Imagine that everyone you meet is a peephole into God. That’s how Barbara Brown Taylor puts it. Everyone we meet, everyday and everywhere, is a peephole into God. And God invites us, yearns for us, to meet him there every single time.
This is one among the many messages of the story of the Road to Emmaus. Cleopas and his unnamed companion did not recognize the risen Jesus. Or, as Luke puts it, “Their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Much of our spiritual growth runs in the direction of learning to recognize the risen Christ. In everyone we meet. To treat everyone as a peephole into God.
|Rembrandt’s “Portrait of an Old Woman”|
Let’s face it! This is easier said than done. I should know. I have plenty of experience with looking right past the Christ who is walking along with me.
For instance, when I was in second grade there was a girl named Edna. Nobody played with Edna. She was shunned by the whole class, and you would be shunned too if you sat with her at lunch or joined her in her solitary games at the edge of the playground during recess.
All you needed to know about Edna was that she picked her nose. And ate the boogers. Every day. In the front row of class.
I had never spoken to Edna. Or, as people in the class called her, Edna the booger picker. Frankly, that’s all I knew about her. And I thought that there was nothing else to know about her.
|Winslow Homer’s “The Country School”|
As the Christmas holiday approached, we drew names to exchange gifts. On the last day before the break, we had a party and gave our designated classmates their presents.
Either my name had been omitted from the exchange or the person who had drawn it was absent. I can’t remember. I just recall that I didn’t get a gift. And everybody else noticed. The teacher said, “Oh, that’s okay. We’ll make sure you get one when we get back from Christmas.”
Bullies and my dad had already taught me all too well that you don’t cry in public. Stuff like that wasn’t supposed to matter. I strained to make myself look unfazed, but I remember how hot my face was and that my throat was so tight that I could barely speak.
Living with a speech impediment, being barely a step above poor, and having a mom whose English was pretty sketchy made me forever striving to fit in and always ready to be thrown out of the group. I felt like I had just gotten a big fat rejection notice.
All the other kids started playing some game. I stood off to the side trying not to vomit.
Out of the corner of my left eye I saw some movement. I turned to see Edna holding something out to me. It was a book-shaped box containing several rolls of Lifesaver candies. A common Christmas gift in that day. The sort of thing you grab at Walgreens when you don’t really want to think too much about the gift. That’s what someone had given her.
She put it in my hand and said, “I want you to have this.”
I just stood there. I didn’t know what to say and couldn’t have said it even if I had known. My throat was so tight I could barely breathe. Finally I croaked, “But it’s yours.”
Edna said, “And I’ve already gotten it. Now it’s yours. Everybody should get something on Christmas.”
I just stared at her. Not because I was at a loss for words or was afraid I would cry. For the first time, I noticed how pretty Edna was.
Now I wish I could tell you more about Edna. That we had become fast friends and that maybe I had even helped all the other kids discover what a treasure we had in our midst.
But that isn’t the truth. I have not one single memory of Edna after that. She may have continued to be the ostracized loner, or moved to Argentina, or been abducted by aliens. I have no idea.
|Vincent Van Gogh’s “Two Women Crossing the Fields”|
I returned from Christmas break, and kept returning from successive Christmas breaks, just as concerned to find my own place in my little world and to avoid being found out as a fraud and rejected. In my own eyes I was not enough. And that is what kept my eyes from treating others as peepholes into God, from recognizing the risen Christ in all sorts of people walking right beside me.
Sometimes I was blinded by resentment and an unwillingness to forgive.
Envy and intimidation blinded me in some cases.
At other times, I was condescending or competitive or too busy with my own career or preoccupied with my own fears and wounds and grievances.
Blindness becomes a habit. We learn to see only certain sorts of people. The ones who matter. And we learn to look past or look through other kinds of people.
I suspect we fear the stretching we would experience when we see some sorts of people, or we worry that our own comfort and security might be at risk if we begin to consider that everybody is a peephole into God.
It’s this sort of habitual blindness that the New York Rescue Mission set out to highlight when they conducted a social experiment.
A group of people was selected to tell the story of someone who is very special in their lives.
Veronika’s sister took care of her when she was little.
Shaunya shared how she gathers with her mom, and her uncle, and her aunt for regular family dinners.
Tom has been married to his wife for 34 years.
Evan grew up with his cousin and remembers playing dress up together with old clothes.
Alison says she and her brother are a team. Nobody understands you quite like family.
Veronika, Shaunya, Tom, Evan, and Alison didn’t know that these dear people had agreed to pose as homeless. To dress in shabby, dirty clothes and to sit on the sidewalk along a route that their family members would take.
One by one, Veronika, Shaunya, Tom, Evan, and then Alison walked by a homeless person huddled on the sidewalk. Taking no real notice. Failing to recognize sister, mom, uncle, aunt, wife, cousin, and brother.
How quickly these peepholes into God became invisible to each of these people.
|Norman Rockwell’s “The Peephole”|
Now here’s something crucial to underscore. Veronika, Shaunya, Tom, Evan, and Alison are sensitive, caring people. There is no hint of callousness or selfishness about them. And yet, their eyes were kept from seeing.
When they did see—when the folks from the Rescue Mission showed them who these homeless persons really were—the spiritual awakening was palpable and moving. Their eyes had been opened. There are peepholes everywhere that they had been unable to see.
The resurrection of Jesus means that God now inhabits every corner, every moment of our ordinary lives. He’s not merely alongside us like a piece of furniture. Neither is he silently standing by like a good butler, simply waiting inconspicuously for us to summon him to remove some inconvenience or to tidy up some unpleasantness.
God is reaching out to us through the faces, the stories, the hearts, and the needs of other people so that we can know him. Personally. God is a person. A person who wants relationship with us. A relationship that heals us, stretches us, transforms us, saves us from the smallness and the narrowness that we keep accepting and even striving for as if it were real life.
God is a person whom we know through other persons. And one of the chief spiritual challenges of life is to treat other people—not just a select group but everyone—as peepholes into God. Recognizing, welcoming, accepting, and perhaps above all learning from Christ in the other.
This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Shreveport, Louisiana.