Is Home Where the Heart Is, Or is It where We We Learned To Put on Masks?

A Reflection on the Gospel

for July 5

the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

by David Somerville+

If you haven’t had the chance to do so yet, take a look at Mark 6:1-13, the gospel coming up at the beginning of next week:

Jesus left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

Successful businessman, author and columnist, Harvey Mackay wrote in his series, “Most fears of rejection rest on the desire for approval from other people.”

There are some Christ-like souls who handle rejection well and with a spirit of equanimity.  Another personality type is one that simply does not care what others think, and, a third group is one that lives with such intolerable anxiety about what others think that they must don something like a mask on the order of a fake image depicting a smiling face.  These people strap the mask over the real face that is tearstained with heartbreak, or worse yet, a real face that is twisted with rage and hatred of others whom they believe are the cause of all their failures and disappointments. (Of course I am speaking metaphorically,  not about literal  masks.  These are the behavioral masks that disguise  how we genuinely feel).

You have heard the expression that “So-and-so is always putting on airs”.  That is the kind of person who wears  a mask).  The masks these kinds of people wear obscure the peripheral vision of their eyes. Because they are so concerned with the impressions they are trying to make on others, they miss a lot of what is going on around them.  They are, sadly, self-absorbed.  In addition to that, the masks are not comfortable on the ears and nose, and they can inhibit the movement of the mouth so that real speech is impossible.  But put together with some other stuff, masks can make up an impressive costume.  One can look at people like this, note all the details, find them beautiful,  intimidating, or both, and still know nothing about what these incognito souls are really like.

I suspect that all of us have worn masks from time to time.  I know I have, and sometimes I still do; most of us probably can remember those wonderful, good days when we could relax, be ourselves, and take the masks off. That is when we can say, “I love going to thus-and-such place, It’s where I can really let my hair down”.  Is there some place in your life that is like that?  I hope so. When your church feels like that, then you are getting a glimpse at the Kingdom of God.

This is the fourth of July weekend, so what has all this got to do with our nation’s independence? It would seem logical that the sermon message for a July Sunday like this one should not be about masks.  Save that for Hallowe’en or Mardi Gras.  Shouldn’t we, instead, be reflecting on the pride we have in our country, the United States of America?  It would seem that the logical thing to do is to address our  responsibility to be good citizens of our homeland.

Let me assure you that we will find something in this upcoming gospel lesson that relates to our responsibility to be patriotic citizens.  But on this day, the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Jesus shares with us and teaches us about his ministry in his home neighborhood, and how his ministry there apparently failed with the people who, one would think, would have trusted him the most — his home neighbors. So this is where we need to begin — with Jesus in returning to his home neighborhood, and with some thoughts about what returning to our home neighborhoods would be like,

Listen to the lyrics of a familiar song.

Oh, theres no place like home for the holidays                                                                         Cause no matter how far away you roam                                                                                   When you pine for the sunshine of a friendly gaze                                                                          For the holidays, you cant beat home, sweet home

Clearly this was not Jesus singing.  Where did he see a friendly gaze? Not in Nazareth, certainly. No, this isn’t Jesus. This was Perry Como in a 1958 Television special some fifty-six Decembers back.  It was a production that made a hot, artificially lighted studio with sprinkles of fake snow on Mr. Como’s topcoat with ear muffs look like he was standing at the front door to an idealized home with a cozy fire on its hearth.  All this was artfully conflated to a seventeen inch black and white television screen on the face of a one of those old round tubes.

I would like to share with you something that happened in a later December. This one was only about twenty years ago.  I was listening to a troubled soldier in the army brigade that was my pastoral responsibility as the organization’s chaplain.  I was glad to see “Nick” as I will call him for the sake of this narrative. Until sometime late in September that year, 1993,  Nick and his young wife were active in the chapel program, but then had dropped away.  His first sergeant sent Nick to me because this young man, normally a thoughtful,  conscientious worker and family man, got into a scuffle in the motor pool, and his wife had at some earlier point decided to move back to her mother’s house more than seven hundred miles away. Nick had become moody, difficult to live with.

Then it  happened. It never was made clear who hit whom first. The bottom line was that Nick had been counseled, and given a nonjudicial punishment, according to article fifteen in the uniform code of military justice.   It was a fine levied by his commander.   In conversation with me about the incident, the discussion took an unexpected twist.  Nick confided to me that he was homesick.

I asked Nick to tell me more about this.  “It began,” he said, “when I heard this old Perry Como song on a radio in the motorpool.“It made me think of my childhood, where I watched some of  those television specials.  The Andy Williams show was a family favorite.

“But my homesickness,” the soldier continued “makes no friggin’sense! I really had no fun as a kid growing up. But I went home anyway last Christmas to a family reunion with several aunts, uncles, my brother, and some nieces and nephews. Somehow I thought things would be different.

“But as soon as I arrived at the Iowa homestead, this was the first thing my dad said:  ‘Well, you’re in he army making good money at last. When are you gonna pay us back the five hundred dollars we loaned you five years ago. Times have been hard lately.  The least you could do is help out a little bit.’

Then came Christmas two days later. At  5:30 in the morning, three of the seven kids in the reunion were already at the tree in the living room, tearing open their presents.  They woke up Uncle Eddie who was still drunk from his revelries the night before.  He went to the tree and grabbed Billy by the scruff of his neck, and then as he started to wallop Billy’s behind, lost his balance, fell into the Christmas tree, knocked it over and broke Johnnie’s electric train.  Johnny was still asleep, but the joy of his Christmas was already trashed.  Mom, who was looking forward to getting the turkey into the oven by seven O’clock, just crumpled in tears, and went back to Bed for the rest of the day.

“Dad who had always been bullied by his brother Eddie, somehow found a way to blame me for having gotten Uncle Eddie drunk the night before — so everything was all my fault.

We have a lot of men and women  in our country that are like Nick.  When these people are given love, understanding, and encouragement, they can return to actualizing their potential to become the highly functional citizens that will continue to keep our country strong enough to fight for, and maintain the blessing of freedom as a compassionate, democratic society.  But without it, self-loathing, addictive behavior, depression, and the temptation to engage in criminal misconduct will abound; unemployment will continue to be high, while, paradoxically, industry struggles with a labor shortage.  So the gross domestic product will be less than all of our natural resources would have provided. Some of this population of men and women like “Nick” attend church occasionally, others not at all, but none of them are ones that feel like they can take off their masks — unless they belong to a truly wholesome community that assures them that they are valued an loved in ways that never happened in their homes of origin.

Some who fail to appreciate the reality of God’s desire for a world of peace and good will believe that the church has no role to play in our postmodern life.  But in people like Nick there is a real need, and it is the faithful of the church who are positioned to fill it. The local church, where Christ is made really present in word, sacrament, and whose presence is then continued by the good we do in response to our our acts of worship is medicine to the world of people like Nick.  God is already working with many of you, while he waits for others to join, perfecting the place where you can go, just be yourself, let your hair down, and not put on airs—if we are faithful to do what we are called to do.

There is good evidence that generally, though not perfectly perhaps, we as a whole strive to  take seriously our baptized ministries with their obligations to be mindful of the needs of others, and, as the baptismal liturgy of our PrayerBook mandates “… strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”

I am sure you know that when you live up to this promise, you provide nourishment for many of the spiritually impoverished Nick’s of our community, and the savior who loves people like Nick and his family members.   You give them the healing that neither Nick nor his savior experienced in their remembered homes of origin, that place that taught us that we are all sinners — perpetrators, yes, but more importantly victims of sin and in need of healing forgiveness including the frightened children who never grew up, like Uncle Eddie, a child who wears the armor coated mask of a bully.

All of this is how the church can be brought into contact with its potential for success in growth, and as it grows, experiences the actual believability of its vocation to continue to spread the Good News of God.  For as we persevere, we as a local community become more and more like what we are destined to become – truly the kingdom of God, the new family dominated not by people like Uncle Eddie, but our heavenly Father whom we see in our relationship to our companion and family brother, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Discernment for ministry (and when I speak of ministry, I mean the Christ-lit life of every baptized soul, of whom some may be “ordained to one of the three orders, deacon, presbyter, or overseer, who serve you, the faithful, the baptized ministers in their lives hallmarked by teaching, hospitality, and all the other actions that make the stranger, the lonely, and the bereft feel valued and loved, in a place where they can remove their masks, and let their hair down.  It involves confronting and overcoming our own fear-filled character traits to uncover our qualities of integrity for the tough going that lies ahead in one’s vocation to be as Christ to the other.  The humble, ego-strength required to be self respecting in the midst of adversity when assurance and acceptance by the prevailing culture is unavailable is something that comes from a mature spirituality, and is a necessary ingredient of it. It comes to us in our togetherness. This is the secret and gift of the Gospel that unlocks the wholeness and strength that perfects our stature in Christ.

When we attend to our spiritual strengthening, we are doing something really more patriotic than flag waving because true patriots can only come from communities of people who love their God, their brothers and sisters who are God’s children, and also the citizens of our country. What’s more, when there is corruption and justice in the United States, we have the freedom, the faithful integrity and courage of our convictions to address these concerns without making our great nation into something it should never be, an object of nationalistic idolatry.

To sum up, God wants us to continue with Harvey Makay’s  thought —which is on target as far as it goes: “Most fears of rejection rest on the desire for approval from other people.”  Mackay adds something more that certainly goes without saying, “Don’t base your self esteem on the opinions of others”. We who are in Christ know the truth of that — as far as it goes.  When we feel sick we don’t go to a quack.  We go to a doctor. It is that basic.  We are armed with a better wisdom:  We know that in Christ we can take off our masks, and let our hair down.


Note to the reader: I use two excellent sources without which, I could not do this series with some accurate sources of information:

  1. SermonWriter – Resources for Lectionary Preaching

2  Oxford Biblical Studies

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