[Given on Sunday, March 15, 2015, by The Rev. Fr. Marcus Halley at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church – Kansas City, Missouri]

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

John 3:14-15 (NRSV)

In the name of God: Creating, Liberating, and Sustaining. Amen. +

Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of the first influential black poets in American literature, has a poem entitled “We Wear the Mask” that I want to utilize as the point of departure for our sermon this morning. It says:

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.

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 smile, but, O 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!

My dear brothers and sisters, the whole point of this poem is to illustrate the ways in which we move around society. Like an elaborate masquerade ball, we move in and out, side to side, all the while wearing masks that “hide our cheeks and shade our eyes” lest anyone come too closely.

And sometimes those masks make their way over the threshold and into Church.

The Church – the very place where we are invited by our Savior to bring our wounds, our hurts, our insecurities, our pain, our burdens and cast them at his feet – the Church becomes nothing more than a beautiful space of perfunctory religiosity and our relationship to God nothing more than empty words on a page.

We’ve been talking for months about retooling the church to reach a new generation of spiritual pilgrims. For many churches, the response is to adopt a baptized model of American Consumerism and add more and more programs.

Do you want to know what I’ve discovered? I’ve discovered that what people are looking for is authenticity. People are looking for love that is real, transformation that is tangible, and relationship that is authentic.

I’m here this morning to talk about authenticity because the world doesn’t need another program. “Creation is waiting with eager longing for the revealing of the Children of God.”[1] The world needs REAL Christians REALLY [madly, deeply] in love with a REAL Savior.

Our Gospel reading from John actually catches Jesus in the middle of explaining to Nicodemus about how to be “Born again.” Nicodemus wants to know how it is possible to be transformed and renewed. Jesus tells him “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” What is he talking about? How was Jesus to be lifted up?

Beloved, Jesus was talking about being lifted up on the hard, unforgiving, scarred word of the cross. It’s the cross, though unspoken and unnamed, that is central to understanding this narrative. And it wasn’t a guilded cross of gold. It was a plain, wooden, bloody cross.

You see, how we see things makes a difference.

Too often popular religion only serves to sanitize the stark reality of our spirituality. The cross was more than a shiny emblem or a novel idea, it was the torture device on which hung the broken body of the Savior of the world. When we see Jesus on the cross, we are called to peel back the layers of Hollywood and to bear witness to the deafening tragedy of the cross.

Jesus comes to us bearing the wounds inflicted upon the cross, and we are called to approach our Lord bearing our wounds.

In Life Together, Deitrick Bonhoeffer suggests that this woundedness is essential to Christian community, but is elusive because, he says, “the pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner.”[2]

I wonder if we are often so concerned with appearances that we leave our true selves at the door. We bring our joy. We bring our gladness. We bring our thanksgiving. But when is the last time you brought your sadness, your anger, your hurt, your agony and laid them at the Savior’s feet? When is the last time you allowed yourself to be broken in the presence of God?

I don’t know about you, beloved, but I’ve been there. I’ve been in a place that was so dark and painful that I could not form words. All I could do was weep.

But I’ve found that there is a transformative testimony told in tears. When we dare to bring our brokenness to the Potter’s House, God can pick up the pieces of our life and put us back together. But first we have to admit that we are broken.

Julia Gatta, one of my professors in seminary, suggests that “prevailing culture does not recognize that conversion is actually a lifelong process with many failures an falls.”[3] The first step in our journey of transformation is understanding that we need to be transformed in the first place. Christian discipleship is not about making your perfect life better. Christian discipleship is about naming the deep woundedness that lies within each human heart and offering those wounds to God as places to experience God’s profound grace.

Allow me pull of the interstate and drive down your street this morning. It’s easy to talk about the sins of other folk – the big sinners like ISIS in the Middle East or the racists in Oklahoma. And we need to talk about those. We need to dismantle oppressive systems. And at the same time, we need to recognize the spiritual sickness that stalks in the shadows of our own hearts. That, dear friends, is the more difficult task, or as my friend and community organizer, Kathryn Evans, said in a recent conversation, “the heart things are the hard things.”

That’s the harder sin to see and name. Jesus even said so when he suggests that it is so much easier to point out speck in the eyes of our neighbor than to notice the beam in our own.[4]

The Season of Lent is a time of soul searching. That’s the point behind giving things up or taking on spiritual practices – to give us the space to search deep within ourselves and to shine the light of Christ on our brokenness.

Several years ago, when I was a campus ministry intern, I accidentally offended someone I worked with and it caused a huge rift in our relationship. What this offense uncovered was my own pride. After talking it through with my supervisor, a priest, I decided to take it to private confession. As I knelt there facing the priest I felt deep pain. And as I named out loud my sinfulness, I discovered that the pride that I exhibited was actually the symptom of a deep sense of unworthiness that I felt. I had never felt worthy of God’s love or the love of others and so I felt the need to always earn it. So there I knelt, having confessed my woundedness to the priest. I felt such pain and vulnerability.

But then she rose to her feet, placed her hands on my head and pronounced God’s forgiveness, not for generic sins, not for sins that I participate in abstractly, but on my specific area of brokenness. To hear the love of God applied directly to me was life-changing.

“I don’t deserve / the love you show / the blood you’ve shed / covers my wrong / beyond my fault / O Lord, you’ve seen and said you still use / use even / Even me, yes even me. / Though scarred and broken and unworthy. / My guilty stains you washed them clean / and said you’d still use even me.”[5]

There I was, having laid my wounds bare before God and in that very moment I heard God’s words of forgiveness wash over me. My pride and my insecurity could not bar me from relationship to God. In fact, it was through my pride and insecurity that I was invited into deeper relationship to God. While there is nothing I could do to earn the God’s love, I can own it as God’s free gift to me. Yes, even me.

Beloved, our lives are only transformed when we follow the example of Jesus Christ and enter the crucible of shame and death.

Authenticity says that it is simply not enough to worship Jesus if we are not willing to follow Him.

Authenticity knows that it is not enough to venerate the cross if we are not willing to pick it up.

Authenticity understands that it is not enough to say that we love the Lord Jesus if we are not willing to offer him the most wounded places in our lives and allow the consuming fire of the Holy Spirit to purify our hearts.

Jesus says “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” He’s talking about lifting up the Savior, wounds and all, because it is in looking up at the broken body of our Savior that we are granted the permission to be broken and wounded and real and authentic… and holy. And in that way we grant other people permission to do the same.

One of my favorite hymns says:

Lift him up! Lift him up! Still he speaks from eternity, “And I, If I be lifted up from the earth, I’ll draw all men unto me.”[6]

Lift him up, beloved. Lift him up.

Lift him up until the glittering beams of his loves shine throughout the whole universe.

Lift him up until his grace ricochets from ever human heart.

Lift him up until his dominion tears down every dividing wall.

Lift him up until his power shatters every heart of stone.

Lift him up! Still he speaks from eternity, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, I’ll draw all men unto me.”

He’s drawing us, beloved. You and I. He’s calling us out of sin and into fellowship, into relationship, into his righteousness, flaws and all.

[1] Romans 8:19 (paraphrased)

[2] Deitrich Bonhoeffer. Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community. (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc.; 1954), 110.

[3] Julia Gatta, Martin Smith. Go In Peace: The Art of Hearing Confessions. (New York: Morehouse Publishing; 2012), 7.

[4] Matthew 7:1-5, Luke 6:42

[5] “Even Me” by Crystal Aiken.

[6] “Lift Him Up” by Johnson Oatman, Jr.