"Eye Contact"

Sermon November 23, 2014

Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46

“Eye Contact”

 

A New York Times story a few years ago began like this: “On a cold November night in Times Square, Officer Lawrence DePrimo was working a counterterrorism post when he encountered an older, barefooted homeless man. The officer disappeared for a moment, then returned with a new pair of boots, and knelt to help the man put them on.” In Albuquerque, we don’t often hear of stories like this. I am sure they happen every day, but they don’t sell newspapers. In fact the story about Officer DePrimo wouldn’t be news except that a tourist from Arizona snapped a picture and showed it to someone who posted it on Facebook and it went viral. Officer DePrimo was unaware of the photographer, but when the Facebook post was viewed by 1.6 million people within 24 hours, DePrimo found himself in the center of the news. “The officer, normally assigned to the Sixth Precinct in the West Village, readily recalled the encounter. ‘It was freezing out and you could see the blisters on the man’s feet,’ he said in an interview. ‘I had two pairs of socks and I was still cold.’ They started talking; he found out the man’s shoe size: 12.

 

As the man walked slowly down Seventh Avenue on his heels, Officer DePrimo went into a Skechers shoe store at about 9:30 p.m. ‘We were just kind of shocked,’ said Jose Cano, a manager working at the store that night. ‘Most of us are New Yorkers and we just kind of pass by that kind of thing. Especially in this neighborhood.’

Mr. Cano volunteered to give the officer his employee discount to bring down the regular $100 price of the all-weather boots to a little more than $75. The officer has kept the receipt in his vest since then, he said, ‘to remind me that sometimes people have it worse.’” (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/29/nyregion/photo-of-officer-giving-boots-to-barefoot-man-warms-hearts-online.html?_r=0)

 

What do you hear in a story like that? Does it tap into something in you? Perhaps it calls to mind a time you responded to a need or perhaps it reminds you of a time when you didn’t respond. Frankly, I find every instance like that difficult. I don’t want it to be. I want to be the one who knows exactly how to respond. Instead, I always wonder what is the right thing to do. Several years ago, a friend came to a conclusion. She might or might not give someone money or whatever they might be asking for her, but she would always look them in the eye when she responded to them. She recognized the opportunity to honor their dignity as human beings. I wasn’t thinking of that recently when I was downtown on a Friday evening walking on my iWalk and feeling a bit unsteady. I was hoping that no one would stop me and ask for anything because I was feeling rather vulnerable.

 

The weather is getting cold and the needs increase in this season. I was so disheartened on Tuesday to read that 29% of children in New Mexico live in poverty. We rank 46th (50 being the worst) in child homelessness. I spent a good portion of that day on the phone with people and organizations asking how we can help. I am so aware that two days before that, we had a Town Hall meeting where we talked about our rental property sitting empty for nearly a year and a half. I wonder where God is calling us at this time. Why do we have this really large building and two empty houses next door? On Tuesday evening the Peace with Justice team met with the Executive Committee to talk about joining the Sanctuary movement. Our task is to figure out what that will look like. How can we read the gospel lesson this morning and say we will not care for the least of these who have no one to advocate for them?

 

There is a great temptation to believe we are alone and fail to see the profound thread that connects the entire human race. We get caught up in our lives and miss the opportunity right in front of us calling us deeper into our own humanity and more deeply into connection with other human beings.

 

That cold night as I walked down the street from the Kimo theater, I had just left an event with Naomi Shihab-Nye. I have known of Naomi and her poetry for several years. Her poems are stories of encounters she has in ordinary places and provide a beautiful portrait of human connection. That evening I witnessed her warmth and graciousness and I didn’t want to leave. It felt as though she knew something about us that would set us free. I could feel the incredible freedom she knows from allowing her heart to be moved by the people she encounters. One of her best-loved poems took place here at the Sunport airport after 9/11. It’s called Gate A-4:

 

Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning

my flight had been delayed for four hours, I heard an announcement:

“If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please

come to the gate immediately.”

 

Well--one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.

 

An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just

like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly. “Help,"

said the flight service person. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We

told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”

 

I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke to her haltingly.

“Shu-dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit-

se-wee?” The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly

used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled

entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the

next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later, who is

picking you up? Let’s call him.”

 

We called her son and I spoke with him in English. I told him I would

stay with his mother till we got on the plane and would ride next to

her--Southwest. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just

for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while

in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I

thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know

and let them chat with her? This all took up about two hours.

 

She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life, patting my knee,

answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool

cookies--little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and

nuts--out of her bag--and was offering them to all the women at the gate.

To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a

sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the

lovely woman from Laredo--we were all covered with the same powdered

sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.

 

And then the airline broke out free beverages from huge coolers and two

little girls from our flight ran around serving us all apple juice and they

were covered with powdered sugar, too. And I noticed my new best friend--

by now we were holding hands--had a potted plant poking out of her bag,

some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country tradi-

tion. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.

 

And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This

is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that

gate--once the crying of confusion stopped--seemed apprehensive about

any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other

women, too.

 

This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.

 

When I found out Naomi was coming to Albuquerque, I was so excited. I read this poem to my kids so they would know who she was. I felt my throat catch because this poem takes us deeply into our shared humanity and offers hope simply by saying yes to the person in front of us. The opportunity is there all the time. We stand in line at the grocery store while the clerk numbly rings up our total. We talk on the phone with tech support when our computer freezes and don’t even try to contain our irritation that we are having to make this call. We get out of our car at the gas station and someone is there asking for help. What do we do? Do we see Christ in the people we encounter? Do we hear Christ in those terribly long tech support calls? The thing that we hear in the story is that neither the sheep nor goats thought they were helping Jesus. The sheep were simply responding to the one in front of them. The goats were chastised not for what they did wrong, but for doing nothing at all.

 

Today is the last day of the Church Year. It is called the Reign of Christ and we are given a glimpse of this one we follow. The story shows us not a distant king on a throne, but a vulnerable human being who is hungry, thirsty, naked, and sick. It invites us to be Christ to one another by simply looking each other in the eye and saying yes to the one we find there.