Seeing People

Luke 16:19-31

 Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.”  ― Confucius

Last time I talked a bit about empathy—how it can be defined and how in most people it is an innate quality, though something we have to cultivate and choose to do. We’ll keep going with that theme, but we are going to explore a side of empathy that, for the sake of this discussion, I’ll call “seeing.”

Now what do I mean by seeing?

Well, seeing a person is seeing them as they are—not judging their experience or trying to talk them out of what they feel, but seeing them as they are—even if accepting them and what they feel makes you uncomfortable. This has been on my mind A LOT recently. Maybe it has for you, too. I mean, if your eyes and ears are open, you have been noticing that there are a ton of people in the United States who are hurting, mourning, suffering. Many of them are Black. Why is this happening? Why were two more Black men’s lives taken away this past week? Their names were Keith Lamont Scott and Terence Crutcher. Why? I’m left with that burning question as my heart mourns with Charlotte and Tulsa. What’s going on with us right now?

I certainly don’t have all answers. I certainly do not understand what it’s like to be Black in America. I can only listen to what my Black friends and colleagues say; I can only sit with them in their anger, sadness, and fear. I can only see them. I can only see them. We all should decide to do this—to see them. We should stop trying to tell them how to feel or what to say or how to protest. If Kolin Kaepernick, an NFL quarterback, wants to take a knee during the national anthem to call attention to this issue, he should do it.

kolinkaepernick
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, middle, kneels during the national anthem before the team’s NFL preseason football game against the San Diego Chargers, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

And if others want to stand with a fist raised, they should do it. They have a right to express what they feel.

And we have responsibility to SEE them.

We can reduce these issues so quickly to be about other things like patriotism and politics, but if you take the time to get the facts straight, and to truly see those who are protesting, you will discover that they are being more “patriotic” than I will ever be. They are protesting because no one is listening and nothing is changing. Kaepernick is meeting with police officers and lawmakers to try to open up a dialogue. We must see this. And we also must see the people of Charlotte, who have been protesting for days now, because they are angry, sad, and scared.

Friends, this isn’t about politics or patriotism. This is about people. We need to see this.

I’ve been asking why there are still far too many white people who refuse to even acknowledge the plight of Black people in the U.S. For a while, I couldn’t make sense of it. Why counteract BlackLivesMatter and the protests that challenge the overuse of police force and the killing of unarmed civilians? Why tweet or post in a scolding, condescending way, telling Black people to settle down, protest a certain way, or to get over it? I couldn’t understand. But I think now I do. Because they are choosing not to see. It would be uncomfortable for them to see, because then they would have to admit the uncomfortable truth that racism is systemic, a real, everyday thing for Black people, and they would have to admit that even police officers can be racist. That’s uncomfortable to admit in the country that many of us claim to be the best country in the world. Isn’t it? So they choose not to see the people in Charlotte and Tulsa and elsewhere.

Just like the rich man refusing to see Lazarus. See, Jesus of Nazareth told lots of stories, and sometimes his stories had really, really strong messages. This is one of those cases. The rich man chose not to see Lazarus and his suffering, even though Lazarus was right on his doorstep. To the rich man, Lazarus should just be quiet and also grateful that he got any scraps at all and that the dog licked his sores. Don’t complain, Lazarus. It would be way to uncomfortable for the rich man to see Lazarus, because then he might have to do something. Help him. Get him to a doctor. Find him some real food. Become his friend.

As everyone does, the two people in this story die. But don’t jump to the conclusion that Lazarus goes to heaven and the rich man to hell. That’s not what the story says. Lazarus ends up in the lap of Abraham, akin to the reign of God. The rich man goes to Hades, the idea of Sheol [a place of isolation and desolation even on earth] in Jewish tradition. Now, the ironic twist. For the first time in his life, the rich man acknowledges that Lazarus exists. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool the rich man’s tongue. So, in other words, the rich man only acknowledges Lazarus because he’s now suffering. But it’s not possible. The chasm is too wide between were Lazarus is and where the rich man is.

It’s a harsh story, maybe, but I actually think It’s right on the money. Pun intended. The rich man refused to see Lazarus, but God most certainly did see Lazarus. He is named in the story, and the rich man is not. Now you may hear this today and think: “Well, I’m not the rich man, because I’m not wealthy, I don’t have poor people begging outside my property.” But look closer, please, and see with me.

Yes, any of us who refuses to see people—to accept them as they are and to sit with them in their grief, sadness, anger, or fear—we are the rich man. And we are in torment. Because we lose our God-given humanity when we don’t see people as people.

So see the man who has always identified as a woman, and who is considering surgery and asks you to call her she; see the person who asks you to use non-gender specific pronouns. See the Black woman who is angry over the loss of her son and protesting on the streets, asking for justice. See the Black teen who is scared to say or do anything on the street whenever a police officer is near; see the police officers who are meeting with people like Colin Kaepernick and protecting BlacklivesMatter protestors; see those who suffer and let them make you uncomfortable, because the world can be a painful place to live. It can also be beautiful, and it is beautiful when we truly see each other, when we decide to see the beauty in everyone and see them as equals.

The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me;
My eye and God’s eye are one eye,
One seeing, one knowing, One love.
–Meister Eckhart, Sermons of Meister Eckhar

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Josh grew up in Indiana and Iowa before completing a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. He has worked in a variety of settings, including the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ (UCC) in Philadelphia, Hawai’i, Mexico, and Michigan. Currently, he serves as pastor of Love in Action United Church of Christ, a progressive, Christian, LGBTQIA+ affirming and interfaith community in Hatboro, a suburb of Philadelphia. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre/Speech from Northwestern College (IA). Josh has worked with youth and young adult programs for 25 years regionally, nationally, and in Latin America. He is also a trained actor and performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, LLC. He has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in worship, youth groups, education, and group-building. Josh is also committed to promoting religious pluralism and partnering with people of all faiths and those who identify as atheist or agnostic to build bridges of shared values and cooperation. He is honored to work with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia as a Fellow and a Consultant. Focus areas include: University alternative spring break and summer programs that incorporate faith encounters and service-learning for students; workplace diversity programs that promote understanding in organizations, corporations, schools, and hospital settings. Josh also enjoys playing basketball, strumming on the guitar, traveling, learning language, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philadelphia and thinks vegan cheesesteaks are amazingly good.

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