Sermon: The Masks We Wear
Scripture: 2 Timothy 1:1-6
Date: March 12, 2017
I read a remarkable story a few months ago about Tony Brown, who is a high school student and a promising athlete in Browning, Montana. Last year he was in a train accident, and he lost both his legs just beneath the knees. And as part of his recovery, the wrestling coach and friends urged him to try out for the wrestling team. So he did and achieved a winning record, wrestling on his knees without his artificial legs. Now, he is hoping to coach wrestling as a profession. Tony is a reminder that God created all of us to do extraordinary things no matter what the world might throw at us. That is God’s will for us. God created you to be extraordinary because He created you in His image. No exceptions. Jesus said, “I came to give you life – abundant life.” A life in Christ is an extraordinary life because His life was extraordinary. Now you may look in the mirror sometimes and because of the worldly mask you are wearing think that there’s nothing extraordinary about me. But you would be wrong. Under the mask lies an extraordinary person created in God’s image. But so much of what happens in life on this earth works to deny the extraordinary within you. But, make no mistake about it, you were born to be extraordinary.
Last week we talked about how Paul as his mentor, was commending Timothy for the sincerity of his faith. And we said that sincere literally meant “not a hypocrite” or to “avoid the the sin of hypocrisy.” And then we talked about the fact that actors in the first century were called hypocristes, which is the root of both the word sincere and hypocrites and that it literally meant “under the mask” because in the plays of Jesus’ and Paul’s day, there were not actors playing each individual role but rather one or two actors playing every role. And the way they differentiated each role was by wearing a different mask for each one. And Paul is warning Timothy to beware of the masks people wear that cover over the image of God that each one has within us. Because the masks that the world places on us are most always designed to cover up the extraordinary within us. Paul tells the Corinthians that the world offers other masks because they can not conceive of the extraordinary character that is within us. So he writes:
We speak of God’s wisdom that God intended for our glory since before time began. It is inconceivable in this world. If people would have understood it, then they would not have crucified Christ. But here it is: No eye has seen. No ear has heard. No mind has conceived the extraordinary life God has in store for those who love Him. Such a life is only revealed through God’s Spirit working within us.
But Paul goes on to say:
But make no mistake about it, there are difficult times ahead. People are going to be self-absorbed, money-hungry, self-promoting, stuck-up, profane, contemptuous of parents, crude, coarse, dog-eat-dog, unbending, slanderers, impulsively wild, savage, cynical, treacherous, ruthless, bloated windbags, addicted to lust, and allergic to God. They’ll make a show of religion, but behind the scenes they seek to devour you. Stay clear of these people.
And, you see, these are just some of the masks that the world offers that are intended to cover over our true identity as extraordinary children of God.. So be careful Timothy, Paul warns and don’t let the masks we sometimes wear permanently cover over the extraordinary you. Be sincere, not an actor, when it comes to the matter of following Jesus Christ. Now some of the masks that the world offers, the roles that we are assigned are pretty obviously meant to cover over the image of Christ within us. They are grotesque and profane (like this one). But others are much more subtle, they offer the illusion of beauty and sophistication (like these) but in the end they are just as grotesque in covering up the extraordinary image of God within you. The masks we wear are different for each of us. No two are just alike and so rather than talk about the specific masks the world imposes on each of us – the roles that we are sometimes tempted to play – I am going to offer some broader categories of masks and let you identify your own masks in the context of these broader categories.
For instance there are some who wear what I call the mask of the performer. Performers try to create a particular persona that will fit the circumstance they are in. Their identity then becomes more achievement oriented. They play the role of the loving and attentive spouse, or the successful business person, or the faithful church goer. Their identity is tied to their public persona, to what it appears they have achieved in life. They emphasize their successes and hide their failures behind the mask. Everything is judged by how their actions appear to others. They are what they’ve done, and their faith is illustrated by their works. Jesus warned about the performers when He said this:
Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocristes, actors. On the outside you look great, like newly painted tombs, but inside you are full of decay.
In his Gospel, Matthew tells about the day that a young man came to Jesus. The young man was the picture of success. Well dressed. Obviously a highly valued man in society. (Show picture no.1) Here is an artists rendering of this encounter. Some sources identify him as a “rich young ruler” though it is not clear where he “ruled.” He just looked the role. This description was probably more based on his appearance rather than actual station in life. But it is clear that he was performing his role well, and earned respect based upon that performance. And he came to Jesus and asked essentially, “now that I have achieved so much in this life, what do I need to do to continue that throughout eternity.” But Jesus sees under the mask and he says, “you must follow the Commandments.” And the young man replies, “as everyone will attest, I have already done that.” You see, he believes that following the commandments is like a check list for the appearance of righteousness. Can’t you see it Jesus. I clearly wear the mask of righteousness for all to see. I have done these things.” But Jesus knew that he was a hypocristes. That it was all a performance. And so He says to the young man – “you clearly give the appearance of following Me, so now all you need do is sell everything you have, let go of the masks of success, and then you’ll be able to live in My image.” Take on a sincere faith. Stop being a hypocristes. According to Timothy Keller when Jesus pulled the mask off the rich young man He “smashed two of the Rich Young Rulers assumptions: Christianity is something you can add to your life’s resume, and Christianity is something you can do.” You see the Pharisees and Priests were sticklers for following the law because they were all about appearances, looking righteous. And so when Jesus healed a blind man on the Sabbath for instance, they condemned Him, because this was a clear violation of the law, and so must really be the work of the devil, not God. But Jesus says that it is not the what of the law that matters, but rather the why. Man was not made for the Sabbath. The Sabbath was made for man. Performers are all about how things appear, rather than how they really are. Hypocristes are more concerned with worldly perception, than the image of Christ. So what about you? Do you sometimes (perhaps inadvertently) wear the mask of a performer when it comes to family, or work, or relationships, or church? When Paul writes to Timothy about “sincere” faith, he is talking about faith that is not performed, but rather faith that is lived out everyday, in good times and in bad. In public and in private.
And then there are those who wear, what I call, the mask of a “pleaser”. The pleaser is fixated on the needs of others, no matter what. They try to make everyone happy. In the tenth chapter of his Gospel, Luke tells a story that best illustrates the way that pleasers work when he writes:
As Jesus and His disciples were on their way, He came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to them. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what He said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.
You see when Jesus, or probably anyone, came to visit, Martha spent all of her time cleaning and preparing meals. Offering hospitality. Trying to make everyone happy. She was the perfect hostess. But, you see, in trying to please Jesus, she missed the chance to simply sit at His feet. Now here’s the thing – that phrase “sitting at the feet of Jesus” implies more than a physical location. It is also a description of a spiritual condition. When you sit at the feet of the master you signify that you are ready to receive His teaching, his blessing. Disciples were said to sit at the feet of their Rabbis. By wearing the mask of the pleaser, Martha was forfeiting her chance to sit at the feet of Jesus and learn from him and worship him. And, of course, that fact was not lost on Martha. Luke continues the story by telling us that Martha came to Jesus exasperated and said: (Show picture no. 2)
Lord don’t you care that my sister is leaving me to do all the work, while she takes the privileged place at your feet. Please tell her to get up and help me.”
You see when we wear the mask of the pleaser it is easy then to build up resentment towards others who won’t work as hard as we do to make others happy. And Jesus, noting the resentment in her voice, says:
Martha, you wear many masks and are worried and upset by many things, but Mary has taken off the masks of the world and chosen to sit at my feet. She has chosen the better mask, and that can not be removed from her.”
Now my mother was a wonderful woman, but she often wore the mask of a pleaser. She always insisted that the whole family gather at her house for the major holidays. It was so important to her to have her children and grandchildren at her house. And so we would all go, but rather than spend time with the grandchildren, she would spend most of the day in the kitchen cooking and then cleaning up. And she wouldn’t really let anyone help her. So we would enjoy each other’s company and play with the grandkids, while she worked in the kitchen. And we could tell that she was irritated about that by the way she occasionally clanged the pots and pans together, but there wasn’t anything that she (or we) could do about that because that was the mask that she had chosen. I later learned that this was a major source of resentment for some of the grandchildren, who felt that grandma was intentionally avoiding them by working in the kitchen. And for my mom, who envisioned those holiday gatherings as times of great joy, they became bittersweet. When we choose to always wear the mask of a pleaser, we miss the chance to fellowship with one another and sit at the feet of Jesus.
And then there are those who wear the masks of the pretender. Pretending to be something that we aren’t. Jesus warns us about those who wear the masks of pretense when He says in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:15):
“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.”
I love the way that Eugene Peterson expresses that verse in The Message. He writes:
Be wary of false teachers who smile a lot, dripping with practiced sincerity (and remember that sincere means “not a hypocrite). Chances are they are out to rip you off some way or another. Don’t be impressed with charisma; look for character. Who preachers are is the main thing, not what they say.”
In other words, pretense often masks the character that is under the mask. In my high school class there was a boy named George. Now George gave the appearance of being what we called a “Jesus Freak”. He had long hair and wore this long coat that we called a duster. He had a huge cross necklace that he wore and he always carried a Bible with him and would often sit in class pretending to read it. But the problem was that George’s character did not match his persona that he presented. He was a major disruption in every class I had with him. He refused to do the work. He was constantly a distraction. He showed no respect for the teachers or other authority figures. He abused drugs. Often came to school high on something. The more I got to know George, the more obvious it became to me that George was pretending to be a Christ follower. He was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And he thought his pretend spirituality gave him a free pass. And so George became a huge stumbling block to me in my spiritual journey. Because I would look at him and think if this is what being a follower of Christ is all about, it really isn’t anything that I want to be. Jesus was constantly trying to unmask the pretenders in the Temple church because He knew that they were causing many to stumble. And so He goes on to say:
I can see it now – at the final judgement thousands strutting up to me and saying: Master, we preached the Message, we bashed the demons, our God sponsored projects had everyone talking. (In other words, we put on a great show.). But Jesus says this:
And do you know what I am going to say? You missed the boat. All you did was use me to make yourself important.”
Those are the masks of pretense. And it’s not just in our faith journey that we put on these masks. The masks of pretense can destroy our marriage, our careers, our friendships, our relationships. As soon as people discover that we are not who we appear to be “under the mask.”
And then one more, and this might be the most damaging of all. It is the masks of perfection that the world places on us. Think about it. In so many ways, sometimes subtle and sometimes not so subtle, the standard that is so often placed before us in this world is perfection. For instance, the expectation is that we have the perfect body type and so ad after ad on television is for diet programs or fitness centers. And they feature persons who have shed their imperfect bodies for a leaner, trimmer ones. More beautiful. I have lost count of the number of diets that I have begun and the resolutions that I have not kept to exercise more, all in the fruitless attempt to attain some semblance of perfection. And related to that there is an expectation that we maintain perfect health, and if we can’t do that through the aforementioned diet and exercise, then here is a pill we can take to help us. The last time I went to the Cardiologist the PA looked at my blood pressure and said “that’s perfect. Exactly where we want it to be.” Of course I take three pills a day to keep it there. And we are expected to be perfect parents. For the first 21 years of Anna’s life, I would pray every day, “don’t let me do anything that will mess up her life.” Perfect parents produce perfect kids is the message that we get in so many ways and if our kids mess up from time to time, it’s not on them – it’s on us -as somehow deficient parents. Teachers are charged with producing perfect students. All A’s. High test scores. And if the school is not filled with that kind of student, we say the school is failing. Replace the teachers. And now, let’s give students the choice of which school to attend. All in the pursuit of the perfect education. And if we are in the church, there is an expectation of perfection. The expectation is that Christians should be perfect people, by many on the outside of the church. No hypocrites. No sinners. No patients in the hospital for the soul allowed. And often that attitude creeps into the church also. I recently read a modern day parable that illustrates this:
There was a very lost, wicked, rebellious man who decided it would be good for business if he went down to the church and joined it. He was an adulterer, an alcoholic, and had never been a member of a church in his life.
But when he went down to the altar to join the church, he gave public testimony to the church that there was no sin in his life, and that he had grown up in the church, and they readily accepted him as a member.
When he went home he told his wife what he had done, and his wife, a very godly lady, exploded. She called him a hypocrite, and demanded that he go back to the church the next week and confess what he really was. And so he next Sunday he went back to the church, walked down to the front again, and this time confessed to the church all of his sins. He told them he was dishonest, an alcoholic, an adulterer, and he was sorry. They revoked his membership on the spot. He walked out of the church that day scratching his head and muttered to himself: “These church folks are really strange. I told a lie and they took me in; and when I told the truth they kicked me out!”
The truth is that in so many ways most of us fall short of the expectations of the world. And so there are two major problems with these masks of perfection. First they are guilt inducing masks. When we don’t rise to perfection, we often take on a heavy load of guilt. There is no forgiveness, no grace, etched into the features of a mask of perfection. And so a close cousin to perfection is depression. We put on the masks of inadequacy, failure, addiction (as we seek perfection in other ways.) We look like a disappointment in this world. Certainly not extraordinary. Ordinary at best. More like mediocre or even a complete failure. And sometimes the masks of perfection can take on the appearance of self destruction. You see, the reality is that the masks of perfection are really impossible to wear, and so we settle lesser masks of fear and shame and self loathing.
Or sometimes putting on the masks of perfection give us just the opposite – a feeling of superiority, of being better than others. The mask of perfection can turn to a judgmental spirit. Jesus once told a story about two men who went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee. A highly respected leader in the church. He frequently put on the mask of perfection. The second man was a tax collector. A hated man by most Jews. A Roman collaborator, a traitor among his own people, who survived off the misery of others. And the Pharisee stood up in the middle of the Temple Courtyard where all could see and hear him and prayed (probably with one hand extended towards God in Heaven and the other hand pointing at the tax collector): (show picture #3) “God, I am thankful that I am not like other men who rob and do evil things and are adulterers, sinners. Like this tax collector for instance. You know that I fast twice a week and give a tenth of everything I get to the Temple.” But the tax collector was so weighed down by guilt and shame, especially after hearing the Pharisee’s prayer, that he just stared at the ground. Couldn’t even look to heaven as he prayed, and he beat his chest as a sign of his penance, and he prayed: “God, have mercy on me. I am a sinner.” You see in the eyes of the people, it would have been clear who wore the mask of perfection, but in Jesus’s eyes it was just the opposite. Now we might think that we would never be judgmental like that. That Jesus wasn’t talking to me. But I wonder.
Have you ever looked at people who don’t go to church, and think you are better than they are because you do go to church? I confess that I have. And If you have too, then Jesus is talking to us.
Or have you ever looked at people who are down and out, hungry, poverty stricken, in prison, and think thank you Lord that I am not like them? I know I have. If you have too, then Jesus is talking to you.
Or have you ever passed a homeless person on the street and thought I am more blessed than they are because I have a home to go to. If so, then Jesus is talking to you.
Have you ever looked at the blessings of your life and then looked at those who don’t seem to have similar blessings, and thought how much better your life is compared to these. If so, then Jesus is talking to you.
The mask of perfection can quickly turn to a mask of judgment.
So what about it – do you ever wear any of these masks? I know I do. There are times when I become a performer when it comes to faith? Sometimes a pleaser? Pastors easily fall into the trap of trying to please everyone and lose themselves in the process. Or a pretender? Or a perfectionist? What masks do you wear that cover over the extraordinary you that you were created to be? That keep you from living life to it’s fullest. Last week I said that the church is the hospital for the soul. Well before you can be cured in the hospital, you must know the diagnosis. Some masks are more obvious. Others are more subtle. But all of them cover up the extraordinary you. Jesus calls us to come out from under the mask and take on the image of God. Next week we’ll talk a little about how we do that. But let me leave you with one more thought. Though Jesus seems to be hard on the Pharisees, and Priests, when He calls them hypocrites or actors, He does not do so with a judgmental spirit. He spends so much time trying to pull off their masks because He loves them so much. He wants them to be extraordinary. Most of the time, when he calls them to account, he does not say “Woe to the Pharisees” as a word of warning to us to not be like them, but rather He says “woe to YOU Pharisees and Scribes”, calling them to account for the masks that they wear which are leading to their self destruction. And why? Because He knows that if they stay too long under those worldly masks they will not be able to come out from under them. And I think that’s what Paul’s concern for Timothy is when he writes of sincere faith. Don’t get stuck under the masks of this world, but instead live under the mask of Jesus Christ.
Be the extraordinary you that God created you to be.