When was it that we saw you?
Rev. Dr. Donna Giver-Johnston
July 28, 2019
Show youtube video of Daniel Simon’s experiment in attention blindness—“the invisible gorilla” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGQmdoK_ZfY
Did you miss the gorilla? How could you miss it? You wonder. It was right there in plain sight.
Well, you are not alone.
The experiment shows that if people are looking for a gorilla, then they see a gorilla, but if they are focused on white shirted people passing a basketball, then at least half of the observers will miss the gorilla, or the black team player leaving the game or the curtain changing color. Simon’s point is this: What we are looking for, what we expect to see, determines largely what we see. But we miss obvious realities when our attention is on something else.
What does this have to do with our gospel reading for today?
In Matthew 25, when the Son of man comes for the final judgment, people are separated into two groups, as a shepherd separates sheep and goats: the sheep, the righteous ones who care for those in need are rewarded with eternal life; while the goats, the accursed are given eternal punishment.
The righteous ask: When was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? When was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? When was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?
The accursed ask: When was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not take care of you?
The righteous and the accursed could not be more different.
And yet, curiously they ask the same question: When was it that we saw you, Jesus?
The point Jesus is making is to care for the least, the last and the lost, yes, by all means.
And so we do. This summer, we are bringing in items and giving money to support the organizations that care for people in need in our community. But if we are only focused on passing our money or cereal or toilet paper collected from one group in need to the next, then we might miss the most important part.
In Simon’s experiment, people focus so intently on the basketball passed by the white shirts that they block out the black ones. When the gorilla arrives in his black gorilla suit, many see him as just another part of the background. This is called attention or observation blindness.
In a Christian Century article (July 2019), Andrew Root discusses the book A Secular Age by Charles Taylor, who argues that in the modern era our attention has been drawn away from what our ancestors thought was obvious: that a personal God acts and moves in the world.
Today, God is in the background and our attention is on material things. Most people pay attention to what society deems most important. They can’t, as it were, stop counting the number of basketball passes—or focusing on their bank accounts, Twitter followers, product promotions, or consumer purchases—to attend to something different.
And yet, real experiences of divine action occur. The problem is not that God is not visible but that (to pursue the analogy) God is the gorilla to whose appearance we have been blinded.
Jesus says, “Just as you cared for one of the least of these, who are members of my family, you did it to me.” That is, whenever we are caring for others, Jesus shows up. And the best way that we have to make sure that we don’t miss Jesus is to train our eyes to see Jesus, and the best place to see him is where he abides—in the faces of those most in need.
I went on the church mission trip two weeks ago. Bob and Bruce were the skilled builders. Marty and Steve and Linda were the helpers and encouragers. I was the organizer, making sure people got from place to place. I was focused on making sure the teams were in the right places and were passing the ball of duties. My attention was so focused on counting the people and projects that I nearly missed, if you will, the gorilla. But, every once in awhile, thankfully, I got a glimpse of Jesus in our midst.
One night we served food at the Rescue Mission in Youngstown. The cook instructed us to give only 1 hot dog per person, and we did. But near the end of the night, when there were just a few people left to serve and many hot dogs left, a man who was dirty, disheveled, and looked hungry asked for two, Steve looked around, and not seeing the cook, he gave the man two hot dogs.
It was almost as if I could hear Jesus saying, “I was hungry and you gave me food.”
One day, at a food pantry, Big Reach Center of Hope, each of us helped a client walk around to get groceries. I was paired with Sharon, who was there to feed her 5 children. At every stop, I told her what she could have—1 can from this shelf, 2 boxes from this shelf. At the refrigerator section, I read the sign and said, “you can take one bottle for every member of your family.” And she said, “Really?” I said, yes. She said, “Wow!” She smiled as she counted out 7 bottles of juice and put them in her cart.
It was almost as if I could hear Jesus saying, “I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.”
One night we went to a playground in a rough part of Youngstown, marked by poverty, crime and drug houses. A pastor and his wife had moved into the community and started a Wednesday night picnic, with hot dogs for all and games for the kids. I watched as Clark double dutch jump roped with a young girl; Linda bounced a baby on her hip, and Rachel drew a picture of Minnie mouse to color for a girl with beads in her hair. On another night, at God’s Choice service, mentally and physically challenged adults gathered for a meal and worship. Jessie colored with a woman in a wheelchair. Tim sang with a man who put up his finger as he sang, “this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”
It was almost as if I could hear Jesus saying, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”
Today, there are many balls to keep our eyes on. But whatever you do, don’t miss Jesus. He may be wearing a gorilla suit. But more likely he will be in the faces of the people all around us.
What the world needs now is love, sweet love, and it all starts with us seeing the least of these as Jesus himself.
May it be so. Amen.