Friday, February 23, 2007

What's with the Veil?

Scripture referred-to in this sermon:
Exodus 34:29-35
II Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-36

I’m intrigued by that veil on Moses’ face. I notice that St. Paul is, too, enough that he uses the image of a veil when he writes to the church at Corinth. What’s with this veil?

You remember that Moses was Israel’s emissary to God, and God’s emissary to Israel. That was a dangerous demanding role, being the first and greatest reconciler in Hebrew history. Drawing his refugee people into a covenant relationship with God was like herding cats (an image often used to describe what it’s like to organize Episcopalians). And bringing down from Mt. Sinai the expectations God has for covenant relationship went over so badly, you’ll recall, that Moses barely got to the edge of his people’s camp before the sounds from that keg party convinced him that his people had broken the law of God even before receiving it. I can’t help imagining our Presiding Bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, having a special fond spot for Moses.

But as far as I know, her episcopal wardrobe doesn’t include a veil for her face. That’s not to say that some of her 37 colleagues, heads of national Anglican churches around the globe, wouldn’t like her to wear a veil—they met last week in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, with no certainty that some of those 37 men wouldn’t refuse to treat a woman as their equal. But news reports—slim as they’ve been—suggest that (until a certain point) the boys behaved themselves, and Katharine, our Presiding Bishop, took her place among them. Perhaps it helped that thirteen of the 37 were also brand new at being primates. But yes, there came a point when some of these archbishops were, well, arch, an Elizabethan word that can mean “roguish”. I think that the Archbishops of Nigeria, Southeast Asia, Kenya, West Africa, Uganda, the Southern Cone of South America, and Rwanda—seven of the 37, earned that other sense of “arch” when they refused to receive Holy Communion with their fellow Primates, alleging that they were “unable to come to the Holy Table with the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church because to do so would be a violation of Scriptural teaching and the traditional Anglican understanding.”

Neither Anglican tradition, nor holy scripture, nor God appears to have much of a chance to say anything new to these leaders. While you and I may not see divine light shining from their actions, I expect that the great majority of their people do. And there is no veil over what these seven men have said in their explanation. The burning issues in our present Anglican Divide are how we read the scriptures and how we understand tradition.

Moses was brand new to any vocation beyond shepherding when he noticed a burning bush that caused him to turn aside in wonder, and there his calling came. Notice how that is a story about a dazzling light. This theme repeats itself in what we hear today, that after Moses had spoken face to face with God (the only human being of whom this is said in the Hebrew scriptures), his face shone.

This frightened the Israelites, who were afraid to come near him. Wouldn’t you guess that this might have been both a blessing and a burden to Moses? On the one hand, it did capture everyone’s attention: their eyes were fixed on their leader. On the other hand, it terrified them and they fled. Those cats just got harder to herd.

So he starts wearing a veil. He takes it off when he talks to God, and he takes it off when he talks to the people. Otherwise, he covers his face. Did that make it somehow easier for people to walk with him, meet with him, at least not run screaming when he rounded the corner?

But notice that he took that veil off when he addressed the people. He let that light shine. And why not? It was God’s word that he was delivering to them, so they got the full monty, radiance and all.

Light doesn’t need a whole lot of explaining as a religious symbol, does it? Enlightenment, enthusiasm, radiance, the halo or nimbus or aura showing the spirit’s presence…

But more is meant here. As we come to the end of this season of Epiphany (a Greek word that means revealing, manifesting, showing forth), a season that opened with the radiance of a great star in the northwest sky over Bethlehem, this light emanating from Moses’s face shines with all the power, significance, authority, and danger of God’s glory, without which Israel could not be Israel. That pithy statement is made by Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, who teaches at a United Church of Christ seminary in Georgia. His words go far to describe what’s happening in our Gospel today, Luke’s story of the transfiguration, the final Epiphany story before we land in Lent. The dazzling light coming from Jesus on the mountain shines with all the power, significance, authority, and danger of God’s glory, without which Jesus could not be the Christ. And without him, we could not be in covenant relationship with God.

That is the message of St. Paul, writing to the church at Corinth. There is, he says, a second covenant opportunity in Christ, and that is the hope he mentions, hope that moves us to act boldly. No veil will cover the radiant light that is in Jesus Christ: it is there for all to see. Moses was God’s emissary to Israel and Israel’s emissary to God, but Jesus Christ is more than emissary: he bears the glory of God as though reflected in a mirror that all are allowed to see into, and, seeing, be transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.

On the south transept portal of the cathedral in Strasbourg stand the figures of two women. One is lady Church, the other lady Synagogue. Lady Church stands tall and looks out confidently, carrying a staff topped by a cross and holding a chalice representing Christ’s blood. Lady Synagogue stands across from her, head bowed and blindfolded, veiled, suggesting moral ignorance. Often, says Boston University Professor of New Testament J. Paul Sampley, a Methodist, such images of Lady Synagogue also include a crown falling from her head or depict her dropping the stone tablets of the law.

Sampley says that this is not what Paul meant by two covenants. He thinks that Paul wouldn’t want us to judge the first covenant, the one that Moses brokered, harshly as the following centuries of Christendom have done. And we can’t afford to contribute one more layer of grafitti bearing anti-Semitic messages to the world, and we can’t do that in the name of Christ without tarnishing his name.

But when Paul reaches into the Moses story, he puts a dark twist on the veil. Its purpose is to keep Israel from noticing “the end of the glory that was being set aside,” and “that same veil is still there… when they hear the reading of the old covenant… since only in Christ is it set aside. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.”

When these words were written, in the first century, it made unique sense to claim that Moses was running out of steam, losing his appeal. Christianity was still a movement within Judaism. This movement was boldly edging out into the wider world of the Gentiles, and Paul was the bright light of this radical open-mindedness, this liberality that allowed Gentiles a covenant relationship with God through the second covenant brokered by Jesus. Paul’s astonishing message is that this second covenant is inclusive of all people who, seeing the glory of God in Jesus, want to be transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. Paul’s twin tasks were, first, to persuade Jews that as much as there is appealing in the old covenant, there is ever so much more appeal in the new covenant; and, second, to persuade non-Jews that this same new covenant that sums up the law and the prophets is thrown open to them and does not require them first to become Jews.

To read Paul with awareness of his twin missionary purposes is to catch the excitement of the new creation that is in Jesus Christ, in whom God is freeing and uniting into one our splintered human race, enslaved and divided by sin. What is required is that we renounce all power and glory that draw us away from the love of God, that we choose and embrace Jesus Christ as the way, the truth, and the life, and that we allow ourselves to be changed into his likeness by his Spirit working in us and among us.

But we must carefully watch that word “required”. Nothing helps us do this better than holy baptism. It is the lifting of a veil, showing us radiant love from God who does not wait for us to get it right, God whose own nature is applied to us, God who calls each of us Beloved, God who flashes before us the stature of his own Word made flesh, Jesus, declares that we are in the realm of Christ because he says we are, invites us, calls us, to come close to that burning love which does not consume us but ignites us to shine with the radiance of Christ.

In the rite of holy baptism which we celebrate today, we are about to watch God lift a veil, showing glimpses of spirit and truth deeper than the life of our bodies, though sanctuaried within them. Revealed when this veil is raised will be a belonging that trumps the claims of any and all relationships while requiring that we honor each relationship, a belonging that completes our power to do our best while immersing us in the mercy that must do when we cannot. Shown in these moments of sacrament when blindfolds come off is love’s origin, love’s purpose, love’s renewal, in human faces shining, reflecting a light not our own except by sheer gift.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

In Memoriam: The Rev. Sinclair D. Hart

Homily at the memorial service, 3 February 2007
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Williamstown, MA
The Rev. Peter Elvin

This prayer is a combination of two written by Sinc and given as table graces at gatherings of the Williams Sideline Quarterback Club. Let us pray:

O God, who has taught us to lift up our eyes unto the hills,
where we find great symbols of your strength and power,
We thank you for planting us in this valley, where town and gown can meet
in mutual respect and enthusiastic support…
You are always present to us, whether in victory or defeat.
We thank you for the gifts, physical and spiritual, that you have given us.
Grant that we may learn to use them to the fullest extent, winning or losing.
Coach us, good Lord, to live victoriously,
that in all our ups and downs we may show forth your praise
and give honor and glory to you throughout all our days.
In your name we pray. Amen.

Now I ask you to hear words from another Anglican preacher, John Donne:

A man is thy Neighbour, by his Humanity not by his Divinity;
by his Nature, not by his Religion:
A Virginian is thy neighbor, as well as a Londoner;
and all men are in every good man’s Diocese, and Parish.

Those may not be John Donne’s most famous words, but they are among his boldest, spoken on Easter Monday in 1622, shortly after London had heard of the massacre of a great number of English settlers by Virginia’s native Americans. And it was they whom he meant, when he insisted “A Virginian is thy neighbor.”

Such courageous insistence marks the vision of the just and truly peaceable. We heard it in Isaiah today, declaring that all peoples will find their place at a feast that God will prepare, and will find one another revealed as neighbors by God’s removal of the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the fear and mistrust that infect and tear apart the human race. Prophetic souls in every generation have dared to have this dream. It was voiced in the 17th century by another Anglican divine, Thomas Traherne:

I bless thee for the communion of saints…
Every one the entire and perfect friend of all the rest,
Every one the joy of each other’s soul,
Every one the light and ornament of thy kingdom,
Every one thy peculiar friend, yet loving every one as thy peculiar friend,
And rejoicing in the pleasures and delights of every one!
O my God, make me one of that happy assembly.

Begun in baptism, that making, that befriending unto God, is a full life’s work spent investing our humanity in our neighbors and our trust in God. Yet it is work completed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, when the mortal body puts on immortality. We heard Paul say it today, and the victory he sings about is, he insists, given to us through our Lord Jesus Christ. What looks and feels like our work is, in truth, God’s work, God’s gift to us received by faith: Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life…

What a parson spends an adult lifespan working on is summed up by St. Paul writing to the Galatians: …the only thing that counts is faith working through love.

We are here today to thank God for how we, and a far greater company than could fit with us here, have been touched by a parson, husband, father, grandfather, friend, neighbor who knew what St. Paul knew, and believed what Jesus said, and was ever ready to work with God through his humanity and his nature. He knew what the priest and poet George Herbert knew, that “people by what they understand, are best led to what they understand not,” that the best preaching requires “dipping, and seasoning all our words and sentences in our hearts, before they come into our mouths,” that “particulars ever touch, and awake more than generals,” and that “A verse may find him, who a sermon flies…”

The only thing that counts is faith working through love. New life in Christ starts with the faith that brought us to the font. Being made one of that happy assembly of the communion of saints starts there, continues in partnership between family and resurrection community making, forming, modeling, teaching, befriending in us a lively sense of God, showing the gift of love in the Word made flesh, introducing to us the work of investing humanity in our neighbors and trust in God whose Spirit yearns to grow in us a power to love that is stronger than death because it is the love of God that in Jesus Christ has passed from death to life, swallowing up death in victory.

We thank God for Sinc, who treasured the gift and the work of the Spirit, and showed how the gift is not lost to illness or the nearing of death, and how the work may be done at all times and in all places, in a nursing home, from a wheelchair, in a letter to a friend more gravely ill than he, by a phone call on a birthday. And how it is for God to complete the greater work, the One who united us to himself in Christ drawing us, through the death of the perishable body, to the perfection of that new life that has been pure gift from the very start, holding us when we could not hold it.

Now hear some verse, John Donne praying:

Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening,
into the house of God and gate of heaven
that we may dwell in that place
where there is no cloud nor sun,
no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light,
no noise nor silence, but one equal music,
no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession,
no foes nor friends, but one equal communion and identity,
no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity;
and keep us, Lord, so awake in the duties of our callings
that we may sleep in your peace and wake in your glory
to an unending possession of that realm
which your Son our Savior Jesus Christ
has purchased for us with the price of his own blood.

I will end with another of Sinc’s table graces, written at the Feast of All Saints, seven years ago. He refers, I think, to seniors in their last season on the Williams football team… but we will hear these words more broadly:

As today we celebrate those who have been among us for a while,
and who now are preparing for the next stage along their way,
may each one of us, at whatever stage,
open our hearts to the knowledge and love of God.
And, as our ways are blessed from above,
may we honor God by the way we live.