On Higher Ground
When my children were young, we loved the books written by David McCauley which he called, The Way Things Work. Maybe I liked them more than my kids, but it seemed to me as though he explained the inner workings of everything. You could find out what the space shuttle looks like on the inside, how CD disks work, how you make a ball point pen, and how woolly mammoths might have become extinct.
Jesus is doing the same thing this morning in Scripture—inviting Peter, James, and John for a look behind the curtain—inviting them up to the mountaintop where they can see how God’s glory works. Just as it was amazing to see how intricate the ball point pen was, this morning’s scripture invites us to see more deeply the wonder of who God is and what God is up to in Jesus Christ.
Moses went up the mountain to meet God at Sinai. Moses goes up the mountain and for six days, the mountain is covered with clouds. On the 7th day, God calls out Moses again, invites him to go higher up the mountain. He stays there for 40 days in the presence of God. When Moses comes down, he holds the tablets inscribed with God’s law. But the people of God see that Moses’ face is shining like the sun. The residue of God’s glory—the presence of the Lord—is still on his face.
The people are afraid. No one sees God and lives to tell the tale. Perhaps they fear for themselves. When Peter first recognizes the holiness and wonder of Jesus, he gets down on his knees and begs Jesus to get off his boat. He feels unworthy to be in the presence of such glory. When he goes up the mountain with Jesus and sees Jesus shining like the sun—sees Moses and Elijah speaking together with Jesus—Peter is still afraid. He wants to contain this glory, put it in a tabernacle—a holy tent. And ask Luke editorializes—Peter didn’t know what he was saying.
The only thing that remains of this encounter with God’s glory is the Word. There are to be no tabernacles, no reproduceable vision; in fact, for years Peter, James and John could say nothing to anyone. What they heard, however, was the voice of God: “This is my Son, my Beloved, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.”
Now I have never had an experience like Moses… never spoken to God on a mountaintop while thunder and lightning fly. I have talked to my mail delivery person during a thunderstorm, but that was far from wonderful. And I suppose, if Peter had had an iphone, he would have taken a selfie of himself standing in front of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Ever since the age of Enlightenment, the cultured despisers of Christianity have issued the same challenge: “Show us a genuine, twenty-one-gun-salute type of miracle, a revelation complete with clouds and fire and booming voices. Show us something that can be recorded on video or detected by a spectrometer. You’ve got nothing? Then case closed.”
But here’s the thing. The Bible is not like a newspaper—a book that reports miracles the way the newspaper reports car accidents. Scripture does not so much report God’s revelation as participate in that revelation. What we hear in Scripture is that Moses was God’s prophet because Moses had ears to hear what no one else could hear, but what God wanted the world to hear. God wanted the world to hear the cries of those oppressed by slavery; wanted all people to hear and see how envy, and lying, and stealing and murder destroys the peace and harmony of God’s world and distort the image of God that is stamped on each one of us. Moses could see the stooped backs of those who labored, could see how they were malnourished, could see the towering arrogance of the pyramids and the decadence of idolatry that prefers the gods of pleasure and prosperity instead of the One who creates the world at every moment and calls human beings to freedom in every season.
It is so often the artists and musicians who see and hear what we cannot. Our ears are stopped and our eyes blinded by fear—blind to the very glory of God that is all around us. Duke Ellington was under-appreciated in his own time. Between 1965 and 1973, Ellington gave 3 of what he called Sacred Concerts in New York City. He took the sights and sounds of his youth and turned them into a musical testament of the peace and reconciliation that was so needed in the United States during that turbulent period of time. He would not let the voice of Martin Luther King and others be silenced by murder and hate.
Ellington called these concerts the most important work of his life. And in those concerts, Ellington reprised the song, “Come, Sunday,” which he had written decades earlier. “God Almighty, God of Love, look down and see my people through,” Ellington sang. “When the day is gray, it is only clouds that are passing by. When we are weary and troubled, God knows our every care. He will give us peace and comfort, come Sunday.”
Wynton Marsalis had been on the road for months. It was 1991 and he was on a tour of Europe and he didn’t even know what city he was in or what day of the week it was. Then he woke up to the sound of church bells. He was beginning to question his vocation as a musician, wondering what he really wanted out of life. Those church bells transported him back to his childhood home. Those bells caused him to feel the love of home, family, and church—a feeling that had been absent from his life for a long time. He sat down a wrote a prayer, a poem:
“To Thee, O Lord, we say Yes, On This Day and in This House, Yes swells in our souls.
To praise Thy vast creation, and ring the bells whose melody affirms.
Oh! Yes!… Yes to Your Love.”
Marsalis recognized the love of his family and the love of God, calling out to him, imploring him to say Yes to love and life. It was an Epiphany. He heard and saw the glory of God. When he got back home, Wynton and his brothers and band members sat down and created a double album of music that set out to recreate through the harmonies and rhythms of jazz, the ordinary experiences of every Sunday, from waking up to church bells, to sitting down for a Sunday pot luck supper. Marsalis recognized that as an African-American, he was part of a race that was socially “motherless, unclaimed and unprotected under the law of the land.” His ancestors were eagles who had been treated like flies. Yet they sang, confident that they were in the sweet embrace of life, their souls were happy….” They sang especially on Sunday because the masters were more likely to be merciful to the slaves. Like his ancestors, Wynton Marsalis sought to create “fresh language for the dialogue between the all-too-human and the divine, enlivening the spark of the invisible.”
It was bells ringing on Christmas eve that inspired Van Morrison. As he walked on the dungy streets of Dublin at midnight on a Christmas Eve, he heard the church bells ringing all over town, heard choirs singing from inside the cathedral: Gloria in excelsis Deo. It was a life-changing Epiphany. Decades after he wrote the song, Van Morrison told an Irish biographer that it was his aural revelation that inspired the rock anthem, G-L-O-R-I-A. It was not written as an ode to a teenage girlfriend, but as a testament to the glory of God. It was the beginning of Van Morrison’s journey toward wonder and rapture. While his music has had commercial success, he holds fast to his faith as an Irish Protestant. He often stops in the middle of his concerts to pray the Lord’s Prayer, or to recite the Apostles’ Creed, with no prior warning and no explanation after word. Van Morrison bears witness to Christ through his music. “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You,” is a Morrison song that most consider a romantic love song. In the United Kingdom, the song is the title most-often played at wedding receptions. But Van Morrison wrote it as a prayer chronicling his constant struggle to love God with all his heart and mind and strength and soul. On the same album, Morrison included the song the band played this morning, “Whenever God Shines His Light.” He meant this song as a personal statement of faith: “He lifts you up, turns you around, and puts your feet back on higher ground. He heals the sick, he heals the lame, says you can do it too, in Jesus name…. He is the Way, He is the Truth, He is the Life, puts your feet b ack on higher ground.”[i]
We may think that God’s power and presence can only be experienced in extraordinary ways, but these artists and musicians would remind us that God’s power and glory is in the world today. The God who created in the beginning continues to create at every moment and discloses His power through what He brings into being. The line between the mundane and sublime is thin and you and I are invited to see God’s glory and power at every turn.
Ten years after Thomas Merton took his ordination vows to become a Trappist monk at the Gethsemani Monastery in Kentucky, he found himself in downtown Louisville. There he had an epiphany – a moment of clarity and understanding – on the corner of 4th and Walnut. For Merton, it was the realization that he was part of the human race; that his vocation, his life in a monastery, his devotion to God, none of these things made him special. Thomas Merton stood on the corner of 4th and Walnut and saw “every person, the whole mass of humanity, in that place “shining like the sun.” What made him special is what makes each human being special; the image and likeness of God that shines in each one of us. What made Merton special, he realized, is that God was incarnate, took on human flesh and revealed the glory of God through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. He went on to explain his vision: “At the center of our being is a point which belongs entirely to God… which is the pure glory of God in us. If we could see it, we would see a billion points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely…. I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.”[ii]
“There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun,” Merton lamented. But that is our calling.
We know who Jesus is. The veil has been pulled back and now the mountain top comes down among us. Like Peter, James, and John, we have been invited up the mountain in order to participate in God’s revelation of power and glory. It does not end on the mountaintop; that revelation continues as we go back down the mountain and find God’s glory is everywhere around us.
So let us sit at the Son’s feet and listen to him. Let us gaze upon the glory of the Lord and so be transformed into the same image. Let us hear and see the patterns of our world’s political and economic injustice and to say and do something different. Let us learn to care for the addicted and addled of this world, protect and nurture the little ones, welcome the stranger, and sing the glory of the saints who inspire us. There is no darkness in this world or anywhere else that can overcome the glory of the Lord. Amen.
[i] Works consulted include: Brian Doyle’s Spirited Men; Jason Bivins’ Spirits Rejoice! Jazz and American Religion; James Cone’s The Spirituals and the Blues; and the line notes from Wynton Marsalis Septet, In This House—On This Morning.
[ii] Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain.