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"Truly Seeing" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - April 22, 2018

posted Apr 23, 2018, 9:59 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

I’m going to tell you something that will make you wonder if I really am the gourmand I pretend to be.  Years ago, back in the nineties, when Jay and I first moved here to Milwaukee, we needed a gift to take to his brother and family out in Oregon.  We wanted something that captured “Wisconsin” but also fit their interests. They love wine. So, we thought, the perfect gift would be a bottle of Cedarburg Winery’s Cranberry Blush.

Jeff and Eddy were very polite when we gave them our Wisconsin vin de pays (or really, vin de bog).  The bottle went on a shelf by the stairs to the basement, ready to go down to their extensive cellar of Oregon and California reds.  I didn’t think about it until a few years later, when we were back to visit. Our cranberry wine had aged in place, a gift they couldn’t toss and yet one that didn’t belong in their cellar.

By then Jeff and Eddy had worked to raise our standards.  And so, to thank them for a case of wine they sent, we wanted to find another gift.  But this time Jay had thought to learn the name of their special wine glasses. So back in Milwaukee we headed out to George Watts, the fanciest china and crystal shop in town at that time.  We faced a wall of choices. But luckily Jay had surreptitiously measured his brother’s wine glass. He pulled out a special measuring device that only an engineer would own and started checking the openings - apertures, Jay called them - of the glasses, looking for a match.

A salesman rushed over; “Can I help you?”  Of course, he meant so much more: the arch of the eyebrows turning it into, “What in the world are you doing?” and the purse of the lips declaring, “You don’t belong here.”

Have you had moments like that, moments when you were made to feel you didn’t belong?  A moment when you were like our bottle of cranberry wine, left outside the cellar where the cool wine bottles gathered?  Or looked at like you didn’t belong in a store? A time when the friendly sounding question “May I help you?” made clear the ugly message that you were out of place?

I keep returning to questions of belonging, and especially the feeling of not-belonging, this Spring.  In part this is because our educational focus on immigration causes me to think more deeply about who we say belongs and who we say doesn’t.  But the news this week made these questions of belonging or not belonging impossible for me to ignore.

A week ago, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson walked into a Starbucks in Philadelphia to meet a business partner.  The two African-American men sat at a table as they waited; within two minutes the white manager called 911 to report them for trespassing.  Cops arrived and arrested the men. It made clear: you don’t belong here.

Recently Rashon and Donte spoke about their experience.  At first, they were surprised; it hadn’t occurred to them that the police were there for them.  But then shock gave way to the dispiriting reality, an all too familiar reality black people encounter in white spaces.

I heard their story while praying about our reading today from 1 John; their story particularly caught me as I thought about John’s point, “Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”

Sometimes people want to separate the spiritual from the political, the heavenly concerns from the earthly reality, but John makes clear that we can’t talk about loving God if we don’t see our sisters and brothers.

And so, this week Rashon and Donte made me “see” the experience of people made to feel they don’t belong.  Not just these two in Philadelphia, but also undocumented immigrants, and all our sisters and brothers who get told directly or implicitly, “You don’t belong.”

But a detail of Rashon’s and Donte’s story also made me hear God’s word in a new and deeper way.  John spoke of the importance of “seeing” our sisters and brothers. I’ve often taken that at face value.  But the story of Rashon and Donte made me think about the ways in which we see. Not just whom do you see, but how do you see?

In the case of Rashon and Donte: obviously the manager didn’t see them as customers but as threats; not as people in Starbuck’s vaunted third space, but as dangers.  And yet, Donte had been coming to that Starbucks since he was fifteen; eight years a customer and still treated an outsider. Which means that Donte went into that Starbucks for eight years and no one really saw him.

And this doesn’t just happen to young black men.  A few years ago, the distinguished Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested entering his own home.  No amount of talent stopped his white neighbor from calling police when he fumbled at the lock on his door; his white neighbor just saw a dangerous black man.

This amplifies John’s challenge in his letter.  How do we see our sisters and brothers?

Of course, sometimes we see the person right in front of us as a sister or brother but fail to see how systemic racism will affect them.  Which is what happened in a small rural community in Washington State. Police chief Flint Wright really liked the idea of cracking down on undocumented immigrants; he saw it as a chance to kick drug dealers out of the country.

But then ICE agents arrested his friend, Mario Rodriguez.  Mario came to the US on a visa, but it expired years ago. He lived and worked in the community for decades, undocumented but very much part of the fabric of the small town.  As Chief Wright said, “Anybody would like to have him as a neighbor.”

And then ICE came, arresting Mario and sending him off to a deportation center.  The arrest of Mario and others is disrupting the fragile economy of the town because the few industries open depend on immigrants, documented and undocumented.  Which is why Rev. Tracy Blackmon, one of the national leaders of our Christian movement, asks, “In what sense can people central to our economy not belong to our society?”


Now Chief Wright goes to church, and wonders if the Latino family he hasn’t seen for a few weeks is just busy or just deported.  He saw people in his life as sisters and brothers, but he couldn’t see the power of prejudice affecting people he cared about, until it was too late.

This happens not just in Washington, but throughout the country, even to people who defend our nation, people like Miguel Perez, who served two tours of duty in Iraq with the army.  But then, after a non-violent drug arrest, got deported. Seen as a fellow soldier by his brothers-in-arms, but now cast out.

What would it mean to truly see our sisters and brothers?  To see Mario as a good neighbor. And to see how crucial his work was to the industry of his town.  To see Miguel for his military service. And to see the PTSD that he ineffectively addressed with drugs and alcohol.  To see both Mario and Miguel and the systemic racism that affects their lives.

Returning to 1 John can help us imagine what it would be like to truly see our sisters and brothers.  The passage describes love as the central characteristic of God; God is love. This can easily be taken to saccharine heights.  But instead, John pointed to the cross in order for us to understand what the love of God means, a self-sacrificing love that put others before the self.  As it says elsewhere in scripture: “Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard belonging with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of an outsider, being born in human likeness.”  That same Jesus taught his disciples to live like him when he gave them the Greatest Commandment: love God and love neighbor. John echoed that commandment in our key verse: to love God whom we do not see, we have to love the neighbors we do see.

Throughout the passage, John presented God’s love as something that came before we deserved it.  God doesn’t set up a quid pro quo relationship: we do this, God does that. As Biblical scholar Clinton Black explained, “God has decided in our favor apart from our ability to reciprocate, gracing us with love prior to and independent of any response we might offer, for no reason other than that love is the very nature of God.”  God doesn’t love us because we desire it or earned it or were born into it or have the right passport. God loves us regardless, no matter what.

And just as God sees us, just as God sees us as lovable, no matter what, we’re called to see other people too, to see them as lovable, to see like God sees.  This means loving our sisters and brothers much like our hearts respond in love to Eleanor this morning, not because she has done something to deserve our love but because seeing her, we can’t help but feel love.

You see that look of love in me when I hold a baby I’m going to baptize.  And recently I began to think about that feeling - that holy seeing - while reading something of Hannah Arendt, the German Jewish philosopher.  Arendt, having lived through the genocidal prejudice of the fascists, thought deeply about the nature of freedom. For her, freedom fundamentally meant “the capacity to begin, to start something new, to do the unexpected.”  She looked back to the fact of our birth to understand this freedom, developing a notion of our natality.

Our natality - our birth - makes us miracle workers.  She wrote, “It is in the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever may have happened before.  This character of startling unexpectedness is inherent in all beginnings.” That’s certainly the miracle I see as a parent, the startling unexpectedness of my kids.  Even when it makes me nervous - like when my son David flies a plane and practices stalling the engine - the joy in parenting is that miracle of discovering who our children will be.

That’s the look God gives to us, that look of loving anticipation for the startlingly unexpectedness our lives will reveal.  That’s how we look at Eleanor this morning, as a miracle of revelation, whom we love and know will do the unexpected. And that’s how God calls us to love our sisters and brothers too.

Understanding how we can see our sisters and brothers makes it even more clear the narrow way some are viewed.  When Rashon and Donte entered Starbucks, the manager didn’t see them as miracles. No, instead the manager attributed to them all the racist expectations young black men face in our society.  Even though Donte had come there for eight years, the manager still only expected a threat and a danger.

And too often we don’t see the undocumented people in our lives.  We might, like Police Chief Wright, see Mario as the good neighbor.  But do we see all the ways our society confines Mario’s unexpected gifts?  Or do we fail to see the startling patriotism of a veteran of two tours in Iraq who now can’t live in the country he loves and would die for?

How would our discussions of race and immigration and everything be different if we looked at people as God does, expected them to be miracles, anticipating with loving eyes their startling unexpectedness?

Barbara Bush, who died this last week, wasn’t perfect but I really appreciated a story I read of how she tried to look at people this way.  Timothy Naftali, a writer, met with Bush a couple of years ago. As he petted one of her dogs, she warned him, “Careful of that one, he bites anyone who hugs me.”  The author said to Mrs. Bush, “But I haven’t asked your permission to hug you.”  And he thought to himself, “What stranger would try to hug a Secret Service protectee before asking?”  Quick witted Bush replied, “If I don’t like you, I will let you.”

But a conversation later in the day startled him even more.  Barbara Bush brought up an appointment by then President Obama of a transgender person to a high position in government.  Bush said she didn’t have a problem with the person being transgender but wondered why this status had to be announced. The author and the former First Lady talked about this for a while, with the author lifting up what a high-profile appointment meant for the Transgender community.  Bush wasn’t convinced.

Naftali worried he’d become too informal with Mrs. Bush.  A few day later, Bush wrote the friend who arranged Naftali’s visit; she said, “I so enjoyed the lunch and Tim won the argument or he changed my mind about so much.”  While he and Bush disagreed about many things, he appreciated her openness - even at ninety - to keep learning new things and in particular to learn how she might have been wrong before.

And so, what if we looked at people the way Bush did in that moment: open to learn what we don’t know, open to finding out how we’ve been wrong, open to changing our mind by how people startle us.

As we continue to work on issues of racial equity and immigrant justice, I pray that we can learn to look at our sisters and brothers the way God looks at us: with eyes open to each other’s startling unexpectedness.  May we see everyone we meet with the same loving eyes with which we see Eleanor this morning.

Alleluia and Amen.


  • Anderson, Elijah, “The White Space,” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, 2015.

  • d'Entreves, Maurizio Passerin, "Hannah Arendt", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL.

  • Naftali, Timothy, “Barbara Bush Changed with Her Country,” The Atlantic, April 18, 2018, URL.

  • Reno, R., “The Public Square,” First Things, 2017.

  • Shapiro, Nina, “A Washington county that went for Trump is shaken as immigrant neighbors start disappearing,” Seattle Times, Nov. 15, 2017, URL.

  • Siegel, Rachel, “‘They can’t be here for us’: Black men arrested at Starbucks tell their story for the first time,” Washington Post, April 19, 2018, URL.