August 23, 2012

Heavy Light


Text: 2 Corinthians 4:17: “...this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure...”

For a long time I have had it mind to preach on this text from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, and mostly because of this very curious phrase. It is at least a little puzzling, the idea of glory having weight. Usually the contrast between earth and heaven is caught up with the idea of being weighted down here and being liberated there; heavy here, light there. But here there seems to be something else in mind.

So as I say, for a long time I have been wanting to take this bit of scripture up very seriously, and I had planned to preach on it this morning pretty much as soon as I realized some months ago that the lectionary would bring it around to us today. But then this past Wednesday our dear sister Virginia Dewey died, and I began to wonder whether maybe it might not be a good idea to jettison my plans.

Ginny Dewey was a child of this church; her parents were married here, she was baptized here on the night before Easter in 1924, and confirmed here in 1939 by Bishop Henry Knox Sheririll, who would go on to be the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. She was a part of this community for her entire life, as has been her older sister, Ethel, who survives her. In more ways than one, they have sort of been our own Martha and Mary.

I have been given strict instructions not to preach a eulogy at Ginny’s memorial service when it happens here this coming Wednesday. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that a lot of what I wanted to say about this text is perfectly summarized in the faithful life of that faithful friend of this place. So if you will allow me, I’m going to say the words here that I would otherwise say then.

Glory is a major theme throughout the New Testament, which may be one of the reasons it is so confusing to us today. It’s not really a concept we have a great deal of familiarity with, or use for.  It has a kind of extravagant ring to it, you know? It’s one thing to describe something you like as “brilliant,” but if you call something “glorious” people sort of make a little more space around you.

About the best summary of this comes from another sermon preached on this very same text almost exactly seventy years ago today by C. S. Lewis. Here is what Lewis said; I might as well quote it because I can’t improve on it—

“There is no getting away from the fact that the idea of glory is very prominent in the New Testament and in early Christian writings. Salvation is constantly associated with palms, crowns, white robes, thrones, and splendor like the sun and stars. All this makes no immediate appeal to me at all, and in that respect I fancy I am a typical modern.

“Glory suggests two ideas to me, of which one seems wicked and the other ridiculous. Either glory means to me fame, or it means luminosity. As for the first, since to be famous means to be better known that other people, the desire for fame appears to me as a competitive passion and therefor of hell rather than heaven. As for the second, who wishes to become a kind of living electric light bulb?”

Lewis could not possibly have imagined how right he was about the pursuit of fame being a kind of hell. If you don’t believe me, just pick up a copy of People magazine the next time you’re in the doctor’s office. We have created a whole subclass of humanity known as “celebrities,” whose life purpose seems to be nothing more than competing for the fame and attention of all of the rest of us. And it has to be said that their lives are almost uniformly miserable—for good reason.

So the idea of glory is a little hard for us to make much meaning with. Desiring glory doesn’t really seem like an honorable thing. And yet here it is set before us as a kind of goal.

It’s just possible we may have come at this from the wrong direction. Whenever there’s an idea that the bible think is great and we think is sort of odd, there’s at least a chance that the problem lies with us. And here’s a case in which I think that may be true.

Paul is writing to the new church about the difference between the life we have as mortals, the life we get in these bodies and in this flesh that will ultimately fail us, and the life God has given us to share in eternity.

The people of Paul’s churches had been raised to believed that these two lives were opposed to each other, that they were essentially at war with each other. Paul is holding out a different view. He is saying that one is the means to the other; that this life we have been given in this frail mortal flesh is the means by which we will obtain eternal life with God.

That will not happen because of what we do in this life. We can’t earn the glory God has in mind for us; we were born for it in the first place. The desire for it was planted in us in our creation. It’s like a magnetic pole that our needle points toward.

The problem is, a lot can interfere with that natural inclination. For one thing, the frailty of this flesh is itself pretty distracting. We have desires that draw us off the path; we have wounds that injure our bodies, our minds, and even our souls.

And then there’s even just sheer embarrassment—aside from all the things about us that get in the way, there’s the fact that we live among other people, and some of them at least question our desire for God.  And because we’re conflict-averse, or need approval, or just plain afraid, we let that part of us fall into the shadows of our own lives.

So how is this supposed to work? How are we to manage to seek out this glory we’re intended for in the frame of this frequently less-than-glorious existence of ours?

Paul has an idea about this. He think that it happens through something called grace. Grace is a quality of life, it is something unleashed in us when God’s spirit, the Holy Spirit, works through us. We have the power, we have the choice, to stop that from happening. And we have the power to choose to let it happen.

We were made for glory, but—here’s the catch—we are not guaranteed glory. We have a role in the outcome, and the role is very specifically down to what choice we make about the place we give God in our lives. If we make that place-—through prayer, through self-examination, through developing the practice of asking what God would have us do, instead of the habit of asking what God will do for us—then that grace will come more and more to be our way of being in the world, of moving through our lives, of touching the people we come in contact with.

Fame is what brings us the attention of people in this world. Grace is what brings us God’s attention. And it is God’s attention that ends up bringing us glory. That, in a nutshell, is the idea Paul has of glory.

Our dear sister Virginia was a case study for this idea of glory. She lived a long life of quite faith filled with grace. She did almost nothing to draw herself fame in the terms of this world. But nearly everything she did in this world was an act of grace—an act that drew to her the attention of the loving God who made her and who was all along her faithful companion.

Not long ago, as we spoke together, she told me that the one thing she was praying for was the faith to put my hand in the hand of the Lord—those are her words. She knew that she was dying, that this frail flesh was failing her.

But when I asked her if she had ever in her life felt as though she had somehow lost her sense of that connection, if she had ever led her hand slip out of that grasp. And she just smiled, and said no, in fact, she never had.

Better than most of us she knew the weakness of these bodies of ours. And yet this place, all of you, so many of those who were here before us, all of us were her brothers and sisters, and it was to us that she devoted the work of a quiet and faithful life in ways that were practically invisible—yet with a grace that surely attracted the attention of God.

That weight of glory is now hers, wrapped around her like a mantle of victory and welcome by the God whose hand she held without fear or pride. And through her that grace spread in this place, bringing more of us to understand what a life of devotion looked like, how it is lived—so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

Thank you, God, for her example; thank you for this community, in which such people live among us. Thank you for the hope of glory, and for the chance you have given us to be examples of grace, too.  Amen.