In Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous last speech, he ended it by saying he wasn’t worried. He was happy, he wasn’t afraid of anybody. “Mine eyes have seen the glory,” he said. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
He was quoting a hymn, of course, the hymn some of us know as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” But he was doing more than simply quoting a hymn, since its tune and its words had strong, powerful associations with them. The tune was a folk tune, from an old spiritual especially loved and sung by African American soldiers in the Union Army during the Civil War. There were a number of different words to the song, and the soldiers would change them, depending on the context and the audience. Whichever words were used, no matter the context, when other African Americans and people yearning for freedom heard the tune, they recognized it as a freedom song, and heard notes for a new day.
At some level that tune was playing in the background as Julia Ward Howe met with President Abraham Lincoln in 1861. Based on that trip and on her own passion for peace, abolition, and women’s suffrage, Howe wrote new words to the tune, making the hymn that is familiar to many today. Whether it was the songs sung by soldiers, or Howe’s words, or words used since, the refrain is the same: “Glory, glory, hallelujah.“
Glory becomes its own prayer. There’s an urgency to it, like a fight song for a victory you can almost taste, because you want it so bad. But in that same cry for glory there’s also a sense of already having tasted a bit of what is to come. As Dr. King said, he’d been to the mountaintop and looked over. His faith told him what was possible. His faith helped him see what was inevitable, and the idea of “glory” helped get him there.
But what is the “glory” of God? What do we mean? What are we singing about?
Today’s Gospel gives us a hint. There, in the midst of a crowd, in the midst of a huge party, a wedding with lots of in-laws, and probably a few out-laws and wedding-crashers, there is Jesus. Jesus and his mother, Mary. A minor crisis occurs when it looks like they’ve run out of wine. So Mary urges Jesus to do something. Though he seems almost to talk back to her (the interchange sounds more abrupt in English than intended) Jesus does it. He acts. He goes through with what John the Evangelist describes as the first of his “signs.”
And then John, the Gospel we hear today, puts all of this into context. He explains that Jesus’s repurposing the jars that were set aside for Jewish purification rites, turning water into wine, putting marriage in the context of a communal relation— all of this works together as a sign “that reveals his glory.” It reveals not only Christ’s glory, but the glory of God.
The glory of God shimmers at the edges of perception. At first glance, looking dead-on at a situation, things seem to be one way. In the Gospel, the problem is clear: there’s no more wine. But the Virgin Mary can see that just at the edge of things, a little to the side, something is ready to break in, and that something is not of this world—it’s beyond the ordinary, beyond our hoping, beyond our imagining. It’s something that comes from a place of faith in “what can be.” What ought to be. What might be.
It’s Mary who first points to glory. She sees it in Jesus, but it’s that same glimmer she must have seen when Gabriel first hovered overhead. She saw it in the humble love of Joseph, who believed not only the angel, but also believed Mary. She saw glory shine in the faces of Anna and Simeon as they held the Christ. Mary saw glory at Cana, and she would see it again on Calvary: the glory of God to become more than we might otherwise. The glory of God that enables us to become more loving, more giving, more believing.
Isaiah, John the Evangelist, Mary the Mother of God, and Martin Luther King, Jr. are all saying a similar thing: They’re saying, “don’t get stuck looking down. Don’t get stuck looking at yourself. Don’t get stuck counting the cards you’ve been dealt. There’s more…. Look for the glory and live into it.”
God’s glory is not always easy to live into, and sometimes it gets us in trouble. The Episcopal Church has been trying to live into God’s glory. Again and again, our church has refused to get stuck believing that the wine has dried up, that the old ways are iron-clad, and that the Spirit doesn’t still move. Instead, we’ve opened ourselves to God’s glory, and we’ve been enriched and deepened because of it. In 1976, the Episcopal Church officially approved the ordination of women, and lots of other people got mad. When Barbara Harris was ordained as the first female bishop in the Anglican Communion in 1989, she got death threats, and the Anglican Communion—the loose collection of Anglican national churches, began to get unsettled. The ordination of the first openly gay Bishop Gene Robinson in 2003 turned up the volume of disagreement, and last summer’s Episcopal Church approval of same-sex marriages, just added fuel to the flame. As you may have read or heard in the news this week, many Anglicans in other parts of the world are angry with us and they’re angry for a variety of reasons. For churches that have historically been the victims of colonization, this allows an opportunity to strike back at what they label “cultural imperialism.” In some cases, it also allows some of those churches to ignore their own country’s problems of corruption, polygamy, poverty, and continued issues of human slavery and sex-trafficking. In other cases, the Episcopal Church’s openness and honesty puts a bright light on the hypocrisy and faulty logic that keeps power structures in place. And so, with great verbal fanfare, the Anglican Communion has basically put the Episcopal Church in a kind of ecclesiastical “time out.”
But without meaning to sound arrogant or self-righteous, I would simply point out that by being punished for living out the full Gospel of Jesus Christ—one of welcome and joy and inclusion—we are in pretty good company. We’re living toward the glory of God, with outcasts and protesters, with saints and martyrs, with people like Julia Ward Howe and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barbara Harris, and many, many more.
In today’s Gospel, the Virgin Mary says very clearly how we live into God’s glory. “Look to Jesus,” she says. She says it to the servants, the waiters, the stewards…“Do whatever he tells you.” And she says the same thing to us: Look to Jesus and follow him, wherever that takes you. Do what he did. Love like he loved. Unsettle, unnerve, and upset like Jesus did, all for God’s glory.
Gerard Manley Hopkins saw God’s glory in what he called “dappled things,” in the multitude of God’s making: in trout and fire-coals, in farmlands and trades. He sees God’s glory in
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise him. (“Pied Beauty”)
Praise him, indeed. But we don’t always have Hopkins’ eye for glory in dappled things. In fact, we sometimes can’t seem to see God’s glory at all. It’s beyond. Or, it’s obscured. We can’t find it or even imagine it. But if we pause, if we look to Jesus right where we are, we might begin to see potential, promise, and possibility.
For the scientist, glory might lurk right at that point of refusing to settle for the same old way of doing things, for the given answer and the obvious solution—and so ask Jesus to point you forward look for God’s glory to help.
For the businessperson it might come with risk—not the kind of risk to make more simply for the sake of more, but a risk on an entrepreneur, a start-up, an investment that stands a chance of overflowing into social good—so you ask Jesus for help, make your move, say a prayer, and allow God’s glory to do its work.
You might be a teacher and simply can’t get through to a particular student. You’re out of energy and out of tricks. Through prayer, put that child’s hand in the hand of Jesus, and see where God’s glory might lead.
Wherever you may be stuck—whether in a relationship, a habit, an outlook ,… whether you’re looking for a job or stuck in the one you have, we can all of us follow the Virgin Mary’s lead—look to Christ and follow him. Do what he tells us. Do the next right thing in faith, and let God’s glory move and make, love and live.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said his eyes had seen the glory of the Lord. But it was more than that—he saw, and pointed to, and lived into God’s glory with his whole being. On this weekend of celebrations and still with a New Year’s beginnings, may we allow God to use everything we’ve got– our eyes, our mouths, our hearts and hands—everything we are, have been, and may be—to perceive and point to God’s ever-unfolding glory, glory that moves us over the mountaintop, that frees, and that saves into eternal life.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.