A sermon for the people of Christ Church, Las Vegas
Sunday, September 28, 2014, the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
The Rev. William McD. Tully
Religious people are some of the biggest whiners on earth. The ones I know best are, like me, the American variety of religious people. Our great, cosmic whine for generations has been that things are not as good as they were in the old days. Then there’s that whole political movement devoted to whining that our politics has become too secular, that this is a Christian nation, that religion should have some sort of semi-official or even official place in public life.
In the tradition of fables and in the world-view of the Bible, there’s a phrase for that: sour grapes.
You may recall Aesop’s fable of the fox who tries and tries to reach a bunch of grapes hanging above his head. When he realizes he’ll never be able to reach them, he pretends that he never wanted them, saying, “They are probably sour anyway.”
Aesop was writing in the 6th century b.c.e., and at nearly the same time the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel was addressing the crisis of the Jews in exile in Babylon. Although not everything about their exile lives was bad, they felt a pervasive sense of loss: stories of the grandeur and integrity of old Jerusalem, the dignity of independent statehood, the primacy of their own religion.
And they let everyone know how they felt:
“We sat down and wept, wept by the rivers of Babylon,” goes Psalm 137. But “we sat down and whined, whined and whined by the rivers of Babylon,” would be more like it.
In particular, they whined and complained about their ancestors—those who blew it, those who failed to pay attention to the law and the prophets.
Ezekiel would have none of it: “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge?’ As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel.”
In other words, the prophet said, the Lord has a clear message for you: Stop whining. Stop blaming others. Look to yourselves.
Scholars often cite the 18th chapter of Ezekiel as the Bible’s explicit turning point toward individual responsibility. I’m interested in how we can use this wisdom, which we find in even greater force and clarity in the approach of Jesus.
Early in my time at St. Bart’s, the leadership and I agreed that the condition of the parish was precarious-— not enough people, too much money going out and not enough coming in. We decided to make changes, take risks, challenge people to come along. We also knew there were lots of reasons, including very real and painful internal conflict and huge changes in the world, that were to blame. But if we were to bring St. Bart's back to viability we would have to accept those facts and just get on with our work. There was simply no time to look back or complain. I had some buttons made for the staff: a circle with the word "whine" in it and a slash through it.
Jesus was talking to a restless, unsatisfied crowd and said: “To what then will I compare the people of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another,
‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not weep.’ [Luke 7.31-32]
In other words, like children, meaning not very mature.
Whining and blaming are symptoms of immaturity. Those who just complain and off-load their complaints and miseries on others are stuck. They can’t change, and the ability to change is a spiritual gift, a necessity if you’re going to grow up. And, this isn’t just about you. The ability to take responsibility, to change what you can, is also the necessary precondition for justice, and for that ultimate good, wholeness and peace.
I once knew a family therapist who surprised me by saying that he had stopped working with whole families. Yes, you heard that right. A family therapist who wouldn’t see the family.
He especially avoided accepting clients who wanted to send him their troubled family member, the so-called identified patient. Instead, after an initial interview with the person who called, he determined which family member was the healthiest, the most motivated to change, the most educable.
I wondered, How do you determine who that person was? “Easy,” he said. “I look for the person who is blaming the least.”
Sour grapes is no way to live.
One particular form of spiritual immaturity is whining about the universe. The biblical view, not the view of every verse, of course, but the view of the developed theology and spirituality, the arc of its narrative, if you will, is that we human persons are very complicated beings, but we’re endowed with capabilities of dealing with an open universe. That is where the deeper convergence of bible and science can be found.
If you’ve ever raised a child, or you’ve learned to be reflective on your own growing up, you know that the expectations of the infant don’t completely go away. They linger deep inside us.
Yes, you hear them in lifelong whining and blaming.
And you hear them in the egocentricity of the infant, who generally assumes three things about life:
I am in control or ought to be in control of all that has to do with life
I am at the center of the universe
Everything and everyone ought to be spinning around me so I can have what I want and life will be the way I want to be.
In the addiction recovery communities, this pattern might be described slightly differently, but the accumulated wisdom of those programs is that until you give up these self-delusions, you won’t recover inner control or sobriety.
Put another way, you need to be born again.
Put still another way, you need to grow up and learn to take responsibility for what can be changed and work at it, acknowledge what’s out of your control, and come to that place of maturity where you can tell the difference between the two. Sound familiar?
Jesus appealed to our potential for growth, not infantile addiction. He worked with people he picked out of crowds who seem to want to work or change, and he had running arguments with those who insisted solely on asserting and following the rules.
This isn’t to say that Jesus, or that the authentic Christian faith tradition, is just for the already strong and well-motivated. It is to say that if you want what the gospels call abundant life, if you want to grow to become your real and full self, if want to be “saved,” and if, incidentally, you want your church to grow in healthy and exciting ways, you need at least to stop whining.
You need to take responsibility for yourself, for the world you live in, and work with it, not to say, Sorry, my teeth are on edge because of the sour grapes . . . and you fill in the rest: because of my parents, because I can’t afford it, because of the economy, because I’m a victim, because God isn't there when I need God.
The ancient prophet's message is still true: claiming that you’re a victim of your ancestors’ mistakes, or the state of the world, or even of your own mess-ups will get you nowhere.
It’s never too late to turn, accept the realities of the world and get in touch with the joys of living the life you've been given.
The more I try it, the more I think that's what Jesus meant.