Moses wore a veil. In case you were wondering, you can always tell who he is in the group photos because he’s the one in the veil.
Apparently his own frequent run-ins with God caused the skin of his face to literally glow, and it freaked people out. Being thoughtful like that, Moses decided it was good to just cover the offensive thing when he was out in public, and only to let them see the proof of his encounters with God when he was actually delivering messages right from God.
This both lent a little gravitas to the messages delivered, and also made potlucks a little easier, without his big mug beaming across the table at you while you were trying to eat your hot dish in peace.
But a helpful reminder too, of his differentness, being so close to God and all - (just don’t swear in front of Moses).
We’ve been spending a bit of time with Paul and the Corinthian church – and last week we heard in one of Paul’s letters them about love being the beginning and end of it all- the whole kit and kaboodle.
Well, he has scolded, cajoled, inspired and otherwise addressed these somewhat difficult people, and he’s still at it here. It seems that there is a pretty universal argument whipping around among the early Christians- almost all of them initially Jews, about whether Gentiles- who are the vast majority of the Roman empire and a growing contingent of believers- can just be Christians without converting to Torah-abiding Judaism in the process.
It is the position of Paul and Peter that God has called Gentiles - non-Jews- just as they are, and the Holy Spirit is clearly with them, so they are followers of Jesus by God’s choice, and it isn’t necessary that they also take up Judaism to be part of this thing God is doing. Even if that creates all kinds of confusion and unknown on the human end of things.
But the conflict continues to brew, and by the time Paul writes this letter, it has reached Corinth. Some Jewish Christians have arrived with letters of recommendation and the message that Gentiles are not true Christians unless they are also Torah-following converts to Judiasm.
Paul begins this chapter, Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Surely we do not need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you or from you, do we? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; 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. (2 Cor. 3;1-3)
He brings it out of the theoretical and back to their relationship - having to see and hear one another. And he does not shy away from sarcasm or direct insults couched within effusive affection. (Perhaps a lost art as communication style?)
So here’s the deal: The glory of God is so powerful, so overwhelming, that God did say to Moses that nobody could see the face of God and live, and showed Moses the almighty backside and still Moses’ face glowed. And it was perhaps too much for the people.
But Paul is suggesting it might have been too much for Moses too.
It is easier, maybe, to live with a barrier between us, than to have to be confronted all the time with the honest truth of being chosen by God, in a relationship with the Divine and smudged with inescapable glory. It made things easier for the people, but it made it easier for Moses too, maybe, if they didn’t have to be reminded all the time that God is near.
Let’s just keep it how it was when God gave a list of helpful guidelines and the only one who had to bear the shock of meeting the transcendent was one dude, and he would veil up. In fact, let’s all veil up – just to be safe. We’ll ask the Gentiles to become Jews, and they can veil up too, and then nobody has to deal with the unexpected shock of glory coming through some face we don’t recognize, or God, forbid, through our own faces at one another. An uncontrollable kind of life that would be – just maybe coming across glory at any turn. Geesh. It might make us have to talk about it and share in it, and change what we believed about it or be changed by each other, and we’d frankly rather just point helpfully to the list of rules and the guy in charge and keep ourselves safely to ourselves.
My friend Peter, who has spent many years in Africa, shared a story about a wedding he attended in Morongo, Tanzania. The bride was wearing a veil- one of the many western imports creeping into life there and into the marriage ceremony.
Now, in that culture, Peter explained, the bride is not to look happy on her wedding day. She is leaving her family, and should be appropriately melancholy. She is meant to have despondent demeanor, downcast eyes, look generally bummed out enough to show respect to her family who raised her and whom she is now leaving; and all the formal wedding photos reveal a properly sad bride.
But my friend took a picture of the veiled bride on her way down the aisle, and, being that this was some years ago, did what we all did and waited some time before having a the film developed. When they saw the photo, they discovered that the flash captured through the veil an enormous, joyous grin on the bride’s face as she made her way to her wedding alter.
He said he loves that photo, and that in some beautiful way, the veil over her face allowed her to have a foot in both worlds- to respect and give to her family and people what they needed to see (and needed to not see), but to also be glowing with joy in privacy behind that veil.
Veils, by design, don’t so much keep us from seeing out, they most often keep others from seeing us. When the veil is removed, people have to see you. You have to be seen. For who you are. For the glory of God that shines out of your ordinary life. That is not always comfortable.
And what the heck is glory anyway? Honor? Being lifted up? Isn’t it the halo around the saint’s head in the paintings? The glory of the Lord shown around those angels when they sang to the shepherds in the fields keeping watch over their flock by night.
Like a residue of mystery, power, transcendence, glory is something connected to God, something other than ordinary, something worthy of awe, something clinging on or shining forth or drawing us near.
And by its very nature glory is NOT inconspicuous or unnoticeable, it’s not a blend-in kind of thing, and it doesn’t spend much time worrying about boat rocking or institution building or rule respecting or people pleasing, because it comes from quite beyond all of that, some kind of intense nearness to or reflection of the Divine, come what may.
We are being transformed, people. From one glory to the next. From the glory of an immortal, invisible God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes, to the glory of God-with-us right there in the very opposite of glory – muck, filth, ordinariness, shame, boredom and mundane.
Is there glory in a dozen dirty diapers and a day in sweats with a shower nowhere on the horizon?
Is there glory in a daily drudge commute and a cubicle with little satisfaction and no chance for advancement?
Does glory have anything to do with the questions, Does my life even matter? Am I even important?
Or the crises and losses that knocks us on our backs and makes us think we’ve got nothing to get up for?
Because the God of glory came into those places, the real places, the veil-less, see-it-for-what-it-is-places. Right there, in the least likely of places and shining off the least likely of faces, is the glory of God. And it messes up all we think we know about how this faith thing, or church thing, or following God thing, is supposed to work.
In Christ, Paul says, the veil is removed, in the Lord, the veil is set aside. God has broken through and encounter with the Divine happens all the time, the transcendent has invaded the ordinary and our lives are part of that glory. The Spirit of the Lord sets us free. As a friend said this week, ‘You’re free now, SUCKERS!” Now you have to go and be free!
In Christ, your self-protection is stripped away. Your comfort in answers and control over who’s in and who’s out, who’s right and who’s wrong, and how much you personally have to invest or reveal – it’s all been removed – you have been set free for the terrifying task of living as free people, free for loving God and one another, come what may.
We are being transformed. Being changed by this glory of God, this radiance, this I-can’t-help-but-project-the-message-of-grace kind of living. My face just shows it, my life just leaks it out - Loved, loving. Even in all our unglorious mess, the glory of God shines forth.
But not if we hide. Not if we cover our true selves and our inspiring, vulnerable, places where God has met us, because we’re sure it would make others uncomfortable to be around such things. Not if we drape over our own struggling humanity, our failures and doubts, or hang a curtain between ourselves and others whom we don’t understand, because we’ve decided God’s glory can’t possibly be present there.
I’m not an easy person to love. And frankly, neither are most of you. And if it were our own glory we were working at revealing, we’d be in trouble.
But it’s not about what we’ve earned or done or how shiny we try to make our lives, this is God’s glory, shining off our faces, right into the faces of others. Shining from our lives right into the lives of others. And it’s inconvenient and makes us uncomfortable sometimes. And we’d like to hide so as not to offend.
But instead, since we have such hope, let’s act with great boldness, Paul says. Since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, that we are called to love and reach out and draw near, we have hope, and we do not lose heart.
Let’s live bravely. Let’s not cover up that we are people being transformed by the Spirit of God, part of God’s glorious love.