That Masked Man
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 9:28-36
Lent begins this Wednesday. Lent is a “season” on the church’s calendar; a period of 40 days (excluding Sundays) during which we spiritually prepare for the celebration of Easter. Here at Trinity, Lent unofficially kicks off each year with our Fat Tuesday pancake supper. This year our event will focus on the ministry of UMCOR, the United Methodist Committee on Relief. You can read more details in this morning’s bulletin. Our Pancake Supper concludes with a service to transition us into Lent. We call it “Beads to Ashes,” emphasizing that – as we enter Lent – we put the colorful, celebrative beads of Mardi Gras aside and put on symbols of repentance and mortality: the ashes that will be applied to our foreheads in the shape of the cross.
Another common symbol of Mardi Gras is masks. In New Orleans, krewes who organize the parades don masks that allow them to behave in ways that might ordinarily be deemed socially unacceptable. At the Mardi Gras following Hurricane Katrina, members of many krewes mocked and ridiculed FEMA. Anything goes on Fat Tuesday and, with the anonymity of a mask, no one fear Wednesday morning reprisals.
We human creatures do enjoy wearing masks, don’t we – both literally and figuratively? We learn to don those masks at an early age. When we fall and skin a knee and the adult near us says, “Now, now; don’t cry. You’re just fine.” Or when we get teased on the playground and we’re encouraged to simply ignore it; to behave as if we don’t even hear those taunts and giggles. So we learn to put on a different face, a mask to conceal our inward hurt.
When I was younger I suffered from migraines. I got a lot of them in my 30’s; so many, in fact, that I learned to just push through the pain and go about my day. I have a friend, Mary Lynn, who’s a nurse. If I was in the throes of a migraine and walked into a room where Mary Lynn was present, even though I smiled and tried to act like my usual self, Mary Lynn within moments would size me up and say, “You’ve got a migraine, don’t you.” I don’t how she did that. But I couldn’t conceal it from her. She claimed she could see it on my face.
Often the masks we don are used to disguise what is really inside. In a certain sense, that is what we see happening in this morning’s gospel story. It is the story of Jesus being transfigured on a mountain. When Jesus is transfigured, what is inside clearly shines through. It is as if the mask of human flesh is lifted from Jesus’ face for just a brief time and we see who is beneath the mask. We get a glimpse of what Jesus carries inside of him – the glory of God. And that glory must be quite the thing to see. It certainly impressed Peter, James and John. On that Mount of Transfiguration, the mask of Jesus’ flesh is lifted and those three disciples can see God’s glory on the face of their Lord.
But, I feel obliged to give it to you straight. The story of Jesus’ Transfiguration begs for a larger context; a context that more accurately defines or interprets it. There is something that lies beneath it, behind it; frankly, all around it. Something casts a shadow over it, something not quite so attractive. The larger context of Jesus’ transfiguration begins much earlier in chapter 9, when Jesus asks of his disciples this important question: “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples provide a variety of answers, what they’ve been hearing from the crowds. But then Jesus wants to know who they think he is. After all, they are the ones who’ve spent the most time with him; surely no one knows him as well as they do. Now, in response to that question, Peter gives a surprisingly brilliant and perceptive answer: “The Messiah of God,” he says. Wow. How cool is that?
But then, Jesus their teacher begins to instruct them a little more. He tells, in fact sternly orders them, that they’re not to share that information with anyone. Ssh... Keep it on the down low. And then Jesus explains to them what his secret identity means. He will “undergo great suffering, be rejected by the elders, chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” He continues by explaining what that means for them, as his disciples. He says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” Talk about a downer.
And it is eight days later – eight days after that sobering talk, the gospel writer tells us, when Jesus ascends the mountain to pray, accompanied by these three disciples, and this strange and peculiar thing called transfiguration takes place. There in the midst of bedazzling glory, Moses, Elijah and Jesus are talking about his departure, his exodus… which is a reference to Jesus’ crucifixion. The glorious, awesome beauty of transfiguration is reframed within the context of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, a journey that will conclude with a cross. How can it be that the face of glory is also a face of death? Come on, Jesus, enough of this depressing stuff; just put on a happy face.
About 30 years ago, the United Methodists published a new Book of Worship and, among the changes in it, was the suggestion to observe Palm Sunday as Palm/Passion Sunday. And why, you might ask? Well, because not many people go to church on Good Friday. And really, who can blame them; it is a pretty depressing occasion. We’d just as soon transition from those Palm Sunday “Hosannas” to the victorious shouts of “Christ is risen; he is risen indeed” without having to stop along the way to hear those nasty “Crucify him! Crucify him!s” Holy Week can get pretty ugly.
Yet, here’s the thing… No matter how much we try to hide our eyes from the ugly stuff in this world, it will still be there. We can’t mask it… even when we try. We’re not fooling anyone… and really, there’s no compelling reason to pretend, no justifiable motivation to bury our heads in the sand because, friends, ours is not just an Easter faith; it’s a Good Friday faith, too; it’s not just a Fat Tuesday faith; it’s an Ash Wednesday faith; it’s not just a resurrection faith, it’s a crucifixion faith. In fact, you can’t have one without the other.
We live in a sinful, hurtful world. Sometimes as Christians, we like to pretend that everything is fine… even when it’s not. We put on our happy faces when we come to church. Like Eleanor Rigby of Beatles’ fame; wearing a face that we keep in a jar by the door. Who is that really for?
We put on our mask because what would people here at church think of us if they knew we were struggling to keep our marriage together? What would people here at church think of us if they knew we lay awake in bed at night worried sick about where our kids are and what they’re doing and why we just can’t seem to get through to them anymore? What would people here at church think of us if they knew we’d spent all our savings; were struggling to pay our mortgage and just an absolute financial disaster? What would people here at church think of us if they knew we were angry at that sick parent who never had time for us as children but now demands so much of our time? What would people here at church think of us if they knew we struggled with addiction or crippling anxiety or depression? Of course, we want to welcome folks out there in the community who struggle. But we’d rather not share our own stuff. Now, don’t misunderstand me. We’re all entitled to a little privacy… but could it be possible that our privacy has become a mask to hide behind; an effort to disguise what is really underneath?
Friends, we are, ultimately, Easter people; but to get there we have to pass through the season of Lent… even Jesus had to walk that painful journey to Jerusalem, to walk that lonesome valley. We are resurrection people, but sometimes for a season, we find ourselves living in a Good Friday world. And when we do, we do Jesus no disrespect to name it for what it is… After all, Jesus had no trouble calling it like it was.
Friends, many of us are walking a painful journey right now within our United Methodist denomination. This past week we witnessed some pretty ugly stuff. But unlike Jesus, we don’t have to walk that lonesome valley alone. We can be honest and open and share our pain with one another. I want you to be able to trust that Trinity is a safe place to take off your mask and to be who you are. That glorious face of Jesus on the mountaintop would also be a face contorted and wincing in pain as he hung from the cross. Pain and glory are both found on the face of our Lord. Lent is about to begin. But Lent is not the end of the story or the end of the journey. Easter is coming. Every Lent ends with Easter; with beautiful and glorious new life. So, whatever valley you may find yourself in, let us join hands and walk it together.
True Christian community – the kind of community Jesus developed with his first disciples – calls us to remove our masks and to walk hand in hand; even through the most difficult and discouraging legs of the journey. That is what it means to be disciples of Jesus; that is what it means to be the Church; and that is what it takes to reach beyond our walls with a witness that is genuine and authentic.
And so will Lent begin…
 Luke 9:22.
 Luke 9:23-24
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