Last Friday my husband indulged me by going with me to the movie "Just Mercy", which had just opened up in our community. It's not that he didn't want to see the movie, but that I had read Bryan Stevenson's book in 2015, shortly after moving to this community from Minnesota. I remembered the strong emotions the book elicited, and its stories that put a human face on many death-row prisoners -- some of them guilty, some of them innocent. I remembered its main story well, about Walter McMillan, framed for a murder he did not commit, and the irony that his story took place in Monroeville, where Harper Lee wrote "To Kill a Mockingbird."
Very near the beginning of the movie is this small vignette, which I remembered from the introduction to his book. Bryan Stevenson is still a law student, and he is going to visit an inmate on death row for the first time. He doesn't know the young man, and he doesn't have good news. He is anxious about the contact on many levels. He wonders if this inmate will be bitter and abusive to him. But when he goes to the prison, that's not what he finds. He finds a young man who is much like him, who had a similar church background, sang the same songs, lived in similar kinds of experiences. He tells the young man that he will not be executed in the coming year, and he reacts as if it's the best news he ever heard. Now, he says, he can invite his wife and children to visit him, because there's no danger that he will be inviting them on the day of his execution.
They ended up talking well over the one hour limit (which raised the ire of the prison guard). As the angry guard pushed the prisoner back out of the room to his cell amid Stevenson's protests, the young man suddenly burst into song, "Higher Ground." He sang with conviction in a deep baritone voice,
Lord lift me up and let me stand
By faith in Heaven's tableland
A higher plane, that I have found
Lord, plant my feet on Higher Ground.
Stevenson says that in that moment he experienced grace. He did not expect to receive hope from this young man on death row. He wondered how many people we meet, in how many circumstances, we do not really see.
The words Jesus speaks in this week's gospel are his first recorded words in John's gospel. They are all provocative in their own way. "What are you looking for?" "Come and see."
But today I am thinking that it is the third time that is the most powerful. Andrew brings his brother Simon to meet Jesus. Jesus looks at Simon and sees him, and says. 'You are Simon, son of John." But that's not all he says. He continues, "From now on you will be called Cephas" (which means Peter). Jesus sees Simon, and he sees a Rock.
Bryan Stevenson has spent his life working for justice for those many of us do not see. He sees people battered by life experience, struggling against disability, some wrongfully imprisoned, some trying to rise above the worst they ever did. But before he could help them, he had to see them. It's not as easy to do as it is to talk about it. But it is a moment of grace. Both to see -- and to be seen.
How many people do we meet, in how many circumstances, that we do not really see?