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What the Mirror Says Back
The Reverend John Leedy
February 4, 2018
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
A Reading from Paul’s First Letter to Corinth
If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe betide me if I do not proclaim the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.
For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.
I want to be clear about something. I know… I know… that mirrors – do – not – talk back. The rational part of my brain knows, for sure, that mirrors are inanimate objects. They are panes of glass with reflective paint and they do not talk back. I know this. I know that you know this. I know, you know, we all know – that mirrors do not talk back. Now, this fact, being firmly established, in all ontological certainty and beyond a shadow of a doubt, I do have to say, y’all one time a mirror talked back. I was standing in front of it and it talked back and it spooked me so bad I will never feel entirely safe looking into a mirror again. Now before you start inching away from me and Matt calls the nice men with the butterfly nets, let me tell you my side of the story.
The second floor bathroom in the MacKenzie Hall Men’s Dormitory at ACU has a very notable feature. One of the earliest structures built on the Abilene Christian University campus, MacKenzie Dorm was a fortress of brick and concrete and the kind of no nonsense façade particular to West Texas.
The second floor bathroom looked like any other aging institutional bathroom – with its off white ceramic tile, shiny metal fixtures just starting to rust at the edges, and that old building smell. You walk in and on one side are all the stalls and on the other all the showers and standing in the middle were eight sinks, four on each side facing in with a really big mirror separating them. It was your basic college dorm bathroom.
The notable thing about that bathroom was that it was completely sound proof. One minute you’d be in a loud, noisy bathroom with music playing and showers running and guys laughing. You’d walk out and when the door closed behind you there was an immediate and total cessation of sound.
So putting two and two together, I realized that the bathroom would be a great place to practice my preacher voice. I’d get up early on days I had a presentation in class and practice my speech in front of that big central mirror, knowing that I wouldn’t be overheard out in the hallway. One morning I got up extra early because I had a really big speech to give and I was nervous.
I go into the bathroom. Door closes behind me. Total silence. I listen for a moment to make sure I’m alone, then I walk up to that big mirror.
I begin my speech, and I mess up. I begin again, mess up. Again and again and I just can’t get this right. I’m so frustrated that I switch from speech practice mode into John Leedy, Motivational Speaker mode.
I take a deep breath, I look myself in the eyes. John. You’re going to be fine. You’re going to give a great speech. You’re awesome. Your chin-specific facial hair looks great today. You’ve got what it takes because you’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and doggonit, people like you.
And I stand there in front of the mirror, in the total silence of that bathroom, staring deep into my own eyes, when a deep voice whispers “shut up.”
Yep, you guessed it, not alone in the bathroom after all. One of my buddies happened to be standing on the other side of the mirror when I came in. Dude could have coughed or something… but no, guy stood there in absolute silence as I talked to myself like Ms. Aibileen does to little Mae in The Help. Oh John, you is kind, you is smart…
Now, had I not been so totally convinced that I was completely alone in that bathroom, had it not been so totally silent, so early in the morning, had I not been so stressed out, I believe the logical part of my brain would have told me, “Hey dummy, someone else is in here.” But no. Instead, my brain told me, “The mirror talked back!”
So I scream. I do that full body panic thing where you startle and do this cowering sprint move to the door. Clearly, the mirror is possessed and evil is real and this is the end of the world.
I got an embarrassing distance down the hall before that logical part of my brain seized control and reminded me that, despite the harrowing experience I thought I just had, mirrors don’t talk back. And I know that. Didn’t in the moment, but do now. Mirrors don’t talk back. Except sometimes they might, maybe. To this day, if I find myself in a really quiet place and there’s a mirror, I just keep my mouth shut. You know, just in case.
I was thinking about that story last weekend at the Mo Ranch Youth Midwinter Retreat. Saturday afternoon while all the youth were outside playing, I found myself alone in the Loma Linda bathroom – which is similar in age and feel to that old dorm bathroom: faded tile, old white sinks, haunted mirrors – I mean, totally normal mirrors.
The combination of silence and those mirrors reminded me of that story and I got to thinking: what if mirrors, actually, could talk? What would the mirror say back to me? Could I ask it questions, knowing that mirrors tend to be pretty honest? Mirrors reflect what is. Mirrors are a thing totally of the present moment. They don’t show you what you used to look like – that’s a camera’s job. They also don’t show you what you will look like one day, that’s the imagination’s job.
The mirror tells it like it is, right now, no spin. It reflects back who you are and the choices you’re making. It’s a brave thing to look in a mirror and face the reality of what it might show you, or in my case – what it might tell you, because sometimes, you might not want to hear it.
Later that same day, the keynote speaker at Midwinters asked the large group of 250 Presbyterian middle school and high school youth a question.
She asked, “Raise your hand if your church has had a serious conversation about racism that you can remember?” How many teenage hands do you think went up? How many?
How many of our churches those teenagers go to are talking about racism?
How many of those churches are reinforcing Sunday after Sunday the central theological claim that all humans are created in the very image of God?
How many of our churches are desperately communicating with these young people that God became one of us in Jesus Christ, taking on human skin so that no human skin is outside the bounds of God’s love?
How many of our Presbyterian pastors are pointing to the teachings of Jesus in Scripture and saying, this is why Black Lives Matter too, not just the lives of the white and powerful?
How many of our Presbyterian church members are tripping over themselves to talk with our teenagers and children about the heartbreaking, soul crushing racism and bullying they see or experience every day at school and in the media?
Raise your hand if your church has had a serious conversation about racism that you can remember. How many hands went up in that room? That’s right, none. Not. One.
And that zero included the 15 teenagers from University Presbyterian Church. Y’all, sometimes, the mirror talks back.
These young people are the best mirror we have for reflecting what this grown up church of ours really looks like because they are going to tell it like it is.
The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Corinthian church, is talking about proclaiming the Gospel. It’s what he does best. It’s what God has called him to do. The thing that is most illuminating about this passage to me is that I see Paul traveling from city to city and waking up every morning and looking in a mirror and saying, I am a preacher of the Gospel. How do I preach the Gospel to these people today? And the mirror says back, these people are Jews, so you need to speak to the needs they have.
I am a preacher of the Gospel, says Paul. How do I preach the Gospel to these people today? And the mirror says back, these people are Gentiles, so you need to use their language and customs to communicate.
I am a preacher of the Gospel. How do I preach the Gospel to these people today? And the mirror says back, these people are weak, you need to be weak too.
We are a church of the Gospel. How do we preach the Gospel to these people today? And the mirror says back, these people are oppressed, you need to stand in solidarity with them.
We are a church of the Gospel. How do we preach the Gospel to these people today? And the mirror says back, these people are silenced, you need to listen to them.
We are a church of the Gospel. How do we preach the Gospel to these people today? And the mirror says back, these young people are longing and confused, you need to be their example.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ gives Paul the freedom to be what the people need him to be. And that same freedom is ours as the Church of Jesus Christ. The Gospel demands that we confront the things Jesus confronted – and the people need us to say something.
Starting on February 18, UPC will host a nine-Sunday series of adult, youth, and children’s Sunday school classes that will focus on issues of race in our country, in our church, and within our own lives. Your Social Witness and Christian Formation Committees have partnered together to create a church wide, intergenerational conversation called Racial Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation.
Come February 18, there will be 15 teenage hands that can affirm that their church has had a serious conversation about racism. And I hope your hand will join theirs.
Now, the goal of the series is not to fix racism. The goal of the series is to name racism where it lives – within our institutions and within our own hearts. The goal is to listen, to create new narratives for how we think about and interact with people that are different from us.
The goal is stand together in this big soundproof bathroom, this echo chamber of our own comfort, complete with rusty fixtures that need updating and holding our anxiety with both hands. The goal is to look into that big, scary, truth-telling mirror and hear it say “Shut. Up.” And yeah, we might be tempted to run, or to fight, or to make excuses, or whitesplain, or whatever. But again and again, we hear the mirror say, Shut up. Be still. All you need to do is listen. All you need to do is open your heart and let the Spirit lead you on. Because you are a church of the Gospel – and this is what the people need today.
“I have become all things to all people,” Paul writes, “so that I might, by any means, save some.” This is how we live into these words of Scripture. Let us be all things and do whatever it takes that all people might hear the Gospel. And perhaps, that we might hear it too.