Sermon
October 31, 2004
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Luke 19:1-10
He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.

When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”

Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Selections from Psalm 139
O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end —I am still with you.

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

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Sermon: Take Off the Mask!

As highlighted in our call to worship, today is the anniversary of Martin Luther posting his famous 95 theses on the cathedral door in Wittenberg, Germany - October 31, 1517. We mark this as the beginning of the movement that would give birth to the Protestant church, an era of history commonly called the Reformation.

This is also Halloween, a secular holiday in the United States, but one with religious roots both in Christian and pagan practices. For Christians it was the eve of all Saints Day, honoring all the Saints who didn’t have a special day of their own in the church calendar; for Druids it was the Summer’s End, celebrated with huge bonfires, and for the Romans it was about giving rest and peace to the departed and honoring the goddess of the harvest, whose symbol was the apple – anyone going to bob for apples?

Trick or treating may have its origins in the practice of people going from house to house seeking a gift of soul cake in return for offering prayers for the dead, thus shortening their stay in limbo. The church encouraged this practice to replace an older tradition of leaving food and wine on the doorsteps for any spirits that happened to be out roaming that night.

The tradition of wearing masks, I’ve read, also comes from a belief in roaming spirits – people would disguise themselves to fool those spirits should they come back looking for a living body to possess. Apparently people also wore masks in times of drought or disaster with the thought that the evil spirits who had brought on the trouble would be frightened off – or they work masks at public festivals or celebrations to hide their identity and permit a level of raucous behavior that would otherwise be embarrassing and possibly damage their social standing.

But this morning I want to consider a different kind of mask, the mask we all wear when we decide what to hide and what to reveal, what to make public and what to leave private.

We all adopt different levels of self revelation depending upon our situation. We reveal things to our close friends that we don’t reveal to our colleagues at work. Our spouses see a side of us that no one else knows – Praise the Lord, can I get an Amen to that!

To protect ourselves and function in different setting we all take on roles, we all follow rules, we all wear masks. This is a good and healthy social skill. When people don’t have this skill we can sense it pretty quickly and we even have a catch phrase that has come into the language to cover our discomfort – TMI or too much information.

There is another phrase, though, that is used when someone loses touch with who they really are and begins to believe they are the mask they wear – at least in show biz and politics there is a saying – they’re beginning to believe in their own press releases – to describe such self delusion.

The Christian writer Thomas Merton also had a description for this kind of confusion. He wrote:
It is a spiritual disaster for a man to rest content with his exterior identity. (Please pardon the male oriented language – this was written in 1960) Does he really exist because his name has been inscribed in Who’s Who? Is his picture in the Sunday paper any safe indication that he is not a zombie? If that is who he thinks he is, then he is already done for, because he is no longer alive, even though he may seem to exist. Actually, he is only pushing the responsibility for his existence onto society. Instead of facing the question of who he is, he assumes he is a person because there appear to be other persons who recognize him when we walks down the street.

A year ago, or so, in one of our adult education classes we read a book entitled “The Kingdom Within, The Inner Meaning of Jesus’ Sayings,” by John Sanford, an Episcopalian Priest and psychotherapist. Sanford’s point is that one way to read the parables and stories of Jesus is as descriptive of a psychological process – a process that uncovers the truth about yourself and recovers the image of God and the resources of grace available to each and every one of us. One chapter in the book speaks of the need to come out from behind our masks. He speaks of the usefulness of the masks we wear, but then cautions:
The destructive aspect of the mask is our tendency to identify with it, to think that we are the person we pretend to be, and thereby remain unconscious of our real self. Because we identify with our outer shell and overlook the feelings and thoughts that lie within, there arises a gulf between the appearance and the reality. We no longer are the person we seem to be, so that a certain falseness has taken us over. Identification with the outer mask effectively excludes us from the kingdom of God. On the other hand, sacrificing the outer mask – taking the risk of being oneself, whoever that may be – brings us a moment of salvation.

To make his point, Sanford turns to the first lesson we read this morning, the story of Zacchaeus.

Zacchaeus was a man who hid behind a mask of superiority, respectability, and power. He was a tax collector, distrusted and despised by his fellow citizens because of his collaboration with the Roman occupiers and because he made his living by collecting more than what was due and keeping the balance. His was to his advantage to maintain a posture of dominance and strength, but when Jesus came to town he dropped all that and made a fool of himself for the salvation of his soul.

Zacchaeus was short in stature, and in order to see Jesus he climbed a sycamore tree. Now, the sycamore tree in that area of the world is not like the sycamore tree in Connecticut. It was, Stanford says, “a mean and lowly tree so despised that to have anything to do with it was regarded as a disgrace.” When Zacchaeus climbed that tree in public he completely sacrificed his outer mask, his public image.

Here was a powerful man up in a scraggly tree admitting his passionate need to meet this preacher and prophet. And Jesus recognized that sacrifice, and to everyone’s astonishment he called out to him: Zacchaeus, come down. Hurry, because I must say at your house today.” And Zacchaeus hurried down and welcomed him joyfully.

Little children, too, Sanford says, are used as an example by Jesus of the psychological truth telling which is necessary to receive the kingdom of God. We put little children in masks for Halloween, but in real life they are completely genuine and do not mask their emotions, fantasies, fears, desires, laughter or tears. That total transparency is why Jesus set them before the disciples and said: “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the Kingdom of God. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

There is great freedom to be found in coming out from behind our masks. It is also a fearful thing because it forces us to recognize all that is within that is less than what we would want to be or even what we demand of others. There is a whole other aspect to mask wearing that gives us permission to project onto others the worse fears we have about ourselves, but that is another big topic about how hypocrisy and sin work in the world and more than we can cover today.

Suffice it to say that we may lose some of our moral self-esteem when we come out from behind our masks, but we gain moral humility, and moral humility is what keeps us from judging others and opens us to the grace of God.

So like the psalmist, let us pray: Search me, O God, and know my heart; like Zacchaeus, let us get off our high horse and humble ourselves and do what is necessary to meet the Lord and hear him say: Today salvation has come to this house.  Amen.

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