12 August 2007

averting our eyes

For the last few years, each day I've read a psalm and a chapter from the Bible. For a long time, I would read more of the Bible each day, until I had read through it many times. Then one day, I decided that I don't need to speed read the scriptures. Today my text was chapter 4 in the book of Sirach (a.k.a. Ecclesiasticus). I was especially struck by verse 5: "Do not avert your eyes from the needy; give no one occasion to curse you."

That's significant, because today I preached a sermon on how we tend to avert our eyes from those in distress. My sermon text was Isaiah 1:1, 10-20. (And no, I hadn't looked ahead at what my own personal scripture reading for today would be!) Here's a part of the sermon in which I confess my fault. I had just said that, on my first trip to Manhattan, while walking through Central Park, a friend told me that if some guys were starting a fight, I should look away.

"As it turned out, I really didn’t see anyone starting any trouble, so I wasn’t put to the test.

"I couldn’t help thinking, though, what if I were the poor guy getting attacked? What if I were relying on us to intervene? What if we had played the role of those who pretend that nothing is going on—people who avert their eyes, people who look the other way?

"To be honest, it’s a role we play all the time. I know I play it far too often. There’s a lady I’ve noticed walking on Third Street and on Hallock Street. Even in warm weather, even hot weather, she’s dressed in a winter coat. She looks different; she’s the kind of person we’re 'supposed' to avoid.

"A few weeks ago, as I was walking Duncan [our Shetland Sheepdog], he noticed her and went right up to her. She was very kind to him (and to me), and I wondered why I hadn’t bothered to speak to her before. I’m ashamed to say that I had probably made some pre-judgments concerning her. Maybe I thought she would respond in some crazy fashion, or that she would ask me for money—as if that is such a horrible thing!

"No, what our society tells us to do is to avert our eyes."

I won't repeat the entire sermon. (You can click on "Zebraview" in the right column!) In a nutshell, when we avert our eyes--when we pretend not to notice--we deny God the ability to work through us. That's true in the quest for both personal holiness and political holiness.

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