Face ID: A Sermon about Identity and Image

St. Philip Lutheran Church
18 October 2020 + Lectionary 29A
Matthew 22.15-22
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching



Maybe you’ve had an experience like this recently… I set out on a walk through my neighborhood to go get a coffee at Starbucks – with my mask on, of course. I get to Starbucks, place my order, pull out my phone to open the Starbucks app to pay, and… locked. Face ID doesn’t recognize me with my mask on.

Now, of course, the five seconds it takes to input my numerical passcode seem a small price to pay for this admittedly “first-world” pandemic-era problem in order to do my part to keep my community virus-free.

My phone doesn’t seem to be the only one struggling with “Face ID” these days, either. Have you ever been out and about and suddenly greeted by the sound of your name from a masked passer-by – whom you’re certain you know but you just can’t seem to recognize? It’s amazing how much we rely on “Face ID” to recognize a person, isn’t it?

On the one hand, this Sunday’s gospel reading is a simple dialogue on taxation and stewardship. In the midst of a congregational generosity appeal, one might even distill these few verses down to: “Pay your taxes, fill out your pledge card.” Both of which you should do… but I think there’s something much more interesting going on, and it has to do with Face ID.

First of all, the question Jesus is asked is clearly a trap. The first red flag is who’s asking the question: the Pharisees and the Herodians. Rival parties who couldn’t be more opposed, particularly on the subject of taxes. Imagine, for example, a Bears fan and a Packers fan agreeing on the outcome of a contested play…you get the idea.

But Jesus catches on pretty quickly and, in classic Jesus fashion, subverts their question with one of his own: “Whose face is on this coin?” Well, it’s the emperor’s, of course. “Okay, then, so it belongs to the emperor.”

It’s a simple matter of Face ID. The Roman-issued coins of Jesus’s day were engraved with the image of the emperor. They belonged to him, and were presumably owed back to him.

But: “Give…to God the things that are God’s”? What belongs to God? Or more accurately, what bears the image of God? Suddenly we’re not talking about taxes anymore.

We know from our biblical tradition that we in fact are made in the image of God and that we bear the image of God in the world. Indeed, all of creation bears the image of its creator. In much the same way an art scholar can identify a specific artist’s work by its unique characteristics, God the creator is known by the creations God has made.

It’s a matter of divine Face ID. This is a call to remember who has formed and fashioned us and to live like the image-bearers of God that we are created to be.

Easier said than done. Ours is a world of human rivalries, competing factions, and divisive ideologies. If we are meant to be image-bearers of the divine, then that image has somehow become distorted.

In an episode of Frasier, one of my all-time favorite TV shows, Frasier Crane accompanies his producer Roz to a nursing home where she is doing community service. While Frasier waits in the hall, one of the residents, Norman, hears his voice and instantly recognizes him from his radio show. As the two get to talking, Norman shares with Frasier how advice he once gave on his show helped him to cope with the death of his wife – suggesting that putting out photos of our deceased loved one, surrounding ourselves with their image, can help with the grieving and healing process.

Of course, visual photographs don’t offer much consolation to Norman, who is blind, but he shows Frasier a ceramic life-mask of his wife’s face he keeps by his bed. Every night before he goes to sleep, he runs his fingers over the mask to remember what she looked like, and it brings him comfort.

What follows is a rather comical exchange where Frasier drops the mask, breaking off the nose, and feigns losing a stone from his cufflink to ask Norman if he has any kind of adhesive to set it back in place. Eventually, Frasier is able to skillfully fix the mask. Though wracked with guilt, he confesses to Norman it wasn’t his cufflink but his wife’s mask that broke…to which Norman offers his own confession: He must’ve dropped, broken, and fixed that mask at least ten times himself.

The point being: Even broken and mended, many times over, the mask is still whole and is able to remind Norman of his wife.

There’s some truth in that for us. Broken and flawed and scarred as we are, we are no less image-bearers of God, no less recognizable as creatures of the God who fashions and re-fashions us…who pieces us back together time and again…who makes us whole.

Beloved people of God, none of us is perfect. All of us mess up…repeatedly. Still, each and every one of us is loved and forgiven and made whole by God without limit. In the waters of baptism, God calls us by name, and sends us forth to become imitators of God, to bear God’s own image and likeness in the world, to make God’s love known to our neighbors in our serving and in our advocating for justice – even in our voting and our participation in democracy.

Our flaws and our failures and our fears don’t have to hold us back. When we give of ourselves to our neighbors in need and practice compassion and humility and generosity, however and wherever we can, we are giving to God the things that are God’s.

It really is amazing how much we rely on “Face ID” to recognize a person and to know who they are…and whose they are.

Do wear your actual face mask in public. But don’t ever let anything mask your identity as a beloved child of the God who calls us by name and makes us whole, whose very image we bear to make every difference in the world.


Photo by Youssef Sarhan on Unsplash

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