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Sunday, August 18, 2019

Who is that masked person?

A Sermon for Pentecost X - RCL Track I - Proper 15 C
August 18, 2019
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, DE

“It’s been a busy week in Lake Wobegon,” Garrison Keillor likes to say.  

I don’t know about you but my week does not slow down just because it’s supposed to be “the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer,” as Nat King Cole used to sing.

I don’t know about you but there have been meals to cook and laundry to do.  I’ve done marketing, fed the dogs and watered the plants. Additionally, I’ve made pastoral calls, studied sacred texts and, well, written this sermon. 

I’m sure you’ve got your “to do” list which creates a constant hum of busyness. And that hum of busyness that can create the illusion that we’ve got all things all under control. 

We come into church, some of us, feeling tired or exhausted, or, perhaps fairly satisfied, wanting to be inspired and nourished. Instead, here comes Jesus this morning, calling us ‘hypocrites’ and threatening to bring down hellfire and brimstone upon our blindness and foolishness. 

And you thought last week’s sermon was passionate! Jesus has me beat by a country mile - or, two. Then again, he always does.

So, let’s spend a few minutes understanding why Jesus is saying what he’s saying to his original audience and what we might take away to better understand ourselves and the world in which we presently live. 

I want to do that by looking at the word, “hypocrite,” which is the word Jesus used, the name he hurled at his followers. 

Let’s look first at the baptismal stress Jesus says he’s living with, “until it is completed”.

Jesus and his disciples are on their way to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. If you can remember the events of Holy Week, you understand what happens there. After being greeted with “Hosanna’s” and having palm branches spread at his feet, Jesus is brought to trial by both religious and secular forces and is betrayed, scourged, mocked and beaten and then crucified and left to die on the hard wood of the cross.

Jesus knows all this is about to happen. The stress of that knowledge must be unbearable. No wonder he’s upset and lashing out. 

But, make no mistake: that fire is a fire not of destruction but of purification. 

Jesus desperately wants to change and transform people’s lives from one of blind obedience to rules and laws and the humdrum routine of life into lives that are in a passionate relationship with God, with themselves, with others and the world.

I suspect he’s feeling a bit of a failure to the purpose of his baptism, and that feeling is especially strong, as he knows his days are numbered. He’s running out of the time he has left on earth and his frustration gives rise to anger. 

That is a human pattern of behavior we all know all too well. When things are not going the way we think they should, we often lash out at others - sometimes the ones we love the most - and, often for the same flaws and faults we see in ourselves.

As my grandmother used to say, “Remember, when you point a finger, there are three more pointing right back at you.”

As Jesus understands his earthly life coming to a close, he wants people to snap to attention and feel the same urgency he’s feeling. 

Let’s look for one minute at that word, “hypocrite.” What does the Bible say about hypocrisy? 

In essence, “hypocrisy” refers to the act of claiming to believe something but acting in a different manner. The word is derived from the Greek term for “actor”—literally, “one who wears a mask”—in other words, someone who pretends to be what s/he is not.

There are many levels of hypocrisy, some so subtle that we often don’t realize that it’s happening. So, we slip into roles – we put on a mask – and pretend to be what others want or expect us to be rather than living into the fullness of who we are.

Let me give you an example (you knew a story was coming). 

A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I was once a young, impressionable 30-something seminarian (I know. I know. And, that was about 30 or so pounds ago, too.) 

I was doing a summer of CPE – Clinical Pastoral Education – at Boston City Hospital. I worked mostly on the oncology unit and the newly developed AIDS unit, where people were held in isolation. I also worked on call and on weekends so I had to be available to all the units, as well as the ER.

Let me admit, straight up, that I was scared. I would never have admitted that at the time, but there was no denying it. I was scared. 

My bishop had insisted that I wear a “seminarian collar” – just like the collar I’m wearing now, except with a black stripe down the middle. I put that collar on and felt like an imposter. Like I was pretending to be something I was not, possessing skills I did not have. 

In short, I felt like a hypocrite. And, yes, I was acutely aware of experiencing the stress of not living to the purpose of my baptism. I was even beginning to question whether or not I was really called to this business of ordained ministry.

One weekend I was on call and had to cover the cardiac ICU. Now, as I said, this was in Boston. And, Boston was – and still is, really – a very Roman Catholic town. 

The rule at Boston City Hospital at that time was that every chaplain had to “swim in their own lane”. Roman Catholics could not visit with Protestants and Protestants could not visit Roman Catholics. That firm rule was made very clear to every CPE intern from day one of our rotation.

I was asked to visit a woman, I’ll call her Mary, who was recovering from a serious heart attack and had asked to see the Chaplain. At that time, the ICU at Boston City was a 16 bed open ward. I introduced myself and pulled the curtain mostly around us to create at least an illusion of privacy.

We had just begun our conversation when I heard a priest come bounding into the ICU. He called out to the person in the next bad, “Ho! Hi, Joan! And how are we this fine Sunday morning?” 

I could see them through the curtain. Joan looked ashen white. She said in a raspy voice, “Oh, Father, they’re taking me up for open heart surgery tomorrow. I’m so scared, Father.”

To which the good, corpulent cleric responded, “Oh, now don’t you fret. You’re in excellent hands here. The best hands in the world,” he practically yelled, turning and winking and nodding to the nurses at the desk. 

“Now, I’ll be giving you some communion, we’ll say the Our Father, and you just see how much better you feel,” he declared.

I could hear the click of his pix which carried the reserve sacrament as he said, in a loud majestic voice, “The Body of Christ.” 

I don’t think Joan had had a chance to get the host past her lips when he started to say The Lord’s Prayer, very loudly, looking ‘round at all the other patients as he nodded and winked at them.

Then, just as quickly, he blessed her forehead with holy oil, admonished her again not to fret, and left in a flourish of waves and goodbyes to all the patients and staff in the ICU.

An uneasy silence fell over the ICU. I looked back and Mary, my patient, just as I started to hear some sobs coming from the next bed. I peaked out around the curtain and saw Joan weeping softly.

Mary saw the look on my face and said softly, “G’won. Go to her. She needs you right now more than I do. Go to her and then come back to me.”

And, even though I knew the rules, even though I had no idea what I could possibly say to make the situation better and feeling every bit an imposter and afraid I would be found out, still, I pushed through all my concerns and fears and stepped over them on the floor as I moved to Joan’s bedside.

I softly introduced myself and then asked if I could sit by her for awhile. After a few minutes of silence, I gently took her hand in mine and, as our eyes met, she looked deeply into my soul. 

Finally, she took a deep breath, smiled a very wry smile and said, “Well, there is one small comfort.” I moved my head to one side, ready to hear her response. 

“Well, as scared as I am,” she said, “it would seem that poor Father is more afraid than I am.” (What a great insight, right?)

I returned her wry smile and said, “Well, let’s talk about that fear.” And, she did. And, she talked and we talked and  we cried together and eventually we laughed together and then prayed together.

Turns out, what she wanted in someone else was what she, herself needed most: Someone who would take off their mask and be as fully present to her while she was feeling so vulnerable and naked and afraid because her mask was off. 

I don’t know if the time I spent with her or that prayer we prayed together changed anything for her. The thing about ministry is that you often plant seeds but never see the growth, much less taste of the fruit of that plant. 

It can get frustrating, but you learn that that’s just the nature of ministry.

I only know this much is true: I was changed and transformed by her honesty and I was never again the same. I learned that when you are ministering with people in pain, the best medicine you can provide is to be with them in their pain. 

Don’t try to mask it or pretend it doesn’t exist. Don’t try to fix it, either. There is enormous spiritual and healing power in the real presence of communion, but the healing nature of the sacrament is to be real and fully present to each other in the midst of the real and full sacramental presence of Jesus.

I learned to take off the mask of being a ‘pastoral person’ and, instead, to be real and fully present to the people of God, one human being to another. 

Yes, it can be scary, but in my experience, it’s far more scary to put on a mask or an act and then wonder if and when you’re going to be found out.

Oh, yes, that has gotten me into some hot baptismal water over the years. Turns out, there are some folk who have real difficulties with real presence. I understand. Happens to the best of us. 

Which is why some of us would much rather keep moving, because, you know, it’s true: It’s much harder to hit a moving target than one that is stationary.

Besides, in our culture, a busy person is understood to be an important person, and the busier one is the more important one is perceived to be. It’s a clever trick that many of us play with great success, but some of us, having worn that Mask of Importance, can also spot it a mile away. 
I’ve been caught at it more times than I care to remember, mostly by those who know me well and love me still. Thing of it is, we all wear masks at different times, which can be really helpful in different circumstances. 

It’s when we start to believe the illusions we’ve created about ourselves that we get into trouble.

As my ordaining bishop once said to me, “You are not the saint some people think you are, but neither are you the demon some will try to make you out to be. Just don’t believe your own press releases; be who God created to be.”

Or, as Oscar Wilde once said, “Be yourself. Everyone is already taken.”

I suggest that this week, you try to be intentional about enjoying the “lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer.” Slow down and think about the masks you wear. Some masks are useful as protection, but most masks keep us from knowing the fullness of who we really are.

Slowly, we eventually come to believe the stories we have carefully crafted and told about ourselves, or the story of who we are that was told to us by our parents or teachers or siblings, instead of more deeply knowing and believing in the story of who we really are, who God created us to be.

When we take off our masks, others feel emboldened to take off their masks as well. And, we discover, as Rachel Held Evans said, that, “The church is God saying ‘I’m throwing a banquet and all these mismatched, messed up people are invited. Here, have some wine.”

In the busyness of the week ahead of you, whether you’re in Lake Wobegon or Milford, DE, take time to be with yourself. Take some time to be more of your real self and bring all of who you are to the Real Presence of Jesus.

It’s a pretty humbling exercise to face the truth, especially about yourself, but you know, you just may be surprised by the person you find, way down deep there, in the middle of the middle of you.

You may have more goodness than you give yourself credit for having. You may be smarter than you think you are, more capable of doing more than you think you can.

You may just discover the truth that the person your are is able to live more authentically the beliefs that you hold dear. And, if you did that, you would never be in jeopardy of Jesus ever calling you ‘hypocrite’.

Because here's the truth of it: This world desperately needs more of that you, the you with the mask off, the you that is not afraid to be changed and transformed, so that you may passionately serve the people of God as a vehicle of change and transformation.

In the words of William Sloan Coffin,

May God give you Grace never to sell yourself short! 
Grace to risk something big for something good!   
Grace to remember that the world
is too dangerous for anything but truth
and too small for anything but Love!    


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