Once again I find myself thinking about Peggy Way’s “fact of glass.” She uses this line, borrowed from a poem, to describe human reluctance to accept fragility and finitude. The poem, “Up Against It” by Eamon Grennon, describes the difficulties bees have sorting out this fact of glass. We humans have the same struggle with our mortality. These days, I find myself keeping company with grief, fragility, and glimpses of finitude. It hurts when I bump against this fact of glass, those none too gentle reminders that my days are no more endless than anyone else’s. This knowledge sits right next to grief, waiting for me to notice and respond.
Yet, I notice other things, too. Last night as I was driving home, there was a rainbow tinted so pink with the sunset that I almost missed it. On my drive in this morning, an eagle hunted for fish over the Mississippi. On a lunchtime walk with my dog, I could almost hear the spinning of the autumn leaves as they fell to the ground. Miraculous beauty surrounds me. How often have I not seen the beauty of creation because I’ve been distracted with my own fragility, or that of another? How often have I thought my own concerns were more urgent than the need to see God’s creative hand still at work in the world? How often have I run headlong into the glass only to look up and see God’s grace? It would have been easier, if I’d looked up first.
Perhaps this was part of the trouble with the Pharisee Jesus spoke of in Luke’s Gospel. Maybe he wasn’t so smugly righteous as it would seem. Maybe his attention was on the wrong things. He wanted to be sure he was doing all the right things to please God and, in his perfectionism, maybe just forgot to look up. He could look around and see there were others around him engaging in unseemly behavior and he could feel more secure in his law-abiding life. Yet, he could do nothing to slow the years weighing on his body, or to make peace with an uncertain future. Perhaps he thought that doing all the right things could keep him safe. Perhaps this was his way of engaging with the fact of glass. If he had had a little more humility, he might have recognized the same struggle in the tax collector hiding in the corner.
Maybe that Pharisee hadn’t come up against the fact of glass often enough to see the need for humility. The tax collector probably had. After all, the tax collector was seen as a sinner by the religious elite, and wasn’t particularly welcomed by anyone else. A Jew would probably not have entered into the employ of Rome if he had another viable option for making money. Whatever the hardships, the challenges, the tax collector faced, he recognized his place in the world and his need for mercy. Did he also recognize that he was as worthy of that mercy as the Pharisee was?
Humility helps us keep things in balance. It does not let our fears or our victories fool us into thinking we are unworthy of God or more worthy than others. Humility allows us to bump against the glass and reach out a hand to others, to steady ourselves and our neighbors. Humility allows us to look up and to look around, see God at work in the world and in the lives of those around us. Humility reminds us that we are truly “fearfully and wonderfully made” and in acute need of grace, always. Humility says that no matter what we achieve or what we fail, from God’s perspective our lives have the same value as the person sitting next to us on the bus, on the train, in the theater, in church, and anywhere else we might go.
As I sit with grief, contemplate my need for a pacemaker, accompany those who suffer in body, mind, and spirit, and marvel at the beauty of creation, a renewed sense of humility allows me to breathe. There is no point in asking “why me?” for any of it. The reason why is less important than the meaning I make of it all. I am not alone. None of us are. For the moment, I am thankful that as I’ve come up against the fact of glass once again it knocked some sense into me. I have looked up. I have looked around. Beauty and awe and majesty are on full display. And I’m lucky enough to have a part in it. Yes, we are all fragile and finite. It is also true that this fact of glass isn’t all there is to living. May we all be humble enough to recognize, if even for a moment, our places in the wonder of Creation…
For sermon help, or at least other thoughts on the text, try here.
RCL – Year C – Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost – October 27, 2019
Joel 2:23-32 with Psalm 65 or
Sirach 35:12-17 or Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22 with Psalm 84:1-7 and
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18