Monday, May 4, 2015

To See and Be Seen

Acts 13: 1-3; 14:8-18

Last week the story we heard featured Cornelius and Peter.  It was full of bizarre visions that resulted in Peter coming to terms with the fact that God really does prefer a more diverse church than what Peter had thought.  God won.  Peter lost and Cornelius, a Gentile man, was inducted into the company of believers.  The first of his kind and we are the ones who are the recipients of God’s insistence for diversity.

This week we hear about Paul and Barnabas as we continue in the Book of Acts and the Narrative Lectionary. What we have here is a story of healing and then it turns into this chaotic, almost comedic encounter because this miracle of healing prompts a huge misunderstanding which requires just a little explanation.

Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler, and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off…..
…. In Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet and had never walked, for he had been crippled from birth. 9 He listened to Paul as he was speaking. And Paul, looking at him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, 10 said in a loud voice, “Stand upright on your feet.” And the man sprang up and began to walk. 11 When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” 12 Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. 13 The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates; he and the crowds wanted to offer sacrifice. 14 When the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting, 15 “Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. 16 In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; 17 yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy.” 18 Even with these words, they scarcely restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them.

A man who had never walked, who was without functioning feet all of his life gets up and walks.  In fact he just didn’t slowly get up, you know he didn’t take a moment to get his ‘sea legs’ going, he sprang up and began to walk with the ease of someone who has been walking all of his life.  A miracle!  Unbelievable!  It was such a phenomenon that the people all around started shouting.  The downside for Paul and Barnabas was that the people were shouting in a language that they flat out didn’t understand which left them scratching their heads.  I can only imagine the conversation after things quieted down.

“What just happened?” Paul asked.  “I dunno,” say Baranabas, “they thought we were gods.”  “HA!” says Paul, “they thought I was Hermes, and you Zeus.  Why even the priest brought some oxen and flowers to offer a sacrifice in our honor.  Unbelievable!” 

“But I think we did something wrong here.” Paul continues.  “Yeah, let’s review so we don’t make this same mistake again.” encourages Barnabas. 

“OK, when we got to Lystra (LIStra) I saw that man sitting by the side of the road, his legs were all withered.  Why he looked as though he had never walked.  I could see that he was listening to me though as I preached.  I could see that he had the faith to be healed.  So, without thinking I said, ‘stand up’ and he jumped up and walked around.  That’s when the crowds went nuts on us, shouting that we were gods from heaven.”

Barnabas thought for a minute, “Paul”, “that’s where it all started.  You healed this man before you finished explaining who Jesus was, plus you didn’t tell them that the healing was in the name of Jesus.”  “Barnabas, with all due respect, I didn’t have a chance.  They began shouting all at once, no one would have heard me.”

The people thought Paul was the healer, that he was a god so Paul and Barnabus tear their clothes in an old Jewish custom but the people wouldn’t have understood that.

Paul says, “Barnabas, we can’t let this happen again.  We have to learn from this mistake and hopefully others will learn too.  We just need to keep on sharing the good news of Jesus”. 

This passage has it all, healing, almost humorous outbursts, confusion and mistakes.  What I want to focus on is what precedes the healing.  The part about Paul “listening to him intently and seeing that he had faith” because I think that is where our learning will come from today in this passage.

I believe that our eyes are one of the most powerful tools that we have to express and make meaning with others.  It is often said that they eyes are the window to the soul.  Had Paul not seen this man, and, this man, through his eyes, had he not conveyed a look that exposed his faith and his heart, his healing may not have happened.  It took this beautiful relationship of seeing and being seen to initiate God’s marvelous wonder of healing.

Many years ago I was in southern India with a group from Greenfield Hill Congregational Church.  We traveled from Hyderabad way deep into the Khamam district, where the poorest of poor people live.  Being an real amateur photographer I desperately wanted to photograph the people.  The faces, the colors, the desperation, the incredible hope, I wanted to remember it all.

There were weathered old faces with cataracted eyes, and young faces with expectant hope streaming from their eyes.  But there were also blank stares from children who know the pain of child labor as rag pickers in the hot Indian sun.  And there were women who’s eyes showed distrust and resignation.  And yet, there were some whose eyes were so full of love that they twinkled.

I wanted to photograph them all but I had an internal, ethical dilemma brewing inside of me.  I felt as if I was exploiting them rather than earnestly recording the journey of their lives that their faces told and their eyes exposed.

I spoke with Alida, one of the pastors, about this and she said, “I felt the same way the first time I came here but then I realized that they want to have their photos taken.  They want to be remembered, they want to know that someone sees them, that they are noticed, that they are cared about.” 

Isn’t that what we all want?  To be seen and noticed, to be acknowledged for who we are, beloved children of the one God?  The visual exchange between Paul and the man conveyed so much, but mostly it conveyed the love and healing power of God.  Because without this eye to eye connection, and the willingness on both men to be open and vulnerable to each others needs, healing and wholeness wouldn’t have happened.

And that’s what it takes.  Openness and vulnerability.  When you look intently, like Paul, into someone’s eyes you are open to the possibility of relationship and you, yourself become vulnerable in the seeing.  But that is ok, that’s when the spirit of God breaks through so you can really see the other person in front of you.

Brother Curtis Alhmquist from the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in Cambridge says, “Seeing people with new eyes is a restoration of innocence that Christ promises. People whom we may otherwise find irritating, or offensive, or disappointing - they are a child of God, whom God adores and whom God shares with you. That will dawn on you.”[i]  God shares other with you simply with a glance, if you take that opportunity.

Have you seen the person sitting next to you?  Have you looked deeply into their eyes to understand them, their pain, their joy, maybe their apathy or their interests?  What about those whom we call the other?  What might you see in their eyes and what, might they see in yours?  Acceptance?  Resistance?  Or those who just outright irritate us, can you look at them?  Maybe the larger question is do you take time to look? Looking into someone’s eyes can give us an understanding of ourselves if we are open to it.

Paul certainly did and he found someone in need.  He recognized that there was faith and hope in this man’s heart.  He found this man that God shared with him at the very moment was in need of healing, as we all are.  As Paul was in that moment too.

May our eyes be blessed in their seeing this week with each person in whom we encounter.


[i] Brother Curtis Alhmquiest, ‘Brother, Give Us a Word’, April 25, 2015 daily entry.  Cambridge, MA.

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