I don’t know if you can see this figure that I’m holding up. His name is Flat Stanley, and if you know a child who has been in elementary school during the last few years, you may be familiar with him. Flat Stanley is a character in a children’s book who is able to travel places through the postal service in an envelope because he became flat overnight; and he goes on to have wonderful adventures.
Many schools make a project of Flat Stanley, having children make their own version of him and then sending him off to far-away places. The people who receive Flat Stanley are supposed to take photos of him in their location, and send him back with pictures and letters, telling what he has seen and done – kind of an up-dated version of pen-pals.
There are various versions on Flat Stanley, and last fall when a clergy colleague of mine was on sabbatical, the kids in his Sunday School made a Flat Jesus for him to carry with him; Flat Jesus went to New Mexico, and Jerusalem, London and the island of Iona, Scotland…well travelled. It’s a great idea, and the kids have fun and learn something about other parts of the world, but it makes me wonder how often we tend see other people we don’t know well – especially people who are different from us - as being like Flat Stanley; two-dimensional, easily manipulated, a caricature? We don’t take the time or effort to look further, or deeper, or with imagination, or empathy.
Both the Old Testament and Gospel readings today are all about seeing as God sees. In the first reading God has sent his prophet Samuel to Bethlehem, to the home of Jesse to anoint one of his sons as the future king, to replace King Saul. The trouble is, Jesse has many sons and God did not specify which son to anoint, just telling Samuel that he’ll let him know which young man it is to be. So when Samuel meets the first son, he is sure that this is the right person to be the new king – tall, probably good looking, maybe with that air of authority that the eldest child often carries. But the Lord stops him and says: Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature…for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart. And finally, after meeting all seven of the older brothers (whom the Lord said were not the ones he had chosen), Samuel is presented with the youngest, the shepherd boy David. This is the person that Samuel has been called to anoint and who will one day be king in Saul’s place.
Samuel was God’s prophet – the moral and spiritual leader of God’s People at the time – and even he needed to be reminded not to rush to judgment, not to be overly impressed with first appearances, but to see as God sees, to look at a person’s heart and nature and character…not a caricature. But that seeing can be hard, it takes time, it requires us to let down our defenses, and open ourselves to hearing what the other person has to say, to try to see them as whole people, three-dimensional…four-dimensional, really, when you consider their thoughts and feelings, their soul and spirit. Too often we look at others who are different from us, who make us nervous, and we see only a version of Flat Stanley.
In the reading from John Jesus heals a man who was born blind, and there’s a lot of discussion about the cause of his blindness – whose fault was it, whose sin made this happen – because in the first century it was generally assumed that physical illness or some other malady was caused by the sin of the person or a close relative. That’s a very interesting discussion, but it’s not where I want to focus today. Jesus heals the man – making mud and putting it on the man’s eyes – and he restores him to the community; no longer will he have to sit by the road and beg for his daily existence. But the neighbors have an interesting reaction; they are not sure that the man whose sight has been restored is the same as the blind beggar they once knew!They don’t know how to define him apart from his blindness; they were only seeing him as a cut-out figure, like Flat Stanley.
To make matters worse, Jesus healed this man on the Sabbath – which got marked down as a religious violation because it got considered “work”, and the Sabbath is about rest – and the religious scholars and those who were scrupulous about keeping the Sabbath focused entirely on the possibility of sin, and Sabbath-breaking, and completely missed the great healing that Jesus had done, and what it meant to the man who could now see. And so Jesus let their own words proclaim them to be spiritually blind.
The neighbors could not see the man without his blindness, and the Pharisees could not see the wondrous work of God right in front of their faces – they saw Flat Jesus, that guy who broke the Sabbath, the one who associated with money changers and drunkards and outcasts. They would not see the truth of Jesus because he didn’t fit into their preconceived notions of what was good and holy.
There are so many ways we can view others in only two-dimensions, particularly through our electronic communications which flattens understanding and nuance and feeling, and encourages us to put our first worst thought out there into cyber-space, and then we can never take it back. We take one look at someone else’s politics or religion or sexuality or gender and we far-too- quickly make assumptions, make judgments, consign the other person to the realm of Flat Stanley – not real, not worth taking seriously, not having anything valuable to say for themselves, not worthy of love and respect.
Today we have altar flowers on this Fourth Sunday in Lent, Mid-Lent, and you can read more about that in your bulletin; but the flowers were given today in memory of a little boy named John Leon Ewouds.
John and his family were parishioners here at All Saints’ in the 1950s. He was born prematurely at 3.5 lbs and he had cerebral palsy. John was baptized at Overlook Hospital by the chaplain on duty as an emergency measure, but two weeks later he was strong enough to come home and the family had a baptismal celebration here in church with our rector at the time, George Rath, and the hospital chaplain. John lived another 2.5 years and then died of complications of pneumonia, and George Rath conducted his funeral. Very shortly after that the family returned to Florida (the father had been doing a several year stint at Bell Labs), and the parents, in their distress and grief, never really spoke of him to his two sisters.
Their pain was very understandable, and in the 1950s the general public neither understood nor wanted to know about children who had CP or any other kind of special needs. There is a famous book called “Karen” written by a woman whose daughter was born with CP in 1940 – it is their family memoir; she describes being turned away from motels and restaurants when they travelled to Baltimore for Karen’s doctor’s appointments, being told “only bad, dirty people have a child like that.” So the choice John’s parents made not to talk about their son was very understandable, but to his two sisters he became little more than a cardboard cut-out, a topic to be avoided.
Then about two months ago John’s sister Pamela contacted the church office, looking for information about her brother, not sure if we kept those sorts of records; her parents had died sometime ago, and she and her sister wanted to know more. I found his baptismal record, and that started Pam off on a wonderful journey; between the Church and the library and the funeral home and digging into old family photos, she was able to piece together John’s story, that really was the story of their family. What Pam learned was that John, despite his difficulties was a happy, loving little boy, and that her family was really a family of five, not a family of four, as she had always thought.
Pam’s eyes were opened, her brother came alive to her, and that nagging hole in her heart was healed; she is now able to see her brother and her family as God saw them all along, with the heart.
May it be so for all of us – to see as God sees, and to receive sight, and wholeness and healing. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 30, 2014