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"Just look preoccupied. And don't make eye contact, and you'll be just fine."
It was 11:00 p.m. on a July night. I was 20-years old and arriving in New York City for the first time as my train pulled into Grand Central Station. Ahead of me was a walk west on 42nd Street to Times Square to catch the 3 Train to South Harlem where my friend Wells lived.
Now since most of the stories I'd heard about New York streets and subways at night were like a Dirty Harry movie, preoccupation was not a problem. I was preoccupied alright--preoccupied with getting there with all my limbs and luggage intact. And so Wells' words to me on the phone the night before rang through my head again: "Just look preoccupied. And don't make eye contact, and you'll be just fine."
And I did. And I was. And of my first excursion into one of the most wonderfully diverse and fascinating cities on this planet I can't tell you anything--except that I got there in one piece and that on that train, somehow thinking I was fooling anybody, I spent 15 minutes looking more intensely engrossed in an overhead ad for a neighborhood hair replacement clinic than anyone in human history. Of course, this wasn't the first time I had heard, "Don't make eye contact." It is the mantra of urban living. And, practically speaking, it makes sense. When we make eye contact with someone, we make a connection. We establish relationship. We invite them into our lives. And when we do that, we become vulnerable. And vulnerability compromises safety.
But, most profoundly, what happens when we make eye contact is we encounter each other as human beings; and that is a more rare and powerful thing than you might imagine. Our world encourages us to treat each other not as human beings but as objects to be manipulated to our own end. But in making eye contact, we touch each other's humanity. So eye contact breaks down the power of objectification. Because it does, our most profound moments are marked by eye contact. The saying of our wedding vows, the fearful, loving parent saying, "Look at me!" when she wants to make sure the four-year old who chased his ball into traffic understands he is never to do that again. The exciting and terrifying connection with the girl across the lunch room you've been sneaking glances at when she catches your eye for that nervous second before you both look away. The final moment for the dying loved one when we hold onto each other with our tear-swelled eyes because somehow we know that in that connection together we touch eternity.
On the other hand, when we don't make eye contact, we remain safe and untouched. We trade the potential for the richness of relationship, for the security of isolation, and, most profoundly, we deny each other's humanity. We are more easily drawn into the seductive trap of treating each other as objects to be manipulated or avoided as it suits our getting to wherever it is we think we need to be going. We know what we want. We know what's important and we are in control. And, practically speaking, in a world driven by objectification, self-preservation, and self-gratification, not making eye contact is the smart thing to do. And so we do it. We do it in our lives as citizens of a global society. We do it in our community. We even do it in our churches. And what's more, we are often rewarded for our efforts with the prizes that we are told are the American dream--money, power, safety. Only for Christian people, there's just one small problem with our favorite urban mantra--don't make eye contact. It's called the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Let's hear what it says today.
In Luke's Gospel Jesus holds up for us the example of the Good Samaritan, who cared for the dying man on the road when others of more respected station passed him by. It's an easy story to package as a tidy morality play, which is why we've heard it 7,000 times in Sunday School and since. Jesus says we're supposed to help those in need no matter who they are. Case closed.
That reading isn't wrong. But it only scratches the surface of the life to which Christ calls us. And, not surprisingly, it is all about making eye contact. In his story Jesus sets up the priest as a Levite, a temple assistant as the villain. But really they were only doing what was practical and expected. The injured man on the road was dirty and bleeding. According to the Law, blood was unclean and anyone who touched it was unclean and unable to go into the temple until they went through a period of purification. They knew this and that the practical and expected thing for them to do was to cross to the other side of the street to avoid defiling themselves. And so they did. But they did it without even acknowledging the person's presence. They did it without letting on that they saw the man as anything more than a pothole. Why? Jesus tells us that they noticed him and intentionally moved away from him, so we know it wasn't oversight. What it was, of course, was that age-old mantra; and we can hear them saying it to themselves as they slalom to the other side of the road, "Don't make eye contact. Don't make eye contact. Don't make eye contact." Maybe they were even checking the tightness of their belts or gazing intently at the sun to appear preoccupied with its place in the sky as first-century substitutes for adjusting the car radio or staring at the hair replacement clinic ad. The priest and the Levite looked at the man and they saw him as a something, not as a someone. He was something that was going to get in their way, delay them on their journey, make them ritually unclean so that they could not do their important work in the temple. So at the safety of their mantra and the blessing of society, they turned their glance away and continued down the road.
What makes the Samaritan remarkable and in Jesus' eyes worthy of all of us going and doing likewise is unlike the priest and Levite, he took conventional wisdom and the mantra of don't make eye contact and chucked them out the window. He looked on the man not as an object but as a human being; and in so doing, Jesus tells us he was moved with compassion and then he was hooked. He could no longer dismiss him and pretend the man's life had no claim on his. He was in relationship. He had no choice. He had to help. And he helped in a way that changed both the injured man's life by giving him the aid he needed to live but also in a way that changed the Samaritan's life in that way that you cannot helped be changed and freed when you give of yourself generously and sacrificially. The Samaritan made eye contact. He allowed himself to be drawn into relationship. He made himself vulnerable and opened himself up to being changed by someone he could just as easily have passed by. To this our Lord says to us, "Go and do likewise."
What does that mean to us? Is this gospel merely a call for all Christians to become an evangelical auto club helping stranded and injured travelers? I don't think so. In a world where avoiding eye contact and objectifying others is expected, this gospel is nothing less than a call to a radically different way of living in each of the different spheres we live in in our lives as global citizens, in our lives as members of our local communities and in our congregations.
First in our lives as world citizens. As surely as we are tied together increasingly tightly by the internet, we are tied together increasingly tightly economically. The decisions we make about how we spend and invest our enormous resources deeply and directly affect people all over our planet and the planet itself. Practical things. The accepted thing to do is to go after the highest return on our investment. Get the best bargains. To look at the bottom line. But every corporation we invest in, every purchase we make has human faces, human eyes behind it. We don't like to think about it, because when we do, it gets really complicated really fast. We would rather think of them as objects, and we're encouraged to do so at every turn. Not to make eye contact. To live securely in the illusion that our stock in that company is only initials on the crawler on CNBC, that the shirt we buy is about liking the color and getting a good deal and not something that keeps Indonesian children working at hazardous conditions for less than a dollar a day.
As world citizens, Christ's call to us to make eye contact is a call to recognize the power we have with how we spend and invest, to seek out the human faces and eyes behind the brand name, to use our power as consumers and investors to demand that we stop leaving people for dead by the side of the road and that the millions who are already there are having their wounds bound and treated with extravagant grace and love.
And Jesus says, "Go and do likewise."
Second, in our lives as members of our local community. Most of our cities are conveniently structured and segregated so that most of us--myself included--never have to venture into neighborhoods of poverty. And so we don't. After all, it is the safe and practical thing to do. But in so doing, we are shielded from having to put a face, having to put a pair of eyes on the issues of race and poverty and violence that fragment our communities. We're also shielded from the richness of the gifts those communities have to offer. It makes it easier for those of us who don't live in these neighborhoods to categorize and talk about those people or that problem without dealing with the complexities of relationship. Christ's call to make eye contact is to venture into the neighborhoods of poverty and, literally, to look at the we who live there in the eyes and listen to them and learn from them. Literally to do what the Good Samaritan did. Not to drive by or drive around, but to gaze on people on society's margins with compassion, to bind their wounds, and love them extravagantly, to take the time to build relationship, to talk, to listen, to eat with, to invite to church those who the more practical and safe paths would never put us in contact with. And even for those of us with power and privilege to give that power away within the structures of our church.
Jesus says, "Go and do likewise."
Finally, let's look even more closely at our lives as members of our local churches. It was no accident that first the ancient Hebrews and then Jesus put love of neighbor in the same breath as love of God. Loving our neighbor is an integral part of loving our God, and that means our worship life together on Sunday mornings and whenever we gather is not about the individual piety of however many simultaneous yet isolated personal worship experiences but about making eye contact with each other, seeing Christ in each other as we come together to hear the Word of God and to be fed at the Lord's table. Christ's call to us on Sunday morning is to stand up and look around. And so the next time you're in a church, do it. Stand up and look around. Look around you and behold the body of Christ. Look at all of yourselves. Look near and far. Look at the faces who are there. Look especially at the ones you don't know very well or at all. When your eyes meet and that contact is made, resist the temptation to immediately look away. Hold that gaze even just for a second. You see, being the church, being the body of Christ is about eye contact. Encountering Christ as we encounter each other, hearing those words, "This is my blood of the New Testament which is shed for you and for many," and realizing that this and more is the many. Going forward to receive that body and that blood--that new life in bread and wine--not as individuals, but as one body of inextricably connected members. I'm not saying it's easy.
Eye contact often makes us feel self-conscious and uncomfortable. All of these things are difficult for us. Having promoting human dignity and human rights be the lynchpin of our spending and investment strategy. Venturing into neighborhoods of poverty and sitting with people very different from us. Standing up in church and making eye contact with people perhaps for the first time. These things are hard work. They pull us out of our comfort zones and they defy conventional wisdom. So why do it?
I'll tell you why. Because the parable of the Good Samaritan was not Jesus' answer to the question, "How do I make my life suitably difficult?" It was his answer to the question: "Lord, what must I do to attain eternal life?" Eternal in the Greek meaning not just or even primarily in terms of length of time but in terms of depth of existence, depth of meaning, depth of joy.
Christ calls us to make eye contact because it gives our life a breadth and depth of meaning we can't get any other way. Christ calls us to make eye contact because the way of the cross, the way of radical vulnerability and radical love, is the most powerful, most incredible, most liberating force in the universe, and he longs for us to know it and to feel its joy. Christ calls us to make eye contact with each other because he longs to make eye contact with us, to share our gaze, to feel the charge of excitement, to know that in that moment that his eyes touch ours that together we really do touch eternity.
"Go and do likewise."
Holy God, give us the courage to seek your face in all faces, to reach beyond the expected and practical for the extravagant and loving, to risk being known that we may know you more. Amen.
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