Beth-Sarah Wright: Look Again! Choose Dignity

People all over the church this Second Sunday after Christmas are praying these words, which reflect the heart of Paul's words in Ephesians:

Light of life, you came in flesh,

born into human pain and joy,

and gave us power to be your children.

Grant us faith, O Christ, to see your presence among us,

so that all of creation may sing new songs of gladness

and walk in the way of peace. Amen.

What an incredible invitation for us all to be reminded of the divine power we share as children of God. It is an earnest plea to God for the faith to see that inherent divinity. How often do we see God's presence among us, in our fragile humanity? How often do we see the presence of God in our siblings in Christ, in our actions, in our choices, in our freedom? How often do we live into the beautiful dream that God has laid out for us, so we may sing new songs of gladness and walk in the way of peace?

Paul reminds us in Ephesians 1 that God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing, both the divinity that God has bestowed upon us according to God's will and dream for us, as well as the ability to see this divinity among us. We already have been given the power and the ability to see all that God hopes for us and has planned for us, including the ultimate dignity that belongs to us. The remarkable thing though about dignity is that even though we all have it, it is often difficult to see because we are blinded instead by what we think we see.

Now at the beginning of a new year, let us pledge together to look again and see God among us, within us, and in all that we do. Now is the time. Let us pledge to live fully and authentically into God's dream for us.

But how? How do we see others and ourselves differently? Are you ready to look again and to choose dignity?

Before you answer that, consider what it means to pledge to look again, or respect, your own dignity and the dignity of others. In the Episcopal baptismal covenant, in the public proclamation of our partnership with God, a poignant question is asked: "Will you respect the dignity of every human being?" And the answer, to this challenging work, to living out this dream, is ever so powerfully and yet so simply, "I will, with God's help." This is no easy task. It is so much more and deserves deep consideration before choosing to honor this covenant and to partner with God to achieve this.

You see, the question itself provides both the roadmap to define God's dream for us and the key milestones needed to attain it. Pay attention to the words respect and dignity. It does not ask us to tolerate, work with, agree with, or even love every human being. It asks us to respect their dignity. The nuance here is instructive. Re - again - and spect from the Latin word spacer, as in spectacle, to look. To look again. We all yearn for our dignity to be recognized, to be seen, but I would also argue we have all felt what it is like when our dignity was not seen or recognized. In fact, when our dignity became invisible and all that could be seen was everything around us that is limiting - figments of our manipulated, maneuvered, and molded imagination - and not the limitless capacity and potential God placed in each of us. The question is asking us to look and see at first, the many assumptions, preconceived notions, or biases we may have (and we all have them!) and to look again to see new possibilities and new understandings.

Henry David Thoreau said, "It's not what you look at that's what you see." My youngest son Moses, who is now 15, actually helped me to understand this in a very compelling way when he was about 8 years old. He used to see hearts in everything. It began with strawberry leaves and then we were all searching for hearts in wads of old gum on the sidewalk, random rocks, even stains on our clothes. But what he taught me was that if you look again, you can see beyond and see something completely new, meaningful and equally as real.

This openness and willingness to see beyond is an invitation to us all to look more deeply into the things in front of us, the people who are different from us, to look at some of the tough questions and challenges we face, which impact our lives and our communities, and to be able to see fertile and fresh possibilities. Imagine looking at the world through dignity-colored glasses. Imagine what you would see and how different the world could be.

The other milestone on this roadmap to God's dream, dignity, is something we have all been endowed with no matter our background, our parents, our country of origin, our belief system, or what we look like. It is our divine inheritance. It is that unassailable breath of God that is interwoven in our DNA, our soul, our very being. Dignity is part and parcel of our humanity. Regardless of our outward manifestations, our dignity knows we are made for more, it thirsts for knowledge and for discovering the truth, it seeks freedom and has at its core the desire to be seen as fully human. It is the vast and unrelenting potential we all possess by virtue of God's wonderful creation and even more wonderful restoration. It is unwavering and immeasurable.

We don't reserve respect for those who have earned it or who have demonstrated a behavior we determine laudable. Rather, to respect or look again at each person's dignity is reserved for every human being. No matter what. God teaches us that everyone is worthy of this intentional looking again. From the teenaged girl visited by an angel and told she would be the mother of the Messiah, to the abandoned baby cum powerful leader cum murderer visited by God and chosen to free his people, to the woman by the well, a Samaritan with a questionable past, with whom Jesus, a Jew, has his longest conversation of extraordinary acceptance.

These are radical examples of how to see through the eyes of God. How to emulate Jesus's actions and behaviors. And if this is not our ultimate goal as Christians, I don't know what is. With the woman at the well, Jesus chooses to see differently. He looks again at this woman, seeing beyond her gender, her ethnicity and her lifestyle, in a way that transcends these superficial, socially, and politically fabricated understandings of difference, to see what belongs to her, by virtue of God: value, worth, and divine potential.

Not only are we to recognize that potential in every individual, but we are also to see any obstacles to that potential and to be proactive about ways to understand and even surmount them. When you look at a caterpillar, do you see the butterfly? And when you look at a beautiful butterfly, do you also see the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty? The remarkable writer Alice Walker says it like this: "Look closely at the present you're constructing. It should look like the future you are dreaming."

I am so glad God knows us so intimately - all our blemishes, all our joys, all missteps in our thoughts, words, and deeds - and yet chooses to see our dignity. Thanks be to God! If only we gave ourselves and others that gift. History teaches us that as we progress through life, that our inherent worth can be challenged, eroded, not seen, or even completely obliterated. But it can also be affirmed, valued, and celebrated. "We are just as vulnerable to feeling unworthy as we are to feeling worthy." And we all know the effects of both. Our purpose then becomes like Jesus, to see with the eyes of our hearts and not just the eyes of our heads.

One of the most effective ways to peel back those blinders is by telling our stories. Sharing our life stories, listening to others and learning from others. In fact, I would venture to posit that stories are our transactional units of dignity. Stories help us to see beyond. Is it any wonder that Jesus often taught using the power of stories?

In the words of novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, "Stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign...they can also be used to empower and humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity." Our stories are integral to who we are and who we become. Our stories give our lives meaning. Our stories connect us. And telling our stories can break down barriers, open doors, break down stigmas, build up hope, and bring freedom, liberation, and even healing, for ourselves and for the world.

The beginning of a new year is such a rich time. As we stand on the precipice of what the future holds for us this year, we are invited to be reflective about God's story and how it impacts or interrupts our life stories. And not only that, but to tell about it. To invite others into it so they too may experience that power and mystery of God. It is also a time to reflect on our own stories. To see the dignity in our past, present, and future. To end some chapters and to start some new ones. To turn the pages forward or backward, especially in some parts of stories where we have been stuck for a long time. All the while, we have a constant companion in this process. A ghostwriter. One who does not leave us or forsake us. One who intercedes in our lives and prays for us with moans and groans and when we do not have the words to pray. One who showers us with grace and mercy and dignity.

Ultimately all of our life stories, in the way we experience them and see the dignity in them, point to God's story. I urge you today, look again at God's story. Choose God's story again. Choose to see the dignity in our own stories and in others. And tell it. Invite others to know and embrace this story. This is the truest indicator of being seen by God and being touched by God.

Look again at the story that weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.

Look again at the story that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint.

Look again at the story that forgiveness, redemption, and radical transformation are all possible.

Look again at the story that God chose us to be holy and blameless before God in love and destined us for adoption.

Look again at the story that light will shatter the darkness and that death is not the end. We are an Easter people. And we cannot be silent. Jesus said, even the stones shall cry out in praise.

Thank you, God, for the ability to look again and to choose dignity. Amen.

Let us pray.

Gracious God, you have redeemed us through Jesus Christ, the firstborn of all creation, whose birth we celebrate as the child of Bethlehem. Bless us with every spiritual blessing, that we may live as your adopted children and witness to your glory with unending praise and thanksgiving. Amen.