Martin Luther and his call for us to serve as “Masks of God”
Back in 1527, a deadly plague returned to Martin Luther’s town of Wittenberg and he wrote a letter to a friend, Dr. John Hess, entitled “Whether One Should Flee from A Deadly Plague,” explaining how churches and clergy should deal with such complicated circumstances:
I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me, and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.
I shared this excerpt from Luther’s writing with all of you back in March. But I read an interesting article recently from Dr. Kathryn A. Kleinhans, Dean of Trinity Lutheran Seminary, regarding Luther’s take on how God’s people serve as “masks of God.” Four months into our journey with the COVID-19 ‘plague’ and three days into mandatory orders to wear masks in public, her writing is timely and interesting as we look back 500 years to a voice of wisdom from our tradition. This little article by Dr. Kleinhans appeared in the seminary’s newsletter New Beginnings and was published on June 24, 2020:
Masks of God
For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure. (Philippians 2:13)
Three months ago, as the coronavirus pandemic was beginning to unfold, the internet was full of do-it-yourself videos for making masks to cover one’s nose and mouth as a way of limiting the spread of the virus. There were videos for simple-to-sew masks, no-sew masks, and even ways of tying a long-sleeve shirt into a makeshift mask.
How quickly market forces have adapted to a new need! Mainstream clothing manufacturers, as well as smaller businesses, have added cloth face masks to their sales inventory. Suppliers of clergy clothing are even offering sets of masks in the colors of the liturgical calendar.
At a dental appointment earlier this month, my dentist and I were discussing the expanded use of PPE (personal protective equipment) in the office. When working on patients, the dentists and hygienists now wear two masks and a plastic face shield. My obviously well-catechized dentist said, “It’s really all about loving your neighbor, isn’t it?”
Martin Luther used the image of masks to talk about how God is at work in our lives. Luther’s understanding of God’s loving providence is that, rather than intervening in our daily lives directly, God chooses to act by working through earthly structures, including human agents, which he describes as “masks of God.” For example, in the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” God responds to this prayer through the work of farmers, bakers, and merchants, among others. Those who fill these roles are not just acting for themselves but are acting as God’s representatives, or “masks,” to meet our needs.
In his commentary on Galatians, Luther writes: “Thus the magistrate, the emperor, the king, the prince, the consul, the teacher, the preacher, the pupil, the father, the mother, the children, the master, the servant – all these are social positions or external masks. God wants us to respect and acknowledge them as [God’s] creatures, which are a necessity for this life.” (Luther’s Works, volume 26, page 94)
In his commentary on the Psalms, Luther writes: “What else is all our work to God – whether in the fields, in the garden, in the city, in the house, in war, or in government – … by which [God] wants to give [God’s] gifts in the fields, at home, and everywhere else? These are the masks of God, behind which [God] wants to remain concealed and do all things.” (Luther’s Works, volume 14, page 114)
The next time you put on a face mask, remember that it is an act of loving your neighbor. And remember, too, that in doing so you are representing God’s loving care for the world that God has made. When people see you wearing a mask, they see you – but behind the mask, God is at work in you. To paraphrase the ELCA tagline, “God’s work, our masks.”
The ELCA tagline to which Dr. Kleinhans refers reads, “God’s work, our hands.” Perhaps we can, with some humility, take upon ourselves the ‘masking up’ being required of citizens in our time as nothing more than an act of loving our neighbors, and in so doing, extending God’s work in the world. Our current political climate aside, the sacrifice of wearing a mask in a time of respiratory pandemic should not be assessed as anything but a simple work to advance God’s desire that we care for one another.
I do not anticipate purchasing a set of masks in liturgical colors, but I intend to wear one of my cloth masks in public gathering during this most unusual time in life.
I hope to see some of you in our outdoor service of Holy Communion on Sunday. If you join us, please wear a mask.
Blessings to you on this warm summer day, O “masks of God.” May you be safe, may you be well, and may you be held in love.
It remains a privilege to serve as one of your pastors.
Grace and peace,
Pastor Bob Linstrom