Have you had the experience of looking into a mirror, checking yourself over, walking away … and then returning to the mirror, because you don’t remember checking your hair or necktie? Perhaps you’ve had the experience of checking yourself in the mirror and starting your day, only to realize later in the day that you missed seeing your mismatched shoes or open zipper!
Congratulations, James 1:19-27 is using your (and my!) absent-mindedness as an example of how not to live out one’s faith!
James says, “Just like sometimes we look in the mirror and forget what we’ve seen, sometimes we hear the lessons of faith, sometimes we read and speak the words of faith, sometimes we sing the glorious refrains of faith … but we still forget to put faith into practice. We fail to take the words and do what they say. We faith to show what we believe.”
We say “Do unto others,” but we snap at the grocery store clerk or at the neighbor. We say “Love everyone,” but we’re suspicious of anyone who doesn’t speak English fluently or who lives in a part of town that we avoid. We say “God is grace,” but we can’t forgive our own imperfections and we hold grudges against others. We hear words of faith, but we fail to live consistently with faith. We look in the mirror, but we forget what we’ve seen.
James is very simple and direct in his challenge: Are we living out our faith, or are we merely giving lip-service to faith?
And James isn’t measuring whether we’re polite to others more often than not, whether we come to church more Sundays than we sleep in. If we read his entire letter, we hear James addressing the whole breadth of our lives: our impulses for instant gratification, our envy of wealth, our lack of care for those less fortunate, our gossiping, our hypocrisy and double-standards, our manipulation in relationships, our egos! James is not only saying that we can’t look in the mirror and forget what we’ve seen — he’s also pointing out that we shouldn’t look in the mirror and only see part of the picture.
We’ve got to look in the mirror from head to toe! We’ve got to look at and allow faith to impact every aspect of our lives! How are our relationships showing our faith? How are our words showing our faith? How are our finances showing our faith? How are our daily activities, our work, our church participation, our hobbies, our time, and our volunteering all showing our faith? Or are we just looking at one part of the mirror — one part of our lives — and neglecting to examine the whole picture of faith?
There’s an interesting twist in verse 25, which points us in the direction of integrating faith throughout the whole of our lives and also gives us a clue for being more mindful than absent-minded about doing what we say we believe. In the NRSV, James 1:25 reads, “Those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act — they will be blessed in their doing.” The same verse in The Message says, “Whoever catches a glimpse of the revealed council of God–the free life!–even out of the corner of his eye, and sticks with it, is no distracted scatterbrain but a person of action who finds delight in doing.”
It’s hard to catch the twist — the insight — of verse 25, because James doesn’t explicitly continue his mirror metaphor in this verse; we have to continue that metaphor ourselves. James has been challenging us to remember what we see in the mirror, and to see the entire image in the mirror. In verse 25, James subtly adds the point that we cannot see only ourselves in that mirror!
Consider an obvious fact: when you look into a mirror, you see yourself, right? Verse 25 says that those who are mindful and put faith into action throughout the whole of their lives are the ones who do not look into a mirror focused on themselves but who look into a mirror focused on “the perfect law” — it’s those who look into the mirror and glimpse God’s wisdom. Those who consistently put faith into action are the ones who look into a mirror and don’t see only themselves: they also see God and they see others. To do that, to see more than ourselves in a mirror we have to step back from the mirror, maybe tilt it a bit to one side or the other, so that when we look in the mirror we see what’s around us and who’s next to us.
James isn’t only critical of us when we forget what we see in the mirror, when we forget to do the faith that we talk about. He also indicates that we shouldn’t see only ourselves in the mirror; we shouldn’t live faith as though it’s all about us. The life of faith is about love of God and love of neighbor, and we can’t see God and neighbor — we can’t love God and neighbor — if we keep the mirror of faith smack in front of our own faces!
Seeing beyond ourselves is perhaps the hardest and certainly one of the most consistent challenges of faith, because we experience life in the first-person. We are always inside our own heads. When we have good news, we want the focus to be on us; when we experience pain, we want the focus to be on us. Attention feels good — we even want God’s focus to be on us.
James pull the mirror away from us, challenges us to step back and look at the whole picture of how we live out our faith, by refocusing the mirror on God: seeing God in others, seeing God in our lives, seeing God for Godself.
So the next time you check yourself out in the mirror, stop. Take a few breaths. And after checking your hair and your teeth and your outfit, check to see where God is in your life.
Sermon preached at Grace United Church of Christ, 9/2/12.