Hidden in Plain View

“And there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

Matthew 2:9b-12

Have you ever wondered why, out of all the inhabitants of the Roman Empire and beyond, only the three wise men came to celebrate Jesus’ birth?

Have you ever wondered why, according to Matthew’s version of the nativity, out of all the people in the known world, only the three wise men were able to read the signs of the heavens and perceive that the rising of a certain star meant that a momentous birth had occurred?

After all, the same astronomical signs that moved the wise men to undertake their long, arduous journey were presumably visible to millions— the same evidence was available to one and all.

So why were the wise men the only ones who saw and understood, the only ones who saw the light?

And remember—the wise men were Gentiles, foreigners, who would not have been steeped in the Jewish tradition of expecting a messiah—how ironic that they would be the ones who, as the Bible puts it, had “eyes to see”!

But, of course, this reminds us of how it was often those who were outside the fold, who were not observant Jews, who were most drawn to Jesus of Nazareth, who saw the light of God reflected in him, who had “eyes to see.”

Artists talk about “training the eye” in order to see certain things in a painting that one would otherwise miss.

The wise men must have had “a trained eye” in order to see what everyone else was blind to.

Perhaps we are being told in this nativity story that we also need “a trained eye” to discern the Divine light, to perceive the coming of the Son of Man.

Several weeks ago the Gospel reading contained these words attributed to Jesus: “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming….Therefore you must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

But if his coming, like his birth, is always hidden in plain view, we undoubtedly need a trained eye to recognize him.

Matthew’s nativity story is a kind of seminar for training our eye to notice the right thing.

Matthew’s nativity story is a prototype of how the Son of Man is born among us again and again—this story is a primer on how to recognize his coming which is hidden in plain view.

So what clues can we glean from this story that can help us attune our vision to his appearing anew in our midst?

Well, for one thing, according to Matthew, no one is ready for this birth—the arrival of the Son of Man, the Messiah, is shockingly unexpected.

And, of course, the other glaringly obvious feature of this story is that the Son of Man comes among us in a condition of utter vulnerability—what this story of Jesus’ birth proclaims is not the power of God but the weakness of God, the vulnerability of God.

And it is this startling vulnerability of the newly born Messiah, the vulnerability of a defenseless infant, that both judges and blesses us.

And Matthew’s portrayal of the Messiah child whose birth no one is ready for and who, like all infants, is vulnerable, fragile, and helpless may offer just the clues we need to train our eye for the coming of the Son of Man.

For the Son of Man keeps showing up in our midst—but, as in the birth story, he seems to come when we least expect it and he comes in a condition of startling vulnerability that both judges and blesses us.

The other day I met the Son of Man in the parking lot behind the Chipotle restaurant as I was getting into my car with a carry out dinner—and I was far from ready.

In fact, I was so unready and unprepared for the Son of Man to abruptly make his appearance, I was so taken aback and undone, so flummoxed and disconcerted, that the first thing that occurred to me as he approached the car was to hightail it out of there—

Indeed, I was so eager to evade him and exit PDQ that I hurriedly hit the accelerator and drove the car over a cement parking barrier—and passers-by, startled by the grinding crunch of the vehicle getting hung up, looked at me puzzled as if to say, “What’s with this guy?”

When I backed up and once again scraped the undercarriage on the cement, more heads swung in my direction—all this commotion and embarrassment because I wasn’t in the mood for whatever requests this fellow moseying toward me might have in mind.

Now admittedly this gentleman, in appearance and demeanor, did not display obvious messianic characteristics—he didn’t look the part—he was definitely incognito—

He looked, for all the world, like an unkempt, shuffling, partially under the influence panhandler—

But then nobody recognized Jesus as the Son of Man either until he was gone—and I didn’t realize I had just met up with the Son of Man in that parking lot until I was pulling away and saw his silhouette fading in the rearview mirror.

What made me think that this shabby, bereft figure was the Son of Man?

Because suddenly I found that that face of helplessness, dereliction, and naked vulnerability was interrogating me, asking me the most searching questions—Who are you? Where are you going? What have you to do with me? What is the measure of your days? What do you have that you were not given?

Suddenly that panhandler’s ravaged, weather-beaten face became the face of the Son of Man addressing me: Wake up! Come alive! Behold your neighbor! For we are members one of another, and be assured there is just the slightest membrane of difference between your situation and mine as I forage for a handout—a slight shift in circumstances and I might be there and you might be here! So be merciful! If not now, when?

Matthew’s nativity story suggests to us that the Son of Man does not come among us in a display of power and might—he does not overwhelm us—he does not coerce or strong arm us—

Rather the Son of Man coaxes, lures, and appeals to us in gentleness and weakness—in a host of different guises and forms, he comes among us in a condition of startling vulnerability that shakes our foundations and refocuses our vision.

The Son of Man comes to us through a child’s upturned, wide-eyed, wonder-struck face.

He comes to us through the bewildered look of a wounded raccoon who is going to have to be put down.

And certainly he comes to us through the stories of those for whom embodying the vulnerability of God has become their consuming passion and calling, a passion pursued even at great, incalculable cost.

In his book about Martin Luther King, Jr., Marshall Frady writes of the time in l964 when King had led a series of demonstrations in St. Augustine, Florida—

These consisted of “night marches that proceeded with a hymning of freedom songs from the black quarter of town to the town square, once a slave market, where (the marchers) would be met with an engulfing violence from the whites who had been steadily sifting in from the surrounding palmetto flatlands…But then came one particular (night) of mayhem on the square—a storm of swinging baseball bats and trace chains and shrieked rebel yells, through which the black marchers made their way with a mute, unbelieving terror and stumbling frantic urgency, in a long leaning line battered back and forth like a canebrake in a wild wind, and at last breaking apart altogether, marchers scattering back for the refuge of the black section. Following them there, through several passing scuffles of my own, I happened to glimpse, in the shadows of a front porch, all by himself and apparently unnoticed by anyone else, King standing in his shirt-sleeves, his hands on his hips, absolutely motionless as he watched the marchers straggling past him in the dark, bleeding, clothes torn, sobs and wails now welling up everywhere around him—and on his face a look of stricken astonishment.

Later that night I found him sitting behind drawn blinds in the low-lit front parlor of another house, holding a glass of ice water with a paper napkin wrapped around the bottom. He said in a thick murmur, ‘You question—yes, when things happen like this tonight, you question sometimes—What are we doing to these people?…’”

Yes, Dr. King and his fellow pilgrims were definitely vulnerable, oh, so vulnerable—

And yet—and I think we still fail to grasp how astounding this was— this vulnerability turned out to be stronger and more durable than the dogs and water canons unleashed against them, stronger than the baseball bats and truncheons that thudded against their skulls and bodies, stronger than the vitriolic abuse and degradation relentlessly hurled at them.

And it wasn’t that they just survived—true to the words of the song that accompanied them in all their meetings and marches, they overcame—

Their vulnerability turned out to be indomitable.

What fueled Dr. King’s prophetic, redemptive vulnerability was his conviction that, as he put it, “there is something in the very structure of the cosmos that will ultimately bring about fulfillment and the triumph of what is right,” that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”—and, he said, “This is the only thing that can keep one going in difficult periods.”

Even at forty years’ remove, it is staggering to contemplate what kind of courage it took for King to stand up in the most hard core, entrenched citadels of segregation and, at much risk to life and limb, publicly proclaim, ”We will meet your physical force with soul force. We will not hate you, but we will not obey your evil laws. We will soon wear you down by our capacity to suffer.’”

For the vulnerability of the Son of Man is both tender-hearted and phenomenally tough-minded, with a capacity for enduring, staying the course, and changing hearts and minds that defies all odds.

The vulnerability of the Son of Man is like the pitiful-looking weed that somehow generates enough force to break through a cement sidewalk—and this vulnerability, by appealing to us rather than commanding us, can change us in a way that no amount of threat or force ever could.

And let it be said emphatically that the vulnerability of the Son of Man is not grim, gloomy, or humorless.

This vulnerability is full of gladness, mercy, and laughter—it is full of life!

There is something of the jester and harlequin in this Divine vulnerability—something comical and playfully exuberant.

Witness this anecdote concerning Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel—Rabbi Heschel had just finished walking in the Selma-to-Montgomery march with Dr. King and was at the Montgomery airport in quest of some nourishment—

The woman working the snack-bar counter was sullen and disagreeable and glared at Heschel who, with his yarmulke and white beard, resembled a Hebrew prophet—

This woman said sarcastically, “Well, I’ll be damned. My mother always told me there was a Santa Claus, and I didn’t believe her until now”— she let him know she would not be serving him any food.

Heschel smiled, and then gently asked, “Is it possible that in the kitchen there might be some water?”—grudgingly the woman admitted that yes, there was.

“Is it possible,” Heschel asked, “that in the refrigerator you might find a couple of eggs?”—well, maybe, the woman said.

“Well, then,” said Rabbi Heschel, “ if you take the eggs and boil them in the water, that would be fine.”

“Why should I?” the woman shot back.

“Why should you?” Heschel said, “ Because, after all, I did you a favor.”

“What favor did you ever do me?” she asked.

Heschel answered, “I proved to you there was a Santa Claus.”

The woman burst out laughing, and food was quickly delivered.

So if we use Matthew’s nativity story as our lens, we might surmise that the Son of Man is born into our midst when we least expect him in the guise of a startling vulnerability—it might be the vulnerability of a panhandler, a child, a wounded animal, an African American civil rights leader, a Jewish rabbi, and on and on—

In whatever form of vulnerability the Son of Man comes to us, he judges our hardness of heart and invites us, urges us, beseeches us, to wake up and be merciful— merciful to our neighbor, merciful to our enemies, and, yes, merciful to ourselves.

And so it might be that one effect of our being surprised by the Son of Man crossing our path is that we may find rising up within us some variation of that old Eastern Orthodox prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon us—have mercy upon us all.”

As Tom Schaefer reminded us during each day of the Waffle Shop, Jesus might be coming through the door at any time—which is to say we could have a surprise visit from the Son of Man at any time.

So the question of the hour is not the question that Hank Williams, Jr. shouts out before the kickoff of the Sunday Night Game of the Week, “Are you ready for some football?,” but rather, are you ready for the Son of Man?

Maybe you’ll be more ready than I was. Amen.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio
January 6, 2008

Holy Grumbling

“From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’ Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?’ But the people thirsted there for water, and the people complained against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?’”

Exodus 17:1-3

Not long ago I came across a book at the library that takes a humorous look at the current state of British morals and manners.

The title, “Mustn’t Grumble,” could hardly be improved upon— it refers, of course, to that peculiarly British notion that complaining, if not morally repugnant, is at least certainly in bad taste and bad form.

Contrast this to the Jewish tradition in which grumbling, complaining, kvetching, is not only not bad form but actually a highly developed art form.

And so we have a new book out which highlights the Yiddish flair for creative grumbling with a title that says it all: “Born to Kvetch.”

The author suggests that “kvetching” is an attitude “that sees the world through cataract-colored glasses.”

He says “that if the Rolling Stones’ song, ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ had been written in Yiddish, it would have been called ‘(I Love to Keep Telling You That I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction (Because Telling You That I’m Not Satisfied Is All That Can Satisfy Me).’”

The author points out that even the most innocuous question can become a launching pad for kvetching— Question: How are you? Answer: Don’t ask!—the problem is, if you’re the questioner, you have already asked and what’s likely to follow is a twenty-minute laundry list of misfortunes and mishaps.

So given the rich Jewish heritage of creative kvetching, it’s not really surprising that in that most Jewish of books, the Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament, there’s a fair amount of grumbling.

But what we might find surprising, and perhaps a little shocking, is how often this grumbling is addressed to God—how often complaints and accusations are leveled against God.

For example, in today’s lesson from Exodus, the Israelites, having escaped Egypt, are railing against Moses for leading them into a wilderness where they are in danger of perishing for lack of water—and Moses, sensing that a mutiny might be in the works, fears for his life—

But the people are not just protesting against Moses and Aaron, their leaders—they are also lodging a bitter complaint against Yaweh—they are voicing a vote of no confidence in Yaweh’s promise to provide for them.

Now twice before on this journey in the wild, Moses has had to contend with ominous rumbling and grumbling among the people when they have run out of water and food—and each time Yaweh has dispensed emergency provisions that have saved the day.

But even though Yaweh has rescued the Israelites twice before, their trust in Yaweh is far from certain and unshakable.

When they run out of water again, as described in today’s reading, the people are once more thrown into a state of panic and once more the sound of kvetching and grumbling is heard rising from their ranks which might be translated as follows: just because Yaweh saved us twice before doesn’t mean it will happen again!

Kvetching against God is one of the signature features of the Hebrew Bible—and the Jews can lay claim to doing it with unmatched fervor and originality.

For example, when my mother-in-law felt truly put upon, she would fall back on the prophet Isaiah for one of her favorite kvetches: “How long, O Lord?”

And, of course, the Psalms are chock-full of bold, blatant, and sometimes quite bleak grumblings against God.

This is from Psalm 88:

“Lord, why have you rejected me?
Why have you hidden your face from me?……
Your blazing anger has swept over me;
your terrors have destroyed me;
They surround me all day long like a flood;
they encompass me on every side.
My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me,
And darkness is my only companion.”

Maybe this is why one of my seminary professors said to us one day, “When you feel bad, I mean really bad, turn to the Psalms because they will articulate your woe far better than you can.”

And this Jewish tradition of outspoken, even brash, grumbling against God continues unto this day, often under the cover of humor.

A certain Jew went to the Wailing Wall every day where he prayed at the same spot from dawn til dusk—someone asked him what he was praying for—he replied, “For world peace and understanding.”—well, he was asked, how’s it going?—he answered, “It’s like talking to a brick wall.”

Now the very idea of grumbling at God may strike some as unthinkably impertinent and irreverent—but I would suggest to you that kvetching at God is akin to the cranky child who says to his mother, “I hate you,” and the mother, completely unruffled, says in a matter of fact voice, “Yes, dear, I know.”

Well, I would like to consider with you how this ancient story of the Israelites’ grumbling, kvetching, in the wilderness, and the whole biblical tradition of kvetching against God, pose a question about faith that is also our question about faith day in and day out.

And the question is this—will we be provided for today, tomorrow, the next day?—Or, to quote today’s text, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Because even during the most comfortable and secure of times, this question seems to lurk just below the surface.

Oh, yes—during past times of crisis and need, during the storms of life, we have repeatedly been given sustenance sufficient to see us through—but that’s no guarantee that we will continue to be blessed with those unexpected events of grace, those life-giving surprises, those gifts that have fallen into our laps, that have nourished and upheld us, that have refueled us and kept us going.

Certainly we remember how, when we have been languishing in the waste-land of trouble and tribulation, we have been fed, nurtured, and ministered to— yes, we cleave to these memories, but at the same time we question how and if this will happen the next time we’re in dire straits.

Because maybe next time the waves will roll over us—maybe next time we’ll go under—maybe next time we’ll be a goner.

Enter grumbling—grumbling expresses the doubt and uncertainty that are always a part of faith—grumbling is the voice of our anxiety that maybe today or tomorrow our daily bread will come up missing.

So even as we hope and trust that we will somehow receive from the Giver of all good gifts whatever it is we truly need and cannot supply ourselves, at the same time we may well find ourselves plagued by the suspicion that this faith-business is just a pipe-dream and whistling in the dark.

The grumbling of doubt comes from realizing what faith is up against in “this mad, mad, mad, mad world”—yes, we may hear ourselves groaning, if not outwardly at least inwardly, when it dawns on us what a preposterous, impossible thing it is to have faith in such a harsh and merciless world.

James Muilenburg, professor of Old Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, used to tell his students, “Every morning when you wake up, before you reaffirm your faith in…..God, before you say ‘I believe’ for another day, read the Daily News with its record of the latest crimes and tragedies….and then see if you can honestly say (I believe) again.”

Perhaps he would advise us to take a walk in the city or take a drive through those parts of the East Side or West Side where we dare not walk and take in the human wretchedness, the lives stunted and disfigured by social chaos and violence, poverty, untreated illness, malnutrition, drugs, what have you, and then see if we can say “I believe.”

For over twenty-five years, Father John McNamee worked as a parish priest in one of the poorest, roughest neighborhoods in North Philadelphia.

In “Diary of a City Priest,” he gives an account of his day-to-day efforts to minister to the people of the public housing projects, almost none of whom are Catholics.

His daily agenda might include trying to get somebody into a detox program for the third time, the thankless task of looking for a job, any job, for a parolee just out of prison, getting out of bed at 2 a.m. and going to night court because some young offender has no one else to speak for him, responding to the endless requests for food and help with unpaid bills that come literally knocking at his door, knowing there’s a good chance the money will go for drugs, twisting the arm of the ER doctor to get an uninsured woman admitted to the hospital, transporting somebody home in the middle of the night because Father McNamee is the only one with a car (until the car gets stolen), hounding potential donors for school scholarships for kids who otherwise will be hanging out on the corner and for contributions to get the pantry re-stocked, etc.

Every so often, when his morale and faith have become worn and threadbare almost to the vanishing point, he somewhat guiltily accepts an invitation from his suburban friends for dinner at an expensive restaurant or takes them up on their offer to pay for a short vacation trip to Ireland.

And when Father McNamee and his co-workers are sorely oppressed by the blight and raw misery of the projects, they are not at all reluctant to grumble at God—one day he and a social worker nun are visiting a high rise looking for a woman on drugs about to be evicted for rent delinquency, and a swarm of children are playing around an unprotected, dangerous elevator where a week earlier a child had fallen to his death—he asks the nun, “What do you think He (meaning God) had in mind?”—the nun answers “I don’t know, but he better go back to the drawing board.”

Father McNamee admits to times when he feels consumed by doubt, when, as he puts it, “I awake and the burden of this difficult place and a wounded self are simply there, waiting for me as I put my feet on the floor,” when it feels like “nothing is out there—no one—never was.”

And yet in the midst of his doubt he senses something else—he writes: “framed in the morning window (there is) such splendor, such sun and sky and birdsong, (that) even in the worn city….I am drawn in. Something greater is going on than this melodrama of mine….I should never lose sight of all that the window brings in here and invites me out into simultaneously…I sense that there is a larger reality in which (we are) encircled and the love (that) gave (us our) existence is awesomely greater than any clouding of the splendor of the gift by AIDS or tragedy or whatever.”

In the midst of his doubt, in the midst of this urban wilderness, Father McNamee is again and again, against all odds, fed and restored—one day at the break of dawn, as he is trying to assimilate the news that a cyclone in Bangladesh has claimed thousands of lives, he walks out into a breathtakingly cool, clear, sunlit May morning and is suddenly transfixed by the beauty of a blood-red azalea blooming in front of the concrete Ladyshrine.

Father McNamee’s faith is hounded and shadowed by doubt—he rages and grumbles against what he calls “the impossibility of my life” and yet at the same time he somehow continues to believe, to trust, that underneath everything, encircling all of us, are the Everlasting Arms.

So when we are blindsided by adversity and we realize, in the words of today’s collect, that “we have no power to help ourselves,” grumbling, you might say, is our natural reflex.

Like the Israelites, we grumble because we fear that this time relief might not be forthcoming, that this time we might be left high and dry.

So when deliverance, grace, happens, when we are fed in the wilderness, it is never a ho hum affair—it is always startling and miraculous—it is always cause for celebration and rejoicing.

Holding out our hands to receive bread and wine is the primal gesture of waiting to be fed by the mysterious Source of All Life.

Waiting to be fed is the adventure of faith.

And, as those members of our parish who have trekked to New Orleans well know, it is often by feeding others that we are fed.

To be given the opportunity to feed others with whatever talents and energy we have been given is sheer gift and grace—which is what Jennifer Anne Moses also discovered.

In her memoir, “Bagels and Grits, a Jew on the Bayou,” Ms. Moses speaks of moving with her husband and children from an upper crust suburb of Washington D.C. to Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Severed from her familiar ties to friends, synagogue, and favorite delis, she soon discovers that she has landed in a polyglot wilderness of Cajuns and Evangelical Christians that seems alien and desolate.

A self-described nervous wreck, very much at loose ends, and desperately seeking some way of being useful, she volunteers at St. Anthony’s, an AIDS hospice, and decides to study Hebrew at the small local synagogue, Beth Shalom—she’s not sure she believes anything but this doesn’t prevent her from grumbling with a vengeance at God.

And then Katrina struck.

Ms. Moses writes:

“When Katrina, and then Rita, roared ashore, altering both the landscape and the American psyche, I found myself doing something I never would have been able to do had Stuart not dragged me and the kids down to Baton Rouge, where I found myself, both at St. Anthony’s and at Beth Shalom, surrounded by people whose deepest desire was to walk with God. In a shelter that had been set up in an abandoned K-Mart on Airline Highway, I worked—along with hundreds of medical and nonmedical volunteers from all over the country—tending to the sick and the desperate, giving sponge-baths, dispensing stuffed animals, and helping people who could barely walk get to the toilet or finding them something to eat. People I’d never before met and would no doubt never see again sobbed in my arms. Old men clutched my hand; Vietnam vets begged me to help them find relatives lost in the storm; people who’d spent days waist-high in filthy water or praying for their lives inside the New Orleans Superdome or the Civic Center blessed me, saying that I was an angel, and that God was good, and that the shelter itself—with its ancient grime, buzzing, fluorescent lighting, and almost complete lack of plumbing—was heaven.”

Ms. Moses goes on: “In the fifth-century book the Pesikta de-Rav Kahana it is written: ‘Between the Garden of Eden and ….(hell) there is no more than the breadth of a hand’”—that is, one human hand can make the difference between paradise and hell.

She concludes with this prayer: “Dear God, my heavenly Father, Source of All Life, guide my hands.”

And so we might pray: “Dear God, Source of All Life, guide our hands that they might feed those who are hungry in body, mind, or spirit.”

As our New Orleans missioners can vouch for, it is one of the great paradoxes of the kingdom of God that in seeking to feed others, we are fed. Amen.

Robert Dwight
3 Lent
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, OH
February 24, 2008

Here’s to Life

“You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me;
  you have anointed my head with oil,
  and my cup is running over.
Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
  And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”

Psalm 23:5-6

At first glance, Psalm 23 seems a curious selection for Lent—somehow the phrases, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want…you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over,” seems at odds with the somber mood of Lent.

And the same might be said of today’s Gospel reading in which the man born blind, after being healed by Jesus, responds to those Pharisees who are questioning Jesus’ credentials by exclaiming, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see”—this eruption of joy seems definitely more celebratory than penitential.

As I mused on these readings, it occurred to me that maybe a lot of us have gotten it all wrong.

I’m thinking of how many of us have approached the season of Lent.

I’m thinking of how many of us have understood the concept of sin.

I’m thinking of how many of us have understood the judgment of God and what we should feel guilty about, what we should be sorry for, what we should regret, what we should repent of.

I’m thinking that we may have been worrying about the wrong things.

Could it be that we have tended to get ourselves in a dither of guilt over what is actually quite inconsequential and at the same time have been blind and oblivious to what we really should be distressed and remorseful about?

The Greek word for sin, “hamartia,” means “to miss the mark.”

So maybe instead of asking, how have we sinned?, we should be asking, how have we missed the mark, how have we gotten off track, how have we worried and stewed and felt guilty about the wrong things?

So often God has been painted in the image of a mean-spirited, tyrannical, overbearing parent—the ultimate “control freak.”

So often God has been made out to be a fussy, persnickety, bullying, insecure parent who needs to be constantly recognized and catered to.

This is the picture of God that all too often has been promoted and circulated by religious enthusiasts and earnest evangelists— an oversized cosmic parent who requires habitual reassurance and attention and who insists on being constantly remembered and thanked even when we don’t feel an ounce of thankfulness.

How strange that we should attribute to God characteristics that we would regard as repugnant and disastrously detrimental in a human parent!

When our children venture out into the world and go off to the local Montessori kindergarten or to band camp or the Senior Prom or the youth hostels of Spain or settle down with a new spouse on the other side of town or on the other side of the continental divide, what do we as parents expect of them?

Do we expect them, do we want them, to constantly think about us, remember us, worry about us?

Do we want them to continually fret over whether we would approve of what they do or say?

I would submit that for most of us parents, our highest hope and expectation for our children is to see in their faces some evidence of happiness.

Our greatest wish for them is not that they will graduate from college or land a starring role in a Broadway musical but more than anything that their lives will manifest signs of gladness and contentment.

It seems to me what most of us parents want first and foremost from our children, more than their trying to please us or be dutifully mindful of us, is to see them flourishing and enjoying themselves.

Isn’t this true—that our greatest reward and expectation as parents is for our children to be excited, curious, fascinated, thrilled, at the great spectacle of life unfolding around them?

Yes, it seems to me that at the top of our wish list for our children is that they will savor life’s bountiful offerings, that they will relish good food and good friends, that they will know the joy of being generous, compassionate, and thankful, that they will experience the profound pleasure and satisfaction of finding work that makes full use of their talents.

Yes, the biggest wish that many of us have for our children is that in spite of whatever suffering, disappointment, and heartbreak may befall them, they will love life.

Remember that passage in Luke’s Gospel where Jesus says: “Ask and it will be given you, search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you—if you, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will our Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him?”?

Jesus seems to be saying that if we flawed human parents want in the worst way for our children to be vibrantly happy and to delight in their existence, how much more does God, the source of all life and the true parent of us all, desire our true happiness.

If we want to give our children good gifts that make their hearts sing, how much more does God want us to blossom and our cup to overflow!

Well, if Jesus’ image of God is valid, then our understanding of sin and judgment may need to be thoroughly revamped.

Because we’re probably worrying about the wrong things.

Because for many of us so much of our religion has to do with the keeping of rules—rules of belief, rules of church-going, rules of conduct.

For many of us so much of our religion is so cautious, so wary, so heavy, so joyless, so preoccupied with trying not to offend a stern, virtually unpleasable god who is perpetually at the ready to punish our miscues and misdemeanors.

And maybe it was this impression that much of religious observance consists of dogged, dreary rule-keeping that led H.L. Mencken to define a Christian as a person who is deathly afraid that someone somewhere is having a good time.

And yet if Jesus’ picture of God is to be believed, what God constantly, relentlessly wants to give us are not rules but rich, fruitful life.

There’s a poem by Phyllis McGinley that describes a mother’s desire to give to her child, and it includes these lines:

“Life is the fruit she longs to hand you,
Ripe on a plate. And while you live,
Relentlessly she understands you.”

If Jesus is right, these words apply to God to the nth power.

And so maybe what we ought to be worried about is not whether we’ve kept the rules or done things ‘just so’ or been good enough or watched our Ps and Qs but whether we have knocked vigorously enough on the door of Life.

Maybe what we ought to repent of is that we haven’t been more daring, more bold, more adventurous— that we haven’t gotten out on a limb more, that we haven’t taken more risks, that we have been too calculating and put too many of our eggs in the “play it safe” security basket—that we have responded to the Divine offer of abundant life so half-heartedly, so meekly, so apathetically.

Maybe we ought to feel regretful that instead of eagerly sitting down to the resplendent, five-star, five course meal to which Life is continually inviting us, we’ve been all too willing to settle for skimpy left-overs, morsels, and tidbits— that we haven’t sufficiently heeded the advice of the character in Saul Bellow’s novel who says: “Live all you can—it’s a mistake not to.”

Maybe we ought to feel sorry that instead of being awestruck and bowled over by the shimmering glory and goodness of creation, by the marvel of our simply being here, by the wealth of possibilities that Life has strewn in our path, we have all too often expressed that sentiment that Peggy Lee made famous: “Is this all there is?”

Maybe we ought to feel badly for those times when we have buried our talents, kept them under wraps, and thus have denied ourselves the incomparable, exhilarating privilege of offering our gifts for the sake of our neighbor and the glory of God.

And maybe what we ought to be remorseful about most of all is that we have repeatedly failed to drink deeply of the unqualified, boundless forgiveness of God, and thus we have continued to be bogged down by dismal re-runs of immobilizing guilt and self-contempt.

My five year old grandson is a kindergartener at a Catholic school—last week he told his parents that his class has been learning about Lent and how you should give something up—his mom asked him what he’s going to give up, and he said, “I think I’ll give up not liking myself.”

Julian, my boy, I think you’ve got it—because if, in spite of all that we find intolerable about ourselves, the Source of All Life and Living has embraced and approved us, has said Yes to us in no uncertain terms, and has assured us of our unassailable worth, then who are we to not like ourselves?

The story of Jesus healing the man born blind suggests that the most serious kind of blindness is not physical blindness but blindness to the unmanageable generosity of God, and that the locus of Divine activity is to be found not in quibbling and wrangling over who’s a true believer, who’s in and who’s out, but where something redemptive is happening, where someone is given eyes to see what she has never perceived before, where new life and rejuvenation overflow.

And so if we’re trying to identify where the Spirit, the giver of Life, is having an effect, we might do well to keep our eyes peeled for wherever astonishingly vibrant life is manifest.

Clayton (Peg Leg) Bates was an African American tap dancer who died in his 90’s; his obituary notice mentioned the following:

“Mr. Bates lost his leg at age 12 in an accident at a cottonseed-gin mill where he worked. He had been dancing for his own pleasure from the age of 5…(he said) ‘After losing the leg, for some unknown reason, I still wanted to dance…at first, I was walking around on crutches, and I started making musical rhythm.’

He began dancing again after his uncle whittled him a wooden leg. (He said) ‘See, I did not realize the importance of losing a leg…I thought it was just like stubbing my toe and knocking off a toenail that was going to grow back.’

Mr. Bates went on to become one of the most popular tap dancers in the nation, an irrepressible performer who was as much acclaimed by his fellow dancers as by his audience…he mastered a variety of styles and pyrotechnical flourishes, reinventing everything for a wooden leg whose half-rubber, half-leather tip gave Mr. Bates’ tapping an unusually deep and resonant sound.

‘….I’m into rhythm and I’m into novelty,’ (he said)….’I’m into doing things that it looks almost impossible to do.’ One reason he had mastered so many styles, he said, was to surpass two-legged dancers, adding that he often did….

Mr. Bates performed frequently for the disabled, first in the 1940’s in Army and Navy hospitals. He would imitate a dive bomber, leaping high into the air and coming down on his wooden leg, and then tell the applauding soldiers and sailors that with that kind of encouragement he would be happy to break his other leg. After all, he told his cheering audiences, he had more legs in his dressing room. There were 13, one to match each of his suits. After his retirement from the stage in 1989, Mr. Bates continued to perform for the handicapped, as well as children and the elderly.”

Mr. Bates’ story is one of those living parables that invites us to open ourselves wide to the Spirit, the Giver of Life, to take the plunge and throw ourselves into the great swirling dance of creation rather than sit on our hands hoping that no one is going to drag us out onto the floor which, I have to admit, was exactly my attitude during those awful junior high mixers.

The Giver of Life enables us to bear the impossible and, in spite of everything, to utter this heartfelt prayer: “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

Wouldn’t it be something if our observance of Lent inspired us to become a little braver, a little outrageous, a little more generous, a little more playful and free-wheeling, a little more attentive to the infinite mystery of creation, a little more receptive to new life-giving possibilities which are even now knocking at our door?

That would be a Lent to remember, wouldn’t it?

Back in the early 90’s, the jazz singer Shirley Horn released a CD called “Here’s to Life” which I would propose as an alternative to Ms. Lee’s “Is This All There Is?”.

The title song by Artie Butler and Phyllis Molinary contains these lyrics which I gratefully borrow for my Lenten toast to you:

“…who knows what tomorrow brings or takes away
as long as I’m still in the game, I want to play
for laughs, for life, for love.
So here’s to life and all the joy it brings.
Here’s to life, the dreamers and their dreams.
May all your storms be weathered,
And all that’s good get better.
Here’s to life, here’s to love, here’s to you.” Amen.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
Lent 3
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio
March 2, 2008