What Do You See – Br. James Koester

One of the reasons why I like going to church, is that I love to people watch. I like to watch people as they come in and find a place. I like to see where people sit, and how some people always sit in the same place. I like to see who comes early and who comes late. (And you didn’t think we noticed!)

Mostly I love to watch people go up for communion. I love to see the expectation (and sometime the boredom) in their faces. I like to see the awe that some are filled with as they stretch out their hands to receive the bread and wine. And I especially like to look at hands at that moment: the smooth you hands and the old wrinkled hands, hands that are beautifully kept and those marked by dirt and grit. If truth be told, at church at least, I’m a people watcher.

It all started several years ago when I came across an article in one of those church publications that seem to pile up on clergy desks. This one caught my eye, because it was called something like “People Watching in Church”. Not, I admit, a very imaginative title but the catch is, that the article wasn’t really about people watching, it was about prayer.

The author’s premise was that, when all else fails: when the sermon is imponderable, when the music is dull, when the liturgy fails to spark, when you can’t make head nor tail out of the readings, when you are beginning to wonder why you bothered to come to church at all, lift up your head, and look around you. Watch people. Watch the ones you know, and the ones you don’t. Watch people, and pray for them.

Pray for the ones who come alone week by week. Pray for the ones who are on their way home from work or who have just dashed over from a late class. Pray for the parents you see here who have left the kids at home with a sitter for the evening and who make this liturgy the first stop in their regular “date night”. Pray for the ones you have never seen before, or the ones you haven’t seen in a long time. Pray for the elders in the congregation who may be here tonight because they know someone will talk to them after a day of silence. Pray for those who are here craving a moment of silence in their day. Pray for those who look lost, and for those who are lost. Pray for them all, because as you do so, you never know what you’ll see.

I imagine that Simeon and Anna where people watchers. These two old people who spent their time in the Temple day after day after day. They probably saw quite a lot. They watched the priests go about doing their work. They saw the crowds come and go. They knew who the regulars were, who lived in Jerusalem, and who came from a distance. They could tell by the clothes if they had come from around the corner, or from the corners of the earth. They knew who needed to be there and who wanted to be there. They knew who the pilgrims were and who the tourists were. I imagine that Simeon and Anna saw quite a lot.

And they saw it, because they watched.

Because they spent there time watching, it is no surprise, at least to me, that today’s gospel has them not only watching, but seeing.

Unlike the priests who were too busy to notice, or the crowds who were too much in awe of the place to see, or the scribes and Pharisees who were too busy to look, Simeon and Anna watched a couple, with a baby five weeks old, come forward to do what the law required of them “a pair of turtledoves or two you pigeons”. They had of course seen it all before. They had seen countless people, from all parts of the world, come forward to fulfill the law’s obligations. They had been there when the Temple was packed for Passover and nearly empty on cold winter evenings. They had been there for the great festivals and for the private family ceremonies. They had seen it all before, and because they had seen it, they knew that this was somehow different.

What was different was how ordinary it all was. There were no fanfares, or trumpets. There were no processions or gorgeous vestments. It was just a man, and a woman, and a baby, and two pigeons. But that was all that it took for Simeon and Anna to recognize the presence of God in their very midst. In the painfully ordinary scene they recognized the one for whom they waited: the Lord’s Messiah; the Light of the Gentiles; the Glory of Israel; the redeemer of Jerusalem. There cradled in his mother’s arms was the One for whom they waited. It would all have been so easy to miss, and many did. And many do.

Human nature being what it is, we expect, indeed we demand something grand from God. We expect, indeed we demand, fanfares and trumpets, processions and gorgeous vestments. We expect, indeed we demand lightening and thunder and wild visions. And sometimes, sometimes God obliges. But mostly God doesn’t.

Sometimes God obliges, and like Paul we are knocked off our horse. Sometime God obliges, and like Isaiah we see the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty. But mostly, mostly God comes to us not in visions of grandeur, but in moments of poverty; not in might and power, but in times of weakness; not in force of strength, but in gentleness. Sometimes God obliges and comes to us as we demand, but mostly God comes to us as a helpless infant; as a companion on the way; as the crucified one. We expect God to come in might and power, but instead God comes to us in the poverty of Bethlehem, Nazareth and Calvary. And this is how he comes to us today, if only we have the eyes to see.

Simeon and Anna saw something in the crowd because they had been watching and looking. They saw and recognized the Lord in the helpless infant, in the stranger, in the poor, and in the ordinary. And they saw him, because they had been looking.

When you look around tonight, what do you see? Can you recognize the Lord in the one next to you, or the person across from you? Do you see the Lord in our midst as we proclaim the Word and share the Sacrament? Do you see him in the gathered community and the broken bread?

On that day long ago, God came into the Temple in the guise of the ordinary, the helpless, the poor. On that day long ago God came into the Temple as an ordinary, helpless infant and two people saw and recognized him for who he was. They saw and recognized him because they had spent lifetimes waiting, and watching, and looking.

Maybe tonight it is your turn. Maybe tonight you are Simeon, you are Anna. Maybe tonight you will see and recognize the Lord in our very midst. Maybe tonight the Lord will be placed in your outstretched arms.

So look about you. What do you see? Or perhaps I should say, Look about you. Who do you see? For the Lord is in our midst.

© 2009

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  1. CR on January 13, 2017 at 12:17

    So wise, so beautiful, so essential. Thank you, Br. James.

  2. martha on January 13, 2017 at 10:22

    This sermon helped me understand myself in terms of how God has has been manifested in my life. I might miss God when looking for the extraordinary. Being in the present has its benefit.

  3. Marie on January 13, 2017 at 06:30

    Beautiful! As I go about my life today, my eyes will be wide open, looking to see the Christ in all things, everywhere. I don’t want to miss God anywhere, because God is everywhere! Thank you for the inspiration!

  4. Paradox | The Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana on January 13, 2017 at 00:07

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  5. Margaret Dungan on February 13, 2014 at 16:49

    Thank you Br.James for this little gem.
    Margaret Dubgan

  6. byron cawthon on February 13, 2014 at 12:19

    I sometimes go to the tent city and help give out food socks and gloves to the people who live there. Your message made me think He can be seen there also.

  7. John McCann on January 16, 2013 at 09:46

    This reflection spoke so clearly to me. I can see myself as one of those being watched. But I am sure my next visit to church I will be fully present in the congregation. We have such a mixed and diverse group, in lower Manhattan, some who have been attending for 40 yrs. many world wide tourists who have come to bear witness to the site of the 9/11 attaclks which took place directly behind our 2 churches, where I worship at both: Trinity Wall Street, and St. Paul’s Chapel. This sermon spoke clearly and directly to me. Thank you, John McCann

  8. The Rev. Victoria L. Collins, Deacon on January 16, 2013 at 09:18

    When I was at seminary with my husband, I would come home from work in Chicago (IL) and run to the seminary Chapel for Evensong each evening. At that time — and ever since — I can hardly bear the experience of hearing “The Song of Simeon” chanted. I am so absolutely awe-struck when I think that this faithful, patient servant of God looked at this helpless infant and KNEW that God’s promise of Messiah was fulfilled. God grant us faith to believe … faith to expect … faith to SEE God at work in His world! And God grant us the joy of being His faithful servants, loving and serving according to His Will, so that His Will is being done daily!

  9. Jean Ann Schulte on January 16, 2013 at 09:05

    I so loved this, Brother James, and your introduction resonated with me. I also love to observe the individuals who come to worship and, as I do so, I try to consciously send a wave of agape love in their direction. I really do believe that, somehow, our energy fields can impact those around us and that is one reason why Tuesday evening Eucharist is dear to me. The collective grace is palpable and sustaining.

  10. Polly Chatfield on January 16, 2013 at 09:03

    Thank you, Br. James, for calling us to focus not only on the liturgy, but on those who are our table-mates. How rude it would be at any feast not to share with those on your right and left!

  11. Margo on January 16, 2013 at 09:00

    When I started to read this I really felt uncomfortable with the idea of being watched. Monks are impervious to distractiion and wrapped deep in prayer always! When I realized why it is just so beautiful. Thank you.

  12. DLa Rue on January 16, 2013 at 08:16

    Nice to feel that one might be being prayed for just in passing.


  13. Alison on January 16, 2013 at 06:39

    Beautiful. This is a great awareness to carry with me in my work at a nursing home today. Thank you.

  14. Anders on January 16, 2013 at 05:47

    Thanks for capturing what I believe is the essence of the Gospels. In order to love God and one another we must be present. We are called to stay and watch with him, to abide with him, to watch and pray. That’s what makes it holy.

  15. Jeff Spahr on March 17, 2012 at 06:56

    Wow! This is a powerful lesson on being present, being perseverant, being perceptive, and being poor in spirit (humble). “It would all have been so easy to miss, and many did. And many do.” Thank you for not missing it, Br. James, and thank you for sharing it so eloquently.

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