The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
Second Sunday after Epiphany
January 16, 2022
The Practice of Shining Forth
As we step more into this year, I feel led to shift the approach of my sermons a bit. I want to look at the readings of the day, the broader tradition that we practice, and then be even more explicit, if you will, about how what we say and do shapes the way we live. I want to laser focus on this question: “What does Christian practice matter, and why is it important that I see my faith as a practice that informs the way I live day to day?” This gets to the heart of why we are here as a community.
So, I want to begin today’s teaching by looking at a particularly important and fascinating story that, while not in today’s assigned readings at all, has a crucial insight into how we understand what we are exploring today. (We’re peeking ahead a few weeks). Exodus 34 describes Moses coming down off the mountain after getting the tablets of the Covenant from God for the second time (remember, he smashed the first set in anger at how the people had gone astray):
Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. Afterwards all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.
The images offer invaluable insights for us. Sometimes it helps to come at a familiar story or image in a slightly different way, so that our understanding can break open a bit more. Our familiarity can actually thwart a deeper understanding, because we think we know all there is to know about a story, so to speak. So, this morning, I want to build on this story and try out a few images and then work toward what I think is a deeply meaningful invitation for us to envision how we share in what we describe as Light, the Divine Presence.
First, a piece from Tibetan or Vajrayana Buddhism: in this tradition, there is an understanding of how the spaciousness of authentic reality, of primordial Awareness, is all encompassing. Out of this luminous spaciousness, called Dhatu in Sanskrit and Ying in Tibetan, what we see and experience as life arises in its particularity. Before you think this is too foreign, look at how we catch a glimpse of this in today’s Psalm: In your light we see light. Our perspective, our vision, flows out of the Divine life. Any authentic understanding of ourselves is rooted in our awareness of God, from a Christian point of view. Our life flows out from God’s life.
This spaciousness, this Dhatu, is the core essence of reality, and whatever authentic vision we have shares in that, is rooted in that. We inhabit it and it us, as it were. When we are aware of this openness, are aligned with this Awareness, and live in attunement with it, there can be a radiation within and around us of this luminosity. This, in Tibetan, is called Long. It is a palpable energy that we can radiate when we relax into the spaciousness of Awareness (1).
If this sounds strange to you, don’t dismiss it out of hand. I bet you’ve had a glimpse of this when you described or felt that someone or a situation was “light,” or “heavy.” That experience is pointing at this reality, that is a glimpse. We have all had such glimpses, it is just that, in Christianity as we normally experience it here in the West, those senses and skills are not honed. But even though we unfortunately do not emphasize it, this practice of sharing in this Light is a vital aspect of our practice that is present in the heart of Christianity. From the collect for today, we see this invitation: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory.
There it is: our practice of faith is not just conceptual, not just an idea that we think about; rather, our practice of faith is meant to be embodied, enfleshed in our particular lives. We are meant to radiate with this awareness in our lives.
To return to the figure of Moses, earlier in the Exodus story, we remember how Moses notices the burning bush, which is a manifestation of the luminosity of the Divine presence, and he removes his shoes so that his posture honors the fullness of the situation. He encounters the Light, this Awareness which names Itself as “I am who I am,” or “I will be what I will be,” and Moses pauses and pays attention and is so attuned and opened to it that it infuses him, so that when he comes down off the mountain his own face shines. That divine radiation, that Long, if you will, flows out from him and ripples through the community.
But notice that the dynamic of the group leads him to cover his face so that the others can stay more comfortable. And here is the rub. That is the tension of the story for me, that they missed an opportunity to reorient their lives along the flow of this Awareness. They yielded to the comfortable patterns. That urge or impulse to remain in the status quo is strong, like a peculiar gravity. The patterns and habits of our lives gather momentum, and it takes a particular energy to move us into another pattern of being. This is how our spiritual practices function, if you will.
This is the absolute heart of the call of our practice, like Cynthia mentioned last week in her sermon: to look honestly at the situation of our lives, what our desires and hopes are, and ask what the spiritual work is that we are being called to do to nurture wholeness and healing.
Put another way, if the Light feels thwarted in your life, dim, or just blacked out entirely, can we name this? If you are struggling in your life, if you are experiencing suffering–which, of course, we all are in a basic sense in this life–then how can we set our intention to practice our faith?
Here is where we arrive at today’s Epistle reading from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, when he lays out this deep reflection on how we embody our distinctive spiritual gifts. St. Paul isn’t just talking about skills here; rather, he is inviting us to see how each of us is called to radiate this luminosity of the Divine Presence within our particular lives–and, to go further, that our particular lives are interconnected within community. “To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” There it is, with both the particular and the communal, both the distinct and the interconnected. St. Paul lays out these glimpses: wisdom, faith, knowledge, miracles, prophecy, and so on.
We may read this list and think that, since we don’t think we have any of these, this doesn’t apply to us or we have failed, but that’s not approaching it the right way. I don’t think the list is meant to be exhaustive. I think the list is supposed to spark our own discernment to become aware of how we share in the luminous Divine Presence. I think of compassion, justice, peace, and how these are essential embodiments as well.
This call to become aware of these gifts is our common invitation to share in the Light, and here we may begin to see the struggle within the wider world. Perhaps we feel we have shortcomings and the call doesn’t apply to us. In that case, we have effectively put the veil on our own faces. Or, maybe we have had experiences of being in tune with this movement of Light and then feeling thwarted. That is like having someone else tell us to put on the veil so they feel more comfortable, as it were. So, we always struggle with how to embody this call to share in the Divine Life, don’t we?
Put yet another way still, perhaps we can identify with Jesus in today’s Gospel when those around him want him to cultivate something, to nurture something in that moment and he responds, “My hour has not yet come.” This isn’t the appropriate time for this. Or, perhaps we identify with Mary, the Blessed Mother, sitting there knowing that it was her role to encourage Jesus to take the risk and shine forth. It is a fascinating exchange!
To weave it all together: sometimes we put a veil on our own face and sometimes others expect us to cover up. And, sometimes we don’t want to take the veil off our face and someone else encourages us to shine forth. This is why we live in a community that nurtures this deep awareness of the Divine Light, because we can encourage each other to believe in the deep truth of our own being.
Now, here is the more direct part of today’s teaching: this is why it is essential that we understand that we practice our faith, that we are called to support each other as we discern the deepest nature of who we are. This is why we see this as spiritual work, as it were, because no one is supposed to do this work for us. No one can do our spiritual work for us. From a Christian perspective, the Spirit is always nurturing us to grow into the fullness of Christ, but I don’t think the Spirit is going to drag us over the goal line. We have to be responsible and name the struggles we need to face as we cultivate compassion to live more faithfully.
To return to today’s collect, or opening prayer: Grant that your people, illumined by your Word and Sacraments, may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory. Maybe our prayer this day is that we may heed the call to live out of this attunement with the Spirit, that we can nurture this Awareness in our lives, that we honor this intentional work in one another, and that we see how important it is to pay attention to our prayer life that grounds us and empowers us to shine forth as we embody the Light of God.
(1) I am grateful to Lama Liz Monson and Lama Willa Blythe Baker at Natural Dharma Fellowship for their recent teachings during an online retreat on Awareness, of rigpa, in Vajrayana Buddhism. In particular, Lama Liz offered this image of radiation to describe the physical effect or manifestation of such an alignment with Awareness in our lives, and it was very insightful.