Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Unveiling

The Unveiling
II Corinthians 3:12-4:2
Luke 9:28-36

© copyright 2010 Robert J. Elder

Transfiguration, February 14, 2010

When one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.NRSV

Not a lot of people wear veils any more in our culture. Not even very many brides wear a traditional light, gauzy veil, if my experience is any measure. What purpose is a veil supposed to serve, anyway? The ancient idea in marriage, dating back from times before any of us was likely to have been around, was that the groom was not only not supposed to see the bride on the wedding day before the service, this custom dates to a time when the groom was not supposed to have seen the bride at all. Marriages were arranged between families, the chief purpose being to advance some interest of both families, either in a step up in formal or informal social ranking for one, or an elevation in material wealth for the other through the payment of a dowry. Whatever the reason, for the groom to have seen his bride before marrying her was not likely to serve either purpose. The wedding day was, literally, an unveiling. This disguising or obscuring purpose of veils is all but lost in almost any modern wedding in our culture.

Beyond marriage practices, in some cultures a veil over the face serves the purpose of modesty in public life, a quality little valued in our own culture; and much debated, as in last week when I listened to an hour-long discussion on Public radio on the wearing of a veil and other religious practices by Senior High school students. Another use involves concern for safety, and makes me think of beekeepers, who wear a light, gauzy material surrounding the head for protection from bee-stings, while not fully masking their vision.

And of course, the word veil can be used as a verb, as it is in Paul’s thinking in II Corinthians: to veil, to obscure, to hide, to cover, to conceal, to disguise. When we think about it, a veil is a two-way device when it comes to obscuring vision. A person cannot see what is behind a veil all that well, but neither can the person see all that well in trying to observe the world through it.

One translator rendered verses 16-18 from our epistle passage this way:

“Whenever, though, they turn to face God as Moses did, God removes the veil and there they are – face to face! They suddenly recognize that God is a living, personal presence, not a piece of chiseled stone. And when God is personally present, a living Spirit, that old, constricting legislation is recognized as obsolete. We’re free of it! All of us! Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of his face...”[1]

Some of you will remember Dr. Joseph Campbell, author of books like Myths to Live By, and known around the world for his work in comparative mythology and comparative religion. He was perhaps the 20th century’s most quoted authority in these subjects. In the mid 1980s he sat for a series of televised interviews with Bill Moyers which eventually led to a book called The Power of Myth. I recall a statement from one of those interviews, when Dr. Campbell offered a reflection on the middle-class protagonist of the 1922 novel Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis. Through a character he named George Babbitt, Lewis drew a satirical portrait of the power of conformity in mundane early twentieth century values.

Dr. Campbell said,

“Remember the last line (George Babbitt uttered in the novel)? ‘I have never done a thing that I wanted to in all my life.’ Well, I actually heard that line when I was teaching at Sarah Lawrence. Before I was married, I used to eat out in the restaurants of town for my lunch and dinners. Thursday night was the maid’s night off in Bronxville, so that many of the families were out in restaurants. One fine evening, I was in my favorite restaurant there, and at the next table there was a father, mother, and a scrawny boy about twelve years old. The father said to the boy, ‘Drink your tomato juice.’

“And the boy said, ‘I don’t want to.’

“Then the father, with a louder voice said, ‘Drink your tomato juice.’

“And the mother said, ‘Don’t make him do what he doesn’t want to do.’

“The father looked at her and said, ‘He can’t go through life doing what he wants to do. If he does only what he wants to do, he’ll be dead. Look at me. I’ve never done a thing I wanted to in all my life.’”

Dr. Campbell, reflecting on this brief encounter from many years before said, “And I thought, ‘My God, there’s Babbitt incarnate!”[2]

I have reflected on how often we think of the continuing ministry, the living presence of Christ among us as something veiled, something that covers the delights of the world from our eyes, something of not much more use than an ancient obligation, something the church insists on for the sake of propriety, a duty, a burden to be born. Perhaps without intending to do so, the church often declares to the world “Take up the ministry of Christ, it doesn’t taste very good, it’s not very popular, it will squeeze most of the opportunities for fun out of your life, but it is something you should do.”

We have taught people outside the faith how to visit this attitude on us, haven’t we? Say you’re out in the front yard working on the porch swing, and you blurt out a swear word after hitting your thumb with a hammer, you – an admitted, practicing Presbyterian Christian, someone known to love your church – and you are certain to hear from any neighbor who happened to be passing by, “What kind of language is that for someone who calls herself a Christian!?” as if dour Christians are the only people to be held to standards of good language.

When I was in college, preparing to go on to seminary, I recall coming home with one of those very attractive early 1970s shaggy dog haircuts. I thought it looked pretty out-of-sight (we used to talk that way), and my dad, seeing me, said “Wait until your grandmother sees you looking like that. And you call yourself a Christian preparing for ministry!”

Drink your tomato juice!

Everyone knew the way a pastor should dress and behave: crew cut, modest clothing, Bible in one hand at all times, quotations from scripture peppering every conversation. I know one guy, preparing for ministry, who was criticized by his father for purchasing a new pair of loafers when anyone could see that someone intent on ministry should have bought a pair of black lace-ups. And this isn’t just about pastors. Claim Christ as your model, your Savior, and some nonbeliever is sure to make themselves into an authority on the ways you are falling short of their imagined standard for the faith they claim not to share.

No wonder we get gun-shy about sharing our faith with others. We don’t want them trying to smash us into some phony mold of what they imagine it means to be a Christian, a sanctimonious mold for which we know ourselves to be ill-fitted.

I think Paul may have been aiming at this in his brief dissertation on veils and covenants. He was referring, of course, to the time when Moses received the commandments from God, when he came from the mountain, and lest he frighten everyone with a face sunburned beet-red from being in God’s presence, he wore a veil to keep them from becoming overanxious. Only Moses was allowed to go and have these chats with God, and it was dangerous even for him.

Paul declared that the day for hiding our faith behind veils, for keeping the wonder of our faith under wraps for fear of what people might say, those veiled days are over. Because of the loving ministry of Christ, God’s own son, “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord (as clearly as if it were) reflected in a mirror, are being transformed ... from one degree of glory to another!” Paul announced. “Therefore ... we do no lose heart.”

I know there has been a lot of losing of heart around our church for several months. Some have lost heart, some have struggled to keep their hearts motivated for this ministry, some have never missed a step and some have spoken to me, sayingc, “What is all the fuss about, let’s keep our ministry moving!” Some of us have felt all of those things. No matter to what degree we may have felt loss of heart, we can take heart again using the strong words of the apostle Paul, who, God knows, had as much reason to lose heart as anyone we can think of: During the course of his ministry he was imprisoned, starved, shipwrecked, beaten, threatened, run out of town, imprisoned again... yet knowing the sheer bliss, the freedom as well as the terror of acting “with great boldness” in the name of Christ, he continued to do the thing he wanted to do, the thing to which he was called, no matter how many people told him to buy lace-up shoes, or get a haircut, or step to the back of the bus, or sit down and shut up, or drink his tomato juice, he responded, saying “Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.”

He did not. And we do not. We do not.

“Take heart,” Jesus said to his frightened disciples one night as he came walking to them across the storm-tossed waters, “Take heart, it is I.”[3]

And, unveiled in the presence of his glory, they did take heart, as disciples have, from that day to this. It is not nearly so hard to follow Jesus as some of us try to make it. Take heart. It is the Lord, who, as Paul said, “gives us such hope, we (may) act with great boldness.” We may. And we will!

Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] The Message//Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language, by Eugene Peterson, © Navpress Publishing Group, pp. 2094-2095. [2] Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, Doubleday, 1988, pp. 117-118.
[3] Matthew 14:27