When I was a child, Snuffleupagus was imaginary, or at least he seemed to be. Like a gigantic furry ant-eater, or like a slender mammoth without tusks. Snuffy, as he is sometimes called, was frequently seen on Sesame Street, however, only known by the viewers and Big Bird. For 15 years he was spoken of, but not touched Snuffy was named, but not heard. Part of his story was that he was crippled by shyness. He was bound by anxiety and after so much time, he became more and more distressed by the idea of connecting with the neighborhood. Snuffy’s story also seemed to be a 15-year metaphor for the unnoticed elephant in the room.
Interviews with writers and actors years later show a muddled memory about Snuffy’s existential crisis. Writers claim he wasn’t supposed to be imaginary, and the actors share that they absolutely played their role from the stance of believing this creature to be the make-believe of Big Birds joyful heart. Big Bird is an iconic and an ironic Muppet, a giant who is a child. His heart and mind are about 6 years old, even though his stature is about 8 feet tall. Imaginary friends are normal for a young person, and so the ambiguity around Snuffleupagus had natural causes.
Yet over time, the writers and producers became concerned. Troubled about the example they were setting for real children, real people daring to speak of an experience and neighbors not believing them. Learning to listen, learning to hear real stories is as crucial to human development as knowing that cookie starts with C. So, after 15 years of storytelling confinement, the process was begun to bring Snuffleupagus into relationship with the whole neighborhood. In the book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us of the following,
Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening
has been committed to them by God who is the great listener
and whose work they should share.
We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God.
Perhaps you are startled by Jesus’ healing of the woman who had been bound by her illness. She really needs a name. Let’s call her Zoe. Zoe steps out of her captivity, walks out into a difficult world on a Sabbath day, and seeks after Jesus. Amazing how simply seeking Jesus’ hearing, raises Zoe to strength. The neighborhood, however, is outraged. Jesus healed on the Sabbath, and that is not a resting thing to do. This episode happens repeatedly in the Gospels. Jesus heals someone on the Sabbath and the system freaks out. Sometimes we are Zoe, sometimes we are the folks who are focused on the wrong syllable. To which Jesus’ whole ministry lends us an ear and asks, Why are you living this way? You know what matters: Come….Seek, Serve, Strive, Share. Listening, being real, is what God asks. Sesame Street simple and as hard as life together gets.
During my babysitting years, when they made Snuffy real, I was aghast. I liked the idea of that imaginary friend. Yet as an adult, I understand moving him from an unheard story to a known one. Neighborhoods with stories that they agree not to tell or not to hear are systems that fail to thrive. Re-watching the Snuffy scenes this week I was once again disappointed. But this time, my feelings of dismay come from hearing how the people and Muppets in the neighborhood did more than just not listen to Big Bird over the years. They ridiculed and shamed him so much that it had me uttering ‘stop it’ at the screen. No wonder Snuffy stayed hidden, unheard and unseen.
Maybe this is part of what our gospel neighbor Zoe faced. Not only an ailment, but a system so caught in their own noise that her home of constant denial was easier. I am in awe of her Courage. It took a wellspring of courage to bring her whole story to Jesus.
After all those years of un-knownness, there stood before them a kind shy neighbor. The whole cast of the Sesame Street neighborhood stands there, a camera panning over jaws wide open. One by one they walk up to Snuffy. They touch his furry snout, and they finally hear Big Bird. Dan Rather, CBS anchor, once asked Mother Teresa what she said during her prayers. She answered, "I listen." So Dan returned a new question and asked, "Well then, what does God say?" Mother Teresa smiled with gladness and replied, "He listens."
Listening is transforming. We who follow Jesus are called to listen with the ears of God that we may live the Word of God. Being committed to Christ and his church is not being devoted to sunny or saccharine. It is about being real. Sunny days, rainy days, all the days. Jesus beside us, before us, behind us, with us in holy listening to the whole story of the neighborhood.
Here at St. Paul’s we have been circling just outside the process of what comes next for most of the last year. And today, Andrew will invite this community to enter the next stage of the Interim lifecycle. Standing up straight. Naming and listening, being real.
As we pray, Be Still and Know that I am God.
St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Walla Walla, Washington
August 20/21, 2016
If you are a friend of St. Paul's and were not able to gather this weekend we hope you will check in with us so that you may offer your part to the project began by Andrew this week.
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