One of my favorite movies is Bruce Almighty. In one scene Bruce encounters God, who encourages Bruce to pray. Bruce prays. “Lord, feed the hungry, and bring peace to all of mankind.:” he turns to God and asks, “How’s that?” to which God says, “Great…if you wanna be Miss America.”
Chastised, Bruce then prays a real prayer. He tells God what is actually on his heart. He is open with God, honest with God. When he’s finished, God says, “Now that’s a prayer.”
The state motto of North Carolina, my home state is, Esse quam videri, which means, “To be rather than to seem.” I think that should be the motto for every Christian who takes their spiritual journey seriously. What we are is more important than what we look like.
I heard a story of a pastor who when to visit a woman, someone who had not been to church in a long while, and she was saying that while she was not a faithful church attender, she was a faithful person, and turned to her son and said, “Bring Mommy that book that we all love to read from so much,” and the boy returned, not with the Bible, but with a TV Guide.
One of the hardest lessons to learn in the spiritual life is that God loves us for who are, and not for who we pretend to be. To put another way, the way to a successful spiritual life is desiring to be more spiritual than you appear to be. The way to hypocrisy is desiring to appear more spiritual than you actually are.
To be rather than to seem.
If I were to ask, “What is the most important conversion you can have in a day?” you might answer, “The conversation we have with God.”
To which I say, “No. It’s the conversation you have with yourself BEFORE you speak to God, because in that conversation with yourself, you decide whether you are going to be honest and authentic with God, or whether you are going to meet God with a false face, a mask, an act, a pretense.”
Above all things, God desires our honesty. God desires a relationship with us, not with who are pretending to be. And that takes us to the Wizard of Oz.
When I watched the Wizard of Oz as a small child, I was not as frightened by the Flying Monkeys, or even the Wicked Witch of the West as I was by the Wizard. The huge head, floating over the throne, with flames and smoke surrounding him scared me to death. If I had been there I would have run and jumped out the window with the Lion.
Of course later in the movie we find out that the Wizard is not all that scary after all. He is just the guy behind the curtain. And when the quartet realizes that he is not THE GREAT AND POWERFUL OZ, but just a humbug from Kansas, Dorothy says, “You’re a very bad man,” to which the Wizard replies, “Oh no, my dear. I’m a very good man. I’m just a very bad wizard.”
Maybe he was a very good man, but as far as anyone in Oz knew, he was the Great and Powerful OZ. Except that is not who he really was at all.
In the last few sermons, I have tried to portray who we can and should be as Christians on our spiritual journey. We should all exhibit, to a greater or lesser degree, the brains of the Scarecrow, the heart of the Tin Man, and the courage of the Lion. Now we are moving into different territory. For the next few weeks I am going to be talking about spiritual dysfunctions, about the places we go wrong in our spiritual journey. The first and most common is that we become like the wizard—we appear to be something we are not.
It is one thing to aim at spiritual growth. That is the greatest thing you can ever desire. It is quite another to hope you look more spiritual than you really are. It is bad when we do that with each other; it is even worse when we do that with God.
Over the years I have done a fair amount of counseling and one thing I have noticed is that it can take a long time for people to finally get around to what their real problem is. Now I understand that. We often don’t want to admit to ourselves what our real problems are, much less to anyone else. Much less to God.
Often we feel we have to put our best foot forward for the Almighty. When we feel God is watching us, we want to be on our best behavior. Of course we have be kind of funny about when we feel God is watching us. I was at a parishioner’s house watching the Superbowl one year, and he went to the fridge and got a beer. One of the other people he invited over said, “You’re not going to drink that in front of the pastor, are you?” He said, “I’m going to drink it in front of God; I might as well drink it in front of the pastor too.” We can’t hide anything from God, so why on earth would we think we can fool our Omniscient Creator by trying to be better than we are?
Now there is another way we can be like the Wizard. How many of you remember Leave It to Beaver? Remember Eddy Haskell? He was the kid who was always so polite when he was around parents, and a total brat when he was with his friends. That’s hypocrisy. He wore a mask of politeness when he was talking to the Cleavers, but in private he was a totally different person.
There is a sense where we all do that some extent or another. We have a public persona we wear when we are with other people. Now to a certain extent we have to do that. We don’t have to let everyone know exactly what we are thinking and feeling all the time. And I am not necessarily talking about that.
But I am talking about being ourselves when it counts. And our spiritual life, and our life together here is one of the places where it really does count.
Jesus tells a story about two sons. Both were asked to work in the vineyard. One was honest before his father. “Heck no, I ain’t working in any vineyard today.” The other puts on a good face. “Of course I will work in the vineyard, dear father of mine.”
In that culture, the second son is praiseworthy. He put on the good face, and in that culture, you never disrespect your elders. You always put on your best face when dealing with your father.
But who actually went to the vineyard, and did the work? The first son, and Jesus says he is the one who did his father’s will.
Now Jesus is not interested in saving face. He does not put honor above actions. He is more interested in saving lives and saving souls than in saving face. God wants us to BE rather than to SEEM, even if being is not quite what we want to look like before God.
Now here is the great irony of Church. On the one hand, this is the place where we should be most able to be ourselves. On the other hand, often this is the last place where we feel like we can really be ourselves.
But when Jesus said, I came that you might have life, and life abundant,” he did not mean that we are supposed to have somebody else’s life! He wants us to have our life, the life he gave to us, he wants us to be who he created us to be.
Now Jesus says something really interesting after he tells the parable; “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Now for the average person in Jesus’ day, those were the LAST two people you would expect to see in the Kingdom of God. Yet Jesus says that they have a better chance than the Pharisees. Why?
Because they were not hiding behind a mask. God was able to see them for who they really are. They were who they were, even if the reality of who they were was not all that pretty. And because they could admit who they were, they were able to become who God made them to be.
There is a difference between holding things back in public, and being a completely different person in public. The latter is called hypocrisy. A hypocrite is literally an actor who wears a mask. Who they are and who they pretend to be are two very different people. There is little or no connection between the two.
God accepts us for who we are. We don’t have to pretend to be different.
Now here is the big problem with wearing a mask. No one knows who you really are. I have a friend who builds sets in Hollywood. During one the strikes there, he had a hard time getting work, and I said, “You’re a carpenter. You shouldn’t have any problem finding work. You could do construction or fix things.” And he said, “You don’t get it. I build sets. I don’t build houses. I build things that look like houses. What I build, you cannot live in. You can just pretend to live in it.”
We meet someone, we put up a façade; that is normal. But as we get to know the person, we drop the façade, so they get to know who we REALLY are. If we don’t drop the façade, then they never really get to know us. And if they don’t know us, then deep down, if they like us, we know that all they really like is the façade. I have counseled husbands and wives who both held up facades for years, and eventually they realized they were not loved for who they were, they were loved for who they were pretending to be. And who we pretend to be is NOT who we are.
So here’s one piece of Good News. Before God, you can be who you really are—no matter who you really are. God accepts us for who we are. Before God we can take all the masks off, and be real. God loved the Wizard before he started to pretend he was a Wizard.
We can improve who we are. We call that growth. I am not who I was when I was fifteen. Or twenty-five. Or thirty-five. I am not who I was when I was forty-five. I hope I have gotten better over the years. I hope I have grown. I hope that, in spite of my age, I am still able to mature. Whether you are five, fifty-five, seventy-five, or a hundred and five, there is always room for growth. I know of no perfect people. I have been a Christian minister for more than twenty years, and I still have plenty of room for spiritual growth. As I get older I see parts of myself that I could not see when I was younger.
I said that God accepts us where we are, but God does not leave us there. Yes, God accepts tax collectors and prostitutes, but God does not leave them where God finds them. They do not have to continue to rip off friends, or sell themselves to the highest bidder. They can become saints of God.
The poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar wrote:
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,
There are times when we all wear the mask that Dunbar describes. And for good reason. Dunbar goes on to write:
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 can hold on that public persona, we can put on our best faces, even if they are false faces, but ultimately it catches up with us. Dunbar’s poem ends:
We smile, but oh 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!
In the end Dunbar realizes that when we come to Christ, we can take off the mask. If we cannot be ourselves before God, then we cannot be ourselves. We cannot be the true self God created us to be.
In the Adam and Eve story we heard this morning, after their sin, Adam and Eve looked at each other and realized they were naked, and they were ashamed. They were not ashamed before, but now they are different. They are self-conscious. Adam wonders if Eve notices the paunch at his belly, and Eve is wondering if the fig leaf make her look fat. They want to look like wizards, but in fact they are just Adam and Eve.
And the worst thing is, they are hiding from God. In their shame, they felt alienated from God.
But we know different. We know that God loves us, just as we are. We know that we don’t have to put on a false face for God.We know that God deserves no less than that we be our true selves.
But that is hard.
And we can help each other do that. Going back to the Dunbar poem, did you know he was an African-American poet? He wrote that to describe his experience as a Black man in our country. He did not feel it was safe for his people to be their true and authentic selves, because that was dangerous. If they were who they really were in public, they could get in a lot of trouble, perhaps even killed.
Society did not, and still does not make it possible for many people to be their true selves, to be the person God created them to be. But we in the church need to create that space. We need to create a space where people can feel the acceptance that God has for us. We need to send the message that you don’t have to be a Wizard to be accepted—you can be yourself. It is better to be yourself, because that is who God loves.
And that is how we should love.We love real people, not cardboard saints. We love people as they really are, not people pretending to be better than they are. And we create a community here where people can be their true selves, where they can pray and curse with honestly, where they share triumphs as well as defeats, where they can be joyful, or sorrowful, where they can celebrate their successes, and overcome their failures. Where people can be honest, can be their true selves.
There was a woman suffering from terminal cancer. She only had days to live. One night, God came to her in a dream, and told her she was not going to die, and had many fruitful years ahead of her. The next morning her doctor came in and told her she was miraculously cured.
She felt so good that as soon as she could, she went out, found a plastic surgeon, and had all the cosmetic surgery she could—tummy tucks, face lifts, you name it, she had it.
Soon after that she was crossing the street and was hit by a bus. When she got to heaven she went to God and said, “You told me I had many, many fruitful years ahead of me, but here I am, dead!” God looked at her carefully, then said, “Oh, is that you? I didn’t recognize you!”
Let us be our true selves, for better or for worse, because that is who God loves. Let us live our lives so that the Almighty recognizes us.