Sermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, for the Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service on Transfiguration Sunday. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.
“…but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off…” — Exodus 34:34
Last night was special. The Harvard College Glee Club gathered in this space to pay tribute to one of Harvard’s favorite sons, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois. An 1890 graduate of Harvard College. Then the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from this institution in 1895. It was actually the Glee Club that provided Du Bois one of his saddest memories on this campus. Though he had sung with the glee club during his years at Fisk in Nashville, Harvard denied him admission. He could hit the right notes, but he was the wrong color. This small moment of indignity, this obvious racial slight was symptomatic of a more significant structural problem in America. As Du Bois later wrote in The Souls of Black Folk, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.”
For Du Bois, the conceptual color-line is maintained, in part, by a veil. Du Bois uses this metaphor of the veil to describe the barrier that rests between white society and the darker races of the world. The Veil is physical—it’s the physical demarcation of skin color. The veil is mental—it’s the cognitive inability to see children of Africa, Asia, and South America as “co-workers in the kingdom of culture.” And the veil is spiritual—it’s a spiritual impediment to people treating one another as siblings under the parenthood of God.
The metaphor of the veil had a few different sources for Du Bois. One source is today’s scripture lesson. In the 34th chapter of Exodus, we witness Moses atop Mt. Sinai. Moses is communing with God. God’s people had literally been through hell and high water. You know the story. Enslaved in Egypt for four-hundred years. A civil war erupts in the nation. God is on one side, the Egyptians on the other side. Mighty plagues weaken the vast empire. The Children of Israel flee under Moses’s command. And in one final dramatic battle, God creates a highway of deliverance through the Red Sea.
If only the story ended there. But conflict arises between Moses and his people. The Children of Israel grow afraid. Despite God’s daily provision, they become anxious. Despite their daily bread, they grew apprehensive. Despite God’s care, they get antsy. The Children of Israel begin to turn their fear and anxiety against one another.
The Children of Israel began to understand what Søren Kierkegaard came to teach us about anxiety. Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom. Fear and freedom go hand-in-hand. It immobilizes us. It cripples us. It incapacitates us. As Toni Morrison writes in Beloved, “Freeing yourself is one thing. Claiming ownership of that freed self is another.”
To recalibrate. To hit the reset button, Moses takes a sabbatical. Moses goes up Mt. Sinai to commune with God. So let me add here that we should all be so fortunate to find our own Mt. Sinai. A place where we can rise above the stress and strife of this world. A place to go up and commune with God.
Each of us, at some point or another, will get weary in our well-doing. Each of us will feel overwhelmed by the ubiquity of bad news. Each of us is susceptible to the very things we oppose in others. So before Moses begins to treat the Children of Israel the way they have treated him, before he starts to mirror their bickering, duplicate their bigotry, imitate their idolatry, and sink to their level, he goes up. And while he’s up, God transforms him. God transfigures him.
Moses had a glow on his face. In fact, the Bible says that when he came down from atop Mt. Sinai, the people were afraid of him. So to talk to the people, Moses placed a veil over his face—a veil that Moses did not need when he spoke to God. Yet he put on this veil when talking to his brothers and sisters.
Because of the veil, the people couldn’t really see him. The veil shaded God’s glory in his life. The veil shrouded his beauty. The veil obscured his uniqueness, it dimmed his countenance and hid Moses’s complicated humanity. God had placed something unique upon his brow, yet the people cannot see it. Moses felt he needed to conceal it within a veil.
How many of us live like this? We live our lives within a veil.
Maybe its a sense of fear. We do not want the world to judge us for who we really are, because we do not yet trust the gift that God has placed in us.
Maybe it’s a sense of shame. Since we don’t trust the gift that God has placed in us, we can only see what we have done wrong, our mistakes, our presumed inadequacies.
Maybe it’s a sense of inferiority. We don’t trust what God has put in us, we can only see our mistakes, and thus we assume that everyone is so much better than we are. So we live beneath a veil.
This is particularly true for those from minoritized communities. We are too dark. Too feminine. Too poor. Too gay. Too “other.” And though God has blessed and transfigured us with radiant beauty in our uniqueness, we remain hidden behind a veil.
Maybe this is why Du Bois suggested that a form of double-consciousness develops within the veil. “It’s a peculiar sensation,” Du Bois writes, “this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
If anybody understood this sense of twoness, it would have been Moses. Born an enslaved Hebrew, raised a privileged Egyptian. His birth mother was his nursemaid, his adopted mother a princess. One taught him empathy toward the plight of his people. The other taught him to embrace the power of imperial Egypt. Moses certainly felt his two-ness — an Egyptian, a Hebrew; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body.
But it was Moses’s communion with God that delivered him from the tyranny of the veil. It was his relationship with his Creator that allowed him to stop worrying about his stutter, embrace his unique background, and use history of hurt to help others heal. God’s love transformed Moses. When Moses came before God, there was no need for a veil of protection. God embraced Moses in the fullness of his humanity with all of the flaws of his personality. And this is who God chose to use.
This is my story. This is your story. We are blemished, and we are beautiful. We are all flawed, and we are fantastic. We are imperfect, and we are incredible. This is who we are.
In the words of Goethe, “there is enough stuff in me to make me both a gentleman and a rogue.”
In the words of the Apostle Paul, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
And I understand Plato’s metaphor in Phaedrus. I feel like a charioteer being pulled by two horses. One is immoral and obstinate pulling me toward destruction. But the other is noble and upright pulling me above the veil toward truth, beauty, and goodness.
And though we may see through a glass dimly, it’s in God that we can reconcile these parts of the self, toward becoming a better self. Slowly but surely the veil of sin that separates us from God separates from ourselves, and separates us from one another can begin to fall away. And we can rise above the veil and embrace who God has gifted us to be in the fullness of our unique beauty.
I witnessed such beauty last weekend. I had the privilege of visiting the Triune Mercy Center in Greenville, South Carolina. The Triune Mercy Center is a church in the fullest sense. It’s a community that works alongside the homeless. They provide hot meals, laundry services, addiction and recovery counseling, and volunteer lawyers seven days a week. And on last Sunday I witnessed members of a small southern community who were willing to remove the veil of the social division while being transformed and transfigured by a loving God. Men and women who live in shelters sat in pews next to University professors, lawyers, and physicians. Teenagers from a local arts conservatory led worship alongside those who could barely read. I met an African American day-laborer who walked away from drugs years ago, as well as a well-dressed white man with a “good job” who still struggles with addiction every day. Gay and straight, rich and poor, black, brown, and white—all gather together at the foot of the cross each week—all needing God’s amazing grace.
The community is led by Pastor Deb Richardson-Moore, a journalist turned unconventional pastor. She writes about her incredible journey and this beautiful community in her book The Weight of Mercy. One of the moments she recounts involved a crack-addict named Quinn. One day Quinn was outside of the church speaking to another homeless man named Tom. Tom was in a wheelchair. Tom had a terrible infection in his foot that forced doctors to amputate several gangrenous toes. When Pastor Richardson Moore walked over to Quinn and Tom to see how they were doing, Tom asked if the church had any clean bandages. She went inside, opened the first aid kit, pulled out some antiseptic, Band-Aids and gauze.
She returned and tried to hand the items to Tom, but Quinn, the active crack addict, grabbed them from her. Quinn said, “if you grab me a cup of warm water, I’ll clean his foot first.” She watched Quinn kneel down, gently remove the bloody bandages, and expose a blackened, sore-encrusted foot that made others, including the pastor, turn away from with nausea. Yet Quinn, down on his knees, washed and bandaged Tom’s foot with incredible grace and care. At that moment Quinn modeled the compassion of Christ.
Triune’s example is how I imagine life beyond the veil. A world where people are no longer afraid of one another’s humanity. A world where the veils of hierarchy and social distinction are removed. A world where we are not so ashamed of our past that we foreclose our potential. A world where we are no longer blind to incredible acts of goodness happening where we least expect.
As we embark on our 40 days Lenten journey, I hope you will join me in giving up those things that impede your view of the world. Go out into the world. Reach beyond the veil. And see God’s transforming glory. For…
It is no secret, what God can do
What He’s done for others, He’ll do for you
With arms wide open, He’ll pardon you
It’s no secret, what God can do.