Can we see each other?

A sermon preached by the Reverend Jered Weber-Johnson
September 25, 2016
Proper 21
At Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
Saint Paul, Minnesota


Can we truly see each other?

This weekend in Washington D.C. a cast of dignitaries and civic leaders assisted in the opening and dedication of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum has been hailed by some as being a long lost piece of the American story needing to be told. It holds in it the ambiguity and complexity of what it means to be black in America. In his speech dedicating the new museum, our president invited Americans to understand that the museum, with its stories of struggle and joy, of suffering and redemption, could not be a panacea for the problems of racism and inequality that still today vex our country. “Hopefully,” he said, “this museum,” (or, more accurately the stories it holds) “can help us talk to each other, and more importantly listen to each other, and most importantly see each other.”

We are having trouble hearing each other. And, worse, we are having trouble seeing each other.

Perhaps that is because of the ways in which we have fixed our lives so that we never even have to meet. We are divided in this country. One generation tears down walls only to find in another that they’ve been rebuilt and reinforced and fortified with greater distrust and deeper animosity. We see this in our cities where we literally make laws and draw boundaries to keep our neighborhoods separate and segregated and devoid of difference. Our representatives – which is really to say “we” (because it is we who elect them, after all) create conduits so that our money and our resources can flow to our neighborhoods and not to theirs. We build higher fences, we build a wall, we dig a chasm, to keep out the feared other. We are divided. We do not see each other.

This week, as Charlotte erupted into what appeared on the outside to be chaos and riots, white Charlotteans were dumbfounded. Hadn’t Charlotte aimed to be a part of the new south? Hadn’t Charlotte rejected the backwards and racist ways of so many southern segregationist cities? As one of my colleagues, a priest there at St. Peter’s in Center City noted over the weekend, the death of Keith Scott ignited a simmering anger in the black community that had long festered as resources and access flowed around their carefully segregated communities. The data for that city is staggering – the myth we tell of opportunity and progress and economic mobility is least true in Charlotte. Of the 50 largest metro areas in the country, Charlotte ranks last on economic mobility. As my colleague reports – if you are born to parents in the bottom 20% of income earners in the city, you have a 4% chance of making it into the top 20%. While wealth and progress accumulated in Charlotte for the few, for many life was an insulting mix of poverty and lack of access. And for many white and wealthy individuals in Charlotte, this reality, like a beggar one steps over at their gate, remained invisible. Charlotteans had not seen each other, had not born witness to the growing divide between black and white, rich and poor, and while the divide deepened so did the fear and distrust and deep anger. And it boiled over.

James Baldwin, writing in the New York Times in 1967 spoke to a similar growing unrest and anger during the end of what we now call the Civil Rights era. He wrote “It is true that two wrongs don’t make a right, as we love to point out to the people we have wronged. But one wrong doesn’t make a right, either. People who have been wronged will attempt to right the wrong; they would not be people if they didn’t. They can rarely afford to be scrupulous about the means they will use. They will use such means as come to hand. Neither, in the main, will they … see through to the root principle of their oppression.”

And here is the truth, we cannot heal the wounds that we do not see. The reality of our climate of fear and distrust, is that for so much of our national life, those with privilege and access and power have actively sought to stay separate so that we do not have to face that which afflicts our neighbors. Into that reality we hear spoken this morning’s gospel lesson. Jesus tells another parable, a story that aims to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. The story goes that a well fed rich man, someone with ample resources and accustomed to sumptuous feasts and the poor beggar at his door both die and are taken to their eternal reward – one to paradise and the other to Hades. What ensues is a dialogue between the rich man in his punishment and Abraham with Lazarus at his side, in paradise. Between the two is a great and unsurpassable chasm. The rich man begs for relief, begs for Abraham to send over the poor beggar, Lazarus, to cool his tongue with just a splash of water. The role reversal is painfully evident and the symbolism is rich. Though they had been but inches apart in life, the beggar literally at his doorstep, in reality their lives could not have been further apart – or so it appeared. Though he had to step over Lazarus to enter his own home, he never really saw the poor man, so wide was the gulf that separated them. In death, his own experience of suffering opens his eyes, and sadly the same chasm that had separated them in life remains fixed.

Some have argued that this is a morality tale about good and evil in life and our rewards and punishment in the afterlife. Not surprisingly in the African American community this story has turned into one of comfort – creating the spiritual “rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham” – seeing in this gospel God’s promise that suffering on this side of eternity would be soothed on the other side in Paradise. But, Luke is rarely so gentle. Time and again Luke’s Jesus chastises the rich and the comfortable, prodding and provoking the privileged to lives of faithfulness – lives of generosity and healing, lives lived for justice and peace, lives that seek restoration and wholeness in all of creation.

Luke’s Jesus seems intent on pointing to the work needing to be done in the here and now and less concerned with what comes after. Indeed, for many, the suffering of the present is hell enough without speaking of eternity. Luke’s Jesus seems intent on pointing to the chasms we create between each other, and, yes within ourselves, great divisions built on fear and anger and a striving toward our own fulfillment.

Indeed, what divides the world is often what we have not seen in our own selves. We have not seen that inside of us is the rich man – a man who blindly builds the world to his own devising, that fills up the void with riches and ill-gotten wealth, that soothes the fears and anger and hurt of life with rich feasts and expensive drink. And, inside each of us is also Lazarus, someone who is in need and hurting and broken – someone who depends on the mercy and pity, and dare I say empathy of others. For in meeting the needs of others, we must be able to see the need in ourselves.

Some of you might recall that piece of the Harry Potter series wherein the hero, Harry, discovers  a secret room at his school, and in that room a magical mirror. Harry, the orphan, whose greatest desire is to have a family and to find love and connection, is startled when he looks into the mirror and sees that he is surrounded by parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles whom he has never met. Eager to share his discovery of his family, Harry drags his friend Ron to the room to see. Only, Ron isn’t able to see what Harry sees. Instead, the mirror reveals to Ron a not too distant future in which he would find glory and popularity and accolades. In short order the boys discover that the mirror only reveals to them that which their heart most desires, the thing that remains hidden from the world. The wise wizard Dumbledore later reveals to Harry that for the person who is truly content, in all his failing and weakness, joy and success, the mirror would simply reveal what any other mirror could show, your self, but for others, the mirror would reveal fleeting promises of things that could not really fill the void or bridge the divides in our lives or the world around us. What we strive for can often blind us to what is truly inside.

I was at an organizing even this past week, a mix of clergy from every walk and denomination and theological persuasion – all of us united in the goal of addressing systemic poverty and racism in our communities and in the world around us. And, it was unveiled that the method we would use to begin that work was to invite our congregations to join together in telling their stories and finding common cause across boundaries that have typically divided. I was disheartened as I thought about how hard it would be to do that work. How do we bring together people who are busy and driven and striving to sit and share stories across the huge chasms of life? I asked the question out loud. How do we get people whose lives are otherwise comfortable and privileged but busy and stretched, people like me – how do we get people to stop and be together and share stories and create relationship across boundaries of difference.

An older African American woman in the room, a pastor who had been at this for some time now, looked at me and spoke truth – you need to find that which is already broken and hurting and needy in yourself, in your people. Until you have done the work to really see yourselves, you cannot see others in the world around you who are also hurting. Until you see yourself as a child of God, as beloved, welcomed, and cherished, then you cannot see others this way.

That’s the truth people. While we may appear to be miles apart, there may not be all that much truly separating us from lazarus.

Until we see ourselves, we cannot see each other. Until we see our dependence on God and one another, then we cannot really see others who are lying in need at our very doorstep. So, sit together. Tell your stories. Tell the truth. See each other. If we cannot do this we will not be saved, even if someone rises from the dead.

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