Behind the Masks

Sermon from Sunday, June 26, 2011
Paradise Lutheran Church, Thomasville, PA
Matt. 10: 40-42

“He who welcomes you welcomes me. And he who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”  Jesus not only was speaking to his disciples when he said these words, he was speaking to all of us as well. It’s easy to be welcoming to people who are like us and can give us back something in return. It’s not so easy when there is a risk involved. When they are different or can potentially harm us or even worse, harm our reputation. I’d like to share with you a tale of a local church who found out what Jesus really meant by hospitality.

 One cold Saturday in late February, the members of a local congregation decided to host a masquerade party. It would be a boost to their spirits during that time of year when the holidays were over and spring just couldn’t arrive soon enough. So the plans began and everyone in the congregation was on board. They got so caught up in the excitement that they even put an ad in the local paper. They thought, hey, who knows who might show up and they may even get more members to join the church. After all, Jesus did say to go and make disciples of all nations and increasing church membership was a way they felt they could measure that.

 The mood of the church really changed during the weeks that they planned this party. The older members weren’t as agitated by the young folks who had such different ideas and different tastes in music. In fact, they even agreed to play a variety of music at the party so that everyone could hear something they like.

 They had to keep a close eye on the finances though so as not to go over budget. So they thought of creative ways to keep the costs down. Everyone chipped in and organized a spectacular pot-luck. The more they planned this party, the more their morale improved despite the cold dark winter.

 They needed this party. They were tired. The church really took social ministry very seriously. They prepared meals for the homeless, visited the sick, had an active prison ministry, and even helped with building projects in the community. They wanted to show God’s love to others and although they didn’t brag, they felt they were doing a pretty good job at that.

 The night of the masquerade party – Winterfest they called it – had arrived. The turn-out was even bigger than they had anticipated. Everyone enjoyed the music, food, fellowship, and the costumes. That was the biggest delight. Colorful costumes and creative masks helped this large crowd celebrate life. They felt blessed and they shared stories with one another and were inspired. Now one of the rules of the masquerade party was that they weren’t supposed to let anyone know who they were. Of course, they could probably figure that out from the voice and the conversation. But the surprising thing was that they were hearing stories they hadn’t heard before. Someone told how they were struggling financially, but didn’t want to let anyone know. Another said they lost their job and felt embarrassed to say anything. What would people think of them? And some others said they were a new family in the community and this was a great way to make a connection.
One by one the stories kept flowing and as people learned more about one another than ever before they felt closer to each other and to God who was speaking through each and every person.

 At the end of the night, as the music finished, a lone voice spoke up and said he had never felt so welcomed and loved. He had always felt so isolated. A couple other voices expressed similar gratitude and as they did tears began to fall down their faces. They had to take off their masks to wipe away the tears. That is when the shock hit the members of the congregation in the room.

 One by one more masks were removed to reveal the faces of people they had never seen or should I say welcomed. There was the homeless man who had looked so frightening to them before. There was the teenager with the crazy hair and piercings that had previously shown up as a visitor one Sunday but never came back because she felt unwelcomed from the stares. There was the foreign family who immigrated here to escape religious persecution in their own country only to receive a new kind of isolation – not even a hello at the grocery store, not to mention being asked to come to church even if it was to get to know about their religion. The older woman who had a mental illness and was too much of a distraction to others whenever she stopped in as a visitor and the three gruff individuals who rode up one afternoon on their motorcycles looking for a place to worship and were greeted only with condemning stares. Yes, they were all there. Their masks were off and their truth was exposed. So was the truth of the congregation.

 These people who had enriched their lives during the party- laughed with them, ate with them – were the same people who they had rejected because they were too different or seemed like a potential threat. Instead of welcoming them, they gave them strange glances or even worse had not looked at them at all. But now, now they could see them for who they really were and could see themselves for who they were. They were not the welcoming church community they thought they were. They didn’t even know the stories of members of their own congregation!

 The words of Matthew’s gospel took on a whole new meaning that night. “He who welcomes you welcomes me….” They hadn’t welcomed Jesus. By shutting out these wonderful people, they had shut Him out too. They had been reaching out only to those they felt comfortable reaching out to and in the process they had missed out on receiving the grace these strangers possessed. God was working through them too only they hadn’t seen it.

 What made these strangers accept the invitation after they had previously been rejected from the church? Everyone in that room that night knew it was the prompting of the Holy Spirit – the same Spirit that unites us all as children of God. All of us. In the sight of God we are all one family. And behind the masks we all wear, lies the face of God. And we welcome Christ and the one who sent him “Whenever we give even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones.” Amen