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The Rev. Martha Sterne The Rev. Martha Sterne

The Rev. Martha Sterne is associate rector of Holy Innocents' Episcopal Church in Atlanta, GA.

Member of:

The Episcopal Church

Representative of:

Holy Innocents' Episcopal Church, Atlanta, GA


Looking in the Mirror

James 1:22-25

Proper 17 - Year B

August 30, 2009

From the Letter of James: Be doers of the word, and 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 a mirror and then on going away immediately forget what they are like.  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. 

I was surprised to read about looking in the mirror in the Bible.  I didn't even know that they had mirrors back then--although Paul talks about looking through a glass darkly.  But it seems they did have mirrors--mostly polished metal and people looked in the mirror back then just like we do now and saw what they saw just like when we look in the mirror we see what we see.  When is the last time you looked in the mirror?  Do you remember who you saw? 

One of the Greek myths is a mirroring story--the story of Narcissus.  One day, after an unhappy love affair, he wandered into the forest and stopped by a crystal clear pool for he was thirsty.  He kneeled down to drink; and, looking down in the water, he saw there a sight which entranced him--a beautiful face--eyes wide and curving lips and a noble nose--so beautiful that he caught his breath--and he forgot his thirst and he leaned ever closer--so moved and fascinated by the face in the water that he desperately wanted to kiss the face--but every time he tried to touch the beautiful face, the surface would dissolve in the stirring of the water.  And so Narcissus would kneel there by the brook, forlorn until the water stilled and he could see the face again and then once again yearn with all his heart and soul and mind just for the beautiful one in the pool--which was, of course, his own reflection.  And from then on he never loved anyone else, ever, for he never moved on from this obsession with his own self.  And he died the long and painful starving death of the self-absorbed person looking in the mirror all by himself at himself in the deep, lonely pool of the isolated.  That can happen to people who look too long in the mirror, can't it.  We all know some Narcissuses--and, of course, there is a little Narcissus in every human being, is there not?

And, then, in the reading for today from the letter of James, there is another kind of looking in the mirror.  I actually know a person like this very, very well--you might say I have often seen her near mirrors, but she is one who is so busy rushing around that she just takes little sideways glances in the mirror and dashes out the door and forgets who she is and whose she is--lost in the roar and busyness of a world that will--don't we know this in our day?--suck up everything like a giant tornado including all the unique power and unique beauty that God has given only, only, to the one in the mirror you speed by, the one who you just can't seem to remember the shape of,  the essence of.  When is the last time you really looked in the mirror?  Do you remember who you saw? 

Whichever way the story goes--self-absorption or self-carelessness--I don't think we can see ourselves and remember ourselves with much clarity if it is just me, myself, and I, or you, yourself, and you looking in the mirror all by our lonesomes.  Frankly, that's why I am in a church.  I can't really see myself just by looking in a mirror--and neither can you--and this is very crippling for self-knowledge and self-love.  But put us in front of the Christ mirror with some other people who are trying to love themselves and love each other and love God who made us all--well, then, you've got something to see, something that will change the world--when people look in the Christ mirror together and see themselves doing what James calls living in the law of liberty.  And I do believe with all my heart--and I have bet my vocational life on this--that mirroring and reflecting Christ together works--in a church that will risk such work.  Lots of churches don't, which is why I think lots of people don't go to lots of churches--we don't need one more place to hide from our real selves, our true selves; and if you never find a little group--and there always needs to be a little group--two or three or ten or twenty--who will risk looking in the mirror together and being together a place where love is shared and truth is told and the beauty of becoming is the work of the community, and that's church.  

But you know who I learned this from first?  Do you know who are some of the best pastors and spiritual companions you will ever find?  That would be, in my experience, some people who cut hair. 

I especially notice this for I have always had difficult hair.  I want to be grateful for the hair God has given me so I'll just use the word difficult, meaning frizzly or flat, depending on the weather and my current life stance.  Due to having difficult hair, I really notice the fortitude and kindness of people that cut hair.  Of course, they're the people who look into mirrors with us through thick and thin so, you know, that's a good group of people.  I remember the barber, Cecil Orr by name, who gave our three-year-old son his first real hair cut.  And, oh my, it was a little trauma--the little boy lips trembling and huge crocodile tears swimming in his eyes--and his daddy and I were about to cry too--but the barber just started murmuring, "My boy, I believe you are a baseball player.  I believe you are a fine baseball player.  I bet you can hit that ball a mile, my man.  You can hit that ball a mile, can't you Charlie?"  And the little boy heard the words--you're a baseball player--and looked in the mirror and stopped seeing the scissors and hearing the whuuzzzz of the clippers and saw instead baseball player Charlie--we'd always called him Charles--and there with Cecil, he saw Charlie, the baseball player who could hit that ball a mile.

Then some years later, I went to Grady, who every time I walked in the door of the beauty parlor always screamed in mock horror, "Emergency, emergency!"  But this time I walk in and I'm not in the mood for kidding around.  I have been doing--often very naively and poorly--a jobs ministry in an Atlanta public housing neighborhood.  And I have seen more than comfortable, middle-class people want to see or know how to understand about the grind and the pain in the prison of generations of poverty.  I think the day I went to see Grady I had found out that a lovely very young woman that I'd helped to find a little crummy job had been leaving her five-year-old at home alone because she couldn't find child care and she didn't want to disappoint me.  Can you imagine how I felt about that?  Well, I don't talk about that to Grady, but I say, "Grady, I either need a totally new haircut or a totally new me and right now I don't care which."  And without saying a word, he cut off every hair of my head--almost like shaving someone who is entering monastic orders.  He did that with my back to the mirror, and I was thinking, "Oh, my Lord, what is he doing?"  And then he swung the chair around.  And I saw me.  And he said, "Martha, you don't need a new you.  You need to be you, and God knows that'll be enough."  And you know what?  He was right.  The hair grew back and I grew up.

Five years later--I'd gone to seminary and Grady'd gone and gotten sick and died of AIDs--that was my first funeral as a priest.  And he still haunts me in a good way.

Then there's my mother's hairdresser, Tara, in Jackson Mississippi, who cut hair all week and then she and her husband--both white people--played the piano and sang in a black gospel choir on Sundays.  They didn't sit around and deplore the fact that Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in American life--they went to a black church and got in ministry with African-Americans and they had a ball.  Then off and on through the work week she would talk about her church with her customers--looking in the mirror with them as they heard her words.  And don't you know her customers saw themselves and Tara and Mississippi churches in a new light when she got through with them?  One of them said to me that Tara was the onliest Old Testament prophet she'd ever run into.   

My family has loved her for twenty years for when my late father got down and depressed after retirement, she heard from my mother that his secret dream was to be a country music songwriter.  So Tara said, "Now, Jim, you write down the words and hum 'em to me."  And, lo and behold, she and her husband recorded his one and only country song, "Meet Me at the Mail Box Molly," which is a tragic tune of love and flood.  And, oh, did he get a kick out of that. 

Then long after he died, in due time, my mother went down into the depths of Alzheimer's; and in her anxiety and confusion and anger, she became more and more isolated, to break your heart and to drive you crazy.  But Tara would not be turned away--Tara would connect with her and make her laugh and not pay any attention to my mother's impossibleness, as we say in Mississippi.  Tara just stood by her and looked in that mirror as time and disease just wrecked my mother, and she loved her and fed her good news almost intravenously.  My sister and brother and I avoided unnecessary medical interventions like the plague because we knew that is what our mother would want--but, oh, she had Tara interventions on a regular basis.  And that was good.

On the January night that Mother died--she got real sick, real quick--and so her children were flying in from all over the country--and none of us got there.  But guess who did get there right on time?  God and the good news and Tara.  Mama's beloved caregiver saw what was happening and called Tara, and she was there in a flash with our mother, looking death in the eye in the Christ mirror of the soul.  And Tara prayed and she and the caregiver and the hospice nurse sang "Amazing Grace," and Mother drew her last breath and died a death surrounded by love hearing good news until her end, which is of course her new beginning.  Isn't that something?   

You know, the church could do worse than be an "inner beauty" shop--a place where love is shared and truth is told and the beauty of becoming is the work of the community.  For plain old mirrors are incredibly unreliable witnesses and companions--we can get stuck all by ourselves like Narcissus.  Or like the person in James, we can look in the mirror by ourselves and then rush away and forget not just what we look like but who we are.  For when we look into the mirror by ourselves, we don't see us.  Not the real me or the real you--who are so much deeper and more interesting and real and eternal than what we can see by ourselves in even the clearest light with the finest silvered glass.  To know and to love the real me and the real you--we need each other--to look into the Christ mirror of human being and say when I see you, I see power.  I see compassion, creativity, bravery, humor, loyalty, endurance, forgiveness, wisdom, abundance.  I see potential.  When I look with you in the mirror of Christ, I see the beauty of our belovedness beyond the telling. 

When is the last time you looked in a mirror?  Do you remember who you saw?  Do you need someone to look with you?  I do.  Amen.

Let us pray.

O Lord our God, accept the fervent prayers of your people in the multitude of your mercy, look with compassion upon us and all who turn to you for help, for you are gracious, O Lover of Souls, and to you we give glory, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and forever.  Amen.

 


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