A sermon by the Rev. Jered Weber-Johnson
October 17, 2021

Click to watch the sermon (the video will automatically skip to that part of the service).

Fall is the most glorious of seasons. You can keep your spring and summer, and winter too, not that these are any less important or beautiful. But, when it comes to the radiance, the sheer overwhelming glory of a string of months, a whole season, it is autumn that gets my vote. The air cools as if sighing in relief, and in the northern hemisphere, the Earth at this angle on its axis, tilts ever so slightly away from the sun, and the light, in the turning trees, spreads across the dying prairies and dances among leaves so beautifully, the only word one can use to describe it all is glory. 

I’ve been thinking about glory a lot in the past few weeks, which, if you follow me on Facebook, you probably already know, my thinking coming out as it has, in the form of poems. A little while ago, coming down the Mississippi River Road on a morning run, the light caught the western bank just after sunrise, and a pocket of maples began to blaze. And, as is often the case, the grief and stress of whatever I was carrying in that particular moment was evaporating from my body like the steam off the river, and I was already feeling lighter and at peace, when the vision pulled me up short. I stopped and I stared and I smiled and I laughed. It was glorious. Later I wrote:

Some will say

they want to go out

in a blaze of glory.

I want to go

like the trees,

burning bright

and unafraid,

beautiful at the last,

standing with arms uplifted

and letting go.

Annie Dillard describes a similar such experience, of seeing beyond what is to the glorious infinities hidden in nature, and says of that moment, seeing her cedar in the backyard ablaze with the glory of the setting sun, “I had been my whole life a bell and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.”1

Glory! Such a peculiar idea in our modern culture. We tend to think of it in one of two ways. There is the glory that comes from achievement, recognition, and accomplishment, honor and fame, the kind we ascribe to athletes and military strategists and rock stars, the kind affiliated with power and prestige, money and possessions. And, there is glory as I have been using it, as associated with things radiant and beautiful, the glory, say of a sunset or a mountain peak wreathed in passing cloud.

It is the first definition that seems at play in the gospel this morning. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, come to Jesus on their own, apart from the other disciples, to do what can only be described as a power play. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Lord only knows what possessed these would be right hand and left hand men, these aspiring court officials? Where did they ever get the impression that Jesus was destined for worldly power and glory, that he and his ragtag group of followers were somehow going to oust the Romans and restore Israel to its former glory? Jesus has twice already, in Mark’s gospel, predicted his own death and dismal failure, from a strategic and secular political perspective. He has, time and again, gestured toward servanthood, as the kind of self-emptying leadership he wants his followers to emulate. Yet, here they are currying favor for future appointments of great acclaim when he comes into his supposed glory. Have they not been paying attention?

It might be easy to ridicule James and John until we see just how easily the Church today and over the centuries has recapitulated this very same scenario, from Constantine to the White House, Christianity has sought to get in bed with power, to cozy up to the glory of tyrants and presidents, powerful global leaders, and titans of industry. We have sought, time and again, to build lasting edifices, tall towers and monuments, painted over, ever so slightly with the words “to the glory of God” when we’ve truly meant “to the glory of us.” We have deployed the gospel as a tool to achieve our own ascendancy, to preserve our own power, to maintain our own privilege.

But, if you are reading the news, or paying attention to the studies and polls, you already know that the church is dying. Decline in membership and cultural prestige which were both precipitously falling since the middle of the last century, are accelerating even more quickly in the midst of this pandemic. This is true for Catholics, Evangelicals, Charismatics, and Mainline Protestants of all stripes. People and power are leaving the church in numbers we’ve never seen before, and it can feel like a gut punch to those who thought their job was to grow the church so we could change the world. Even the most well-meaning of leaders, lay and ordained, believed on their best days that the glory being sought was one that could be deployed for the good of the world. Whatever power or privilege the church acquired was a point of leverage, to do the work Jesus was calling us to do. But, now it is all but clear that Christianity, the church as we’ve come to know it in the west, is dying. People are leaving and, if the studies are right, many will never come back, there is no return to normal. The hardest part in all of this is the stark reality that this is not the path any of us would have chosen.2

But, this is glory according to the story of Jesus. When James and John asked for him to remember them in his ascendancy, his response makes plain, yet again, his self-understanding, that his was a journey to the cross. The cup from which he would drink and the baptism with which he would be baptized was the experience of his own passion and death. These things were not so much a chosen course of action but a suffering to be passed through – like the seasons and cycles of the natural world, suffering was coming, like it or not. As followers of Jesus, this glory, the baptism of his cross and passion, are something we must undergo as followers on his way. We may willingly accept the glory of his self-emptying, but if we have chosen to truly follow Jesus, this passion claims us nevertheless. As theologian and pastor, teaching and preaching as a westerner abroad in Japan, The Rev’d Sarah Hinlicky-Wilson writes 

“All this would seem to be a commendation of pure passivity — and perhaps in activistic, boosteristic, optimistic American culture there is something to be said for confronting [us] with the passivity of the passion now and then — were it not for an allusion way back in Mark 1: the gift of the Spirit…Being possessed of the Spirit is also a passion.”3

Which is to say that for all the hardship, all the suffering, all the traumas we endure, both of our own making, the ones that come by mere chance as a part of the way the world is, and the ones that come upon us because we are faithful to the gospel, because we have eschewed worldly power and glory, in all this, the Spirit of God is with us, never leaves us nor forsakes us. 

Like the trees and the grass which each year must fall to the ground and die, our lives are caught up in the dying of Christ, it claims us one way or another. It is a beautiful if painful truth, touched by suffering and not without struggle. But, the glory found in the natural process of dying, the glory of fall, of trees resplendent in golds and reds, is far less glorious than what God is able to do when we let our lives go in his. 

This week I wrote another poem as I contemplated the challenges facing the church, what it means to give in this moment, and I titled it “Glory”.

It goes like this:

At the river’s edge

the old trees have fallen over,

brought down

by the slow passage

of time and water,

sun-bleached white,

like the massive bones

of some long extinct noble beast.

Some of them

have fallen in the water,

branches reaching

into the passing current,

as if stretching toward a blessing –

like the woman

who touched the hem of Jesus’ robe

and was healed.

No one saw her touch him.

The gift was given before he even knew.

I wonder

what happened to her

when she left that place?

Did she give glory to God?

Did she sing praises?

And, what about the trees,

that fell in the darkening night

at the water’s edge

when no one was watching?

If a tree falls

and no one is there to see…

…is God still praised?

If no one remembers when or how it happened,

is this too for the glory of God?

Every church I know

is haunted by little brass plaques,

shining like faded stars,

burnished reminders of a gift given

to the glory of God

and in memory of some dear saint.

But Jesus said that when we give a gift,

we shouldn’t let our left hand know

what our right hand is doing.

Give in secret, he said.

Let your gifts fall like the trees

by the water’s edge

in the forgetful night.

There is glory

in what we cannot see,

in what cannot be remembered.

The first glimmering stars

had no audience

and the crashing waves

that bless unseen shores

are far more glorious

than any captain

in the heat of battle.

When at last the sun

explodes in supernova

and the river runs no more,

will any of us be there to see?

But, oh it will be glorious.

Give your gifts then,

like the fallen trees at the water’s edge

forgotten but beautiful,

soaked in blessings,

and shining in glory.

Our glory, today, my friends is in this, in falling, in giving, in serving, in losing, in emptying ourselves of all that is not Christ, of all that is not love. The Church may be dying, but by the power of the Spirit, by the infinite and inexhaustible grace and love of God, like the blade that springs anew each year, we know that we too might be raised to new life in him. Then we might proclaim as the Apostle once did, “Glory to him whose power working within us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to him in the Church and in Christ Jesus unto ages of ages, now and forever! Amen.

  1.  Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim At Tinker Creek, Harper, 1974.
  2. https://baptistnews.com/article/the-church-is-called-to-die/?fbclid=IwAR3wj6OUq8VnjHbJtAaDBB20DJB8P61JzJ32V9_garXBnOzzmh3yvvV4-O0#.YWv-3JNKh_T
  3.  https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-29-2/commentary-on-mark-1035-45-4
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