“For now,” Paul wrote to the church in Corinth,
“we see in a mirror, dimly,
but then we shall see face to face.”
From his opening words Paul has been holding up a mirror
to the Corinthian church.
At first glance, the image was flattering.
He says he is writing to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus.
He says the Corinthians are called to be saints,
(along with everybody everywhere who calls on the name of the Lord).
He reminds them that the grace of God has been given them,
that their lives have been enriched by that grace,
and that they don’t lack any spiritual gift,
and that they will be strengthened by Christ until the last day.
But as Paul holds up this mirror,
he points out some unattractive truths, too.
You’ve been a good-looking church, but if you look more closely,
you’ll see some unpleasant reflections that will be hard to own.
You folks quarrel... a lot.
You are divided, split along party lines.
You are guilty of spiritual one-upmanship,
with “people gifted one way disparaging people gifted another.” [Buechner]
And if you look more closely into the mirror Paul is holding up to this church,
you’ll see glimpses of sexual immorality, legal disputes, abuses of the Lord’s Supper,
and theological disagreements over the meaning of the resurrection of the dead.
Not at all a pretty sight.
Mirror, mirror on the wall,
which image is that of our church?
Are we on the list of saints or sinners?
You know as well as I do that we are on both lists.
We celebrate our sainthood by gathering here to worship God
when we could have been doing all manner of other things this morning,
many a lot more fun than this.
But we feel that we are the blessed people of the earth,
known, claimed, and called by God!
Where else should we be?
This is the community that comes to worship the One who gives us life and all its gifts.
Our gathering here reflects our sainthood.
But we admit our sin-hood by joining in a prayer of confession
that often lists all the ways we renounce God’s claim on us,
all the ways we fail to live up to our call,
all the ways we reflect the shameful image of the Corinthian church.
The good news is that we are forgiven when we admit our sins.
The bad news is that next week’s prayer of confession
may well be a perfect reflection of how we messed up
what the coming week will bring us.
Good news. Bad news.
A faithful church blessed with gifts;
a failing church wasting gifts.
Which are we? the Corinthians and we might ask.
Remember that little game with the petals of the daisy?
She loves me, she loves me not.
Which will the last petal be?
Good news? Bad news?
The best news from Paul is that God has the last word,
and that word is agape ... love.
Love; the greatest gift that redeems all we see in the mirror.
I don’t know that our home has any more mirrors than your home,
or that the mirrors Joan and I have collected over the years
are any more or less interesting than yours.
But since I thought about this sermon pacing around my home and not yours,
let me describe three of the mirrors I found,
and borrow some stories from the Bible to work our way to God’s last word,
love seen so clearly face to face.
There’s this one old mirror that’s cracked down the middle.
If you stand in front of it,
you appear to be cracked down the middle!
It’s easy to imagine a split personality as you see your face bisected
by the broken glass surface.
Maybe here is where we can best understand the saint/sinner within us.
One part of us is filled with good things:
honesty, compassion, kindness, the best of intentions.
When an ugly rumor surfaces, we may assume innocence,
sympathize with the accused, wait patiently for proof that resolves rumors;
we hold hearts of compassion for anyone who is hurt or harmed
by malicious headlines.
And then there is our “evil twin,”
that part of us that loves only itself,
that craves vengeance, that honors deception,
that lusts for power over others and exploits the weak and vulnerable.
Our personal gifts are for our personal gain.
And when scandal erupts,a political figure fails and falls,
an entertainer or athlete makes headlines that bring disappointment…
we savor the titillating details, rejoice in every sad disclosure,
and self-righteously sniff our disapproval of almost every character in the drama.
If I look into the mirror one way, I’m being very fair.
If I look into the cracked mirror another way, I see how judgmental I can be.
This broken mirror clearly mirrors our brokenness.
Remember the Old Testament story of Jeremiah?
(OK, teenagers…this is for you.)
I think of a teen-aged Jeremiah standing before my broken mirror.
He looks one way, and he is merely an adolescent,
more than a little insecure about holding his own in a conversation with adults.
Even without the mirror, he knows himself to be a reflective, private person,
by his own admission not one who enjoys crowds or parties. [Jeremiah 15:17]
But there is another side to Jeremiah,
and the Lord God knows it, has known it before Jeremiah’s conception!
“I appointed you a prophet to the nations,” the Lord says.
The boy side of Jeremiah protested what the Lord said of the prophet side.
“I don’t know how to speak; I’m only a child.”
“You want cheese with that whine?”
No whining! God says.
“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy.’
for you shall go, and you shall speak.
Don’t be afraid.
Today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms...”
Do you ever stand in front of the mirror and lament your inadequacies?
But the other part of you reminds you that you are a child of God.
You stand all alone looking at yourself in the mirror,
but you are not really alone, ever.
As a child of God, you are part of this family, this community,
and while it may not be perfect, while it may be broken like that one mirror at home,
it still works, like Paul knew love would work for Corinth,
and like God’s power would rescue broken Israel,
and like Jesus would redeem the whole broken world.
We have another mirror at home,
an old one, an antique we bought off the wall of a restaurant.
It’s a round mirror with a convex surface.
If you stand in front of it and look at yourself in it,
your image is distorted.
Your face is spread wide over the curved glass,
with the center exaggerating your size,
and everything on the edges of the circular surface reduced.
This is the perfect mirror for ego maniacs!
It may not do anything for their looks,
but it makes them appear to be the only thing in the room.
This is the mirror that should have hung in the synagogue in Nazareth.
In the reading from Luke,
we relived the scene when Jesus went home to Nazareth,
visited the synagogue of his youth (presumably),
and read before the people from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free...”
And then Jesus said,
“Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
At first, the people of the synagogue were well pleased,
indeed Luke says they were amazed at his gracious words.
Then their pleasure turned to rage
as Jesus extended the grace of God beyond the boundaries of Nazareth,
even beyond the reach of Judaism.
Jesus tells two stories from their own scriptures,
Jesus reminding his neighbors of God’s embrace of the “outsider.”
Yet the people will not hear of it.
When we have inflated ideas of our own importance,
when we claim only for ourselves good news, freedom, and vision,
when we deny the grace of God to those outside our circle,
it’s like standing before that convex mirror and seeing only ourselves
as the rest of the world shrinks along the outside edge of the glass.
But then Jesus visits, and reminds us of what we have always known
but often denied,
that the grace of God is not ours to dole out to those whom we favor.
At Nazareth, Jesus turns the mirror around and we look into a concave surface,
where we in the middle appear smaller
and those on the outside are prominent and draw our attention.
Jesus will touch the untouchable, love the unlovely, embrace the enemy,
and otherwise step beyond previous boundaries,
to bring peace and reconciliation.
And his message so outraged his own neighbors that they tried to kill him
on that day that he went home to preach in the synagogue
that had taught him the scriptures.
The people rejected the mirror Jesus was holding up to them.
The threat of this angry mob “foreshadows not only the trial and death of Jesus
but also the fate of many of his followers.” [Craddock, Interpretation, Luke]
Well, of course, Jeremiah didn’t look into any mirror, cracked down the middle or not.
And there wasn’t a mirror (convex or concave) in the synagogue
the day Jesus offended so many of his townspeople.
But there were mirrors in Corinth.
They were all over the place,
because the making of mirrors was one of the industries for which Corinth was noted.
They weren’t made of glass, but were polished bronze or silver.
The image was often imperfect,
a bit distorted, a little dim.
There’s an old mirror at home that is so worn out
that it reminds me of the one Paul mentions in the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians.
The finish on the back of the mirror is deteriorating,
and the reflection is dim and splotchy.
(Either that, or I’m getting dim and splotchy...)
Paul has been writing quite eloquently of love, agape, the “more excellent way.”
He wasn’t writing about love between good friends or love in marriage.
He was addressing a certain situation in the church at Corinth.
In worship, some members of the community were boasting of gifts
that they considered to be better than those of other members of the community.
While some could offer only human utterances,
there were some who seemed gifted with the tongues of angels,
a spiritual language that gained them access to the divine world above.
Paul writes to assure the Corinthians that there are varieties of gifts,
but they are given by the same Spirit.
And the body of Christ needs every member to preserve its unity.
Then Paul moves into this song of love,
the self-giving love of God for humanity,
love that is enacted without self-interest, without conditions or mixed motives.
That love is the gift which members of the church are to have for one another.
That love, patient, kind, enduring, is the criterion
by which we measure all that we do as persons who are united in the Body of Christ
in worship and in our work in ministry.
This agape love is essential to the life of the Church.
You can prophesy and sing and serve until you are blue in the face,
but if you do not have that love ...
what a waste.
The love of which Paul writes is not an abstract idea,
but is practical, active, down to earth, and “grown up.”
And it doesn’t wear out, run out, or die out.
It endures whatever comes, and it never ends.
And there is the church at Corinth,
saints enriched by the extravagant grace of God and lacking no gift.
There they are engaged in power struggles and confusion,
immoral behavior and getting drunk with the wine they consume at the Lord’s Supper.
At the root of the Corinthian problem is the dim reality of a loveless spirituality.
And here is Paul offering the clear vision of the everlasting and steadfast love of God
as it was lived in the life of Jesus Christ,
whom the Corinthians and we call Lord.
When we stand before that worn out, dim mirror
we see our shadowed selves, imperfect, childish, struggling sinners.
Life is riddles. Death a mystery.
But Paul promises that one day we shall see it all clearly,
no mirrors, but face to face.
Now we know only in part; but then, we shall know fully,
even as God has known us.
The good news is that there is still hope for those who live in this “meantime.”
Even if we do look into a dim mirror,
we don’t have to wait until the other side of the resurrection to see one thing clearly:
God’s steadfast love redeems broken, distorted, and dim images of our life together.
In his book Bread for the Journey, Henri Nouwen reminds us,
“There is no human love that is not broken somewhere.
When our broken love is the only love we have,
we are easily thrown into despair,
but when we can live our broken love as a partial reflection
of God’s perfect, unconditional love,
we can forgive one another our limitations
and enjoy together the love we have to offer.” [Nouwen’s meditation for March 4]
We use mirrors for self-examination.
If Paul’s epistles to the church at Corinth hold up a mirror
in which the church is called to examine itself,
where is our mirror here at Union Presbyterian Church?
How do we see and reflect on our prophetic voice to the community?
How do we measure our willingness to move beyond comfortable boundaries
and reach out in mission to our neighbors?
How do we stand up to the highest standards of love
that Paul wrote about in that 13th chapter?
One way is to look again at the Annual Report we glanced at a few months back.
With 1 Corinthians 13 in one hand
and the reports of our church committees in the other,
we may see very clearly how much we love our God, our neighbors, and ourselves.
Or consider what we will do with our sheets of newsprint titled “What to do with 202.”
We may be a little disappointed, or we may be quite pleased with our church
and its commitment to love our neighbors as we love our worshipping community.
But there is no one here, lay person or minister, who cannot grow in God’s love
and with patience and kindness reach further beyond ourselves, whatever the risk.
Let us go from this place with its Bible, its baptism waters, and its table
to speak God’s Word for all to hear,
and to reflect God’s perfect love for all to see.
“For now, we see in a mirror dimly;
but then, we shall see face to face!”