A Sermon for Seekers Church,
The Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year A
April 24, 2005
by Deborah Sokolove
Seeing the Glory of God
As I was looking at the lectionary readings for today, it seemed to me that all of them have something to do with stones, or perhaps, what can be made of stones. In the first reading, the stones are weapons. A man named Stephen, described as “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” and “full of grace and power,” has been chosen by members of his community to make sure that the widows — who had no other means of support — were receiving food and other things they needed. It seems that Stephen was a gifted teacher and, apparently, some kind of wonder-worker. When he was brought up on false charges of blasphemy and conspiracy to destroy the Temple at Jerusalem, he retold portions of the stories of Abraham, Joseph, Moses and the prophets, pointing out God’s promises to protect them against their enemies. Stephen likened his accusers to those who persecuted the ancient prophets, saying that they, too, were murderers. His accusers were so angry at hearing this that they picked up stones and threw them at him. Moreover, as we have just heard, as he was dying, he followed Jesus in the way of forgiveness, praying to God, “Do not hold this sin against them.”
Stephen’s faith that God’s love would ultimately prevail is echoed in Psalm 31, in which the psalmist sees God not as a small, smooth stone that can be held in the hand, but as a rock of refuge, a huge, impenetrable fortress in time of trouble. Stephen was probably as familiar with the Psalms as he was with the biblical narratives he used in his unsuccessful defense. It is possible, then, that this first, recorded martyr remembered the psalmist’s cry, “My times are in your hand: deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutor. Let your face shine upon your servant; save me in your steadfast love” when facing his own enemies and persecutors. Although Stephen did die that day, the rock of refuge that is the living God granted him a vision that was for him more precious than mere survival. We are told that the heavens opened and he saw the glory of God, with the Human One standing at the Creator’s right hand.
In the epistle, the stones have become neither weapon nor refuge, but the very lives of those who know the Risen Christ. As Stephen pointed out before his martyrdom, God does not dwell in houses or temples made of stone. Rather, Jesus, himself, is the enigmatic, “living stone,” the cornerstone on which a spiritual house shall be built and something over which people stumble. Those who follow Jesus are invited to become living stones, themselves, the very fabric of a spiritual house, which glows with the glorious light of God.
This idea of a spiritual house is continued in the Gospel reading which we just heard. Jesus says that in his divine Parent’s house there are many rooms. He assures his disciples that he is going to prepare a place for them, a place where they will see the glory of God.
John the Baptist, the disciples, and Paul on the road to Damascus, are reported, like Stephen, and many others who followed Jesus in the nearly two thousand years since, to have seen the glory of God. Now “glory” is not a word that I tend to use much, mostly because I do not really understand it. But you many have noticed that in addition to stones and dwelling places, light and glory seem to appear in all these readings, so I’ve been trying to make some sense of it. Sometimes people say “going to glory” as a synonym for heaven, which is another word that I do not understand very well, but I will leave that for some other time. My dictionary says that the word “glory” comes from the Latin gloria. Another source suggests that this Latin word was derived, in turn, from the Sumerian gal, meaning “great”; the Hebrew or, meaning “light”; and/or the Greek or meaning “mountain.” Thus, perhaps the original meaning of glory is something like “great light.” When I googled “glory” I found (among other things) the following definitions:
- a ring, circle, or surrounding radiance of light represented about the figure of a sacred person
- The quality of fame won by deeds, not quite the same as renown. Glory is the quality of the ‘rush’ won from victory, and as such was highly valued as a motivator by warriors and equally scorned by the church. Warriors and knights considered glory a good thing, one that drove men to greatness, a reward for excellence that was the right of the successful warrior.
- an optical effect characterized by concentric rings of color (red outermost and violet innermost) surrounding the shadow of an observer’s head when the shadow is cast onto a cloud deck below the observer’s elevation
What connects all of these ideas is the concept of light, either literal or metaphorical. As I was thinking about today’s sermon and the theme for this season, I began to understand that the new light in which this season’s theme invites us to see is, in fact, the glory of God.
This light, this glory, is not simply the absence of darkness. Rather, this divine radiance may be perceived in the darkest night as well as in the brightest daylight. As the house of God built of living stones, it is more a matter of spirit than of the simple ability to see with physical eyes.
Yet, it is a matter of physical vision. A person who is blind from birth does not understand “light” in the same way as someone who can see. Our bodies and our spirits are inextricably linked in ways that are denied by the neat linguistic division of mind and matter, body and soul. Despite centuries of philosophers and theologians trying to tell us that our bodies are inconsequential shells imprisoning our eternal minds and/or souls, everything that we know, we have learned through our bodies. If we learn through reading, it is our eyes that first of all allow us to apprehend the dark ink on white paper that form the shape of words; if we learn through listening, our ears first of all must respond to the waves that form the sound of words. Our brains then must translate these shapes or sounds into meaning, and that meaning somehow becomes part of how we understand the world.
This is not a reductionist, nothing-but materialism, but a sacramental mystery in which matter and spirit, mundane and divine, interpenetrate one another so that neither can be known without the other. There is a connection between stones and glory.
One connection for me has to do with the simple fact that ground-up stones are the basis of paint. For thousands of years, if someone wanted to depict a bison on a cave wall, a pharaoh and his court on the side of a pyramid, or a sunflower dancing on a stretched canvas, the first thing to do was look around on the ground and find some colored earth or rock. Yellow and red ochers came from iron mixed with hematite or limonite; green from copper oxide; blue from lapis lazuli; white from lead or marble. Sometimes, of course, artists would buy or trade for exotic colors from far away, but these, too, came from the stones of that other place. Other colors might come from animal or vegetable sources – black from soot; a brighter red from an insect known as cochineal; a deeper blue from the indigo plant. These pigments would be ground extremely fine, then suspended in a medium of egg, or oil, or gum Arabic from the acacia tree. The defenders of icons during the iconographic controversies of the 8th and 9th centuries held that icons contained the whole of creation, with animals represented by the egg suspension, vegetables by the wood panel, and minerals by the pigments that were used as paint. Without this basis in matter, the holy images would not exist. Without the ground-up stones, there would be no image of glory.
This image of glory was not mere decoration. Rather, it was a help to understanding the mystery of Incarnation, an affirmation that the Word of God is more than words. In his 8th century defense of icons, John of Damascus wrote, “The image speaks to the sight as words to the ear: it brings us understanding. . . . I go into a church, the common refuge of souls, my mind wearied with conflicting thoughts. I see before me a beautiful picture and the sight refreshes me and induces me to glorify God.” [Orations on the Images 1]
I found this passage in a recent book, The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought, by theologian and church historian, Margaret Miles. Intending it as a textbook for a course in church history, she pays special attention to the ways that Christian thinkers have portrayed the role of the body and the material universe, generally. Miles contends that the earliest Christian communities “insisted on integrating body and senses in their worship. They believed strongly that the religion of the Incarnation should not be expressed in a bland, intellectual worship that excluded the life and energy that Christians experienced.” [p.25] In support of her contention that early Christian thought understood an integral relationship between body and spirit, she cites the 2nd century theologian, Clement of Alexandria, who said, “Without the body how could the divine plan for us achieve its end?” [Stromateis III.17]
A few weeks ago, amid cries of “Christ is Risen,” Marjory suggested that we name “the celebration of creativity, which serves life as Jesus did” as a new corporate call. Although she talked about it as something new, I would suggest that it has actually been our call all along, but one we have been unwilling to recognize and honor, except in limited ways. In addition to Marjory’s excellent list of what she called “signs,” creativity is already mentioned in our official Call statement, in which we say, in part,
“Our call is to be a “Seekers community” which comes together in weekly worship rooted in the Biblical faith, with shared leadership; and disperses with a common commitment to understand and implement Christian servanthood in the structures in which we live our lives. . . . We are committed to evoking and giving space to new gifts of preaching, liturgical leadership, creative worship forms, giving, mission and other acts of faith.” [The Call of Seekers Church]
If we have acknowledged from our beginning that creativity in worship is an important part of our life together, it should be just a short step to see a call to honor creativity in all parts of our life as a Christian faith community. My student and friend, Sue Mink, just completed her Master of Theological Studies thesis, The Cosmic Artist: Creativity and the Character of God. In it, she argues that creativity is one of the attributes of the image of God in which we are made. Although human creativity is not limited to the arts, the work of the artist is often seen as a paradigm of creativity as well as spiritual growth. Sue writes,
“If we then accept that the cosmos is in the midst of creation, the vision of the New Creation, the finished work, is heaven. When an artist starts to work, he or she has a blank canvas in from of him or her, and a vision of a finished work. As the artist works, this vision is replicated on the canvas, but if the work is to have any life, it is never exact to the vision. Even the most measured brushstrokes are never the same. If one accepts the concept of continuing creation, this is how God is creating here and now. God has the vision of the New Creation that God is replicating, but because of chaos and free will, God is deeply involved in creatively adapting the vision to the canvas of the cosmos.” [p. 10]
Writing of the creative process, Sue writes that the creative process has “two parts: the hard part and the long part. The hard part is the struggle to develop and solidify an idea, and the long part is the actual implementation of that idea. Discipline is crucial in each part. Without the hard part, the finished produce is hackneyed and unimaginative, and without the long part, even the greatest idea remains merely an idea.” [p. 14]
While I agree with the notion in principle, I would argue that the “hard part” and the “long part” recur cyclically throughout the creative process, as they do in life, generally. I find, repeatedly, that during the “long part” (which I tend to refer to as “donkey work”), problems continually arise. I make mistakes, or something does not work as I imagine it will. This is what David referred to recently as Holy Chaos, when nothing is as certain as it once seemed, and there are threatening enemies at every turn. When this happens, I must return to the “hard part,” and learn to see in a new light that takes into account all of what has come before. Then, once again, but with new vision, I actually have to do what I have seen, step by often-tedious step, like grinding stones into powder. It is in this cyclical pattern of Holy Chaos, new light and donkeywork that the ground-up stones of materiality begin to reveal the glory of God.
Creativity is not the sole province of artists, but rather an essential part of who we are. If we understand our Christian calling as limited to the mere alleviation of suffering, we risk leaving out much of what makes life worth living. It is no accident that we are made in such a way that food can taste delicious, that hugging and kissing feel good, that dogwoods and redbuds delight our eyes, that pulsing rhythms make us tap our feet and want to dance. Creativity is that which allows us to know beauty, joy and pleasure in the world in which we live. It is the way we participate in the wonder of the world that God made and called “good.”
Jesus said, “If you know me, you know the One I call Father.” That One is the Creator God, in whose image we are all made as creative beings. Whatever our specific gifts, however we understand our call to implement Christian servanthood in the structures in which we live our lives, all of us are called to be living stones, allowing ourselves to be built into a spiritual house. In that house, all are not only welcome, but also celebrated, in all of their incarnate materiality. In claiming the creativity to which God calls us, we can help the world to see the heavens open, as Jesus did. As the eternally created and creating Body of Christ, we can reveal the glory of God through the multi-colored pigments made from the ground-up stones of our lives.