[Sermon preached on Sunday, March 11, 2018 (Lent IV, Year B) at Saint Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles – Minneapolis MN]

[The audio of the sermon can be heard on the Word Made FRESH Podcast.]

And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.

John 3:19 (NRSV)

Gospel lessons like the one we just heard are hard to hear.

It starts our weird – something about Moses holding up a snake in the wilderness, makes a turn towards greatness with this wonderful explanation of God’s love sending Jesus into the world to bring salvation and wholeness, and then takes this nosedive towards what feels like incredible judgement. “All who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.”[1] Ouch.

I grew up in a church that seemed to perfect this level of judgment. Christianity, faith in Jesus Christ, was less about imperfect people coming together to bear witness to something greater than themselves. Instead, my experience growing up showed me a type of Christianity that was about people walking around with the thin veneer of perfection worried more about cracks in their facades than touching the world with God’s grace.

Harlem Renaissance poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote a poem called “We wear the mask” which says,

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![2]

This poem speaks of vulnerability and what it means to walk around the world with a mask, never feeling safe enough to allow others to see us as we are. Often, it is simply easier to hide behind our masks than to be free. This is the judgment, that God, compelled by love, sent God’s Son into the world to crack our masks and bring salvation. God didn’t run away from our brokenness. God entered it. God saw us for what we were, for what we are, and still decided to give God’s self to us. This is a very different idea of judgment than what I grew up hearing. This judgment is not about condemnation, it’s about freedom. It is about offering us a new, better, more joy and grace-filled way of life. That is the judgment: that God sees us just as we are; but, here is the grace: God loves us anyway.

It’s probably a good thing that God loves us anyway because being a human being is complicated. Let’s be honest, this is not for the faint of heart. Even if we wanted to, living in the Light of God all the time would be impossible. The human experience is one of light and dark. In her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor writes this, “To be human is to live by sunlight and moonlight, with anxiety and delight, admitting limits and transcending them, falling down and rising up. To want a life with only half of these things in it is to want half a life, shutting the other half away where it will not interfere with one’s bright fantasies of the way things ought to be.”[3] In other words, dear friends in Christ, to deny our darkness is to “wear the mask that grins and lies.” It is from this mask, this false self, that Jesus Christ comes to set us free in order to introduce us to our true selves. And maybe it is our true selves that we are really afraid of.

A few years ago, while serving as an intern at a campus ministry, I was tasked with working with someone on a team project. I can’t remember exactly what the project was, but I do remember that I was excited to do it. The priest in charge of the campus ministry asked that I mentor my partner so that, after my internship was finished, the work we began could continue. I began with this in mind, but as the work on the project developed, I began to shut my partner out more and more believing that if you want something done well, you just do it yourself. By the end of the project, I had completely shut him out. I was unaware of it until the priest called me into her office and told me that not only had I shut him out, but he was incredibly hurt.

At first, I resisted the idea, but the more I thought about it, the more my own heart began to break. I had to sit with the reality that I unintentionally hurt someone because I didn’t trust them. I had been selfish and it caused someone great pain.

This is the self I was afraid to encounter, the truth of myself I would have rather not seen. But by seeing it, I was able to offer it to God. I didn’t to be selfish. I wanted to be compassionate and I prayed to God to give me a heart of compassion.

The Light of our Lord Jesus Christ comes to set us free. It comes to destroy our masks so that who we are is laid bare before our own eyes because, let’s be clear, God already sees us and knows us and loves us anyway. God doesn’t need help seeing, knowing, and loving. We do. We are the ones who need help seeing our faults and foibles, our flaws and imperfections. We are the ones who need help knowing our own inner darkness, our own proclivity to hurt others, or to lash out against those who love us. We are the ones who need help loving ourselves and one another in all the messiness that makes us human.

We can do that by honestly naming the reality that we need help, that our lives are not as perfect as we present them to be, that we struggle.

And, we can trust that God loves us anyway, that God’s light isn’t a laser threatening to burn us into oblivion, but a light that invites us to see our unglamorous parts so that, with God’s help, we can take them off, one by one, to reveal our true selves.

Our beloved selves.

Our holy selves.

Our good selves.

It’s all there, beneath the “mask that grins and lies.” It’s there, beneath our insecurities and fears, beneath the false selves we project out to others to protect ourselves from the vulnerability of love, beneath the layers of past mistakes and regrets, broken relationships and unhealed wounds.

Your beloved, holy, and good self is there, but you have to take a step into the light in order to see it.

[1] John 3:20

[2] Paul Laurence Dunbar, “We Wear the Mask.” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44203/we-wear-the-mask (accessed: 10 March 2018)

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor. Learning to Walk in the Dark (New York: HarperOne, 2014), p. 24.