Sunday, February 10, 2013

Veiled Attempts

Veiled Attempts

Sunday, February 10, 2013
Exodus 34:29-35           

Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone
because he had been talking with God.

“Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone.” I like this line, I don’t fully know why. Someone walks into my office and says, “God has been speaking to me,” and sometimes, fearful, I think to myself, “What does that have to do with me?” and like the Israelites I am afraid to come near them ... They may have been in touch with something big, something dangerous.
But then, I think how often in the study at the church or at home, alone with the Bible and a few trusted commentaries that surround me on my desktop like old friends – and maybe a paper prepared by one of my preaching friends from our annual meetings in January on sermon texts – I make a study of these passages I preach on every Sunday.
Over my career in ministry, in my sermon preparation times, as I have considered the implications of a scripture reading, I frequently remark to myself how often I find some nugget, some insight, some arresting observation among all the words written in commentaries by men and women wiser than I, that makes me stop in my tracks — things, as they used to say, that make you go “hmmm.” It might be a single word, repeated in an unusual way, or an alternate translation that suddenly makes it seem as though someone turned the light on in the room.
A couple of days go by, and then I get to the day for writing the sermon, and often all the shine seems to have gone from my nifty insights, I can’t seem to find the same gear I had when I was meeting with my fellow scholars. The light switch is overhead, just out of reach. My face was maybe shining in scripture study days or weeks or months ago, but by some Thursdays, I’m behind the old veil again. The world has undone my proximity to the voice of God one more time, and I have to work at finding my way there once again, to the place where the veil can be removed and I can sense the nearness of God that makes my face begin to glow like moving just a little too close to the campfire.
Maybe you have been there too. I suspect some of you have. I hope many of you have. Maybe you have found times in your life when the puzzle pieces snapped together for an instant, when the sense of something very important to you suddenly became evident in a way it never had before. Still, the lifting of the veil, the shining of the face lasts but a short time, and all too soon, back behind the veil we go, back to the mundane, insightless lives we know all too well. Why must it always be so?
I recall that Phillips Brooks[1] once said, “Humility doesn’t come from counting up our sins, it comes from standing our tallest and measuring ourselves against that which God intends for us.” But we can so easily lose sight of our tallest selves, and especially the selves God has in mind for us to be.
I think this story about Moses running up and down the mountain of meeting represents something like that in the life of Israel. They were beginning to be made to see not only that God was willing to save them from the slavery of Egypt, but that God was willing to believe in them, was willing to stay beside them even when the great danger had passed, even when – and this always comes as a great shock to people who beat themselves up at avery available opportunity – even when they knew they had failed God, had let God down. Even then, God believed in them, which in some ways is harder to take than if God had simply thrown up his hands and walked away. God wanted more from them, found more potential in them than they knew they had, and caused them to begin to stand their tallest and measure themselves against that which God intended for them.
How can it be otherwise for us, who follow the Savior?
I remember the very first wedding we celebrated in the spanking new sanctuary of the church I once served in Port Arthur, Texas. One of the distinguishing features of that sanctuary was that up at the peak of the roof, clerestory windows ran the entire length of the room, made up of stained glass panes of various colors. Our first wedding was at 11:00 A.M. on a Saturday, a couple of weeks after the sanctuary had been dedicated, and I will never forget that as the bride made her way toward the chancel, the colors from those clerestory windows were displayed along the entire length of the center aisle. No one had anticipated the effect. Her white dress changed colors with every step, transfigured: one moment it was white, the next moment green, the next it was so red it appeared to be on fire, then yellow, purple, and so on. By the time she reached the front of the sanctuary, we were all absolutely transfixed. I could hardly bring myself to speak the words to begin the service. It was as if the architect and the sun had conspired to provide us with a truly heavenly light show.
One great claim of the Christian faith is that while we may be in the dark about many things, on the ultimate issues of human life there is light. Paul once said, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly.”[2] Some things, many things, we don’t know. We really don’t know the complete answer to all questions that begin with “why.” The answers we do have shine in the face of Moses, in the face of Christ, on our own faces, and can change us more fully, more gracefully than that wedding dress ever changed that bride or any of us.
What happened on that holy mountain when Moses came back to deliver the tablets to the children of Israel? When they say that his face had a certain glow about it, what does it mean? Was it like the glow your hands feel when they have been warmed by a fire? How do we describe such things? One preacher says there is no describing them, that if you are going to talk about a bear, the best thing to do is bring in a bear. But how can we bring in the shining face of Moses?
It is as hard to describe what happened on that mountain top as it is to give an accurate description of what goes on in our dreams.
The question for us is not so much whether we have ever experienced a transfiguration the likes of the one that came over Moses, but whether we may ever have been an agent to help God bring one to pass. In southeast Texas, where I once served, there is a special school – the Hughen School – for very sick children, most of whom have few or no motor skills. One very sick boy lived at that school, dying by degrees. Tragic as that could be, that is not the reason for telling this story. Children get grievously ill every day. It is one of the unhappy yet constant facts of human life on earth. But this little boy had the good fortune to be living in the same community with some faithful believers who took the story of God’s own shining in the world to be their story. God’s glory lived in them to the degree that they carried it with them where they went. A group of these people joined together to go to that child every day and read to him. Knowing that he was slowly dying, unable to move or read for himself, it was the only activity that comforted him.
The social workers were amazed. Just being read to by three ladies, taking turns, one every day, transformed him from a depressed and despondent child into a responsive person whose spark of life, though soon to leave him, grew brighter, not dimmer. The boy died eventually, as we all must die. But his life had been forever transfigured by the ministry of caring Christian people. Their lives had been changed as well. I can assure you, with my own eyes I saw them glowing.
When do we find that the veil of the mundane lives we live has been lifted? Paul worried that people might miss the fact that Christ has lifted the veil from our eyes. He said, “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.”[3] All of us. Transformed.
William Willimon, a Methodist bishop and former chaplain at Duke University, once wrote,
“A few weeks ago I had a bad day, the culmination of a bad week. The congregation didn’t like my sermon, didn’t care for my pastoral care. The Institute on Religion and Democracy sent another batch of spiteful e-mails. The electrical relay to the organ gave out. I was depressed.
Then, preparing for a sermon, reading a text I had worked on many times before – Galatians 2 – I noticed something. A little Greek word, eis. Paul says ‘a person is righteous not by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.’ But eis can be either translated ‘in’ or ‘of.’ Is it the faith ‘in’ Jesus Christ – Jesus is the object of our faith? Or can it also be the faith ‘of’ Jesus Christ – we are to have the same faith, that same suffering, obedient unto death, boldly trusting faith?”
Bishop Willimon went on, “Suddenly the latter possibility glowed before me, lit up my imagination, transfigured my previous understandings of faith. Our being right with God is not so much our belief in Christ as it is our believing like Christ. What matters is Jesus, moving toward the world as he moved, living and believing as Jesus, ‘Jesus only.’
I wanted to preserve that moment of exegetical insight forever. But I couldn’t. I had to go back down and be a pastor, answer the mail, visit the sick and construct a sermon. Still, my face shone because, like Moses, I had been talking with God. The rest of that day some people needed sunglasses just to look at me.”[4]
There are those days when I know just how he feels. I pray that you do too.
Copyright © 2013 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] An American clergyman and author, briefly served as Bishop of Massachusetts in the Episcopal Church during the early 1890s. In the Episcopal liturgical calendar he is remembered on January 23. He is known for being the lyricist of "O Little Town of Bethlehem".
[2] I Corinthians 13:12
[3] II Corinthians 3:18
[4] “Come On Down” by William Willimon Christian Century,  February 10, 2004, p. 19.