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.