Until last night it had been a lot of fun following the story of George Mason University’s basketball team. This group of unknown players who had been passed over by the big name schools made its way through the playoff series to the edge of a national championship before they finally lost. The games themselves were high drama, and as they kept winning time after time it was hard not to relish the glory of it all—the little team that knocked off the giants.
We humans relish these moments of glory. Think of the wide receiver who has just caught a 30 yard touchdown pass in the end zone and starts making strange dancing moves. Or we admire the larger than life figure who is named Time magazine’s “person of the year?” Our culture fawns over celebrities. We envy queens, prime ministers, and presidents in their glory.
We talk about the glories of war—the courage and self-sacrifice, the bloodshed, the higher purposes. One of the best movies about the Civil War is called “Glory.”
My dictionary defines glory as “very great praise, honor, or distinction bestowed by common consent.” A biblical dictionary says the word implies “splendor” or “weightiness.” When something is grand, beautiful, majestic, powerful, we see its glory.
We Christians for the most part like our churches glorious—especially our cathedrals. What is this cathedral if not a place of glory? With vast arches that sweep the eye up and away, everything in this building speaks of the splendor and majesty of a God who is all-powerful and all-knowing.
Here we worship God’s glory—God high and lifted up, utterly beyond us, triumphant, holding the whole universe in being. We love big, grand music. We love to sing things like “Glorious things of thee are spoken.”
It’s getting near the end for Jesus as we meet him in today’s gospel. The powers around him are closing in. The political and religious leaders have decided to get rid of this trouble-maker. Listen to what he says:
The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified—Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour?’ No, it is for this reason I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.
We are hearing of a very different kind of glory. Jesus knows he is going to face his death, he will have to give up everything, but he also knows that somehow this giving up is the key to real glory.
Holy Week begins next week. We won’t see much grandeur and majesty in the days ahead. Instead on Palm Sunday we’re going to watch a man ride into town on an absurd donkey pretending to be a king, the mockery of a real royal parade. We’ll see him kneel down and wash his disciples’ feet and dry them with a towel. He will stagger as he drags a massive wooden cross, the instrument of his own painful death, and he will have a piercing crown of thorns thrust on his head.
And all this will force us to rethink what glory actually is. Jesus will be changing its definition right before our eyes. This glory isn’t something we achieve, it’s not a crown of victory we get to wear when we come out on top. It’s not about a victory at all. In fact, it’s just the opposite. ‘You want to see glory?’ he asks his disciples. Okay then, listen to this:
Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
He’s talking about himself. The way to glory lies through letting go, dying to one way of living, so something new can grow.
It’s easy, isn’t it, to assume that we’re closest to God when life is sailing along just fine. We meet God in beautiful sunsets. Everyone is healthy, we get the promotion, the new house, or the new relationship, and we’re sure God is close and all is right with the world.
But then sickness hits, the car crashes, the job unravels, or we make a terrible mistake, and we wonder where God is now. Or we open the newspaper to talk of genocide in Darfur and more deaths in Iraq and we wonder where God is in these tragedies. What has happened to this God of glory? We need a God who isn’t above and beyond tragedy, but One who meets us in them.
At the beginning of the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoyevesky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov there is an epigraph with these words from our gospel: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies it remains alone…” Dostoyevsky didn’t believe we could know God without suffering. We could know plenty about God, have a nice, formal relationship, maybe think high thoughts about God. But he didn’t think we could really experience God until something had cracked us open enough to let God in. He believed we need our dark times. Unless something dies, new life can’t grow.
His three main characters in the story run frenetic, passionate, driven lives on their own, as soldiers, seekers, lovers, until in one way or another crisis hits, and their worlds are shattered. And there, in the shattering, they experience a depth, a connectedness to God, a sense of being held and loved they had never known before.
They come to realize God had always been there. But as long as they lived inside the hard and fast worlds they had constructed, full of their own plans and achievements and preoccupations, they could keep God out. Only when the crises hit—illness, a betrayal, a business failure, a public humiliation—only then could they be open enough to let God’s love in.
God needs the cracks and broken places in our lives and in our world in order to get in. That’s why Jesus liked the poor so much. They have room for God. That’s why Jesus told his disciples that when they had fed and cared for the least of his brothers and sisters they had cared for him. He was there in the broken places.
Charles Colson, one of the henchmen for President Nixon in Watergate, says it took time in prison for him to be broken open enough for God to get through to him.
I remember a parishioner who nearly destroyed his career and marriage because of alcohol. He was determined to do everything on his own. He wouldn’t let anyone close. Things went from bad to worse, until he hit bottom, and there at the bottom he found God.
We can see God’s glory in our lostness. But Jesus was pointing to another way to glory too—the way of obedience, self-offering, surrender. Listen to his wrestling:
Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour?’ No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.
It is in giving himself to God’s will for his life in the moment that he shows God’s glory.
You and I can’t grow without something in us dying. We can’t be obedient to what God is calling us to be and do without being willing to let go. That’s the hard truth of it. I can’t become freer without letting go of some pieces of my life I’m clinging to. A grain of wheat can’t do what it was meant to do unless it falls into the earth and begins slowly to crack open and push out fresh shoots of new life.
Jesus put this starkly. “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life will keep it for eternal life.” If we do everything we can to cling to our lives just the way they are, if we manage to avoid change and pain, we will end up with no life at all. But if we will “hate”—that harsh word Jesus uses—if we will hate the ways we seek comfort and safety by diminishing and cheapening our lives, then there is no telling what life we will find.
We can’t live saner lives without dying to some of the expectations we and others have created for us. We can’t have healthier, more nurturing lives at home or with friends without dying to the endless press of doing, owning, accomplishing more. We can’t be the sane, generous human beings we’re made to be without dying to some of our clutching and clinging. And we can’t be aware, compassionate Christians in this global world without dying to our endless distractions and to our illusions that we can’t make a difference.
Next week when we come here we will watch Jesus hung up on a cross, having offered everything to God. And when we see that we will see him radiant with God’s glory. This is a God who meets us in our breaking, dying, and in our obedience.
And we see God’s glory here in our lives all the time. In last week’s New Yorker magazine I caught a glimpse of it in a memoir by Calvin Trillin of his wife Alice, who died not long ago of cancer. Trillin describes Alice’s belief in what he called “the transformative power of pure, undiluted love.” Alice volunteered every summer in a camp for handicapped children where she always seemed to gravitate toward the child who needed the most help. One year it was a child she called “L,” and this is what Alice wrote in a letter about her:
Last summer, the camper I got closest to, L, was a magical child who was severely disabled. She had two genetic diseases, one which kept her from growing and one which kept her from digesting any food. She had to be fed through a tube at night and she had so much difficulty walking that I drove her around in a golf cart a lot…One day when we were playing duck-duck-goose, I was sitting behind her and she asked me to hold her mail for her while she took her turn to be chased around the circle…I had time to see that on the top of the pile was a note from her mom.
Then, she says, she did something that she called “truly awful”—she decided to read the note. “I simply had to know what the child’s parents could have done to make her so spectacular, to make her the most optimistic, most enthusiastic, most hopeful human being I had ever encountered.” She snuck a quick look at the note, and her eyes fell on this sentence: “If God had given us all of the children in the world to choose from, L, we would only have chosen you.’
And then before L got back to her place in the circle, Alice showed the note to a counselor sitting next to her. “Quick read this,” she said. “It’s the secret of life.”
There it is—glory in the measureless love of a parent for her child, the glory we see in self-sacrifice, in letting go, in serving. That’s the glory Jesus is about to show us.
“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” Jesus says.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”