[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.

Parish-wide Meeting Sunday 13 October (click to view)

A parish-wide meeting will be held after the liturgy where the Wardens will share information on the process to call a new rector and our status in that process. Most importantly, the Wardens and Vestry want input from parishioners on what attributes and skills we should be seeking in a new rector and what we want prospective rectors to understand about who we are. If you are unable to attend but wish to share your thoughts, please feel free to email Senior Warden Meredith Johnson.

August 29, 2019
Dear Saint Paul’s Parish Family,

We are sorry to share so early in our journey with Father Marcus that he has submitted his resignation and will be leaving us October 6, 2019. He has accepted a position at the Diocese of Connecticut. In his new position, he will be the Dean of Formation and will also be working as a Missional Priest-in-Charge of a faith community. This is a wonderful opportunity for him allowing him to continue to strengthen his gifts. The Diocese of Connecticut will benefit as we have from Father Marcus’s passion. Although it is hard to see him go, we have learned and done wonderful things as a parish with his leadership and guidance over the past 2-1/2 years. It will be exciting to watch his continued growth from afar knowing we were blessed to have been part of his early career. Father Marcus’s letter to the parish is included in this email.

So now we begin to look forward. Beth and I will be in contact with ECMN and Bishop Prior to plan for an interim priest and to look at putting together a search committee. We will gather together and consider what we have learned about ourselves during our time with Father Marcus. This is a chance for us to evaluate where we are and to make plans for moving forward: what we want to be sure to carry forward, what things we might want back that have changed, and yes, what might not have been tackled yet that we want to explore? We ask that each of you give prayerful consideration to these questions. They will be foundational to our Rector search.

We know the amazing strength of this parish and are confident we will become even stronger from the challenge that has been put in front of us. Please feel free to contact us with any questions or concerns.

Meredith Johnson, Senior Warden (meredithvj@gmail.com) Beth Carlson, Junior Warden (pbcarlson@comcast.net)

Dear Saint Paul’s,

It is with a mix of sadness and joy that I inform you that I offered my resignation to the Vestry on Monday, August 19. My last day as your priest will be Sunday, October 6, 2019. I have accepted a call to serve as the Dean of Formation for the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, a position that will also include serving as a Missional Priest-in- Charge of a faith community there.

Throughout my time as your Rector, I’ve tried to preach, teach, and exemplify a consistent message: each of us is called to grow in Christian maturity to meet the challenges and opportunities of being the Church in this new missional age. Our patron, Saint Paul the Apostle, calls this the “full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). This means taking seriously our individual and collective calls to be leaders, not only within the walls of our parish but also in the wider community. Leading, especially in times of great change, means taking risks, being open to failure that leads to learning, collaborating with others, and standing firmly in our identity and purpose.

People across Saint Paul’s Church have heard this message, stepped up, and stepped forward. Together, we have faced down a major challenge head-on –tackling our budget deficit– and as a result are experiencing a renewal of energy and spirit. We have new ministries popping up all around, a greater capacity for innovation, and deeper commitment to Christ and the mission of God he invites us into. There are others who are still afraid to step forward or unsure where they fit, and that’s okay. Saint Paul’s moves forward together.

My new role will give me the opportunity to help form other ordained leaders in what we’ve done together: translating an age-old faith to a contemporary context. I am excited and honored to be asked by Bishop Ian Douglas to serve the Church in this role.

None of this takes away the anxiety, sadness, or grief that many will feel at this time. Transitions are always hard, especially when it comes when things are going well. I have not served as your Rector for long, but we’ve done a lot together. I will pray for you as you discern what leadership model God might be inviting you to try and who might best step into that role to walk alongside you as you continue engaging God’s mission. Your wardens are two of the most capable people I’ve ever met and together with your vestry and the entire community, as it has for the last 139 years, your journey continues.

There will be time to say goodbye, and I will continue to serve faithfully until my final day. In the meantime, the mission of God calls us onward. There are individuals and communities in need of the Gospel – and it is our job as followers of Jesus Christ to proclaim it, in word and example.

Faithfully, Marcus+


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