Christ in a Mask

When I would stay with my friend Artie for a sleepover – yeah, we probably didn’t sleep much – I can still see in my mind’s eye his picture of Jesus at the door knocking.  The thing about this picture was it glowed in the dark.  As Artie’s family was Roman Catholic, and he always asserted that his church was the “One True Church,” I thought it was fitting that his Jesus glowed in the dark.  I didn’t even have a picture of Jesus on my wall.

In our Sunday School room was a picture of a blue-eyed, blond hair Jesus with Nordic features.  Harmless as a small puppy.  He certainly wouldn’t be whipping folks, yelling and screaming and turning their money tables over.  In college I called it the Cocker Spaniel Jesus.  Harmless as a sweet, adoring pet.  AND of absolutely no consequence.

Throughout the years of Christendom, we have had many images of Jesus the Christ.  Many versions of Christ Crucified, Christ Risen, Clean Cut Chamber of Commerce Capitalist Christ, Beatnik Poet Christ, Christ of the 1960s Jesus Freak. I found most intriguing that elusive figure of Flannery O’Connor in her stories of the Christ-haunted shadowed woods of the South darting from tree to tree.

In Matthew’s gospel, the Parable of the Last Judgement, we have a very different picture of the Christ, a portrait I find most compelling.

Those welcomed into the embrace of the Holy are the ones who have been in solidarity with those who suffer, those who hunger, those imprisoned, those abandoned.  This Christ is one at heart with mercy, justice, forgiveness.

I remember visiting my son in New Haven, walking on Sunday morning to the Episcopal Church on the corner of the green.  On the way to my church, I would pass two UCC churches, one next to the other.  One always seemed so quiet that I wondered if it was even open for business.  At the other I noticed a huge group of people in the back.  They were serving up breakfast and engaging a bunch of folks in conversation, passing out lunches.

I asked my son about that church.  He admitted that that is where he and his girlfriend had been attending.  Yes, they had tried the Episcopal Church out of loyalty, but it had nothing for them, nor had it had much of anything for the community.  It really was the House of the Frozen Chosen.  If you weren’t already part of the tribe, there wasn’t much of a welcome mat.  They were now at the church where Christ was visible, feeding the homeless, visiting the addicted, caring for the mentally challenged. 

Though he didn’t say it exactly that way, what he was describing was the Compassionate Christ of Matthew 25.  This is the Good Shepherd of Ezekiel, who gathers up the scattered and discouraged.  The students of that congregation were in fact Christ to those who gathered each Sunday behind the Church.  They were the only face of Christ some of those homeless would see.

In our day of COVID-19, this is Christ in a Mask. 

This Sunday we celebrate the Reign of Christ, the conclusion to the season of Pentecost.  Featured up front this Sunday is the Risen Christ of Great Compassion let loose in the world.  This Christ appears wherever those, driven by his power, embody the hallmarks in Matthew’s Parable of the Last Judgement – wherever that Shepherd of Ezekiel gathers up the fallen and lost.

Yes, we celebrate Christ in a Mask in these days of pandemic.

My friend Katy writes a response to a Facebook friend who had insisted on her freedom not to wear a mask.  This “freedom” is American individualism run amok.  In South Dakota the governor, confronted with overflowing hospital wards, exhausted staffs and filled morgues, has finally signed a mask order.  BUT refused to include any enforcement mechanism. 

You can’t tell us what to do.  Born Free.  Free to die like rats, coughing our lungs up having swallowed the strychnine.  Yes, siree, you can’t tell me what to do.

It is out of her assertion of rugged individualism that Katy’s friend strenuously objects to her freedom being curtailed.  It’s her life, and if she gets sick that’s her business.  This friend has no thought of who she might spread it to.  It’s all about her!  Sound familiar?

A weeping Christ stands at the door of this friend’s heart, patiently knocking, asking that she might have a care for the rest of us.

Katy shared this touching Tlingit story from Southeast Alaska.  It’s a story of a Christ her Facebook friend would not understand, but those native people of Southeast Alaska embodied to the fullest.  Katy, admonishes her friend:

“I remember a heartfelt Tlingit story of a village that got sick from a disease brought by the Europeans. Many were sick and many were dying. One family was healthy and the tribal elder told them to get into their boats and leave before they got sick too. They did so, but it was hard.

“Others whose families were sick wanted to go too. The family that left in their canoes came upon another village, one that was happy to see them. But they didn’t go ashore. They communicated with their paddles that there was a sickness in their home village and they didn’t want to bring it to the ones on shore.

“So, the people on shore built big bonfires in their honor and they sang songs across the water to one another. There was much grieving. The next day the family in canoes left to find a new place to build a home and did not visit others until they knew the sickness was gone.

“They must have felt lonely, but they also wanted to keep the sickness from spreading.

Here is a fulsome portrait of Christ in a Mask. 

When did we see you isolated and lonely, cut off from friends and family?  You wore a mask, you visited us in a park and kept social distance.  You would not risk spreading this contagion to us or our family.  We sang songs to one another across the green.   Christ in a Mask.

Being part of the Jesus Movement in this time of great national upheaval and contention is a true test of faith.  As a political pugilist, I fear I often fail the test.  I hear from afar the Lord of all Hopefulness saying, “Fifteen minutes in the penalty box, Forney.”  For I was not the least bit hopeful, but a chastening rod.

After listening to our Presiding Bishop’s message to our diocese this week, I think I finally comprehended the enormity and the difficulty of the challenge.  When asked how one remained true to one’s commitment to equity and inclusion, how did one answer an opponent who was a white supremacist?  How did you relate to such a person as Christ might?

First, Bishop Michael said this was not an easy task.  Most difficult, one at which he often fails.

Second, Bishop Curry remembered an admonishment from an elder early on in the first days of his ministry.  You need to stand tall before that person with what you believed – stand tall but also humbly kneel at the same time before the image of God in that person.  Most difficult.  A superhuman request for many of us.

No matter the invective and racist innuendos, the slurs and the misogyny, without accepting that verdict and holding fast to the truth within yourself — realize that deep within this most wounded human being is the image of God.  Though well hidden.

His wise council caused me to remember a day, late in the afternoon when I was working for then Candidate Obama in Akron, Ohio.  I had been instructing high school students how to canvass a precinct.

The students had all left for home and I had just a couple of blocks remaining to finish that tract.  As the sun had set behind the trees and shadows lengthened, I came to an old battered, yellow, wood-frame house with peeling paint.  To step on the front porch was a broken leg waiting to happen, as it had mostly rotted out and was sinking into the front lawn.  Above the door hung both a tattered Marine Corps flag along with a very faded and threadbare American flag.  Not the hallmarks of what looked to be a progressive person, I thought.  But who knows?

A sign next to the doorbell said, “Deliveries Around Back.”  So, I trudged around the side of the house and up the driveway and knocked on a sliding glass door.  I could hear the sounds of a televised sports event as an elderly woman in a faded housedress cracked it open just a bit. 

What did I want?  She could see my Obama T-shirt and cap.  I told her I was from the campaign and would like to give her some information on Obama’s health plan.  She hesitated, then turned to whomever was watching the game and yelled, “Honey, who we voting for?” 

A voice came back, “The nigger.”  For a moment I was speechless.  That’s not how I was raised.  Then it began to sink in.  This was just how he was raised.  Since he was willing to give Obama his vote, I guessed he didn’t mean anything offensive about it.  As my pastoral counseling professor, Dr. Kemper used to say, “He’s just doing the best he can at this moment.”  This fellow just didn’t realize, or want to acknowledge, how hurtful that word is, not just to black people, but to many of the rest of us.

At this point, his wife was willing to take my literature and we talked a bit about where to vote and the hours of early voting. 

When we encounter those who use vile, offensive language, who believe in the most bazaar conspiracy theories about Democrats drinking children’s blood in the basements of pizza parlors – while most disgusting and unbelievable — let us acknowledge that somewhere, most hidden in that soul, is the Image of Christ.  How might we honor it while staying true to what we hold fast?  The same for those crazy, lefty adherents of Antifa.  Somewhere a wire gets crossed in too many of us.  Lord have mercy.

Maybe the best we can do at the moment is to wish our interlocuter, “Have a nice day,” and admit to that person, that we presently have not enough in common for a civil conversation today.  Maybe at some later time.  But not now.   And pray not only for them, but for patience and sufficient compassion to see beyond both our damaged exteriors.  Pray for the insight to see this person, to see ourselves, as doing the best we can at the moment.  And pray, trusting God to perfect the poor, pitiful results of that encounter, the bare surface the human eye presently sees

Christ is that Great and Good Shepherd who would gather all into the arms of Welcome, much as a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings.  Christ is that Power, living still today, leading the naive and hopeful to reach out to the homeless and hungry.  Christ is the Perseverance to go through the mountain of paperwork to bring publicly supported housing into being, especially in fearful, exclusionary cities – to see beyond excuses for exclusion. “We have no homeless here.”  Christ is the Foolishness to believe that we can actually make a difference.  Christly love is not some vapid sentimentalism.  It’s doing the right thing to keep our neighbors healthy, to save lives.

Christ in a Mask, moves us to put our neighbors first before our own prerogatives and rights.  In our retirement community there’s a sign: “Behind every mask is a person who cares.”  

Christ in a Mask inspires us, over the distance of time and political ideology, when this pestilence is over and done with, to sing songs back and forth to one another across the divide — to celebrate this Christ in a Mask who has shown us how to enter the eternal realm of LIFE ABUNDANT.


November 22, 2020, Last Sunday in Pentecost

The Reign of Christ Proper 29

“Christ in a Mask”

The Rev. Dr. John C. Forney

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 95:1-7a; Ephesians 1:15-23;
Matthew 25:31-46

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