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Proper 17B-21

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?” We rely upon mirrors every day, and unfortunately, like the evil queen in the 1812 Brothers Grimm fairy tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, mostly they remind us that the answer to this famous question is ‘not me.’  Am I the only one? Or do mirrors somehow compel, even beautiful people, to focus on the negative. I can’t stop noticing and regretting this terrible haircut!

Mirrors are everywhere, but before 1835, they were rare. Only wealthy people had mirrors. Probably no one had a full-length mirror. In ancient times they were made of polished stone or metal. Reflected images were often faint and distorted. I wonder, how would our lives be different without so many mirrors around?

Fortunately, there is another type of mirror which returns our gaze with love, calls forth our best attributes, that fills our hearts with joy and stills our minds with shalom. Our scriptures today point to a different way to see ourselves regardless of our physical appearance, our clothing style, or our haircut!

A mirror by its nature reflects impartially, equally, effortlessly, spontaneously, and endlessly. It does not produce the image, nor does it filter the image according to its perceptions or preferences. A mirror can only call forth what is already there.  Well, one indelible element of who you are whether you are sleeping or awake is the likeness and image of the living God (Genesis 1:27). God has written the Law in your heart (Jeremiah 31:33).  James writes, ‘God’s Word implanted within you has the power to save your souls’ (James 1:21). Each of you is gifted and blessed with the indwelling and Holy Spirit.

The true and essential work of all religion is to help us recognize the divine image in everyone and every thing.  Looking in a regular mirror we see our natural face; yet one who looks into the gospel, which James calls, the perfect law of liberty, sees their ideal self, the version of your God dreams for you to be.  In this divine mirror, we see our true self in relationship to God.  This image does not fade from memory because we can look upon this mirror wherever we are. In the light of God’s grace, this truth is reflected within us and shines through us into the world through deeds, words, and even by our very presence.

Here’s how the Franciscan mystic Bonaventure (c. 1217–1274) described this mirroring: “We can contemplate God not only outside us and within us but also above us: outside through his vestiges [creations], within through his image and above through the light which shines upon our minds, which is the light of Eternal Truth.” (Richard Rohr, “Mirroring the Mind of Christ,” Daily Meditations, 8/24/21)

The letter of James is talking about an implanted knowing in each of us—an inner mirror, if you will. Today, many would just call it “consciousness,” and poets and musicians might call it the “soul.” Perhaps these terms are interchangeable, approaching the same theme from different backgrounds and expectations. Elsewhere, 1 John puts it quite directly: “My dear people, we are already the children of God” and in the future “all we will know is that we are like God, for we shall finally see God as God really is!” (1 John 3:2) (Rohr).

Jesus was critical of that way of being religious that wants to judge, and ‘lord it over’ others. In today’s gospel, Jesus is less worried about outward behavior that deviates from religious norms than about attitudes of the heart that picks fights, judges others, and sacrifices joy to deadly seriousness.  Mark’s gospel points us toward a spiritual mindfulness centered on the desire to share God’s graceful, abundant life. Look and see! It is in the world because it’s here already in you.

“The “image of God” is absolute and unchanging; it is pure and total gift, given equally to all. There is nothing we humans can do to increase or decrease it. It is not ours to decide who has it or does not have it, deciding who is in and who is out, who is up and who is down, who is “going to heaven” and who is not” (Rohr). Instead, good religion wrestles with the question of how best to love one another.  Good religion works harder to listen than to argue.  Good religion encourages us to risk ourselves in hospitable service to the stranger because good religion focuses on the living God within each of us. Good siblings in Christ help and support one another to see their own reflection in the divine mirror deep within themselves.

“I.C.N.U.” Just like “W.W.J.D.” ICNU can be a helpful acronym. Often it is easier to see the Divine spark in others rather than ourselves. I see in you unique gifts and talents.  I see in you a call to serve, a spirit of joy, a reflection of the spirit of God. This week I was talking to a play group mom who said, “I don’t make it to church as often as I would like. We’ve been to worship a couple times on Christmas Eve, but I feel passionate about the Lutheran church. The message of grace is what we need. It is so refreshing and in contrast to what the big-box churches are saying.  The Playgroups, and particularly Michelle and Gary Knapp, have been such a blessing in our lives.”  ICNU.  Where might you have glimpsed God at work in a person you know? Have you told them? We must help each other to see more clearly.

In your mind’s eye, how do you tend to see yourself?  Through the lens of popular culture?  In the harsh objectifying light of the male gaze? In the internalized criticisms of cruel parents and false friends?  Look instead to the divine mirror within.  Find your reflection in the mind of Christ who dwells in you. Pause to notice God at work in others, in living things, in the earth, and sky. Many are shocked to discover with great joy that same beauty and spark of life dwells within them now and always.

When we bring our focus upon this divine mirror, we are not surprised to find God at work in places we have never been and in people we do not know. We are not afraid to learn and to grow. We do not retreat into moralism and forsake social justice. We do not circle the wagons of traditionalism as if somehow God is to be found in the past and not in the present, or that God cares more about preserving past glories than in working to ensure all life continues to survive and flourish.  We are not afraid to follow the Holy Spirit. We can do this because God is in us, with us, and for us. Immanuel. Look and see. God call us forth to be our best, to be filled with joy, to love and serve one another just as God does.