Masks, the Human Condition

John W. Burgeson

Sermon notes, July 4, 1999,
First Presbyterian Church, Durango

The first question is -- who are you
-- and what have you done with Bill Postler?

My name is John Burgeson.
I am a member of this Presbyterian congregation,
and I am honored to be asked to speak to you today.
Bill is on vacation.

Last year, after I spoke, your remarks after the service were gracious.
I heard (name) say "Not the worst sermon I've ever heard,"
and (name) asked "When did you say Bill would be back?"

Be kind.

This is the second time I've occupied this 110 year old pulpit. By my reckoning, this is the 5,724th Sunday that services have been held in this sanctuary. It is an awesome duty. One which I do not approach lightly.

My goal is to exalt my Lord, Jesus Christ, and to lead you, and me, to love Him more.

Today, the subject is "The masks we wear."

Look around you at your fellow Christians. What do you see? More importantly, what do THEY see? Someone who has it all together? The poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, makes the following claim:

"There are quantities of human beings, but there are many more faces, for each person has several."

I agree with Rilke's claim. There is the face that represents our real self, seldom seen, and there are the faces we wear to hide ourselves from others. Our "face" is more than our countenance, it includes everything about us. The word is synonymous with "mask," it means "disguise," or "pretense." We all wear masks; it is the human condition. We all have several masks, suitable for most any situation.

The "what's going on" mask when Allen TeBrink pulls us over.

The "I'm shocked" mask when we repeat a juicy piece of gossip.

The "macho" mask when the male is with his fishing buddies.

The "studious" mask when the teacher (or boss) is watching.

The most insidious mask of all -- the "everything is fine" mask when our world has crashed down! We Christians use this one a lot. "I'm fine," we say. Frustrated, Into myself, Neurotic and Empty! But I'll not let YOU see that! Everything is fine. I'm OK.

What is the opposite of a mask? It is the condition of innocence. A newborn baby, innocent, is terribly attractive, guiltless, no disguise.

Most of us enjoy children. When young, they have not yet mastered the art of the mask. I have a particularly poignant memory of my third daughter, on her ninth birthday. She is on a "date" with me, we are at the mall and she has just selected a "Holly Hobbit" blouse as her birthday gift. Her face, maskless, glows with happiness. I hold that moment in my heart. One year ago today, in this very sanctuary, I saw her, again maskless, again glowing, as I walked her down that aisle (point) to be married. There was an "instant replay." Next month, her first child, our 6th grandchild, is to be born. I have a loving expectation, as I think on that fact, to see her maskless face again, next month, along with her child.

Most of us learn well how to build masks in our teens; I know that I did. As we grow older, it becomes difficult to remove them and expose our real selves to others. Even to those we love. Particularly to those we love!

I wear a mask, many masks, depending on where I am and, more important, who I am with. Even alone, for I must put on a show even for an audience of self.

There is an argument that women are more guilty of mask-making than males. This argument is based on the success of the makeup industry. It is not persuasive, for it is our expressions, our body language, our manner of speaking, our clothing, our possessions, our choice of words, and other self-chosen attributes that form the totality of our masks. Masks cover our whole, not just our top front eight inches. The male, it can be argued, is the more guilty. We men know how to hide our feelings well! We are, after all, "macho men!" Years ago, I charged my children with the usual "dad words" of financial conservatism. I told them an automobile is just a "steel box on wheels." Yet at the same time I drove a red Firebird! It was one of my many masks.

Why should this be? Why are we cursed with masks?

Consider a human and a rabbit. A human may be exceptionally "good," or dreadfully "bad." It is difficult to think of a rabbit as either. As we move up the evolutionary scale, to horses for example, we see very little change in this situation. Humanity seems to be unique.

The difference might be intelligence, but I am unconvinced. Developmentally challenged adults have fewer masks, but masks they have. The cause is theological; we put on masks because we are, as C. S. Lewis puts it, a "bent" race.

Come back with me to Eden, the "pleasure garden." It is twilight, on the sixth day, and creation is complete. "It is good," says the creator. Adam and Eve are present, in a state of innocence. They wear no masks. They have no need for masks. No thought of disguise or pretense pollute their minds. Our race is not yet bent.

Sometime later. The deed is done. Fig leaf masks are donned. We have eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and we cannot return to innocence. We do not really want to do so. Our masks are the consequence. Our knowledge has led us to fear one another, and disguise ourselves from one another, as protection.

There are places where masks are sometimes removed. Look on the faces of the people coming forward at a Billy Graham rally. Or at young people "receiving Christ" at a Youth for Christ meeting. Did you see the face of young Laura Creech a few weeks ago, as she testified to her Lord at her baptism? Or Melissa Watt, just last week, as she sang to us from her heart? Scripture asserts we can be a "new creature," and we verify this by gazing on the face of a newborn shining out from a convert. The impermanence of the mask removal does not argue against its reality.

There have been times in my life when my mask has slipped. There are some Sunday worship services when it happens. That leads me to believe two important things: (1) I am not my masks. (2) Behind the masks of others are real people.

Are there people who have no masks? No, except for Christ, we are all bent. It is a human condition. It is one we must struggle against all our lives.

Struggle? How? Micah gives us the 1st clue.

"What does the Lord require of thee?
Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with thy God."

The first two are pretty straightforward -- but what is this "humbleness" stuff? That won't get me ahead! Who wants to be laughed at? I gotta be in charge! People have to think I've got it all together!

Lord, it's tough to be humble, when I'm so perfect in any way! Who am I fooling? Just the guy in the mirror!

In the life to come, we will not wear masks. In the meantime, let us try to discard them. The key to doing this is twofold -- humility (Micah) and loving expectation. How can this be developed? Paul gives us the 2nd clue in Philippians 4:8.

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true,
whatsoever things [are] honest,
whatsoever things [are] just,
whatsoever things [are] pure,
whatsoever things [are] lovely,
whatsoever things [are] of good report;
if [there be] any virtue, and if [there be] any praise, think on these things.

The hymn I have chosen may help us do that.

"Open my eyes... ." Let's sing it now.

John Burgeson

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