When I was in New York City, in seminary there, there was a man in my neighborhood – well, I’m not sure exactly where he lived, but he’d always pass through my neighborhood, he was part of the ecosystem. People called him “The Glory Man.” He was this tall, thin guy with a dignified bearing. He’d walk through the city with his arms out and palms up and face lifted just a little. And he’d sing out “Glory! Glory! Glory!” He’d walk and he’d walk and sing out like this, passing through the world, from West Harlem at least, maybe farther, down Broadway into the Upper West Side, passing through neighborhood after neighborhood as they shifted in culture and color, block after block dense with city life, day after day, he’d pass through hundreds, thousands of lives playing out in all our joy and grief and grit and love, cruelty, boredom, humor … and glory. That glory he’d sing as he sang and sang the Glory of God.
Perhaps he had a mental illness, perhaps not. Either way the Glory Man seemed to have become like a seraph in The Prophet Isaiah’s vision, eternally circling the center of the Source of All Being singing, singing, “Glory! Glory! Glory” “Holy! Holy! Holy!” His song so often was clearly a song of ecstasy. There was joy in his voice and stars in his eyes. But there were also times you’d hear him and his voice was one of anguish. Sometimes the Glories had the edge of a desperate kind of yearning. And sometimes you could hear in his voice a pain like there was a scratch every time the record skipped. So, one the one hand, he was something of a mad holy fool, to use old fashioned terms, free from all social and mental constrains to worship God without ceasing. Yet, on the other hand, he was not free, still very much a creature, like all of us, who suffered in the midst of a suffering world.
There is a teaching from a medieval Rabbi who told about three people who had prayed and prayed to see God face-to-face, and who had led rigorously moral and holy lives with the hope that God would grant them a moment on the mountaintop. And each of these three holy people were indeed given the opportunity in life to encounter the very countenance of the Holy One Beyond All Name. The first person dropped dead. The second person went insane. The third person became a great spiritual master, a gift to humanity.
This little parable I think can be a teaching about our search for God and the importance of the intention and the preparation we bring to our search.
The first person, who died on the spot, you could imagine was like, you know the Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Indiana Jones movie? You remember the ending? It’s one of those famous cinematic moments. Indiana Jones is racing against the Nazis to find the Ark of the Covenant. The Nazis get their hands on it first. And they open it up and there’s this huge glorious eruption of light that just incinerates all of them. This is the person who wants to encounter God for selfish reasons. The Nazis in the movie wanted to get the Ark of the Covenant so they can use its ancient mystical powers to conquer the world. They don’t truly honor God, they want to make gods of themselves. So, when the power of God dawns upon them it actually tears them apart. Alright, so let’s be like the Nazis in Indiana Jones. (It should go without saying, but these days we gotta be clear about these things: don’t be like the Nazis. Even in our heart of hearts, let’s not want to play god).
Now as for the second person who goes up to the mountaintop and encounters the face of God, and ends up mentally, emotionally broken, dysfunctional. This may be the story of the Glory Man, maybe not, I don’t know. Someone who becomes lost in the heavenly realms and never really comes back to earth, even though they still are alive in this world. They become split. This is a fear, I think, we may have, that can actually keep us from really earnestly seeking God, or can make us dismiss our spiritual experiences. Especially in our materialist culture, we can be afraid that if we really let go and pray and surrender to God that’s kind of crazy, we’re going to lose control and the next thing you know we’re the next Glory Man. I think there are worse fates, but at any rate: The problem either way, whether it’s getting lost in the spiritual world or getting stuck in the materialist world, the problem is one of integration, of knowing that the mountaintop experiences and the mundane stuff of everyday life are part of one big whole. With God’s help – and in particular with Christ’s help, this is part of the gift of Christ as the Divine Incarnation – we can enlarge our being to be open to the vast reaches of transcendence, as well as the sanctity of the nuts and bolts and grit and gravel of most of life. It can be easy to just want to use God as an escape from our cares. And if you’ve tasted something of spiritual bliss there can be a lot of pain in coming back to the so-called daily grind. It takes a real spiritual maturity to see how the sacred is alive in the “profane,” and it’s a blessing to have this one human life to live, as difficult as it can be sometimes. There is Zen saying, “After enlightenment, the laundry.” The story of Jesus takes that a step further: After the Transfiguration, the Crucifixion. And after the Crucifixion, the Resurrection.
This brings us to our mountaintop experience for this week. We’ve been exploring mountaintop experiences this month. The capstone will be: The Transfiguration of Jesus. The Greek word is actually metamorphosis, The Metamorphosis of Jesus, like how a caterpillar transforms into a butterfly. I’d like the story to speak for itself. We’ll hear Susan tell it, and then we’ll hear it sung.
A couple of things I invite you to notice a you hear the story twice. Notice the cloud on the mountaintop, the luminous cloud – that’s been a theme this month. God tends to protect us from total annihilation in the face of the divine, thank goodness – because most of us aren’t ready for it (maybe we’ve got something of the Nazi in us, or something of the lunatic). Even the Seraph-Angels in Isaiah’s vision have wings that cover their face, as they orbit the Godhead singing “Holy! Holy! Holy!” By the Grace of God, we are given divine disclosure with some safe distance. And that’s part of the gift of Christ – a mediator between the divine and the human. Please notice as well who else shows up on the mountaintop with Jesus – if you’ve been subjected to my preaching this month you’ll see they happen to be the two prophets whose mountaintop experiences we’ve explored. And then I invite you to notice how Peter is desperate to memorialize this experience, to hold onto it, to keep it from passing away. But of course it does pass away. Overall, I just invite you to go with it, go with the experience of this mountaintop story.
Jesus climbed the mountain to pray, taking Peter, John, and James along. While he was in prayer, the appearance of his face changed and his clothes became blinding white. At once two men were there talking with him. They turned out to be Moses and Elijah—and what a glorious appearance they made! They talked over his exodus, the one Jesus was about to complete in Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Peter and those with him were slumped over in sleep. When they came to, rubbing their eyes, they saw Jesus in his glory and the two men standing with him. When Moses and Elijah had left, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, this is a great moment! Let’s build three memorials: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He blurted this out without thinking. While he was babbling on like this, a light-radiant cloud enveloped them. As they found themselves buried in the cloud, they became deeply aware of God. Then there was a voice out of the cloud: “This is my Son, my Chosen! Listen to him.” When the sound of the voice died away, they saw Jesus there alone. They were speechless. And they said not one thing to anyone during those days of what they had seen. – Reading from the Gospel of Luke (9:28-36)
Image: “Transfiguration of Jesus” by Armando Alemdar Ara