Tuesday, 9 February 2021

Take off your mask!

 A sermon for Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation,
the online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
14th February 2021

Luke 9:28-43a
Exodus 34:29-35 

Listen to this sermon here: https://soundcloud.com/bloomsbury-1/2021-02-14-podcast
Controversies about face-coverings
            are not simply a COVID-19 phenomena;
and whist I must confess to finding the politicised reluctance
            to wear a mask in the interests of public safety
as mystifying as the trend to wear masks on the chin or under the nose,
            nonetheless, arguments about whether to cover one’s face
            are nothing new.
The controversial French law of 2011,
            which made it illegal to wear a face covering veil
            or any other mask in public spaces      
led to the United Nations Human Rights Committee declaring in 2018
            that France's ban disproportionately harmed the right of women
                        to manifest their religious beliefs,
            and could have the effects of "confining them to their homes,
                        impeding their access to public services and marginalizing them."
And the irony is not lost on me that in August last year
            Paris was one of the first places
            to make wearing a face mask in public compulsory!
But of course, face and head coverings can also be oppressive;
            symbols of a patriarchy that excludes women
            from functioning fully within society as equals.
So from Covid facemasks, to religious head-coverings,
            the issue of whether or not to conceal one’s face
                        remains a contentious issue,
            and frequently becomes indicative of clash
                        between the demands of religious practice or ideological position,
                        and the requirements of civic society.
Which is probably a good point to take a trip back in time,
            to Moses coming down from Mount Sinai
            with the two stone tablets containing the ten commandments.
Whilst up the mountain,
            we are told that he had been talking with God:
                        face-to-face, as it were.
And then when he came down from the mountain
            his face was shining with the glory of God.
But after giving the commandments of God to the people,
            Moses then put on a face-veil because, we are told,
                        the people were afraid.
The significance of this is that,
            at the very moment of the giving of the Law,
                        intended to show people
                        how to relate to one another and to God,
            we find not unity but division.
Rather than bringing people together,
            the revelation of the law through Moses
                        instead brought social disruption
                                    as Moses was veiled from his fellow Israelites;
                        and spiritual disruption
                                    as the manifest presence of God
                                    was veiled from the people of God.
It can be hard to make sense of Moses’ experience,
            but I think Victor Hugo gets close in the book Les Mis√©rables,
where he describes the old bishop
            Monseigneur Bienvenu with the words:
            ‘He did not study God; he was dazzled by him.’
And I think this contrast between studying God
            and being dazzled by God
is helpful to us as we contrast the different responses
            of Moses and the people of Israel.
The Israelites focussed on the tablets of the law,
            which they made their object of study;
whilst Moses focussed on the brightness
            of the revelation of the God who gave the law.
And here we have the heart of the problem
            – religious people through the ages
                        have persisted in finding themselves much less troubled
                        when they have a law to keep and apply,
            whilst those whose faces
                        reflect their encounter with the divine
                        are feared and segregated, veiled off from society.
In the sociology of religion,
            it is often the case that things are originally declared taboo
                        because they are considered too holy,
            but that those things declared taboo
                        eventually come to be reviled as unclean.
And one might note here,
            that those men who find that their study of religious law
                        requires them to enforce restrictive legislation on women
            might believe they are acting out of a desire
                        for careful observance of the commands of God,
but the tragedy is
            that the glory of the gift of fully equal humanity
                        becomes veiled as they do so,
            and human society as God intends it
                        becomes segregated,
becoming in the process so much less than it could and should be.
The law of Moses,
            which should have provided the mechanism
                        for genuine and open relationship
                                    between people and God,
            became instead the excuse
                        for segregation, division and distrust.
The two stone tablets with the ten commandments on
            were placed in the Ark of the Covenant,
which was placed in the holy of holies
            at the heart of the Jewish temple,
            separated from the people by, of course, a veil
                        (Ex 26.31-35; 2 Chron 3.14).
And only the high priest could go beyond the veil
            into the holy of holies,
and only then once a year
            on the day of atonement (Lev. 16; Heb 9.7).
That which was holy and given as a gift of grace
            became taboo because it was so holy;
and in time it became untouchable
            and something to be avoided by almost everyone.
If we fast forward through time a few centuries,
            we come to another prophet
                        ascending a mountain
            for a face to face encounter with the divine.
Jesus goes up the mountain to pray
            with three of his disciples,
and whilst there he has an experience
            which is analogous to that of Moses.
Luke’s gospel tells us that
            ‘while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed,
            and his clothes became dazzling white’ (9.29).
It’s no accident that this imagery echoes that of Moses:
            Luke is clearly telling us that Jesus is a prophet like Moses.
In fact, he is telling us more than that:
            The way Luke sees Jesus, he is the new Moses,
            bringing into being a new covenant between God and humanity,
                        predicated not on the giving of stone tablets
                                    inscribed with commandments of law,
                        but on the direct revelation of God himself,
                                    revealed through the person of Christ.
To hammer this point home,
            we discover that Jesus is now mysteriously accompanied
                        on the mountain by none other than Moses himself,
            together with the prophet Elijah.
Here we have the great symbolic representative individuals
            of the Law and the Prophets,
accompanying Jesus
            at his own moment of face to face encounter with God.
And then, just when you think it couldn’t get any more apocalyptic,
            we have a cloud and a disembodied voice from the cloud.
Those of us who know the Exodus story
            will recognise the imagery:
the cloud is the cloudy fiery pillar
            which led the people of Israel
            from slavery to freedom through the wilderness of Sin,
and the voice is the same divine voice
            that dictated the commands of the law to Moses.
But this time, rather than speaking words of law,
            the voice from heaven offers only one command:
                        ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ (9.35).
This is the new law, given to the new Moses,
            in fulfilment of the law and prophets of old.
This is the new law,
            which will lead those who keep it
            safely through the wilderness
                        from slavery to sin and death
                        and into the promised land of the dawning kingdom of God.
It is this new law which completes and fulfils the old law,
            and this new law is written not on stone tablets,
            but is embodied in the living person of Jesus Christ.
Those who want to know how to live
            according the new law
need study no longer the words of the commandments,
            instead they need to be dazzled
            by an encounter with God in Christ.
And so Jesus, the new Moses,
            the personification of the new law,
comes down from the mountain,
            just as Moses came down from the mountain of Sinai.
And this is where it gets interesting.
Moses, as we have seen, had to veil his face
            because the people were afraid.
Jesus, on the other hand,
            comes down the mountain to an encounter
                        with a terrifying spirit
            which is causing a young child to shriek and convulse
                        and foam at the mouth.
The symptoms of the young man’s illness
            closely match those of epilepsy,
and indeed in the parallel account in Matthew’s gospel
            he is described as an epileptic.
Whilst modern medicine
            may have a better understanding of this condition
            and how it can be controlled,
the result of a violent epileptic fit
            is as terrifying today as it has ever been,
and clearly this young man’s life
            was subject to forces of chaos
            beyond his or anyone else’s ability to control.
It turns out that the disciples have been attempting to play exorcist,
            and have been trying unsuccessfully to heal the boy
            by casting out the disruptive spirit.
What Jesus says next is significant.
            The unspoken ‘Oh for goodness sake!’ is almost tangible,
            as he mutters despairingly
                        ‘you faithless and perverse generation,
                        how much longer must I be with you and bear with you’ (9.41)
            before commanding the father to bring the young boy to him.
The healing is then straightforward,
            as Jesus rebukes the spirit
            and brings peace to the convulsing child,
                        before restoring him back to his father.
It seems that the reason the disciples
            had been unable to heal the child
            was because they were part of this
                        ‘faithless and perverse’ generation.
They belonged the latest of the many generations
            which had encountered God with veiled minds.
They had not faced
            the dazzling and transforming character of God
                        with unveiled faces,
but instead had been shaped
            by a religion which focussed on the study of the law
            and the application of its commandments.
The healing of this young man,
            like so many of the healing stories in the gospels,
is not primarily about the physical cure,
            although there is certainly a physical element to what happens.
Rather, it is a story about the restoration of the young man
            to his rightful place in society.
We are told that after his healing
            he is restored back to his father.
Epileptics in that day were greatly feared as well as pitied,
            as they were believed to be inhabited by demons
            which caused their fits.
So they, and others with similar conditions,
            were kept at the margins of society,
                        hidden away and out of sight,
                        veiled off from the rest of the population.
An epileptic was an all too real reminder
            of the chaos that was believed to lurk
                        just below the surface of the world,
            threatening to break through
                        and overwhelm people at any moment.
The disciples had been unable to heal him
            because their minds were still veiled,
and they were focussing simply
            on a spiritual cause
            for the physical manifestation of his sickness.
But when the epileptic boy was brought to Jesus,
            he encountered this new Moses with an unveiled face,
and rather than pity or fear, or a desire to problem-solve,
            he met in Jesus
                        the God who brings equality between humans,
            who brings healing to society
                        and restoration to those who are cast aside or curtained off.
The healing of the young man was not just a spiritual act,
            it was not just a physical act,
it was a social act,
            restoring him to his family;
and it was a political act,
            as it challenged the structures of the society
            that had acted to segregate him away.
And in this healing of the young man,
            we see the implications of what it means
            to encounter God in Christ with unveiled faces.
The faithless and perverse generation
            is one which is beset by demons of all kinds,
which divide us one from another,
            sowing seeds of chaos and confusion,
            disorder and disruption.
I’m sure we could, if we wanted,
            name some of the demons of our own culture.
Today is Racial Justice Sunday,
            and the evils of racism have been laid bare for us
                        over the course of the last year,
with the Black Lives Matter movement
            calling us to a better vision of humanity.
From racism to sexism, to homophobia, biphobia and transphobia,
            the evils of exclusion and division are all around us
as God’s good creation becomes distorted
            and humanity is disrupted.
The faithless and perverse generation has veiled minds,
            looking for mechanistic solutions to presenting problems.
The faithless and perverse generation
            can study the law ‘til kingdom come
            and be none-the-wiser about the path to freedom.
But, those who encounter God in Christ
                        with unveiled faces
            are called to be those who bring holistic healing
                        to a world that remains frustratingly fragmented.
The call is upon all of us to keep the veils from our own faces
            as we, with Christ, descend from the mountain of revelation.
The call is upon each of us to resist those forms of our religion
            which perpetuate an us-and-them mentality,
            and which seek to veil person from person,
            or to keep our own revelation of divine love veiled from others.
If, in Christ, we have received the law of the Spirit of Christ,
            who is given to bring healing, restoration and renewal,
then our task is to allow that revelation to shine into the whole world,
            to illuminate the darkest places
            and bring healing to the most troubled and chaotic souls.
We are all too adept at finding effective ways
            of dividing our own community one-from-another
            along grounds of ethnicity, social standing, gender and sexuality
and when we do so, we not only divide the body of Christ,
            we also place a veil over the whole church
in such a way as to conceal such light as we have
            from those who most need its revelation.
Those who meet the world with unveiled faces
            are called to be those who see the structures and systems in society
                        which exclude the weak and the vulnerable,
                        which diminish and demean the oppressed,
                                    which stigmatise the demented,
                                    and segregate the unfamiliar.
Those who encounter the world with unveiled faces
            are called to bring the healing, restoring, transforming presence of Christ
                        to those whom others have written off
                        as irredeemable.
The veil between God and humanity
            was ripped in two at the moment of crucifixion,
the veil which lies over the hearts of humans
            is swept aside in Christ.
As none other than Paul himself put it:
            ‘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.’ (2 Cor 43.18).

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