How do we see ourselves? Do we think that we are better than other people? Worse than them? Do we recognise our weaknesses and our strengths? Do we excuse our sins, or are we too harsh on ourselves? What about a more realistic reflection on what we are like?
I think that we often judge ourselves different to how we do other people – either more harshly, or more lightly. This sermon was written for a BCP Evensong service, and the link between the passages seemed to me to be different attitudes to sin. I re-read my blogposts on Thinking about Hell and on repentance as part of my preparation, while I also found Tom Wright’s Luke for Everyone helpful for one or two bits. I found the free image on Pixabay.
When was the last time you looked in a mirror? For most of us, it was probably earlier on today, perhaps as we prepared to come to church, perhaps as we were getting ready this morning. And, of course, we recognised ourselves; we know what we look like! But I’m sure that at least most of us have looked at our reflections in one of those strange mirrors that make us look shorter or taller or fatter or skinnier than we really are. You notice how strange they really are when you try and move – your legs and arms don’t appear to go where they should be going. Everything, in short, is distorted.
And we also have a self-image of what we are like as a person. What we’re good at, what we’re less good at! But the challenge that these passages gives us is: how distorted is that image? What bits do we stretch or narrow? Which bits that are really there just don’t appear at all?
Because both these passages talk about sin, and challenge us to think realistically about sin, about what we have done wrong and, as importantly, about how we see ourselves. That was the problem with the Pharisees: they drew the line between the righteous and the sinners, with them on the ‘righteous’ side, and other people on the ‘sinners’ side.
The Pharisees had a very clear understanding of how God worked. They drew tight lines around what you could and couldn’t do. If you were outside those lines then you had taken yourself outside God’s chosen people. And you had to do the right things, all the right things, to move yourself back inside the lines. There was grace and love involved, but not very much of it!
Jesus had a very different understanding of how things worked. And we heard about his understanding in the reading from Luke’s Gospel. Jesus tells two short stories: stories of people who are worried, desperate, to find what was lost. People who will make a big effort to get back what they no longer had. Clearly we’re meant to see God as those people, God caring so much that he will go to extreme lengths to find the lost. The irony of course being they didn’t know, but we do, that it was God telling the stories, God had go to the lengths of becoming human in order to find and save the lost.
Jesus talks about the rejoicing that finding the lost brings. If you ever doubt what you mean to God, remember that God throws a party for each one of us. And then Jesus goes on to throw in another challenge. “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who do not need to repent”! ‘Who do not need to repent’? Jesus is being ironic, sarcastic, provocative. He’s challenging the Pharisees to recognise that they are looking at things using a distorting mirror, that they are not seeing things with God’s eyes, not seeing things as they truly are.
And we’re very good at doing that ourselves aren’t we? We’re very good at distorting how things are, very good at not seeing things with God’s eyes. Or to put it another way, we’re very good at making sin an irregular verb:
I was justifiably annoyed. You were a bit cross. He was totally out of control!
I was still a bit hungry. You can’t resist a good cake. He always eats far too much!
I was passing on important information. You were being a bit nosy. He was gossiping!
Our sin is often not as bad as someone else’s sin. And the sins of the person we don’t really like anyway, well theirs are obviously terrible! We have a distorting mirror that we apply.
Or, perhaps that isn’t the distorting mirror for you. Perhaps yours is the opposite mirror. Perhaps your sins are far worse than other people’s? Perhaps your distortion is that you don’t recognise how God could love you, that you don’t recognise that God throws a party for you as well.
Which is perhaps where our other reading comes in. This was the apostle Paul writing to Timothy, giving him advice having sent him to work in Ephesus. Paul’s self-image was far more negative than the image that many people had of him. Paul, the great planter of churches, the great letter writer, Paul the inspirer of millions, writes: ‘I am the worst of sinners’.
And one of the reasons for that is that Paul had been a Pharisee, and so would have known what it was like to draw that line with himself firmly on the side of the righteous. And yet, he discovered himself firmly on the wrong side of the line, on the side very clearly marked ‘sinner’.
And yet, he doesn’t doubt that God loves him, that God indeed threw a party for him, there on the Damascus road. “The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (v14), Paul writes. He knows that God’s grace, God’s love, faith from God have been poured onto him and into him.
Seeing with God’s eyes doesn’t mean thinking that we’re worse than we are, any more than it means thinking that we’re better than we are. Down the years, the Church has a tendency to swing between the Pharisee’s position and the position of ‘God loves us so much that it doesn’t really matter’. The position of emphasising our sinfulness to the point of eclipsing God’s love, the God who searches frantically for those are lost. Or, the position that our actions can never get in the way of God’s love for us.
But what Paul and Jesus both tell us is that sin is important, is significant, and that it doesn’t have to have the last word, that God in his love longs for it not to have the last word, that God is looking for the lost, longing to pour his grace and love and gift of faith into people’s lives, if they want.
We prayed near the start of the service “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done”. That’s an important challenge to our distorting mirrors. There are things that we should have done. There are things that we shouldn’t have done. And we need to be sorry for both, we need to repent, to turn away.
Repentance is a physical act, a turning away, a setting aside, a putting down, a picking up. So, what actually, practically, do you need to do this week to show that, to do that?
Now, I’m not sure that the BCP declares as clearly as it might the other half of this, which is that when we do this, when we turn away, set aside, don’t do, or do, then there is a party in heaven! And, because there is a party in heaven, God calls us to celebrate on earth. Heaven is the place where there is God’s rule, God’s kingdom, and we’re called to mirror what heaven does, here on earth, to bring heaven to earth, to seek for God’s kingdom to grow here in our lives and in the places where we are. So how can we celebrate, who can we celebrate with? How can we show God’s love and rejoicing in our lives?
So, this week, when you look in a mirror, why not use it as a reminder to ask God to see yourself with his eyes? To see God’s love for you, and God’s loving call for you, to see yourself as God sees you, and to see other people as God sees them as well. To no longer use those distorted mirrors, but to see instead with God’s eyes. Amen.