Saving Face

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, October 18, 2020
Matthew 22:15-22

    This morning, I want to talk about masks.  I don’t know about you, but I think a lot more about masks than I used to these days.  Sometimes I still feel like I must be living in an alternate universe or in an episode of the Twilight Zone, to walk around and see everyone wearing a mask. I don’t know anyone who actually likes wearing a mask, but I have to say sometimes I almost forget I’m still wearing it now that I’ve become accustomed to it.  Like you, I very much look forward to the day when I won’t have to wear a mask daily, but I know that still, for now, watching distance, washing hands, and wearing a mask is helping to reduce the virus’s impact and allowing us to live semi-normal lives.  I’m sure you’ve also noticed, especially for people you don’t know as well, it can be hard to recognize people with their masks on. I’ve gotten better about reading people’s eyes to see if they are smiling or falling asleep during my sermon, but like another parishioner shared with me, you could be sticking your tongue out at me and I’d be none the wiser!  
Before we all wore masks for protection, we most likely thought about masks around this time of year for Halloween, a way to disguise our true identity and pretend to be someone else.  Or we may have thought about criminals who wear masks to not be recognized.  Welders and construction workers often wear masks to protect themselves on the job.  Whatever the mask, we know well by now that masks can protect us, but they also hide a large part of our face.
    Our gospel for this morning can help us think in another way about masks.  Jesus calls the Herodians and the Pharisees hypocrites in this gospel passage.  As you may know, in Greco-Roman society, a hypocrite was an actor. They wore masks to cover their faces when on stage.  Jesus accurately describes these religious authorities as people who are hiding behind a false front. They knew that they would be in trouble with the general populace if they spoke publicly what they felt privately about Jesus – so they seek to trip him up, smiling good-naturedly as they do so while secretly sneering behind their public masks.  Ironically, they tell Jesus that they know he is sincere and does not regard people with partiality.  This past week, Pastor Jim Anderson shared with me an insightful, more accurate translation of the Greek.  The Pharisees tell Jesus, “you do not look upon the face of people,” as in, Jesus does not look upon the public front people put up, the masks they wear to make themselves look good in front of others.  Perhaps without intending so, these hypocritical Pharisees and Herodians speak truthfully about Jesus.  Jesus sees beyond our masks to look at our true face. Jesus can see the wrinkles, warts and tired eyes.  Jesus can also see our need, our pain, our past hurts, and our hunger for real, unconditional love and acceptance.  And this is how he is able to beat the Pharisees and Herodians at their own game, because he doesn’t hide behind any mask himself, and he sees their true colors…what they really want to know.
    What are we trying to hide from others or from God? In what ways, do we, like the Pharisees and Herodians, act like hypocrites, trying hard not to reveal our true selves to others? Social media offers you options of filters to distort and improve pictures of yourself to post online.  Plastic surgery can fix your nose and botox can improve your lips to be more attractive according to society’s definition of beauty.  We can hide behind political blanket statements, flags and yard signs that reduce our opinions and thoughts to a party or political figure or issue without portraying the complexity of who we truly are.   On Facebook, I can put posts and pictures up that look like I’ve had the best week of my life, when in reality I’m on medication for anxiety and depression, yelled at my kids one to many times, couldn’t summon the energy to do laundry or wash the dishes this week, and secretly feel like my life is spiraling out of control.  While we may be able to deceive others with our masks as the Pharisees and Herodians do, we can’t hide our true selves from God.
    The reality is, when Jesus asks the religious authorities to look at the emperor’s image, the Roman emperor was more like the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz.  He believed himself to be divine.  Roman citizens were supposed to not only pay taxes to support the Roman Empire, they were supposed to worship the emperor as the Son of God.  The image of the emperor on money was idolatry, breaking the first commandment.  Jesus is pulling back the curtain, asking people to think about how well serving an oppressive Roman emperor’s regime is going for them!  In asserting that He, not the emperor, is the son of God, Jesus is going to get himself not only in trouble with the religious authorities, but with the Roman authorities…and it will get him killed on the cross.  In a society that worships the masks that people wear of hypocrisy and lies, Jesus sees beyond the masks to people’s true selves.  The Herodians and Pharisees leave Jesus amazed…they have been found out.  Jesus sees beyond their hypocrisy.  But not only that, Jesus is preaching and teaching about a loving, merciful, steadfast God who can forgive and redeem even them.  They are included.  When Jesus goes to the cross, he will die for even them.
    In a world where we hide behind masks of all different kinds for all different reasons, we have a Lord who has seen who we truly are.  We are not all beautiful on the outside or on the inside…we all have ugliness that we would prefer to hide in one way or another.  Yet, God in Christ looks upon us with love, beauty and ugliness and all, and points us back to God.  Give to God the things that are God’s...that includes you.  You are God’s creation, wonderfully and lovingly made.  Like the Pharisees and Herodians, may we be amazed by the impartial, far-reaching love of God that dares to love and to even die for ugly-beautiful, complex creatures like us.  And may our faith in Christ, the son of the living God, embolden us to love our true selves and be our true selves to others.  Amen.