I’m a great people-watcher, always have been. I like to sit and watch people as they shop or tend to their children. I notice the children who are disrespectful of their parents; I notice the parents who are thrilled to spend time with their children and those who aren’t. I notice couples in restaurants, whether they’re married or newly dating and in the full blush of discovery about each other. Sometimes the couples don’t know each other well at all and they are busy with the work of discovering new things about each other.
For some, going to church and worshipping God has similar dynamics: there is a sense in which we are like John the Baptist who says he didn’t recognize Jesus (v31). Luke tells us that John and Jesus are cousins, but still John doesn’t recognize him for who he is…not until his eyes are opened and he sees Jesus in a new way. We ourselves “see” him all around us–in pictures, words, the faces of those around us–yet we don’t often recognize him. Sometimes we don’t want to recognize him, but often it’s just because we have yet to open our eyes.
A few years ago, while shopping in a popular store in December, I noticed a mother and her 3 children heaping up shopping carts with expensive ornaments and lights. I noticed they were all poorly dressed and it seemed odd that they would be spending so much money on decorations when the money might be better spent on coats and clothing. Suddenly, the whole family bolted out the front door of the store, taking the 2 carts of merchandise with them. They jumped into their car and took off, with me attempting to chase after them, hoping in vain to catch their license plate number. Just then the store manager came out after me. He has noticed nothing suspicious about the family of shoplifters, but he had seen me run outside. He looked at me intently, probably noting my height, weight and color of my hair. Incredibly, he had missed the theft of his merchandise entirely!
This tells me that the way we look at the world around us determines what we see.
When I prepare a weekly homily, I do a variety of things to help me “see” something that is in the text. I start with an underlying assumption that God has something in the text for me; I also believe that He has something in the text for you as well. Some weeks I can see more clearly than on other occasions. I use the Lectionary, of course, and I’m sure that in 3 years when today’s readings come around again, I’ll see something different in the text. I also use commentaries and different translations of the readings. Sometimes I talk with friends, sometimes not. I like to begin early enough in the week so I can mull over the text and allow it to speak to me as I live out my week. By the time Sunday rolls around, I have it practically memorized.
While studying today’s texts, I used the Jerusalem Bible and I couldn’t help but notice the peculiar translation of a word: enblepo. It’s a Greek word that is used only 12 times in the New Testament, only twice in John’s Gospel, both of which are in today’s reading. Enblepo is translated as “looked” but a better translation of the word is “looked hard at”. It’s more than a casual glance: it’s an intense look. Sort of like the way the store manager looked at me as I was coming back into his store. When John the Baptist “looked hard at” Jesus, he recognized him as the Lamb of God. When Jesus looked hard at Simon, he recognized in him the rock, the solid foundation.
I believe that God spends a lot of time taking a hard look at us. God sees in us the things we don’t see, even the things we don’t want to see. It is also possible for us, of course, to take a hard look at God. When we do, I believe we begin to recognize God all around us. We begin to see God in the face of our neighbor, in the laughter of children, in the cold night air (like tonight) and in the mist and fog. We begin to see God in the faces of those who are homeless and don’t have food to eat; we see God in the laboring hands of those who work so hard so that we can maintain our standard of living–those who grow, harvest and process our food. We begin to see God in voices that speak other languages than our own and in the beds of our hospitals and nursing homes. We see God at Wal-Mart and in congested traffic, at the bank and at the video store.
The truth is, we can only see God when we learn to take a hard look at someone else, and perhaps the first person we need to take a hard look at is ourselves. We need to begin seeing ourselves as God sees us.
Jesus looked hard at Simon and saw what all of us would see: a smelly fisherman with darkened skin from constant exposure to the elements, his skin leathery and hard. But Jesus saw beyond that. He looked deep within and saw a man of conviction and compassion. He saw a man of honor and Jesus determines that this rock-solid citizen is the kind of man people can depend on, and so he calls him his “rock”. None of these things were seen by others and Simon may not have seen these qualities within himself. As the story unfolds, first Jesus, then Simon, then the Twelve and then all those around him begin to sense what Jesus had seen.
Jesus sees each of us exactly as we are, and I can guarantee that the first thing He sees in us is that we are someone worthy of love. It’s the simple yet profound truth that we are loveable and it is this knowledge, this truth, this power that frees us to love others. They, too, have been seen by God as worthy, loveable, valuable and irreplaceable. When we take a hard look at ourselves we find someone worthy of love. When we take a hard look at others, we find in each of them someone worthy of love.
We can also take a hard look at God, as I mentioned before. When we do, we begin to see God as if for the first time and we find a God of compassion, of justice, of unconditional love. We find a God who loves us with the single-hearted devotion of a child.
Did you ever notice how children look people in the eye when they talk to them? I raised 3 sons, and I witnessed this a lot with my boys. This habit they had of looking people right in the eye changed the way people interacted with them. I’ve noticed this in my own life when I look people directly in the eye: the dynamic of our encounter changes and is transformed to a higher level. Most of us adults look down when we encounter a stranger, like we’re afraid or ashamed. When we choose to make eye contact, however, suddenly we are both smililng at each other. We connect with something deeper in the human person.
I don’t know if you’ve heard this, but this was the way they say Mother Theresa interacted with people. She made clear and intentional eye contact with people, and it was through this piercing look that she was able to perceive the Christ in other people. I believe this practice aided her in her journey as a saint on this earth, allowing her to overcome her own shortcomings and inner hurdles.
Tonight I want to challenge all of us–even hardcore clergy like myself–to overcome our hurdles and limitations. We need to look ourselves in the eye, we need to look intentionally at others, and we need to take a hard look at our God. Like John the Baptist, we will find amazing discoveries. We will begin to understand the living presence of the Lamb of God who continues to take away the sins of the world. We will share the vision of John’s hope for the future of the human race. We will come to terms with God’s desires for our lives. Most importantly, we will recognize God among us in the ordinary events of our lives. The secular will suddenly take on the divine, the daily routine will encounter the sacred, and the mundane will become as holy as the God who dwells with us. Amen.