A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
June 29, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
James 1: 19-27
Let us pray, for a welcome mind and a loving heart
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
So after last week, preaching on the James Epistle, I decided that I wanted to dig deeper into it, and study it for the next few weeks. I knew that it would be tough, and so far it is. I knew it would be hard because it is all about putting faith to work, belief into action, shaping your life around what you know to be true about what Christ means in your life. It is intense, it's hard hitting, it really makes you think, and beyond making you think it puts much into perspective. It makes you uncomfortable, it's inspiring, it's challenging, and all that it makes it difficult, but at the same time so important for us. As I was studying it this week I came across a line in the text that I didn't remember. It jumped out at me. It made me think. It made me think about what it means literally on the page, and then what it would mean in our lives, and I wasn't sure. Writing this I'm not sure, and I can say now, delivering it before you all I'm still not sure, but I am totally captivated by the image that James creates in this simple metaphor, and so let me share it with you, and I'll do so in the context of the larger passage. Here it is James 1: 19-27.
19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But 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.
26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
The image that I found so interesting is verses 22-24, "But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like." I guess it is a simile and not a metaphor. . . they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror, they look at themselves and, on going away, forget what they were like." What a fascinating image. . . how did I miss it before? It's really a interesting one to think about. As a poet I am always drawn to the clever comparison, the ones that make you think, and this one is totally new and interesting. Similes are about comparing two unlike things. . . to find their underlying similarity, but who would have thought that looking in the mirror and being a doer of the word and not a hearer?
Except maybe, and the song was going through my head as I was thinking about it. It came in first. . .yes Michael Jackson, "Man in the Mirror," when he sings. . .
I'm starting with the man in the mirror
I'm asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you wanna make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself and make a change.
That's what I thought about , especially with the mirror image, and it also fits in a way with the doing good image, the changing world aspect of what Michael Jackson is talking about. Maybe on the surface that is what is going on here. Like we need to look at ourselves in the mirror, start with ourselves, you know pull the plank out of our own eye, and then change the world, that is what being a doer of the word is about right. . . but this image, James' image isn't that, it goes much deeper, and it a much more interesting and challenging way.
First off its not like that because it's the wrong character in the whole deal, it isn't the doer of the word that is looking at himself in the mirror, but the hearer. . . the hearer is like someone who looks at himself in the mirror, and then goes away and forgets what they are, what they see, what they look like.
Have you ever done that? It's always good when parsing a metaphor or a simile to go the most literal, the most basic understanding first. . . so let's do that, have you ever looked in the mirror, then forgot what you looked like when you looked away. I don't know that I have. I have forgotten what other people look like. . . not necessarily completely, but the image of faces sometimes fades over time, but usually with people that you don't know well, or only saw a few times, but that is hardly the case with ourselves. I remember being away for the summer from school, and losing someone's face in my mind. . . like you remember them basically, but can't put that picture. . . then when you see them again, you have that, oh yeah now I remember. I know you moment. But that's not this, because it's you, and it's immediate. Or maybe it's like that time where you've gotten some food on your face or something, and you keep checking to make sure that you've gotten it off. . . you think you have gotten it completely, but you look away and you get that feeling like you might have missed it. . . so you look back just to make sure. . . You just looked at your face, and it's clean, but you need that second look. But no I don't think that is it either.
I think the key word is in the beginning, in the first of the three verses. . . it says. "Be doers of the word, not merely hearers who deceive themselves." There it is I think it's that deceiving word. People that are "merely hearers" of the word deceive themselves. And there it is the lie. . . that is what makes people forget. I remember a good friend and mentor of mine when I was working at Christchurch School was the Dean of Students. He also coached football with us and was just an awesome all around rock solid man. He was respected beyond reproach by students and teachers alike, and if anybody who has been around a boarding school can tell you, either as a student or as a teacher, the Dean of Students is the most thankless, friendless job on campus. You are the chief discipline person. You are the person who hands out demerits, and just in the first hour of the boarding school day, there are 6 potential messups, and they tend to pile on, and pile on. Getting up, checking into breakfast, being shaven, being in dress code, passing room inspection, making it to assembly or chapel, and being on time to each of those commitments. At any school this is the most challenging part of every boarding school teenager's day, and missing any one of those requirements could result in a detention. So he was busy with all that, trying to meet with each student on that list. . . and if that wasn't enough he also had to deal with the major issues, he had to set up the Discipline Committees, he had to be the face that sent people before the board that would most likely expel them, he had to be the person that called parents to let them know their son's educational path was abruptly changing. . . students typically don't like that guy, and teachers never think that he is doing enough to punish the kids. . . it's a no win, but this guy was amazing, loved, respected, mostly because he was fair, honest, consistent, fatherly, caring, and so like a counselor as much as just the head warden. But I remember he had a sign in his office, remember he met with around 30-50 kids a day, about the most personal and troublesome issues you can imagine. . . from drugs, to girlfriends, to parents, to grades, to laziness, he saw it all, and heard every excuse and every lie in the book, but he had a sign in his office that said, "If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember what you said."
Deception is a difficult thing. . . and it gets you because the easiest person to lie to is yourself. I know a lot of people who can't lie to others. They get caught every time, or they just are honest, but they constantly lie to themselves. So many of my students fall into that category. . . heck I do, too, we all do I think. And it's not always big stuff, just little stuff, it's not always a big lie, or an important lie, it sometimes doesn't even seem like a lie at all, just filtered truth, sometimes we call it point of view. . . we cut out everything that we don't like about ourselves and only focus on, remember the good points. I sometimes think that I have reverse anorexia. . . because I can look in the mirror and I don't see the same 50+ pounds overweight, staring back at me like I do when I see the same shape in a Photograph. . . the cameral adds pounds right. . . of course, why doesn't the mirror? Selective seeing. . . and it's not just about physical stuff, there are all kinds of things about ourselves that we selectively see, or selectively remember. . . We reinvent ourselves over and over again, trying our best to focus on the good aspects.
Every year I ask my students on their final exam, this year I called it a survey because I wasn't supposed to give an exam. . . see how easy it is just the change the words. . . something there too, euphemisms are great deceivers aren't they, in today's politically correct world, there is alot of word game deceptions that we do to make ourselves feel better about how good of people we are, but I digress, but at least on parallel topic, because I ask them every year that question, "Are you a good person?" And I get all kinds of good answers. Most of them think they are. If I asked you all the same question. . . what would you say. . . I can say for myself. . . well I'm not perfect, but I'm a pretty good guy. . . you know I try. . . I could be better, but I'd say I'm good. I think most people would answer that way. . . we confess our sin every week here in church. . . I'm sure the answer is different for all of you, but ask yourself, what does it mean to say it. . . "I am a sinner." Confess and be forgiven. . . what is that like? I'm pretty good, but I could be better. . . I guess that is what I'm confessing away, my little imperfections. But here is the rub, does that make us hearers of the word or doers. . . because what are our standards like. I know that mine are lower than the perfection of the Word. . . even if I tell myself they are higher, I am deceiving myself. I don't know if I could stand honestly against the measure. . . I don't know that my mind would let me, it always seeks to prefer the much more doable illusion. Maybe that is what James is talking about when he writes the second piece of this:
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.
Deception. . . worthless. . . eeek!
So what is the face we see when we are looking in the mirror? How does this metaphor work? I think when we look in the mirror we see ourselves, or at least some kind of version of us that our mind allows us to see, but there is some deception involved, somewhere between our eyes and our minds. . . because despite what we often think--that what we see shapes our thoughts--despite that, really what we think usually shapes what we see. . . So our mind shapes that image in the mirror, but as soon as we walk away we can't remember it, because it wasn't real, there was some shape shifting going on. That is the hearers of the word. . . according to James. They see themselves according to their own flimsy standards, what our minds, our weak minds can handle, can take in, that filtered much safer reality, because they try to make it about those standards, and since they shrink in comparison, they lower them, or just filter out the parts that don't fit, see it's human nature. . . It's sin. . . But the doers of the word, see in the mirror an image of God, an image of Christ, a child forgiven, lumps and all, ready to go and do more, not standing against the standard, but set free to be.
You see that is what the Word allows us to see, not our own shape shifting, hidden, filtered version of ourselves, that partial self, conflicted, splintered, fragmented, and imploding, but instead the wholeness, our entirety, broken and put back together, standing full and in need of grace before the mirror. . . that person walks away from the mirror the same. . . and is the same in all cases and places, and when you are the same, when you are you, when you have become a doer of the word, then you don't forget, because it doesn't change. You don't have to remember who you are, and what standard you are dealing with, instead you get to walk in faith as a reflection of the Image of God. . . and if that is the case, then you see that reflection also in everyone else you come to meet. You have love, you see love in the mirror, and you see love in other people because that is that image looking back at you. You see it every where you look because everything was made by it, and so you need never forget. Doing is all encompassing because it starts from within and explodes outwards in one united connected truth, the totality of yourself, the created image of God.
Pretty cool, huh. . . From here I go on vacation, and I need it because it's funny how quickly you can get broken and filtered, and start making excuses and deceptions for yourself. It's interesting that they send pastor's to school. We study, we learn, we pursue the Bible, we pursue faith as an intellectual pursuit, and how easy it is, for the day to day work of church life can really fall into that pattern. . . for often the weekly routines are continuations of that intellectual pursuit. . . it is for me. . . study, read, think. . . often the soul, the heart, the spirit takes a back seat to the head, in the emergence of routine. I pray that I can take some time to get out of my head, to get out of the measuring, and falling short, and excuses, to find again my heart, reconnect with faith, and do the things that I have let fall better, the connections with people, the prayers, the visits, the relationships, the vision. . . because as I said James, studying James, preaching James is difficult, but trying to live it is even harder. . . and I want to reconnect. . . I want to do rather than hear. . . be rather than get by. . . and I want to see in the mirror the same person that remember when I walk away. . . perhaps walking away, walking on the beach, letting the waves crash over my feet, looking anew into the sand and finding that thrown away piece of glass can get me to that place, James makes you look at yourself. . . and asks when you do, do you see Christ? Tough question. . . God give us the grace to ask it, give us the grace to take a look, and give us the grace to realize that with Christ in our lives, how could it be any different? Amen.
22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.