Molong cloudset, NSW 2011

unveiled sanctuary

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,
Yesterday the High Court ruled that the government can now choose to forcibly deport asylum-seeker families, including 37 babies and 54 children to offshore detention.

The Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce of which the Uniting Church is a member, asked its members to take symbolic action by offering asylum-seeker families sanctuary within churches.

The Synod of South Australia was approached by the Uniting Church in Australia Assembly, to nominate a local church that would be able to offer sanctuary to asylum-seeker families affected by the High Court decision. As the Moderator, I approached Pilgrim Uniting Church, who over a long period of time, have supported and advocated for asylum seekers and refugees. The South Australian Synod is working closely with Pilgrim Uniting Church as a result of the Uniting Church in Australia’s request....

Yours in Christ,
Deidre Palmer
Moderator
Uniting Church in South Australia. (Pastoral Letter Feb 4 2016)

Preface to the Exodus 34:29-35
The underlying cultural knowledge inthis reading is that

  1. God is often present in a cloud: the cloud is the sign of God's presence.
  2. Your face shines when you have been in the presence of God. and
  3.  God is dangerous.
    1. When Elijah leaves his cave on Sinai to stand before God, he wraps his face in his cloak, because to look upon the face of God is to die. (1 Kings 19)
    2. When Moses first climbs Mt Sinai, God warns him not to allow the people to come up.( Exodus 19 cf Exodus 33:20 "you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.")
    3. God is so dangerous that even Moses shining face left other people fearful!

When Luke writes the transfiguration story in Chapter nine he expects his audience to see the differences between it, and the stories of Moses and Elijah meeting God. He is using the contrasts to do theology.

Preface to Luke 9:28-43
Remember the story of Exodus 34, and look for the differences.

  1. Who goes up the mountain?
  2. Look at the contrast between Jesus and the disciples, especially the contrast between Jesus and the disciples on the mountain and between Jesus and the disciples down in the valley.
  3. And look at Peter offering to build shelters. In the culture, three shelters for three people implies they are equal. What does God say about that?
  4. How does the presence of God respond to the notion of building a shelter for the glory of his Son?

Preface to 2 Corinthians 3:12-18
Paul is defending himself against people who were saying he should not be trusted and that he did not really understand what Jesus was about. It is so toxic that I've struggled with whether we should even have it read. DO NOT read this as an anti-semitic text; that is a sin. This was an argument between believers of the same race and religion about who got to control access to God— who gets to go up the mountain, if you like— and about who God loves. Some folk think (then and now) that God only loves some of us, and that some people don't belong in God's church. You can probably remember such arguments in our own denomination.

The sermon as it came out (courtesy of Pilgrim Church)

The Sermon Draft
Denise and I began preparing for this Sunday with a sense that the readings contained good news about enchantment. Enchantment is that state of living where we fit into the world, knowing our place and, whatever our fears, knowing we belong. An enchanted world is a world with meaning. Enchantment is what Victor Frankl was talking about when he said "those who have a 'why' can live with almost any 'how.'"

Dis-enchantment is the mark of our age; our age has set itself over against the world, and is separated from it. The world loses its magic, you could say. We are alone. Even those of us with high ideals can end up like First Dog on the Moon this week: "I'm not sure I can do this anymore."

 Or maybe Willie Nelson sings our song:

"I'm tired, I woke up tired"
Life is wearin' me smooth down to the bone
No rest for the weary, ya just move on
And I guess we'll just keep goin' till we're gone
And I'm tired, Lord, I'm tired

Disenchantment gives death its power because, in a disenchanted world, there are only things and death. And death takes away every thing.

That's where we started. But when I came to study of the texts more closely this week, what struck me was the power of the metaphor of the veil. It's everywhere in life and in Scripture:

 As much as we long for God's presence, we fear God: On Sinai, Elijah veiled his face in his cloak because it's not safe to look upon the face of God; we are afraid of God.    Moses wore a veil because even the reflection of God's glory upon his face, made people uneasy!   We are deeply afraid of the close encounter which would save us. Even in the presence of other people we veil ourselves: we fear living with an unveiled face, and take refugee behind a persona.

We also know too well the reality of a veil over the mind: "How can you not see this," I asked an old friend and colleague who thought Scott Morison was doing a good job as Immigration Minister. Which leads to another image: surely, as a nation which plans on sending children to a concentration camp, we should cover our faces in shame.

How do we experience God in a world which is so disenchanted that we even doubt that God may be experienced— or that God is? And how do we find hope when institutional evil has so heavily veiled the eye of the national conscience that it feels we have lost our humanity? 

We find a way by offering Sanctuary. Luke and Paul promise us unveiled faces— freedom to be in the presence of God. They promise us transformation— Paul calls it being transformed into the same image [as Christ] from one degree of glory to another. This promise is in the present passive tense; it is given to us— done to us, even— now.

To offer sanctuary, as this congregation has done, is to step outside of our cave into the presence of God, and it is to come down from the mountain into a valley of injustice and inhumanity which mauls children, and in that valley, to act with the power of Christ.

In the end, what happens to us  here is mystery and grace beyond our understanding. Luke shows us that Jesus takes us safely into the presence of God… he actually takes the disciples up the mountain, where Moses had to leave people behind. In the presence of Jesus, the disciples can enter the cloud of God's presence and survive. It is the language of mystery, but we can see some of it's working, because the method— how you do this in real life outside the poetry, if you like— is also in Luke.

 ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?

Here is the promise of our disenchanted world:
Seek gain; preserve your life; indulge in all you can get. Line up a day in advance to buy the latest iPhone, for this is where you will find enchantment—(while you let the rich enjoy their power, undisturbed.)

And one day the veil falls off and we discover that phone, or whatever it was we have given our souls to, is an empty piece of glass and plastic and that, somehow, we have lost our lives.

Three verses before Jesus takes the disciples up the mountain into the life giving presence of God he says, " If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me."

Here is the way of enchantment:
Heal. Be compassionate. Love your neighbour at the risk of your own life and health, and at the cost of your wealth. Deny your  self. Give sanctuary.

Giving sanctuary is the compassion that says I will sacrifice my time, my freedom and my safety to give safety to you. I will face the fear of prison. This is  a standing unveiled before the possibility of death; it is a standing unveiled before the probability of violence done to us, and it’s the opening of ourselves to the certainty of loss.

Following Jesus is to learn compassion. It is to enable others to find a place in the world, which is called Sanctuary. And it means to learn and to  bear pain and violence. Following Jesus is to learn justice, and to face death. [Gently] If we have not been truly afraid about where our faith is taking us, it may be/ could it be?   time to wonder if it is taking us anywhere, and to wonder who or what we have been following…

Faith— actual active trust in Jesus— unveils us. It strips us. It leaves us vulnerable. It unveils our mind. It brings us into the transforming presence of God. It also— I'm taking words from a communion liturgy we used this week— it also removes death's mask so that we see it for the empty threat it is.  (Thom Shuman)

•••

I can write words… and I talk a lot. I'm a poor activist. I scare easily. But I find even my poor and small discipleship has given me a startling clarity of vision. And it has reenchanted my world— life is alive and full. I have found a place to be.

… when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. 17Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18And 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.

Sisters and brothers, this is a true promise. God bless you. 

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!


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