I saw portions of the Academy Awards last evening. I enjoyed the opening number by Hugh Jackman and a couple other bits along the way. But the overall self-importance of the evening brought to mind some things I preached in an Ash Wednesday sermon a couple of years ago. Here's a portion of that sermon (which is hopefully better than what Sean Penn preached last night).
This coming weekend is the Academy Awards. With much fanfare and media attention, the movie industry will congratulate itself and hand out Oscars to those they believe have excelled in the craft of acting. Now I enjoy movies and watch them fairly regularly, but I do think it is a sign of the decline of our culture that actors are considered to be among the most important people in society. We pay all sorts of attention to people who are really good at faking like they're somebody they're not. Our most popular form of entertainment is to watch accomplished pretenders, those who can give the illusion of reality, which then evaporates and is gone when the cameras are turned off.
I bring this up not to bash Hollywood–-that's like shooting fish in barrel. Rather, I mention this because in today's Gospel Jesus warns us not to be like the hypocrites. And the word for "hypocrite" literally means "actor" or "someone who impersonates another." What Jesus is saying is, "Don't be an actor or an impersonator when it comes to the faith. You may be able to fool others with a show of piety, but God sees the way things truly are. And He's the One you should be paying attention to."
In ancient theater, actors would wear masks over their faces. These masks would hide the actor's true identity from the audience, and the attention would then be drawn to the character he was playing. To this day many theaters will display two masks, one smiling, the other frowning as emblems of this past practice. In our day to day life, we also often put on a mask, a pretend face that conceals the truth of who we are or what we're thinking and feeling. Some are covering the pain of a failing relationship. Others are masking some self-destructive addiction. Still others hide the scars left by loved ones or by complete strangers. All of us try to camouflage our sins and failings and imperfections.
Jesus reminds us that in His church, there are to be no masks. There is to be no faking like everything's going just perfectly, no pretending like you have no struggles with sin in your life. Here, especially as Lent begins, the disguise comes off. We can be honest in the presence of a merciful God, and before one another as His children. Somehow people get the impression that going to church is about showing that you've got it all together spiritually. The last thing you'd want to do is reveal your sins to your pastor. Why, he might actually think you're a sinner who needs forgiveness (as if that would be shocking news). Martin Luther once commented, "May God in His mercy save me from a Christian Church where there are only saints. I want to be with that little company and in that Church where there are faint-hearted and weak people, the sick, and those who are aware of their sin, misery, and wretchedness and who feel it, who cry to God without ceasing and sigh unto Him for comfort and help." (Day by Day We Magnify Thee, p. 226)
(The whole sermon is here.)