Removing the Mask
This sermon was delivered on
August 30, 2020
At First Presbyterian Church
In Glen Cove, New York.
Text: Matthew 16:21-28
Could you have imagined 6 months ago that this is where you would be? Could you have imagined sitting socially distanced in church with masks on? Unable to pass the peace, to sing at the top of your lungs, to embrace your good friend? It is undeniable that this global pandemic has shifted the way that we live on so many levels. Perhaps one of the biggest shifts for me has been wearing a mask. At first it felt uncomfortable and awkward. Yet now, I have added mask to my checklist for walking out the door. I recite to myself, “Phone, wallet, keys, mask.” It’s amazing how we have the capacity to build habits and before we know it, we find that these new habits feel somewhat normal.
On a deeper psychological and spiritual level, this is true about our human nature. We often learn about and observe ideas and behaviors that are outside of our framework for life. And sometimes, we adopt those ideas and behaviors. And at first, they may feel foreign to us and abnormal. Overtime, with enough practice, these habits and behaviors begin to feel normal. And we sometimes look back and ask, “How did I do this before?” And of course, this is true about ideas and behaviors that we might label as healthy and helpful or maladaptive and unhelpful. These ideas and behaviors sometimes turn into masks that cover who we truly want to be and how we actually feel. Sometimes we wear these masks for so long that we have forgotten what is underneath them. We have lost touch with the truth of who we are and who we can become.
In our passage today, I think that on the surface we are witnessing an argument between Peter and Jesus’ views on the Messiah. Underneath, I think that this is a disagreement about how we find the truth of who we are and who we can become.
Our passage opens with this interesting phrase: “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering…” How exactly did Jesus show them this? What did Peter witness that let him know that Jesus would suffer? I imagine that Jesus talked about this reality, but I also imagine that Jesus was living in such a way that would upset the religious and political beliefs of his day. As Peter spends more and more time with Jesus, he finally comes to the realization that Jesus is not going to be the kind of Messiah that he had hoped for. In fact, Jesus is going to be a Messiah who upsets the status quo, which gets him killed.
Peter isn’t having any of this though. He tries to correct Jesus’ behavior. And why? It’s likely because Peter hoped for a triumphant Messiah who would use force to liberate his people, which included Peter’s liberation by the way. He didn’t want a dead Messiah.
Peter has a personal stake in the work that he believes Jesus is doing. If Peter gets this wrong, what else is he wrong about? What did this mean about the future of his people? What did this mean for Peter’s future? Would Peter suffer the same fate without seeing his people liberated from the Roman Empire? And perhaps, more complicated than all of that: where is God in the midst of all this suffering? Doesn’t God care?
This is the tricky thing about Jesus. He so often defies our expectations. He challenges how we understand God and the way that God operates. And he typically leaves us with more mystery than certainty. At the heart of this mystery is an invitation into death.
What an odd invitation. How are we to understand this? How do we respond?
The message that Jesus embodied was not just one of death but death AND resurrection. And not just a resurrection at the end of his life, but death and resurrection as a way of living in the world.
Matthew’s Gospel earlier tells the story of Jesus’ baptism where he is declared to be the beloved child of God, which is immediately followed by Jesus being led by the Spirit into the wilderness where he is tempted. It is there in the wilderness that Jesus had to die to some things. It is only after this spiritual death in the wilderness of coming to terms with his True Self—his God-beloved self that lies behind the masks that he’s been given that he emerges from the wilderness into his public ministry. Jesus’ way of existence is about this pattern of death that leads to new life. Loss that leads to renewal. Despair that leads to hope. In other words, it is an existence of transformation that leads us to align more and more with our God-beloved essence.
So if we are to take Jesus’ invitation here seriously, then we must wrestle with the places where we are hearing this call to die.
This is the well worn path that Jesus walked and many religious traditions around the world call humanity to walk. Within Christianity, this is the way of the cross.
And while I do not believe God is the source or cause of suffering, I do believe that Jesus’ life shows us that God meets us in our suffering. I want to be clear that I do not believe that this means that suffering is good nor is it to be celebrated. It does not mean that we should embrace suffering with passive acceptance nor does it mean that we should deny the depth of pain and trauma that suffering can inflict.
What it does mean, though, is that over time our suffering can often become a space of transformation, because it is in our suffering that we are so often forced to come face to face with ourselves. With who we have become. With our greatest fears. Our deepest vulnerabilities.
And when we come face to face with ourselves, we are also given the opportunity to ask ourselves, “Who will I become?”
This is true on a personal level and on a systemic level. There is undoubtedly great suffering in our world today. And I believe that in this suffering, we are being asked to come face to face with who we have become.
The pandemic has forced us to ask questions about our commitment to busyness and greed. It has forced us to evaluate our priorities: health, economy, community, etc. It has made us reassess our American commitment to a rugged individuality that asserts that freedom is about individual rights.
And in the midst of this suffering, we are also witnessing unprecedented conversations around racism in America. We are coming face to face with the legacy of our White Supremacist origins as a nation and as a result, struggling to determine who we will become as a nation.
And in the midst of this suffering, I hear the Spirit whispering Jesus’ invitation, “Deny yourself. Take up your cross. Follow me.” So what does this look like?
I think it looks like letting go of who we think that we have to be.
Letting go of the ways that we have been unconsciously socialized to harm.
Letting go of the defensiveness when we are present with ideas that are uncomfortable.
Letting go of the need to be right.
Letting go of our masks (not our Covid maks!) and remembering who we are.
For what happens when we follow Jesus’ invitation?
He says that when we lose our life, we find our life. When we let go of our deeply held beliefs around fear and scarcity, we find a God of abundance who is inviting us to participate in a kingdom of Life and Love. A kingdom where every person can have a place at the Table of God. A kingdom where all are fed. All are loved. And all have something to teach us about the nature of God regardless of skin color, religious belief, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, nationality, or physical ability.
In the way of the cross, we discover that when we allow the false self to die and the True Self to come to life in us, the kingdom of God is bursting forth within us and flowing out into the world around us with healing, justice, and compassion.
So, First Presbyterian Church of Glen Cove: you are on the precipice of change. The world is in need of people who are alive to their True Selves.
Church, today, this question is before you: how will you respond to Jesus’ invitation to lose your life?
Will you allow yourself to be open to change, possibility, and hope in new ways?
Will you follow this wild Jesus into a kingdom of abundance, compassion, and justice?
The choice is yours today and every day. Amen.