“One Day, when the Glory comes, it will be ours” John Legend sings again and again. Glory. The single, by Legend and Common, was released in December of 2014, alongside the movie Selma. They won an Oscar for the song, and for the film about Dr. King and the bloody repression of a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma to Montgomery. The refrain to the song is so simple, so repetitive, “Glory. Glory.”
What does glory look like?
“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” What does that glory look like? Would we recognize God’s glory?
Our Gospel is awkward about glory.
Peter wants to capture the glory of Jesus’ new face, and the prophets, there on the mountain. “Let us build dwellings.” You can almost see the marketing mind spinning for Peter. Jesus, your face lights up. Moses and Elijah are here. We could charge quite an admission price for this show. Peter wants to house Jesus’ glory, to keep it there on the mountain top. Peter makes plans.
Peter receives perhaps the best rebuke in the Bible. Jesus rebukes Peter sometimes in the Gospels. This is better. The cloud of God’s presence comes over them. From the cloud comes a voice. “This is my son, the Beloved, listen to him!” Peter, quiet down. It isn’t up to you to capture, to house, God’s glory. Stop talking. Stop planning. Listen.
Incidentally, those of you who are coming this summer on our trip to the Holy Land will travel up Mt. Tabor, and see the church of the Transfiguration. There, on top of the Mountain where these events supposedly took place, the Roman Catholic Church has built a basilica, a great house. It has three main chapels. One for Jesus. One for Moses. One for Elijah. I kid you not. We still don’t get it. When we’re up there, we’ll keep an eye out for low hanging clouds.
How often, I wonder, is God trying to reach us, to call us, when we are too busy laying plans of our own? How often is God trying to show us God’s glory, and we are distracted?
I can joke. But I can understand Peter. We are a culture obsessed with “glory.” Look at the way we celebrate a Super Bowl victory. Watch the spectacle that will take place over the next weeks for the Olympics. We love looking for glory. We celebrate glory. We make up reasons to bestow glory. I can understand why this vision of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, Jesus’ shining face, might set Peter’s cogs spinning.
But that’s not the point of the story. God’s glory, and human glory are not the same. God’s glory does not look like our vision of glory.
As they are coming down the mountain Jesus orders these three disciples to keep quiet. “Don’t tell anyone.” He says, and notice, notice what he says next. “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen until after the Son of Man has risen from the dead.”
This mountaintop isn’t the whole experience. Mt. Tabor’s meaning is incomplete on its own. God’s glory has another mountain ahead, the Mount of Calvary. God’s glory shines through the cross, through an instrument of human torture and execution. God’s glory stands in solidarity with those our society murders. God’s glory is found in an empty tomb. God’s glory is complicated. God’s glory demands persistence. I can understand why Peter wants to stay up there with Moses and Elijah.
Today we celebrate one of the mysteries of the faith, the Transfiguration. Maybe for you, like for me over much of my life, this story just didn’t connect. Maybe you have strong hesitations about Jesus’ face glowing white being a sign of God’s blessing. Many in Holy Communion’s congregation have been judged for the pigmentation of their skin. Some of that judgement has come from those who share their racial and ethnic background. I am going to try to avoid the “light” and “dark” language in this story, because that language is problematic in our discussion of race and skin color. And still, I think this story can bring us Good News.
Because I think, in part, this story tells us what God’s glory really looks like. The story of the Transfiguration, and the quiet Jesus asks from his disciples speaks of true glory. God’s glory is quiet. God’s glory requires faith, requires persistence. God’s glory requires a willingness to come off the mountaintop down into the mess.
Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, the 40 days which lead us to the cross and resurrection. Jesus’ death was public. Jesus’ death, like the public execution of so many dissidents, was meant to show Rome’s glory. Jesus was tried in public, and executed in public. A sign proclaimed him “King of the Jews,” and a governor flexed his power. But the resurrection happens in the dark, in the quiet. Jesus appears to those who have faith. Jesus doesn’t show himself to the emperor. He doesn’t call down the angels and topple the power of Rome. He tells the disciples to keep quiet until he has risen.
God’s glory is different than our visions of human glory.
We have a sign out in front of our church with a quote from Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa:
Goodness is Stronger than Evil.
Love is Stronger than Hate.
Light is Stronger than Darkness.
Life is Stronger than Death.
If you tried to prove the Archbishop right, empirically, in our world, you would be hard pressed. As people we often behave as if Evil, Hate, Darkness, and Death are stronger. We rely on putting people to death as a means to solve problems. We use hate to win elections. We underfund education and leave children in the dark, unequipped for well paying jobs that could change their family’s lives. Goodness, Love, Light, and Life, they don’t appear stronger in the systems we have built. Tutu’s wisdom could be called foolishness. But Goodness, Love, Light, and Life, they are God’s glory.
We also have to be honest about our history. The church has not consistently pointed to God’s glory. This month, Frederick Douglass would have been 200 years old. Listen to his critique of the church from 1845:
I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of the land… I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds…We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members…The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master.
We’ve talked before here of the complicity of the church in the support of slavery. I’ve told you that The Episcopal Church had a special set of promises a person held in slavery made when they were baptized. Enslaved women and men promised to obey their masters in Episcopal Church batpisms. This is just one of the many ways the church has participated in, perpetrated, and profited from injustice across our history. But Douglass’ words are also poignant because in them you can hear a hope for a different sort of church.
Douglass yearned for a church that could represent the “meek and lowly Jesus.” He hoped for a church that could wake itself from the intoxication of power and stand up for God’s glory.
Irenaeus, the second century bishop of Lyon, about a hundred years after Jesus said this: “The Glory of God is the human being fully alive.” God’s glory is life, and life in abundance, for all humanity.
Too often our visions of glory have relied upon subjugation. Our visions of glory require winners and losers. The church has participated in slavery, racism, antisemitism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia…Jesus’ movement has been used to perpetrate a way of life that holds some down for the sake of other’s glory. We can’t forget the history. We can’t forget the way our society has systemically oppressed, and the church has participated. Forgetting would leave us blind.
Or as Common sings in the single Glory: “Justice for all just ain’t specific enough.” If we are to see God’s glory. If we are to see all of humanity, fully alive, we need to get specific about repentance. We will need to turn from the systems we have created, and from which we have benefited.
If we are to see God’s glory, all of humanity fully alive, we will need to dismantle some of what we thought was glorious.
Archbishop Tutu walked with his people through apartheid. He saw them to the other side. He prayed for Nelson Mandela as he came out of prison, and gave the blessing at his inauguration as the first black president of South Africa. Tutu has said that Transfiguration is principle in our faith. The Gospel teaches us that “No situation is un-transfigurable.” No one is beyond redemption. No church, no society, no electorate, is beyond saving.
We human beings are made for glory, but not glory at the expense of others. We are not made to stand over our sisters, our brothers, our siblings and look down. That’s not God’s glory. That’s not true glory. We are made to continue the walk of glory, to go down from the mountain and walk among the lowly. We will not see the glory of the coming of the Lord until all God’s children, all, are allowed to live their fullest life. God’s glory has to go through the suffering. God’s glory has to wrestle with human systems of power.
In the end, have faith, God’s glory will win the day.
What looks like failure, like defeat, is not the end of the story. Goodness is stronger. Life is stronger. Jesus story does not end with the cross.
I remember when John Legend and Common’s song for Selma was released. The lyrics were a bit of a shock. In December 2014, clergy and protestors were still being arrested regularly here in St. Louis county. Common had the audacity to drop a line in the Selma anthem. “That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up.” What felt so local had a national stage, and that was a little awkward.
I hadn’t heard “Glory” much since the release of Selma, until I was standing this last October in Washington DC at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The main exhibit in the museum tells the story of the black experience of the United States. You start the journey by riding an elevator down, all the way to the sub-basement. You make your way through a slave ship. As you continue through the museum, you make your way up, through slave revolts, the revolution, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights era. Just before you climb the last ramp and see the picture of President Obama’s inauguration, just before you return to the ground floor and the bright atrium of the museum, is an exhibit which covers the recent movements for Civil Rights.
There in that Smithsonian museum, they display buttons and banners that read “We will Remember Mike Brown.” There’s a loop of video showing protestors on West Florissant being teargassed. And as the narrator tells the story, you hear John Legend singing: “One Day, when the glory comes, it will be ours.”
Until the glory is all of ours, all, it isn’t God’s glory. Amen