One Palm Sunday morning, I looked at all the kids gathered for the children’s message at church, many of whom were in various stages of recovering from the chicken pox. I remarked casually that I had never had that common childhood illness. One week and one day later, the first red mark appeared on my skin. Two days after that, I was admitted to the hospital with an especially severe case of the chicken pox. It was a twelve bed facility in a small town, and I was put at the end of the hall away from other patients and the staff who I sensed were trying to avoid being near me. After a day or so of boredom, I called for a nurse and asked for a mirror so I could see what I looked like. I was refused a mirror and told it was better for me to not see my reflection. I got on the phone and begged a friend to sneak one in to the hospital, like a file baked into a cake for a prisoner. I was horrified to see what I looked like. The movie “Elephant Man” came to mind. I put the mirror away and tried not to look at my image in the mirror again for a long time. Eventually, the sores healed and the scars began to fade. In the meantime, I worked very hard at being in denial about how bad it was.
In the Scripture reading, the writer James talks of those who look at themselves in a mirror and then go away immediately, forgetting what they look like. They are in denial about what they see!
In the fairy tale and classic Disney film Snow White, the Wicked Step-mother peers into the looking glass each day and utters those famous words, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?” The mirror dutifully replies, You are, O Queen” until one day the answer is this: “Queen, you are full fair, ‘tis true, but Snow White is fairer than you.” So the queen ordered a huntsman to take Snow White out into the woods to kill her. The truth hurts, doesn’t it?! Mirrors tend to be painfully honest.
When I was reading this passage from James about mirrors and their truth-telling qualities, it occurred to me that I didn’t even realize that they had mirrors back then. James wrote thousands of years ago. I checked into it and discovered that mirrors were most often highly-polished pieces of metal. People were able to get a reasonably good reflection, though not as clear as one would see in a glass mirror today.
It’s really kind of funny, the picture James gives us of someone studying their image in the mirror and then turning away and forgetting what they look like. It’s funny, and it’s supposed to be. There’s quite a bit of wry humor tucked away in the pages of the Bible. Maybe because we don’t expect Scripture to be funny, we miss the laugh lines.
James is believed by many if not most Bible scholars to be the brother of Jesus. James is not mentioned much in the Gospel accounts of the ministry of Jesus, but he becomes very important in the book of Acts as the early Christian Church began to develop. It is pretty clear that James was the leader of the church that began in Jerusalem. James obviously had good credentials to write a letter explaining key elements of the Christian faith.
Fast-forward about 1,500 years to a man named Martin Luther, the Catholic monk credited with starting the Protestant Reformation by revealing abuse and hypocrisy within the established church. Luther famously stated that the book of James was an “epistle of straw.” Despite the fact that it had been in the canon of Scripture for over one thousand years, Martin Luther didn’t like it and wasn’t afraid to say so. He said that the letter was like straw easily consumed by fire and that when the straw was burned away, you did not have the pure gold nugget of the Gospel remaining. It bothered Luther that James didn’t mention Jesus more than twice and that there is not a single reference to the cross in the entire letter, and – more importantly for Luther – there is no reference the doctrine that salvation is by grace through faith and not by good works.
James seemed to say quite the opposite of what Luther emphasized. He declared that “faith without works is dead” and gave quite a copy space to proclaiming the importance of doing good works and caring for the most vulnerable members of society, including orphans and widows. James seems to further slap Martin Luther’s most prominent ideas about faith in the face by stating that “true religion” is seen in how we treat others rather than in the purity of our doctrine or even the depth of our personal faith.
Jesus said pretty much the same thing in the gospels, and many people have noted how similar what James wrote is to what Jesus taught. That would make a lot of sense if he was really Jesus’ brother. Jesus spoke repeatedly of religious-acting folk who said all the right things and held to the right beliefs but neglected what is most important, which is loving others and caring for those who are in great need.
“True religion” is an interesting phrase. It sort of implies that there is imitation religion out there as well; a “knock-off” faith that looks nice but is not the real thing. That sounds like a judgment of others’ faith that most of us would be uncomfortable making, but James is in a teaching capacity and is probably just fed up with the stream of people who loudly claimed to love God but whose actions didn’t match up with their words.
About twelve years ago, it was announced that an ossuary had been found in Israel. An ossuary is a simple stone box which was used to hold bones after a body had decomposed. This ossuary was inscribed with the words, “James, the Brother of Jesus.” The archaeological world took notice, and a book was released almost immediately, right before Easter, celebrating this first archaeological evidence of the existence of the person of Jesus. It was a really big deal. A New Testament scholar who I studied with in Seminary and traveled with to the Holy Lands was the author of the book and soon was featured on the Discovery Channel and Robert Schuller’s Hour of Power TV show. He confirmed to the public what a ground-breaking discovery the ossuary was. In conversation with me shortly after, he said that he expected to be able to build the rest of his career on this one important archaeological find. There was just one problem, though. The inscription was a fake. The fact that the box was sold in an open air market before the seller’s apartment was raided and yielded forgery tools and several other partially inscribed ossuaries was the first clue. Scientific studies eventually showed that the word “James” was authentic and that the words “the brother of Jesus” were not.
Forgeries, fakes, frauds. They’re flashy and often convincing, but they’re not the real thing. James would probably have some choice words about the fake bone box as well as those who made wild claims about it without good evidence. The entire book of James is about being authentic.
For James, the evidence of faith is good works. The mirror metaphor is a bit odd, maybe, but he is saying that those who immerse themselves in Scripture and give assent to it but then turn away and forget about or ignore what they have read are equivalent to mirror-gazers who can’t even recall what they looked like a few moments after looking away. James seemed to state that the ethical teachings about what we do in response to a hurting world are at the core of God’s message and what constitutes “true religion.” Our actions matter and if we’re needing evidence of faith, well, they are it!
The reading about Gandhi contained an interesting statement: “What I am concerned with is my readiness to obey the call of truth, my God, from moment to moment, no matter how inconsistent it may appear. My commitment is to truth, not to consistency.” Many of those who were addressed by James in his letter were more concerned about following the rules and rituals of religious practice without error than they were about truth. And for James, truth was found in following God to the uncomfortable places where people hurt and are alone and hungry. Finding truth is not accomplished by a straight line that is drawn to demonstrate consistency, but it is more often a wandering trail that requires experiments and new ways of serving and loving and then eventually discovering who we are and how we can live out our faith.
On Thursday, a group from our church served meals at the Community Table. For more than an hour, homeless folks filed by to receive a nutritious meal. It was the longest food line I have seen yet in Boulder, and the kitchen manager said it looked like the largest crowd so far this year. Thankfully, there was enough food for everyone to receive one serving. The need to practice faith through works among those in need is not diminishing. There are many opportunities close by, including our monthly commitment at the Community Table.
Jimmy Carter is a man whose faith has been evident ever since he told us in 1976 that he had been born again. What we remember about him, and what will be his legacy, though, are not specifics about his spiritual beliefs but the actions he has shown throughout his life to create a better, more just world, including his work with Habitat for Humanity.
What do you see when you look in the mirror? Do you see someone who is satisfied and done? Or do you see someone who is joyfully experimenting with life and finding new ways to know more truth? And do you see the face of someone whose faith is not content to be enshrined in words but is an active expression of love that is shown in service to those in need?
“Be doers of the word, and not hearers only!” Amen.