Calvary Episcopal ChurchPhoto of Peggy Gunness
Memphis, Tennessee
October 31,1999
The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

Wearing Masks
The Rev. Margaret B. Gunness

Gospel: Matthew: 23:1-12

Jesus was speaking to his disciples and to the crowds that had gathered around. He was teaching them the things he wanted so desperately for them to understand, things that he knew to be profoundly necessary for their life and, in a way, for his life as well. And these same things are also necessary for your life and for mine, so let's us join those crowds for a moment or two, and listen as well the teachings of Jesus.

"The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses' seat" he says, a seat of great authority. And because they have this authority, he says, "do whatever they teach you and follow it; But," he adds, "do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they preach." For you see, they are hypocrites, holding up for others a standard of behavior which they themselves do not practice or live by. They are pretenders, people who are divided within themselves, people without wholeness, without integrity. And what they are doing then is hiding, hiding the truth of their inmost selves behind the masks of pretension that they are wearing, masks that separate them from the very people they are called to lead.

Now isn't that a timely topic for the Gospel to put before us on this day of Halloween? This is a day for wearing masks, a day set aside for disguising ourselves and pretending for a little while to be somebody or something else. Well, all sorts of thoughts and associations come to my mind. On Friday the teachers from Calvary Place brought the nursery school children up to the fourth floor in those big wagons they go walking in. There was Super Man and a fairy princess, a blue dog and a pink cat, all sort of awed with the attention they were getting. And just seeing them and sitting down on the floor to talk with them brought out the child in each one of us. It made me remember the time our kids wrapped themselves up in aluminum foil from head to toe and went to a Halloween party as leftovers.

It also made me recall the story written by Beverly Cleary about a little girl named Ramona. In this particular book she was probably five years old, and she couldn't wait to be old enough to go to school and especially on Halloween to go to school wearing her costume the way her big sister did. As the story continues, finally the day comes and her mother helps her put on her costume and her mask, but when Ramona looked at herself in the mirror she burst into tears and said she wasn't going to wear it. What's a mother to do? Finally she pulled the truth out of her, And Ramona said she was afraid that nobody would recognize her, that nobody would know that it was really Ramona who was so disguised and hidden behind this costume, behind this mask that concealed her identity.

So all of this sets me thinking. I wonder, do you and do I wear masks most of the time? Do we, for example, hide behind a brave face when we trembling with fear inside? Or do we sometimes put on a big smile to conceal an aching sorrow? Or do we clothe ourselves with a costume of competence in order to hide those insecurities which seem to assault us so relentlessly?

Do we sometimes dress up as if we're going to a party in order to disguise the depth of our loneliness? I would imagine that all of us hide our true selves like this from time to time, and I would imagine that at the same time all of us also yearn to be known for who we really are. Because, in truth, these masks that we hide behind isolate us even more, and in hiding the truths of ourselves that we're afraid of or ashamed of, we become ever more distant from the very relationships we need for wholeness.

And in the Gospel reading today, this very basic yearning of our human nature is what Jesus reaches out to heal.

"You are not to be called rabbi," he says,"for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father, the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant; those who exalt themselves will be humbled; those who humble themselves will be exalted." Our true and only identity is the identity which is established within us through the nature of our relationship to God.

These words of Jesus' teaching are words which are calling us into the very depths of our own integrity, calling us into a radical honesty about ourselves and about who we are both as individuals and as a people in relationship with God. We are students; we are children; we are servants. And God is our teacher, our parent and our Messiah. And if we could only grasp this and realize the gift that it is, we would indeed be relieved of that terrible, heavy burden of trying to be who we are not.

The words of Shakespeare come to mind, in Hamlet, Polonius giving advice to Laertes. You can probably quote them along with me.

This above all, to thine own self be true,
and it must follow as the night the day
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

God yearns for us to be unmasked, to commit ourselves to uncovering and knowing the truth about ourselves and the truth about Jesus and the gospel of our meeting. Our very identity has its beginnings and its roots in Christ; and our end, the goal and purpose of our lives, is Christ. And the disguises that we wear only hide us from this truth that makes us whole and even holy. I suppose it's no accident that Halloween, this day of masks, gives way the next day to the celebration of All Saints, when we honor those people in whose lives the brilliant light of God has shown through with no hiding it, with no obstruction. So today, why don't we all be counter-cultural and take our masks off and go to the party as ourselves, the imperfect yet blessed and beautiful people whom Jesus has called to serve and follow him.

Copyright 1999 Calvary Episcopal Church.

Gospel: Matthew: 23:1-12
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father--the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted." (NRSV)

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