“Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’” (Matthew 17:4-5).
Mrs. Kamela is a mother in Malawi, living with and supporting her three children on her own. Her husband used to support the family, but after he left, Mrs. Kamela and her children fell into deep poverty. Without access to job opportunities, Mrs. Kamela had to ask neighbors for help with basic necessities such as food and clothing for her children. The family lived in a dilapidated thatch house that leaked during rains. Without money for their most basic needs, fixing the house was out of the question.
Mrs. Kamela’s situation is, unfortunately, not out of the ordinary for many people around the world. As of 2015 (the most recent year we have data for), 736 million people were living in poverty, defined by the World Bank as surviving on less than $1.90 per day. Though the rate of poverty has gone down considerably over the last three decades, the number of people experiencing hunger has increased, from 777 million in 2015 to 821 million in 2017. There are a number of reasons for these changes, but at a minimum, the numbers make clear that, for many of our neighbors, ensuring there is food on the table, school supplies in children’s hands and money for emergencies is a persistent challenge.
Being church means entering into situations of hunger and poverty and accompanying one another in their midst. The story of the Transfiguration is an interesting entry point for thinking about this, particularly during the season of Lent.
In the story, Jesus goes with Peter, James and John up to a high mountain. While there, Jesus “was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Matthew 17:2). Moses and Elijah show up, and the first thing Peter suggests is that they build dwellings for Jesus and the two patriarchs of Jewish history. He is more or less ignored as God’s voice resounds, claiming Jesus as God’s son and enjoining the disciples to follow him (Matthew 17:5).
Sometimes, Peter is portrayed as the foolish foil here. While he is worried about dwellings, so much more is happening. Why can’t he see that heavenly experience for what it is? At other times, Peter represents that great desire of many people of faith to remain forever within the “mountaintop experience” of faith. He just doesn’t understand that you can’t stay on the mountain, the preachers will say.
It’s worth spending a bit more time thinking about Peter and those dwellings, though. Peter’s suggestion is intriguing in part because it is so, well, human. His suggestion has something to teach the church about what it means to be human and what it means to be a follower of Christ. In the midst of one of the most glorious heavenly experiences in the Bible, Peter reminds us of the mundane, everyday concerns of humans. Your clothes are dazzling? Dead patriarchs are now living? God is speaking? That’s all well and good, but we need shelter. The body of Jesus may be transfigured, but we still have bodies, and these bodies have needs.
Spirituality is important, but spiritual experiences won’t put food in the mouths of Mrs. Kamela’s children or repair leaks in her home. Being church means attending to spiritual needs and inspiring the deep sort of hope that can keep us going in the most difficult of times. But being church also means responding to the needs of the bodies that God has created and fostering hope for meeting physical needs that press on us here and now. The early church understood this well. The meal that we know as Holy Communion fed believers spiritually and physically, providing nourishment for the people in body and spirit. Traditionally, it involved the standard elements of bread and wine in addition to a whole meal for the people present. In this way, hunger was addressed, whether it was spiritual or physical.
The hope for sufficient livelihood that could provide for her family inspired Mrs. Kamela to join a village savings and loan group through Evangelical Lutheran Development Service (ELDS), which is supported by ELCA World Hunger. With the combined savings of the group and additional training in business management, Mrs. Kamela was able to start a small business. The income she earned through her hard work and the support of ELDS and ELCA World Hunger helped her provide for her children and improve her home. Now, instead of a dilapidated thatch house, she has a brick home with iron roofing — a safe and secure dwelling that will withstand the rains.
Because of the project, Mrs. Kamela experienced her own “transfiguration.” “This project has changed my life from a nobody to a somebody,” she says. “My life has changed from the worst to the better, and there is a bright future for me and my children.”
This is church. Mrs. Kamela’s hope is grounded in knowing that she is not alone, that the future can be bright for her and her children because of the community and church that walk with her.
As we continue our journey through Lent, the practices of the season are reminders that, even as we pray and attend to our spiritual needs, the mundane needs of the body press on us and our neighbors. Meeting these needs can help inspire hope, even in challenging times. Meeting these needs is part of what it means to be church, sharing the news of a brighter future with neighbors near and far.
Sustaining God, we give thanks for your abundant creation and for the body you have created, with all its needs and possibilities. Bless us this season, that our eyes may be open to the many forms hunger takes in our community. We give thanks for the work of Evangelical Lutheran Development Services in Malawi and for Mrs. Kamela. Continue to guide their hands and feet as they journey toward the future you have in store. Bless your church, that we may inspire hope among our neighbors in need — and be inspired likewise by them. Amen.