See, and be seen

December 9, 2016 by Lee Hinson-Hasty

Matthew 11 is the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel ready for the third Sunday in Advent (December 11, 2016). John’s disciples are charged to “Go and report what they hear and see” concerning Jesus’ identity.

On Thursday, I offered a sermon for PC(USA) national staff of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, Office of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Investment and Loan Program, and Presbyterian Women in Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary’s Caldwell Chapel that I wanted to share with you.

I wonder who and what you are seeing and imagining that you believe God notices and many are ignoring?

The text of the sermon is below, or you can download a PDF here.

Worship service
December 8, 2016

Led by Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty, Senior Director of Theological Education Funds Development and the Theological Education Fund, Presbyterian Foundation

A portion of the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday, the third Sunday in Advent:
Matthew 11:2-6 (Common English Bible)
Now when John heard in prison about the things the Christ was doing, he sent word by his disciples to Jesus, asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”
Jesus responded, “Go, report to John what you hear and see. Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled are walking. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. The poor have good news proclaimed to them.[a] 6 Happy are those who don’t stumble and fall because of me.”

Holy Wisdom. Holy Word. Thanks be to God
Meditation: See and Imagine

What do you hear and see?

Just last Sunday I heard from the lectionary reading from the Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 3, that John the Baptist was the one crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare a way for the Lord.” In the next chapter Matthew’s Gospel we see Jesus baptized by John and the Spirit descending like a dove. And a voice from heaven is heard saying, “This is my Son whom I dearly love; I find happiness in him.”
In our reading today, John sends surrogates, his disciples, to confirm Jesus’ identity. I guess John is having his doubts. They ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”
It’s a fair question if you are feeling at all like me about what is going on all around us lately. I admit that for the last month I have had my days of doubting the presence of the divine.

Jesus’s response to the question is more of a challenge than an answer: “Go, report to John what you hear and see. Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled are walking. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up.”
Does John the Baptists’ doubts and Jesus’ response make you wonder, what John was up to besides making sure he had his own disciples between Jesus’ baptism and this encounter? If he were paying attention or following Jesus himself, he would have noticed that Jesus’ identity was clearly explained by his words and his actions; his ministry in Galilee: the calling of his own disciples, his sermon on the mount, his teaching on salt, light, prophecy, prayer, fasting, and sharing. And he practiced what he preached by healing and calming storms. [1]

I wonder if we are paying attention? I wonder if we are seeing what’s going on around us, who, what, and where. As Christians and as employees of a church body we have a common call, to “Go and report what we hear and see.” So what do we hear? What do we see?

Do you wonder what Jesus means by seeing? Is it merely using our eyes?

Barbara Brown Taylor talks about seeing as “paying attention” and as a spiritual practice.[2] She describes the regular way of seeing as superficial, “Sight naturally prefers outer appearances. … We let our eyes skid over trees, furniture, traffic, faces, too often mistaking sight for perception which is easy to do, when our eyes work so well to help us orient ourselves in space.”[3] Paying attention, she says, takes time, slows down our pace, and “requires a willingness to take detours, even side trips, which are not part of (our) original plan.”[4]

My friend, Greg Ellison, Associate Professor of Pastoral Care, at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, talks about working “Soul to soul, not role to role.” We need to “see others in a more human and even divine way. All children of God are worthy of respect and the opportunity to succeed.” His teaching and the transformational sessions he has developed and leads called “Dangerous Dialogues” does just that, helps people see more deeply inwardly, where he says the transformation starts, and into the lives of others. ” Quoting turn of the century psychologist William James, Greg says ” It would be a cruel and a fiendish punishment for any person to go unnoticed or unseen; to be made invisible. One would rather be tortured than to be cut dead.” By “Cut Dead” they mean to refuse to acknowledge the other with the intent to punish. His book, Cut Dead Alive tells the stories of five young African-American men who suffer being ignored, being invisible to most, and how communities can support their transformation. That process starts by seeing them! This sounds nice and all, but Greg’s invitation and charge comes with a warning label. “Once you see, you cannot not see.” Like Greg’s dangerous dialogues, we made sure you were seen as you began worship today.

The invitation I believe God has for us all today, is to go and see one another, especially the most vulnerable, the invisible to most, and the mostly ignored parts of the world and creation.
In a 2012 lecture[5], Wendell Berry describes seeing as imagining.
To imagine is to see most clearly, familiarly, and understandingly with the eyes, but also to see inwardly, with “the mind’s eye.” It is to see, not passively, but with a force of vision and even with visionary force. To take it seriously we must give up at once any notion that imagination is disconnected from reality or truth or knowledge. … For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it. To have a place, to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it. By imagination we recognize with sympathy the fellow members, human and nonhuman, with whom we share our place. By that local experience we see the need to grant a sort of preemptive sympathy to all the fellow members, the neighbors, with whom we share the world. As imagination enables sympathy, sympathy enables affection. And it is in affection that we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy.

Berry’s lecture’s title, is just that, “It all turns on affection.”

Greg Ellison often talks about asking his aunt how he could change the world. She told him that she didn’t know about changing the world, but she did think he could change the three feet around him. You see, we don’t need to go far. There are places and people near to where you are. There are altars in the world that divinely created things that we often objectify. They cross the three feet around us. Greg accepted the three feet challenge of his aunt, invites other to do so, and we can too.

A recent PC(USA) status of women study found that 84% of Presbyterian women clergy reported being harrassed, abused or discriminated against because of their gender. And if that’s not bad enough, they are not see by 50% of members who do not believe women clergy have a problem.

In March 2013, I had an automobile accident. Our family used the occasion to try to live as a one car family, one more than most families in the world have. I took to bus to work most days. Sometimes I was invisible to the bus driver who passed me by, or the occasional preoccupied rider who blocked me from having a seat. 99% of the time I was seen and appreciated, helped when I didn’t have a ticket or money for the bus. When I fell asleep, someone, who knows who, would pull the cord for my bus stop. I noticed middle easterners rode the #40 bus and many African-Americans the #17. I looked at them, prayed for them, and imagined what God would want for each of them. And somehow I knew they did the same for me. That bus was a community of care that encircled me and an opportunity for me to encircle and love others, most whom I only knew by their faces. In them, was the face of God. Because of that experience, I now always carry bus tickets that are hard to buy in this town. I carry them to give to people who need them. You have to go to a 5/3 bank or metro office, many not on bus routes. I drive or walk by bus stops now and always notice who is there. They are a part of me, they are my extended family.

What are we noticing in these in between times… between Advent and Christmas; time between General Assemblies; between election cycles; between one year and the next; between one work plan and another? Are we paying attention? Or are we out to lunch? Are we having our doubts? Or are we willing to see deeply what is going on at the margins of society clearly and how about in the centers of power? Are we seeing deeply enough to imagine where this reality could lead to God’s new reality where all are visible to themselves and everyone around them, named and claimed by themselves and others as a beloved children of God. May it be. Amen.

My charge to you is to see and imagine. See and imagine. Or as Black Lives Matter says it, “Stay Woke.”
Wendell Berry talks about “imagination thriving on contact and tangible connection.” As a blessing today, I want to invite you to bless one another using Karen Drucker’s song and signs: “You are the face of God. I hold you in my heart. You are a part of me. You are the face of God.” In the name of the one who is Love, Beloved, and Lover, the triune God. Amen.

[1] Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Socio-political and Religious Reading (Orbis, 2000).

Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World.

[3] BBT, Walking in the Dark, p. 105.

[4] BBT, Altars, p. 24.

[5] Wendell Berry 2012 National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture, “It All Turns on Affection.”