Sunday, August 21, 2016
One of my favorite poems is by Paul Laurence Dunbar a 19th century African American poet, called “We Wear the Mask:”
We Wear the Mask
Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1872 – 1906
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile
And mouth with myriad subtleties,
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but oh great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile,
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
This poem gets at something that I think all of us have experienced at some point in our lives – a feeling that we have to hide who we really are, or be someone different than our true selves in a certain situation. Unfortunately, I know that sometimes we can feel like we’re wearing a mask at church. There are some spoken and unspoken rules about how we should behave when we come to church, right? Wear your Sunday best – or at least not sweatpants. Showering before coming to church is nice. Don’t swear. Don’t talk about certain topics like sex or politics. And it can get a little more extreme, like don’t sit in someone else’s pew, or laugh or cry too much to make others uncomfortable. In the gospel this morning, the leader of the synagogue tries to explain one of those rules to Jesus, because Jesus just broke a rule: he heals the bent-over woman on the Sabbath. You have six days to do work like healing – NOT on the Sabbath. And Jesus rejects those rules to teach the religious leaders and ALL of us what the Sabbath is actually about.
Now, speaking of rules, some of you who are older may remember when there were certain restrictions on what you could and couldn’t do on Sunday. I could preach another whole sermon on how we have completely abandoned the sacredness of the Sabbath! For today, though, I want to focus on Jesus’ definition of the Sabbath as a day that prepares us how to live and be the REST of the week, and not a day where we pretend to be someone or something different than who we are. Sunday morning worship is not simply an hour long time where we all put on our Christian masks and then leave them at the door as we leave this building. In many ways, however, we have not changed much from the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, focusing on the rules of what we should and shouldn’t do in certain times and places, instead of who God calls us to be wherever we are, whenever we are.
One of my earliest memories of being at church was during Sunday School when another older child swore. The teacher sternly told him, “This is God’s house. We don’t use those words in God’s house.” But I wondered even then…so is it OK to use those words outside of God’s house? And isn’t God everywhere, not just at church? Fast forward a few years to my first year as a pastor, I had a very well-meaning and very active member whose favorite saying was, “God only wants an hour of our time each week. So that’s the least we can give him.” Now again, this woman was a very dedicated member of the church and lived out her faith daily. She knew that her personal Christian faith was WAY more than an hour of a week of her time. She was trying to find a way to convince inactive members that it really wasn’t a lot of time or effort to worship God on Sunday morning – I get that. It’s a lot easier to invite someone to worship and to commit to coming to worship weekly than to say, “Want to become a Christian? It’s a 24/7 commitment that will affect every aspect of your life and how you live it.” But again, I had an issue with what we were communicating to people seriously wondering what the Christian faith is all about!
The Christian life is not a one hour a week commitment. If you think about it, most things we commit ourselves to aren’t! If you join a book club that meets once a week or once a month, you also need time to read the book! Once a week music lessons require practice and preparation. Playing on a sports league goes a lot better if you make time to exercise more than once a week! Even more powerfully than any hobby, club, or team, being a Christian is something that affects who we are in HOW we do everything else – work, family, friends, free time. And this place, this time on Sunday morning is for us to help each other figure it out – figure out how we can share our faith with others, invite others to church, let people know we’re a Christian and why because it’s not a mask we want to leave behind.
It’s not like you can do whatever you want for 6 days and then as long as you show up at church on the Sabbath, you’re good – or vice versa – you don’t have to wait for Sunday to roll around again to pray, worship, be generous, help someone else out, or read Scripture! It took seconds for Jesus to heal this woman who had been suffering for 18 years. “Immediately,” Luke tells us, “she stood up straight and began praising God.” What happens in seconds on one Sabbath day for this woman is a life-changing event. WHY wait any longer, Jesus asks? WHY not experience healing on the Sabbath day, when we worship our God who is the source of all healing and life? And why keep the good news of that healing to yourself, or to an insider group? The entire crowd rejoices at all the wonderful things Jesus was doing. The woman herself goes out praising God. They can’t confine worship to a day, a time, or a place. The healing they receive from Jesus becomes new life for them every day, all day, everywhere, despite some grumbling attempts by the rule makers to stop them.
Many of us had the opportunity to worship for awhile in the basement this summer while we waited for our air conditioning to be fixed. Pastor Rich and I were surprised at the number of people who commented on how they actually didn’t mind worshipping in the fellowship hall (of course we all would’ve liked it a bit cooler), but given the circumstances – it was a more casual, intimate space for the summer. Our God Sightings time has given us insight into how God is at work not just here at church in worship but in all kinds of ways throughout our week, among all of us! We STILL experience healing, joy, community, forgiveness – here at church and beyond. Worshipping in the basement was a good reminder for us that really we can worship whenever and wherever we are, not just in the sanctuary. And here at Bethel, we seek to be an authentic, genuine community where you can be fully who you are, even in your sweatpants and colorful language. More than any rules about when where and how, we care about what God is up to in your life and how you are able to come away from this Sabbath time and place refreshed, renewed, and inspired for the rest of the week. Take off the mask. You are God’s – God has you 24/7 in church or not, Sabbath day or not. God knows who you are and who you can be. Amen.