More than most of the things we need, I believe, we need to be seen for who we are. We need to be seen not as an icon or stereotype, not as the person someone else would like us to be or needs us to be; we need to be seen and recognized as the person God has made us or is making us to be.
During last Wednesday’s Lenten study, Dave Reichard told of his encounter with a man of the streets in downtown Buffalo. He was a man who clearly needed help with the basics of life, including financial assistance and probably a lot of other help, too.
After speaking with him for a few minutes, Dave offered him some money to help him through the day. To Dave’s surprise, the man refused the money, explaining that it was enough of a gift – and a rare one for someone who spends his days and nights on the streets – for Dave to see him, to really see him, not as a nameless street person, an icon of the needy, but as a human being, someone with a name, an identity, a life.
We need to be seen, all of us. We need to be recognized as the children of God we are. And to be seen that way requires work, sometimes a lot of it. When Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha whom Jesus raised from the dead (John 11:1-44), was restored to life, he stepped out of his tomb and into a new day. But he remained bound in his grave clothes. It was left to those standing around him, his friends and neighbors, to unbind him and let him go into the new life that opened before him (v. 44).
There is life within us, new life, and too often it remains obscured, hidden by yesterday’s wrappings: the ways in which we have been trained and shaped by the world around us. From my father I learned that I had value to the extent I met his expectations and presented myself as the person he wanted me to be. I never felt he saw me as who I really was or as the person God was making me to be.
The surrounding world and its culture tries to do the same thing to all of us. It tries to mold us into the persons it needs or wants us to be. The culture in which we live tries to wrap us in its values and make us an ideal image of itself. “Fit in,” it says to us. “Be like us.” Most of the time, it succeeds.
In our mutual ministry of spiritual formation, it’s our responsibility to each other to undo that, to unbind one another and set each other free for life. “Do not be conformed to this world,” Paul wrote, “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2).
The trouble is, when the unfamiliar self is unwrapped and revealed to the world – when any one of us steps free of the world’s expectations and rises to new life – it’s in the nature of the world and its powers to feel threatened. And a threatened world tries to remove the threat we present.
It happened to Lazarus. After Jesus raised him from the tomb, and after his friends and neighbors unbound him and let him go to live his new life freely, Lazarus became a threat to the established powers of his world, and the chief priests, the guardians of the status quo, made plans to kill him (John 12:9-11).
The same thing happened earlier to Jesus. When King Herod heard of Jesus’ birth as a rival king, Herod and all those who were politically connected with him and who shared his earthly power were frightened, and they set out to kill the infant Messiah (Matt. 2:1-4, 13).
It would happen to Jesus again. The more Jesus invited people to unwrap and live the new life God was calling them to live, the more inconvenient he became, and the stronger grew the conspiracy of the powerful to put him to death (cf. John 11:50-53). On Palm Sunday, when Jesus finally took his call to new life directly to the heart of his world’s power, the religious and political capital Jerusalem, the die was cast, and you know the rest of the story.
The same story plays out still today. The more I threatened my father’s expectations by living as myself rather than as who he expected me to be, the more likely he was to shun me or become abusive.
When Seattle City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant shook up the city’s dominant Democratic establishment by advocating for a livable minimum wage – an act of justice entirely feasible economically and certainly in harmony with a prophetic Christian witness and our United Methodist Social Principles – personal and political attacks on her increased to the point where a petition calling for her recall began to circulate.
When lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered members of The United Methodist Church unwrap the bindings of yesterday’s misunderstandings of human sexuality and begin to live freely as the persons God has made them to be, the powers of the status quo move to silence them, intimidate them with the threat of a church trial, and finally remove them from positions of authority in the church.
When we try to live our faith without rocking the cultural boat in which we sail, without challenging and changing the way things are in the world around us, we’re only dabblers playing at religion. Faith like that will not make our voices heard on high.
If Isaiah is to be believed – and if he’s not, then why are we here? – if the faith we practice will be meaningful to God, we will not only help each other loosen and remove the personal wrappings that bind us to the expectations of others. We will also work in the world to “loosen the bonds of injustice [and] undo the thongs of the yoke” (Isa. 58:6). We will not merely work to free the person sitting next to us in the pew; we will put ourselves at risk to let the oppressed go free and to break every human law and social norm that creates social and economic inequity and injustice.
If we were to enter our world like Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, we would not be polite and proper neighbors who fit quietly into village life. Instead, the people who thought nothing of us yesterday would open their eyes wide in disbelief and murmur among themselves, “Who is this?”