I’ve been spending some time in the Sermon on the Mount out of Matthews Gospel as I prepare to preach next Sunday on Matthew 6. Our church is spending the summer teaching on Jesus’ sermon that occurs from Matthew 5-Mathew 7. One of our pastors called it The Greatest Sermon Ever Preached. And I would agree. I find it fascinating for it is Jesus first real teaching after being on earth for 30 years. Mathew begins with Jesus birth and the period of his upbringing is relatively quiet but in Matthew 4, Jesus begins his ministry by calling his disciples, traveling thru Palestine, and changing people’s lives. His words aren’t first, His actions are. After healing many and fame spreading throughout the entire Middle East, Jesus begins to teach. And after this passionate sermon? In Matthew 8 Jesus descends from the Mountain and immediately tells a leper, “I am willing to make you clean” and heals him. Mathew is painting a clear picture of discipleship…words flow from action and transform us into further action as we live out the calling to be God’s disciples here on earth.
In Matthew 6, Jesus turns his attention to some of the behaviors of a disciple: giving, praying, fasting. But before He does, Jesus gives clear instruction: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.” Before we do anything to serve God, our motives must be examined. Am I truly about to take this step of faith in obedience to God? To be transformed by Him as He works through me? Or am I acting out of my own desire to be recognized? For me, I realize these words hit me between the eyes. I am wired to be known by God but these wires tend to get short circuited by own pride, my ego, my vanity. I want to grow in such a way as to increase the Kingdom, not my Selfdom. And yet I always need to remind myself of John’s statement: “He must become greater, I must become less.” In fact these words were a bit of a mantra of mine through college as I learned more and more about discipleship. Following God exposes our weakness between our public and our private selves; the chasm that exists between who we pretend to be and who we actually are. Truly, the God who created us and knows us intimately knows our very weaknesses, but we like to live in such a way that hides our weaknesses from others. We think that if we can portray ourselves as better than we actually are than we can fool people. But the tragedy happens when we spend our time and energy building the walls of fragmentation instead of turning towards the One who will make us whole.
When I was a high school English teacher, I loved teacher high school students books that asked them to examine their actual lives. It is hard to read the Scarlet Letter or The Great Gatsby and feel connected to it when you are 15 or 16. But Catcher in the Rye? Now that starts hitting home a bit more. And before we would read Catcher, we would read this poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar.
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, O 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.
The poem is haunting in both its empathy for our status as “mask-wearers” but also indicts us a bit as the persona ends the poem resolved to “wear the mask.”
We are guilty of this a bit in the Christian church, we inadvertently teach people to put on masks to come to church to be happy and pretend everything is perfect in our world.
“How you doing Scott?”
“Fine!” I reply without even digesting the question. Simply put, it is way more comfortable facing the world with a mask of stability and contentedness than actually have to be real. But make no mistake, in our paths of discipleship, Jesus says before you do anything else, be real with me. Come to me and be real, drop the mask, you are loved and accepted as you are (remember the Beatitudes in Matthew 5?) in order to be transformed. When we drop the mask and stop pretending to be perfect, God can come in and truly bring healing and wholeness and reconciliation and forgiveness. But first we have to drop the mask.