“Watch out for Others” Colchester Federated Church, September 27, 2020, (Philippians 2:1-13) Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

A rabbi once asked his students how they could tell when night had ended and day was returning.  One of the students asked, “Is it when you can see an animal in the distance, and can tell whether it’s a sheep or a dog?”  “No,” answered the rabbi.  Another student asked, “Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance, and can tell whether it’s a fig tree or a peach tree?”  “No,” answered the rabbi.  The students gave up and the rabbi said that you can tell when day is returning, “When you look on the face of another human being, and see that he or she is your brother or sister.  Because if you cannot do that, then no matter what time it is, it is still night.”[1]

Looking on the face of another person and seeing that the person standing in front of us is part of our human family is not always simple.  Sure, we can probably tell that they are a person and not a fig tree or a dog.  Though do we truly believe that they are created in the image and likeness of God just as we are?  Do we truly believe that they have the divine spark in them just like we do?  What if that person disagrees with everything that we stand for?  What if they’re just mean?  Given the divisive times in which we are currently living—it may be harder to even try this spiritual exercise these days.  Just simply look at somebody and truly see them as your brother or sister who God loves just as much as God loves you. 

There’s psychological realities behind the power of eye contact.  If we’ve ever seen a romantic movie and two people lock eyes across a crowded room—it’s as if time stands still and the scene changes.  Maybe the background gets lighter or darker.  Maybe the music swells or softens.  It’s as if those two people are the only two people in the whole room, maybe the whole world.  The tension is palpable as the audience wonders what will happen next.  The end of Sleepless in Seattle is the perfect example as Sam and Annie finally meet on top of the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day.  The look they share is all we really get as we assume that their future is bright, and they will be together forever.

Well, the power of eye contact isn’t just felt in romantic movies.  In fact there was an article by Dr. Christian Jarrett in the BBC about the power of meeting another person’s gaze.  Dr. Jarrett related that gazing at someone does grab and hold peoples’ attention to the point that we become less aware of what’s happening around us.  There’s some truth to those intense gazes in romantic movies after all.  Meeting another person’s gaze engages a whole series of brain processes because we start to make sense of the fact that we are relating to the mind of the other person who is currently looking at us.  So we become conscious that the other person has agency—they can exert their own power, they are their own person.  Who they are is distinct and separate from who we are.  And then we sometimes become a little self-conscious.  Have we ever made eye contact with someone and it was so intense (or possible even unsettling) that we found we had to look away?[2] 

In the earliest years of my ministry, I would preach every single Sunday as a Solo Pastor just like I do now.  From all my years of training in Speech and Debate, Student Congress, Model United Nations, and the North Carolina Student Legislature I would make direct eye contact with my parishioners as I was preaching.  That is public speaking 101 right there.  Command the space.  Be aware of your body.  Speak with confidence.  Annunciate.  Make eye contact with members of your audience one by one or at least in sections.  So that’s what I did—and a few people shared that my eye contact while preaching made them uncomfortable.  Like I was preaching directly to them and that felt intimidating.  Keep in mind, my style is not fire and brimstone.  If there’s messages that I share over and over in sermons it’s that God loves you, so go out there and love your neighbors and the whole world.  That God’s grace is freely given.  That our God is a God of new life and second chances.  That faith without works is dead, and it matters that we’re living out our Christian beliefs.  Not exactly negative or scary messages.  But yes, that was feedback from some of my parishioners—direct eye contact from me in the pulpit during sermons was a little too intense.

And there’s something behind that feeling from a psychological perspective, so it didn’t offend me to hear that and it wasn’t feedback that should have been dismissed.  If we have ever held the gaze of a primate at the zoo, even sometimes our pets at home—we may have gotten this feeling that we are being scrutinized or even judged.  Those are feelings we have inside from eye contact with animals, how much more pronounced are those feelings from eye contact with fellow people?  Here’s what’s amazing, Dr. Jarrett shares that even looking at a portrait painting hanging on a wall that appears to be making eye contact has been shown to trigger a whole response in our brains related to social cognition.  Regions of our brains literally light up that are involved in thinking about ourselves and our relationship to others—from looking at a portrait on a wall that we know isn’t an actual person judging us.  Though our brains don’t seem to know that!  That is the power behind meeting another person’s gaze.  It’s intimate because maybe our eyes are in fact windows to our souls as the old saying goes.[3]

This morning we can recall that Paul told the believers in Philippi, “Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.”[4]  He implored their community to imitate Christ by humbling themselves and thinking of other people so that we will all feel encouraged in Christ.  In order to watch out for others, it starts with actually seeing one another as beloved children of God.  Because how can I watch out for you if I don’t even see you?  If I don’t first recognize you as part of the human family with me? 

Jesus had the ability to see people on the margins that everybody else ignored or even despised.  It matters that he kept company with tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, people deemed “sinners” for various reasons.  In fact, Jesus preferred to hang out with them over folks deemed “religious and righteous” at the time!  Jesus was able to see everybody’s humanity, though what made him radical was seeing the inherent worth and dignity of people that others just couldn’t see.  Jesus lived out those words from the other rabbi that unless we can look on the face of another human being and see them as a person created in the image and likeness of God, it will always be night.  May we walk in his footsteps and go out and do likewise.  Thanks to be God.  Amen.

[1] Margaret Silf, Ed.  “Signs of Daybreak,” in One Hundred Wisdom Stories from Around the World, 84.
[2] Dr. Christian Jarrett, “Why meeting another’s gaze is so powerful,” BBC, January 8, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190108-why-meeting-anothers-gaze-is-so-powerful
[3] Jarrett, “Why meeting another’s gaze is so powerful,” BBC, January 8, 2019.
[4] Philippians 2:4, Common English Bible.