Seeing the humanity, despite the story

Pentecost 19, Proper 21C

Bless us, Merciful God, with eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to discern your presence among us.  Amen.

I’ve been deeply troubled this week.  I guess, in some ways, this week isn’t all that different from many other weeks, but this week, the events facing our world seem to be a little more impactful.  There have been so many troubling news stories to follow.  In addition to the bombs in New Jersey and New York City, we’ve been peppered with reports of an increasingly contentious and tense election season, and the ongoing reports of police shootings and violence and protests.

It all came to a head for me on Friday.  I had been to lunch with a friend and colleague, and I was on my way back home, listening to the radio in the car.  A new video had come out showing more of the details surrounding the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott by police officers in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Since I was in my car, I could only hear the video and not see it.  I heard Mr. Scott’s wife pleading with the police, begging them not to shoot him.  I heard her try to tell the police that her husband had suffered a traumatic brain injury, and that whatever his troubling actions may have appeared to be, it was probably just a misunderstanding.

But what was most troubling to me was, that as I was listening to this report, and to Mrs. Scott’s pleading, the *pop pop pop* of the gunshots – my first honest thought was, “Now which shooting is this?”

As that internal question set in, it chilled me.  We’re living in a world where reports of police violence against the citizens they are sworn to protect has become so pervasive that it’s hard to even keep the various incidents together in our minds.  If we’re not careful, one can almost blend into the others.  If we’re not careful, we could allow ourselves to stop seeing the humanity involved, and to only see the “story” as it’s reported on the news.

And there’s a lot of humanity in each of these stories.  There’s certainly the ones who are shot, and the ones who care about them.  But we also should never forget the humanity of the police officers – the ones whose lives are forever changed for having taken another’s life.  The ones who could lose their careers if they’re found at fault, and who, even if they don’t get fired or prosecuted, will forever hold the stain of the traumatic event.  Not to mention all of those people who love the officers, and who have to support them through the media storm and the protests and the administrative leave and all that follows.  And the humanity that exists in our wider communities: there are the many who live in increased fear for their own safety, or that of their loved ones.

There’s plenty of humanity to go around.  And it’s too easy for us to miss it when we just see the story.

So, that’s where I found myself this week as I engaged once again with the parable of Lazarus and the rich man.  In this story, Jesus tell us about a poor man, named Lazarus, who spent his days at the gate of a rich man’s home, hoping to earn whatever scraps he could collect from the rich man’s excesses to sustain his pitiful existence.  In time, both of the men – Lazarus and the rich man – died.  Lazarus, in his death, went to sit beside Abraham, and to enjoy all his rewards.  The rich man, however, was sent to hell, to be tormented by flames and discomfort.  Perhaps the greatest hell he faced, however, was that he could see Lazarus, just out of reach, enjoying all the excesses that he, the rich man, had once taken for granted.  In his anguish, he called out to Abraham, begging that he send Lazarus to offer comfort.  When Abraham refused, the rich man then begged to have Lazarus sent to warn his family, but Abraham reminded the rich man that they had the wisdom of the law and the prophets to guide them, and if that weren’t enough to show them the path to righteousness, nothing would be.

The rich man, in his life, had seen Lazarus, but in him, he didn't see Lazarus - at least not all that there was to see.  He saw a person of no value.  He saw only what he expected, not what was really there.  He didn’t see the humanity of Lazarus, but only a beggar.

In the stories of police shootings against black men, the same is true.  Our social system sets up certain people as violent.  Dangerous.  People to be defended against.  It has trained us, and those public servants who have been entrusted with the task of defending and protecting us, to see certain ones of as the enemy.  The truth of our realities – whether we are enemies or not, whether we are dangerous or not – is of less importance.  What becomes important, in a system like that, is classifications, not humanity.  That's why it's easier for police to kill some people than others.  That's why it's harder for certain members of our society to have that presumption of innocence that we all should be able to take for granted. 

The question in the story of Keith Lamont Scott isn’t whether or not he had a gun.  The police said he did and his wife said he didn’t.  I don’t know the answer to that.  People closer to the situation and more informed will be making that determination.  I simply can’t.

But it shouldn’t matter if he did have a gun.  North Carolina is an “open carry” state.  It’s perfectly legal to carry a gun, even if you’re black.  North Carolina is one of those states where we see pictures of white men carrying guns in stores and fast food restaurants, and no one questions them.

But a black man is seen as dangerous.  A black man, alone in his car, is seen as a threat.  Not as a person, but as no more than the sum of what is expected of him.

The purpose of all that I’ve said, however, is not to rail against police.  The story may prove to be more complicated, and we don’t know how it will end.  And, God knows, there are plenty of stories of police officers being shown to be heros.  I don’t want to fall into the same trap of seeing classifications instead of people.  Instead, what I want to rail against is that urge that exists within all of us to see what we expect of others before we see the others themselves.  What I want to protest is the blindnesses we have when it comes to people who we perceive as being different from us, or somehow unworthy of the excesses and benefits that we enjoy.

It’s true that our society has a system in place that denies the humanity of some of its members – particularly black men.  And we have an obligation as individuals to recognize our place in that system: the ways that we benefit from it, and the ways that we contribute to it, knowingly and unknowingly.  It’s also true that we can use this trying time in our collective experience as an opportunity to examine our own blindnesses more broadly – to seize this moment from being just one of anguish, to being one of growth.  How can we better recognize the humanity around us, both socially and individually?

The great sin of the rich man was not his wealth, but that he was blinded by self-absorption.  The only humanity he could see was his own – and that of those closest to him.  He missed the humanity – the value – of the people around him.

Lazarus' virtue was not that he was poor, but that he was aware.

We have Moses and the prophets.  We have the examples and the teachings of Jesus.  We have the parable of Lazarus and the rich man.  We have so much that points us toward seeing, embracing, and honoring the humanity of all of those others around us.  Don’t be like the rich man.  Don’t ignore all that we have and remain blinded to seeing only our own experiences.  Don’t be unwilling to see the wisdom and the gifts of the others.

We have to train ourselves to recognize, to accept, and to appreciate the humanity of those who blend into the backgrounds of our lives.  Only then will we see Christ.  Amen.