Live Boldly

“‘Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ’Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.’”

Matthew 25:24-29

You know that fellow we just heard about in Jesus’ parable who was roundly rebuked by his master for burying his money in the ground instead of investing it with the bankers?

He’s suddenly looking smarter and smarter, more like a wizard than a dunce—but then again, maybe the Palestinian banks were better regulated!

But I don’t think that what Jesus had in mind in telling this parable was to promote a particular investment strategy.

What the parable does seem to be promoting is a strategy for existing in a frightfully risky, insecure world—and the strategy is this—in the face of insecurity, venture yourself and your gifts boldly and audaciously—not foolishly, but boldly and daringly.

The parable suggests that the way of faith is like venturing out on a tight-rope where we have to use every ounce of grit and dexterity at our disposal to keep our balance—it is an exceedingly risky undertaking—but to not get out on that tight-rope, not to embrace the risk, out of a concern for our self-preservation and safety is to miss out on the one adventure that ultimately matters!

Living boldly in the face of insecurity—how timely!

Because right now, all across this land, insecurity is at full throttle.

When you think of insecurity, what flashes through your mind?—for me, insecurity conjures up the image of an earthquake.

On April 18th of this year at 5:40 a.m. my wife and I awoke with a start—the bed was swaying—there was an eerie creaking and groaning noise like we were in a ship riding out a storm—then we both blurted out loud, it’s an earthquake!

And now, with the adrenalin flowing, I said, “Should we get out of here?”—because suddenly our 12th floor apartment seemed a little precarious.

But before we could head for the door, the tremors subsided, things settled down, and we went back to bed.

As I lay there, I thought of a well-known sermon by Paul Tillich called “The Shaking of the Foundations” based on the following text from the prophet Isaiah:

The foundations of the earth do shake.
Earth breaks to pieces,
Earth is split in pieces,
Earth shakes to pieces,
Earth reels like a drunken man,
Earth rocks like a hammock.

The world itself shall crumble.
But my righteousness shall be forever,
And my salvation knows no end.

And I thought of how this minor seismic event was a reminder of how the unexpected and unforeseen can suddenly scuttle our sense of stability and security and pitch us into upheaval and alarm.

It was a reminder of how our ability to manage things can suddenly be shaken and overwhelmed by what is utterly unmanageable.

It was a reminder of how our most painstakingly devised security measures for protecting our personal safety, health, job, financial status, etc., can be rudely shaken and rendered null and void by trouble we didn’t see coming, by forces and events that surprise us like a thief in the night.

It was a reminder of how abruptly and without warning our foundations can be shaken.

In September there was another earthquake—a much more frightful, destructive earthquake—this was a financial earthquake.

For months there had been ominous rumblings as the sources of credit dried up and home foreclosures snowballed.

But the week of Monday, September 15 it all came to a head.

Within a few days some of the most venerable, respected financial institutions in America and the world had either gone under, had been bought out, or were in desperate trouble—these were firms that had been considered permanent, impregnable fixtures of the American economic landscape, companies like Lehman Brothers, American International Group, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Wachovia.

In short order, we went from boom to bust.

The market took a nose dive, rebounded, and then, to quote Isaiah again, began to “reel like a drunken man,” wildly fluctuating between big gains and even bigger losses —suddenly investors, chief executives, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, and the Secretary of the Treasury shared one thing in common—a state of panic.

As the events of that week in September unfolded, it was soon obvious that this was a crisis of global proportions.

The New York Times quoted an executive for the Swiss bank UBS as saying: “it felt like there was no ground beneath your feet. I didn’t know where it was going to end.”

On Thursday evening of that week Ben Bernanke, the Fed chairman, and Secretary Paulson met with congressional leaders to promote their $700 billion bailout plan—Mr. Bernanke is reported to have said, “If we don’t do this, we may not have an economy on Monday.”

That meeting was attended by a group of politicians who are never at a loss for words—but after Mr. Bernanke made that dire pronouncement, one of the stunned legislators reported, “You could hear a pin drop.”

Senator Charles Schumer, wizened veteran who thought he had seen it all, said, “I gulped—that meeting was one of the most astounding experiences I’ve had in my 34 years in politics.”

Suddenly it was not recession people were worried about—it was the big “D” word.

After a hiccup or two, the bailout was passed—but the shock waves have continued and the market has apparently not yet found its bottom—and many of us have also gulped as we have watched our savings and retirement funds vaporize at a dizzying pace.

And it’s a sign of the times that a young investment banker who 16 months ago was having trouble keeping track of how many year end bonuses he would get is now unemployed and has started a blog called “bankergonebroke.com.”

The economic structure that seemed such a sturdy, rock solid bastion of strength turned out to have some serious fault lines—the stock market turned out to be a house built on some flimsy underpinnings, and when they gave way, great was the fall of it.

The era of “when in doubt, charge it” and “shop til you drop” has come to a crashing halt, and now we have to pay the price for our deluded, mad-cap over-spending.

The great credit bubble has burst, the reckoning has commenced, and hardly any of us is unscathed.

As one commentator put it the night of the election, “People are terrified that their savings are going to be stripped clean.”

Yes, the foundations of our economy have been shaken, and this has meant for many of us that our own personal foundations have been rocked by a roiling insecurity that has disrupted our waking and sleeping hours.

But, if truth be told, our existence is perpetually insecure, perpetually precarious, perpetually hazardous—even in the best of economic times, we are perpetually at risk of having our foundations suddenly shaken by some piece of bad news, some reversal of fortune, some wrenching, destabilizing surprise—and sometimes the ground can seem to shift and sway beneath our feet for no apparent reason—is it any wonder we’re an anxiety-prone species?

All around us are these persistent reminders of our inescapable insecurity — like the sign I saw posted in the elevator at a Holiday Inn in Los Angeles: “This elevator rarely malfunctions”—why is this more unsettling than reassuring?

Maybe as we started to exit the birth canal, we should have been forewarned by a blinking neon sign that flashed the message, “Proceed at your own risk—no guarantees!”

The other day I heard this blues singer on the radio sing this refrain over and over: “The world’s in an uproar and the danger zone is everywhere!”—actually, the world is both safe and unsafe, dependable and unpredictable, secure and insecure—it’s just that we never know when our comfort zone is going to suddenly mutate into a danger zone—which is to say we never know when our foundations might be shaken.

No wonder Linus is reluctant to give up his security blanket—when Charley Brown asks Linus, “What are you going to do when you’re too old to drag your blanket around?”, Linus says, “I’ve been thinking seriously about having it made into a sport coat.”

During this financial crisis that has spawned such an epidemic of angst and insomnia, the majority of commercial enterprises have suffered a downturn—but there are at least three businesses that have flourished—liquor stores, pharmaceutical purveyors of sleeping aids, and the cosmetics industry which I guess suggests that if you can’t fix your portfolio, you can at least take solace in gussying up your appearance.

But as a resource for living boldly and zestfully with insecurity, I believe Psalm 46 holds considerably more promise—at a time like this, these familiar, timeless words may have a special resonance for us.

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved,
and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea;
Though its waters rage and foam,
and though the mountains tremble at its tumult,
The Lord of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our stronghold.

Strangely enough, it may be just when our foundations are shaken, when it feels like there’s no ground beneath our feet, that we discover the reality of the Psalmist’s words—that underneath our shaking foundations is an unshakeable source of refuge and strength, a present help in trouble that carries us through.

Years ago we knew this woman in Oregon, a clergy spouse, who used to say, “I’m so wrought up and strung out I could split into a thousand pieces!”

Well, it may be just when we’re at the point of the most extreme insecurity, when things seem to be flying apart, when we are most “wrought up and strung out,” that we discover the astounding truth of the Psalmist’s words—that underneath our shaking foundations is an unshakable supporting power that upholds us and keeps us intact.

The Psalmist describes God as the unshakable source and foundation of our being, who fortifies us at our roots, whose vital connection with us cannot be severed, and who preserves and empowers us in the face of terrifying insecurity.

For the Psalmist, faith is trust in a Divine empowerment that is immediately available to us, that is a very present help in trouble, that makes the impossible possible—that makes it possible for us to live boldly in the face of insecurity.

To be blessed by the gift of faith is to be given the capacity to live courageously and hopefully in the face of tumultuous insecurity—to live con brio, as the Spanish say, with a certain feistiness and verve—with an attitude—not an attitude of smugness and arrogance, but an attitude of irrepressible curiosity, wonderment, humor, and mercy.

If you want to have a look at what the face of faith might look like, you might want to go see the latest movie from the British director Mike Leigh called “Happy Go Lucky” that has just opened at the Neon.

I should mention it’s adult fare on two counts—the language and content are a little racy at times—but more importantly it offers real substance to adults who are seeking to navigate troubled waters.

The central figure is a 30 year old Londoner named Poppy dazzlingly performed by the actress Sally Hawkins.

Poppy is a relentless optimist whose need to spread cheer and good will wherever she goes is sometimes met with appreciation and sometimes annoyance—one senses that beneath the incessant chirpiness is some genuine anguish.

Her somewhat zany, outrageous attire seems designed to cover up some very real suffering.

She seems to have taken on as her life project brightening up everyone she meets who’s down in the dumps or out of sorts.

She seems to notice and greet everyone in her path, seemingly unbothered by those who rebuff or ignore her.

As her roommate says to her, “Poppy, you can’t make everyone happy,” to which Poppy replies, “Doesn’t hurt to try, though, does it?”

She is just a little too chipper and her laughter often seems a little forced.

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But what makes her utterly captivating and not just a tiresome do-gooder is that she is so full of life, so frisky, so curious, so alert to the wonder of things, so eager to embrace whatever new adventure might be in store for her, so willing to risk herself and her gifts to make a difference to someone, so shockingly kind and merciful, so real.

Poppy is not boringly virtuous—she has her moments of impulsivity and poor judgment—she self-medicates her loneliness with too many pints and engages with friends in lusty banter about imagined lovers.

But one of the things that makes her irresistible is that she is so appreciative of her lot in life—she is a celebrant.

When her sister asks her if she’s secretly miserable because she hasn’t found a mate and settled down, Poppy answers convincingly, “I love my life, I love my freedom, I love my friends, I love my job!”

And you believe her when she says she loves her job of teaching a primary class of 8 year olds when you see her throwing herself into a lesson about the migration of birds by helping the kids make elaborate bird masks and then donning her own exotic mask and leading the class in a wild, acrobatic dance of wing-flapping.

Poppy is an intriguing mixture of tenderness and toughness, innocence and savvy.

And she’s no pushover—when she or her convictions or friends are under siege, she can kick up quite a fuss.

From time to time she gets the wind knocked out of her, but it’s as though there’s some hidden source that quickly fills out her sails again—she is a study in resilience.

And Poppy’s specialty is befriending those who are lost, forlorn, down and out—as when she helps an angry boy who’s bullying other students to talk about his abusive step-father and when she patiently, smilingly listens to the rants of her ill-tempered driving instructor knowing that his criticism of her is the outpouring of his own unhappiness.

But it is when she is walking through a bleak, deserted area of London and encounters a disheveled homeless man who is spouting incomprehensible gibberish that Poppy shows her true mettle.

Instead of being frightened and fleeing, she is drawn to this man and listens to him intently—at one point, he utters a torrent of nonsensical sounds, then suddenly asks her, “Know what I mean?”

Poppy searches his bearded, grime-streaked face in a moment of pensive silence and then says, “Yeah, I do.”

At that moment, Poppy’s face is the face of faith, the face of one who lives boldly and adventurously in the face of insecurity.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
27 Pentecost
Christ Episcopal Church,
Dayton, Ohio
11/16/08

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Virtuous Elder Brother

“‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him.’”

Luke 15:25-28

Now if I had to choose a title for my reflections on Jesus’ parable of a father and his two sons, it might be the phrase my youngest daughter used to mutter when things were not going her way: “It’s not any fair!”

Because as this parable unfolds and reaches its culmination, the elder brother’s reaction might be summed up in those words: “It’s not any fair!”—and I think many of us would readily agree with him!

And I have to admit it’s the elder brother in this story who, more than anyone else, captures my attention and my sympathy.

And the more I consider him and his plight, the more I feel that down through the centuries he’s been given a bum rap.

The elder brother has often been viewed as flint-hearted and sanctimonious, callous and self-righteous, haughty with an attitude, but it seems to me this is quite undeserved.

A careful reading of this parable suggests there is much about the elder brother that is worthy of our admiration and applause—that in many ways, he’s a model citizen with the very qualities we hope our own kids will exhibit.

And I believe that if we are to prepare ourselves for the wallop that this parable packs, we must first appreciate the elder brother’s real virtue and strength of character.

So for the next few minutes, let us praise the elder brother.

First of all, I would suggest we should view the elder brother as really, truly virtuous.

As I read the story, he seems to be a genuinely decent, honorable fellow, the sort of individual we would be delighted to have as a neighbor.

He probably would have made an excellent Boy Scout—think of him as one of those precociously serious youngsters whose dedication to being “trustworthy, loyal, helpful, etc.” is more than skin deep.

Think of him as a teacher’s dream—the boy who’s an eager learner, respectful, never gets sent to the office, turns in his assignments early, something of an over-achiever.

Imagine him as a child following close at the heels of his dad, mimicking his mannerisms, day by day soaking up the know how of tending to crops and animals.

Imagine the elder son as a teenager whose highest aspiration is to be like his dad, to some day take over the family farm and every morning walk the land inspecting everything with an eagle eye just as his dad has done for decades, checking on a wounded animal or how the freshly sprouting wheat survived a storm—imagine him as a son who savors every ounce of praise his father bestows on him.

I don’t think it would be too far off the mark to see the elder brother as the embodiment of those stellar American middle-class virtues—industriousness, follow through, dependability—those virtues that all fly under the banner of responsibility—those virtues without which no parish, no business or enterprise, no community or nation, can long stay afloat—those virtues that keep the wheels turning, the lights on, the doors open, the books balanced—those virtues that shovel the sidewalk, deliver the mail, and make sure a restaurant passes the health department inspection.

And now consider the elder son as a young man who has already assumed the lion’s share of responsibility for running the farm, who has labored long and hard to learn the finer points of the business, who has put in his time and paid his dues, who has worn himself out trying to please his dad and show him he’s got “the right stuff” to take over the reins.

This older boy’s the worrier, the one who’s strung a little tight, who’s conscientious bordering on perfectionism. Picture him as the one who plays by the rules, who, as we like to say nowadays, has “a good work ethic,” who’s steeped in the family code of honor—picture him as someone who would have a perfect ten year attendance record at Rotary, a supporter of good causes, a volunteer at the local literacy center—in short, he’s a good boy.

With this image of the elder son in mind, is it any wonder that when he comes in from the fields, he is understandably put out and bristling with resentment when he discovers that the whole family compound has been turned into a party zone and that the joint is jumpin’ and it’s all because his dad is so delirious with joy over this errant, wayward, useless, playboy son slinking back home that he has ordered an all-out bash, the likes of which have never been seen before?

Is it any wonder that this elder boy is furious, pushed out of shape, hurt to the quick, when he gets an eye-witness report that when this foolish younger brother suddenly showed up unannounced, this brazen kid who has blown every last cent of his inheritance on reckless carousing and flings with prostitutes, his father dropped everything, ran out to meet him, ecstatically embraced and kissed him, and immediately decided to throw a big shindig in his honor complete with music, dancing, and, to top it off, the roasting of a fatted calf?

Is it any wonder that the elder brother is indignant, goes a little berserk, stomps and fumes, when this irresponsible, low-life bum of a brother comes straggling home and is given a hero’s welcome, this same younger brother whose last disgraceful adventure had been groveling in the slop with pigs which for observant Jews was unthinkable contamination.

And we should note that, surprisingly, the father doesn’t do a sincerity check on his vagabond son before welcoming him back—we don’t know if the son has had a change of heart or if he’s putting his dad on, faking remorse, playing his father for a sucker.

It’s as if the father is saying, I don’t care why he came home—let the festivities begin!

Meanwhile the elder brother is seething and refuses to join the celebration—and when the father comes out and pleads with him, his son launches into a tirade: “Look, I’ve worked around the clock for you, I’ve done everything you asked me to—and you’ve never given me and my friends so much as a goat roast—and then this miserable son of yours comes back after throwing away his whole inheritance on floosies—and you reward him with a feast fit for a prince!”

But the father doesn’t give up—he says, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

Now this parable of all parables invites us to consider that there are many ways of being lost.

One can be lost by leaving home ill-prepared and half-cocked—one can be lost in defiance, rebellion, youthful arrogance and impulsiveness, infatuation with a walk on the wild side, as seems to have been the case with the prodigal son.

This is an obvious, conspicuous way of being lost.

But there are other, more subtle ways of being lost.

One can be lost by staying home—one can be lost in conformity and doing what’s expected—one can be lost in the pursuit of security and approval—one can be lost in responsibility and virtue, in being a good boy—or girl, the way the elder son was lost.

Virtue seems to be a tricky thing for us mortals.

We seem to be habitually prone to the delusion that we are the sole authors and creators of our own virtue—that out of our own personal fund of will and determination we have single-handedly fashioned our virtues and talents—and thus we have every right to take credit for the motivation and perseverance that have served us well and to feel a certain moral superiority as we compare ourselves to those noticeably deficient in such virtues.

There’s a New Yorker cartoon by William Hamilton in which two robust, fashionably attired gentleman are conversing over cocktails—and one says, “To me, a have-not is someone who just doesn’t have what it takes.”

I was talking to a physician at a party one evening—he told me he had been born on the wrong side of the tracks and through his own initiative and stubborn persistence had surpassed the expectations of relatives, teachers and peers by not only graduating from college but going on to medical school—and thus, he said, he had little tolerance for those who fell back on excuses and ended up, as he put it, “being a drain on the system.”

Ah, yes, I thought—but what assets and resources was he overlooking that had blessed him on his way—had he had crack-free pre-natal care with adequate nutrition?—was his DNA laden with certain talents waiting to be tapped?—had he been held, rocked, and cared for as an infant?—was his upbringing free of abuse?—what relatives, friends, and mentors had encouraged him to do his homework, apply for a grant, etc.?—what were the countless forms of unexpected help and assurance—we call them grace— that had fortified and sustained him?

In one of his letters, Paul writes, “What do you have that you did not receive?”

Paul seems to be saying that whatever our virtues might be, they are always preceded by gifts that enable their fruition.

If we’re able to show up for a job every day, which means enduring a goodly amount of drudgery and frustration, is it not because others have taught us how, usually from a very early age on?

If we find ourselves wanting to be honest and generous, is it not because various crucial figures in our personal history have embodied these qualities and have nurtured and cultivated them in us?

Yes, of course, we are accountable for our choices and decisions—but the very ability to choose realistically, discerningly, wisely, is also a gift.

So if we take our lead from Paul, we might say that to the extent that we’re able to be trustworthy, the appropriate response is not, why can’t he or she be more like me?, but rather, “Thank God that wanting to be trustworthy has somehow been born in me.”

The elder brother in our parable is lost in his own sense of virtue.

He feels morally superior to his ne’er do well sibling—whereas, if he were following Paul’s advice, he might just feel overwhelmingly grateful that he had the good sense not to wander down that same blind alley.

Maybe he thinks that his kid brother got away with something—that while he was slaving away at home, the little punk went off and had a high old time making whoopee.

But actually the prodigal son didn’t get away with anything—he paid for his little adventure in spades—it sounds like he had about as much fun as that character in the Bill Cosby skit who’s clutching the toilet bowl after an all night drinking bout and, in the midst of retching, says, “This is what I worked all week for!”

The elder brother thinks his virtue, his superior moral performance, has earned him a reward, a pay off, special recognition, preferential treatment—that he deserves to be the sole object of fatherly affection.

But he’s got this all wrong—the only bona fide reason for being faithful, for being generous and compassionate, is that it’s the way of abundant life for oneself and others—the only reason for being faithful is that it’s intrinsically rewarding and life-giving to oneself and others.

And this is where that old Latin saying, “Virtue herself is her own fairest reward,” actually applies, a lesson lost on the elder son.

In this parable that we can never fully fathom or exhaust, Jesus casts a wide net of forgiveness for all who are lost.

The younger son who went away and was lost in rebellion and debauchery is forgiven and a feast is given in his honor.

The elder son who stayed home and was lost in his virtue is also forgiven and invited to the feast.

And not only they are forgiven and invited—as we say in the General Confession, “Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.”

Each of us, it seems, has a way of getting lost, of pursuing the wrong dreams, of getting caught up in foolish and misguided entanglements, of becoming alienated from siblings or children or parents or colleagues or friends, of “following too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.”

Jesus seems to be telling us that the kingdom of God is like a feast, a dance of great revelry and merry making, to which everyone who is in any way lost is invited—and to step on to this dance floor and join the whirling, swirling throng of jubilant dancers is to be both forgiven and found—or maybe better, to join this dance is to know oneself as both lost and found.

The NCAA basketball tournament, as many of you know, is referred to as “the Big Dance.”

Actually that’s a misnomer because the real “Big Dance” is the dance of the kingdom, the dance of forgiveness.

Did the elder brother finally relent and throw himself into the celebration?

We don’t know—but he has a standing invitation and so do we.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
4 Lent
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio
3/18/07