A few months ago I conducted a funeral for a woman whom I didn’t know well. I saw her at the nursing home each month at our services and spoke a few words to her afterwards. Sometimes I dropped in to say a prayer if she was sick. I knew this woman in one time of her life – an old lady whose memory was slipping away and who was fragile and confused. She was gentle and had a lovely smile but was very dependent upon others for her life. This was how I knew her!
I met with her family to plan the service and they showed me photos of their mother. She had been young once and very pretty. She had been a mother of young children, a wife of a young husband. They had all manner of adventures through their lives. She had worked and been involved in community organisations and the church. I suddenly saw a woman, loving, fun and filled with energy and life but couldn’t recognise her as the same person. Surely these weren’t the same person, the same one? It took me a while to merge the images I had and had now received of this one that the family knew and I had known – they were different and the same.
It is a hard process to encounter an image of a person and then reconcile that image with some deeper reality that we don’t initially have. On Wednesday evening I attended the Sydney Alliance Assembly, along with 1500 people from across this city. These were people of all backgrounds, faiths (and no faith), workplaces and community organisations. There were representatives of the business community come to pledge co-operation in working together for the common good of all in this city.
Onto the stage walked a young man. He was dressed in jeans and a shirt, a non-descript young man. He told his story of growing up with his father who was chronically ill and unable to work. They lived a simple life and scraped by in relative poverty. All he wanted, he said, was a job! His father had not worked in this young man’s lifetime and he wanted to change that. Finding work for a young man from a disadvantaged background is very difficult because people look at you and wonder. They do not see the hope and dreams inside you – and the fear of failing yet again. They see the lack of confidence, the vulnerability and the lack sophistication. They see the clothes that don’t fit well or are scruffy and worn and think badly of you. They don’t understand that you can’t afford to replace them. ‘All I want is a job. Will you work with the Sydney Alliance to help this happen for me and the thousands of others who simply want to work?’
A bit later a man, around 30, walked onto the stage. He was nervous and read from his notes. His voice was strong and he was articulate. He told his story of having been a homeless youth, kicked out of home by a stepfather who took over and didn’t like him. He struggled to find a home, a safe place to live. He felt fear and confusion, alienation and a sense of being lost. Finally he was able to find a place to live – off the streets he got life under control and in order. From a home base he could begin to straighten his life out and learn and grow – and be safe. He spoke of the importance of having a home. I tried to imagine this young man a decade ago living loose on the streets with nowhere to go when the nights grew cold and wet. I tried to imagine this young man in the image of those I’ve met wandering the streets of Parramatta, dirty and gruff, covered in the grime of life and realised that they too were people. There was someone else in there I had never known, a human being, unique and loved by God, if not humanity. This man asked if we would work with the Sydney Alliance to help make housing available to all who needed a place to call home?
There are so many others I now think about, people whose outward appearance or demeanour I see but whose fundamental humanity I am blind to. I know something about them and their circumstances but I don’t really know them because I haven’t really seen or listened to their story. I see aboriginal people on dirty city streets lost and covered with life’s grime but don’t understand that these are people wounded by circumstance and injustice, broken and alienated. I wonder who they are inside. I see asylum seekers and hear some of their stories but wonder who they are and how they came to be here. Why are they here? Why did they come on leaking boats across dangerous oceans? Do I see and hear the fear and desperation in their simple stories confused by language and uncertainty about what they should say or limited by the pain of their story? So much I never see or hear or understand but still I judge on the basis of my own ignorance and that of others.
The gospel story (John 9:1-41) this week is one in which we encounter a man born blind. In his culture people believed this must be a curse of God and wondered who was to blame – the man or his parents? He becomes a dilemma and more-so when Jesus heals his blindness. Those who knew him are no longer sure because all they saw was a blind man who was helpless and begged. How could he ever be anything else? Surely he was at fault and his life determined for him – a blind beggar? The religious leaders get involved and are angry that Jesus upsets the status quo of the world where crippled, blind and poor know their place and everyone keeps them there. He does this on the Sabbath and that only makes it worse. They quiz those who know the man and they are confused because he is different, stepped out of his box and they can’t see him differently. His parents are confused and tell them to speak to him – he’s a man. They speak to the man and each time he gets more frustrated – ‘This is me!’ he seems to say. ‘Look at me I see – I couldn’t but now I do. Jesus did it and I praise God!! Get over it!’
But people find it hard ‘to get over it’ because we see people as we see them not as they are or can be. We see them with the grime of life on their faces and in their words and attitudes. We see them through eyes of fear or prejudice or a kind of knowing that keeps truth out. We hold them at arm’s length not wanting them in ‘our world’.
Jesus looked into the heart, beyond the superficial bruises and pain, without the fear of others and offered love, simple, pure love. It made all the difference. He looked with love not judgement and God was in this healing, reconciling and opening people to new hope.