by Rev. Marilyn Pagán-Banks
I spent many hours this past weekend watching the homegoing service for the Honorable Congressman Elijah E. Cummings (ashé) held at his home church, New Psalmist Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland. Many showed up and told of his life’s work and how he lived his life with love and integrity, taught and brought others along in the fight for what is right and gave his all to protect our democracy.
When remembering Congressman Cummings, one of his mentors, Larry Gibson stated that “the public Elijah that you saw was the real and authentic Elijah – there was nothing phony about him.”
Halloween or “all hollows eve” as it was originally called is coming up this week.
A day when, mostly children, but not only children put on costumes and parade through the streets looking for “trick or treats”—hoping for treats.
A time when many of us get to “pretend” to be something else, someone else: a superhero, a glamorous celebrity, a scary monster, a favorite character. Perhaps it is a day to remember all those Halloween’s past when you were a child and the masks you chose to wear and why it mattered so much to get it just right.
Hiding behind a mask can be fun.
Until it is not.
It is one thing to hide behind a mask for a few hours on a special day, but quite another when it becomes a way of life.
Take Zacchaeus for example.
The text describes him as a chief tax collector, rich, and short in stature. What the text doesn’t tell us is that his name means “clean” or “innocent.”
Clean? Innocent? According to how he is described in the story Zacchaeus clearly has not lived into his name.
He is a chief tax collector. A state-sanctioned thief. A traitor to his people.
However, could these simply be roles, masks if you will, that Zacchaeus hid behind? Could it be that behind the mask of wealth and power was a scared man seeking to cover his insecurities, shame and fear?
We all know how society treats those that are different? People who do not muster up to our standards or meet our expectations, definitions, and molds.
Real men are big and brave
Real men are tall and strong
Real men stand out in a crowd
Real men do whatever it takes…
…the list goes on and on and on
How long do you think it took Zacchaeus? How many messages did he hear…?
Before he put on the mask of oppressor? Became comfortable with the mask of privilege? Found courage behind the mask of acquired power? Learned to love wealth more than his own people?
Zacchaeus was born “clean and innocent.” I wonder if he ever really got the chance to live into his name before donning the mask of conformity, privilege and position.
Both former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Speaker Pelosi referenced the prophet Elijah when speaking at the funeral of Representative Cummings and how the Congressman truly lived up to his name.
The Honorable Elijah Cummings wore no masks. He unabashedly bore the sin of America right on his countenance. Literally carried the scars of hatred, bigotry, othering and white supremacy on his face.
They cut his flesh but not his heart. His integrity and his faith in what is just and possible endured, influencing the nation and the world. Moreover, as his mentee, Dr. Leana Wen, shared—Rep. Cummings lived by the principle that “conscious guides our conduct.”
This brings up the question; can a mask ever truly hide our conscious? Not according to those walking the picket lines in Chicago!
The nation has its eye on the Chicago Teacher’s Strike. One recent Facebook post included a photo of a striker holding a sign that reads, “Lori Lighfoot, a Rahm in sheep’s clothing.”
The time for hiding behind masks is over.
It is time to call bullshit!
Our children deserve better. Our communities deserve better. Our neighbors around the world deserve better. Our creation deserves better.
When Jesus looked for and called out to Zacchaeus – the mask came off!
Through his interaction with Jesus, Zacchaeus was no longer a small man hiding behind a mask of bravado, excusing his role in perpetuating hateful and harmful behavior and policies.
Joy overcame insecurity.
Gratitude took the place of fear.
Service peeled away privilege.
Accountability replaced greed.
Responsibility realigned position.
Never the one seeking popularity, Jesus knew he could not simply dismiss or ignore Zacchaeus if real change was to happen. Love made flesh doesn’t seek the easy way around a problem. Embodied hope doesn’t avoid conflict. Radical transformation requires disrupting expectations by calling evil by name and bringing it out of the shadows (or down from trees, as it were) and when necessary, stepping boldly into their HOUSE.
This is how love wins.
This is the work of the church.
In the words of Deaconess Margaret Ann Howie of New Psalmist Baptist Church, “the church – like Brother Elijah Cummings – does not yield!”
As the church, we are to never yield to evil, greed, privilege, hate, respectability, othering and fear.
As the church, the time for hiding behind masks is over.
Let’s take them off!
This is the Revised Common Lectionary sermonizing archive.