is about second and third space. Just like Moses resisted the power of Pharoah, just like Elijah called forth prophetic justice, Jesus’ ministry is one of reciprocity, of deep connection, of sharing and justice and, most importantly, of love.
And in the Transfiguration, Jesus reminds us that Third space and mountain top time, are critically important for all of us. We have to have places and spaces where we experience the deepest connection and our belonging to one another and all of creation.
Naomi Shihab Nye describes one such moment of interbeing & Third Space in her poem Gate A-4
“Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement: “If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.”
Well—one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.
An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just
like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing.
“Help,” said the flight agent. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We
told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”
I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke haltingly.
“Shu-dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit-
se-wee?” The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly
used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled
entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the
next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later, who is
picking you up? Let’s call him.”
We called her son, I spoke with him in English. I told him I would
stay with his mother till we got on the plane and ride next to
her. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just
for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while
in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I
thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know
and let them chat with her? This all took up two hours.
She was laughing a lot by then. Telling of her life, patting my knee,
answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool
cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and
nuts—from her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate.
To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a
sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the
lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same powdered
sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.
And then the airline broke out free apple juice from huge coolers and two
little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they
were covered with powdered sugar, too. And I noticed my new best friend—
by now we were holding hands—had a potted plant poking out of her bag,
some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country tradi-
tion. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.
And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This
is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that
gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—seemed apprehensive about
any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too.
This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.”