Faith and the Public Square

“And he said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’”
Luke 12:15

What is the basis of our security?

I’m not thinking here of our individual sense of security as it pertains to our finances, health, and whatever assets and resources we rely on for our comfort and ease of mind.

No, what I’m concerned with today is our national security, our security as Americans.

What I’m concerned with this morning is this question—what can we do as citizens, individually and collectively, to enhance and preserve the health and vigor of our democracy?

Or to put it another way, how can we as people of faith contribute a certain quality of justice and mercy to the ongoing political conversation in the public square?

Think of the public square as all those settings in which political convictions are expressed, discussed, and argued about.

So the public square can be any place in which we and our fellow citizens gather and give voice to our most heart-felt concerns about the state of our nation.

Now I for one count it an enormous privilege to be a citizen of this imperfect, fragile, precious democracy.

What a conspicuous blessing it is to be able to freely criticize and make jokes about all our elected officials including the President without facing the threat of imprisonment or worse.

But democracy is a vulnerable organism that must be carefully tended and cultivated.

And so we should register alarm that during this electoral season the public square has suffered considerable mistreatment and abuse.

In recent months we have witnessed the emergence of a very disturbing pattern of inflammatory speech in which a candidate has made preposterous, unsubstantiated claims for his own prowess and has dismissed his opponents as ridiculous and contemptible.

The most alarming thing about this corrosive corruption of public speech is that hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens have found this crude vilification of other candidates wildly appealing.

To witness throngs of angry, disaffected Americans jumping on this bandwagon is worrying and disheartening to say the least.

As one of our nation’s founders said, the preservation of democracy requires untiring vigilance.

Democracy is continually under threat from the extreme right, the extreme left, and the large swath of the population we might refer to as the apathetic middle.

Some of us are old enough to remember in the 1950s the far right exploits of Senator Joseph McCarthy when he convened the House Un-American Activities Committee and mercilessly interrogated those whom he suspected of having Communist Party leanings, many of whom turned out be blameless individuals who had served this country well and were patriotic to the core.

It was said of McCarthy that he sniffed a communist under every bush—there was the memorable occasion when the Senator was harshly accusing someone of being a fellow traveler in spite of a lack of incriminating evidence, and an opposing attorney blurted out, “Sir, have you no decency?”

At the other end of the spectrum, the Weather Underground Organization was an example of the militant left run amok—this was a group of rabid young idealists in the 1960s who came to believe that the most viable means of ending the Viet Nam War and achieving a new society was through the use of deadly force and armed insurrection—their tactics backfired when the bombs they were preparing in a house in Greenwich Village blew up causing several fatalities among their ranks and signaling the beginning of the end of their violent misadventures.

Throughout the history of our republic, there have arisen various fringe groups with authoritarian, anti-democratic agendas that have caused a flurry of excitement among a certain group of disenchanted citizens.

Pockets of our population have sometimes been seduced by demagogues promising the moon—but time and again these uprisings have been defused and disarmed by a stronger, more dominant, more sensible version of democracy.

Of course, we know that the vitality and dynamism of the public square depend on passionate, even bruising argument and debate.

Nothing is more beneficial to our democracy than rigorous, free-wheeling debate about what our elected representatives are doing and not doing.

And the more we’re informed about the intricacies of what’s at stake, the more we’re in a position to be persuasive.

But what hinders the functioning of the public square more than anything is speech that expresses scorn and contempt for one’s opponents.

I remember attending a swearing-in ceremony for new citizens in which Judge Michael Merz exhorted these new Americans to defend anyone who in their presence was the victim of hate speech.

So, yes, let us not allow hate speech to go unchallenged—but at the same time let us be aware, as our Baptismal vows remind us, that even the perpetrator of hate speech bears the imprint, however disguised and camouflaged, of Divine splendor.

Of course, it is always helpful for us to be mindful of our own flawed political perspective and judgment—that we ourselves are perpetually prone to being captive to self-interest.

Now I don’t have any grand schemes for rehabilitating the public square.

All I have to offer are a few modest proposals.

First of all, I beseech you not to abandon the public square.

I implore you not to withdraw and become disengaged from the tumultuous conversation now roiling the waters of our public square.

I urge you not to withhold your voice and convictions from the ongoing conversation.
So at the risk of sounding hopelessly naïve and unrealistic, let me suggest a partial, very unsensational remedy for mending and repairing the public square.
Here’s the prescription I’m recommending—for each of us, whenever possible, to indiscriminately disseminate goodwill to friends, neighbors, strangers, and adversaries.

Because it seems to me that every private act pf goodwill and generosity is a political act because it serves as a small but meaningful corrective to the tone of bombastic arrogance that in recent months has dominated our political discourse.

I’m convinced that every gesture of courtesy, thoughtfulness, and kindness ripples beyond itself and is passed on from one person to another until it is magnified a thousand fold and at least ever so slightly alters the climate of the public square.

In his epistle to the Galatians, Paul gives us an inventory of the gifts of the Spirit—he includes the following—joy, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness—and we might add other qualities that are gifts of the Spirit, namely awe, gratitude, humility, and humor.

Paul suggests that we are called to let these qualities grow and bloom in us so that they become the predominant face and features with which we meet the world.

To greet our neighbors in the public square imbued with Spirit-driven kindness and generosity—what a bracing, healthful contrast to the politics of rancor and resentment!

Bringing goodwill and civility to the public square might mean absolutely respecting a political opponent’s right to exist and express her views—it might mean patiently listening without contempt to her story of how she came to acquire these particular beliefs that seem to be so at odds with our own.

We belong to a prophetic tradition that ardently insists that we are members one of another—that our well-being and the well-being of our neighbor are intertwined whether that neighbor is congenial to us or antagonistic.

And you might say that wherever we go we carry with us a portable version of the public square.

Our private lives and the public square overlap.

Stephen L. Carter is a law professor at Yale—when he was a boy in the mid-1960s, his family moved to Washington D.C.—they were the first African Americans to move into the almost exclusively white neighborhood of Cleveland Park.

He remembers that he and his family felt acutely isolated and bereft in their new surroundings.

Late one morning Stephen and his siblings were sitting on the porch feeling displaced and miserable when a white woman named Sara Kestenbaum suddenly appeared with a huge plate of sandwiches to welcome the family to the neighborhood.

Mr. Carter indicates that this one hospitable gesture instantly swept away his family’s perception that they were unwanted aliens and conferred on them in one fell-swoop the new identity of full-fledged neighbors.

The other day at the grocery store I ran into an old friend I hadn’t seen for a while.

She had just come from an appointment with her cardiologist who happens to be a Muslim who was raised in Pakistan—she has been seeing this doctor for several years and has developed great respect for his medical judgment and courteous manner.

She described him as personable, soft-spoken, and extremely competent with just a trace of an accent.

After they had finished discussing my friend’s medical issues and she was getting ready to leave, she was suddenly moved to ask him in the wake of the ghastly events in Orlando, “How are you and your family? Do you feel safe? Are you all right?”

She said he stood stock-still, looked at her, and after a few moments of silence he said to her, “I did not expect you to ask that question.”

And then he said, “True religion comes from the heart—it’s what fills us with the desire to take care of one another.”

My friend said, “That’s how you take such good care of my heart.”

And then as the doctor moved toward the door, he turned and said to her, “You have made my day!”

Now admittedly, these moments of connection, even multiplied exponentially, are no substitute for the hard, strenuous work of hammering out enlightened legislation and converting political beliefs into useful policies and programs.

But I’m convinced that every incident of graciousness and goodwill in which a neighbor or stranger is greeted, comforted, and encouraged becomes a highly-charged particle that enters the blood stream of the public realm and contributes at least a little to the strengthening of civility in the public square.

And I think nothing is more crucial for the security of America than a climate of civility which allows us to debate and disagree but without contempt.
Amen.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
11 Pentecost
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio
7/31/16

The Mercy Table

“Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ But those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’”

We have had the same dining room table for 45 years.

This maple wood table given to us by friends in Oregon is not distinctive in any way and wouldn’t command much of a price at an auction—its’ one claim to fame is the way it has weathered daily use and abuse.

Our family and friends have gathered around this table in six residences—when we have moved, the table has moved with us.

Oh, if this table could talk!

What a trove of family lore it could disclose—it could speak of all our family’s ups and downs, our pleasures and growing pains, from one decade to another—this table could furnish a detailed chronicle of the food and friends, the festivity and companionship, that have nurtured us—it could give an account of all the kidding, horse play, and small talk that are the warp and woof of family life.

This table has witnessed frolicsome laughter and outbursts of anger, strained silences and windy gab-fests, accusations and apologies, tears and comforting reassurances, fallings out and reconciliations—every conceivable mood and topic from the ridiculous to the sublime have surfaced here—oh, all the life that has been lived around this one table!

In A. R. Gurney’s play “The Dining Room,&dquo; all of the eighteen scenes take place in the same dining room over a span of 50 years.

We watch as members of successive generations sit down at this table and act out new versions of those age-old family tensions between affection and resentment, loyalty and competitiveness, cohesiveness and alienation.

In this play we see family members squabble, make up, commiserate, break into song, grieve and laugh together—we see them feud, fuss, forgive, and carry on.

Things happen at this table.

This family’s table manners and table talk become an x-ray of its character, its strengths and fault lines.

Of course, in this day and age the dining room table has tended to be used more as a convenient shelf for laundry, bills, junk mail, and homework than as a setting for meals.

And so we have become accustomed to gather for meals around other tables in restaurants, backyards, and elsewhere—but there’s no doubt that the table in one form or another will continue to be the center-piece of our communal existence—for nothing invites companionship more than sitting around a table with shared food and drink.

If we were staging a dramatization of Luke’s gospel, one of the main props would have to be a table—Luke has compiled 10 separate accounts of Jesus sharing meals with his companions.

It’s been said that in this gospel Jesus is either about to eat, is eating, or has just finished eating.

Much has been written about Jesus’ table fellowship and about how his choice of companions to sit at table with him speaks volumes about the kind of kingdom he’s proclaiming.

In today’s reading, what leaps out at us is Jesus’ shocking inclusion of a prostitute in his inner circle—Jesus doesn’t just tolerate her—he showers her with praise, a reaction which, down through the ages, has launched an avalanche of commentary.

What undoubtedly would have been most shocking to those who first heard this story is the detailed description of Jesus applauding this woman for washing and kissing his feet and anointing his feet with oil—for Jesus to not only allow this unclean woman to initiate physical contact with him but to acclaim her for this intimate contact would have been for the Pharisee horrifying and unthinkable.

But what has received much less attention, and what I want to focus on, is the way this story begins with Jesus accepting an invitation from Simon the Pharisee to dine at his house.

A couple of questions immediately arise—

First, why would Simon, a Pharisee and staunch defender of the purity code, invite a known renegade and critic of that code like Jesus into the private precincts of his home for dinner and include Jesus’ followers in the invitation?

Surely Jesus’ notoriety would have preceded him.

So there must have been something so captivating about this itinerant preacher that it overrode Simon’s misgivings about associating with someone who was not ritually observant.

And why would Jesus have accepted the invitation knowing that he would undoubtedly become embroiled in an evening of conflict and controversy?

That this dinner party ever got off the ground is something of a marvel.

But maybe Jesus suspected that this get-together could have some interesting and redemptive repercussions.

Well, how should we characterize Simon?

We Christians have been conditioned to assume that a Pharisee like Simon was a hypocrite who spoke with forked tongue, who said one thing and did another, whose conduct contradicted his moral pronouncements, who was smugly self-righteous.

But, as the theologian Paul Tillich warned us in a great sermon on this passage, this would be a gross misreading of the Pharisaic tradition.

Tillich suggests we should view Simon as a truly virtuous, genuinely moral individual.

In other words, we should regard Simon as a pillar of society, someone who is conscientious, responsible, enterprising, a reliable supporter of worthy causes.

This would mean seeing Simon not as a villain but as a sincerely pious, patriotic, productive citizen committed to upholding the ancient faith, tradition, and values of his people.

And so we have these two dining companions, Simon and a prostitute, who could not be more incompatible and at odds with each other—a man of moral stature, righteousness, and virtue and a disgraced woman tarnished by scandal and shame.

They are separated by a seemingly unbridgeable chasm.

It seems to me that in this story Jesus inaugurates a table of unprecedented Divine mercy that is wide enough to encompass both a prostitute and a Pharisee named Simon—the only thing that could possibly close the gap between them is the power and force of Divine mercy.

Of course, Jesus shows sudden and dramatic mercy to the woman by blessing and forgiving her—

But Jesus also shows conspicuous mercy to Simon by first agreeing to dine with him and then urgently entreating him to discover his own need for forgiveness that he might love more.

And we might imagine that Jesus, by sitting at table with both of them, is challenging each to be merciful to the other.

Simon needs to forgive the woman for being promiscuous and dishonoring their sacred tradition—and she needs to forgive Simon for being virtuous and morally superior—because, in truth, there are few things more disheartening and demoralizing than to be humiliated by superior virtue.

And perhaps we can also imagine that Jesus’ table of mercy might permit Simon and the woman to gradually overcome their estrangement, discover their common humanity, and begin to appreciate the gifts each can offer the other.

Simon is much in need of learning from this woman humility, loving-kindness, and gratitude—and she could definitely benefit from absorbing some of Simon’s sense of responsibility, commitment, practical wisdom and know-how.

“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea…..&dquo;

The Divine mercy hovers in the air—the Divine mercy is above and beneath us, behind us and in front of us, beyond us and in us—the Divine mercy tirelessly summons and beckons us to be merciful to others and ourselves.

There are many differences among us that can strain the bonds of good will and tolerance to the breaking point—we can be easily annoyed and antagonized by others’ opinions, quirks, and mannerisms.

But this is the table of Divine Mercy.

When we come to this table, we are reminded that our capacity to love and affirm one another arises not out of our own meager, insufficient supply of charity and kindness but out of the super-abundant Divine mercy that encompasses us all, that transcends and surmounts all our differences, and that permits us to appreciate the gifts each of us has to offer.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
Pentecost 4
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio
6/16/13

The Widow’s Might

“Jesus told the disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” For a while he refused; but later he said, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”’ And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?’”

Luke 18:1-8

The widow in Jesus’ parable is the quintessential nobody.

Socially speaking, she’s on the lowest rung of the ladder—an insignificant nonentity.

Picture this widow as an impoverished indigent who must scratch and claw to get by.

A widow was supposed to receive financial support from her deceased husband’s estate — but so many widows ended up with such a meager pittance that the word “widow” came to be synonymous with destitute.

So this widow without legal clout or friends in high places repeatedly pleads her case to an unsympathetic judge who could care less.

And through sheer doggedness and pluck this woman of no account finally wears down the hard-hearted judge and secures justice for herself.

She exerts a force all out of proportion to her size and status.

The widow’s persistence in the face of impossible odds reminds me of the despised, puny weed that, in search of sunlight, manages to break through a concrete sidewalk.

The widow’s grit and stubborn refusal to give up reminds me of the ant I happened to notice the other day as I was getting out of the car—this ant was toting a piece of straw three times its size — it would make a little headway and then the load would come loose and the ant would have to regroup and get a new grip on its cargo and carry on — this process was repeated over and over — this indefatigable ant showed no sign of jettisoning its mission as it proceeded on bit by bit.

It’s as though God fuels the widow, the weed, the ant — the nobodies — with a courage and vigor that allow them not only to persevere but to actually accomplish remarkable feats.

It’s as though God is determined that these nobodies will be recognized, appreciated, valued.

The New Testament is full of stories about Jesus encountering nobodies who are lost and floundering, who have been written off by others and even themselves as hopeless and useless.

But in these meetings with Jesus something happens to these nobodies that infuses them with new life, hope, and courage—something happens to these nobodies that thoroughly invigorates them with a new fervor and passion—it’s almost as if they have come back from the dead—they have become somebodies with a capital S.

When I was in seminary, the Jewish theologian Martin Buber was much in vogue.

In fact, he was so often quoted in the church’s educational materials that he was jokingly referred to as our most illustrious Jewish Episcopalian.

It was a sign of how influential Buber was in Episcopal circles when a new stained glass window honoring him was dedicated at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral.

In 1923 Martin Buber had written a little book called “I and Thou” — but it was only in the l950s and 60s that this book became that rare thing — a theological book that was read avidly not only by seminarians and academics but also insurance agents, automotive workers, and stay at home moms.

Perhaps the aspect of the book that most captured the attention and imagination of readers was Buber’s carefully drawn distinction between “I-it” relations and “I-you” relations.

Buber defines the I-it relation as one in which I deal with someone in an impersonal, mechanical, rote fashion.

There are a lot of situations in which it is appropriate for me to relate to someone in an I-it manner such as when we call a bank representative to get a credit card activated — or when we’re trying to negotiate with a car dealership about financing — or when it’s part of a work place requirement that interactions be efficient, repetitive, abbreviated.

Here we are more concerned with a particular transaction or service than the individual with whom we’re dealing.

But there are times when relating to someone as “it” can have a quite injurious, damaging effect — it can mean dismissing or ignoring someone as insignificant, unimportant, superfluous, invisible — it can mean relegating that person to the status of a nothing, a zero, a nobody.

But the I-you relation, as Buber describes it, is fundamentally, qualitatively different — to address a neighbor as “you” and not “it” is to acknowledge someone in the fullness of her humanity.

It is to recognize her as singular, distinctive and irreplaceable, as someone who’s as real as we are in every sense, and who has a story unlike anyone else’s—

To acknowledge someone as “you” is to recognize this person as a fellow sufferer and celebrant of life’s tribulations and wonders.

It is to appreciate this particular human being as having this shock of hair across his forehead, these eyes full of mischief, this nose slightly out of kilter, this habitual way of pausing before finishing a sentence.

To see someone as “you” is to perceive this person as having that hidden depth of yearning, anguish, and hopefulness we refer to as the soul.

To address someone as “you” does not necessarily mean liking or agreeing with someone — rather it means appreciating that this fellow, however outrageously disagreeable he may seem to us, is most assuredly invited to the table of the kingdom.

The British sculptor David Moore has created a work called “The Kingdom Tree”.

In the upper hollow of a tree, he has sculpted his vision of a “circle dance of heaven” involving both contemporary and biblical characters,

Moore appended this note to his work — “The first figure to be carved was the man on crutches — Michael Sheridan, a homeless man — and about the most unpleasant man I have ever met. (But) if there’s no room for Michael, there is no room for any of us.”

What is theologically intriguing about Martin Buber’s meditation on the I-you relation is this —

He suggests that what moves and motivates us to acknowledge our neighbor as “you” with tact and delicacy is none other than God the Eternal You working in and through us — he suggests that the very source of our capacity to discern the image of God in the face of our neighbor is none other than God the Eternal You.

Yes, we all know what it’s like to be treated as “it” — and often it’s a painless non-event, scarcely noticeable.

But we also know that sometimes it is hurtful and disturbing and takes a while to get over — what helps most of us move on relatively unscathed is that we are frequently, generously nourished by other human beings responding to us as “you”.

But there are some people who have been subjected to such a constant, relentless dose of being treated as “it” that they feel like a deathly, disposable nobody, an “it”.

How many of you have seen the movie “Precious”?

This movie is not for the feint of heart — it’s rough, shocking, and overwhelming in its depiction of human trauma — but also stunningly hopeful.

Precious is a hugely over-weight Harlem teenager who lives with a horribly abusive mother who constantly reminds her that she is worthless, that nobody wants her, and that she will never amount to anything.

Precious has an infant daughter and is about to deliver another child — we learn that her mostly absent father is the father of both.

Precious is illiterate and almost mute with shame and rage.

Because of her dismal academic performance, she is referred to an alternative school — the first day she attends class there, she is asked to tell about something she does well — after a long pause, she says, “I don’t do anything well.”

Precious is the epitome of a nobody who feels like a hopeless, worthless “it”.

But the movie is also the story of how she meets three people who respond to her as “you” and awaken in her a hopefulness, a curiosity, and a fierce desire to make a new life for herself and her kids.

There is the gentle, considerate male nurse who attends her when her second child is born and who is the first male to ever show her kindness.

There is the teacher who painstakingly, tenderly, forcefully leads Precious slowly but surely into the world of literacy.

And there is the social worker who becomes her unflinching advocate, who faces down the abusive mother, and gives Precious her ticket to freedom from the impossible circumstances in which she’s been barely existing.

All three offer her shelter from the storm of abuse and mistreatment.

All three see something in Precious that is invaluable, priceless, and, well, “precious”.

For the first time, the name Precious is not just a cruel joke.

Under the tutelage of these caregivers, this nobody becomes a somebody with indomitable grit and perseverance like the widow in Jesus’ parable.

In this place we give and receive indispensable nourishment by addressing one another as “you” — it is what gives us the courage and stamina to carry on and to persevere even as that widow in Jesus’ story carried on and persevered.

The coffee hour is sometimes referred to as the third sacrament because in the various casual, humorous, and serious conversations, however brief or extended, that occur after the service, much sustenance and strengthening is exchanged as we respond to one another as “you” rather than “it”.

Through the City Heart program we not only offer food and information about resources — we also greet those seeking assistance as “you” which can be a saving grace because many of our visitors are accustomed to being treated as “it”.

And if Martin Buber was right, it is none other than God the Eternal You who creates in us the urge, the desire, and the capacity to address our neighbor, here and wherever else we might be, as “you.”

The Rev. Robert Dwight
21 Pentecost
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio
10/17/10

Jewishness

“Now the birth of the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”

Matthew 1:18

The birth narratives in the gospels concerning Jesus of Nazareth all proclaim that his life and work have a divine origin—that it is not human parentage or family DNA that account for Jesus’ astounding ministry but rather the Holy Spirit.

But in so accentuating Jesus’ distinctiveness and singularity as the chosen one of God, the birth narratives have tended to overshadow and overwhelm Jesus’ identity as a Jew.

The birth narratives have often been read in such a way as to effectively erase Jesus’ Jewishness.

Representing Jesus as a divine figure stripped of his Jewish identity who is killed by Jews has had calamitous consequences—this notion has historically ignited wave after wave of virulent anti-Semitism.

And furthermore to separate Jesus from his Jewishness is not only to divorce him from his roots, his heritage, his ethnicity.

It is also to ignore and deny the reality that Jesus’ faith was Jewish through and through.

To borrow a bit of a riff from Dr. Seuss, Jesus of Nazareth was Jewish one hundred per cent.

We could say that what Jesus did was not abandon or reject Jewish faith but reform and universalize it—which seems to be what the apostle Paul is continually getting at.

It could be argued that the effect of Jesus’ ministry was to explode the tribal boundaries of Jewish faith and make that faith available to all of us—and that he extended the meaning of neighbor exponentially to encompass the Gentile, the alien, the leper.

It took me a long time to catch on to the peculiar nature of Jewish faith.

You see, I have this reclusive streak—my natural bent is toward a religious practice that is private and solitary with my neighbor as an add-on and after-thought.

But gradually I’ve become more and more convinced that the genius of Jewish faith is its insistence that love of God and neighbor are inseparable and indivisible—and that one cannot get to the kingdom of God by leapfrogging over one’s neighbor.

Certainly the Divine Spirit is always as accessible to us as the air we breathe and the manifestations of grace are innumerable.

But this Jewish faith obstinately contends that the primary disclosure of God to us is through the face of our neighbor, even that ornery, disagreeable, exasperating neighbor, maybe especially that neighbor!

Our neighbor challenges, demands, irritates, interrupts, and ultimately blesses us by liberating us from our self-confinement, our self-imprisonment.

Jesus’ words echo here—“Whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it”—for we never have ourselves as much as when we are drawn out of ourselves by our neighbor—in this sense, the neighbor is the agent of our salvation.

Actually it seems that this Jewish faith, this faith of Jesus and the prophets, is an unnatural, perverse kind of faith that runs counter to all our instincts—for it says that the true test of faith is what we do when our neighbor tries his or her best to undo us!

According to this faith, we are emphatically our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, even those brothers and sisters who most strenuously oppose us.

And here’s something else Jewish faith ardently believes in—the absolute importance of small goodness—not grand gestures, overblown promises, heroic interventions—but incidents of small goodness which are the principle means of grace.

This faith suggests to us that the highest vocation to which we can aspire is to be the bearer of small goodness to our neighbor.

It is this small goodness that the Jewish Russian author Vasily Grossman is referring to when he speaks of those ordinary, everyday, “senseless, stupid” acts of kindness that turn out to be infinitely more important than all the weighty pronouncements about virtue and morality by politicians and prelates.

More than anything, it seems, it is the gift of small goodness that comes to us again and again that lights our way, brightens our mood, lightens our load, and gives us strength for our journey.

This fellow gets on an elevator with a young woman who has head phones dangling from her ears—as soon as the door closes, she removes them and the two of them ride silently down to ground level.

As she exits and walks away, her fellow rider regrets not having said something about her act of courtesy.

But then as he returns from lunch and is headed for the elevator, this same young woman is just getting on, recognizes him, and holds the door open—she has already taken her ear phones out.

This time he thanks her for being so respectful of a stranger’s sensitivities—she smiles and says she has a five foot rule—when she’s within five feet of someone she always takes her ear phones out.

How this act of small goodness contrasts with what I observed the other morning at Starbucks when a certain customer held up the line for five minutes while he ordered a complicated drink at the same time he was trying in a loud voice to complete a business transaction on his cell phone.

A woman has just gotten off a plane at a bustling metropolitan airport and because of construction, there is no covered jetway to the baggage claim area—so bags are being unloaded on the tarmac.

Thinking she wouldn’t need a coat until she left the airport, she had checked it with the rest of her things.

It is 25 degrees and a bitter wind is whipping across the cold, hard surface where she’s standing in a T-shirt.

Another woman passenger notices that this lady’s unprotected and shuddering in the cold.

This stranger proceeds to unzip her down coat and bundles them both in the warm folds of this coat until the bags are delivered some minutes later.

What’s remarkable about these occasions when we are blessed by small goodness is that we often remember these incidents for a lifetime such as when I was a third grader starting a new school and full of apprehension and a classmate came up to me and said, “I’m going to show you around today so that you feel a little bit at home.”

These incidents of small goodness have a way of resonating down through the years and becoming a moveable feast that continues to nourish us.

The Jewish faith of Jesus and the prophets exalts ordinary, everyday events to a sacramental level.

It’s through the prism of this faith that we are able to perceive that our neighbor in need is a stand-in for God.

It’s through the prism of this faith that we are able to perceive that the simple giving and receiving of small goodness is a function of the Divine Spirit widening our hearts and mending our wounded selves. Amen.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
4 Advent
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio
12/19/10

Vulnerability

“The people stood by watching Jesus on the cross; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’”

Luke 23:35

In the Monty Python movie, “The Meaning of Life,” the headmaster of a British boys’ school is presiding over a service in the chapel and he begins a prayer by saying: “O Lord, you are so big, so absolutely huge…you are so strong, and, well, so super…those of us down here are really impressed, I can tell you.”

Of course, this is a satirical exaggeration of how our prayers and scripture often depict God as majestic and powerful.

But today’s gospel reading challenges us to think in a drastically different register.

The picture we are given of the execution of a defenseless, powerless Jesus is not an image of omnipotence and might.

No, quite the opposite—it is an image of acute weakness and vulnerability.

And this raises the scandalous possibility that it’s in Jesus’ utter vulnerability that his divinity is manifest.

Could it be that in this picture of Jesus being mocked and taunted as he is stretched out on wooden beams we are given a glimpse of the vulnerability of God?

And is it possible, as our tradition has long asserted, that in the faces of vulnerability you and I meet every day, we are also encountering the vulnerability of God?

Now it’s hard to imagine in this world of conflict and strife that we could do without the restraining force of those institutions that impose law and order however imperfectly and sometimes ruthlessly.

It would seem that our unruly natures require the existence in some form or other of governing bodies, armed forces, police, courts, fire codes, etc., notwithstanding the ever-present danger that those in positions of authority will abuse that authority and overreach.

Certainly the powers that be, the representatives of law and order, can compel, restrain, and subdue us—they can force us to be law abiding or suffer the consequences—what these representatives of restraining force cannot do is inspire contrition, generosity, and a heart of gratitude.

But what sheer force cannot accomplish, the face of vulnerability can.

It is the face of vulnerability, rather than force, that can change us; it is the face of vulnerability that can convert us.

The face of vulnerability does not coerce, demand, or threaten.

Instead, the face of vulnerability appeals to us, entreats us, invites us, to break out of our reclusiveness and isolation and become available to the neighbor in our midst.

There’s something about the face of vulnerability that can stop us in our tracks, instantly dissolve our aloofness, and stir up within us a spontaneous desire to respond, help, understand, console, encourage.

There’s something about the face of vulnerability that can shake us up, change the chemistry of our disposition in a heartbeat, unfreeze our laughter and tears, and cause a spirit of tender mercy toward others to well up within us.

Think of how certain faces of vulnerability have affected us.

The face of a severely wounded deer by the side of the road—

Faces like that of Billy who regularly climbs into the dumpsters in our apartment parking lot in fair weather and foul in search of throw-away food that’s still partially edible and anything that’s remotely recyclable—and who often sleeps rough even in the dead of winter in spite of a serious asthmatic condition that landed him in the hospital last year—and yet who somehow manages to be unfailingly friendly.

There’s the worried, anxious face of a young girl in a busy department store who’s pleading with her parents to stop yelling at each other.

There’s the face of a pink-cheeked young man in uniform at the airport who looks barely old enough to shave who’s about to embark on the first leg of his journey to Afghanistan.

Yes, it is the faces of vulnerability, the faces of Charlie Chaplin and the Little Rock Nine, that can convert us, melt our hardness of heart, draw us out of ourselves, and make us want to honor that invisible, unbreakable bond that connects us to our neighbor.

A smartly dressed woman gets on the commuter train—she’s wearing that mask of impersonal detachment that we all wear when we use public transportation.

Suddenly her mask falls away—suddenly she’s beaming, making all sorts of funny faces and theatrical gestures, oblivious to all her fellow travelers except the one directly across from her—a baby squirming and gurgling with delight at being entertained by this stranger.

Five hefty young men are having a tailgate party on a city side street—pizza cartons and bottles of Snapple are perched on the trunk lid of a car.

What starts out as a harmless occasion of good-natured companionship begins to turn rowdy.

The men start flinging pizza slices and empty bottles around, littering the sidewalk and street with food and broken glass.

Passersby mutter and frown and are obviously displeased with the mess these guys are making, but no one feels quite up to challenging them.

Lo and behold, a clown approaches, a real clown in full regalia who looks like he could be a Ringling Brothers regular but who’s probably on his way to a birthday party.

The clown stops and sizes up the situation.

Then, without saying anything, he goes over to the car, takes one of the empty boxes, and starts to gather up the scattered pizza and glass.

When he has picked up everything, he walks over to the corner and carefully puts the box and its contents in a trash bin.

The young men are all observing this in stunned silence—whereupon the clown strolls over to them and holds out his hat.

The men quickly reach into their pockets and put their collective change in the hat.

The clown bows and goes his way.

Power and might can intimidate us and force our compliance.

But it is the face of vulnerability, the vulnerability of a baby and a clown, the vulnerability of Jesus of Nazareth, the vulnerability of God, that can change us and turn our heart of stone into a heart of flesh.

It is the face of vulnerability that can entice us into being kinder, more courteous, more respectful of our neighbor, more forgiving of our adversaries, and more accepting of our own vulnerability. Amen.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
The Last Sunday after Pentecost
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio
11/21/10

Where’s Mama?

“So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found! And they began to celebrate.’”

Luke 15:20-23

As I was mulling over the text of this classic parable, a parable that is as familiar to us as the slippers we pad around the house in, I found myself preoccupied with a question that had never occurred to me before.

The question is this—Where’s Mama?!

Have you ever wondered why it is that the mother of the wayward son never makes an appearance in this story—why she is never seen or heard from?—why she does not figure in the welcome of her boy or the celebration afterwards?

What got me puzzling over this was coming across a commentary on this parable by a New Testament scholar entitled, “I Remember Mama”, which seemed to suggest that when the prodigal was bereft and desolate in a far country, memories of his mother must have played a role in his decision to return home.

This intrigued me—what could possibly be assumed or said about a mother who is not even mentioned in the text?

But then it turns out that in the commentary itself there is not a single reference to Mama—aside from the title, she is conspicuously absent.

Where is Mama?

And then I remembered that Rembrandt, inspired by this parable, had done pictures of the father embracing his long-lost son and these pictures included other figures in the background looking on.

Maybe Mama’s face could be found among these witnesses—but no, the only persons shown in the background are the elder brother and servants—once again, Mama is absent.

And yet, it seems to me, Mama’s absence in the parable speaks volumes—her absence, her silence, her invisibility, create a vacuum that calls out to us, that cries out to be filled with our imagining.

The mom’s absence in the story challenges and provokes us to fill in the blank, to summon her out of the shadows, to envision a back story that recognizes and includes her as an indispensable participant in the wondrous reconciliation that occurs at the end of the parable.

So, in the next few moments, let us imagine Mama.

When the two boys are little, I imagine Mama as a serious Jewish mother who adores her kids to a fault, constantly brags on them, treats their most minor achievement as a world-class feat, and frets over their every mishap and disappointment.

But, as the years go by, I imagine Mama, more than anything, as one who endures.

Of course, to start with, I imagine her enduring the terrible, life-threatening hazards of giving birth to two sons.

And then I imagine her enduring all the demands, anxieties, and frustrations of raising two boys—the throw ups, the fevers, the skinned knees, the tantrums, the sibling warfare that sometimes turns bloody, the turbulent, stormy moods of adolescence.

I imagine her enduring the older son becoming overly compliant and submissive to his father’s wishes.

I imagine her enduring the younger son becoming increasingly impulsive and reckless.

Mama carries on, but she worries a lot about her boys.

And when this younger boy, now a young man, talks his dad into giving him his inheritance early and is poised to march out the door with nothing more specific in mind than seeing the world and sampling its pleasures and excitements, I imagine Mama tearfully imploring him to reconsider, pleading with him to stay around, pursue some of the opportunities at the home place, find a nice girl, and settle down.

Nevertheless, despite her anguished protests, he leaves—and I imagine Mama inconsolably distraught, wringing her hands, secluding herself for several days in a darkened room., but still harboring a slim hope that he will suddenly show up on the doorstep hungry and tired, eager to reclaim his own bed and eat his fill of Mama’s home cooking.

But when weeks and months pass and there’s been no word from this vagabond boy, I imagine Mama enduring a perpetual state of wondering, worrying, and praying, still hoping against hope she might see him coming down the road, and not for a moment writing him off, not for a moment regarding him as dead and gone.

And I imagine that eventually, this adventurous, foolish son of hers, bogged down in deprivation and misery in some distant hell-hole of a place, remembers Mama.

I imagine that in his hunger, loneliness, and desperation, he remembers all that Mama has endured on his behalf down through the years, all the comfort and solace she lavished on him, all the anguish he has caused her, and that this is part of what propels him home, whatever his other motives might be.

And thus I imagine Mama’s endurance helping to prepare the way for her son’s tumultuous homecoming.

And I imagine Mama as an exemplar of faith.

Because to endure in one’s costly investment in someone when that effort seems to be undercut and overwhelmed by insurmountable difficulties is an impossible proposition in human terms—if a project isn’t paying off, even if it involves a family member, shouldn’t we just cut our losses and move on?—but perhaps what we lack, faith can supply—perhaps it is just this kind of impossible that faith can make possible.

To endure on behalf of others for the long haul, to persist day by day in the provision of care when the results seem uncertain, negligible or cancelled out by circumstances beyond one’s control, is to trust that there is a creative power of grace in our midst that can ultimately convert our fallible human efforts into something durable and redemptive.

To endure on behalf of others when the benefits are scarcely visible is to trust that our efforts will ultimately have some kind of redemptive effect, even if it will be long delayed, even if it’s beyond our lifetime.

Perhaps imagining Mama can help us reflect on all those unrecognized, uncelebrated persons past and present whose endurance on behalf of others has had a redemptive effect.

Perhaps every one of us has known such persons—perhaps every one of us is benefiting at this very moment from those who endured on our behalf. Amen.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
4 Lent
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio
March 14, 2010

Life on the Other Side of Trouble

“O Lord my God, I cried out to you,
and you restored my health.
You brought me up. O lord, from the dead;
you restored my life as I was going down to the grave.
…………….
While I felt secure, I said,
‘I shall never be disturbed.
You, Lord, with your favor, made me as strong as the mountains.’
Then you hid your face,
and I was filled with fear.
I cried to you, O Lord,
I pleaded with the Lord, saying,
‘What profit is there in my blood if I go down to the Pit?
Will the dust praise you or declare your faithfulness?
Hear, O Lord, and have mercy upon me;
O Lord, be my helper.’
You have turned my wailing into dancing;
you have put off my sack-cloth and clothed me with joy.
Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing;
O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever.”

Psalm 30:2-3, 7-13

The remarkable thing about Psalm 30 is that this psalm, in just a few verses, traverses the different seasons of faith.

Verse 7 refers to the season of blessed order and stability—“While I felt secure, I said, ‘I shall never be disturbed. You Lord with your favor, made me as strong as the mountains.’”

This is the time when we are settled, comfortable, at ease—when we are basking in security and contentment—when things are humming along—when things seem to fall into place—when life is abundant, gratifying, overflowing—when we know ourselves to be richly blessed—when God seems to be the founder and guarantor of our flourishing.

But verse 8 reflects a drastic reversal of fortune—“Then you hid your face, and I was filled with fear”—perhaps panic would be a better translation.

Inevitably our state of easeful order, equilibrium, and tranquility is disrupted by some kind of trouble that arrives with enough force to unsettle and disturb us, to arouse in us considerable alarm and anxiety—we suddenly feel in our bones the fragility of our security and, indeed, of our very existence.

Sometimes this trouble is severe enough to throw us into the kind of panic and desperation the psalmist knows about when he speaks of all night weeping, and the terror of going down to “the Pit.”

For the psalmist, the Pit is the black hole of desolation, hopelessness, extinction—to go down to the Pit is to be swallowed up in the darkness of the void.

The Psalmist doesn’t tell us what the trouble is—but we know what our trouble is—an accident, illness, job loss, divorce, not enough income to keep the wolves from the door, family strife, death of a companion—or maybe just inexplicable dread.

We Episcopalians are not accustomed to venting our anguish in such visceral, naked outcries of distress as we find in the psalms.

Most of us from our earliest years become adept at camouflaging our distress—most of us never learned an adequate vocabulary for lamenting the unspeakable trouble that at some time or other is visited upon us.

We might think of the psalmist as an inspired blues singer like Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday—the psalmist furnishes polite, civilized, moderate people like us with a language of lamentation we have been sorely missing—the psalmist’s voice can become our voice.

But, of course, the psalmist is also an incomparable celebrant of new life on the other side of trouble—a celebrant of resurrection.

And just as the psalmist exceeds us in articulating grief, so she surpasses us in the unfettered exuberance of praise and gratitude.

“O Lord my God, I cried out to you, and you restored me to health.
You brought me up, O Lord, from the dead; you restored my life as I was going down to the grave….
Weeping may spend the night but joy comes in the morning….
You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sack cloth and clothed me with joy.
Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing;
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you for ever.”

Something amazing happens to the psalmist on the way to the Pit—just as he seems to be tumbling into the depths of the netherworld of gloom and misery, just when all seems lost, just when he seems to be a dead duck, he is suddenly lifted up, healed, restored, clothed with joy—he can’t say how it happened, only that it happened.

And so the psalmist, sounding more pentecostal than Episcopalian, lets loose with an ecstatic anthem of thanksgiving—for it is always an astonishing thing to be resurrected from the deathly grip of doom and gloom, to discover newness of life on the other side of big trouble.

For those of us raised on huge doses of self-sufficiency and self-reliance, the psalmist’s language of praise may seem strange to our ears.

For the psalmist consistently identifies God as the superabundant, endlessly resourceful power who, when we are dead-ended and absolutely stymied, surprises us with new, life-giving possibilities utterly beyond our reckoning. .

For the psalmist, God is the always startling provider of new life on the other side of trouble.

If we are sufficiently attentive, we can hear many stories in this parish community and beyond about discovering the gift of new life on the other side of trouble.

I’m thinking of the young father I read about who said, “When my wife gave birth to a son with Down syndrome, I thought it was my damnation, but it turned out to be my salvation.”

I’m thinking of Dominique Browning who was the editor of House & Garden for 12 years—and who on a certain Monday morning in 2007 was abruptly notified that both the magazine and her job no longer existed.

For a Type A personality for whom her job was the beginning and end of her universe, this was a crushing blow.

For years her worst nightmare was unemployment, a fear she had kept at bay by being too busy to think—but now it had happened—the superstructure that had fueled her energy and motivation had collapsed.

Her job was not only her source of income—it was the measure of her worth—and now a horrific sense of worthlessness and failure, not to mention panic about her future, almost completely immobilized her.

For months just getting out of bed required a supreme effort.

Then one day she pulled off the shelf an old King James Version of the Bible she’d been given in high school—and over the next weeks she immersed herself in this book she had never read before.

She said, “I turned most frequently to the Psalms, whose gorgeous, intricate, sensual prayers blanketed me in wonder. There I found my anthem for that year, the most eloquent expression of grief I ever read: ‘I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.’”

Then she found an old volume of sheet music for J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations—though hardly an accomplished pianist, she began to falteringly pick her way through the first passages and she said, “Unexpectedly, I felt a peace suffuse my bones as I lost myself in Bach’s lines—Bach has become a nightly visitor. I am obsessed with him, his musical tricks, jokes, and puns; his charismatic energy and passion; his resilience through tragedy; his rigorous discipline; his bedrock belief in a force greater than anything human.”

She goes on to say, “Slowly, slowly, the months go by, each one a variation transposing loss, loneliness, and anger to gratitude and hope….I find room in my life again for love of the world, let the quiet of solitary moments steal over me, give myself over to joy. What a surprise! That I can cook a meal for my children, or take a long walk on the beach, or watch an osprey wheel through the sky, or set down a page of thoughts—these are moments of grace. Old Testament loving kindness, the stuff of everyday life….when I am at the keyboard, I connect with something I may have once encountered as a teenager and then lost in the frantic skim through adulthood—the desire to nourish my soul….every once in a while, I accomplish a passage adroitly. Fingers dance over keys….I enjoy myself. And I am happy for small-boned miracles.”

And so it is that a young father, an unemployed former editor, and, yes, many of us have discovered, and perhaps rediscovered again and again, the gift and grace of burgeoning new life on the other side of trouble.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
3 Easter
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio
4/18/2010