What do you see when you look in the mirror? I tried it while I was writing my sermon. I saw that I haven’t been taking good care of my skin,that the purple streak in my hair is overdue for re-dyeing. I saw that I need new glasses, and that my sweater had shrunk in the wash. I saw that I looked tired. Do you know what I didn’t see? The glory of God.
Do you see it when you look in the mirror? The glory of God, shining out of your very pores? The apostle Paul says we should – we could. It’s not just the Big Holy People, Moses and Jesus,whose faces glow with the reflected brilliance of God’s presence. It’s us too.
Listen to the end of today’s passage from Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth: “All of us are looking with unveiled faces at the glory of the Lord as if we were looking in a mirror. We are being transformed into that same image from one degree of glory to the next degree of glory. This comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
And a few verses later Paul continues the thought: “God said that light should shine out of the darkness. The same God shone in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ.” Do those words sound familiar? They’re in our Eucharistic Preface for Epiphany,and they’re the reason it’s my favorite preface.
Paul says, Jesus Christ is the image of God, shining with God’s glory; and knowing, recognizing that, lights us up too, within and without. We are being transformed, bit by bit, by the power of God, into the shining likeness of Jesus, who is himself the likeness of God. With this metaphorical mirror, Paul says, Look at God’s glory, in Christ, and see yourself. Look at yourself and see God’s glory.
This isn’t an easy text, this chunk of 2 Corinthians. It’s a somewhat arbitrary chunk of a longer arc of rhetoric. And it smacks of anti-Semitism, as Paul describes the people of Israel as having minds hardened, veiled, closed to the truth and light of God in Christ. It’s important to read this in the context of what we know from the Book of the Acts of the Apostles,in which we read that Paul and his companions,in their missionary travels,met resistance and hostility from many Jewish leaders.
But it’s even more important to point out that Paul’s intention here is to contrast two mindsets, and the mindset that concerns him is by no means found only in the synagogues. The reason he’s writing this passage is that he sees that mindset among Christians, as well.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul is on the defensive. He has a complicated relationship with the church in Corinth. It sounds like some leaders in the church have been questioning Paul’s qualifications, and quality, as an apostle and teacher of the faith. There were lots of preachers and teachers circulating among the young churches in those days,and apparently some of them made Paul look a little second-rate. Maybe their preaching was more compelling,or their personal story was more powerful, or their teaching was clearer and bolder than Paul’s ambiguous and cantankerous poetry of grace.
So in this letter, Paul is restating who he is and the core of the Gospel as he knows it – presumably over against what he’s hearingabout the teachings of some of the other guys. And he’s focusing, in this passage, on the contrast between two mindsets. The noun here is hard – the one I’m glossing as “mindset.” In Greek it’s diakonia, from which we get “deacon,” and it’s usually translated as “service” or “ministry.” “Ministry of Death” makes a great band name,but it’s not that helpful as a translation, and Paul seems to use word in a somewhat different sense here. Various versions of the Bible translate it as “way,” “dispensation,” “agreement.” The Message renders it as Government – the Government of Death versus the Government of Living Spirit. I think that Paul means something, a way of being and thinking, that is both external to us, that we live under, like a government, and internal to us, living inside our heads and spirits, like a mindset.
In the verses that come just before today’s lectionary text, Paul says, God has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant. This new covenant is not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. That mindset of death, chiselled in letter on stone tablets, came in glory – such glory that the people of Israel couldn’t even look at Moses’ face. So how much more will the mindset of Spirit come in glory? If there was glory in the mindset of condemnation, then the mindset of justice and righteousness will truly abound in glory!
That’s the hope Paul means, in verse 12, as our text begins: the hope of this new mindset, this new way, a way that frees us from the limitations of the Law. A new dispensation in which divine glory isn’t restricted to a few who dare to approach God, but in which the brilliance of God’s presence is planted and growing in each of us, shining out, transforming us from within.
Elsewhere in his letters, Paul says more about the limitations of the Law. He means the ritual laws of Judaism, but he also means more than that, a whole way of thinking and being that is based on meeting standards and fulfilling requirements. With the Jewish prophets who went before him, Paul says, The Law is righteous but in human hands it goes wrong. We take a tool and make it a weapon, subjugating others, shaming ourselves. We turn God’s map of holiness into a check-the-box approach to righteousness which is crazymaking, destructive, and faithless. Remember, Paul says: I was righteous under the Law. Before Jesus’ glory blinded me, I was a good Jew. I followed all the rules. I met the standards. And… it didn’t save me from my deep brokenness.
In our Advent virtual book group, several of us read Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly. As I dug into 2 Corinthians, I saw a lot of overlap between that letter, and this book. I think Paul and Brown are talking about the same two mindsets, though Paul uses a theological language he is inventing as he goes, a messy hybrid of Jewish and Greek thought, while Brown uses the therapeutic idiom of early 21st century self-help literature.
Instead of a “Ministry of Death,”Brown points to a pervasive culture of scarcity that holds us all captive. She writes, “Worrying about scarcity is our culture’s version of post-traumatic stress. It happens when we’ve been through too much, and rather than coming together to heal, we’re angry and scared and at each other’s throats… It’s not just the larger culture that’s suffering; I found the same dynamics playing out in family culture, work culture, school culture, and community culture.” (27)
That culture of scarcity, as Brown tells it – and I recognize it; do you? – that culture fills us with the persistent haunting fear that we’re not enough. More specifically, that we’re not something enough.You’ll have a few words of your own that fill in that blank. Not disciplined enough. Not patient enough. Not organized enough. Not smart enough. Not pretty enough. Not creative enough. Not thin enough. Not spiritual enough. Have you thought of yours yet? …
That inner yardstick, that imagined ideal, against with we measure ourselves, consciously or not, and find ourselves wanting – that’s the Ministry of Death of our time, the Law that binds us instead of freeing us. Brown says that the upshot of this culture of scarcity is an epidemic of shame….which sounds a lot like the “mindset of condemnation” Paul names. Brown defines shame is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and … unworthy of love and belonging.” (69) And our shame drives a whole set of behaviors that we use to defer, deflect, or hide from shame – disengagement, fear of connecting or investing; criticizing and ridiculing self and others; cynicism and pessimism, scapegoating, perfectionism, numbing behaviors like our various addictions… She says, the things we do to try and avoid or manage shametend to make us into the people we least want to be.
The other mindset, the new dispensation, the Government of Living Spirit – it’s harder to put words to that. Paul says – again, in chorus with many prophets of Israel – that true holiness is a matter of spirit, not of law. It’s a way of freedom and of trust. He’s not under the illusion this Way is easier than the alternative. If anything, it’s probably harder. The guidelines are few and, frankly, poorly-defined: Love. Generosity. Justice. The rules are those we discern and take on for ourselves. The standards are perplexing; we seem to be welcomed and loved just as we are, while also called to literally impossible feats of mercy. But this is the Way we were made for. It’s how God wants us -not as subjects, slaves, or employees, following orders, but as children, formed by the heart and spirit of our loving Parent.
Brown says the opposite – the antidote – to our culture of scarcity and shame is, simply, the idea of enough. Trusting that we are enough, that we’re fundamentally OK and still worthy of love, even when we mess up or aren’t good at something. Knowing ourselves to be enough allows us to lay down the armor and weapons that we stockpiled to protect ourselves from shame and scarcity,and instead to be present and real. To take the holy human risks of connecting, engaging, and growing.
Brown – a practicing Episcopalian – doesn’t say, but could: You are enough, because God don’t make no junk. But Paul says that, more or less. Paul talks about enough, too. In verses 5 and 6 of this chapter, he writes, “We are not enough, of ourselves, to claim anything as coming from us; our enough-ness is from God, who has made us enough to be ministers of this new covenant.” You’re enough because God makes you enough. And more than enough: God makes you shine.
But. That’s not what most of us see, when we look in the mirror. That’s why Paul wrote these letters, urging the early Christians to turn away from the mindset of death that made them think they weren’t good enough for God. That’s why Brown wrote this book, helping us identify the role of shame and scarcity in our lives, and offering tools for turning the corner into a new mindset.
Which brings us… to Lent. The season of the church’s year which begins this week. A season honored with repentance, turning from and turning towards; with self-examination and reflection; with practices of personal discipline such as fasting. It all sounds a little like we’re right back at the Ministry of Death. But I don’t think so.
So much of the worst of human behavior springs from fear, scarcity, shame. I think the call of Lent is to work on quitting all the stuff we do to convince ourselves that we can be … something enough, if we just keep trying; and instead to think and pray and live as people who know that we are enough, enough in God, enough for God.
For example. I marked up this book a lot, as I read – notes for the book group, for my church, for myself. In chapter four, Brown talks about perfectionism, as one of the forms of armor we use to protect ourselvesin the dispensation of condemnation. She says, “Perfectionism is a defensive move. It’s the belief that if we do things perfectly…, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame…. Most perfectionists grew up being praised for achievement and performance… Somewhere along the way they adopted this dangerous and debilitating belief system: ‘I am what I accomplish.’ … Perfectionism is not a way to avoid shame. Perfectionism is a form of shame.” (129 – 130)
I was sure as heck not going to mark up the Perfectionism page. I’ve told myself for decades that I’m not a perfectionist – and I’m genuinely not the stereotypical, cartoon perfectionist. I’m not judging your punctuation, folks. I let things be Done instead of Perfect every day. I cut myself slack. I’m OK with my limitations and my growing edges. In fact, I even took an online quiz, designed to assess how much you practice compassion towards yourself – one measure of perfectionism. And I scored REALLY WELL. So there.
But… Still. I recognize myself in some of Brown’s words about perfectionism.It’s not a demon I can vanquish with ONE MORE good test score. My parents did their best – in first grade, when I got a pink slip for bad behavior, my mom took me out for ice cream to celebrate. But I became, somehow, a person who’s deeply invested in my own competence. Who believes, at a deep level, that I am what I accomplish. Turning from the mindset of condemnation, the culture of scarcity, for me, means teaching myself to trust that I am enough, that I’m worthy, regardless of whether I’m currently being showered with kudos, gold stars, and pats on the head.
What do you see when you look in the mirror? Can you see the glory of God, shining there? A flicker? A glimmer? Maybe the purpose of the disciplines of Lent is to rub away at the tarnish and grime, or – to use the image Paul plays with – to strip away the layers of veiling – that obscure God’s light, God’s glory from shining forth in and from us. So that that mirror – metaphorical or actual – will show us ourselves as we truly are. Enough, through God’s grace, and ablaze with Christ’s light.