1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
This sermon was preached at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in Berkeley CA on Sunday October 16, 2011.
In a few weeks, many of us will greet a variety of familiar and perhaps frightening faces at our door, ranging from Captain America to Charlie Sheen, Baraka Obama to Lady Gaga, Michael Jackson to Frankenstein. I’m talking, of course, about Halloween, when children of all ages dress up and wear masks in order to take all your candy.
Whether you’re 9 years old or 90 years old, wearing masks and taking on new personas can be a fun and liberating experience. Some of us do this everyday in more subtle ways when we hide our true selves behind superficial roles and identities. We might hide our true faces behind our job titles: “I’m a lawyer. I’m an accountant, doctor, student, teacher, priest, etc.” or our social roles: “I’m a mother, a brother, an uncle, a grandfather, etc.” And although those are appropriate ways to present ourselves to the world (and they’re totally true), they’re not really who we are. And if we remove all those titles and facades, then who are we, really?
And the answer can be so powerful that it actually starts to make sense why we continue to wear our masks.
In today’s Exodus reading, God is very aware of the power of his true face: “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” The glory of God’s face is so potent that human life itself is consumed and extinguished by its very presence. God, in a sense, has to mask himself in order for Moses to see Him and not die.
In the following chapter in Exodus, Moses descends from his mountaintop theophany at Sinai and returns to the children of Israel, who become afraid of him because “the skin of his face sent forth beams.” His face was radiating so much after his encounter with God that the others could not bear it. So Moses, out of compassion for them, put on a mask. Moses’ face shined like the sun and since they didn’t have sunglasses back then Moses had to walk around with a mask in order to keep them from looking away or running away. Unlike trick-or-treaters, Moses wore a mask in order not to scare others, because his true face was apparently pretty scary. When we take off our masks, who are we, really?
When it comes to today’s Gospel, one might say that the Pharisees and the Herodians were wearing false masks by complimenting Jesus when really they were just buttering him up in order to trap him with their question about paying taxes. They knew if Jesus said yes to paying taxes he would risk losing support from the people, but if he said no he would risk treason against the state. The Pharisees say something to Jesus as they’re buttering him up that is actually profoundly significant (and is very much lost in translation). They tell Jesus, “you do not regard people with partiality.” The Greek, however, when translated literally, reads “You do not look at the masks of people.” Most translators interpret this as a colloquialism, which means, “you are not partial.” But that’s not what it says. It says, “You do not look at the masks of people.”
Jesus responds by saying, “Yes, you are right. I do not look at the masks of people. I look through the masks.” And what does Jesus see when he looks through the masks?
Jesus answers their question about the taxes in such a way that he intrigues the crowd and flummoxes the Pharisees. He acknowledges the “face” and “image” of the emperor on the denarius coin and says, according to the 400 year-old King James Bible, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” In today’s parlance, the Pharisees “got served” and they now have to retreat and regroup before they can come back for a rematch with Jesus (which will be next Sunday, so stay tuned).
Not only does Jesus answer their question, he also teaches them (and us) a life-changing truth. I’m not talking about a call to separate church and state, or to resist the government or to occupy Wall Street. I don’t think that is necessarily what Jesus is talking about either. One of the earliest interpretations of this teaching is from the African Church Father Tertullian (a contemporary of St. Clement of Alexandria) who interprets Jesus as saying, “[Give] the image of Caesar, which is on the coin, to Caesar, and the image of God, which is on humanity, to God.” Jesus is teaching us what he sees when he looks through our masks: He sees the image of God.
Jesus says, “You are right. I do not look at the masks of people. I look through the masks and I see the image of God. I see the skin of your faces sending forth beams. I see you all radiating with divine life. I see heavenly potential in all you, but I also see you smothering it at times with your attachment to your masks and your false images. Let go of all of that. Let Caesar have it. Then you will start to see what I see: the image of God impressed on your face as your face and on the faces of all those around you.” Just as Caesar put his face on the coin so God put his face on you. Your face is the image of God. It’s a little overwhelming if you think about it. It makes me realize why we tend to wear masks so often.
In Louisville, Kentucky, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, a Trappist monk “stood in the center of a busy shopping district, and was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that [he] loved all [the] people [there].” He said, “they were mine and I theirs…we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness.” The monk named Thomas Merton continued to reflect on this overwhelming experience and said, “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.
Thomas Merton experienced in Kentucky what the children of Israel experienced when they saw the beaming face of Moses when he came down Mount Sinai and what the three disciples experienced when they saw Jesus transfigured on top of Mount Tabor. It’s an overwhelming experience and perhaps one that we cannot experience too often lest we be overpowered by all the beauty.
In his famous sermon “The Weight of Glory,” C.S. Lewis said, “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship. It is in [this] light…that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit…Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ…the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.”
For the rest of this month, I invite us all to practice seeing the image of God in each other’s faces, even in the faces of strangers. We don’t have to be creepy about it, but we can be intentional. And I invite us also to be aware of the masks that we put on at work, at church, even perhaps on Halloween. Sometimes it might be appropriate to put on masks like Moses did, but when we do, let us remember not to smother the image of God beneath our masks. And let us remember that God sees the “secret beauty of [our] hearts…where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach” and God invites us to see that in ourselves and in each other. Even today. Even now.
 In the Talmud, Rabbi Shimon ben Azzai explains how the people in the Torah were able to have visions of God without dying when he said, “All the prophets looked into an opaque glass (seeing but a reflection of the Divine), but Moses looked through clear glass” (Yevamot 49b). According to the rabbi, the prophets saw God through opaque glass, which suggests that they were seeing reflections of themselves and therefore seeing God within themselves. Moses saw through clear glass, but it was glass nonetheless. The glass was masking God and protecting Moses from God’s raw and all-consuming glory.
 In the Vulgate, St. Jerome mistranslated the Hebrew verb karan (“send forth beams”) as a form of the Hebrew noun keren, which means, “horn.” So, according to the Vulgate, Moses grew horns after seeing God. This misunderstanding contributed to the absurd and frankly anti-Semitic idea that Jews had horns. Michelangelo’s famous sculpture of Moses in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Rome actually depicts the prophet with horns.
 I have heard many sermons condemning the Pharisees for their devious ways. Not only do I find that condemnation banal, I actually find it problematic in that it can and has led to Christian anti-Semitism, since the Pharisees are often seen as the predecessors to the rabbis, who have shaped modern Judaism.
 The first verse of Mishnah Avot conveys a similar idea: “Be deliberate in your judgment” (Mishnah Avot 1:1)
 The Greek word for mask is actually prosopon, which the Church Fathers eventually used to describe the three “persons” of the Trinity.
 Thomas Merton, Conjectures of A Guilty Bystander (New York: Doubleday, 1968), 53-55.
 C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 26.