Sheepscott Community Church February 14, 2010
Exodus 34: 29-35
2 Cor. 3: 12––4: 2
Luke 9: 28-36
You Want to Take Off That Veil?
Some of you may be familiar with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story, “The Minister's Black Veil.” For those of you not familiar with it, let me briefly tell the story. A minister in eighteenth-century New England appears before his congregation one Sunday with the upper part of his face hidden behind a black veil. He wears the veil through the whole story, and even his betrothed cannot prevail on him to remove the veil, and in fact he goes to his death with his face still covered.
Hawthorne apparently based his story on a bit of real history, that there was such a minister––Joseph Moody of York, Maine––who had accidentally killed a dear friend and spent the rest of his life in visible repentance behind a veil. Given Hawthorne’s predilection for stories of separation of individuals from individuals, and individuals from communities––think The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables––we can easily imagine why this story would appeal to him.
One year when Jon taught the story in his Wiscasset High School English class, he decided to don a veil for the class, while he read the story. One student was freaked out by the exercise and asked Jon to remove the veil. Jon said that he felt himself separated from the class while he was wearing it, that it functioned somewhat like sunglasses do now, not allowing another to see our eyes, viz., our soul, and in effect separating us from others.
An updated version of the same idea is the face covering of Muslim women, called the niqab. Beyond that, the burka covers the entire body, allowing the woman to view the world only through a kind of mesh grill. This is in the service of a religiously imposed modesty. A robber at the 7-11 may don a ski mask for the same reason that the Lone Ranger dons his iconic black mask: to hide identity, although the two would be concealing that identity for very different reasons
What I want to focus on is the veil or mask as a means of separating one person or group of persons from others for whatever reason. In Hawthorne’s story, the minister’s veil may be thought a visual representation of what was his sin or sorrow, by which he separated himself from others. In essence, he shunned himself. In the case of Moses, which Barbara read from Exodus this morning, the great prophet and leader had to cover his face with a veil in response to the request from the Israelites because the light that he gave off from being in the presence of God’s glory was more than their eyes could take. The fault was in the people, not in Moses. To cover the sin, as in the case of the minister with the black veil, or to cover the glory, as in the case of Moses’ shining countenance––very different reasons for veiling the face.
Today, Transfiguration Sunday, is Jesus’ opportunity to reveal his glory to a select few of his apostles before he sets out to Jerusalem and the cross. I am not necessarily saying that he knew when he went out to Mount Tabor that such a thing was going to happen. By such a thing I mean the transfiguration, whereby Jesus was revealed in his glory, which is to say in light, giving off light, for all intents and purposes, dressed in light. In that same light were Moses, the great leader and lawgiver of the Israelite people, and Elijah, the greatest of the prophets.
If Jesus went with Peter, James and John to pray on Mount Tabor, not necessarily knowing that the extraordinary vision would happen, what he did know and why he did go there to pray was because he was embarking on a fateful journey to Jerusalem and wanted to lay it out before God before he did that. Jesus always sought the Father’s will consciously before embarking on a course of action. Always. And this event of transfiguration and what led to it was no exception. I don’t know that Jesus knew the inevitable outcome of his choice, but I feel sure he at least sensed it as one possible outcome.
God had honored Jesus’ choice to be baptized by John by appearing in the form of a dove over him while a voice was heard to say, “This is my Son whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Just so did God honor Jesus at this moment before embarking on that journey to Jerusalem, and in Matthew’s account of the transfiguration, Peter, James and John hear the same words that were spoken at Jesus’ baptism, i.e., “This is my Son whom I love. With him I am well pleased,” with the addition of, “Listen to him!”
In our own lives, when we have lost someone significant, we often hearken back to the last time we spent with them, whether that was at a family reunion picnic, or a few days together, where confidences were exchanged over coffee and there was a deep bonding that we later look back on as revelatory. No doubt Peter, James and John hearkened back again and again to the vision of Jesus’ transfigured, as much to keep themselves going as anything else. “Are we crazy?” “No, remember? We all saw it.” In a package with the crucifixion, resurrection and pentecostal experience of Jesus’ Spirit, they would bolster each other up for spreading the word of salvation and keeping going forward. At least, that’s how I expect it might have been.
Jesus could set out for Jerusalem now, certain that at least part of his little band of followers knew who he was, and that he himself knew that what he was about to embark on, however it played out, was the consummation of his life’s work, and that it had God the Father’s seal of approval. Knowing he had that letter of recommendation in his pocket, we can understand better how he could go forward with his journey. When we know with as much certainty as we can know anything in this life that God is in what we are doing, we too can do great things, can overcome obstacles and endure at a level we would not have thought possible. Our greatest sense of meaning and purpose and consolation originates in God.
That said, what can still keep us from doing great things? Can keep us from beholding God’s glory? The very minister’s black veil I talked about earlier. Prejudice, whether against persons or ideas. Our minds are veiled or closed. How about mental laziness? To come to a new position on an issue, whether concerning religion, politics, interpersonal relations––whatever, we have to do the work––and it is work––of thinking about something and not having it handed to us, like baby food fed to an infant. In order to value something, we have to pay a price for it, and in this case, the price is thought, deep thought. The love of our own comfort can also be a black veil between ourselves and the fullness of awareness we are capable of bringing to an experience, which experience could then possibly change our lives. Can you hear the echo of many sermons I have preached in the past here in regard to idolatry? That thing which assumes more importance than God or our life with God, whether that is guilt from some past action, having committed what we consider the unforgivable sin; a substance that has become more important to us than life itself, that is life itself: that is idolatry, a black veil that hangs between ourselves and the jealous God we call severally Yahweh, the Christ, the Spirit, the One True and Sovereign God.
Life itself has built-in components that can awaken us by their surprise appearance, not necessarily wanted or sought. The first and most painful of these components is sorrow, whatever gives rise to the sorrow, often the loss of a loved one. The experience of love can also awaken us in a way nothing else can. Remember how the world and everyone and everything appeared in a new light when love was new? Oh, my, yes. Sometimes it’s need, in the practical sense of not having enough to live on and having our families threatened thereby. Sorrow, love, need––all of these can turn us toward God in spite of ourselves, can rend the veil that separates us from life and others, from God revealing Himself through our everyday life experiences and the people with whom we make our lives.
As Hawthorne’s fictional minister said to those gathered around his deathbed, who included the zealous young minister who attended at the death of the venerable old man, “I look around me, and, lo! on every visage a Black Veil!” I cannot pretend to that second sight, but I can suggest that those human behaviors and characteristics I just mentioned––prejudice, mental laziness, love of comfort, guilt over sin one cannot forgive oneself for––any of these might be worth considering when we think about whether we indeed are wearing black veils that separate us from the greater work we have yet to do, or the vision of the glory of God, which are finally inseparable.
But I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that this morning’s second reading from holds the key to all of this, to how those veils can be rended and gotten rid of once and for all. Second Corinthians 3: 16: “Whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom,” the freedom we would wish for the fictional character of Hawthorne’s minister, or for his real-life counterpart Joseph Moody, for Judas, who did not believe he could be forgiven. “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
Worth noting is that even though Jesus is the key to how the veil is taken away, we do have a role to play. Like Peter in last week’s gospel who made the effort to go back out onto the Sea of Galilee to drop his nets after a long night of unsuccessful fishing, and then being completely surprised by the nets breaking with fish, like Peter we have to make the faith effort of turning, as the scripture says. Turning to the Lord in trust. Then will the veil be taken away and we will see his glory as much as we can bear it.
The other elements that mark the rending of the veil are found in chapter 4, verse 2, “... we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God.” We can do that, and only we and God know how those named things figure in our innermost lives. I’m telling you, friends, Jesus is dying to share his life with anyone who asks for it, and it’s like getting a very personal valentine when God responds to the invitation of a person’s heart, which happens when we begin to genuinely want more. In a fraction of an instant, in a nanosecond, God is there because that One who knows us from the beginning has been waiting with that One’s beautiful and infinite patience for exactly that moment of turning. And there’s no faking the turning, no fooling God. Recall that lovely line in the story of the prodigal son. Luke 15: 20: “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion.” We are all that son, that daughter for whose return God waits.
Lent begins this week on Wednesday. In churches of the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran dispensations, people come forward to be marked with the sign of the cross on their foreheads, and that sign made with the ashes of last year’s Palm Sunday palms burned. When applying the ashes, the minister intones, “Remember, man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” That does tend to induce perspective, if not good cheer. But then, Lent is not a season of good cheer. It is the season of remembering what the good life of Jesus came to in the end, but then the better news that that was not the end, only a way station. Beyond the seeming end of crucifixion was the resurrection, and beyond the resurrection was the return. I believe that that return happened on pentecost and is as real now as it was 2000 years ago, when the Spirit came down on the Apostles. Jesus is in our midst. No doubt there will be more to come, including an enlarged understanding of how he is in our midst, but for now the glory is all around us, no less than it was on Mount Tabor for Peter, James and John, as they beheld Jesus with Moses and Elijah. This is not a fairy tale. Seemingly too good to believe, but it is true.
Because many of us are still wearing our black veils––for protection, out of fear of the unknown, to cover shame or guilt––so it may be impossible for us to see on each other’s face the Christ’s glory. Let me encourage you in the forty days of Lent to ask God to show you if you are wearing a black veil that separates you from others. If so, what is it? Name it and then count on Jesus to remove it if you are ready to let it go and dare to face others with your real, own face, the glory of God shining in you. I expect that among friends or in the workplace, you’ll hear, “You look different. Have you lost weight? Did you get your hair done? Did you always wear glasses? I can’t put my finger on it but there is something different.”
We can come to the brilliance of a transfiguring Easter sunrise without an obscuring black veil of sin––real or imagined––and separation, by the grace of God and by our own efforts. Think Peter dropping those nets one more time. Those efforts can take a positive form or a negative form, viz., visiting those who need a visit, praying in a disciplined way, volunteering in whatever capacity you can offer the gift of your time, i.e., yourself. On the negative side, sacrifices of self-denial––giving up that third cup of coffee, that second martini, that extra hour in bed––all these small things can help us to be more conscious of God and others. We can make this a life-changing Lent by getting rid of any black veil, denying ourselves, and going out in service to others. Amen.