The Last Sunday After The Epiphany
2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a]
So this May, my husband and I will be celebrating an anniversary, and it’s a big one! Twenty-five years! And yes, it means that I was married at the age of five. I was thinking back the other day trying to remember the actual wedding day, and I don’t remember much. Back then we didn’t videotape everything. So it’s really whatever is in my noggin’. And I do remember looking up into Troy’s eyes – I’m 5’3”, he’s 6’4”, so I literally was looking up into his eyes as he said his vows to me and he began to tear up and cry. He was the first one who cried at our wedding, not me. So I remember that and I actually don’t remember much else. But I do remember my outfit because I had this adorable wedding dress. We were in North Carolina at that time and it was kind of a southern-belle dress, it came up on either side up with a bow so you could see the petticoat underneath. It was just super cute. And it was all sequins-y and sparkly. And of course, I had a veil. And I was really excited because I’ve had short hair almost all my life so it went long, it flowed down my back. I felt so pretty.
And when I had gone to go purchase these items, the bridal shop asked me if I wanted a half veil or a full veil. And I was like, “I live with my fiancée. There’s really no purpose of a full veil at this point.” So of course, I chose the half veil. But Moses chose the full veil. Someone asked at our Wednesday bible study about the typography of the veil. Because it shows up in both our old testament and our new testament. And so, this astute bible study participant said, “What is the purpose of the veil?” And I thought that was a fascinating question. I mean, why do we wear veils? Now a veil is not a form of a mask, right? So a mask you put on to cover your identity, to hide your identity. Or sometimes depending on what’s on the mask to change your identity. But a veil is put on for protection, either to protect you from what’s outside the veil or in Moses’ case, to protect those outside from him.
So Moses put on this veil after he came down from the mountain where he saw God and spent time with God, and that experience was so profound that what happened, his face shone .And so he comes down from the mountain and his face is shining and all the Israelites see it and they were really afraid. They were like, “What happened up there?” He basically wigged them out. And to try to understand why they were afraid, you have to go back to the beginning to the book of Exodus where our story comes from. Because in the beginning, you’re in Egypt, and all of the Israelites are enslaved. They have no freedom. They are in bondage and they have no hope of anything changing. So Israelites call out to their God. And Lord God hears them and He says, “I will deliver you,” and He calls upon Moses to do so. So He meets Moses up on the mountain in the form of a burning bush and says to him, “Moses, you need to go back to Egypt and set my people free.” And Moses hems and haws, but he finally gets around to it.
And so then he goes to Pharaoh and says, “The Lord God says, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob says, Let my people go.” And Pharaoh hems and haws, and a couple of plagues later, namely 10. Finally, Pharaoh says, “All right. I’ve had it. Get out of here, you Israelites and I need you to leave my country now.” And so they hurry and they grab all their stuff, and there’s a mass Exodus out into the wilderness where they have no guarantee of any food, water, no understanding of how they’re going to live as a society. There’s no infrastructure. There’s no governance. And so they all go and follow Moses and pray that Moses knows what he’s doing. And Moses brings them to Mount Sinai and they are at the base of the mountain, and Moses goes up to go talk to God. And Moses is gone for a day. And then another day. And then another day. And then a week. And then two weeks. And now, the people of Israel are like, “What are we going to do? We have no leader. We have no God. We don’t know what we’re doing here.”
And so, do you remember what they do? They decide they need something that shines, so that they can believe that they are not alone. So they take all of their jewelry. They melt it down and they mold it into a golden calf. And they worshiped. And they danced around it. And they revel in it. And there’s chaos, and crazy and mayhem.
Meanwhile, up on top of the mountain Moses is talking to God who is giving him the way that the people will live; giving him all the commandments. And God writes them with His own finger on two tablets, and hands them to Moses and then says, “Oh, by the way, my people down at the base of the mountain? Oh, they are worshipping a golden calf.” And God gets pretty mad. And Moses says, “You know what, let me take care of it.” So Moses goes down the mountain and he sees the chaos that’s in front of him. And then Moses gets mad. And he takes those tablets and he throws them to the ground and they shatter into pieces, and he takes the golden calf and he burns it and it becomes powder, and he puts the powder in the water and he makes all the Israelites drink it.
And now, the Israelites know, without a shadow of a doubt that they have screwed up. They have no hope. They’ve just turned their back on their God. And now they’ve lost all the vision of how they’re supposed to live together when the commandments were shattered. They are a sorry, repentant, chastened lot of people. Now who’s going to save them now?
Dr. Alphonetta Wines, a retired pastor and theologian of the United Methodist Church, points out that even Moses is afraid that God has turned back on them. And he begs God for a sign that God will stay with them. God gives Moses a sign but not only that, God then teaches Moses who this Lord that they’re following is. And God says to Moses, “I am the Lord. I am the Lord who is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, and I forgive inequity, and sins and transgressions. What a word of grace in a messed up situation.
And then you know what God does? God gives Moses a second copy of tablets. And it’s no surprise that when Moses goes down that mountain his face is shining. He has seen the glory of God. He knows that he has a forgiving God who is going to make it alright. And so when he ends up at the base of the mountain, he is showing everyone with his face and his way that God will take care of him. But understandably, the Israelites find it hard to believe. So Moses takes pity on them. And he covers his face with a veil so they won’t see the joy and glory within him. And he only lifts it up whenever he speaks to God and he speaks to people about God.
Now in the New Testament, Paul calls out the Corinthian church for wearing their veils. He says, “I can’t believe you’re all acting like Moses and you’re wearing a veil as if you want to protect the world from the good news. Why would you do that? Why would you act as if you’re people who don’t know Christ, who haven’t been changed into His likeness one increment after another? Why are you not rejoicing in the fact that you’re becoming more Christlike, that you’re able to love, and to forgive and to sacrifice and to make peace?” Your veil, it’s no longer protection. It is flat out denial. Now, do you and I have a veil that’s covering our faces even as we’re being changed into the likeness of Christ from one degree of glory to another?
As I pondered the metaphorical use of a veil, I realized three things. First, there are times that I put on my veil. Yes, there are. And the reason is because I sort of am embarrassed by the fact that I actually really desperately need my faith and my God in order to get through my life in this world. Like I am totally lost without it. I desperately need to come here every week and to get that body and blood of Jesus. I don’t know what I’d do without it. It’s really hard for me to function. And I really, really need all of you. I need my community of faith. I need to be able to see you practice your faith, and imitate you, and to watch and to get encouraged from you. And sometimes admonished from you, and to love you and to practice all of these things. I really need that every day so that I can know what to do with my own time, and with my own talent, and my own treasure, my own passions and my own energy because I need to see what you all are doing. I don’t know how to live otherwise. And I really need to hear a word from God often. Daily, sometimes more than daily.
I need sermons. They shape my way. I need to hear the scriptures. And sometimes, especially in a world where we’re surrounded by more and more people who don’t participate in a faith community, I’m a little embarrassed that I’m so dependent on my faith. So I hide behind my veil. You know what happens? That veil, it becomes a mask. And it hides my identity. And all of a sudden, I am no longer who God made me to be.
This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday when we begin our holy Lent. Maybe we can all ask Jesus to lift up those veils that we put on ourselves, so we can be fully who we are. We are people who have been saved by the blood of Christ and we are now reconcilers, and ambassadors of Christ and peacemakers in this world and to everybody we know. That’s who you and I are.
The second thing I realized about veils is I need to be a little bit more careful about judging others who I think have their veils on. And I thought about this as I heard the national news headlines this past week coming from our sister church, The United Methodist Church, which has almost 7 million members in the United States and in comparison the Episcopal church has 1.9 million members. So this past Tuesday, the Methodist Church’s General Conference voted to reaffirm their churches longstanding position that “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and to prohibit the ordination of those who are openly LGBTQ+ and to oppose same sex marriage.”
So this is supposed to take place in 2020. And if it continues through, if you’re a Methodist pastor like my son’s godmother is a Methodist pastor in Washington D.C., and if she should preside over a marriage that is not between a man and a woman, which she has, she will be removed and suspended for one year without pay. And if she does it again, she will lose her credentials and no longer be a pastor in the Methodist Church. And some in the church have recommended that if pastors can’t abide by this they find another denomination.
Now of course, the Episcopal church stands squarely in the other camp. We have openly gay clergy and bishops. We preside here and everywhere over the marriage of people of all genders, and all sexual orientations. And way back in 1976, the Episcopal General Convention declared that “Homosexual persons are children of God who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance and pastoral concern and care of the church.”
So who has a veil covering their heads? Them or us? I think it’s so easy to believe that we have removed our coverings from our faces and can see with our own eyes and they don’t. Yet what strikes me about veils is that we put them on but make no mistake, it is Christ who removes them. That you have no veil is not your doing. It is Christ who has done it for you. So when Christians disagree with one another, we can choose to accuse the side with which we disagree of having their minds veiled or we can remember that just like those Israelites, we have all messed up and we all need a word of grace for a messed up situation.
And the word of grace has not changed for those who are encamped at the base of the mountain and for us today. The word of grace is this: the Lord is merciful, and faithful and slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and it is God who is in the process of taking all of us to the Promised Land. Now it may take 40 days before Moses gets off that mountain and back in the base. It may take 40 years before we get there, too. But we will get there because we have a God whose glory shines.
And that brings me to the third point that I realized about veils. When the veil is lifted from your face, what is shining is the glory of God through you. And that word glory, well that happens to be the same word that we use for praise, doxa, as in like the doxology. Praise God from whom all blessings flow! Praise God all creatures here below. Praise God ye heavenly host. Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost. The glory of God that shines in your face and mine for all to see when the veils are uncovered is nothing less than the glory of God in us, and that allows us to have one singular response to praise God in all circumstances. In times of strife, difficulty, division and disagreement, you can praise God no matter what is happening in your life. Whether you’re battling the lines of inclusion, or dealing with the demons that threaten to devour you, or just trying to face another day of uncertainty. The veil that Christ has lifted from you allows you to praise God in all circumstances.
Brothers and sisters, your faces are shining and everybody can see it. May you go and praise God no matter what you face, both on top of the mountain and at the base.