Genesis 17:1–7, 15–16
I don’t care about sports at all, but last weekend was my personal Super Bowl/Stanley Cup/World Series equivalent—the Academy Awards. This year the award for Best Original Song in a Motion Picture during the last year went to John Legend and Common for their song “Glory” from the movie Selma.
It truly is a brilliant song, and perfectly sums up the civil rights struggle not only in time of Martin Luther King, Jr.—whose 1964 march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge is the heart of the movie’s plot—but also in our time. One of the most potent lines in the song is “Selma is now.” I am sure you don’t have to think very hard to find an issue in the news today that strikes you as someone with power using it unjustly, unfairly, and in every way against God’s desire for the wholeness and healing of the entire creation. I picture the protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, in Ukraine and in Hong Kong, and nod Yes. “Selma is now.”
And that made me think about how interesting—even startling—it is that Common and John Legend chose to call their song “Glory” when it refers to so much human suffering. In the movie Selma we see the civil rights marchers crossing the bridge from Selma toward Montgomery, where they will lay before the governor of Alabama their appeal for a Voting Rights Act for African Americans. On the other side of the bridge we see state troopers donning gas masks, armed with billy clubs wrapped in barbed wire and other weapons, preparing to assault the marchers. When they meet in the middle it is shockingly brutal. Where is the Glory in that?
I do not believe—and I’m certain Jesus does not teach—that people suffer because they must have done something to deserve it or because God is punishing them. Nor do I believe that God wants us to suffer and so sends us trials to test and strengthen our faith. No, I believe that when Jesus tells the disciples to take up their crosses and follow him, and that whoever loses their life will find it, he isn’t asking them to seek out trouble. He is simply describing what the civil rights marchers and many other courageous sacrificial leaders often express—that there is glory in giving over one’s whole self for a higher purpose. There IS glory in serving the a higher calling, even when that service exacts a heavy price. There IS spirit-lifting joy in getting out of the limelight in order to stand for something bigger. We come alive when we offer our lives for the sake of others. That’s what Jesus is talking about.
This is, of course, quite different from others taking from us. When we give ourselves away for the sake of love, it isn’t because we see ourselves as unworthy of respect, dignity, and love. This is not at all about enduring abuse or tolerating injustice to build character. Jesus is encouraging his followers to choose to offer up our own momentary “wants” in order to satisfy a genuine need in someone else. Those of you who have brought up children or are caring for elderly parents understand this in ways I can only guess at. You know what it’s like to give up all manner of small and large things you want for yourself in order to benefit your children or your parents. I trust that most of us can recall moments when we truly got out of our own way and did something solely for others. I hope that the moment contain a flush of glory for you.
But sacrificial giving, though we know it can be very satisfying, is counter-cultural. We live in a world where it’s expected that we are looking out for #1, instantly gratifying our every whim. That’s why, when Jesus describes to his friends how he is expecting to live sacrificially, offering up his time, his money, and his energy—as well as expecting them to do so—Peter panics. His rabbi will be rejected by the religious leaders instead of revered by them? Undergo suffering, and not relief from it? And then, ultimately, be executed!? No, no, no!
Peter takes Jesus aside, saying, “If you are the Messiah, the special chosen one of God, things should go well for you! The Messiah will not have trouble overthrowing the Romans and making life better for us all. The spiritual leaders will embrace your positive changes in our religious institutions. You live a Godly, righteous life, and are leading us toward the same. That means you will be popular and successful in all you do.” What Peter loses sight of is how Jesus defines success. Jesus has to explain again that focusing on what really counts—those moments when we stop worrying about ourselves and our wants and instead focus on our community and relationships—is when glory comes.
Oh Peter! If having more stuff and more prestige, (and fewer messy interpersonal relationships), made life more complete and beautiful—if watching out for #1 gave us security—then Jesus is a terrible loser. If ever there was anyone who did and said exactly what was right and just and good, it was Jesus. But—just as he predicted—he suffered. And he suffered not in spite of his goodness and mercy, but, in fact, BECAUSE of it. The political and religious leaders of the time killed Jesus for wanting a world with no losers, a world where the blind could see, the prisoners were freed, the guilty were forgiven, the outsiders included, and the hopeless overflowing with hope. That was hard news for people who wanted clear distinctions between winners and losers—in particular, because they were pretty certain they were the winners. So they rebuked Jesus. They tortured him and eventually executed him like a common criminal. Glory?
Jesus says to those who love him, “Take up your cross and follow me.” Are we ready? Able? Willing? What if following Jesus means giving up some of the ways that we’ve always thought about God, about church, about ourselves? We can smile indulgently at Peter for telling Jesus how things should really go, but only until we see ourselves in his place, angry and confused that God’s way and our way are not, shockingly, synonymous. It’s all fine and good to talk about losing our life to find it until we realize that that “losing our life” might mean singing hymns we don’t like, or spending precious money on programs we don’t want, or showing up for activities we find pointless.
The Good News, my friends, is this: glory comes in the path of sacrificial love. Suffering and death are not the end of the story. Judas’ betrayal of his friend—Peter’s denial of him—are not the end of the story. Our own inability to take up our crosses and follow Jesus by living the faith that we profess is not the end of the story. These moments are indeed part of the story, but they are not the whole thing. And they are certainly not the end!
You know as well as I do that the end of God’s glorious story is wholeness, healing, mercy, forgiveness, acceptance, renewal, and—above all—love! The end of the story is the cracking open of the grave, the ripping of the curtain that divides God from humans, the unstoppable blast of life and light into places of stagnation, death, and darkness. Glory.
And so, my friends, this is the Good News: God is always for us, no matter who is against us—even if it’s we ourselves! God is for us even when we try to direct God’s ways instead of following them. God is for us even when we abandon and reject Jesus and his humble way of being in the world. God is for us, and this Word is still THE Word: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten child, that whosoever believes in him should NOT perish, but have everlasting life. God did NOT come into the world to condemn the world, but so that through Jesus the world might be saved” (Jn. 3:16-17). Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!