Seeing the glory of God, Last Sunday After the Epiphany/World Mission Sunday (A) – 2008

February 3, 2008

Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2 or Psalm 99; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Matthew 17:1-9

Episcopalians get it about glory; that the glory of God is the hidden flesh-and-blood truth about everybody, everywhere. Therefore proclaiming the glory of the incarnation is the business we are in. Which is to say that we – every parish, diocese, province, person – are in the business of healing, and feeding, and serving, and loving, and respecting the dignity of every human being in God’s glory-haunted world.
Anglicans have always gotten it about glory, at least on our better days. This is our charism: to know that glory is the deepest truth for everyone, everywhere. Glory is the wonder-filled transfiguring end of all people and all creation, not just a platitude to sing about or an unimportant side product of a guilt-ridden religion. We live into that transfiguring, glorious truth one particular person and place at a time.

One particular Mount Sinai, one particular glory place, is the International Community School in East Atlanta. Half of the kids are from red Georgia clay. And half of the kids are refugee children from every war-torn country you can think of.

Here’s what occurred there on one particular afternoon. It looked like some kind of glorious game of red rover; red rover with two lines of kids facing each other across a beaten-down, bare-earth playground. The winter sun lit every little face, the glowing beauty of dark, and dusky, and pale, and every shade on earth, for the children are from thirty-plus countries. They were giggling in every language you can imagine, and it was clear they understood each other. Every one was jumping up and down and flapping their arms enthusiastically like those guys who stand signaling in front of planes. Almost every shirttail was flapping, too.

The Bosnian teacher, a former refugee, grinned and said again and again, “WONNNE, DOOOOO, TREEEEEE,” and one child and then another raced toward the other line of kids who stood there cheering, and clapping, and calling him in until he joined them, whooping, and dancing, and now somehow a part of the other line.

It was hard to figure out what the point of the game was, since plain old American red rover is supposed to be about standing with your arms locked keeping the “other” out of your territory. But here – on this tiny campus for 350 children – a dream for children of otherness has come true. In the dream of the International Community School, over and over, you let the other in and it looks like everybody from everywhere wins. Glory be to God.

Here’s the story of one of the people behind the transfigured red rover game.

Barbara Thompson is a founder of the International Community School. It may not have been her life plan to found a school for refugee kids, but after long years of friendship with her, it’s obvious that she has moments when the glory comes glimmering, and she follows.

She started out as a freelance writer. For years she would do articles or books for people or businesses about some subject that they wanted to spread around. She would go through her days, writing well, being a good citizen and friend, living a fairly useful and responsible life, an orderly writer’s life. But every once in a while she would say to herself, “You know, I have this funny feeling. I think my life is smaller than I am. I just think my life is smaller than I am.”

And somehow she got stuck on the story about what happens to kids in war – in Uganda or maybe Nicaragua. And that relentless and sickening old story just kept coming back – the brutality of family displacement, and the maiming and killing of children in national and international power plays. The story just would not go away; it stayed in her head and troubled her at night and she would question, “Why is the world like this? What possible reason could be right enough to have as a collateral the killing of children and the destruction of families and communities?”

In the ’90s she went to Bosnia while the war there was still raging, chasing this same story of children of war. Then she came to Georgia to interview Bosnian refugee children and teenagers for a national magazine article. She was working on a tight deadline on this article, and she had given her number to the kids she interviewed in case they thought of anything else they wanted to say. Sure enough, she was working and writing when the phone rang. It was a young girl’s troubled, soft voice, twisting around unfamiliar English words, and the girl asked “Could you come meet my family?”

Barbara said, “Well, you see, I’m working on this very important article. You know, the one about children of war. And so I’m very busy. I’m really very, very busy.”

And there was a pause. An intense quietness.

And somehow there was a moment. And a glory light glimmered. And Barbara knew to look up from her article and arise and follow the girl’s invitation.

She went to a dark little apartment, which some understaffed refugee resettlement organization had found for the family and then just left them there: little food, one light, no table, no chairs, no bed, no extra clothes, the adults with no English. Just a totally lost and demoralized Bosnian family: a grandmamma, and a mama, and a daddy, and their little child, and two teens – all of them sitting on the bare floor, since there was no place else to sit.

And the writer sat there with them on the floor, even though, you know, she was on deadline for this very important article on children of war. And they talked haltingly, and they smiled together, and something began to glow. She saw whatever it is we see in people that makes them real, and deep, and beautiful, and worth troubling over. I believe it is that we see the glory of the face of Christ in them.

And she made some calls on her cell phone. And you know what happened.

Gifts came from her friends and her church, gifts of furniture, and food, and light, and love, and friendship for the strangers, for the aliens. You have seen the glory of this gifting in your church and your diocese. It happens everywhere, through everyone in the Episcopal church. You could name a dozen glowing moments in your own congregation and diocese. Surely that is the best reason why we join together.

But back to this particular story. From that one evening, Barbara and her gang helped refugee family, after family, after family, after family get on their feet and find jobs and even buy homes in this bountiful land, where almost all of us – except the ones who came in chains – came from some place that wasn’t safe for us or where we weren’t particularly wanted or needed.

The years went by, and Barbara handed off the refugee resettlement ministry, though she kept the friends. And she went back to a simple, orderly writer’s life. But every once in a while she had that little nagging thought again, “I think my life is smaller than I am.”

And one night she went to Columbia Seminary to hear Walter Brueggemann, and the class was getting ready to start, and there was one seat left in an auditorium of 120 seats, and it was next to her. A man sat down, and they listened to one of Dr. Brueggemann’s amazing lectures, and they spoke a little bit at the break. She found out that the man was the principal of a well-known private school. When the break ended, they went back to listening to the lecture, and when the lecture was over, the man went to head out one door, and she headed toward another exit. And he turned around in the door and looked back at her, and she looked at him, and there was this glimmering moment.

What hidden possibilities of glory did they see to make these words tumble out?

Barbara said, “By the way, if you are ever interested in starting a school for refugee children let me know.”

And Bill Moon said – standing backlit in an exit doorway on his way out – said, “For twenty-five years I’ve been wanting to start a school for refugee children.”

And they looked at each other in the glow of the light of Christ. And their lives were transfigured in a dazzling moment of the eternal Yes.

And they did start a school: the International Community School. Kindergarten through sixth grade, an amazing place, with teachers from public schools and private schools and college volunteers, and adult refugees – classroom assistants who were dodging bombs and burying their dead all over the world in years gone by. Barbara, along with her chance companion, then joined by a nun, and then many others, brought their histories together and their anguish for the children of the world, and a new thing sprung forth. They knew that their love for children everywhere has to find its incarnation in some particular place with some particular children. And a miracle for refugee children and their families has happened in Decatur, Georgia.

Because that’s the way glory works isn’t it? In a God-given moment that you didn’t expect and couldn’t have planned, your life opens up and up, and out and out, and you find yourself following the glimmering of some holy light to a glorious place you never knew – where you can give your gifts and receive the holy gifts of others – by the Love of God, through the Grace of Christ, in the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

You never know. There are these moments glowing with glorious possibility, of transfiguring power – for each of us, if we will just notice. You never know when. You never know where. For though it is true, the glory of the Lord is everywhere, human beings need to see it somewhere in somebody in particular.

And when we do see the glory of the Lord gleaming in somebody, then everybody else we see has glorious possibilities as well.
— The Rev. Martha Sterne, associate rector of Holy Innocents’ Episcopal Church in Atlanta, Ga., has authored two collections of stories and meditations, “Earthly Good” (OSL Publications, 2003) and “Alive and Loose in the Ordinary” (Morehouse Publishing, 2006). Before arriving at Holy Innocents’ in 2007, Martha served as the eighth rector of St. Andrew’s Church in Maryville, Tenn., and as associate rector of All Saints’ Church, Atlanta.

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