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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Seeing the Unseen

Proper 21, Yr. C
Luke 16:19-31

Yesterday morning, while still pondering my sermon, I drove 6 high school students to a meeting on the westside. Spending a few hours on the 10 Freeway isn’t my idea of a fun way to start the weekend, so I decided I could at least make it productive by engaging in a little multi-tasking. With Stephen’s okay, I asked my passengers two questions: first, who—both locally and globally—do we not see, do we overlook, just as the rich man spent a lifetime overlooking Lazarus?; and second, is there any danger or loss to us in not noticing some people, or is it just a benign oversight?

Before I tell you their responses, let me say that even if I hadn’t accomplished some sermon research, I still would’ve truly enjoyed the trip; it’s easy for us to forget how perceptive, well-informed, funny, smart, and caring teenagers can be. Maybe their insightful answers to these particular questions arose in part from the fact that they are often among the people who aren’t seen…and we miss out on a lot as a result.

My riders suggested, very candidly, that among the people they overlook in their lives are secretaries and custodians, those who provide the goods and services they use, the special ed students at their school, farm workers, and people who live in less-developed agrarian nations. As one observed, he can name most of the countries in Europe but hardly any of those in Africa. How would you answer that question? Who do you see past or walk by without notice every day? I know there are too many to count in my life.

One of the teens pointed out in the course of our conversation that that’s part of the issue: we have to use some filters or we'd be overloaded, though some individuals do seem to have a particular gift for reaching out to more people than most of us. But it merits some thought to consider the apportionment of power, wealth, or influence between those we overlook and those who readily capture our attention, and to wonder what that says about our own selves.

In answer to my second question, about whether we actually lose something or are hurt by not taking notice of people, or if it’s simply too bad but no big deal, these young people offered some great insights. They acknowledged that the people we don't see are often the ones who really know what's going on, as, for example, the secretaries at school vs. the principal. Even more significantly, they suggested that the people we don't notice might have information that’s important to us, and that in getting to know them, we will better understand how the world works. Wow! That sure sounds to me like a big part of what Jesus and scripture say about the kingdom of God, that those whom the world considers weak and foolish and unimportant may understand God’s loving mercy and God’s desires for us far better than those who have worldly power and prestige.

After I’d been thinking about all of this, I learned that the House of Bishops—the gathering of all the bishops in the Episcopal Church—had written a pastoral letter during their meeting in Phoenix last week. Pastoral letters are not intended to provide absolute answers to questions of theology and faith; bishops write them in their role as teachers and leaders, with the hope that their words will encourage conversation and wrestling with issues that affect our lives. Thus, the request is generally made that the letters be shared with congregations, as we’ve done here in the past.

This particular pastoral letter is on the topic of immigration and our treatment of those who cross borders without proper documentation. Talk about people who are often invisible to us! And so, as you listen—and it’s dense, so you can go back to it via a link on the blog on our website—I invite you to consider not only the immediate issues, but also what we can discover from this particular group of people who are without power, without wealth, without status, and yet from whom we may learn to better understand our world and our God.
[The text of the letter is here.]
Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart and especially the hearts of the people of this land, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. ~Book of Common Prayer, p. 823

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