What We See
One of my favorite things about being a parent is that look the baby gives you when you walk into the room. I may be coming back home from work or maybe Romey just woke up from a nap and I walk into the room and his little face just lights up in this big, huge smile and oh man it just hits me right in the heart every single time. What does he see in me? Wow. When I see that look, I think, no matter what anybody else might ever think of me, I’m somebody because I’m Romey’s Papa. And he can do all that to me with just one look.
Well, maybe you’re not a parent and you haven't had that experience. But all of us have had the experience of being seen by somebody—somebody who loves us, somebody who knows us, somebody who laughs at all our jokes, somebody who just with a glance can make us feel better, somebody who in just one look can make us feel human again. I imagine that feeling that feeling I get when I walk into the room and Romey sees me and he just lights up, that feeling I get when my wife Bonnie gives me that look of hers that says I know who you are, I know what you're feeling, I know what you’re up to, that feeling we get when we go back home and sit around with the old crew, the kids we grew up with and went to school with and we all pick up again right where we left off that must have been something like the feeling that Nathaniel got when he met Jesus and Jesus told him I saw you under that fig tree.
There must have been a feeling, there must have been something. It has to be more than just the fact that Jesus said I saw you under a fig tree, right? In that moment there had to be something more. When Jesus told Nathaniel, I saw you under that fig tree, Nathaniel felt seen somehow—so intimately seen that he could cry out, “Rabbi, you are the son of God and the king of Israel!” If it was just about the fig tree, Nathaniel would’ve said, “AH, lucky guess!” I mean how many other kinds of trees have you ever heard of in a Jesus story? It’s always a fig tree.
You know I think this has something to do with the sense of humor of Jesus and the holy power of Jesus to pair something so mundane “I saw you under that fig tree” with something so intimate and personal and profound, “Nathaniel, I see you.” That’s hard. Many of us just see the fig tree, I think. We have a harder time seeing the real person—the whole person. Even Nathaniel struggles with it, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” he asks. Ha! Tell us how you really feel, Nathaniel.
Nathaniel hears that this guy is from Nazareth and he's already forming an impression in his mind of who this man could and could not be. I don't know exactly what Nathaniel's particular prejudices against people from Nazareth were—maybe he thought that Jesus was just going to be a bumpkin or a day laborer—a country boy. Maybe he thought all Galileans were just a bunch of unwashed hicks. I don't know. But without even seeing Jesus he already had a picture in his mind, and it wasn’t good. Luckily for Nathaniel he's still curious and open enough to get up off his butt and go and see for himself.
If we're honest with ourselves there are a lot of ways in which we don't always bother to try to see other people—I mean really see them, see the whole person. I'm a man and I'm a clergy person and when I wear my clergy collar and I go out somewhere in public as a clergy person not once, not once has anyone ever doubted that I was a real minister. But my clergy colleagues who are women tell very different stories about going out into the world wearing their clergy collars. People don’t believe it! People don’t like it. People don’t always see female clergy the way they see male clergy.
Sometimes when we look at people, we don't try to see the person. We see male or female, we see business suit or coveralls, we see thin and we see heavy, we see youthful and we see old. We see a person using a wheelchair and sometimes we see that wheelchair more than we see the person using the wheelchair. Sometimes we might see a gay couple or a lesbian couple out to a romantic dinner together and as we walk past the restaurant we slow down and we look twice maybe we even stare a little bit and it's not because we want to see who they truly are, it's because we're gawking and having feelings just at the fact that they're gay and in public and unafraid.
And, of course, here in the United States and many places in the West it is the color of our skin that most affects how we are seen and not seen by other people. I'm white, so I've never gone into a store and had a shopkeeper follow me around to keep an eye on me. I'm white, so I've never had a stranger threaten to call the police on me after we had a disagreement. I'm white, so every time I have been pulled over by the police I have felt annoyed, I have never felt afraid.
Study after study and the testimony of so many black people has confirmed for us the truth that if you are white, the world—and I mean the voting booth, the police department, your kids’ school, your university, your HR department, the job market and the economy in general, your own doctor’s office, and your local hospital, and so much more—if you are white, the world is more prepared to see you for who you are and to serve your unique needs than if you are black.
I’m white. That means I have this white privilege. It’s real. It means that the world is more willing to try to see me, less likely to stick me in a box that doesn’t do me justice, less likely to assume the worst about me, less likely to be afraid of me, less likely to arrest me and send me to jail, less likely to kill me, more likely to try to get to know who I am, what I need, what I can contribute, who I want to be.
There’s nothing wrong with being seen and being given basic respect. The problem is that white privilege is mirrored by and built upon Black disadvantage and Black disenfranchisement. The problem is that when you’ve lived your whole life in a world that is designed for you (like I have), designed to honor you, designed to treat you fairly, designed to see you, it’s hard to understand that other people experience such a different lived reality. And if you live in a racist society and you’re white, you might not be willing to talk to or listen to Black people. You may not try to see—to really see—the Black experience.
In 1952, African-American writer Ralph Ellison published one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century, Invisible Man. In it the Black narrator says that people who look at him "see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination." As the book opens, the narrator lives in a hole in the ground in Harlem. The invisibility of the narrator is not physical invisibility, it’s the invisibility of identity, it’s Ellison’s way of explaining the reality of racism and how not being seen can erase a person.
We exist in some sense because other people make space for us to exist in. We exist because they acknowledge us for who we are. And if they don’t acknowledge us or if they acknowledge only “figments of their imagination” rather than truly seeing us, how can we fully exist? I think Ellison is saying in Invisible Man that this is the Black experience in America.
One of the things that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about throughout his career was the idea of the Beloved Community. King believed that there was a place of reconciliation beyond racism where all kinds of people could come together and live in a world where they truly see and love one another—where they are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. He dedicated his life, in part, to that vision of the Beloved Community, but we have to admit that we haven't gotten there yet—certainly not in the Church. Not even in our church.
Yet when Jesus calls us, he calls us like he calls Nathaniel, to be deeply, intimately seen and known. If our church is going to truly serve God and serve all of our neighbors, then it cannot be a place where some people are seen for who they are, and other people are glanced over, disbelieved, made to feel invisible. That means for those of us with privilege, we cannot make assumptions that everyone experiences the welcome and the culture of our church like we do.
If I walk into church as a man, I cannot assume that the welcome I receive as a man is the same welcome I would receive as a woman. If I walk into church as a 30- or 40-something, I cannot assume that that is the same welcome I would receive if I was a child or if I was an 80- or 90-something. If I walk into church as a straight person or as a heteronormative family, I cannot assume that a gay person or a queer family is experiencing the same welcome. If I walk into church White, I cannot assume that my experience of welcome is the same experience of welcome that a Black person is experiencing.
In order to become more like the Beloved Community, us White people—especially—have to stop cutting corners and we're going to actually have to get up off our butts and try to see the experience of people of color in our community and in our church. White people, we need a reeducation. We need to learn to see—to really see—anew.
That's why in honor of MLK, this Sunday is our very first Beloved Community Sunday. We're going to be having other Beloved Community Sundays throughout the year and these Sundays are going to be times in which we come together to think about things like race and racism, privilege and white supremacy, sexism, homophobia, ableism and ageism in our church and in our wider world, so that we can create a sacred time in a sacred place in which the voices and the experiences that have been pushed most to the margins and made the most invisible have an opportunity to speak about their experience. And we’ll be having other educational opportunities and events that coincide with the themes of these Sundays.
This is appropriate because Rev. Dr. King, I think, had a unique ability to see this people, our nation, to look at us all and really see us. He saw our problems, he saw our potential, he saw our hidden pain, and he reflected back to us a vision of who he believed we could become with and for one another. Maybe now more than ever we need that vision and that type of leadership.
A little more than a week ago we all got a terrible shock when we saw what some terrorists believe about our country and what they want to do to our country. The almost entirely white crowd that stormed our Capitol was full of frightening images—crosses next to nooses. Guns and handcuffs and tactical gear. Police officers beaten with American flags. The flags, insignias, and symbols of far-right militias, conspiracy theorists, neo-Nazis, and confederates. Rioters celebrating and howling for the leader who had organized and unleashed them on the Capitol, “Trump! Trump! Trump!” with a look on their faces that one capitol police officer described as “hate in their eyes.”
We saw it. And we see that this is a part of who we are, has always been a part of who we are. But it’s not all we are. And I believe that it’s the smaller part of who we are. And so this weekend I’m so grateful for another march on Washington—the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. And I’m grateful for the kind of leaders who organized that movement and that dream. This, of course, was the march where King gave his famous I Have a Dream speech. I want to close my sermon this morning with a short video of archival footage of that march. Beloved, remember that this is also a part of who we are. It’s a little glimpse of heaven. It’s the beginning of the Beloved Community.
Thanks to the Salt Collective for the video.
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Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations