Up on a mountain top: first Moses, then Elijah, and now Jesus. Mountains connote being closer to God. The Celts called places like this “thin places” – thin in that that which separates the earthly from the divine is closer, more easily accessible.
So, Moses takes dictation from the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Elijah hears a “still, small voice.” Jesus hears the same voice he heard at his baptism, as do Peter and John and James: This is my Beloved with whom I am well pleased – Listen to him!
Emphasis on “listen.” For how are we to hear if first we do not listen? Listening is an active task. One must choose to hear to be listening. And one must empty or still one’s mind to really listen. Just looking at the text (Matt 17:1-9) one can almost hear the Lord’s frustration in imploring the disciples to listen. The same frustration that followed his dictation to Moses of the commandments only to have the people below already worshipping a golden calf.
Idols: religion cast in money. Psalm 115 gets at this problem of idolatry. Our God is in the heavens. You don’t have to like it, you don’t get to vote on it. What a God! Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths but they cannot speak. Eyes but they cannot see. Feet but they cannot walk. Ears but they cannot hear. “And they do not make a sound with their throat.” This is meant to make us laugh because the Hebrew literally says they cannot clear their throat. Um-hmm-hmm. And what the psalmist knows is that any god that cannot go “Um-hum-hum-hum” will never get you out of exile, slavery or the wilderness, and certainly cannot save or redeem you in any sense of those words.
The Last Sunday after the Epiphany ends much the way the season began. Those who have ears will hear that. Epiphany begins with our Lord’s baptism where an off-stage voice says, “You are my Beloved. With you I am well pleased,” and ends with those same words followed by, “Listen to him!” Exclamation point, bold, underlined in italics!?!
If we take the time to listen, if we still our minds, empty our minds, stop thinking ahead to formulate a response and simply listen, just what do we hear?
So far this Year A in Matthew we have heard a portion of the Sermon on the Mount. We are to be peacemakers. We are to let our lights shine. We are to love our enemies and pray for them, for our God makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the good and the bad, the righteous and the unrighteous. And we are to be merciful.
Tough orders in tough times. In just the past week Neo-Nazi, White Supremacists, so called Alt -Right hooligans distributed Anti-Semitic leaflets right here in Bel Air, Maryland. While across the country Jewish community centers received credible bomb threats, and a Jewish cemetery in Saint Louis, MO was vandalized, grave markers knocked over. Hundreds of them. All this in the midst of deportation raids and ongoing racial tensions.
Just how are we to love those who do these immoral and threatening acts in the dark of night? When we don’t even know who they are since they do not commit these acts in the open? And just what words do we pray? What does our love consist of?
A friend of mine, and a great musician, Daryl Davis, offers one example in his documentary on PBS, Accidental Courtesy. Daryl is African American and was raised, one might say, color-blind since when he was young his family moved around the world a lot. His first encounter with racism happened as a young Cub Scout. He asked himself the question, “How can you hate me when you don’t even know me?”
As an adult Daryl has gone across the country asking just that question as he befriends members of the Ku Klux Klan and other White Supremacist movements. Many of them now count Daryl as a friend. And many have left the life of white supremacy. Why?
Because Daryl listens to them. He wants to know about the origins of their hatred for African-Americans and other “minority” peoples. He gives them permission to lay it all out. Eventually they begin to ask him questions and before you know it they are in a relationship. As love in the Bible means doing something helpful for someone else whether or not you like them, Daryl was offering them the kind of love most of them have never known. Once they are in relationship the walls come tumbling down. The idols of hatred, fear and bigotry are destroyed, or at least neutered!
Daryl also employs his musical talent to draw them in. Music is a kind of prayer. Daryl loves and prays for his perceived “enemies,” and many, not all, experience a change of heart. I would submit this is The Life of the Beloved – one who is a peacemaker, one who is merciful, one who listens and prays for and loves others – all others, as heinous as they may seem.
Jesus is the light of the world. He calls us to be light to the world. What would our neighborhood, our county, our state, our country and the whole world be like if more of us would take the time like Daryl Davis does to seek out the other – those who are radically, utterly unlike ourselves? To love and to pray for those utterly unlike ourselves?
It is like creating a thin place, a space in which God, or the Holy Spirit, or whatever you might like to call that which is greater than we are, can enter into relationships and allow real change to happen. Lives change. Attitudes change. Society changes.
Just as we are God’s Beloved, so is everyone else. The kicker is that means everyone!
Those of us who choose to be light in a dark world, peacemakers, and merciful will do well to ponder these things. Lashing out and hateful rhetoric only goes so far and eventually makes things worse and more divided. Being merciful is hard work, but good work and necessary work. Will we be those people who harden divisions between peoples? Or, will be merciful peacemakers?
Kurt Vonnegut once said that being merciful was the one good idea we have been given so far. There may be a second good idea, but he does not venture to say what it will be. He believes, however, that music, that ineffable art form that moves the human spirit in very deep ways, very well may be the second good idea being born. If nothing else, let’s play and sing and listen to music so that we may be a part of God’s second good idea being born, all the while becoming merciful peacemakers. God needs us. Jesus needs us. The world needs us to do these things.