I have a confession to make.
I have never watched the entirety of the 8 minutes 46 seconds of Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck. I have heard about it on public radio. Read about it in the Times. Seen clips of it on the news. And even paused many times in silent prayer for the duration of it. But, I have been afraid to look. I haven’t wanted to see. Maybe some of you haven’t wanted to see it either.
I have recollections from childhood of walking through downtown streets tightly grasping my mother’s hand as we passed by people begging. “Don’t look,” she said. “Don’t stare.”
I think of all those times while watching a movie that I cover my eyes when I know something scary or violent is about to happen. And I remember times that as a mother I also covered my young son’s eyes.
There are, of course, other times when looking away is a wise approach. I can’t even watch someone giving me a shot without getting queasy. Even if it’s the long-awaited COVID vaccine. Passing out would not serve the nurse or me.
Today’s readings invite us to become more aware of what we choose to pay attention to and to those ways we turn away to avoid painful truths. Because our not seeing has consequences, sometimes fatal consequences, we are called to become mindful about our patterns as individuals, communities, and cultures of looking away and about those conscious choices we make to not see.
It is an existential challenge for us as individuals: we can’t see, what we can’t see. That is one reason it is essential that in loving relationships we point out to one another our blind spots. It can be the difference between life and death. I think of the cancerous mole that a friend found on another’s back; the journalists who uncover disturbing truths that politicians and corporations try to hide; the scientists who study the depths of the oceans and discover the ways in which the climate crisis threatens sea life and all of us. We need each other to see those things we can’t see on our own.
When it comes to not seeing, there is a spectrum of consciousness. There are those things we can’t see without someone else’s help, those things we miss seeing because we are focused elsewhere, those things we have made a habit of ignoring, and those things we consciously choose not to see or perhaps, turn away from. For some of us, not watching Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck may or may not be a conscious decision.
Since the Black Lives Matter marches began last summer, insisting that the country no longer look away from racial injustice, how often have we said to ourselves or heard others say, “I just didn’t know. I really had no idea how much Black people continue to be discriminated against in our society. I didn’t see it.” We must ask ourselves, why? How much of “not seeing” the reality of our Black brothers and sisters struggle has to do with habits of ignoring or looking away? Or even conscious choices of turning away?
In the passage from Numbers that Bud read, the Israelites are stuck in “not seeing.” Rather than focus on how God is providing for them, how grace is present in the midst of their difficulties, they complain about what is lacking. They seem to have amnesia – remembering only the marginally good from their time in Egypt, while forgetting the ways that slavery harmed them. By sending snakes, God offers them some perspective. It’s as if God was saying, “OK, Israelites, you think you have it bad? Let me show you what bad really is…”
When the Israelites ask for the snakes to be removed, God listens but does not give them what they want. Instead, God offers deliverance in a way they could never have expected. Rather than taking the snakes away, God has Moses put a copper snake on a pole. In order to be saved, the people have to confront the serpent — they have to look hard at what is biting, poisoning, and killing them.
The same goes for us. If we want to make our way through our difficulties, perhaps even grow from them, looking away is not the answer. Nor is even having them taken away by God. Instead, we are called to trust and act from the conviction that God is present in the midst of pain and suffering – even when we may not see or feel God’s presence. It is only when we take a sober look at exactly what is threatening us, with the assurance that God is with us as we do this, that we can begin to transform our challenges.
Jesse Benjamin, who spoke to us last week, is in recovery because he had the courage to look at the serpents in his life and to turn to God and others for help. Our country is on the path of healing from the Coronavirus, because we now have leaders who recognize the importance of dealing with the reality of it and are willing to do everything they can to make vaccines available. Immunization that protect us from disease often comes from the same virus that causes the illness. And because the Black community has insisted that we remember George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbury and too many others, we have another chance to confront the original sin of our country – racism – and work to create a more just society.
As long as we choose to avoid our problems – whether individual or collective – we are owned by them. The energy that goes into avoiding those things that pain us, drains us. Worse yet, when we choose to look away from our challenges we allow distance to grow between ourselves and whatever and whomever we are avoiding.
Though there are times in life when it is essential for our safety to avoid others or to find ways to work around our challenges, like during a pandemic, we are called to be conscious about those decisions. Is it really necessary to avoid family members with different political views or personalities? Does not going to the doctor out of fear for what might be found make sense, when whatever the medical problem is will only get worse when not attended to? Does avoiding a tough conversation bring people any closer?
Whenever we are in a situation that feels threatening to us, we can pause and ask ourselves: do we really trust that God is with us there? That is the belief that today’s Gospel invites us to embrace. What difference would it make in your life right now if you acted from the conviction that God is with you not just when things are going well, but in the midst of your greatest challenges? In the midst of the world’s greatest challenges?
In the gospel we hear, “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes may have eternal life.” Debie Thomas writes, “In the cross, we are forced to see what our refusal to love, our indifference to suffering, our craving for violence, our resistance to change, our hatred of difference, our addiction to judgment, and our fear of the Other must wreak. When the Son of Man is lifted up, we see with chilling and desperate clarity our need for a God who will take our most horrific instruments of death, and transform them, at great cost, for the purposes of resurrection.”
To look upon Jesus on the cross, is to contemplate the heartbreak of the world. Could there be any greater anguish than knowing that someone whose whole mission was love still faced such a gruesome, hate-filled end? To look upon Jesus on the cross, is to have our own hearts broken open with compassion. It is also to know that by the grace of God every distance between ourselves, others, and God can be healed through love.
All that we try to avoid, is in actuality a cry to us for love. And though sometimes we fear that the pain we would endure if we looked at the snakes in our lives and in the world would be too great to bear, the cross is a reminder that there is no pain that is too great for our God; no pain that God will not willingly bear with us and for us.
Whenever we resist going to the bedside of someone we love who is dying, or we look away from the homeless, or choose not to visit someone in the nursing home, or refuse to listen to the stories of our Black brothers and sisters, because all of these things feel too painful, we are denying that God is present in all of life. Our walk with Jesus in Lent is a reminder that God is crying out to us to look at and to pay attention to those situations we are afraid to see.
As long as I resist watching the video of Derek Chauvin and George Floyd, I keep that pain at a distance. As long as we don’t visit a loved one with advanced dementia, we keep that pain at a distance. As long as we stay in our safe neighborhoods, we keep pain at a distance. And it’s not just pain that we keep at a distance – it’s precious people, it’s God, its our own souls, who we keep at a distance.
It will never be easy for us to face those things and people we would rather avoid. But, look what happened when others watched the video of George Floyd’s death. They created a movement that is changing our hearts, our country, and the world.
Whenever we choose to enter another person’s pain, we can meet Jesus. And it’s in that place of greatest pain, where our hearts can open and new life can be born. So, if like me, you have not watched the Chauvin and Floyd video in its entirety, but feel called to do so, let’s watch together today after our virtual coffee hour at 11:30. We’ll pray before and after we watch it. It is going to be uncomfortable. We may be left speechless. We may cry. We may also have our hearts broken open. But, we can do it together, virtually hand in hand, hearts united, seeking God’s presence, ready to answer God’s call.
Trusting in God, may we each have the courage we need to face whatever or whomever we have been choosing to avoid. May we grow in awareness of the pain we would rather not see, so that we can become the healing and light the world needs. Amen.