Sunday, February 7, 2016

Behind the Veil (Sermon)

Behind the Veil
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
February 7, 2016
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
2 Corinthians 3:12 - 4:2
Photo by Danielle Jackson
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.

Here is a live recording of this sermon:

Today is Transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday before the liturgical season of Lent that gets us ready for Holy Week and Easter. On Tuesday we’ll get together and eat pancakes, on Wednesday we’ll join together serve soup, and then commemorate Lent with the imposition of Ashes. This morning, though, we commemorate one of the more strange, and in that it is strange, more interesting events in the gospels, what is called the Transfiguration of the Lord. Now this story is accounted in the three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and is referred to explicitly in one of the letters of Peter, and in a way is referenced in this morning’s epistle, of 2 Corinthians, but before I get to that I want to cover the basics of the story. I printed in the bulletin Luke’s account, which is, in most of the big details, anyway, basically similar to the other two. There you have Jesus, taking three of His disciples up on a mountain to pray, and then it gets kinda weird. Jesus’ face changes, his clothes become dazzling white, he is joined by Moses and Elijah, they start talking about Jesus and his departure from Jerusalem, somehow the disciples get sleepy, (I don’t know how, could you sleep if you saw all that), but somehow they fight off that sleepy feeling and stay awake, and so they get to see his glory. After seeing it they remark how good it was that they did, and want to build for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses some housings for them, a marking, a temple, a monument to signify the event. . . and it is then, a cloud covers them, and the voice comes out of the cloud saying: “This is My son, My chosen, Listen to him!” That’s it. That is what we commemorate on this day, the last day before Lent every year. But as I said the epistle lesson from 2 Corinthians is paired with it in the lectionary, and you may see the connection, and I hope you do also between it and the Old Testament Reading Erick just read for us. Here is 2 Corinthians 3:12- 4:2

12 Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, 13 not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. 14 But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside.15 Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds;16 but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
4 Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2 We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.

Now this morning, with all of these different places in the Bible coming together, I want to spend a little time talking about imagination, and I don’t want us to make the mistake of downplaying imagination as something that isn’t true because on the contrary I think it is something quite true. I don’t want you to think about imagination, in the sense of the lonely child, who has an imaginary friend, the idea that imagination is delusional because that is not what I’m talking about at all. Instead, I’m talking about the imagination that is very real. When you think about it imagination is a truly key component in our lives. We imagine the world all the time. . . and by imagine, I’m talking about the basic root of the world itself, we make an image, a picture of what it is, in our mind.
Think back to yesterday. What entered into your mind. . . was it picture? Now, there were 24 hours in yesterday. . . but somehow your mind captured all of yesterday in a picture that defies time. . . all of it in an instant. Powerful. . . let’s use this more. . . think about a dollar bill, can  you see it? think about a rainbow. . . think about mountain. . . think about a tall stately oak tree. . . can you see those images? Think about Friends, What do you see? Think about Family. What do you see? Think about someone in your life, who has died. . . what do you see? For me it’s hard not to see in some occasions where there was an open casket at the funeral, sometimes it’s hard not to see the person dead, rather than alive, my mind goes to the wrong image first. . . you see it is not exactly a perfect act of our will, what we see, not something we are in complete control of. We’re not so much in control of what memories and pictures our mind keeps from the past, but it works the other way, too.
Because imagination is a powerful thing looking forward, as well, we’ve so far just been looking back. But let’s look forward, what does tomorrow look like? Is it scheduled? Can you see it? Think of yesterday, did you imagine today? Think of 5 years ago. . .could you imagine this? It has been just over four years since I became pastor here, did you imagine today then, this church today, like it is? I’ve heard it said that vision is important in building, in leadership, there needs to be vision. . . that is all imagination.
What changes the image of the future? This is a time of transition and election. . . where candidates are not just having you vote for their names, but for an image of America in the future, and America they want to build, or want to scare you that their opponent may just build. The candidate that can appeal to the imagination of the people will do well. . . . and likewise there are negative images you can paint. Could anyone in the year 2000 imagine September 11, 2001, or February 7, 2016 in the shadows of Sept. 11, back then when our greatest fear was what computer systems would do with a 2 digit date? How much did that one event 9/11 change the way people imagine the future? imagine America? imagining that day? My parent’s wedding anniversary is Sept 11, 30 years they had one type of anniversary, and since they have had something very different, a different image entirely, the image was forever overtaken by events.
Let’s go even more abstract. What do you see when I ask you to picture hope? What do you see when I ask you to picture love? What do you see when I ask you to picture God? Is it a picture? an event? a moment from your life? is it a moment from the future? What does God look like in your imagination? Now it’s interesting because words have power in our imagination, too. Just try for a moment, try to picture the color green, without the word. It’s like the word just comes jamming itself right in there. Like our picture of love, is the word love, surrounded by images, trying to shine through. . . the word God with images trying to shine through, but like our image of  yesterday, it’s many things together all at once. Does the fact that it is different, that mine may be different from yours, or yours from mine, or yours from a second ago is different from yours now. Does that mean that the image is not real? That it is somehow delusional? Of course not. . . and it isn’t idolatry, that would be taking your image and writing it down, and selling to other people that your image encapsulates God entirely. We don’t do that with our own imagination because it is constantly shifting and changing, and is never quite nailed down and marked, done, unless we are deluding ourselves?
At the beginning of the church service, I asked you to take a look at the picture I put in the bulletin insert over the title, “Behind the Veil.” I asked you to think about what you see there. I asked you to write something if you got a chance or inspiration at some point in the service to write what you see, to describe the picture. How many of you wrote, or planned to write, Coralee’s name because you know her, and recognize her in the picture? How many wondered for definitions sake, to know who the other girl is? How many got hung up on that aspect and never looked beyond the surface? How many looked at their faces? How many looked beyond their faces at the embrace? Or their expressions, trying to imagine their emotions? How many of you attached words to the scene? Love, family, sisters. . . even if they aren’t sisters. . . does that make your image wrong? did you see safety. . . security. . . hope in the picture. Did you even see the iphone?
I wrote this poem the first time I saw this picture:
Behind the Veil

Have you ever seen love?
They are supposed to be invisible,
Intangible, always just out of reach,
Like the spirit,
Like the wind,
But here through this lens,
Between entangled arms,
Through their closed eyelids,
Into their minds,
And through their minds,
Into their hearts,
And there between each silent beat,
And quiet breath,
You get a glimpse,
Behind the veil,
Like you've been invited to see
A hidden fairy's dance,
And there they are,
All three.
For only you to see.

For me, this transfiguration scene is such a glimpse behind the veil. And what the transfiguration is, is a picture of the divine. Peter, John, and James get to look into the very realness of Jesus. They get to see that whiteness, that is described as dazzling. Mark’s gospel, that is always so much more Earthy describes it as a white no bleach could make. We can think of it as the light shining out of the darkness because the gospel writers evoke that image as well. We can think of it as the most amazing white imaginable. . . the white I could think of is after the snow stops falling, and it is the second day, so you’ve had a little melt, then the overnight freeze, and when that sun starts shining that next morning, without a single cloud in the sky and with no moisture in the atmosphere, the brightness just starts radiating white, blindingly white off of the snow. Perhaps it is the eclipse light that you aren’t supposed to look at directly. . .  I’m ruined to the Moses version, because of The Ten Commandments movie, with Charlton Heston’s post seeing God moment’s frosted tip makeover, and you can’t ever see it fresh after seeing it in the movie, you can’t imagine it after you’ve seen a cheapened version, that’s why books are often better than movies/ Books like Melville wrote in his masterpiece, Moby Dick, wrote of the illusive whiteness of the whale, a whole chapter about just what “dazzling” white is, and how having seen it once Ahab was transfixed on it, but never could catch it. . . but it is always there. Let your imagination take you there. These disciples, going up the mountain, have that kind of experience, like 911, is for my parents on their wedding anniversary, they are forever changed, every day from that day, every vision is marked, they are all engraved with that dazzling white image in their mind, all marked with it, all embossed with it. How could you see that white, that dazzling white, and not be forever tinged, like the blindspots you get when you accidentally look at light bulb too closely?,or the sun?
And what do they want to do, they want to build a monument to him right there. . . as if any monument could capture it, . And it is in that moment that God speaks to them and tells them to listen to Jesus, this is my son, listen to him. . . and Jesus doesn’t stay up their a monument on the mountain, Jesus leaves the mountain. He comes down off the mountain. And heads toward his glory. He heads down off of that mountain, to head towards another hill. . .Jerusalem. . .  Calvary. . . Golgotha. . . the cross. . . the departure that He, and Moses, and Elijah were discussing, while Peter, James, and John were  fighting off sleep, caught in a moment of dazzling brightness. But no monument could hold him, just like no cross could hold him, just like no empty tomb could hold him. Just like no one image could hold him, no creed written in ink, nor carved into stone. . . but instead through the Spirit into our hearts is where that image lies, where that covenant is found. Revolutionary. . . you can’t capture it, to capture it is to cheapen it, like seeing a movie limits what you can imagine reading, you can’t capture it, like Ahab, should never catch the whale. You want to get a grip on it, but’s already moved on. To capture, to own, cheapens the power of the imagination to make it real. You can’t wait on the mountain for the same experience, you can’t wait around for another bush to burn, and you can’t wait on the shore of the Red Sea for it to part again. The Spirit has moved on, and to grip it would limit it to what it no longer is.
Our 2 Corinthians passage when taken in the context of the rest of Chapter 3 is really powerful on this idea. Let me read it:
Surely we do not need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you or from you, do we? 2 You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all;3 and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
4 Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. 5 Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, 6 who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

It is from there that he talks about the veil of Moses, that he came off the mountain and had to cover his face because the people couldn’t handle the vision. He had seen God, had talked with God, had been sent by God with a covenant written in stone, and shining off of his face, but it wasn’t enough. . . and now, in this new covenant, the light doesn’t just shine from Paul to them, or from the minister to them, but from them to each other. They, the people, the people of the Church of Corinth have been able to embody the spirit themselves, and have the light radiating from them, such that no veil could cover it, no darkness could quell it, and no time could fade it, and no bushel could hide it. Christ sets that veil aside, and the light shines freely, in freedom, through the spirit, mirroring from Christ into our faces. Each of us. . . starting in verse 17
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.

Can you imagine the light shining from your neighbor’s face? Have you ever let yourself see your neighbor that way? Have you ever let your neighbor see your face that way? Have you ever taken away the veil. . . or let Christ take away the veil? We don’t need monuments anymore, we need each other. We need to love each other. We need to serve each other. We need to be blinded by the light of God’s glory shining through each other.
But as we’ve seen this morning, many things can get in the way of what we see in our imagining of each other. Scripture tells us we are made in the image of God. Paul writes that with the Spirit moving within us, and the covenant shining through our hearts, we radiate the light mirrored of the Glory of God. . . but what we see around us brings back the veil. We are constantly challenged in our seeing of the light by what we see around us everyday . . . and those negative images creep in, creating the illusion of darkness. My parent’s Wedding Day knew no Osama Bin Laden. . . does the fact that they see 911 in their imaginings change the truth of that day? Of course not. . . does the word green make the color any more or less green, of course not. Does the truth of my friend’s life change because the image my mind has is of him dead? No. We mustn’t let the veils, and walls, of sin and imperfection, and fear, and worry, and doubt, darken the light of God that is shining through our neighbor’s faces, nor shining back in the mirror at ourselves.
I’m teaching Dante to my students, and one of the most important aspects of The Inferno, is Dante’s concept of God. He writes that God created the Inferno for Sacred Justice, but that he created it before human beings. . . that the torments of Hell are not punishments, acts of revenge and manipulation by a wrathful and reactionary God, but consequences laid out as part of a larger plan and belief. That God is unchanged in his being after our Fall. His vision of us has not changed from the creation he proclaimed Good. I asked them what this showed about God, and what the opposite would show about God, if it were a punishment, if Hell was created in response to Sin. Then I told them how I believe in my heart that they come into my class with amazing potential, that this potential demands my respect, and this respect demands that I treat them a certain way. They didn’t live up to that potential this week. . . to be fair and honest, they rarely do. . . but asked them, what my changing of my policies would say about me, and them if I reacted to their behavior, and completely changed my strategy. I told them I wouldn’t change. . . because I don’t want to cheapen their potential. I have to see them, not as they are, but as I imagine they are created to be.

In their case the imagination is much more real than their reality. The same is true for each of us, for all people everywhere. Let us imagine the light the Spirit is shining through eachother. Let the light of love, the light of the Spirit, the light of Christ burn an image into our minds of what truly is real, that all are made in the image of God, so that we can love, and shine the light of that love, ever brighter still, to shine through the the thickest veil shroud of the delusion of Sin. May it be blindingly so. Amen.