Proper 17B: Song of Solomon 2:8-13; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
I speak to you in the name of the Father . . .
Think back. Before you left the house this morning or as you were getting dressed – or as you were shaving or putting on make-up – did you look in a mirror? If you looked in the mirror, why did you look in the mirror?
Did you find out something about yourself that you didn’t know? Were you looking to correct or adjust? Did what you saw in the mirror cause you to adjust: comb your hair – or change your scarf or your hat or your tie? Or when you looked in the mirror, maybe you detected something else that needed attention, but you were already late getting out of the house and decided to just let it go . . .
In general, do you like what you see when you look in the mirror? Or do you avoid looking in a mirror because you dread seeing the person looking back at you? Are you afraid of what you might see?
Do you look in the mirror and smile? Do you look in the mirror and make faces at yourself?
Do you ever look in the mirror … … … and cry?
When we stop and think about what we see when we look in a mirror, we can learn a lot about ourselves: how the world sees us, how we see ourselves. And if we happen see ourselves in a mirror as we’re just passing passing by, even that casual glance can cause us to look deeper, can inspire us to look deeper . . . can force us to look deeper.
This idea of looking for spiritual truth inside ourselves, looking into the mirror of our souls – this is the common thread that runs through all the readings today. The reading from James actually uses the metaphor of the mirror directly. He talks about those who look in the mirror but then go away and forget what they looked like. After seeing the truth about who they are and what they need to do, they fail to follow up on it. James contrasts these folks with others who look in the mirror and see in the image there the very face of God in whose image they were made. They see themselves as God created them to be – and they think and act accordingly.
So what are we likely to see when we look honestly and deeply into the mirrors of our souls? What will we find inside?
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is very clear about one thing Jesus says: “Listen to me all of you and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come. Evil things come from within . . .” This part of the gospel passage is straight forward – although it is disturbing to hear.
So where does evil come from? Of course, it comes from all those people who happen to bother you so much – that make your life so difficult. And this can be very apparent in your eyes. But remember: evil also comes from within you and from within me as well. Evil can and does arise from inside all human hearts . . . from human hearts that are disconnected from God . . . hearts out of touch with their source, their Creator . . . souls alienated from their neighbors . . . souls alienated from God.
But where the rubber hits the road in all this is when we allow evil to fuel our intentions and actions. And evil intentions surface in our outward lives as the vices Jesus lists: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.
At the beginning of the scene described in the Gospel reading today, the Pharisees (the ever-present “bad guys” of the New Testament) — the Pharisees rise up to challenge Jesus by questioning why Jesus and his friends are not keeping the traditional teaching about washing hands before eating. Now, in fact as we well know, washing your hands before you eat is actually a very positive healthy habit. In his response to the Pharisees, Jesus is not questioning the rituals and teachings of the religious establishment. Rather he is questioning their inner intentions.
Religion that is worn solely on the outside for show is seriously out of balance. Healthy and whole religion balances inner purity and intention with outward worship and ritual. A healthy spiritual life comes from both inner, personal devotion to God and outward prayers of praise and adoration in our community gatherings.
Now let’s turn to the reading from the letter of James and ask this question: If evil things come from within the human heart, where do good and righteous things come from?James writes:
“Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights. God was fulfilling his own purposes when he gave us birth by the word of his truth . . .”
This is the sense in which God made us in his own image . . . with our inherent potential always ready be restored to this perfect image through reconciliation with him – through forgiveness that reconnects us with God and our neighbor. As we look into our inner mirror when it is in proper alignment with God, we see a clear reflection – the very image of God radiating from our inner lives. When God’s goodness fuels our intensions, goodness and love surfaces in our outward lives – in works of charity. God’s love becomes the driving force of our lives. To use the words from James’ letter: “We welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save our souls.”
The Good News is that we do not have to be stuck with the evil that lurks in our inner lives – we’re not stuck with what we call the human condition. Actually, God has planted his Word in our hearts and his image in our souls. And God has planted the seed of conscience in each of us Conscience works like a homing devise to pull us back to God. Like the father of the prodigal son, our Father God waits for us to return, granting us forgiveness even before we ask.
The Letter of James is full of down-to-earth, practical advice about how to live a Christ-like life to the glory of God. In today’s reading he gives three pieces of advice:
1) be quick to listen. The simple act of listening requires us to stop . . . to open our ears and heart . . . to hear the voice and intentions of others or of God. We need to set aside our own agendas for a moment . . . and in an act of humility and honor – listen.
2) be slow to speak. With patience, we need to look inside to find our true inner intention. Then and only then we can choose our words with care.
3) be slow to anger. Quick firing, emotionally charged anger is triggered by our human inclination to pride and envy — the vices that do great damage to relationships. The spiritual challenge is to stop, look inside, and observe that emotional charge before reacting in anger.
And one final piece of spiritual advice from the letter of James is this: “Be doers of the word not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in the mirror; for they look at themselves and. on going away, immediately forget what they were like.”
It takes courage to honestly look at ourselves in the mirror – because we can never anticipate what we may see.
It takes spiritual awareness in our day-to-day lives to remember what we see in the mirror.
And it takes spiritual discipline to commit our lives to the path of transformation in Christ.
So what do you see, what do you learn about yourself, when you look in the mirror? And just as important: what will you do about it?