I See You

Community United Church of Christ (St. Paul Park, Minnesota)

Scripture: Acts 3:1-10

Bryan Sirchio is a UCC minister turned traveling musician. He’s based in Wisconsin, which is where I first got to know him, at a UCC camp called Pilgrim Center. He was the Thursday night program each week all summer long for both years I was there, so I got to know his stories and songs well. One of my favorites is about a time when he was on one of his regular visits to Haiti. Sitting in a car stuck in traffic, he tried not to notice a little child, begging in the street. She had on a tattered yellow dress but showed bare feet, perhaps only 4-5 years old. “To be honest,” he sings, “I was hoping to drive right by

But the traffic was grid-locked to a standstill
And when she noticed my white skin, she came real quick
She leaned up against my window and then with one little hand
She pointed back and forth from her belly to her lips
At first she seemed a little bit too practiced
At pulling strings of guilt and sympathy
And then, I’m not sure why — but I looked right into her eyes
And as I did these words washed over me

I see you. I see you.
Hey little girl, I won’t pretend that you’re not there
I see you. I see you.
Little girl Christ, I see you.[1]

Mother Teresa called street children Christ in disguise. Therefore his closing line: “Little girl Christ, I see you.”

Yet how many times have we driven by people begging at the exit ramps of the highway, or walked past the panhandlers with their cardboard signs on the sidewalk? I don’t know about you, but most of the time I try not to see them. I’d rather not perceive the details of their faces, their broken teeth and scars. I look away from telltale signs of mental illness and premature aging from living on the streets. Even when I was handing out the care packages we made here at church, I would make eye contact only briefly before turning back to the road and the waiting red light. It is profoundly difficult to truly see the suffering of another, and remain unchanged. Yet we are not often willing to be changed by the real hurt of another, and since being in the presence of suffering is deeply uncomfortable, most of us quickly try to move past it.

This same flight in the face of fear can result in deep isolation for those who suffer from chronic pain, depression or long-lasting illness. Days or weeks pass between phone calls or visits from people we are close with. Rolf Jacobson, a professor at Luther Seminary, lost his legs to cancer in high school. He says that when he was in the hospital—and he was in the hospital a lot—none of his best friends came to see him. “One of them actually said, ‘I don’t like to see you that way,’ and so the solution then is just not to go.”[2] People who suffer know this, and learn to either hide their troubles or get used to being more alone. Either way, with real pain comes the real likelihood that others will turn away.

The man who is unable to walk, sitting there begging by the Beautiful Gate as we hear in Acts 3, has long since given up hope of really being seen. In one sense he is seen all the time, passed by hundreds, maybe thousands, on their way into and out from afternoon prayers. Their two good legs allow them to go into the temple and worship, in the holy place where he is forbidden because of his imperfect, crippled legs. So there he sits each day, holding a sign or calling out for alms. The best he can hope for are these coins, dropped by passersby as an act of ritual piety. They keep him from being alone and even poorer, these people who put money in his hand, but there is no real recognition of his existence from them. He does have these friends who open doors for him, who give him rides where he needs to go. But is there anyone who can sing to him as Brian Sirchio does?

I see you. I see you.
Hey beggar man, I won’t pretend that you’re not there
I see you. I see you.
Beggar man Christ, I see you.

It might have gone on forever that way—the beggar, the alms, the stone-faced passersby. But one day this man sees two men passing by into the temple. As it happens, they are Peter and John, followers of Christ. He asks them for alms as he has already done a hundred times today. But what comes next has never happened before—it is beyond his wildest imagination. Peter looks intently at him—John looks at him too! The beggar locks eyes with these disciples, who truly see him as a child of God full of promise, vitality and life. He is more than the disability and the begging, more than the ritually unclean reject outside the temple, more than the poverty which has him still reaching out a hand to them. Peter and John see him truly, made in the image of the God who has brought him into the world, nurtured him to this point, and who will be there waiting with an eternal embrace at the end of life. And with the seeing through eyes of faith comes a natural response. Not something surface or artificial, like cash which they don’t have. Instead they offer what they do have: “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” Then they go beyond words into actions. Peter takes him by the right hand and raises him up. The touch feels real because it carries no trace of the fear which turns others away. Immediately the man’s feet and ankles are strengthened beyond what they have ever been like his whole life. He jumps up, stands, begins to walk, then leaps and praises God with utter joy! The last we see of this man, he is walking with the disciples: no more alone and unseen, but in the company of others who have seen him. Even more impressive than the healing of his legs is the healing of this man’s isolation. The power of Jesus Christ of Nazareth has moved him from loneliness to companionship. Community is formed, and they go in to the temple together, praising God for all to see.

There is more than one miracle in this story. We can all recognize the sudden strengthening of the man’s legs as a miracle, an unexpected answer to prayer. The other miracle is that Peter, John and this man truly saw one another, and let themselves be seen, as wounded yet earnest children of God, discovering in that recognition a healing that goes all the way to the soul. That’s the faithful healing still done today, in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.

I have seen a lot of miracles in this church. Prayers answered in unexpected ways. A vehicle donated to someone who has no money to buy one, Caring Team members making daily visits to a man who would otherwise be alone while his wife was away, throwing baby showers for young mothers who feel alone, members rescuing one another from the side of the road, a carload of presents given so that a family might feel Christmas joy, monetary gifts passed secretly from one to another. Each of these are miracles, the answers to prayer for folks who are at the end of the rope. These are some of the forms that Christ’s resurrection still takes today: when death, defeat and despair are turned back with the power of Life that comes from far beyond this world. Resurrection is tangible and meaningful through the followers of Jesus, in his name. But the greatest of miracles I have consistently seen is this: strangers become neighbors in the pew, then become friends and collaborators in the community of Christ, mutually sharing one another’s joys and sorrows, truly seeing one another and being seen ourselves. We may not have the power to reset broken bones on command, mend broken hearts instantly with prayer as though it were a magic wand, or shower gold and silver on the needs of those who come through our doors. Those miracles are still infrequent and unexpected, though not impossible by any means. But what we can do is meet the vulnerability of another with the compassion of truly seeing her. We practice it every Sunday when we share Joys and Concerns, a custom that is unique to us in the United Church of Christ. Church is where we truly see one another, thereby making healing possible. This means we can let our own vulnerabilities be seen too, as hard as that is for those of us used to keeping a stiff upper lip.

When I entered seminary ten years ago, I carried with me emotional baggage from years of being told as a child that I was not worthy of God’s love, and I would never be a good pastor because I was gay. Worshipping at the seminary chapel each day felt like a dance of wanting to believe God loved me, as everyone said, and still feeling unsure that it could possibly be true. One day in my first few months there, the feelings grew so overwhelming in chapel that I slipped out of the pew and curled up in a ball on the floor. I put my head between my knees and started to cry while the music and liturgy were going on around me. I must have spent half the service that way, and it was a messy cry, with tears, snot, sniffles and no Kleenex at hand. I was being unscripted, raw, and emotional, no doubt distracting many of the other worshippers. (You might have noticed that I can be dramatic sometimes.) But nobody kicked me out or ushered me away. Sweet people stayed and prayed with me after worship until the feelings had passed. They saw me, just as I was, and let me be present in all my messiness. My feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness were never so overwhelming after that day. I had come face-to-face with my inner demons but they had not gotten the best of me, because I did not have to face them alone. That chapel, and the Christian community more broadly, has felt like a safe space to me ever since. My healing was possible because some disciples of Jesus Christ truly saw me, and reached out a hand of compassion and love in his name.

This is what makes for lasting miracles: when new relationships of care are formed and we move from isolation into community. Even if a miracle of bodily healing is long in coming, doesn’t last forever, or never comes in the ways we long for, the community of Christ’s resurrection still offers a healing miracle when we truly see one other, and let ourselves be seen. This is the Good News that will fill with wonder and amazement all those who see and hear of it.

I see you. I see you.
Hey child of God, I won’t pretend that you’re not there
I see you. I see you.
Child of God, Christ, I see you.

Let us pray: God of miracles great and small, you know the healing we need before we ever ask. Resurrect our physical and spiritual bodies with the assurance that we are never alone in you. Then let the community of your restored people move all who see us to wonder and amazement in Jesus’ name. Amen.

[1] Bryan Sirchio, “I See You” on J-Walking:  Songs for Justice Walkers (Crosswind Music, 2004). Lyrics from http://sirchio.com/songs/f/c/181.

[2] Rolf Jacobson, “NL222: Peter Heals in Jerusalem”, WorkingPreacher.org Narrative Lectionary podcast, April 2, 2016. Online at http://www.workingpreacher.org/narrative_podcast.aspx?podcast_id=743.

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