Sunday, April 26, 2020

Eye Contact -- a sermon on Acts 3

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St John’s
Eye Contact
Acts 3.1-10 (NRSV)
26 April 2020, NL2-34, Easter 3 (theme: Witness Apprenticeship Programme)

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. And a man lame from birth was being carried in. People would lay him daily at the gate of the temple called the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask for alms from those entering the temple. When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked them for alms. Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, ‘Look at us.’ And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, ‘I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.’ And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. All the people saw him walking and praising God, and they recognised him as the one who used to sit and ask for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.


Over the last several weeks, I have noticed a drastic change in something I didn’t expect. Yes, a lot has changed, obviously, and we are all finding our way in this strange new reality. But a side effect seems to be that we often no longer look at each other. When I’ve been out for a walk, or when I’ve been sitting in the front window watching people go by, it seems that now many people look away when approaching another person. It’s almost as if even just making eye contact will spread the virus. 

Of course there are some people we’ve always turned away from. When walking through city streets and seeing rough sleepers or people begging for change, one of the most common responses is to avert our eyes, as if looking away will also make the problem of poverty go away. And there are other situations where we look at everything but someone’s eyes, whether through morbid fascination with a wound or condition or accident, or through conscious or subconscious sexism or racism or whatever.

But looking away from our neighbours, even when there’s a whole street, or a closed window, between us? That’s new. It’s a different level of “social distancing” than I think was really intended by the phrase! 

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, in part because it’s unnerving, and in part because it is the exact opposite of what happens in today’s reading. Peter and John were doing the things we would expect them to be doing, going about their daily business, including joining other Jews for daily prayer at the Temple. And on their way in, their usual routine was interrupted by someone else.

It’s striking that they were willing to be interrupted, diverted from their task...even now when our daily business is different than it used to be, it’s so easy to ignore or overlook those “distractions” that may just be opportunities to lift someone else up. 

This man they were willing to turn aside to see had never been able to walk, but he did have friends who helped carry him places. Each afternoon those friends took him to the gate that led into the Temple, so that people who were on their way to worship, and therefore might be feeling generous and looking for a way to enhance their spiritual life through giving, would have the chance to give to him. He must have assumed Peter and John were just another worshipper. It does not appear that he knew anything about them, or about Jesus....he was just going about his daily business, the same as they were.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed this before, but often people who are on the streets asking for help have downcast eyes. They rarely look at the people passing. Perhaps that is due to shame, or perhaps it is due to the crushing disappointment of making eye contact with so many people who then look away in disgust or embarrassment or guilt, or perhaps they are just protecting themselves, or others, from seeing the pain and beauty of the world. It seems that perhaps this man also wasn’t looking up much, because he had to be told to look up. 

When Peter and John looked intently at him, stopping in front of him and giving him their full attention, it was an unusual moment. That would still, today, be an unusual moment. And then they said “look at us”—I can just picture it, a verbal version of reaching out and tipping his face toward them. In fact the word that’s used when it says Peter “looked intently” at him has the connotation of “stretching”, like reaching out with his eyes and looking into the man. Then he asked the man to look back, and he fixed his attention on them. Their eyes locked together, and it’s almost as if these windows to the soul were opened....they saw each other, as equals, as whole, real people, made in God’s image, beloved.

Had anyone ever done that before? 

It’s surprisingly intimate, to look into another person’s eyes for any length of time. It really is almost as if you can see inside the other person, if you look intently enough. And especially right now, as masks become more common and so facial expressions are harder to read, our eyes are communicating more than ever. Perhaps that is why we rarely look as intently as Peter and John were doing....and perhaps that is why right now, when so much of what we would see or reveal is fear, we don’t make eye contact. We don’t want people to see how afraid we are, and we don’t want to see how afraid they are either. If we can hide our eyes, we might be able to hide our emotions and our spiritual state as well, protecting ourselves from being known. Unfortunately, that can also be a barrier to knowing the full extent of grace and love, too.

When Peter said “I have no silver or gold,” I wonder then if he saw a quick flicker of disappointment in the man’s eyes before he finished the sentence. The man may have thought that his expectations were about to be dashed, when in reality they were about to be exceeded. 

Peter then gave him the most incredible gift he had ever received — in the name of Jesus Christ, stand up and walk. He lifted him up, in body and in spirit.

And this man, who had been deposited outside the Temple every day for his whole life, never being allowed in, jumped up and began to walk and leap and praise God....all the way in to the Temple for the first time, with the other people who were going in to pray. No longer an outsider, he was healed physically, and spiritually, and communally. And the first thing he did was go in and praise God, with body, mind, and spirit. The people inside recognised him as the man who used to sit outside...but had they ever actually seen him before? Had they ever looked him in the eye before? Had a conversation? Seen him as a whole, beautiful, loved, equal human being?

I wonder: is this what could happen, if we looked at each other with the eyes of Christ? 

Peter and John looked this man in the eye, gave him their full attention, and saw him the way Jesus did. He looked them in the eye, perhaps the first time he’d ever been treated as an equal by people going into the Temple, and saw the grace of God come to life.

So I wonder: can we be ready to be diverted from our daily business, if God places an encounter in our path, even six feet away? And can we really look at people, truly see them? What would it be like to actually look people in the eye, to hold that eye contact (even from across the street or through the window!), and to take the moment of recognising each other as beloved people of God, equals, in this together, handling things in different ways, longing for something we can’t yet understand? And then....can we offer people, in the name of Christ, a living example of God’s grace and healing? Sure, we probably won’t literally lift each other up by the hand right now. But we can lift each other up in other ways, in Christ’s name. We can share the gift we do have, rather than only focusing on what we don’t have. Peter didn’t have money to give, but he did have something else. What do we have? How can we offer that as grace to another, acting as the Body of Christ still living and active in the world?

I believe we can. Whether we look in each other’s eyes through a computer screen or a window, or by listening intently with our whole attention fixed on what the other person is saying from the other end of the phone, we can give each other the gift of being seen. And perhaps we will also then experience the gift of being seen, even if it makes us feel vulnerable, even if it is unfamiliar. There is nothing quite like the love that comes from truly being seen for who we are, from making eye contact with another person.

And then, in the name of Christ, we can give each other what we have. Whether that’s words of comfort, or a prayer, or a card in the post, or a friendly phone call, or picking up shopping and including a wee treat, or artwork in the window, or whatever we can do....we can lift each other up, in Jesus’ name.

Be ready for the opportunity in the encounters. Look, and really see. Offer what we have, in Christ. That’s how we will be his witnesses, even now, even here.

May it be so. Amen.

If there is someone else with you, maybe take a moment to practice: just look each other in the eye, without breaking eye contact, for a minute. Allow yourself to be seen, and take the time to really see, and to let love and grace be known.
If you are alone, you might try looking in the mirror. It can even be hard to meet our own eyes sometimes, but try to imagine that you are looking with Jesus’ vision, into your own eyes, and know yourself loved by God.
I also recommend the facebook or instagram accounts “Eyes of Children Around the World.” Take a moment to really look into the eyes of these people from different places, and to know them as equals, made in God’s image, beloved, too.

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