October 9, 2016: "What Do You See?"
“What Do You See?”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
October 9, 2016
Jeremiah 29:1-7 & Luke 17:11-19
A few weeks ago I was leaving a meeting, walking and talking with someone I work closely with on many things in the community. While we were talking and walking to our cars, Enid’s food and resource center, Loaves & Fishes, came up in our conversation. You might say that I have a vested interest in this important and vital organization. Not only does my wife, Katie, work there as the Assistant Director, I also had the privilege of sharing office space with Loaves & Fishes in this building four years ago while they were waiting for their building to be finished. It has been amazing to watch that organization grow and mature from its earliest days. On top of that, on any given week more than half of the members of this congregation are actively involved in the work at Loaves & Fishes, from shopping with clients, to driving trucks with recovered food, to cleaning and answering phones. The First Presbyterian Church is a proud financial sponsor of Loaves & Fishes because we believe in their work: fighting hunger and feeding hope.
What this person had to say about Loaves & Fishes shocked me. They shared with me that while they understand what Loaves & Fishes is doing, they don’t really support it because they know people will take advantage of the system. For example, they said, they saw big, expensive cars in the parking lot one day when they drove by the pantry. If a person has the money to buy an expensive car, why do they need food assistance, they asked. If a person has a car at all, why do they need food assistance, they added. They saw people coming and going from the building in nice clothes, talking on cell phones, not really looking as if they needed help. Finally our conversation ended with a real kicker, when they said to me that organizations like this only enable people; they do not push people to get jobs or show them how to provide for themselves and their families.
This conversation obviously infuriated me. It infuriated me because of the 2,304 households that Loaves & Fishes has served this year, only 36% claim total unemployment; 24% of those households are employed either full or part-time; and the rest are retired or disabled. It infuriated me because of the 2,304 households that Loaves & Fishes has served this year, 51% have a high school education, 19% have some college level education, and a few, 3%, have completed vocational training. This conversation infuriated me because while we always assume that people will take advantage of the system, each household that Loaves & Fishes serves will visit the pantry an average of only three times in a calendar year. And more than all of this, this person’s ideas and judgments and thoughts about Loaves & Fishes and the work they do was solely based on what they saw when they drove by the pantry one day.
Someone once said that, “Seeing is believing,” but you won’t find that in the Bible, and I don’t think it is ever the truth. A few months ago I began volunteering at Loaves & Fishes as a shopper helper. This is one of the many things that makes Loaves & Fishes different. When a client comes in for assistance, a member of the community walks through them pantry with them, helping them to shop and make choices. On a much deeper level, this is one way to humanize and dignify the experience. No person, no matter how down they might be, looks forward to asking for help. But when a smiling face greets them, shows them all the free and nutritious food that is available, calls them by their name, listens and hears their stories, and sometimes even helps them load their car, dignity and humanity is restored and kept in tact. I was blown away my first day as a shopper helper when the first client I helped was an elderly lady, about the same age and disposition as my grandmother.
Shopping with her that day, and with hundreds of others since, I am overcome with both joy and sadness. Joy comes when I can help send a person out the door with a shopping cart full of food, full of nutritious food that will feed them mind, body, and soul. But sadness, also, because it breaks my heart that in our world of extreme and bottomless wealth and prosperity, there are some who just because of their age, ability, or circumstance of life have to scrape and bend and even break in order to put a meal on the table. And having the chance to shop with someone who is hungry, someone who is depending on that shopping trip in order to survive, puts a name and a face on something most of us know only in concept or theory. Most of the people that I have met as a volunteer at Loaves & Fishes, and they are people, actually and really need help because they can’t make it on what they are doing, not because they have they bought the newest cell phone, or a nice car, or fine clothing.
Sight, and the judgements, choices, and thoughts that come from what we see can be and usually are severely deceiving. On this we have a lot to learn from the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Luke tells us that when Jesus entered Jerusalem, the place where he would be brutalized and murdered as a criminal, ten lepers approached him and he saw them. He saw them. Now, if Jesus had acted towards these lepers based solely on what he saw, the story would have ended there. It would have ended because leprosy, whether it was actually leprosy or a common skin issue like acne, Jesus would have turned away because skin issues were a sign of ritual impurity. The story would have ended because Jesus, a Jew, would have known that coming in contact with these people would have made him impure and unable to worship in the temple. The story would have ended because Jesus would have been afraid that the skin disease or issue would transfer to him. And the story would have ended because on seeing the lepers and interacting with them, covered with sores and scabs and flaky skin, Jesus would have turned away for fear that his reputation in Jerusalem would suffer because he was keeping company with ‘those’ people.
But the story does not end; the story does not end with Jesus just seeing the lepers. The story continues. Jesus says to the ten, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” As the ten lepers went and did as Jesus told them, they were healed. We know that only one returned to thank Jesus, and there is plenty for us to learn from that, as well. But we have to wonder why Jesus spoke to them at all—why he didn't just see them, judge and make assumptions about them, then turn and go about his business. The truth is, Jesus spoke to the lepers, healed them of their skin diseases, because he knew that beneath the layers of diseased skin, beneath the sores and scabs, were human beings created in the sacred image of God. And as bearers of the divine image, they deserved much more, much more, than just a look and a set of judgments.
Recognizing the sacred image of God in each person, and the love that demands and inspires, was the foundation of Christ’s ministry. From the ten lepers and the one that returned, to the thousands of hungry people that sat on the hill; from the woman at the well and the Syro-Phoneician woman, to Jairus’s daughter and the many paralyzed people who laid around in the temple, Jesus’s ministry of healing and restoration was about the person beneath the appearance. It would have been easy for Jesus to turn away from the woman at the well because she was a Samaritan and his ethnic and religious enemy; it would have been easy to dismiss the crowds because they didn’t think ahead and pack a lunch; Christ could have ignored Jairus and the paralyzed in the temple, blaming their circumstances on their choices. But what we see in our Lord, over and over again, is one who heals and restores because God’s will for all people is life, abundant life. When one is hungry, suffering from an unknown disease, or shackled with stigmas and shame they did nothing to deserve, Christ acts swiftly and finally. Christ acts to restore the abundant life God desires for all. Sight, seeing, is not where it ends, it is where it begins. And the ‘it’, the thing that comes from what Jesus sees, from what we see, is and should always be honest and bold work to transform lives and the world all around.
The calling for those of us who claim to follow Jesus is to echo and enact this same way of life: to see and not just turn away in judgment, but to see and then act out of love for the sacred image of God in each person.
When you see a person with dirty clothes, messy hair, dirt under their fingernails and a ragged backpack tossed over one shoulder, what do you see? Do you see a drug addict, a gambler, a person who has made bad choices, or do you see someone who is down, someone who might need a meal and a simple human interaction to turn everything around?
When you see a man with fabric ceremonially wrapped around his head, or a woman dressed in black from head to toe, what do you see? Do you see someone who may be strapped with a bomb, a person affiliated with ISIS, a person who is bent on the destruction of the United States, or do you see a person who is trying to freely live the commands of their faith just as you are?
When you are walking or running on the Enid Walking Trail or at the high school or in the mall, and a black person approaches you from the opposite direction, what do you see? Do you see someone who is a thug, a criminal, someone who will loot and rob, or do you see a person who is afraid that their skin makes them a target, who is afraid someone will call the police because they are a black person walking, someone who is tired of being stereotyped because of the color of their skin?
When you see a person younger than you walk into church, what do you see? Do you see a commodity on legs, someone to trap so that they will do the jobs that need to be done, someone to learn how we do it take a hike, or do you see someone who is seeking the embrace of faith, able to give as much as they receive?
When you drive by a house with a Clinton/Caine sign or a Trump/Pence sign in the front yard, what do you see…what do you think? Do you hurl at them the common and petty insults you hear on the news or read on Facebook, or do you envision someone who is struggling, as you are, to make sense of a complex political world?
When you look on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, what do you see? Do you see a weak revolutionary who could not stand against the powers of the world, or do you see a humble and gentle Savior who willingly took on your pain and shame so that you could be free? When we see Jesus for the humility and gentleness, the love and grace he brought into the world, we will see as he does and we will act as he does. No more assumption, no more judgment, no more turning away; just seeing and then doing some Holy about what we see.
The more I think about the conversation I had with my friend about Loaves & Fishes, the more I think of things I could have said. But really, the best thing I could have said is this: “Come and see.” The next time I see them I am going to invite them to come and work with me at Loaves & Fishes. I’m going to invite them so that they can interact with the clients and not just see them, to learn about them and their circumstances instead of just judging them on appearances. And I pray that when I’m standing on the other side, only looking and doing nothing in response, someone will invite me to put a face and a name on what I see. This may be the very thing that saves us and this world. If we move beyond sight and shallow understanding and judgements, we will get to the heart, the meat, of every person and every situation. It is then that fear will be turned into compassion, hatred will be turned into love, and darkness will be shattered by God’s amazing light.
When the prophet Jeremiah and the Israelites were in exile in Babylon, God told them to do some crazy things: build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat what they produce, get married and have children, marry your children off and tell them have lots of grand babies. Why? Why should the Israelites invest so much time and energy and resources in a foreign land? Because the welfare of the Israelites was inextricably tied to the welfare of the city where they are living. Whether the city was their home in Israel or in captivity in Babylon, the health, wellness, and prosperity of the Israelites was dependent on the health, wellness, and prosperity of the place where they were living.
You and I live here, in Enid, Oklahoma, having come here from many different places and for many different reasons. God asks us in our daily living to invest in this community, because our invest in this community will always come back to us. I pray that we will all move beyond what we see, beyond the judgments and the prejudices and the assumptions, so that we can take part in God’s transformation of all things. When we work for the transformation of the place and the people where we live--with food justice or education or medicine or social justice or political service--that is what we will be also: transformed.
So, what do you see? I know what I see today. I see a gathering of God’s people, deeply loved by God, redeemed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and called to be light to the world. May it be so for me and for, today and always. Amen.