Column by Mary Lee Talbot
“This is not a rhetorical question. Please raise your hand if you looked into a mirror this morning,” said the Rev. William H. Lamar IV at the 9:15 a.m. Thursday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. His sermon title was “The Fall,” and the scripture reading was Revelation 18: 1-13, 21-24.
Lamar traced his steps through his morning routine. Waking up with deep gratitude, he puts his feet on the ground and “as a man of a certain age, I make my way to the facilities. I saw myself before the rising of the sun in the glass. It was an inadvertent, happenstance, first vision. I looked again and there I was, Bill Lamar.”
Later would come the intentional looking in the mirror, for brushing and flossing teeth, putting on makeup, shaving a beard or doing hair. Or in Lamar’s case, shaving his scalp. “I do these things automatically, without reflection, pun intended,” he said.
Mirrors are an ancient phenomenon. “People first looked in still pools; let’s give a shout-out to Narcissus,” he said. Then people collected water in basins and later polished obsidian, bronze and copper to see their faces.
In one survey of 93,000 people, scientists reported that people spent four hours per day looking in mirrors — that is one-sixth of people’s lives peering in the looking glass.
“Another survey found that men spend 56 minutes a day looking in the mirror, while women spend an average of 43 minutes. My wife approves of this survey; my wife probably did this survey,” Lamar said.
There are references to mirrors in literature, movies and poetry. In 1 Corinthians 13, the Apostle Paul wrote, “For now we see in the mirror, dimly, but then we shall see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I am fully known.” James, Chapter 1, says “For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in the mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like.”
Lamar said to the congregation: “Humans are strange about mirrors. We like mirrors, but we abhor having someone hold a mirror up to us. Were you in the Amphitheater Wednesday night to hear Bassam Youssef? We laughed as he held a mirror up to us. He is an Egyptian comedian, now an American citizen, who showed us ourselves.”
Continuing to talk about holding up mirrors, Lamar said that Youssef “forced us to look at our militarism, imperialism, capitalism, geo-political hypocrisy, bigotry and we laughed. We laughed at the clear bag policy, the increased security; he named the tension between Advocates for Balance at Chautauqua and those who differ with them. We laughed as he held up the mirror.”
Lamar asked the congregation, “So why is it we allow mirrors in comedy shows, but not in our churches or synagogues or temples? I know pastors who tried hard to hold up the mirrors of truth and have been fired and harassed by their congregations, bishops, and others. Are we saying don’t tell the truth? We can say cruel things and laugh in comedic places, but we strangle the truth in the context of faith.”
How many of your pastors are afraid to tell you the truth? “They don’t want you to feel guilty, but they are driven by the gospel; they don’t want to judge you, but to walk alongside you as the Spirit calls us to live a more excellent way,” he said. “We malign those who would show us the mirror and tell us the truth. It is no good to come to Chautauqua and go home and break the mirror. We dance not to the gospel of Jesus Christ, but to the American way,”
Lamar said, “We — notice I said we — Americans want religion to make us feel good about being American, not to measure us in the light of the stature we have in Christ. John, the writer of Revelation, held up a mirror to Rome. We must do the same to America.”
If we don’t change our theology, our politics, our abuse of the earth, he said, we commit the ultimate idolatry of a nation determined to stand forever regardless of its ethics.
Samuel Huntington, Harvard professor best known for the book Clash of Civilizations, and a consultant to governments — including South Africa’s apartheid government — to ensure Western domination was maintained, lifted up Islamic extremism as the greatest threat.
“The West won,” Lamar said, “not by the superiority of its values, but by applying organized violence. Westerners forget this; non-Westerners never do.”
Lamar offered the scripture from Revelation 18 as a gift to awaken the congregation “from our own self-delusion. When we look into Babylon’s mirror, we see ourselves in the 21st century. Americans are living in grand style, consuming and wasting resources; our necessities are the world’s luxuries. We don’t see what is best for the world but what is best for ourselves.”
Must Babylon’s fate be our own? In Revelation, a voice called the people to come out of Babylon, to not take part in its sin. “Americans are good at confessing other’s sins. But we will never live unless there is repentance,” Lamar said.
He continued, “Come out and allow truth to be preached. Come out and let politicians speak truth. Come out in a new faith that is not married to Babylon. True peace is possible if we look in the mirror and do something different. If we don’t like what we see, do something else. For God’s sake, for the earth’s sake, for your sake and my sake, come out of the fallen city.”
Melissa Spas, vice president for religion, presided. Stacey Federoff, The Chautauquan Daily copy desk chief who corrects all the mistakes in this column, read the scripture. The Motet Consort played “Norwegian Dance No. 1,” by Edvard Grieg, arranged by Michael Webster. The Consort included Barbara Hois, flute, Debbie Grohman, clarinet, Willie La Favor, piano. Under the direction of Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist, the Motet Choir sang a cappella “Civitas Sancti Tui,” by William Byrd. Stafford played an improvisation for the postlude. Support for this week’s chaplaincy and preaching is provided by the Alison and Craig Marthinsen Endowment for the Department of Religion.