The Mercy Table

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

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

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

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

Oh, if this table could talk!

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

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

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

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

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

Things happen at this table.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A couple of questions immediately arise—

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

Surely Jesus’ notoriety would have preceded him.

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

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

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

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

Well, how should we characterize Simon?

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

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

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

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

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

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

They are separated by a seemingly unbridgeable chasm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But this is the table of Divine Mercy.

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

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

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The Widow’s Might

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

Luke 18:1-8

The widow in Jesus’ parable is the quintessential nobody.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Precious is illiterate and almost mute with shame and rage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vulnerability

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

Luke 23:35

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think of how certain faces of vulnerability have affected us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The clown stops and sizes up the situation.

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

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

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

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

The clown bows and goes his way.

Power and might can intimidate us and force our compliance.

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

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

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

A New Vision of Greatness

“So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’”

Mark 10:42-45

Some of you have probably seen the National Geographic Special entitled “Killer Stress.”

Dr. Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist at Stanford University, has been studying chronic stress in the social hierarchies of humans and other primates.

Much of the program was devoted to examining the social hierarchy of baboons in East Africa and which members of the community are most prone to stress.

What he’s discovered is that baboons typically organize themselves in a steep pyramid of power with a few dominant males ruling rather tyrannically over the rest.

The few males at the top are remarkably free of stress—they are “golden,” luxuriating in their privileged status while the more submissive males and females are awash in stress, have more health problems, and die earlier.

It reminded me of that CEO I read about the other day who was making command decisions while lounging on his monster yacht which was equipped with every conceivable extravagance; while he was throwing big, no holds barred wingdings and seemingly feeling no stress or pain, the company was going down the drain and his land-based employees were sweating bullets over their future.

But something interesting happened to the particular troop of baboons Dr. Sapolsky was studying.

Some tourists had left mounds of garbage around their camp site and the dominant baboon males, seizing on their kingly status, claimed the spoils for themselves, promptly gobbled up all the garbage, were stricken with food poisoning, and died.

The remaining more submissive males and females then proceeded to form a more collaborative society in which food and power were more democratically shared.

When Dr. Sapolsky tested the surviving baboons, he found their stress level had diminished considerably.

When some new, more aggressive males happened along and joined the group, they were gradually over a period of months induced to adopt a more cooperative mode of operation—they were in effect overwhelmed by the greater number of collaborative males and discovered that their former aggressive conduct no longer paid off.

We might call this a bump up the evolutionary ladder.

But it took a trauma, namely, the food poisoning calamity that wiped out the baboons in charge, to bring about the change.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is trying to introduce his disciples to a new concept of leadership.

He’s trying to redirect their competitive instincts toward a shockingly new mode of greatness.

He’s not so naïve and unrealistic as to think that the competitive urge is going to dry up and blow away.

But he’s trying to nudge them into competing in a different way—competing in serving and collaborating rather than in a zero-sum game in which I win, you lose!

Jesus is describing a fundamental power shift, a drastic change in the way of doing business, as different as democracy is from dictatorship.

He’s suggesting that the old images of leader as kingpin and cock of the walk, the head honcho sitting in the catbird seat, have to be jettisoned for a drastically different image—he turns the traditional notion of leadership on its head by defining greatness in terms of serving.

But it’s a tough sell—the disciples are too steeped in the old pyramid model of power to grasp what Jesus is getting at.

It took a trauma, that is, his death for them to get it.

We might say the end result was a bump up the ladder of spiritual evolution.

A couple of years ago I received in the mail a glossy album containing photographs of my college classmates then and now along with autobiographical sketches of how they had fared over the years.

As I leafed through this book, what struck me was that so many of these accounts of life after graduation sounded like 6th grade kids doing “show and tell.”

Here’s a sampling.

“I have been a successful investment banker for thirty years and have recently become a consultant to the State Department on new economic initiatives in Viet Nam.”

“I developed precision instruments for micro-surgery that enabled me to retire at 35, and since then I have written a book on the wild flowers of Western Washington that is now in its third printing.”

Well, who among us has not at some time or other been consumed by the itch to do something fantastic and extraordinary that would demonstrate beyond a doubt that we are inspired and set apart from others?

So this is perhaps the most common understanding of “inspired”—to do something exceptional that sets one apart from the average, run of the mill bloke.

But Jesus’ view of inspiration seems to be an almost 180 degree contrast.

Jesus’ view seems to be that the most inspired person is not the one who excels, surpasses, and sets himself apart from others but rather the one who holds things together.

Jesus’ view seems to be that the most inspired person is the one who, when a group or community is on the verge of splintering and coming apart at the seams, manages somehow, by hook or by crook, to hold things together.

We’re speaking here of someone who is steadfast and stalwart, someone who especially when others are bailing out can be counted on to show up come hell or high water, who more than anything is trustworthy.

We’re speaking here of a person whose inspiration consists of an almost infallible sense of when and how to be helpful and when to leave well enough alone.

This is not the inspiration of a newsmaker or trendsetter but the kind of inspiration that is unassuming, unpretentious, and often scarcely noticeable, that does not call attention to itself, that goes about its business without pomp or fanfare.

We’re speaking here of a person who has a low profile, who mostly functions behind the scenes, who does not consider herself remarkable in any way, and yet who, a good part of the time, is the heart and soul of the operation, the linchpin, the center of gravity.

We’re speaking here of a person who is equally adept at bandaging skinned knees and soothing ruffled egos, who’s an artist at balancing and defusing tensions within a family or parish or office.

This is not a person who’s “nicey nice” but someone who can be tough as nails when the occasion calls for it, who has the intestinal fortitude to voice out loud that hard, cleansing truth which others know but are too timid to say.

We’re speaking here of a person whose inspiration is that without even realizing it, she consistently practices the old fashioned virtues of faithfulness, patience, integrity, and kindness.

This is a person with a sense of humor that won’t quit, someone who has a talent for bringing out the hidden best in those around her.

This is the grandmother or uncle who, as we were growing up, was the glue that held our family together.

This is the teacher who has 27 kids in her kindergarten class and who’s able to hold this impossible situation together by instinctively knowing what’s going on with each child, who needs to be comforted because his parents are going through a divorce and who needs to be pushed and challenged.

This is the parish secretary we once knew who, more than anyone else, held the various factions and constituencies of a parish together.

We’re speaking here of a person who is able to hold things together, to endure, not because she trusts in her own strength or capability, but because she trusts in the under-girding power of God that holds all things together, that is, she trusts in the One in whom, as Paul says in one of his epistles, all things cohere.

There’s a fictional example of this kind of inspired person who holds things together in William Faulkner’s novel, “The Sound and the Fury”.

The Compsons are an old Southern family that has fallen on hard times.

Three generations of Compsons live in the old, cavernous family place–a brooding, elderly mother, a ruthless, cynical son, a brain-damaged son, a promiscuous daughter, and a flippant, surly granddaughter.

And each of these figures does his or her part in maintaining a perpetual whirlwind of strife and resentment.

Amidst this frenzy of confusion and ill will, carping and feuding, the black servant Dilsey Gibson is this rock solid, stabilizing force of sanity, health, realism, and compassion who somehow keeps this family going.

Depending on the circumstance, Dilsey rebukes, mothers, prods, or comforts, and from day to day exerts enough of a unifying, settling influence to hold the family together if just barely.

Dilsey is able to endure, she is able to hold the family together, because she trusts in the Divine power that holds all things together that is stronger than human folly; she trusts in the One in whom all things cohere.

Maybe we can call this Dilsey power which I think is close to the kind of inspiration that Paul refers to in one of his epistles where he writes, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”

So this day let us remember and praise those various, unsung persons we have known who have exuded Dilsey power, who have shown us the true nature of inspiration, who have been gifted at holding things together, who have personified the kind of greatness in service Jesus is talking about.

And especially when things seem to be crumbling, may we learn from these mentors and guides to trust in the One in whom all things cohere and use our gifts to hold things together.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
20 Pentecost
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio
10/18/09

The Disappointment Blues

“Jesus and his disciples went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”

Mark 9:30-32

Let’s face it—the disciples are a pretty disappointing lot.

When it comes to understanding the nature of Jesus’ mission, the disciples, to say the least, are slow on the uptake.

Jesus seems repeatedly disappointed that the disciples are so dense and obtuse, so slow to catch on to this new gospel way of life, so stuck in their old egotistical mode of trying to outdo and outshine one another —as in today’s reading when Jesus overhears them arguing about who among them is the greatest.

But, of course, the disciples are also disappointed in Jesus.

Jesus and his comrades have just completed a successful swing through a series of villages where they have been lauded and applauded, and they are riding the crest of public acclaim and popularity.

But just as the disciples are reveling in their new-found fame and celebrity status and the prospect of being major players in Jesus’ new kingdom, this Jesus, who always seems to keep them guessing, throws a big, gloom and doom damper on their frivolity and high spirits.

He completely deflates their merrymaking by telling them that he must undergo betrayal, suffering, and death—which leaves the disciples speechless and afraid.

Jesus mentions something about resurrection—but surely the disciples can only hear those ominous words that point to their leader’s destruction and the destruction of all their hopes—betrayal, suffering, and death!

Jesus’ words take the joy out of their joy ride—the disciples sense that their glory days are going to be short-lived—Jesus is turning out to be a huge disappointment!

The disciples disappoint Jesus and he, in turn, disappoints them.

Sound familiar?

Aren’t we all well versed in the disappointment blues?

Aren’t we all intimately acquainted with being on both ends of the disappointment syndrome? Don’t we all have a long history of both being disappointed by others and also being the ones who disappoint?

Belonging to a tradition that continually reminds us in our liturgy that we are fallible, flawed, myopic, anxiety-driven creatures should give us a leg up in understanding this universal phenomenon of disappointment.

How helpful it is to have several thousand years’ worth of stories and images that put our perennial tendency to disappoint one another in perspective!

Look, we have all these great old stories in the Bible about people disappointing each other, even the great and the near great—Adam and Eve, Jacob and Esau, David and Absalom, Joseph and his brothers, etc., etc.

And in one of the apostle Paul’s most oft-quoted utterances, he declares, “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” which is another way of saying that everyone is disappointing—everyone is less than what he or she could have been, should have been, might have been.

These texts suggest that at least for a million years or so we have all been disappointing each other.

We could give the doctrine of original sin a contemporary spin by saying we come into this world with a predisposition to disappoint and be disappointed.

This means that none of us, no matter how sterling our character or how admirable our virtues, can escape the sting of repeatedly disappointing and being disappointed by those whose lives are bound up with ours.

When a couple shows up for premarital counseling, they should have ample opportunity to describe all the impressive qualities of their respective partners and why they are well suited to each other—but at some point they should probably be asked some version of this question: How have you dealt with your mate disappointing you?

Because the path from that first stage of romance and infatuation when she says to him, “You’re Mr. Wonderful” and he says to her, “You’re my everything!” to a love that is substantial and enduring is long and crooked and strewn with innumerable let downs and disappointments.

Parents, no matter how dedicated, will invariably disappoint their children, and the children, no matter how much they want to please their parents, will inevitably disappoint them.

Parents of a conservative bent are taken aback when their 20 something daughter, whose college education they are paying for, comes home at spring break spouting radical liberal notions which, needless to say, leads to some acrimonious dinner conversations.

Parents want their son to choose a career that’s practical and has a reliable income and he decides to be a composer—and he’s disappointed that they’re disappointed.

A child whose parents are divorced and lives with her mother is distraught when the father fails to show for a promised visit—and the mother is furious and sorrowful as she tries to explain to her daughter that it’s not her fault.

Or take the case of volunteers for a political candidate who spend countless hours making calls and knocking on doors—when their candidate wins, they celebrate into the wee small hours—but within several months they are already disappointed because she has compromised on certain issues on which she had pledged to take a firm, unwavering stand.

Friends disappoint each other.

I remember reading a comment years ago in an alumni newsletter by the university president which has stuck with me—he said that if we wait to find friends who will not disappoint us, we will be consigning ourselves to living in an isolation tank.

Now the fact that this gentleman resigned some time later after his affair with his secretary came to light does not detract from the validity of his observation that friendships that last are friendships that have weathered serious incidents of disappointment.

And need I mention that no matter how productive and progressive the work place, bosses and employees are inevitably involved, to some degree or other, in a round robin of disappointing each other.

And then there’s the matter of clergy and congregations.

When a parish is going through the search process, the head of the search committee should stroll through the congregation each Sunday with a large placard with big, bold letters stating, “Whoever is chosen as priest in charge will disappoint us and we will disappoint her!”

Simply put, it’s in the cards for us to disappoint one another—and it definitely behooves us to recognize this as part of our reality.

So what is the gospel remedy for the disappointment blues?

The gospel intercepts the cycle of disappointment by, first of all, confronting us with our own disappointing ways and then announcing that our personal “disappointing-ness” is unequivocally, absolutely forgiven.

The gospel says to us, in effect, “You are forgiven for all the disappointing you have done; now go and forgive those who have disappointed you.”

Of course, left to our own devices, forgiving ourselves and others is something we are utterly incapable of.

In fact, we are usually incapable of even wanting to forgive those who have disappointed us.

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 as ammunition for the future.

But on those occasions when we are able to forgive ourselves and others for being disappointing, perhaps we sense that a power beyond us has suddenly infused us with a new generosity, a new urgent desire for reconciliation and restitution, a new realization that “disappointing-ness” is a condition that we all share and that the forgiveness and mercy of God extend to all.

To be able to forgive ourselves and others is something of a miracle.

And it is a miracle that needs to happen to us again and again for the ability to forgive is never a permanent possession—we have it one moment and suddenly we realize it has slipped through our fingers and we are back to our old ways of rationalizing and resenting.

But once having known this forgiveness and the freedom and elation it brings, we can never be satisfied with anything less.

The kind of forgiving that comes upon us as a gift from the God who is beyond us and yet closer to us than breath is both costly and jubilant.

It is costly because it always acknowledges the pain and grief we have caused and that others have caused us.

But, more than anything, this forgiving is jubilant because it releases us from the guilt of disappointing and the resentment of being disappointed.

The gospel offers us a power of forgiveness that repairs relationships, heals estrangement, and creates new beginnings.

Amazingly enough, the gift of forgiving that comes from God is actually able to turn our disappointment blues into a laughing matter and a source of celebration.

For this forgiveness can transform the tragedy of disappointment into the comedy of redemption.

And in this assembly where we continually celebrate the reality that our disappointing ways have been thoroughly and utterly forgiven, it is the note of laughter and jubilation that should resound.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
16 Pentecost
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio
9/20/09

Late Bloomers II

“Jesus came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them, And he was amazed at their unbelief.”

Mark 6:1-6

Let me start with a personal admission—my first impressions of other people have repeatedly turned out to be not just mistaken but embarrassingly off the mark.

How often, based on the scantiest of evidence, I have leaped to a conclusion about someone and privately pronounced a judgment on his or her character only to discover a week later or a year later that I was about 175 degrees wrong!

And even when we have known someone for some time, our judgments about what that person is capable of or not capable of can be shockingly inaccurate.

Our initial impression of someone may turn out to be either too complimentary or too disparaging—but the misjudgment that is most troubling to me is when my original, often hastily arrived at critical and dismissive opinion of someone proves to be grossly unjust.

Actually, what is most embarrassing is when someone whose significance I”ve tended to ignore or discount does something at a critical moment on my behalf that is exceedingly considerate and helpful or suddenly reveals a degree of generosity toward others that puts me to shame —this has happened more times than I would care to admit.

Remember those fellow students in high school or college who were completely inconspicuous, who didn’t make a splash of any kind, who showed very little promise or talent, who faded into the woodwork—and then who stunned us later on with some sterling accomplishment like winning a Pulitzer Prize for journalism or getting national acclaim for teaching innovations in an urban high school and we can only shake our heads and say, “Who would have believed it?!”

We typically refer to these individuals as “late bloomers.”

In today’s gospel, the villagers of Nazareth are dumbfounded by their own local “late bloomer,” Jesus of Nazareth, who, after a number of years, has returned to his home town.

When Jesus holds forth in the synagogue, the townsfolk are both astonished and disturbed.

They are in awe of him for they have never heard someone speak with such force—but they are also offended that someone who grew up among them, who didn’t seem at all remarkable as a youngster, who did carpentry in their midst, who seemed so ordinary, would have the audacity to take on the role of being their teacher.

Their problem is they remember him when—in other words, they resent his trying to get above his raisin’.

They can’t get their minds around how an ordinary kid down the block could have turned into someone with such extraordinary gifts.

How could an ordinary, run of the mill, gawky teen-ager who seemed to have as much trouble getting his act together as the other youngsters have become this extraordinary prophet?

But the gospel is all about the ordinary becoming extraordinary.

The gospel is all about ordinary, simple, everyday things becoming sacramental revealers of the Divine mystery—taking a plunge in the pool, eating a peach, sitting down to lunch with a friend, schmoosing at coffee hour.

The gospel is all about ordinary people suddenly becoming extraordinary in ways that even surprise them, a process of transformation that defies explanation and that we call the operation of grace.

The gospel is all about ordinary people who have been written off, and who perhaps have even written themselves off, becoming luminous examples of the redeeming power of grace.

A fellow I’ll call Ben grew up in a cracker box of a house on the east side of Dayton—he told me his dad drank up most of the money from his railroad job and he and his siblings often went to school hungry—he was ridiculed by the other kids for his shabby clothes, had more fights than he could count, and was regularly sent to the principal’s office for a whacking.

Even though his grades were miserable, he somehow got passed along from one grade to another—one day his 8th grade teacher took him by the arm and pointed to a garbage truck passing by the school—the teacher said, “You see that truck—the best thing you could do is join those guys hanging on the back end ‘cause that’s the only job you’ll ever qualify for.”

Ben eventually became a well-paid GM employee who was in charge of a continuing education program for workers—but the achievement that meant the most to him was being awarded his bachelor’s degree in sociology from Wright State University.

He said, “I still can’t believe I did it—I don’t know how I did it—what really helped was that there was one professor who kept telling me I had the ability—and I always remembered that 8th grade teacher’s comment and I was determined to get that piece of paper come hell or high water.”

Audrey Hepburn once said, “People, even more than things, have to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone.”

We never know when a person we have written off as a hopeless case and lost cause can suddenly bloom into someone extraordinary right before our eyes.

A woman named Mary Ashby Brown recounts this experience.

“At the….post office, there is often a man holding the door open for customers as they come and go, asking politely for change.

On this particular day inside the post office, I noticed an elderly woman who appeared to be having a lot of difficulty walking. After leaving the post office, I crossed Seventh Avenue, glanced back, and saw that the woman I’d seen in the post office had made it only a third of the way across the crosswalk. Oncoming traffic began to zoom down Seventh Avenue, and the woman was trapped in the middle of the street.

She screamed, and the pedestrians on my side of the avenue were frozen—we didn’t know what to do—when the man in front of the post office, without hesitation, raced in front of the woman, his hand out signaling ‘Stop!’ to oncoming traffic, and slowly guided her across the street, fending off and stopping traffic at each step.

I would say a majority of us witnessing this were in tears when the pair reached the other side.

So may we ever be open and ready to be startled by all kinds of late bloomers, by the miraculous transformation of the ordinary into the extraordinary.

And here’s a wrap up thought—maybe each of us, regardless of what we’ve been or haven’t been, regardless of what we’ve done or haven’t done, should aspire every day to be a late bloomer who, by the grace of God, is able to do something new, surprising, and life-giving we didn’t know we were capable of. Amen.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
5 Pentecost
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio
7/5/09

Hope and Healing

“And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.’ Immediately her hemorrhage stopped, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ And his disciples said to him, ‘You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?”’ He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing hat had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’”

Mark 5:24b-34

“Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.”

Thus beginneth our meditation on health care, ancient and modern.

Here we have a woman whose entire existence has been severely disrupted for twelve years by uncontrollable bleeding.

She has gone from one doctor to another and used up all her money in search of a cure, but in spite of undergoing many painful treatments, her bleeding malady has only gotten worse.

Not only has her exhausting quest for a remedy left her virtually penniless—her condition is also a social curse—anyone who comes into contact with her runs the risk of violating the ritual purity code as outlined in Leviticus which declares that when a woman is having a discharge of blood, she is to be considered unclean—and whoever touches anything she lies or sits on is unclean.

Her illness has stigmatized her as an untouchable, a social pariah.

This woman is presented as nameless which underscores her lack of status—she is without funds, power, or influence and her medical prospects are bleak indeed.

But her most serious infirmity is not her hemorrhaging as bad as that is—her most debilitating affliction is hopelessness.

Because to lose all hope is to feel more dead than alive.

This is why Kierkegaard referred to despair, the state of hopelessness, as “the sickness unto death.”

To be in the deathly grip of hopelessness is to be caught in an insidious tangle in which one is unable to supply for oneself the one thing that one desperately needs, namely, hope.

When someone is mired in hopelessness, to tell them to cheer up and look on the bright side of things is worse than useless—such advice almost always intensifies the misery of the sufferer and his sense of being a hopeless case because, like the frog who wanted to be changed back into a prince, he would if he could.

In such a state, a new sense of hope can only come from something or someone beyond oneself.

So this despairing woman in our story who has run out of options has evidently heard rumors circulating in her village about this itinerant rabbi and his reputation as a healer that has awakened in her the first, tentative stirrings of new hope.

And when she joins the throng of people following at the heels of Jesus, and quite a motley group it is, she feels something in the air, some hum of hopefulness in the crowd, that causes her own fragile sense of hope to suddenly blossom and soar—for there’s something about this rabbi, his manner, the way he moves and speaks, the way he looks at people, that arouses hope even in those who feel most hopeless.

And so this woman who had been so smothered by shame and dishonor that she was barely breathing, is suddenly seized by the notion that if she can just touch his clothes, she will be healed.

She’s too shy and nervous to approach Jesus directly, so she sneaks up behind him and touches his garment whereupon, the text says, “Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.”

Later on Jesus says to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.”

But Jesus might just as well have said, “Daughter, your hope has made you well.”

Because we can assume this woman’s healing actually begins when the reports she hears about Jesus back in the village make her curious and generate in her the first tender shoots of hopefulness.

And then when she goes out to see and hear this teacher for herself, her hope suddenly grows by leaps and bounds—and Jesus’ comment suggests that it is her newfound hopefulness that accounts for her healing.

For the rebirth of hope can have a tremendous rejuvenating effect on the spirit, mind, and body.

The recovery of hope can revitalize body and soul.

It can dramatically enhance every aspect of our functioning.

It would seem every healing episode in Jesus’ ministry recounted in the gospels involves a life-changing recovery of hope.

I do not believe Jesus was a magician—that he magically replaced missing limbs or instantly cured liver disease or cancer or the effects of strokes.

It’s been suggested that what Jesus healed was not disease, the organic and biological malfunctioning of the body, but illness which is the stigma, demoralization, and hopelessness associated with the disease.

And, of course, to heal the illness of hopelessness and social humiliation can then have a powerful therapeutic effect on the body’s natural capacity for healing—for example, in today’s story one can suppose that there was an intimate connection between this woman’s hopelessness and her hemorrhaging, that the curing of the first might well have been instrumental in curing the physical problem.

Whether we have suffered from the extreme state of complete hopelessness or not, we certainly know what it is to have our sense of hope repeatedly bruised and diminished, to have our sense of hope dwindle and flicker.

Truth be told, we need to have our sense of hope continually replenished and restored.

One of the most unrecognized and unappreciated miracles of our lives, of your life and mine, is how in the course of a week our hope is renewed by a thousand and one sources—the ways in which our hope is constantly renewed by life’s little surprises and pleasures—a two minute conversation, someone’s remarkably generous and thoughtful response, the solace and stimulation of music, the opportunity to be helpful, an hour of undisturbed reading, some unexpected incident that opens our eyes to just how blessed we are, etc., etc.

And need I add that when we are privileged to be the bringer of hope to someone else, our own hopefulness rises exponentially?

From the standpoint of faith, everything that renews and sustains our hope is gift and grace—from the standpoint of faith, everything that restores and bolsters our sense of hope comes from God the source of all life.

A certain woman, reflecting on her grueling treatment for breast cancer, said it seemed as though at least one thing happened every day that made her feel joyful.

Aly Colon had a younger brother who was developmentally disabled and had been placed by his parents in the state hospital at Porterville, California—when he was a graduate student at Stanford, as he tells it,

“I continued the family tradition of visiting Carlos. I thought I was doing him a favor. Actually, I was doing myself one. That became evident on one particular visit. At the time I felt depressed. I enjoyed the University. I studied with first rate professors and stimulating classmates. But I felt empty. My studies were to end in a few months, and my job prospects seemed slim. The gray skies and rain that dogged me on the drive to Porterville didn’t help.

At the hospital, someone brought Carlos to a waiting room that held a few chairs and a box of used toys. Carlos, then 21, still looked like a teenager. When he saw me, Carlos beamed and hugged me. His long arms squeezed me so tightly I could hardly breathe.

When I didn’t respond with my usual enthusiasm, he cradled my head with his hands and drew my face close to his. Then he gently bumped our noses and foreheads together a few times, one of his ways of showing affection. His huge smile seemed ready to swallow my face whole.

I started laughing. So did he. And I remembered a scripture: whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.

I had long thought I was doing that when I came to see Carlos. In fact he had been doing it for me. When I was feeling at my ‘least,’ my brother lifted me up. His love reminds me not that I am my brother’s keeper, but that he is mine.”

The sources of our hope are many and varied but they are always gift and grace.

The woman in our gospel story, the woman who was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, the man with the disabled brother, and perhaps at certain times we ourselves might find the words of Psalm 30 a fitting prayer of praise:

O Lord my God, I cried out to you,
and you restored me to health.
You brought me up, O Lord, from the dead;
you restored my life as I was going down to the grave…….
You have turned my wailing into dancing;
you have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.
Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing;
O Lord my God, I will give you thanks forever. Amen.

The Rev. Robert Dwight
4 Pentecost
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio
6/28/09