Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.
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We have two interesting images from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians today. One is veiled faces and the other hardened minds.
As a way of leading into this sermon, I want to get us on the same page regarding these images. So, let me start with veils-they are those things that we cover ourselves with, or have put upon us, like a hood, by the culture at large. Veils may be our group identity, or tribal association, or an ingrained prejudice… Often they are inherited at birth and woven around our character by forces that are bigger than we are. Paul is all about ripping away these veils, arguing that to not do so is to batten them down with hardened minds.
Which brings me to that second image Paul gives us – hardened minds. These are minds that see and respond to the symbol, that is the veil, over a person more quickly and easily than the individual person him or her self.
Paul, taking his lead from Jesus, is trying to get those folks in Corinth, and you and I as well, to see right through the veils a person wears to the deeper reality of their divine nature. Jesus does that all of the time; in a culture that was deeply divided by rigid hierarchy, and tribal allegiance, and gender conformity, Jesus saw the person. He saw the person behind the child; he saw the person behind the illness; he saw the person behind the Roman rank; he saw the person behind the criminal behavior; he saw the person made in the image and likeness of God FIRST. He saw right through the veil they were born with; he saw right through the veil they had put upon them by the culture at large; he saw right through the veil they had adopted because they thought it served their self-interest. Jesus saw the person first.
That is the point I want to turn our minds toward today…seeing the person first, and then, if it is helpful, to understand them through the context of the veils they wear. Jesus did this. He understood the vulnerability of a child; he understood the nature of the disease that plagued a person; he understood how the Roman military order worked; he understood the forces that drove a person to break a law. And still, he saw the person first, and then, if it was helpful, the context of the veils they wore.
When we see through veils we change the world. When we rip off our own veils we change the world.
With this in mind let me outline the rest of this sermon for you. First, I want to tell you a story about when I realized I was wearing veils. Then I want to talk some about how hardened minds are inflaming cultural tensions between, what I call, veil groups, or symbol groups; these are people who congregate around a dominant common identity and claim that that identity is more important than an individual’s outside their group. This symbol first way of seeing is what tears cultures and countries apart. And finally, I want to talk about how we train to see through veils, and how we seek to rip our own veils off, and how we strive to connect with those who think veil groups are more important than individuals.
So that is the outline: A story; a cultural reflection; and some take home tips for living in the Kingdom of God.
Let me tell you a story: I was probably forty years old, living in Los Angeles with Kristin, Margaret, and Desmond, a priest at All Saints’ Beverly Hills, when I first realized I was even wearing a veil.
One day I was at the grocery store with Margaret; she was probably six years old or so. I had just picked her up from school. It was a day like any other day, except on this day the lead story in the LA Times was about a pedophile priest who was on trial for his many crimes. I noticed strangers staring at me; some people even seemed hostile as I walked hand in hand with my daughter around the grocery store. It was so odd for me, and off-putting, and I knew what they were thinking and it was both unjust and flat wrong. They did not know me. And what made it more disconcerting is that usually people smile at me. They have all my life.
When I go to a restaurant people are polite. When I go into a bank, even if I’m wearing my stinky gym cloths, everyone is so nice to me. Even when I get pulled over by the police, even back in high school, I would mostly get a smile, a warning, and a wave on. People like me. I’m a great guy; and I know that because when I walk into a restaurant, or a bank, or get pulled over by the police everyone is nice to me. I must be a great guy.
Which made the grocery store experience so uncomfortable and disconcerting. These people weren’t seeing me, this great guy; they were seeing a symbol that I somehow represented to them that wasn’t me, or the priesthood at large for that matter. Who makes those kinds of logic jumps?
And that is when the tectonic plates began to shift in my hardened mind. What if I have always been seen first as a symbol and second as an individual? What if all of this great guy good will I have accrued had less to do with me, and more to do with the symbols I represent?
And in realizing this, I was confronted with a choice: on the one hand I could double down on the benefit accrued by the veil I wore; building defense mechanisms and seeking to hold the ground I had gained…which is a real, legitimate option, particularly, when the status and valued gained by my veil actually feels good, and accrues privilege.
On the other hand there is the promise of Paul, and the pattern of Jesus; that a world without veils, with veils ripped away, is the only way the plan of God will be revealed and realized. And the choice then was to either double down on my veil group, or double down on Jesus. And the double down on Jesus requires training to see through veils; and continuing to recognize the veils I wear; and trying to be a mirror into which others can see their divine nature in my actions towards them.
This is a challenge, particularly at this time when veil groups seem happy to wage symbolic war against each other. We saw this clash at the Lincoln Memorial the other day. You may be familiar with what happened. There was a confrontation between a Native American group, and boys from a Catholic school in Kentucky, and a group of African American men who called themselves Hebrew Israelites.
I watched this battle unfold through the lenses of the many different cameras capturing the confrontation; and I have talked to a few people about it; and two things are pretty clear:
- that people saw this event through the lens of the veil group they most closely identify with;
- nothing was accomplished by this symbol skirmish, except more vitriol, division, bitterness, and, well, hardened minds.
Our response is different… to double down on Jesus; and that means training to see through veils; continuing to recognize the veils we wear; and trying to be a mirror into which others can see their own divine nature.
So, let’s talk about training first; it is something we talk a lot about at Epiphany. Training to see through veils begins with the desire to know God, and to know the patterns of the Kingdom of God, and to seek first to live those patterns in our everyday lives. Because when we have that Kingdom of God orientation, seeing through veils becomes the normal way of seeing. We train by worshiping and praying and studying the Bible. These are tried and true, old school, spiritual training techniques that have been around a long time, and they work. Seeking to live the Way of Jesus is what allows us to see through veils. TRAINING
Next is self-examination, which is the exercise that helps us identify the veils we have chosen to wear, or that have been put upon us. Journaling is one exercise that helps. Prayer is another. But the best exercise is being part of a small group that knows the context of your life and is willing to honestly help you see the veils that you wear. That is how a small group of church friends is different than a book group or a peps group or a running group. Being with people who are also seeking to live the Way of Jesus moves us from the symbols we wear to the divine beings we are. SEEING OUR VEILS
Finally, trying to be a mirror into which the others can see their own divine nature. We know God made them. We know God loves them. And with that in mind, be curious about them. Wonder about the song they are singing, or the purpose of their field trip, or the history behind their identity. Get curious, seek to know the other, listen to their story, and connect it with the divine spark you know God has set within their heart. In this way we act as a mirror of God’s love.
Listening is key to the mirroring effort. It is like Daryl Davis said, the gentleman I quoted in my MLK Day sermon: “When you actively listen to someone else, you are passively teaching them something about yourself,” which is that within you, like within them, is that divine spark of God.
Double down on Jesus; train to see through veils; continue to recognize the veils you wear; mirror the divine image in the people you meet along the way. This is how we respond to this broken and divided world. See the person first, and then, if it is helpful, their context, their symbol, the veils they wear. Double down on Jesus. It will change you and bless the world.