This sermon was preached at Bethany Lutheran Church in Cherry Hills Village, CO on March 6, 2019. It can be viewed at http://www.bethanylive.org
The texts for the day were Isaiah 58:1-12 and Matthew 6: 1-21
We live in what many psychologists call a “burn out” culture. We have 24 hour news cycles, constant connectivity, the ability to work from anywhere, anytime, the mentality of “work hard, play harder,” the idol of busyness, the pressure to have the perfect home, family, physique, diet, the list goes on and on. We have never ending “to-do” lists and feel the pressure of not being worthy or enough. So we put on masks to cover up our unworthiness, the pressure, the tension and even figure out how to glorify the masks. “Oh I’m so busy!” we say! Translated, that means, “aren’t we so important to people and without us it all falls apart.” Another translation could be “I need to be needed and without being busy, needed and noticed by everyone, I’m a nobody.” So, with that tape running through our minds, we think we have to hustle for our worth, we keep on our masks of self-importance and perfection-until we can’t. We burn out. Sometimes it’s subtle and we simply become exhausted and take a break and try to reorder our priorities. But sometimes, it’s more insidious, isn’t it? It’s a health diagnosis, it’s depression, it’s destructive relationships, it’s doubling down on power and control in our own lives or tightening that mask of the image that we show the world, while internally we are literally dying, becoming ashes, dust.
We’ve all experienced some form of “burn-out,” I know that I have. I reach a point where I’m not really me, not the best version of myself to anyone, anywhere. I slip on the mask of strength, perfection, having it all together, the perfect wife, mother, pastor. But here’s the thing about masks: they aren’t built to stay on. Eventually, it will slip, and then I’m grateful for family, friends, trusted colleagues who see beneath my mask and say, “hey this mask isn’t really you. This isn’t who I know you to be. How can I help you recover your true self, your true identity and come into new life?”
On Ash Wednesday, at the beginning of our Lenten journey, we start with the reality of our masks. We admit that we are burned out of the masks we wear, of trying too hard, and we are afraid of being a pile of ashes. We are weary of being in the dark of our masks. We long for light, life, freedom, truth, grace. We long to be reassured that we are loved but we cling to the fear that we need to earn love. So we end up sliding those masks right back on, even though we know that they aren’t really us.
These masks are not new to modern times. Jesus names these masks in our Matthew reading as hypocrisy. Jesus points out the masks of religious piety, of putting on a mask of self-importance, worth, and pride are as much an issue as the other masks that we might try on. Religious rituals themselves are not the issue, doing religious rituals to prove your worth is wearing the mask of false identity. You are not created to serve you, you created for relationship with God and neighbor. You were created to bring your true and whole self into the light, to be the light of Christ.
Giving alms publicly means nothing if you withhold basic needs from your neighbor in private. Praying out loud with eloquent words and complex sentence structures means nothing if your everyday words to your neighbor are cruel, unloving, oppressive, homophobic, racist, sexist, classist, and hurtful. Showing that you are fasting means nothing if in the rest of your life you serve your own interests, as Isaiah writes, you hoard and take more than you need with no thought of others. It’s a lot of energy and work to act one way in public and be someone else in private. It can burn you out.
Jesus invites us to take off the masks of hypocrisy, to expose our true identity, to be God’s own people of light. The return to our authentic selves, unmasked, vulnerable and beloved. This is a rich gift that never fades, never breaks, and can never be taken from you. It’s from where true life flows. This new life is what God promises to do with the ashes of our masks, the pieces of us that burn away when we turn again to trust God for all of who we are and all that we need. This is why Jesus teaches what we now call the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew, Mark and Luke. This prayer has simple and unpretentious words that names us as God’s own, names us as worthy, grounds us in accountable and beloved community and reorients us to the reality that we can’t control our lives, we can’t hide behind our masks of independence, autonomy, busyness, perfection or ego. They are words with which we can cry out from the dark to the Lord, our parent, and God responds: Here I am. They are words that each time we say them together as the people of God, breathe new life into our ashes, the dust of who we are and remind us that the promise is indeed there is abundant life in being who God created us to be, instead of trying to be someone else. The Lord’s Prayer names our treasure that we are God’s here on earth and for all of eternity.
We all come to a place where we burn-out, we are a nothing more than dust and ash. As our masks slide off, we call out to God and God responds with the light of Christ and the truth of being sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the Cross of Christ forever. This cross that is placed on our foreheads is dirty, messy, and imperfect, but it reveals the truth of what is behind our masks: that we are worthy just as we are, deeply and unconditionally loved and set free to be who God truly created us to be. We are reflections of Christ’s light and love to a world that is hiding in the darkness of their masks and to hear the words: Remember you are God’s and to God you shall return. Thanks be to God.