All Saints' Unveiled
A Sermon on Transfiguration and Annual Meeting Sunday
She entered the room with beauty and grace, taking the stage where she would be the next speaker. The two men who had gone before her were accomplished authors, and what they said had been well received. They were hard acts for her to follow, and yet, this did not seem to give her the slightest cause for pause. The way she moved to the podium, adorned in her bright dress and colorful scarf, spoke volumes, before she even began. She would be fine. She would be more than fine.
The room became silent, and so did she. Then, she opened her mouth, but did not speak. She sang. She shared an old song, one called a Negro spiritual, a song like this one: Oh, freedom, oh, freedom, Lord / Oh, freedom over me. And before I'd be a slave, I'd be buried in my grave / And come home to my Lord, and be free. She sang three stanzas, unaccompanied, from a place of memory, from the depths of her soul.
Then, she stopped. What's the expression? “The house came down.” Wild applause. “Bravo!” This woman had something we wanted. She was free, totally free to be herself. No longer was Maya Angelou a caged bird. And then, when the room got quiet again, she said, “I can't HELP it if I've GOT the GLOW-RY!” Like Peter and John and James in today's Gospel story, we had seen “the glow-ry” of God.
Do you have a “glory story?” I have told this story many times since I left that gathering in New York City more than twenty years ago. It has become one of the best ways I know to communicate the glorious essence of Epiphany, a liturgical season of the light of Christ that forever longs to shine brightly in our world. Today the light of the Epiphany season comes to an end, as we prepare for Lent, a darker time. Yet there is still light in the darkness, and the song of God's light still wants to sing, in us.
Maya Angelou once said, “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” Changed from glory, a hymn text puts it, into glory. Changes, some of them painful, need to be made, if truly enlightened glory is to come to us. That's sad, but true. How does that actually happen, those changes from bondage and darkness, into freedom and glorious light?
Today's Scriptures give us a clue. All three lessons, from Exodus, Second Corinthians and Luke, tell us something about that light. We who follow Jesus, the transfigured one, who dazzles with his brightness – we who dare to call ourselves Christian need to expose ourselves, more and more, to the light of the transfiguring Christ, who wants to brighten the darkness of our lives, in Lent and beyond.
Here are three questions that emerged for me as I sat with and prayed over these Scriptures. First, there is an unfamiliar image, at least to most men, of wearing a veil. What's going on with these biblical understandings of what a veil is all about? Second, using that image, how do we try to veil or hide ourselves from God and from each other? And third, what would happen if we took off, if we lifted our veils?
In the Exodus story, Moses veiled his face because his brother Aaron and the other Israelites were afraid to come anywhere close to him (34:30). Each time he went before God and then saw their response to his radiance, Moses wanted to protect his people. They just weren't ready for that much exposure to God's glory. So Moses took the veil off just long enough to speak with them and tell them what God commanded.
Jesus, you may remember from the story in Luke's Gospel, did not wear a veil. On the mountain his face was fully exposed to the light and glory of God. And Peter wanted to see that glory, in Jesus, for ever and ever. He longed to build three permanent dwellings or shrines for their Master and the two other glorious men of the faith, Moses and Elijah, who suddenly and mysteriously appeared to talk with Jesus.
The shrines were not to be. And it was not God's light but a cloud that terrified. God's voice, reminiscent of Jesus' baptism, exhorts, “Listen to him” – NOT to Moses or Elijah, who have disappeared. The experience was frightening for Jesus' friends, so much so, “they kept silent and. . .told no one any of the things they had seen” (9:36).
St. Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians, in the part we've just heard, remembers those very different glory stories about Moses and Jesus. But he changes the stories a bit to fit his context and prove his point. I think he proof-texts, which you may remember is a dangerous thing to do, with Holy Scripture or any important text. He claims Jesus is better than Moses, Elijah or anyone else, because Jesus was totally UN-veiled before God on that day of his transfiguration.
The people of Israel, Paul goes on to suggest, were so afraid of God's glory, they really didn't want anything to do with it, let alone share it. He claims their minds – some translations say their hearts – were hardened. A veil lies over their minds and hearts, covering up God's glorious light. This is a light only Christ can reveal, claims Paul, and that is why we must turn and face the Lord, the Spirit of God, who gives us freedom to see the true light of God in Christ.
For me, Christ is indeed the one, true Light. But not every person can make that claim of faith – especially the people of Israel who lived and died before Jesus' time. I think part of the reason some people want to hear the Good News of God in Christ but may never hear it in a church, has to do with the way Paul probably took the Moses story out of context. Or the ways in which Christians easily take Paul's words out of context. Our problem is that sometimes, we want others to “believe” exactly as we do.
Sometimes we abuse our use of the Bible, shaming those who have not yet seen our glorious light. “The most prevalent Christian language in the public square,” says one Christian leader, “is the language of domination” (Kendra Dean). It's the kind of attitude that says, We have the real truth about God. If you behave in the ways we tell you, we might share some of that truth – but not until you prove yourself worthy. Membership and ownership in congregations can become a sense of privilege and entitlement, leading to the kind of arrogance captured in a cartoon about something Episcopalians called the Decade of Evangelism. “Why do we need that?” one person said to another in the cartoon's caption. “Everyone who ought to be an Episcopalian already is one.”
This brings me to my second question: How do we try to hide ourselves from the light of God – and from God's light in each other? How are people of faith, Jewish, Christian or otherwise, afraid of God's light, trying to veil ourselves from the One “from (whom) no secrets are hid. . .” (from the Collect for Purity, prayed each Sunday)?
About a year ago we began a series at All Saints' called “Sacred Conversations.” For several months we discussed how and why we needed to change our worship schedule. More than 100 people participated, engaging in honest, open dialogue about the opportunities and challenges of a new Sunday morning lineup. Along the way we discovered there were lots of people who were not afraid to listen and look at points of view different from their own. I personally witnessed several “eureka” moments, when the proverbial light bulb went on for people, sometimes in their faces. They would stop and say something like, “I never thought of it that way before.”
Those “Sacred Conversations” were a variation on a group process some sociologists call “disruptive engagement” (Brene Brown, Daring Greatly). It's the kind of engaged give-and-take that can actually happen when difficult, even “hot” topics, are discussed in a civil, loving manner, honoring and respecting the light of God in others. There are several tough issues American people of faith need to discuss these days. Religious liberty. Immigration. Marriage equality. Gun violence. But too often, we are uncomfortable with difficult conversations, especially ones we consider sacred. Many folks have never learned how to give and receive honest, constructive feedback. But destructive, even bullying comments in a congregation, like “How dare you, a newcomer, speak in my church?!” or “Get out of my way!” have no place in our common Christian life. What does have a place are words like, “How are you doing? You seem upset.” or “How can I pray for you?” Those are sacred, holy invitations – to let down our guard and to lift our veil, so God's dazzling light can break through.
Here's what I want to say about the state of All Saints' Parish on February 10, 2013: you are learning how to lift the veil. You are beginning to trust God more, while you seek to find the light and the love of God's Spirit. But – and here's the third question – what would happen if we trusted God enough to lift that veil completely? What would All Saints', unveiled, look like? What might that glory story be about?
I have heard there is a statue, on the campus of Tuskegee University in Alabama, of Booker T. Washington, who founded Tuskegee in 1881. Dr. Washington is standing over a slave and lifting a veil, so that the light of education can transfigure the slave's face. The slave, crouched down, has a book in one hand and is using the other hand to help lift the veil. His feet are poised to stand up and move forward, while he looks out into the world, wide-eyed with hope. The caption under the statue was not written for a cartoon. It reads: He lifted the veil of ignorance from his people and pointed the way to progress through education and industry. My sisters and brothers, in Christ, the veil of ignorance and arrogance, of bullying and bondage can still be lifted for us. Indeed, we are lifting it together, for each other, with God's help. For we, the people of God, as a church, are coming to believe these words of St. Paul are meant for us! And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord. . .are being transformed into the same image, from one degree of glory to another. . ..(II Cor. 3:18) May it be so. Thanks be to God. Amen.
—The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
February 10, 2013