Libby Caes’ Homily, April 17, 2016

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Libby Caes

April 17, 2016

Acts 9:36-43, Rev. 7:9-17, John 10:22-30

Wonder

 

One of my most vivid memories of fifth grade is writing book reports. I would end them with something like,

“If you want to know more about the book, read it!”

 

My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Mulberry, made it very clear that she did not like such endings.

April 17, 2016

            What else do you say??

 

I am not going to end my homily by telling you to read Wonder!

If you haven’t read Wonder and decide you want to, I expect there are copies out in the reception area waiting for you to borrow.

 

In Wonder the fifth grade at Beecher Prep is thrown into turmoil with the enrollment of a new student, Auggie Pullman.

Auggie doesn’t have to say one word or do a single thing to generate this turmoil.

His face does it…Because of an obscure condition he was born with, Auggie has a distorted face.

Auggie has a very rare genetic disorder called mandibulofacial dysostosis.

 A person with this syndrome will have a mouth, eyes, eyelid and eyelashes that look abnormal; she/he has malformed ears, swallowing and speech challenges, as well as vision and hearing loss.

Auggie has had many surgeries but his face still draws attention.

All this presents a  challenge for Auggie and the community at Beecher Prep.

Auggie puts it this way, “five hundred kids in a school; eventually every one of them was going to see my face some time.”

 Jack who becomes his best friend states, “It is hard to act normal when you see him” (p. 138)

 

As the school year progresses we discover that

Auggie is a very smart kid with a dry  sense of humor,

He is a very normal boy on the inside and very, very resilient.

He is also very sensitive to the stares and whispers that his presence continually triggers.

 

As with most people with disabilities, Auggie is isolated in subtle and not so subtle ways. Auggie reflects:

 I noticed not too long ago that even though people were getting used to me, no one would actually touch me….I think it is like the Cheese Touch in Diary of a Wimpy Kid. The kids in the story were afraid they’d catch the cooties if they touched the old moldy cheese on the basketball court. At Beecher Prep I am the old moldy cheese. (p.72)

 

One memory I have of my undergraduate years is sitting outside with a graduate student friend, Marianna.

Mariana had cerebral palsy. She rode a tricycle around campus, she drooled profusely as she talked and her speech was slurred. She spoke of her loneliness and invisibility, even at the Christian events she attended.

 

The themes and lessons we learn from Wonder are universal. They are not unique to 5th graders…

 

 What happens when we are in the presence of people who make us uncomfortable?

Do we treat that person as less than ourselves and look down on them?

Or, are we able to acknowledge our common humanity and build bridges?

Are we curious in a healthy way or in a way that causes us stare and isolate the other?

            Do we put on a fake smile? Or are we genuine in our encounter?

            What are we thinking and feeling?

 

Another memory I have of college is a group of students taunting one of the guys in my dorm complex. I was shocked.

But then I wondered, why should I be surprised? Intelligence doesn’t equal compassion.

 

Such behavior doesn’t surprise Auggie:

            I have been in enough playgrounds to know kids can be mean.

 

After a crisis Auggie asks his mother,

Am I always going to have to worry about jerks like that?

 

His mother responds,

There are more good people on the earth than bad people. The good people watch out for each other and take care of each other.

 

We see this in our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles

Tabitha did good works and acts of charity on behalf of widows.

Widows depended on the hospitality of others for their survival.

Tabitha looked after them and she could be trusted.

Her death is deeply mourned.        

The good people watching out for each other.

           

One of the core values of Benedictine spirituality is hospitality. The Rule of Benedict (53) instructs us:

“All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matt. 25. 35).

 

How do we learn and practice true hospitality?

 

First of all, we remember that we have been the recipients of unfathomable generosity.

 

We have been loved beyond measure by the Good Shepherd.

Our souls are continually being nourished

We are never separated from the love of God.

Goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our lives.

 

Our communion song puts it so well:

            Come to the feast of heaven and earth!

            Come to the table of plenty!

            God will provide for all that we need,

            Here at the table of plenty!

 

Having experienced this abundant generosity, it must be given away!

           

We  recognize that such hospitality isn’t always easy; even when one knows what is the right thing to do.

I would like to think that the principal of Beecher Prep knew without a doubt that the right thing to do was to admit Auggie to the fifth grade.

            Maybe it was an easy decision for him. Maybe it was not.

 

It was not an easy year at Beecher Prep.

A parent/board member criticizes the principal for admitting a child with special needs. Auggie has no special needs.

There are nasty notes going back and forth between cliques of kids, the lists are being kept of who the fifth graders are aligning themselves with.

Should the principal step in or let the fifth graders work it out amongst themselves?

I bet that principal had his share of sleepless nights. Or else he had really thick skin!

 

Joan Chittister writes that

Benedictine hospitality demands that we open our lives to others… Benedictine hospitality demands the extra effort, the extra time, the extra care that stretches beyond and above the order of the day. (Chittester, p. 128)

 

Mr. Tushman, the principal, could have decided it was too risky to admit August Pullman to Beecher Prep. Instead, he goes the extra mile.

 

Hospitality starts with small steps. These small steps matter.

Summer left her crowd on the first day of school and sat with Auggie in the cafeteria. It may seem like a small thing but it had enormous implications.

Many times she is asked why she hangs out with Auggie, the freak, “I’m friends with him because I want to be friends with him….he’s a nice kid!” (p.119)

 

One morning when Dave dropped our daughter off at school and was chatting with the teacher on duty in the playground, two boys came up to Mr. Del Soto. 

            One kid said, “he pushed me first!”

The other kid was covered with sand and dirt, crying, snot coming out of his nose, just a mess.

Mr. Del Soto turned to the first kid who wanted to assign blame and told him, “I want you to take him inside and get him cleaned up and make it right and then we will talk”

 

In other words, practice hospitality rather than defend yourself.

           

Lastly and perhaps most importantly, hospitality comes from the heart. Hospitality from the heart is transformative.

The author of Wonder quotes The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery:

“Now here is my secret. It is very simple. It is only with one’s heart that one can see clearly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

 

Hospitality from the heart is not offered out of guilt. It is not offered with the attitude that I am superior to you and have something that you need. Hospitality from the heart is not a “should”.

Auggie is aware of the pasted/plastic smiles. He notices the flickers of shock in people’s eyes when they see him for the first time.

He also knows when he is accepted as a person and there is a heart connection.

           

To live from the heart takes continual intention, it is easy to stray.

On Halloween when Auggie is in disguise, no one can see his face. He overhears his best friend give into peer pressure, “Auggie always follows me around. What am I supposed to do?”

Auggie is crushed and it is a long time before his friendship with Will is restored.

 

In today’s reading from Revelation, those standing before the throne are robed in white.

I take white robes as a symbol of transformation.

 

The school year at Beecher Prep ends with an awards assembly.

If we could look with the eyes of our heart at the teachers, students and parents present, we would see a lot of them wearing white robes.

They have been transformed.

 

It’s been a hard year at Beecher Prep. Transformation doesn’t happen without struggle.

            But the struggle has borne fruit.

At the end of the year Auggie is no longer the kid with the deformed face, he is one of them.

 

After the awards assembly there are lots of pictures. Auggie comments:

 For the first time I can remember, I wasn’t thinking about my face (p.30)

 

Again, Joan Chittister,          

Whatever happens to the heart is the beginning of revolution. When I let strange people and strange ideas into my heart, I am beginning to shape a new world. (Chittister, p. 128)

 

Isn’t this what we want to do? To shape a new world.

It begins with hearts that have been nourished by the Good Shepherd.

With this love we open our hearts to the other, the stranger, our neighbor.

 

In the words of our closing song which our youth will lead us in,

            Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love

            Show us how to serve the neighbors we have from you.

 

It is the journey that takes a lifetime, for each and every one of us.

 

Joan Chittister, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily

R.J. Palacio, Wonder

 

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