by Michael Usey, 2 Cor 4.15-18, NRSV
This week we begin our fall worship series entitled Evolve. By examining several key words in our faith, we hope to show that by God’s wild spirit we are being redeemed. And we invite you to answer this question, How has your faith changed in the last 10 years? How have your thoughts about God and life evolved in the last 15 years? How has God transformed your words and deeds from 20 years ago? We’d like you to take a brief look back 10, 15, or 20 years, and write briefly about how your mind, heart, and spirit has changed. What changed in your faith journey, and why? How have you evolved? We hope to share these every week going forward.
In the midst of another terrible week in America–filled with innumerable Western wildfires and 200,000 covid deaths–I’ve been thinking about two statements. First, Irenaeus’s famous phrase, “The glory of God is the human fully alive.” Then something Patsy Kendall said to me this week, “We in America have lost all sanity, wisdom, and courage.”
Patsy is right: We have lost so much. To some degree, we have lost human touch and face-to-face interactions. Zoom is no substitute for sharing the same room. Someone suggested we stop calling it working from home and start calling it living at work. There is for many of us the loss of the camaraderie of a good office.
Relationships too are harder. Our masked visits to the grocery store are not uplifting social experiences. Cloth hides our faces and muffles our voices. Smiles are almost invisible. Children are losing much of the school experience— making friends as well as learning math. We are losing important events. Online graduations and weddings are better than nothing, but it is not the same. We have lost the trips we would have taken, and the trips we imagine we would have taken. We feel homesick—homesick for the home we cannot get back to, and homesick for the part of our family that is somewhere we have not been in too long.
We are tired of baking bread and cleaning closets. We have learned that going to the gym is better than thirty minutes on an elliptical. We are surrounded by worry, frustration, and disappointment. We are worried that someone we love may get sick or die. We are frustrated because we cannot make people do the things they should do to keep us all safe.
We are disappointed because we thought we would be back to normal by now. The days bleed into weeks, and weeks into months. We feel a little guilty for feeling bad about our losses when we compare them to what others have lost—even though we know it is not helpful to measure levels of loss. We are going through a global moment of loss. In our country, thousands have died whose deaths could have been avoided. People have lost loved ones and not been able to have a funeral. We are carrying all these losses, large and small. We are carrying them individually, but we are also carrying them at the same time. Many of us have a history of grief that piles up during hard times. Grief revisits and past losses echo back with surprising force. You are sitting at your table and find yourself thinking about your father who died years ago. Tears run down your cheeks, and you’re not sure where that came from.
We have days that start well, and then descend into despair. We like to solve problems, but we cannot fix this one. We like moving on to the next thing yet the promise of the end keeps moving farther away. We feel tired because grief is exhausting. Just when we think the sad moments are getting farther apart, grief shows up again.
There are so many losses—from the structure of our days to a sudden crash of what felt like solid careers, plans, and dreams. After a traumatic event, people often blame themselves. Even if it is a pandemic—which makes no sense. The sadness we feel is complicated. Therapists often have to convince patients that it is the situation that is crazy and not them (Pauline Boss). This situation is indeed crazy. Part of the pain is the loss of the illusion of control. We thought we were in charge of our lives—and we are not. We used to get to decide where we would go and what we would do. We are grieving the end of what we thought was ours to keep.
This tsunami of grief brought to mind Paul’s words in 2 Cor 4.15-18, verses I memorized as a young man:
Everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
Here is Paul, writing to his friends in Corinth, asking them not to lose heart when it seems like all of life is swirling the bowl–precisely because God in Christ is busy renewing and transforming us in ways that we cannot precisely understand. God was causing them to evolve, to grow and change, despite whatever might be happening to their body.
I have a friend who is an Episcopal priest in Seattle. At every baptism, confirmation, and reception, the parish gives the person baptized, confirmed or received a Prayer Book. He typically inscribes it with the words of Irenaeus, a 2nd century church father: “The glory of God is the human fully alive.” Gloria Dei est vivens homo! St. Irenaeus was bishop of Lyons in what is now France in the last quarter of the 2nd century. This quote is an excerpt from his monumental work written about 185 CE, Against Heresies. It’s a wonderful and curious phrase (and much ink has been spilled arguing over the exact correct translation): God’s glory is a fully alive human. What could that possibly mean?
What does it mean to you to be fully alive? What does that suggest in your imagination? Let me ask you to pause the sermon here to either consider it on your own, or perhaps to discuss it briefly with the people listening with you. What does it mean to you to be fully alive? What might this phrase mean, “The glory of God is the human fully alive”? I’ll wait.
I believe that Paul (in the 2 Cor verses) and Irenaeus do not have self-improvement in mind. They have self-sacrifice in mind. This is not their agenda, and it is not ours either. Jesus’ brand of good news is bad news to anyone who wants an easy life. The life Jesus lives—caring for others—is out of step. Who wants to live with a constant tension between what we think of as happiness and what we think of as hard? It is hard to follow Christ when the world is filled with hurting people. It is hard to follow Christ with compassion for those whose opinions we find bankrupt when they feel the same way about our opinions. It is hard to follow Christ when everything in our culture pushes us to avoid what is hard.
What God finds truly glorious is not some idea of perfection that eschews the limitations of the flesh or denies mortality. What God finds glorious, even luminous, are human beings like you and like me living fully into our humanity.
Do you know the story of Dan Prince? He’s the boss who took a whopping $1 million pay cut so that he could raise the salaries of his staff; he said last week that his business has been flourishing. Price is the CEO of Seattle-based Gravity Payments, cut down his own wages by more than 90% in 2015 so that his employees could get a minimum salary of $70,000. Since making the decision, Price says that the company has flourished, the business is tripling, turnover has dropped by half, and all his employees are enjoying better lives.
“When I started a $70k minimum wage for my company in 2015 Rush Limbaugh said: ‘I hope this company is a case study in MBA programs on how socialism does not work, because it’s gonna fail’. Since then our company tripled and we’re a successful case study at Harvard Business School,” Price said in a tweet on Sept 1.
He documented the ways in which, not only his business has boomed, but also the lives of his employees have improved. He said that the staff who own homes has increased 10 times and 70% of the employees have been able to pay off their debts.
“Before the $70,000 minimum wage, we were having between zero and two babies born per year among the team. And since the announcement – and it’s been only about 4.5 years – we’ve had more than 40 babies,” Price told BBC in an interview earlier this year. Price says that the decision didn’t affect the motivation of the employees; instead it increased their capability.
“When money is not at the forefront of your mind when you’re doing your job, it allows you to be more passionate about what motivates you,” Rosita Barlow, director of sales at Gravity, said. She added, “You’re not thinking I have to go to work because I have to make money. Now it’s become focused on ‘How do I do good work?’
I think Jesus is a huge fan of people like Dan Price, humans fully alive. We each can find our own way, since most of us are not CEOs. We can be creative in finding ways to bless others, improve their hurting stressful lives, in big ways and small. I don’t have answers to the terrible and serious problems facing us now, but I do agree with Paul that our inner nature is being renewed day by day, and with Irenaeus, that God’s glory is someone fully alive, living for and giving to others.
The final words of this sermon are from C. S. Lewis’ famous sermon on this biblical text entitled “The Weight of Glory” (on which I wrote a paper at Baylor undergrad many moons ago). Lewis wrote:
It is in light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit. … Next to [communion] itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.
The glory of God is the human being fully alive. Amen.