Friend, Go Up Higher

Forty-seven years ago, on the steps beneath Lincoln,

was a man, and a speech, and a wonderful dream,

about the country we live in, and the way he’d been thinkin’

of our freedom, our values, and that sort of theme.

It was moving to hear, or so I’ve been told;

it was stirring, the crowd quite a sight to behold,

they were black, they were white, they were pink, they were brown.

As they gathered to talk and to sing and to pray

for the marvelous, wonderful, glorious day

when God’s merciful spirit would come down.


For it seems that back then there would be no objection

if a person were beaten or shot at and killed

on the basis of naught but his darker complexion.

And I think I’m not wrong that blood was thus spilled.

This seems crazy to me, it seems clearly so wrong,

which is why they were gathered in that long-ago throng,

in the multiple shades of our own melting pot

to sing “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty,”

which to some of the world must seem somewhat flighty,

but which may be the only real hope that we’ve got.


Now it’s all these years later and we’re gathered in church,

and hatred we know, just has not been abolished,

and we hear in the Gospel of how someone’s perch

tells you something about just exactly how polished

will be the crown on their head at the end of their days,

when they’re called on to answer for all of their ways,

and they’re asked by St. Peter, who stands at the door,

“Were you kind, were you humble, did you do your darn’d best;

do you know how you get to be here with the blest?

Just how much did you care for the sick and the poor?”


Now to some this is just a ridiculous question

it’s thought of by lefties and commies and pinkos

too stupid or lazy to get rich in professions,

and who run to the government teat for their drink.  Oh,

yes we’ve become, it would seem, such a nation,

where it’s riches for some, but for others starvation,

or nearly.  I assure you this approach takes its toll,

not just on people of color – of brown, beige and black –

it comes at a cost to every Tom, Dick, and Jack,

just ask all our workers at the Saturday Soup Bowl.


So Jesus reminds us when he tells us a story

of a man who goes to a party and sits

in the worst seat, clearly a place of no glory

at all.  But he sees all the people of glitz

tripping over themselves to get the best seats,

as if this were somehow indicative of feats

of worthiness, noblesse oblige, or perhaps honor.

But their host had a guest for that seat well in mind,

and sends the swells packing, other places to find,

and ponder a future as nothings and goners.


When you go to a party, our Lord recommends,

don’t take the best seat, take a place that is lower,

and as others go past you, even your friends,

don’t worry, be happy, don’t grimace or glower.

It’s a good thing when you and I choose to be humble;

it’s really no cause to bristle or grumble.

Not everyone here can sing in the choir;

not all of us need to be close to the altar;

there’s a motto we’ll hear that’s not found in the Psalter,

when your host takes your hand and says, “Friend, go up higher.”


It was five years ago, in a storm called Katrina

that set the great city of New Orleans afloat.

It was awful; there was chaos, even at the arena

where many gathered in hopes that they’d soon find a boat

to take them to safety; to find higher ground;

though sadly so many good souls out there drowned

in the waters that flooded the city that week.

A group from this church went to help not long after;

to try to bring some small relief from disaster.

And the sight left us gaping, with few words to speak.


And still to this day that great city’s a mess,

with houses and businesses and lives un-rebuilt.

You’d think with the power and wealth we possess

we’d prevent this neglect, this occasion for guilt.

You’d think that from where all the powerful sit

they could see this is where all our national grit

is required to help a whole city in need.

You’d think that from way up on high, in DC,

there’d be help on the way, without much of a plea.

But you’d be mistaken, misguided indeed.


Where you stand on an issue, I’ve been told once or twice,

depends largely on where your posterior’s placed.

Which is why Jesus long ago gave us advice

to be careful in choosing a vantage point graced

with a lower perspective, since your whole P.O.V.

will be shaped by what people and things you can see.

Down low with the poor and the sick and the ailing

is where Jesus said we would find the right view;

it’s where he makes all that’s become old  brand new;

it’s where divine grace is the power prevailing.


It reminds us that when we are sailing through life,

and we realize we’ve money and privilege and health,

there are many more others with little but strife,

who’d be much better off with just a bit of the wealth

that’s been given to us, with which we are blest,

as though we were somehow better or best.

But search through the Bible to see if your riches

are a sign of a blessing from God on his throne,

or if maybe people of wealth are more prone

to be found, in the end, in hell’s lowest ditches.


Now, the Gospel is funny, it makes its demands,

and it’s full of these stories to help make us good.

It instructs us in how to use hearts, heads, and hands;

though so often its lessons are misunderstood.

Some strive to be orthodox, righteous, or pure,

as though entrance to heaven these goals would ensure.

But if entry to Paradise is what we desire

then day in and day out we could all do much worse

than to learn to repeat and to live out this verse,

when we see someone coming, to say, “Friend, go up higher.”


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

29 August 2010

Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia

Posted on August 29, 2010 .