I met a character named “Flat Stanley” a couple of years ago. One of the people in my office had a friend who asked me to pose for a picture with Flat Stanley. Stanley is a paper doll who travels with people or is sent by mail to other parts of the world. His travels get reported to the sender’s home community, along with pictures. Well, not long ago I heard about an Episcopal youth group in Michigan who’s sending out “Flat Jesus.” The interesting contrast with Flat Stanley is that asking people to have their picture taken with Flat Jesus invites a conversation about faith. It opens opportunities to build bridges with strangers. Stanley doesn’t really have a back story; Jesus does. He has been sighted with Episcopalians buried in the sand on a beach, helping feed hungry kids in Missouri, helping preachers with their sermons, and hailing a cab in NYC. If you want one, you can write or email the parish, and they will send him right out. You could also make one here, take some pictures, and send it yourselves!
Jesus is all about building bridges and making peace between human beings. He insisted that was his job. It’s also the job of his followers. One of the bigger challenges is believing or expecting that peace is possible. In a small way, that’s what Flat Jesus offers – an opening, a glimmer of hope that this encounter will be a life-giving one, offering hope and possibility, rather than a competitive struggle for survival.
Hosea is trying to tell the people around him that even God is despairing of peace in their community. He’s doing crazy things – like marrying a prostitute and giving his children hopeless names – to get their attention. Jesus’ own story echoes some of this – his mother has a questionable reputation, and his name offers a counter to the kind of names Hosea gives his kids.
Hosea names his kids “God sows” (and it’s not clear whether it’s destruction or peace), “no pity,” and “not my people” as if that is what God is saying to all the people of his nation. And yet Hosea also tells them that even though it seems that God is rejecting you, you will also hear that you are that you are still God’s children and heirs. Jesus’ name means “God saves.” There is indeed always hope in our relationship with God.
All that holy play-acting is meant to remind Hosea’s people, and us, that if there is hope in our relationships with God, then there must also be hope for the relationships between us. How often do we give up on people? How often do we see people around us give up on the possibility that life will somehow get better?
Jesus tells a similar kind of story. In his community, hospitality is paramount – offering welcome, food, drink, and shelter to the visitor is part of what it means to be a decent human being. Late one night, a visitor arrives on your doorstep and the food cupboard is empty. What do you do? Ask the neighbors. It may be late, and your neighbor may resist when you pound on his door at midnight, but eventually he’s going to open the door and give you what you’re after, at the very least so he can go back to sleep. Now, if your grumpy neighbor will do that, can’t you hope that God is going to do at least as much? We see human examples around us all the time – and I know that neighbors here offered beds to others last night – and when parents go out of their way to give good things to their children, and maybe even the neighbors’ children.
We struggle to stay hopeful when we don’t see many signs of hope. Think about the conflict in the Middle East – it’s been going on at some level for thousands of years, at least since the Bible was written. For decades the United States has been engaged in trying to facilitate a peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The two groups are deeply entrenched in their own positions and they haven’t talked face to face for several years. Yet just a week ago Secretary of State John Kerry got them to agree to do just that. Keep beating on the door, and maybe, just maybe, someone will get up and open it, and give you what you need.
That’s what Jesus is teaching his friends – to pray for what is most needed: ‘God, your name is holy, bring us to a community of peace, give us the food we need, set us free from what binds just us as we unbind others, and save us from the test.’ There’s nothing there about following the rules. It’s a simple prayer about simple things – and what is most needed in life: knowing that God is God, that we can live in peace when there’s enough to eat, and nobody’s fighting over what they think they’re owed, and we’re not being tempted to do what’s wrong. The very simplicity of that prayer is hopeful – because access to God and the holy, to healing and hope, is right in front of us if we’re willing and able to notice.
The three of us saw an example of that on Friday night. Our flight was delayed, we missed our connection, and we arrived in Anchorage at midnight needing a hotel. The airline gave us hotel vouchers, we got on the shuttle and unloaded at the hotel, only to be told there was no room at the inn. But the innkeeper had already called another hotel and said they had just two rooms left, but we’d have to sort out the issues with the airline. We got back on, and went to the other hotel. The desk clerk was very helpful person, but she had to get the airline to do its job, and it took well over an hour. During that time, she dealt kindly and cheerfully with everybody who came through the door. She went way beyond what was required of her. Grace abounded, even at 1:30 in the morning.
Praying that prayer of Jesus’ can teach us about continuing to hope. We will find our hope encouraged by the evidence around us – kind and helpful people when we’re struggling, small blessings in the midst of illness or grief, the promise each new day brings. Praying that we might find this kind of grace actually prepares us to see it. It’s like asking a stranger if he’ll be in a picture with Flat Jesus – we have opened the door, and become a bit receptive or vulnerable, and then we begin to find God at work in strangers and unexpected encounters.
That open and faithful attitude of expectation is what makes peace possible, and it is what sets us free from bonds and burdens – it lets us receive and offer forgiveness. The world is holding vigil for Nelson Mandela right now, at the end of his life. He’s a remarkable example of that hopeful reality – a man who was imprisoned for 27 years for the offense of working for the freedom of his people. He managed to come out of prison without being bound by the wrong done him. He is an example of hope.
How do we become messengers of hope to the people we meet? We are sent out into the world to be just that – much more than flat cardboard, and far more inviting. We can be flesh and blood hope for the world. We can become that hope and possibility ourselves, trusting that God is at work and that we will find what we most need.