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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One thought on “Live Boldly

  1. I like how the sermon induces some interesting reflection on the meaning of faith, and I love the spirit of living boldly (albeit not foolishly!) in the face of uncertainty – largely on the back of that same faith. I got particular chuckles out of the LA elevator sign as well as the Poppy “Know what I mean?” exchange.

    Bravo Uncle Bob! 😉

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