The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; Last Sunday after the Epiphany—Year C; Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; II Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-43a. Video.
It’s all about glory today, glory and power.
We start with Moses coming down from Mount Sinai. He’s hauling down the two tablets of the covenant, and he didn’t know that the skin of his face was shining because he’d been talking with God. Now, everyone else—Aaron and all the Israelites—they saw his face, they could see that it was shining, and they were afraid to come near him.
Why? When someone comes into a space who is full of glory, radiant full of glory, like you can just see this radiant, powerful energy coming off of them, why are people afraid to get close to that? Is it because it feels out of control or unpredictable? Is it because they fear it might be contagious? Is it because they wonder what might be asked of them if they, too, held that much glory and power?
Well, Moses senses the people backing away, so he calls out to them, to reassure them that it’s still him, a changed him, but him all the same, well, not quite the same, but he reassures them that it’s him. And his reaching out to them makes all the difference. Aaron and the leaders, they returned to him, and afterward, all the Israelites came near to Moses, and he charged them with all that the LORD had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, when he charged them with what the LORD had spoken, the Israelites would see his face, and that the skin of his face was shining again—that glory, that radiant power, that energy, it was written all over his face—and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with the LORD.
I noticed something this week I have never noticed before—I always thought that Moses would put the veil back on his face when he would he leave the tent of meeting with the LORD, but he doesn’t put the veil back on until after he has shared with the people all that the LORD had commanded him to speak to the people. The people are not spared the full power and glory of what God is trying to say through Moses, but they do get space to take it in and integrate it and appropriate it in smaller doses. It’s hard to take in all the glory of God at once, especially when that glory is going to transform us and change our lives and charge us to live our lives in the world differently for having encountered that glory.
The people of God are not off the hook. They see this glory, and hear this glory, and they are changed by this glory. And that is an awesome thing. Mysterium tremendum—that wild combination of fear and awe that accompany encountering God in the fullness of God’s glory; the overwhelming mystery that both draws us in and makes us want to run away—often a mark of encounter with the Holy.
Well, Paul takes up this idea in II Corinthians. I don’t like how he starts with it— he ties Moses veiling his face to an assumption that the minds of the Israelites were hardened and that a veil lies over their minds. I think that’s selling Moses and the Israelites and the God who made covenant with them short, and frankly, if their minds are hardened, then so are ours because we still wrestle with being in close proximity to glory and the power that pours from it. But that detour aside, Paul gets a lot right in this passage. Jesus takes Moses one step more. Jesus lives an unveiled life 24×7. In all his words, in all his actions, he lets the glory of God shine through, fully, radiantly, powerfully; Jesus shows us what it looks like when the glory of God is pouring through our human flesh—and in him and through him, we are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. In his Spirit, there is freedom—the freedom to live with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the LORD everywhere—Jesus looking out through our eyes into the face of the other, Jesus gazing back at us through the eyes of the other. When we live with unveiled faces, we are mirrors of the glory of God, reflecting that glory everywhere. Can you begin to feel how powerful all this is?
And then we come to that experience up on the mountain where Jesus took Peter and James and John to pray. This is about 8 days after Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Christ of God. A good, theologically correct, rather abstract declaration on Peter’s part—but what he had professed, he was about to see up close and personal. And it’s in that experience of praying, of communing with God, that Jesus’ face is changed—echoes of Moses all over again—and his clothes become dazzling white—and he is surrounded by Moses and Elijah from that great communion of saints. They, too, are shrouded in glory, and they are talking with Jesus about the journey that lies ahead for Jesus and his great crossing over that was about to be accomplished. Interesting, even Jesus needed guides to make his journey of dying.
Peter and James and John, they almost miss this encounter with glory because they were weighed down with sleep. Let’s just stop right there. Think of all the ways in our world that we are weighed down with sleep, that we are numb to what is happening around us, that our hearts and minds and spirits and bodies are dulled; in so many ways, the culture conspires to keep us sleepwalking through our lives—we, like Peter, James, and John, are weighed down with sleep. But they fought to stay awake, and so must we.
And since they stayed awake, they saw Jesus’ glory and the saints that stood with him. And in the face of all that glory, what does Peter want to do? Capture it, contain it, build a place where it can dwell where he could find it always. But there was one problem with his plan…any guesses? Peter located the glory in Jesus and Moses and Elijah, and he wanted to contain the glory out there, instead of allowing that glory to sweep over him and transfigure and transform him. He didn’t know any better, but God would not let Peter off the hook. God was going to rip off the veil of Peter’s good, theologically, abstract ideas about all of this and leave him standing naked before the glory of God—God would encounter them directly in that cloud that dimmed their normal sight and opened their eyes to see and their ears to hear the Holy One—not mediated through Moses, or Elijah, or even Jesus, but purely, directly, beautifully, mysteriously spoken straight from the heart of God. Peter, James, John—“listen to this One, he’s my Son, see his glory, see his radiance, see his power—all that I AM rests in his being; listen to him.”
An encounter with glory like that changes you, forever. And it took time, but slowly, slowly, Peter and James and John, and all the others, and you and me, we get it. All the glory that God has poured into Jesus’ being has also been poured into ours, but we struggle to know what to do with all that glory and power—we may mask the negative qualities that we don’t want others to see in us, but we also mask the most powerful aspects of ourselves. It’s Jesus who shows us how to live our lives unveiled and how to make manifest that glory and radiance and power in every moment of every day in every encounter with every person and every thing. Jesus shows us how to let glory shine through us and how to see glory shining before us.
It’s a scary proposition to be sure because once you feel that glory in your bones and taste the sweetness of the power of God moving through your being, you can’t ever play small again, and that means you’re going to risk a lot. That means you’re going to be exposed. That means you are going to dare to speak to those who are afraid of glory, you are going to dare to speak to them of the things that God has laid on your heart. You will act with courage and charge this world with the things that God commands so that all creation may sing of the glory of God. At times, this will make you immensely unpopular. People may shrink back from you; the powers-that-be will certainly try to get you to put your veil back on; they may suggest building a booth to keep this glory thing neat and tidy and locatable. But the Spirit blows where she will, and Jesus is never content to stay in a box on a mountaintop. No, not even a day will pass before he’ll be back at it wrestling with the demons that would rob us of our wholeness, calling us to task for not trusting in the power given us.
Living as mirrors of God’s glory, living as conduits of God’s power—this turns moments of mysterium tremendum into mysterium tremendum as a way of life—a life lived as a living, breathing expression of overwhelming mystery—awesome and terrifying all at the same time.
In his weekly reflection this past Wednesday, Bishop Taylor quoted Marianne Williamson. I’ve seen this quote many times, and it is often wrongly attributed to Nelson Mandela—you can certainly picture Mandela saying it, but it comes from Ms. Williamson—and no matter how many times I hear it, it never fails to catch some place deep in my soul that knows that what she speaks of is true. Hear her words:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
How are you actively taking the veil off of your face so that the glory of God can shine through? How are you living an unveiled life? How are you making manifest the glory of God that is within you? How are you giving others permission to do the same? Many are frightened of the dark right now, but the only way out of the darkness is for us relinquish our fear of the light.
So, make your way to the tent of meeting with the LORD; spend time communing in prayer; let God fill you with glory; listen to the life of Jesus and learn how to live an unveiled life, and then, let that light pour from you, fully, radiantly, gloriously, powerfully.
And know that as you surrender to that glory, and to a great measure, surrender your right to control, know that, in that moment of transfiguration, in that moment of both awe and terror, you will know why glory was never meant to be contained in a booth. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
February 7, 2016