“If any are hearers of the word, and not doers” says the letter of James, “they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror…and on going away immediately forget what they were like.”
Mirrors are so much a part of our everyday life now we probably take them completely for granted. Whether we like it or not, we are bombarded with images of ourselves. We all have mirrors in our homes, and many of our buildings have huge expanses of plate glass as well. Then there are the photographs, videos, mobiles that take pictures, CCTV…
But it wasn’t always so. Until quite recently many people probably never caught more than an occasional glimpse of themselves. Good quality mirrors were a luxury. Ordinary people probably only saw occasional distorted reflections of themselves in water or in a fragment of polished metal. It was easy not to know what you really looked like.
There’s a story told of the people of the remote island of St Kilda, in the Outer Hebrides. It may be true it may not. The last permanent residents were evacuated at their own request in 1930. But for many centuries a small community lived there, isolated from the mainland, living mostly on a diet of seabirds and their eggs. It was a tough life and many of them – especially the women – never left the island.
But gradually during the 19th century they started to build up more links with the mainland. The young men would take goods to trade there, and return with things the islanders had never seen before.
The story goes that on one of these trips, a man came back with something completely new to St Kilda – a mirror. He was determined to keep this marvellous thing a secret – his private treasure. But he had a sweetheart among the island women and she began to notice that he was behaving very oddly. She would see him again and again surreptitiously take out something from under a cushion, look intently at it, and put it back again. She started to feel suspicious. Was this a picture of some other woman he had met on the mainland? The more she thought about it, the more worried she got. This mainland girl was probably beautiful and sophisticated – someone she couldn’t possibly compete with.
Eventually she couldn’t contain her anxiety any longer. While he was out, she crept into his house and pulled out the mirror. She looked at it for a while. Then she put it back, and heaved a sigh of relief. “Well,” she thought. ”That’s a comfort. Whoever she is, she’s as plain as a pikestaff – ugly as sin. I’ve got nothing to worry about from her!”
Whether that story is true or not, I like it. It reminds us of what it was like for most people through most of human history. You rarely got to see what you looked like, and even when you did it was probably a blurred, distorted, and fleeting image. Not something you could hold onto or rely on.
So when James talks about people who look in a mirror briefly and then forget what they see, his hearers would have all knew what he meant. Today, we see ourselves all the time physically, but my guess is that his real point still holds. Because, however clearly we can see our faces, our view of our souls is often just as blurred, transient and uncertain as it was then. In truth, we are probably quite content for it to be so. Just as we might prefer a mirror that showed our bodies in soft focus and took a few pounds off here and there, I suspect we often prefer a view of our souls that smooths out the wrinkles and covers up the spiritual blemishes. A really good mirror is dangerous - it tells us the truth, and that is not always something we want to face. Self-delusions are often far more comforting.
The Pharisees whom Jesus criticises in today’s Gospel were obviously very good at seeing what they wanted to see. Pharisees tend to get a bad press in the Gospels – in reality they were the same mix of good and bad as the rest of us – but we don’t have to be Pharisees to be guilty of the kind of behaviour Jesus is talking about here. It could apply to any faith, or any other group come to that. It’s what happens when we start to think of ourselves as “insiders”, people who are in the know, who understand the jargon and control the boundaries, people who have made it to the centre, the place of power, the place that counts. We become complacent, smug, unthinking. A quick glance at ourselves, a quick glance at others and we think we know all we need to know, which is basically just “Are they like us, or not?” The tragedy is that in the process we usually manage to miss both what needs to change in us- we looked just fine didn’t we? but also what is good in others too – the delightful, surprising joy of diversity, God at work in new ways, new horizons, new journeys.
One of the great joys of the Paralympic opening ceremony was its confident message that “I am what I am”, and it invited us all to ask ourselves what that meant for us. It confronted us with example after example of the uniqueness of each human being. There aren’t two categories of people, able- bodied and disabled; we come in myriad shapes and sizes, abilities and disabilities. The young Marine, injured in Afghanistan, who sailed down a zip wire into the stadium carrying the flame didn’t need legs to do so; he needed courage. I have my legs, but I would never have had the nerve. So who is the disabled one – him or me? One of the stated aims of these Paralympic games is to get people to look differently at disability – in fact to question whether disability is a word we should be using at all. The truth is that we are different, and the skills and strengths we prize so highly aren’t always the ones we really need.
So where can we find a mirror that shows us ourselves as we really are, and show us others in their true light too? St James is clear. Instead of a passing glance at a set of prejudices that reinforce what you think you already know, you need to look into “the perfect law, the law of liberty” the law that sets us free. And what is that? It is the law of love, the only law Jesus ever said really mattered.
This was the law he lived out, the rule he lived by day by day, every day, whether he was eating with friends or being nailed to a cross. It was seen in the welcome he gave to those who would never have thought they could get within a million miles of a teacher like him, as he listened them and made space for them. People discovered when they met him that you didn’t have to earn his love or be worthy of it or fight for it or put others down in order to get it. You didn’t have to know any secrets to receive it. It wasn’t rationed. It wasn’t about to run out or in danger of being destroyed. It was abundant – there was plenty to go round. You didn’t need to be “in” to receive it, because there was no “in” anymore. It just flowed over the barriers people expected it to observe. Like a river that had burst its banks, anyone might find themselves ankle deep, knee deep, completely swept away by it.
And those who had received that love in such abundance, who had seen themselves anew as they drew close to Jesus and saw themselves reflected in his eyes, discovered that others now looked different to them too. If we are not condemned, why should we condemn others? If we are welcomed and treasured, surely we can welcome and treasure others too. Those who have seen themselves reflected in the perfect mirror of God’s love, who live by that law of love themselves will find themselves “blessed in their doing,” says James.
Learning to see ourselves in the perfect mirror of the love of God, as those first followers of Jesus did, takes courage and time. It’s not just a matter of solitary navel gazing, lingering in the stillness of prayer; it comes through action too, as we meet God in others and seek to serve them. That’s the thing that usually shines the brightest light on the reality of our lives, and sometimes reveals things about us we might not like at all. Perhaps we call ourselves strong, independent, “not suffering fools gladly” – but the truth is that we are actually bossy, lonely, and intolerant – it’s easy to mistake the one for the other. Perhaps we think we are modest, humble, easy-going, but the reality may be that we are just scared stiff of taking a risk, unwilling to stretch ourselves. Perhaps we think we are insignificant, no good at anything, but the truth we need to hear is that each one of us has a light within which the world needs.
Seeing ourselves as God sees us confronts us with truths that might disturb us, but it also reminds us that God is not scared or repulsed by even the worst we can do and be. Face to face with God we hear his challenges loud and clear, but we also hear his voice of love. He won’t reject us, whatever we have done, whoever we are.
The woman from St Kilda, whose story I started with was a stranger to herself. She looked at her own reflection and thought it was someone else. Perhaps that didn’t matter, in fact it was probably a mercy! But it does matter that we should see ourselves as we really are spiritually, and that we act on what we see – for our own sake, and for the sake of others. None of us is perfect, and the changes we want to see in the world usually begin with changes we need to make in ourselves. As this sermon ends, I’d like us to linger a bit in God’s presence in silence. Imagine yourself looking into his eyes – what do you see there? How do you look to him? What does he say in challenge, and in reassurance, that you need to hear today? Amen