Sermon for February 10, 2013
Grace Lutheran Church
Let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Epiphanal moments. I’ve been thinking about them a lot lately. I wish I could tell you it was because I’ve been faithfully meditating on the gospel stories of the past few weeks, the ones full of the epiphanal moments of Jesus’ life, but that wouldn’t be the truth. I’ve been thinking about epiphanal moments because of M.
“I was six years old,” she told me. “My older brother and I went to the movie theater one day, for a treat, for a double matinee. Back in those days, movie theaters were still segregated. So when my brother and I got our tickets, we had to go back out the movie theater, down a tiny, cramped alley to the back of the building, up a narrow flight of steps, and into the balcony where the black people sat. Well, in between the double feature, they had a raffle, drawing out ticket stubs and awarding prizes. On this day, I remember that the grand prize for the raffle was this shiny new Schwinn bike, and, well, I wanted a bike in the worst way. I was waiting for them to get to the grand prize when it occurred to me that if they drew out my name, there was no way down to the stage where the drawing was, except to go out the door, down the stairs, through the alley, in through the theater, and up to the stage—and after all that time it would take me, they’d have drawn someone else’s name! So I turned to my brother, and asked what we would do to get to the stage in time if one of us won the bike. And my brother, worldly wise and all of eleven years old, turned to me and said, ‘You don’t really think our names are in there, do you?’ Once he said that, it was so obvious. Of course our names weren’t in there. Of course. That was my epiphanal moment. That’s when I realized I was black.”
Epiphanal moments. I’ve always thought of them as good things, but epiphanies can cut both ways. In those instants of insight, the world suddenly makes sense in a way that it hasn’t before—but that is not always a happy event. Every African-American, M told me, can tell you the moment when they realized they were black. It comes for everyone. You try to prepare your kids for it, she tells me, so that when that moment happens they understand it for what it is, so they don’t think it’s their fault.
M’s epiphanal moment caused me to realize something about myself: that I’m white. The story of a six-year old who longed for a bike she would never get because there was a system of oppression in place, a system that benefited whites like me and silenced blacks like her, brought the reality of racism home to me in a way that I just hadn’t quite got before, in a way that asked me the question, “What gifts do you receive from this world simply because you are white? And what are you doing about it?”
It also invited me to name my own epiphanal moment—the moment I first realized I was a woman. I was 24. I was working for a company where I was unpopular, and I couldn’t figure out why. I spent the term of my contract believing that if I could just figure out what to do differently, I could reverse the hatred of the men with whom I worked. But I just couldn’t figure out what they wanted from me. Finally, after my contract finished, I asked a coworker whom I trusted what I could have done differently. I remember how he looked at me. “To be honest,” he said. “You’re a woman. And you’re not dating any of the guys on the team.” That’s when I realized I’m a woman.
You have probably had your own epiphanal moment. Maybe for you it was about gender, or race, or ethnicity, or perhaps it was about your sexual orientation, or to do with what neighborhood you come from, maybe it was about your religion. Maybe it wasn’t a moment of discrimination, but instead one of privilege, one where you realize that you were being handed something not based on your own merits, but based on a system that benefited you but oppressed someone else. In a few moments, I’m going to ask you to write down that moment on the index card you got today, but before that, I want to talk about this Exodus text.
Because something struck me as similar about Moses’ situation and M’s: neither of them new that something was “different” about them until other people told them so. M didn’t know that what she was experiencing was discrimination until her brother named it for her. And when Moses came down from Sinai, he had no idea the skin of his face was shining! All he knew was that all of a sudden, all the Israelites were running away from him.
And they had good reason to run! This is the second time Moses has had to ascend Sinai to receive the tablets of the covenant and the Law from God. The first time, it seems he has no sooner disappeared from view than the people turn around and make a golden calf to worship. Moses was so angry that he broke the original tablets. And it’s in that state of anger that he goes up to try to make atonement for the people’s sin with God—who’s also furious at these stiff-necked people. How would you feel if your spiritual leader went up the mountain to talk to God after you’d screwed up big time, and came down glowing and freaky-looking? Would you wait around to hear how it had gone? Or would you make for the hills?
But Moses bears in his hands not retribution, but a second set of tablets recording the covenant between God and Israel, cementing the deal: “I shall be your God, and you shall be my people.” He comes carrying a second chance.
There is a story in Jewish tradition that Moses’ face shone because he wrote the Torah down that second time he was on Mt. Sinai, and when he was finished, he wiped his his brow. Where drops of ink fell, there beams of light sprouted like horns. The Torah, as much as we tend to think of law as kind of a downer, is really a symbol of God’s grace, a constant reminder of the covenant—God saying to God’s people, “I love you, and because I love you, I will show you the way to live well.” Torah is a way of drawing God and God’s people together.
But even this form of grace was too distant for God, who so longed for intimacy with us, God’s chosen people, that God put on flesh, became one of us, even to the point of suffering and death. In baptism, we are baptized into Christ—into his life, death and resurrection—and there is no way of being more intimate with God than that. Moses came down from Sinai shining because he had been talking with God. We come out of baptism radiant because we have been made one with Christ.
Moses chooses to put on a veil to hide his shining skin. But we are given veils that we have not chosen through labels like black, white, man, woman, straight, gay, rich, poor…I could go on. Naming those veils is important, because unless we do, we could go through life without ever knowing they are there, with the world always a little dimmer and more distant. We could go through life without ever really feeling as though we have anything to do with why the world is so broken—without ever asking what we can do to lift those veils from each others’ faces.
But it is just as important to name how God has lifted the veil in baptism, by making us one with Christ. It is just as important to sing out that in Christ there is no black or white, male or female, slave or free. It is just as important to come to the Eucharist, and look around at those who share with you this one body of Christ—because Christ has made you one body with them. It is just as important to wade in the waters of the grace that wash us clean, and make us one, and make us radiant with the Christ-light.
Now, as the next hymn is sung, I invite you to take those cards, and write on one side a moment where you named a veil that you wear, or had it named for you. But then turn it over, and write down or a moment in your life where you named, or had someone name for you, that you are a called, claimed, beloved child of God. During communion, as you come to receive the body of Christ place your card in the baptismal font, the place where your sin is drowned and your life is renewed, the place where you are daily invited to wade and be made to shine like the Son of Man.