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

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Pandemonium in the Temple

“The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers at their business. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple; and he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, ‘Take these things away; you shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade.’”

John 2:13-16

Let’s start with a question—what did Jesus have in mind that day when he entered the Temple?—what was his motive for taking on the role of agitator and kicking up a fuss?

Well, Jesus was obviously not trying to engineer a take-over of the Temple—this was not an armed insurrection designed to topple the Temple authorities.

This was a one person protest that did not endanger life, limb, or property—there was no burning of buildings or shattering of windows or taking of hostages.

Yes, according to the gospel of John, Jesus wielded a whip of cords—but there’s no indication he used the whip to inflict pain on anybody and it sounds like the only actual damage might have been a few nicks on the tables and chairs.

Jesus’ protest in the Temple seems to have been much more of an annoyance than a threat, a little flurry of agitation after which the merchants and money-changers probably dusted themselves off, got things straightened around, and quickly returned to business as usual.

For, after all, this rabbi from the sticks attacking the machinery of the Temple was like a mosquito stinging a rhinoceros—a defenseless, powerless Jesus would have been no match for the machinery of the great Temple, the most powerful, revered Jewish institution in all of Palestine.

So I’m wondering if Jesus’ trouble-making in the Temple was a kind of performance art, a sort of over-the-top gesture of protest that expressed his dismay at a hierarchy that had become callous, arrogant, and self-serving, a system that had forgotten its founding vision—an institution that had become very institutionalized.

I’m wondering if Jesus ruffling feathers in the Temple was his way of making a statement, his way of echoing that famous passage in the Book of the Prophet Amos in which the Lord, the God of Hosts, declares,

“I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fatted animals I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Maybe this text is what Jesus had in mind when he strode into the Temple that day—for it would seem that justice and righteousness, with a lot of mercy thrown in, was the song he loved to sing.

I’m wondering if this vulnerable yet daring figure of Jesus taking on the Temple is a little bit like Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” taking on the high and the mighty.

Did you know that Charlie Chaplin once said: “I want to play the role of Jesus. I look the part. I’m a Jew. And I’m a comedian.”?

Of course, Jesus was not, strictly speaking, a comedian—but he seemed to have had a comedian’s sense of timing when it came to upsetting the apple cart of the callous and the arrogant—there was a kind of hilarity about the way this uncredentialed, uncertified rabbi without a power base could turn the tables on those who flaunted their sense of virtue, piety, or superiority.

We might say that Jesus’ demonstration in the Temple combines an acute, almost laughable vulnerability with a certain exuberant daring.

And as we think about Jesus acting up in the Temple, perhaps memories spring to mind of other protests against callousness and arrogance in which the protesters were both absurdly vulnerable and unaccountably bold and daring.

There was the anonymous Chinese man standing in front of a line of seventeen tanks the day after the government crackdown on Tiananmen Square who, for a half hour, stepped into the path of the lead tank every time the driver tried to go around him—and who eventually climbed up on the tank and allegedly said to the driver, “Why are you here? My city is in chaos because of you.”

There was Willie Morris, one-time editor of Harper’s Magazine, who, as a senior at the University of Texas, was editor of the student newspaper and repeatedly issued broadsides against segregation and censorship—on one occasion, Morris wrote an editorial that lashed out at the governor and other legislators for what he claimed was their collusion with the oil and gas interests that ran the state—the university’s Board of Regents prohibited him from publishing the editorial, and so he put out a blank editorial page with these words emblazoned across it—“This editorial was censored!”; as Morris later wrote, “A student editor in Texas could blaspheme the Holy Spirit and the Apostle Paul, but irreverence stopped at the wellhead.”

When I was in the 6th grade, we had a coach and gym teacher who was immensely popular with the students—it is not too much to say we loved Coach Renwick—we would push ourselves to the limit trying to excel at some game or exercise just to receive one word of praise from him which we would treasure for weeks—one day when we reported to gym, another coach, a towering man we feared but neither liked nor respected, called the class to order and told us Coach Renwick was no longer employed at the school and that he would be taking over his duties—we were a dazed, morose group—but as the day progressed, our shock turned into anger, and as we huddled together, one of our nervier comrades hatched a plan which the rest of us quickly endorsed—the next day when the new gym teacher called us to attention with his usual military cadence, instead of snapping to, the whole class, in one coordinated movement, sat down—the teacher was totally flummoxed—he sputtered, waved his arms, and headed for the principal’s office—interestingly enough, no discipline was ever meted out to us—the assistant principal came and sat down with us and patiently explained that Coach Renwick had resigned for personal reasons and the school regretted his leaving—but I think the school recognized that the bond between a teacher and his students should not be so rudely broken and that they had handled the situation badly—and I’m sure that if our more audacious fellow-student hadn’t put forth the idea for the little protest, we more timid types wouldn’t have been brave enough to do it.

I think it would be a gross misreading of Jesus’ protest in the Temple to conclude that he wanted to wreak havoc on the Temple as an institution.

On the contrary, I believe that as a faithful Jew he was trying to honor and preserve the institution by applying a little shock therapy to remind those in charge of the Temple’s original, founding vision.

If we read the story this way, we can say that the spirit of Jesus’ protest is really applicable to every institution.

All of us work and live in institutions—businesses. law firms, health care, government, education, the military, the church—institutions are essential and indispensable—they are the primary carriers of the precious, hard-earned wisdom and know-how of the past.

But all institutions are perpetually susceptible to institution creep—that is, all of us who live and work in institutions are continually in danger of falling prey to institutionalization—becoming dull and robotic or worse, callous and arrogant, but, either way, losing sight of the founding vision.

Every institution has, as part of its charter, either spelled out or implicit, an undeniable ethical imperative—to serve “pro bono publico”—to serve the public good.

Of course, lawyers, doctors, business executives, and stock brokers all have to worry constantly about the economic bottom line—yes, excruciatingly difficult compromises have to be struck, agonizing decisions have to be made about lay offs and health care coverage—we’re not talking any kind of moral perfection here—but the point is that even for a company in the most intensely competitive business arena, Heaven forbid that profitability, although a must, would be the only consideration.

David Packard recalled that after he and Bill Hewlett had gotten their company off the ground 68 years ago, he attended a conference at Stanford University sponsored by the business school—he said, “Somehow, we got into a discussion of the responsibility of management. The professor made the point that management’s responsibility is to the shareholders—that’s the end of it. And I objected. I said, ‘I think you’re absolutely wrong. Management has a responsibility to its employees, it has a responsibility to its customers, it has a responsibility to the community at large.’ And they almost laughed me out of the room.”

Jesus’ protest in the temple is a burr under the saddle of every institution that drifts into a malaise of being only concerned with feathering its own nest—Jesus’ protest is a reminder that as soon as an institution ceases to serve the public good, it is already in the first stage of rigor mortis.

This past week I went to see my family doctor.

In the course of our leisurely visit, yes, I said leisurely, he told me that early in his practice an older physician who had become his mentor said to him, “If you look after your patients, if you do what’s right for them, the money will follow. Not necessarily a lot of money, but enough.”

And then my doctor said to me, “He was right. Of course, you can’t disregard issues of money, managed care. But if you are mainly devoted to your patients’ welfare, the other things will work out. And a fulfillment comes from this that you can never get if you’re only worried about your investments.”

In other words, take care of the means and the ends will take care of themselves.

Not long ago Dr. Charles Vialotti announced his retirement and the closing of his office in Greenwich Village where he had been seeing patients since l941.

Dr. Vialotti said, “I’m going to be 97 years old. I figured at that age it’s wise to have a short period of rest.”

According to the reporter Clyde Haberman who was covering this story, “In mid-January, Dr. Vialotti sent letters about his retirement plans to 810 patients he had seen in just the last two years. Many felt they had to call on him one last time—Joseph Buscemi dropped by the other day. He had been going to Dr. Vialotti for 60 years. Jeff Sweetland had moved from the Village to Jersey City, but he never switched doctors. He paid a visit. So did Christine Wandel, who had health questions about her young grandson. ‘I had to check with him,’ she said. ‘There’s never been a time when he’s been wrong.’”

The reporter goes on, “It is always risky to call someone the last of his kind, for someone else is bound to pop up. Even so, when was the last time you went to a doctor who did it all by himself, without receptionist or nurse? Who couldn’t be bothered with all the insurance nonsense, and charged low fees or, at times, none at all? Who kept records on index cards, not computers? Who took patients as they walked in, first come, first served?

Who made house calls? (Some day, kids, we’ll tell you what house calls were.)”

“Dr. Vialotti was, quite simply, an old style G.P., a term you barely hear anymore. The initials stand for general practitioner—Dr. Vialotti said, ‘People didn’t have to make appointments. Sometimes, there’d be 25 or 26 patients in the waiting room. They were sitting out in the hall. The joke among my patients was, “You’ll probably get well before he gets to see you.”’

“As for house calls, he recalls making 19 of them in a single day back in the 1940’s. It helped that some patients lived in walk-ups with connecting roofs. He could move easily between buildings. He recalled, ‘They used to say, “We’re leaving the roof door open, Doc.”’”

“One longtime patient, who preferred to stay anonymous, said, ‘You felt you were as important to him as he was to you.’”

Now we all know you can’t practice medicine that way anymore—and I’m sure Dr. Vialotti was a laughing stock among various high end physicians who considered him a Neanderthal doctor who never caught up—but isn’t it heartening to hear of someone who, for all those years, retained the founding vision of what it means to be a doctor.

And there continue to be doctors, like my own family physician, who, in the midst of the madcap, helter-skelter world of managed care, still honor and cleave to that vision.

You see, I believe that wherever we work and live in institutional settings, we are called to be a little daring, a little nervy, a little audacious, a little unconventional, on behalf of serving the public good—oh, to be sure we need to pick our spots—but at certain critical moments, when the timing is right, I believe we’re called to go out on a limb, risk embarrassment, look a little foolish, ruffle a few feathers, and, even in the teeth of opposition and ridicule, sing our song of justice and righteousness, with a lot of mercy thrown in, which is really the song of Jesus and the prophets.

When things are sliding downhill in the place where we work or spend much of our time, and a cold, calculating cost-cutting mentality rules the roost and clients, customers, and fellow employees are getting short-shrift, I believe we are supposed to sing our song and say our piece with humor, buoyancy, and boldness, and hopefully without being smug, grim, or self-righteous.

In short, I believe we are called to be vulnerable, daring, life-giving agents who willingly take on the costly business of combating institution rot with passion, laughter, and maybe a little creative zaniness.

But I have this problem—I’m a fellow who tends to play it safe, who is allergic to conflict and risk-averse, who hates making waves and will go to almost any lengths to keep the peace and who can be, let’s face it, a little wishy- washy.

This doesn’t sound like a recipe for daring.

But I find solace in the fact that we trust in a Spirit that can, in the moment of truth, suddenly convert our timidity into courage, our cowardice into bravery.

That’s what I’m counting on—how about you?

The Rev. Robert Dwight
3 Lent
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio
March 19, 2006

The Big Story

“For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

Romans 10:12-13

Of course, each of us has a different story about how we got here.

Each of us has taken a distinctive, one of a kind zigzag path to be in this place this morning.

My own path here was quite circuitous and roundabout—and like most of our stories, my story is full of perplexity, amazement, doubt, awakenings, and comical missteps—certainly my first brush with the Episcopal Church was anything but promising.

As an 18 year old just out of high school and in need of a summer job, I signed on as custodian at the local Episcopal church mainly because my girl friend lived right over the hill.

It didn’t take long for the rector to realize the nature of my priorities—one day the Rev. Mr. Hill told me that he noticed I seemed to be constantly taking breaks and leaving the premises, that he’d deliberately left several piles of dust balls in the parish hall to see how long it would take for me to get to them, and when they were still there after two weeks, he’d decided he no longer needed my services.

As I said, my getting from there to here has involved many twists and turns.

Each of our stories about how we arrived here features various critical incidents—certain influences, certain meetings, certain conversations, certain telling incidents, certain surprises—that nudged or propelled us in one direction rather than another and eventually led us here.

And it is impossible to grasp someone’s story without appreciating these critical incidents, these unexpected events that lured us in a certain direction, that more than once caused us to change course, that down through the years have shaped and reshaped our understanding of God and faith, sin and redemption.

Of course, our stories may be strikingly similar in some respects—but the particulars, the specifics, the concrete details, of each of our stories, the intricacies of our experience, what we have enjoyed, what we have suffered, what we have celebrated, what we have endured, are remarkably, profoundly different from everyone else’s.

When we come together, we may look on the surface like a rather homogeneous group in lockstep, but the reality is we embody all these differences in personal history, family background, economic status, political convictions, social tastes, liturgical preferences, ways of believing.

And differences of this magnitude mean significant tensions, however unexpressed these might be.

It’s been said that one of the glories of Anglicanism is that our tradition blesses difference.

But as we survey the current splintering in the Anglican Communion, we have to conclude that this tradition is under siege.

And the notion that differences can coexist under one roof is not exactly flourishing in our state and national legislatures.

Well, to bring it on home, let us ask ourselves, “How much difference can you and I not only tolerate but bless?”

Apparently not very much.

When T.S. Eliot wrote, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” he might well have added, “Humankind cannot bear very much difference.”

Each of us, it seems, is captive to the boundaries, horizons, and limitations of our own story—those whose stories are markedly different from ours often seem alien, strange, and unapproachable.

Enter the Gospel story.

The Gospel story is a Big Story, a story that is big and vast enough to include and encompass all our stories and all our differences.

The Big Story is bigger than my story or your story.

This Big Story comprehends, envelops, and embraces all our stories.

All our stories fit within the spacious domain of this Big Story.

The Big Story is about how we are all maintained in our aliveness from moment to moment by the energy and vitality of God the source of all life—in the words of Hymn 423, “To all life thou givest, to both great and small; in all life thou livest, the true life of all….”

The Big Story is about how difference is God’s way of making things interesting—how difference is a mark of God’s ingenuity.

This Big Gospel Story is about all the ways we get lost and then are found, not just once but over and over.

This Big Story is about all the ways we are blind and then see, not just once but again and again.

The Big Story is about how we’re all in the same boat, how we repeatedly get stranded in some wilderness or other, and then how suddenly a path opens up.

The Big Story is about all those moments when, in our hour of need, kindness and mercy have suddenly appeared, quelled our anxiety, and relieved and restored us.

The Big Story is about all those little moments when grace abounds, when our nearly empty cup has suddenly been filled to overflowing.

The Irish writer Colum McCann remembers the time when he was 9 and he and his father traveled from Dublin to London to visit his ailing grandfather in a nursing home.

After they had said goodbye to his grandfather, they went to a Hard Rock Café for a hamburger—when the waitress, who turned out to be Irish, found out why they had come to London, she reached out and gently touched the boy’s cheek and then brought him an ice cream sundae.

Mr. McCann, who’s now 44, said “I know, for a fact, that if she’s still around, she would not remember that. But every single time I touch down in London, I can feel that woman’s presence, and also her generosity. So this tiny little moment affected me in all sorts of extraordinary ways.”

Yes, the Big Story is about how the simplest gesture of generosity can reach across all our differences and reverberate for a life time.

The Big Story is about how the smallest act of kindness is monumentally important, cosmically significant, and transcends all differences.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
Lent 1
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, OH
2/21/10

Against All Odds II

“God said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of people shall come from her.’”

Genesis 17:15-16

Let’s see.

Abraham is 99 years old, and, as they say in West Virginia, he’s barely hittin’on one—Sarah is 90, and she’s not just post-menopausal—she’s post post-menopausal.

Now folks in their 90s can entertain various hopes—but whatever Abraham and Sarah might be hoping for, it doesn’t include conceiving a child—that notion was crossed off their wish list some 50 plus years earlier.

So when the Lord suddenly appears in their midst and declares that Sarah will give birth to a bouncing baby boy named Isaac from whom will emanate a succession of nations and kings, Abraham and Sarah are understandably thunderstruck, flabbergasted, stupefied.

They just can’t get their minds around this preposterous announcement that promises the impossible.

But, as we all know, this is a story in which the impossible comes to pass—in due course, against all odds, Sarah does indeed deliver a son who is called Isaac.

Now the apostle Paul, in today’s second reading, refers to this story of Isaac’s improbable, implausible birth as emblematic of how the God of Israel “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”

So we might understand this story of the Lord enabling a hopelessly barren couple to conceive a son as a poetic parable of God confounding human expectations by making the impossible possible.

The author uses the unforgettably vivid imagery of a miracle story, a deliberately exaggerated tall tale, to make a startling claim about the God in whom Israel trusts—this story audaciously claims that in the most sterile and barren of circumstances, the God of Israel, against all odds, can cause newness of life to burst forth.

And, of course, this is a constantly reiterated theme in both the Old and New Testaments—we are given example after example of “amazing grace” that makes the impossible possible.

And the promise to Abraham and Sarah is also a promise to us—and to claim this promise is to trust that when our situation seems insurmountably bleak and barren, somehow newness of life will be given—against all odds, the impossible will become possible.

It is when we are on our last legs, when we are sinking, when we wonder how we’re going to put one foot in front of the other—it is just then that the promise of amazing grace that makes the impossible possible becomes our ace in the hole, our last and best hope when all other hopes have evaporated.

Amazing grace is that always surprising, unforeseen event that replenishes us when we are depleted, lifts our spirits when they are drooping, and, in the words of Psalm 30, “turns our wailing into dancing.”

Kathy Enders was a casualty of the financial meltdown—she gives us this account of her last day on the job:

“During these tough economic times, I was one of the many who did not survive the Bear Stearns merger with JPMorgan Chase. Packing up my office belongings was both backbreaking and heartbreaking.

After my final bags were packed, I headed to Third Avenue, the past five years of my work life in tow. An eagle-eyed cab driver spotted me at the 47th Street bus stop and yelled out his window, asking if I wanted to take a cab instead of waiting for a bus. I held up one of my bags imprinted with the Bear Stearns logo, and shook my head no.

The cab driver, not missing a beat, yelled out, ‘It’s on me.’

So on my final commute home, my broken spirit got a much-needed lift up Third Avenue.”

And sometimes just witnessing someone else being the stunned recipient of this grace that amazes can catapult us out of our dreariness and leave us sailing on cloud nine.

Which is what happened to Mel Glenn when he walked into Dunkin’ Donuts one morning—he says:

“….. an old lady wearing a tattered watch cap started speaking to no one in particular.

‘I can’t sleep at night. I have pains in my chest all the time. My leg hurts and my children do not love me.’
People waiting in line hid in their cell phones, looked away or stared straight ahead.
‘I don’t know what to do, I don’t know where to turn. My husband died two years ago on the 27th.’
Everyone pretended she wasn’t there. The (women) behind the counter took the next customers. The line inched forward.
At a side table, a beautiful young lady with matching purple scarf and hat looked at the old woman and said, simply, ‘… please sit down with me, and tell me your story.’
And then Mr. Glenn adds this footnote: “It’s possible, you see, for one person to save the world.”

Against all odds, amazing grace binds up wounded spirits and heals broken hearts.

This is the faith that we nurture in this community—this is the faith that we encourage in one another—this is the faith we tell one another stories about—how this amazing grace has made the impossible possible for us.

In our lesson about the Lord’s birth announcement to Abraham and Sarah, there is a significant omission.

What our lesson does not include are the verses which describe the immediate reactions of Abraham and Sarah to this dumbfounding news.

What we are told is that they both laughed.

There is a certain kind of laughter that is the signature response to amazing grace, the grace that, against all odds, makes the impossible possible.

There is a certain quality of laughter that is the distinctive mark of having been revived and rejuvenated by this grace, this newness, that seems to come out of nowhere.

This laughter is not the courtesy chuckle or the chortle of amusement that we commonly fall back on as conversational fillers—it is more akin to rib-rocking hilarity that leaves us gasping for air.

This is laughter that gushes forth before we know it, that suddenly swells and overtakes us and carries us along in its stream.

It is laughter that delivers us to a delicious domain of freedom and release—it is laughter that is a pure, unadulterated blessing.

It is laughter, as a friend said recently, “that makes you feel good all over.”

This is not laughter at the expense of others—this is laughter about the excesses, blind spots, and pretensions that we all share—it’s about our all being fellow voyagers on what the l6th century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch called “the Ship of Fools”—it’s about all of us being in the same leaking, creaking boat of humanity and how our aims and ambitions are often snookered and snake-bit by our own short-sightedness and unruly self-interest—it is the laughter of our common plight.

The laughter that is born of the grace that amazes is able to convert even our most oppressive troubles into ammunition for comic relief—this laughter lifts us above whatever has gotten us down, whatever has done us in, and allows us to view in that moment the whole panorama and scope of our earthly sojourn and to grasp what someone has called “the almost unbearable goodness of our life.”

Yes, this laughter is celebratory laughter—it gathers up all the grief and grace of our lives, all our joys and sorrows, and pronounces a resounding Amen of celebration and thanksgiving.

And actually this laughter is very evangelical—because in its tone and timbre it sounds forth the message of forgiveness and mercy.

This is laughter that is recognizably hospitable and magnanimous, that in its unbounded joviality expresses without words the line Shakespeare put in the mouth of Cymbelene: “Pardon is the word to all.”

Paul Handley, the Editor of the Church Times in London, put it this way: “The Christian gift is this: to turn despair into humour…..instead of being depressed about our failings, we are invited to see them as absurd, comic; and to laugh at ourselves is to accept forgiveness.”

Maybe then it’s not too far off the mark to suggest that we might adopt this as our motto: They shall be known by their laughter.

So as we gather together here, let us, by all means, feel free to share our worries and woes—but may that laughter of faith, that laughter of forgiveness, that laughter of communion, that laughter born of the grace that, against all odds, makes the impossible possible, have the last word! Amen.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
2 Lent
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio
3/8/09

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

Family

“So that when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked…”

Genesis 3:6-7a

You see, contrary to what a lot of politicians are saying nowadays, the family has always been in trouble.

The family has always been an endangered species.

True enough, the institution of the family at this point in time in America is under assault from all sides, but, then again, it always has been, more or less.

For in every age the family is always threatened from without by intruders, by unwelcome and unwanted pressures.

For the world, in the form of the IRS or telephone solicitors or the thief who wants to break in and steal your electronic paraphernalia, is always encroaching on the privacy of the family, and always banging at the door when the family would prefer to be left alone.

And in every age the family is perpetually threatened from within by eruptions of unhappiness and discontent.

For no matter how pleasant and cordial a family appears all dressed up for its Christmas portrait, there is persistently some degree of strife and warfare among the most beloved of family members.

For, as the Genesis story of the first aboriginal family tells us, each family member pursues his or her own self-interest relentlessly, and so it has always been in even the best and most affectionate of families.

The notion of “original sin”, as dramatized in the biblical story of the first man and the first woman, means that every person, from the beginning and origin of his or her life, persistently seeks the gratification of his or her own needs and wishes and interests, often to the detriment and disadvantage of others.

This is why, from the biblical angle, family life is always, to some degree, warfare.

This is why the family is perennially jeopardized from within–because no matter how much two or three or four people love each other and are devoted to each other, each person’s innate and irrepressible egocentricity will continually clash with the rampant self-interest of every other family member.

And no matter who we select as a partner or compatriot to settle down with, there is no family paradise in our horoscope.

As the story in Genesis puts it, an angel with a flaming sword stands guard at the entrance to paradise and prevents us from returning to the garden of innocence and contentment.

And what shock and disillusionment are in store for idealistic, romantically inclined young persons who come together to set up housekeeping as a family if they do not have some fore-knowledge of this universal human tendency to be at odds and out of joint with each other!

But despite threats from without and within, the family will unquestionably endure.

The form of family, the shape of family, will undergo various and sundry modifications–but the fact of family will persist beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Our need for family is only slightly less deep than our need for food or sleep.

We are inveterate, dyed-in-the-wool family makers.

No sooner do we condemn the family life of our parents in the suburbs as restrictive and limiting than we set up another kind of family life in a commune which has even more complications and entanglements.

We need a family because we have a constitutional need for the kind of intimacy that can only grow under the conditions described by the American Heritage Dictionary in its definition of family–”Two or more people who share goals and values, have long-term commitments to one another, and reside usually in the same dwelling place.”

Because of the exceptional conditions required for intimacy we can only be extremely and thoroughly intimate with a select few.

Because to be very intimate with others is to also be very vulnerable, and this acute vulnerability, letting others know us quite unguardedly, is something we can only manage with a few under the shelter and protection of a commitment that promises to love in all kinds of weather, in sickness and in health, in good times and bad, through all manner of fits, moods, and spells.

A family, then, consists of those who make up a household, who come home to each other with regularity at the end of the day and who collaborate in the food gathering, animal hunting, market trading, money chasing, grocery collecting, and child helping, who work, love, play, and suffer together, who put up with each other.

So the family is always in trouble because it is a fragile arrangement that teeters and wobbles as it tries to sustain an impossible commitment over the long haul in a culture that often scorns faithfulness – and yet, at the same time, the family we will always have with us because there is something in our nature that impels us toward the venture of intimacy whatever the risks.

Suffice it to say, a family needs all the help it can get.

This is why we in the household of faith are singularly blessed and fortunate.

For our tradition furnishes us with two insights that to me seem indispensable for a family if it is to not just survive and endure but also to thrive.

We have already touched on the first insight.

For it is simply the realization, alluded to a few moments ago, that every person and every relationship is “fallen”

It is the view of biblical faith that every person and every relationship and every family is distinctly limited, flawed, un-whole, possessing only fragmentary and partial health, blighted by “me-first-ness”.

How can something that sounds so negative be a source of help?

Because to know, to really know in our bones, that there’s no such thing as “having it all” in any marriage or family, that every marriage and family and friendship are seriously flawed and destined to taste their share of unhappiness and grief because of the inevitable clash of immature selves, to really know this, is to be equipped with a crucial bit of survival knowledge.

People report again and again in marriage counseling that in the beginning they had, to use Dicken’s phrase, “great expectations.”

And then they relate that they have gone through a process of escalating disappointment and then resentment as their partner has revealed one unlovely characteristic after another.

Their romantic daydreams turn out to be ruinous illusions.

Likewise, parents have “great expectations” of their children.

We aspire for our children to live out our dreams for us, for they are an extension of ourselves and we naturally want the best for them and from them.

We devote ourselves to our children; we exhaust ourselves on behalf of our children– and yet, after all this, they disappoint us.

They aren’t sufficiently appreciative — and to boot, it eventually dawns on us that they don’t share our dreams.

We envision them taking over the family business, but they want to be carpenters or tug boat pilots.

We dream of them scoring the winning touchdown in the last thirty seconds, but by the 8th grade they have already declared their career choice as sculpture or movie-making and we shudder.

Or what’s worse, they try to fulfill our dreams just to please us, but heir hearts are not in it, and it becomes a half hearted charade; we realize it would have been far, far better if they had openly rebelled against our wishes.

Our children disappoint us.

We disappoint our children.

Husbands disappoint wives, and vice versa.

Everyone disappoints everyone else.

And the Gospel intercepts this endless cycle by telling us straight out — everyone is indeed disappointing, which is another way of saying what the apostle Paul seems to be saying when he declares that everyone has come short of the glory of God.

And if we truly hear this, if we really assimilate it, then we will cease to be shocked and undone by the disappointing we all do to each other.

We will still be hurt and bothered, but not crushed.

We will cease to search for the mate or friend or boss of mentor who perfectly understands us.

It will give a whole new sense to the phrase in the marriage service, “for better or worse” — and this applies equally to any friendship or relationship of substance.

For to persevere and endure in a relationship “for better or worse” means to tolerate and bear each other’s disappointing ways which are sure to show themselves again and again.

And this leads to the second, and even more crucial, revelation that the Gospel tradition places at our disposal for meeting the crisis of family.

This one is old as the hills and as sure and dependable as the hills.

It is the reality without which no family or even friendship can stay alive very long — without it the very air a family breathes becomes poisonously toxic with resentment.

It is absurdly simple, this thing that Jesus of Nazareth seemed to stress above all else.

This simple, but extraordinary, thing, which cannot be supplied by manuals or workshops, is FORGIVENESS.

To be able to forgive each others’ harshness, wounding, blood-letting, or just carelessness is the necessary, essential miracle which alone enables us to love each other joyfully and wondrously in spite of everything.

It is the ONLY thing that can soften and heal the sting of our intentional and unintentional blunders that sometimes only bruise but at other times cut to the quick.

But then the question arises, how do we come by the ability to forgive those who have aroused our resentment by injuring our sensitivities and causing us grief?

Because it is far more natural for us to cling stubbornly to a delectable self-righteousness or an even more delicious self-pity than respond forgivingly to those who have offended us.

We can say that forgiveness runs counter to our natural instincts, that we are naturally inclined to nurse grudges and grievances indefinitely or at least keep them in reserve for a time when we can use them as ammunition.

So where does it come from— this power to forgive that reconciles us to one who has sorely hurt us?

Therein lies the mystery—for we really can’t account for how our resentment toward someone can be defused and dissolved by forgiveness—how the ability to forgive unexpectedly arrives and sweeps away our ill-will.

But we can say this—that in the midst of our resentment toward another, a moment of illumination, a moment of clarity, can come to us—this is a moment in which we suddenly glimpse the breadth and depth of our life, the abundance and plenitude of our life—this is a moment in which we realize how much beyond our deserving we have received from a host of others—this is a moment in which we appreciate how graciously and generously others have dealt with our blunders and offenses, how often we have been treated forgivingly—

Yes, this is a moment in which we are overcome with gratitude for the blessedness and fullness of our life and suddenly our resentment and grievances against others seem inconsequential and even comical.

This is a moment in which forgivingness surges forth in us and releases us from the stifling grip of resentment and alienation —this is that miraculous turn of events in which we are once again able to behold the face of the one who has caused us anguish as our companion and friend rather than adversary.

This is a moment of sheer grace that comes to us from beyond ourselves and transforms our vexation into a forgiving state of mind.

The following remark was attributed to Jesus — “he who is forgiven little loves little. — he who is forgiven much loves much.”

So how does true love grow in a family?

We know all the answers that our modern society gives to this question?

True love grows, they say, by making money and looking good, by getting a good education and absorbing culture, by working hard and rewarding family members for conspicuous achievement, by praying together and playing together, by reading how-to books and self-help manuals, by going to marriage enrichment seminars and Lenten discussion series on the state of the family and listening to a spiel by a “professional”.

But how does true love grow in a family according to the Gospel?

By one way and one way only.

By coming to know ourselves as “fallen”: by plunging into the terrible and magnificent risk of intimacy and through the festivity and peril of intimate sharing, through the pinch and pressure and contentment and heartache of our life together, coming to know ourselves and each other as fallen, needful, egocentric creatures.

And, then, by forgiving each other for all we’re worth.

And to the extent we forgive each other our hurtfulness and hatefulness, both great and small, to that extent, love will flourish and bind us together.

Earlier I referred to the dictionary definition of what a family is.

But in the gospel of Mark, Jesus actually re-defines the meaning of family when he poses the question. “Who are my mother and brothers?” and then goes on to say, “Anyone who does the will of God. That person is my brother and sister and mother.”

This declaration of Jesus casts the concept of family into quite a different mold.

For we learn that the bond that runs the deepest and strongest is not one based on lineage and genes at all but on an altogether different kind of kinship — a kinship rooted in the experience that there is let loose in the world a power that can mend our Humpty Dumpty hearts and minds and that the absolutely most important thing is to receive and share this.

“Anyone who does the will of God, that person is my brother and sister and mother.”

What does this do to our usual, conventional sense of family based on blood lines and genealogy tables?

It might mean that we continue to pay our respects to those with whom we’ve been raised, that we continue to honor birthdays and anniversaries of close relatives in the spirit of good will and civility, that we continue to entertain the visiting aunt, whether with eagerness or a stiff upper lip — yes, that we pay this family into which we happen to have been born our respects — but that we save our ultimate allegiance for that family that is grounded in and born of the Spirit.

The Rev. Robert B. Dwight
1st Sunday in Lent
Christ Episcopal Church
February 25, 1996

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