The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Feeding the Dogs A Sermon on Mark 7: 24-37

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church, September 9, 2018]

In the Name of God, father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

We’re coming up on it again. That parlous day, as Sir Thomas Malory might have called it. The day when America lost its quiet self assurance, as planes smashed into the Twin Towers, and the Pentagon, and into a field in Pennsylvania.

On this coming Tuesday, September 11, we will have our annual Service of Hope and Remembrance. We will grieve the dead, honor the heroes—those fallen, and those who lived to tell the tale. We will come together, as we have every year. And as we should.

But today’s Gospel takes us to a different part of the American reality, a place we need to recognize and acknowledge if we are to get past it.

We have been at war now for seventeen years.

And not just against our attackers, but against those we were convinced assisted them, such as the nation of Iraq, or even, more recently, against those who seem like them, such as Syria.

Just as bad, we have been at war against each other, against ourselves.

I won’t score the innings—this is a sermon, and time is limited—but I’ll point out that we are, in this Year of Our Lord 2018, more polarized, and more hostile in our polarization, than we have been for decades—and we are divided primarily by party affiliation, not by issues. In other words, we are split by tribalism, far more than by principled disagreements. This comes from a recent article in Political Quarterly by Lilliana Mason.

This is not a new thing—it’s an old one, dating back to Old Testament times, and prevalent in Jesus’s lifetime.

As today’s Gospel demonstrates.

Today’s Gospel makes for uncomfortable reading, and poses a deep challenge for us as members of the Jesus Movement.

Because today’s Gospel tells a story of a religious leader who loses sight of the humanity of those who come to him for aid, and rebuffs one such person, insulting her in the process.

What makes this story so hard to grapple with, so painful in a very real way, is the not just the bigotry (Paul and the apostles fall into this trap more than once), but that the bigotry is displayed by Jesus.

That’s right, Jesus.

Here he is, traveling through Tyre, and a Syrophoenician woman—a Gentile—approaches him, and “bow[s] down at his feet.” She humbly begs him to cast out a demon from her daughter.

Unlike the similar account in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus doesn’t ignore her. But he doesn’t reply as we would expect.

Jesus’s reply is cutting even two millennia later.

He spurns her, saying “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.”

But she answers back, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

At this point, Jesus says “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”

And the woman discovers on her return home that the long nightmare of possession is over.

Happy ending, right?

Well, yes, the ending is happy enough. But though I’ve poured over various Bible commentaries looking for an answer, none of them make this story any less rough for me.

Because Jesus’s behavior is genuinely shocking here. He insults the woman, calling her and her tormented, haunted daughter dogs, in comparison with the beloved children of Israel.

This story troubled me for years, because it’s such out of character behavior for Jesus. I could never really believe the apologists who said he was just testing her faith, or testing the disciples, because I couldn’t imagine Jesus putting a woman tortured with anxiety and fear for her daughter through such a test, or treating her as a teaching tool.

No, it was, of all people, the agnostic playwright George Bernard Shaw who helped me see my way through this passage.

Shaw wrote prefaces to his plays that were sometimes longer than the plays—essays on subjects related to the play, if only tangentially.

That was how he rolled.

In 1915, he wrote a play retelling the story of Androcles & the Lion. That’s an old fable about a tailor who finds a lion with a thorn in its paw, and, feeling sorry for it, removes the thorn.

Later, the Romans throw Androcles into the arena with a group of other Christians, only for the lion to remember him and protect him. Shaw’s play is about Christian faith in times of persecution, and just what they believed. And what led them to risk death, rather than betray their faith. So of course appended an exegesis of all four gospels, with his own interpretation of what Jesus means to us today.

He directly tackles the story of the Syrophoenecian woman, which he finds to be authentic. Here’s what he tells us about the story.

In all four gospels, there is nobody who beats Jesus in a verbal joust. Except for this one nameless, desperate, Gentile woman. She wins the argument, by her humility, her insistence that the crumbs of mercy that fall from the table of the children will suffice to save her child—in other words, she believes in Jesus when his own behavior has given her no reason to.

Shaw describes the story as “somehow one of the most touching in the Gospel; perhaps because the woman rebukes the prophet by a touch of his own finest quality.”

And he’s right.

Shaw acknowledges that Jesus’s behavior toward her is “certainly out of character,” as he says “the sins of good men” often are. He credits the woman with having melted the bigot out of him and “made Christ a Christian."

Just this once, Jesus gets as much as he gives in a miracle story. He’s come back to himself, as he describes the prodigal son in Luke’s gospel.

Just this once he needed to be called back to his truest, best self.

It wasn't his disciples who did it.

It wasn't his friends, or his family.

It wasn't the religious authorities.

No, it was the other, the hereditary enemy, the woman of another people, the dog, who was there for him.

It’s uncomfortable—it feels like heresy—to say that, but I think any other reading of the Gospel diminishes it, smoothes it over.

Lies about it, in other words.

In 1889, Charles Gore in postulated in one of his contributions to a book called Lux Mundi that Jesus in his life and ministry was limited to the knowledge of his age. He did not know that the Earth circles the Sun, and not the other way around, or about evolution—of which Gore was an early adopter.

This landed Gore, an up-and-coming young clergyman, in so much trouble that he wrote a book expanding on his account of Jesus as both true man and true God, but yet limited in knowledge. He called it the “kenotic” view of the Incarnation. He took the term “kenosis,” meaning “emptying,” from Phillipians 2:7, in which Jesus is described as having the nature of God, but not counting equality with God a thing to be grasped, and instead emptied himself, and took the nature of a servant.

The view is widely held now, but was quite controversial when Gore first proposed it. And I think it helps us see how Jesus could have fallen into tribalism, one of the gravest errors of his time—and of ours—and how this incident may be where he transcends it.

Jesus, having been raised to think of the priority of the children of Israel, is shocked into caring for the other, the “dog.” And so he cannot see her as an other, any more, but sees her in her full humanity. I imagine him a little taken aback, a little quiet in his words to her.

The tribalist reflexes instilled in him by his culture, by his uprbringing in occupied territory—he has recognized that he must transcend them, and so begins the mission to the Gentiles. Jesus has taken the first step that leads to Paul’s mighty declaration in Galatians that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

For us as a Church and as a people, the lesson is one we are still struggling to live into. We are a people of hope, and we profess that we are called to follow Jesus in walking the Way of the Cross. At a minimum, we must reject tribalism. We must open our eyes and see the person in front of us in their full humanity, and not as a symbol of the “Other,” the different, the alien.

Our St Barts’ ethos of “Radical Welcome” is an effort to walk in that Way, not political correctness.

We are called to open our hearts to Samaritans, to unbelievers, to the unclean.

Because nothing and nobody made by God is unclean.

In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Flesh Failures: Back to the Future

Some time ago, I postulated that we were leaving behind the shadow of the "Long 1980s," and that we were about to see what came next.

As G.B. Trudeau's Uncle Duke once famously said, "Hellooo, more of the same!"

Except it isn't.

As Elizabeth Sandifer has explained:
The key thing to know here is that there exists a model of spiritual enlightenment in which enlightenment is a horrifying and bleak thing. The adjective I'm going to use for this sort of enlightenment - Qlippothic - is important. Basically, it suggests that there is a form of enlightenment that can be found by encountering and contemplating the darkest parts of humanity. The Qlippoth refer to the hollowed out, vacant, and rotted shells of spiritual concepts. And the whole radical idea of Kenneth Grant is that there's not actually a difference between those, which are basically the horrible nightmares within humanity, and actual enlightenment.
And that's what we seem to be living in, all too often--a hollowed out, vacant, rotted shell of the culture wars on the 1980s, all the old cliches and tropes, but with none of the belief, none of the hope, none of the conviction.

None of the life.

As Trudeau once wrote, "Backlash never plays like the original."

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

"Doc" Simon: On Outliving One's Era

Yeah, I know. That's the one we all think of.

Or, if I'm being very honest, it's this:

In memorializing the late Neil Simon, Frank Rich writes:
It is probably impossible for those theatergoers who didn’t grow up with Neil Simon’s plays to understand how big a deal he was in his prime, both to the theater and American pop culture. That was during the 1960s and 1970s when the phenomenal one-two punch of Barefoot in the Park (1963) and The Odd Couple (1965), which between them piled up about 2,500 performances in their original runs, was followed up by one smash Broadway hit after another. As the Simon assembly line quickly accelerated, his hit plays begat hit movies, which then begat television sitcoms, which sometimes begat additional television sitcoms. He wrote musicals too (the best is Little Me, as originally guided in 1962 by Bob Fosse), and Hollywood screenplays. For a while it was all Neil Simon all the time — remarkably so given that his mainstream branch of domestic comedy was in conflict with a culture, in theater and movies alike, that was moving fast in the opposite direction.
Rich isn't the only one to sound this note--not quite disparaging, but viewing the late "Doc" Simon as a dinosaur, whose era long ago ended. Even Charles Isherwood's considerably more appreciative obit in the NYT ends on a similar note, quoting Simon as saying"I know how the public sees me, because people are always coming up to me and saying, ‘Thanks for the good times,’”.... “But all the success has demeaned me in a way. Critically, the thinking seems to be that if you write too many hits, they can’t be that good.”

There's a tendency to write Simon off as a joke-machine, but (as Isherwood notes), the flip humor covers real emotion:
Agony is at the root of comedy, and for Mr. Simon it was the agony of an unhappy Depression-era childhood that inspired much of his finest work. And it was the agony of living in Los Angeles that drove his determination to break free from the grind of cranking out jokes for Jerry Lewis on television and make his own name. As he wrote in his 1996 autobiography, “Rewrites” (the first of two volumes), the plush comforts of Hollywood living might extend your life span, but “the catch was when you eventually did die, it surely wouldn’t be from laughing.”
I still have my copy of The Comedy of Neil Simon, the 1971 collection of his plays from "Come Blow Your Horn" through "Last of the Red Hot Lovers." This is decades before the more overtly autobiographical trilogy, or Lost in Yonkers.

And yet, in his introduction, "Portrait of the Artist as a Schizophrenic," Simon levels with us, describing himself as split between the "Human Being" who lives life, and the "Monster" who lives underneath the bland, benign face with the kind smile. The Monster observes, and writes, and hones all the experiences of the Human being, or of anyone whose behavior catches his watchful eye, into drama. Oe comedy. Quoting a moment from Barefoot in the Park when the newlyweds are squabbling, Simon tells us it's a recast version of a fight between him and his wife--this time without the frozen veal chop being hurled at him--and he thinks, "Damn you, Monster, they're just a couple of nice kids starting out in life. Give them a break, will you?"

Even then, Simon was motivated by the need to find the story, and the humor in the story.

Yeah, the plays are mixed in quality. And have aged, some badly, some quite well. The one-liners are usually good, though, and based in character and place.

And that's a way in which Simon was a dinosaur. His New York--Manhattan--is gone. Oh, little pieces of it can be found, but the self-consciously wry, dirty and yet beautiful city of my youth where strange but likable people made kvetching an art form, crafting a poetry of exasperation, and piling on the frustration like Pastrami on a sandwich at Katz's--that world has left only behind trace elements. Hell, nowadays the staff at the Strand are polite. Usually.

There was a lot wrong with it, and a lot that had to go (and still has to).

But there's something to be said for the old New York, the one I remember in my student days, and the first years of my career, when Manhattanites strode out into the world with no armor but the bracing sarcasm of Simon's characters, women and men alike (the televised version of The Odd Couple nailed it when they cast raspy-voiced Brett Somers as Oscar's ex-wife, opposite her actual husbandJack Klugman, and giving as good as she gets). It was Simon's era, Gelbart's, Matthau's and Lemmon's, and it shaped me.

Thanks, Doc.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Flesh and Blood: A Sermon on John 6: 41-51 (et seq)

(Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church, NYC, August 12, 2018)

It doesn’t look like bread, does it, the little wafer we hand out? It is, of course, but it looks almost like a simple disc of some unknown substance. Not quite cardboard, certainly not bread you’d get a sandwich on. More like a Necco wafer, if your remember those, than what you think of when you think of bread.

But it is bread.

It’s made from unleavened wheat flour and water. The bread most Episcopal churches use is made by Cavanagh Altar Breads, a secular baker out of Rhode Island that provides altar bread to C.M. Almy, which sells it to Catholics, Protestants, and those of us in between.

Apparently, Cavanagh’s bread has something like 80% market share, and its popularity was enough to put the Poor Clare Nuns of Bernham, Texas, out of the business. A few orders of nuns have stopped competing and started distributing as retailers, so there’s a whole distribution chain in which these wafers travel.

When we give it to you, we remind you what it is: “The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.”

But how can something that barely qualifies as bread be the Body of Christ? And does the recurring liturgical formula, “The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven,” become so rote that we don’t hear it, don’t take it in?

Because if you think about it, “the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven” is not an easy teaching. The Eucharist, which we share, which is central to this service, is one we don’t reflect on often.

[That’s strange because, in breaking with Roman Catholicism, the Church of England in the Thirty-nine Articles rejected the traditional 7 sacraments taught in that faith, holding instead in Article 25 that “[t]here are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord. The other five were denied the status of sacraments on the ground that they were more properly viewed as “states of life allowed in the Scriptures”, such as marriage, or holy orders, or else they are the result of “corrupt following of the Apostles”—extreme unction, Penance, or Confirmation.

Now, we’ve moved away from the 39 Articles and, since the success of the Anglo-Catholic movements of the 19th Century, we have welcomed back confirmation, anointing of the sick, and Confession.] (Bracketed paragraphs omitted in delivery).

But, for all the quarrels about the sacraments that have marred Anglican Church, the two sacraments on which the most Low Church and High Church partisans have always agreed on are baptism and “the Supper of the Lord.”

So the Eucharist—the eating of bread and drinking of wine in commemoration of the death of Jesus—is at the core of our liturgy, at the core of our worship.

Normally, we just do it, and don’t grapple with the language Jesus uses. But today, I don’t think we have a choice in the matter—we have to listen to what Jesus says, and try to understand the emotionally-laden language he uses.

Which means that this week and next, we’ll be facing some of the harder to bear language in the Fourth Gospel, in which Jesus talks at length about what it means to say that Jesus himself is the Bread of Life.

So it’s our duty to wrestle with this Gospel and next week’s, each part of the same conversation, but broken up in our weekly reading so that this week we get to think of Jesus as the bread that comes down from heaven, so that whoever eats of it shall not die, and not just let it sail over our heads.

A nice metaphor. Jesus is like manna from heaven—a phrase that nowadays can mean simply a great gift, unexpected and welcome, life-enhancing.

Not too threatening yet, right?

We feed on Jesus, and, since we are still in the more abstract part of the Gospel today, we can think of it as Jesus nourishing us with the Spirit, or by his teachings.

But then this Gospel reading has a sting in its tail. Jesus then tells is that “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

And we, like the crowd, do a double take. He can’t mean it literally, can he?

Next week it gets a little frighteningly concrete. The crowd is murmuring “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

And here’s where Jesus really does an un-Episcopalian thing: crosses the line of good taste and discretion. Jesus says to them

“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

Archbishop William Temple in his Readings in St. John's Gospel (First and Second Series) reminds us that these words were especially shocking to Jesus’s Jewish audience because to consume the blood of sacrifices was a grave offense under the Law.

Not to mention what Raymond Brown, the great scholar of the Fourth Gospel, calls “the Jewish repugnance at the cannibalistic thought of eating his flesh.” Brown asserts that these words led to claims that the early Christians were in fact cannibals and blood-drinkers, and the Roman historian Tacitus says that Nero “fastened the guilt” for the great fire of Rome “on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace.” (Annals, 15:4)

Even today these words can draw strong reactions when they aren’t cushioned by routine, safe in a church. These last few verses disturbed the writer Alan Ryan enough that he wrote a story, called “Following the Way,” about a young man who, over a period of years, keeps meeting a Jesuit priest who repeatedly invites him into the order, only for him to discover at the end that the chalice which promises eternal life is not filled with wine.

Mind you, I graduated from a Jesuit college, and I’m not taking any bets about their induction ceremonies.

But just as Ryan found in these lines fuel for a Gothic fantasia, the Gospel itself tells us that “because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” In fact, only the Twelve remained—and one of them, as Jesus rather pointedly observes, is a devil.

So why did Jesus choose such provocative, such offensive, language?

Quite possibly because it was the only language that came close to doing the job. Temple reminds us that to eat something is to take it into ourselves and to use it as the basic building blocks assembling our bodies; we make Jesus’s full humanity—his flesh—his mortality—a constituent element of who we are. We make our own the dying of Jesus.

Likewise, the book of Deuteronomy tells us, “The blood is the Life”; (No, I didn’t recognize Count Dracula was quoting Scripture until I read Temple either. Apparently Shakespeare was right to warn us that the “Devil can quote Scripture for his purpose”).

By drinking from the cup, Archbishop Temple tells us, we accept the life of Jesus into ourselves, the resurrected life.

Temple urges us to see a synergy in the eating of the Bread and the drinking from the cup, that each requires the other.

Or, as Temple puts it, by eating the bread, we receive the power of self giving and self-sacrifice; by drinking the cup, we receive, through that self-giving and that self-sacrifice, the life that is triumphant over death and united to God.

Which is beautiful and eloquent Eucharistic theology—but what does it mean here, today, this minute?

Let me try a translation:

We Christians believe that we are called to lives of service, not of selfishness. By eating the bread, we make part of our very physical being a perpetual reminder of that calling. We literally take it into ourselves and let it become a part of our anatomy.

By drinking of the cup, we claim that the love of God, the deathless and unkillable love of God is so much a part of the redemption of Creation that that love flows through our very arteries and veins. We acknowledge that we are called to love, and that love literally pervades our being—again, our physical being.

We ourselves claim the blessing and assert that the love of God surges through us, is that of which we are made.

So how can we refuse to love, to forgive, to care for others? How can we allow ourselves to let that love become just a dry routine, instead of a call to arms?

But not to literal arms, not to violence, or triumphalism. We are called to the much harder task of building bridges to those with whom we disagree. To those who have hurt us, or, even harder, to those whom we have hurt.

We are called to a life in which we pray and try to live the beautiful words of St Francis:

Where there is hatred, let me sow love,
Where there is injury, pardon,
Where there is doubt, faith,
Where there is despair, joy;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.

And how can we, knowing our own faults and weaknesses, our own moments of anger and unkindness, even hope to achieve this?

We eat the bread of life, we drink from the cup of love.

It’s in our muscle memories, our own sinews, our very DNA.

In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

"It's Dangerous to be an Honest Man": The Godfather, Part III

Ok, I needed something to read recently, and fell on my old copy of Puzo's novel, and, after rereading it, wanted to see the least-loved of the films drawn from it--my memory (from seeing it in the theater when it came out) was that it was better than many thought.

The 1990 final installment of Francis Ford Coppola's trilogy was greeted with....not the rapturous reception the first two installments received. Some of this was the less than superb acting of Sophia Coppola (actually, a little better than you remember her, and a hell of a director), but, I have always thought, the main reason for the lower reputation of the final film is simple human nature: A story about decline and fall is less thrilling than one about the rise to power (Part I, and Vito's story in Part II) and its consolidation (Michael' story in Part II).

Coppola's skill as director is evident from the first moments, a long tracking shot of the now-abandoned, falling to ruin, Corleone family home in Nevada. We sweep through all the old locations, seeing their decay, a wonderful metaphor for the state of the Corleone Family itself as the movie unfolds.

Oh, not at first; Michael, back in New York City, is seemingly at the apogee of power, being invested as a Papal Knight, and is now completely legitimate in his business interests. The first long set piece, the celebration of Michael's honor brings together Michael with his fractious (and fractured) family: Kay (Diane Keaton, in a quicksilver performance, by turns spiteful, compassionate, loving, and heartbreaking), her children with Michael, Mary (Sophia Coppola) and Anthony (Franc D'Ambrsio), Connie Corleone Rizzi(Talia Shire, of whom more later), and a handful of old faces, with new ones to supplement the thinning ranks.

Kay is quite hostile to her ex, though when he agrees to let Anthony follow a musical career, she relents, a little. Michael is briefly reluctant to let his son go--but his memories of his own youth, and the knowledge that young Tony knows about Fredo's murder (the ghost haunting this Macbeth) leads Michael to give way with little fight.

But Michael's old friends at the Commission are watching enviously as he stages a financial coup--to buy a majority interest in the Vatican-backed Internazionale Immobiliare company, and they want him to let them, er, "wet their beaks a little." When he refuses, as did his father Vito in the first film, an attack, ostensibly by the thuggish Joey Zasa kills most of the Dons, but not Michael.

But you don't need plot summary--suffice it to say that Michael suffers a diabetic stroke, which leads Kay to visit him, they end of having something of a rapprochement in Sicily where Anthony is making his debut as an opera singer, but also while in Sicily, Michael discovers who has betrayed him, and, yielding power to his nephew Vincent--Sonny's child, conceived at the wedding in the first film--sets in motion one last sequence of revenge that, this time, blows back on him and his.


The standout performance, after Pacino's, is Talia Shire's as a profoundly changed Connie. Oh, she told Michael she wanted to help him in the last movie, but unlike the late lamented Tom Hagen, Connie is a wartime consiglieri. Shire's physicality in this film is impressive--her voice goes from elegantly modulated to a fishwife's when she goads Vincent to murder Joey Zasa. She is elegant, flashes of the charming bride coming through, but more often her elegance is the predatory beauty of a hawk--her dispatching of a traitor into climactic sequence sees her in both guises--for the old traitor whose favorite she was as a little girl, she is girlish--until she watches him die from the poison she has fed him. I can't think of a performance by her that matches the nuance, the breadth, of this one.

Likewise Pacino--he and Keaton fight, but, when he takes her on a tour of parts of Sicily, the innocent Michael from the first part of the first movie returns to us a little bit--he points out his love for his father, Vito's dire straits when he stepped in, and abandoned, for want of any other option, the destiny he had dreamed fro himself. The rapport between Keaton and Pacino is superb, their old compatibility flaring up, despite her now complete knowledge of the "family business." Even after she sees him get caught up in the business again--the murder of Michael's old protector Don Tommasino, she murmurs "It never ends," with a bit of disgust, only to thoroughly enjoy his company at the opera, watching their son--and murmuring happy little asides to each other.

And then the butcher's bill at last comes due.

And I think this is why this movie is less loved than the others.

Michael pays dearly for his crimes, his vaunting ambition, his hopes--founded as they all were in love for his family, he cannot believe that they are all foredoomed, but they are. We see Michael and Mary shot, her die, as Keaton screams--only to have Pacino scream at first silently, but then as full-throatedly as Peter O'Toole in The Ruling Class, a death scream--but Michael does not die. We see a montage of waltzes--Michael and Mary, then with Appolonia, then with Kay--and then fade to the prosaic spectacle of a tired, defeated old man, at least a decade, maybe two, later. He dies alone, feared or forgotten, in a dusty Sicilian ruin, where his father died playing in a lush garden with his grandson.

No catharsis, no triumph. The once innocent man, who had such potential, loses everything at a stroke.

The film shows Michael no mercy, no redemption. Where he committed terrible crimes in the first two films, he keeps the audience's sympathy in the first, and even through most of the second. Here, wishing to atone, he cannot. His confession to the honest man who will soon become Pope offers a glimpse of hope, but as even the Cardinal observes, Michael does not believe he can be redeemed--and so he won't be. His dreams of better things for his family die long before the shell of a man we glimpse at the end does.

As Kay says, "It never ends."

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Power Failure: A Sermon on Mark 6: 1-13, 2 Cor. 12:2-10

[Delivered on July 8, 2018, at St. Bartholomew's Church, NYC at 5:00 pm]

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

What is more disorienting than the seeming failure of something you have always believed in?

This past Wednesday, the Fourth of July, the Washington Post published an article by Anna Lührmann and Matthew Wilson summarizing the 2018 report of the Varieties of Democracy Project of the University of Gothenburg, known as V-Dem. V-Dem calls itself “the largest-ever social-science effort to measure democracy around the world.”

Those results, disturbingly, described the United States as a “declining democracy.” Lührmann and Wilson write that “[t]he United States fell 24 places in the country ranking on liberal democracy over the past two years, from seventh in 2015 to 31st in 2017,” adding that “When we compare the United States’ score in 2017 with its average score over the past 10 years, the drop is precipitous and unprecedented.”

Meanwhile, the Washington Post also as a polling team, and an article by Emily Guskin, reports that the polling team found that, as of July 2018, “Americans are less proud of their country and the way its democracy works, and they show persistently weak trust in government and many major institutions.“

By now, you must be wondering if this is a civics lesson or a sermon, but we’ve just finished commemorating Independence Day, so let me bring it to a point:

Normally, when the institutions we place our trust in seem to be failing, we criticize. And that’s fair enough, as long as we try to ground our criticisms in fact, and reasonable expectations. But one thing we don’t do: look inward.

Cynicism and mutual distrust rot institutions from within, just as they fray what Abraham Lincoln in his First Inaugural Address called “our bonds of affection.” In a relationship, in any relationship, distrust and anger can bring those bonds to the point of snapping.

That's true within a church, within a country, or within a family.

And that includes our relationship with God.

What do we see when Jesus returns to Nazareth in today’s Gospel?

When Jesus returns to Nazareth, his home town, he teaches in the synagogue, and the people marvel at what they've heard about his wisdom, at the deeds of power being done by his hands, only to swiftly pivot and cut him down to size as “the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon.”

And Jesus finds that can “do no deed of power there,” other than laying his hands upon a few of the sick, and curing them. Yet as soon as he leaves Nazareth, he sends out the Twelve, and they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”

What happened?

Jesus, whose ability to feed thousands of people with a few loaves and fishes, cure the sick, and even raise the dead is known far and wide—is suddenly rendered essentially without power. Jesus himself is amazed at the unbelief of those who have known him longest, and attributes his inability to do any work of power in Nazareth to their unbelief. He wryly adds that “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”

And sure enough, as soon as he leaves Nazareth, he is able to be the Jesus we usually think of, not only able to do great deeds of power again himself, but able to deputize the Twelve to perform them in his name.

Again, what happened?

The clue came to me from an unusual place: C.S. Lewis’s little fantasia, The Great Divorce, in which he imagines Hell as a dreary little suburb, where it’s always raining, and always twilight. Periodically, the ghosts who live there are able to journey in a bus to heaven and interact with the saved. If they choose to stay, they can, and grow into the fullness of love and light. Some do. But most cling to their own perceptions of themselves—as victims, as tragic figures, as the misunderstood, and so voluntarily take the bus back down to the little town of the damned.

Lewis’s guide in this fantasia is the Scottish writer George MacDonald, whose writings opened his youthful mind. In explaining the interactions Lewis is observing, MacDonald tells him that:
There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end: Thy will be done. All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice, there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.
Nadia Bolz-Weber, in her book Pastrix, explains Grace. She says that:
God’s grace is a gift that is freely given to us. We don’t earn a thing when it comes to God’s love, and we only try to live in response to the gift. No one is climbing the spiritual ladder. We don’t continually improve until we are so spiritual we no longer need God. We die and are made new, but that’s different from spiritual self-improvement. We are simultaneously sinner and saint, 100 percent of both, all the time.
Grace is offered, regardless.

But Grace can be refused; Grace can be rejected.

Jesus cannot force us to be well; we must want it. It’s not that His power is gone in Nazareth, not at all. It’s far simpler than that. The people who knew Him as a boy, a young carpenter, who know His family—these people are simply unwilling to open their hearts and discard their long-standing image of who Jesus is, and His role in their lives.

And because of this, they cannot accept help from Him. It’s literally inconceivable to his former neighbors that all these stories they’ve heard about Jesus are true. They don’t fit the boy they knew, the apprentice carpenter, the member of a local family. And because they cannot conceive of Jesus as being anything other than what they knew, they reject the gift. And God says to them, “Thy will be done.”

Conversely, St. Paul. He describes a mystical experience attributed to “a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven.” Now let’s get something straight; this person is Paul himself . How do we know this? Later in the reading he flatly admits it, telling us that he “refrain[s] from [boasting], so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations.” So Paul himself is caught up into Paradise where he “heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.” Fourteen years after the event, the wonder and awe are fresh.

And yet: in the very next line, Paul tells us that, “[t]herefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.” When he appeals three times to the Lord to be freed from this torment, the response is simply, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

The nature of this torment is unclear—physical pain, disease, epilepsy have all been suggested, but while the nature of this thorn is elusive, its purpose is repeated twice—that he “should not be too elated.”

Why not? Why shouldn’t Paul be elated?

Perhaps because, like the ghosts in The Great Divorce, Paul is all too capable of losing sight of his own limitations, and could fall into the trap of no longer seeing himself as he is, faults and all. And instead of sharing the joy this vision had brought him, he could view this free gift of God as something that marks him as special, as superior. Paul, who is inclined to self-assertion—look at all the times he insists on his apostolic rank—is being protected, by being reminded that he is a flawed human being, just as those he seeks to serve are.

Just as we are.

Which brings us back to our beginning. Jesus tells us to “love one another, as I have loved you,” and even to love our enemies. As we look on in this summer of discontent, we must remember that however easy it is fall on one side or another in this time of division and uneasiness, we must not do so with hatred. We are not enemies, Abraham Lincoln warned us, we must not be enemies.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t express our beliefs. We must, as you have often heard in this Church, make no peace with injustice. But it does mean that in our struggle, we remember that those who choose to are oppose us us are as precious in the sight of God as we are. That we fight not in enmity, but constantly reminding ourselves that those who we find ourselves estranged from are in very truth our brothers and our sisters, and that when this struggle is over, we must have conducted ourselves so that we can reach out to them—and they to us, may it be so—in love.

In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.

Monday, July 2, 2018

"They Must Be Fought": The Moonbase

In 2070, on the weather control base on the Moon, the Gravitron which keeps Earth's weather in alignment is malfunctioning, the crew are falling sick of a strange disease that leaves odd dark streams through their faces and hands, and the sick crew members are disappearing. Also, someone is monitoring their transmissions to Earth.

While the base's doctor has fallen prey to the disease, one of a small group of travelers from Earth (so they say, but they're human as far as we can see) is a doctor himself. He offers to help, but the irritable and suspicious head of the base wants him and his friends to go. The little man called the Doctor refuses to go:
HOBSON: That's as maybe. I don't know who you are, what you are or where you come from. But you can get off the moon now.
BEN: Yeah, well that suits me fine. The sooner the better.
DOCTOR: No, Ben. We can't go yet.
BEN: Well, why not? They don't want us here.
DOCTOR: Because there is something evil here and we must stay.
HOBSON: Evil? Don't be daft.
DOCTOR: Evil is what I meant. There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things. Things which act against everything that we believe in. They must be fought.
Polly, who has experience, believes that she has seen a gleaming silver man--a Cyberman--take one of the patients away. But that can't be:
HOBSON: We'll see about that in a minute. This thing you saw, what was it like?
POLLY: It was enormous and silver, and it had holes in it's head for eyes, like a robot!
HOBSON: A robot?
BEN: But the Cybermen were all killed when Mondas blew up, weren't they?
HOBSON: Stop this Cyberman nonsense. There were Cybermen, every child knows that, but they were all destroyed ages ago.
DOCTOR: So we all thought.
Of course it's a Cyberman, and of course Polly is right, even though she can't accept it.

Sometimes we are so wedded to our notion of what is and is not possible that we cannot see the obvious, cannot feel the ground shift under our feet. Or rather, we can see it, we can feel it--we just don't let ourselves.

And that is what empowers the evil that threatens to swamp us: we refuse to perceive it, to acknowledge it. As Charles Baudelaire wrote, "do not ever forget, when you hear the progress of lights praised, that the loveliest trick of the Devil is to persuade you that he does not exist!”


"They always get started. They happen everywhere there's people. Mondas, Telos, Earth, Planet 14, Marinus. Like sewage and smartphones and Donald Trump, some things are just inevitable."--The Doctor.

The Doctor does not yet have the sense of inevitability toward the Cybermen in 1967 that he had 50 years later, in 2017. They are a surprise, though not a shock. When the Doctor realizes the one place that hadn't been checked was the sickbay n which they stand, he tries to get them out before--nah. Too late, the Cyberman throws away the sheet, and reveals himself, pointing a weapon and taking the Doctor, Ben, Polly, Hobson et al hostage.

Face-to-face with the adversaries that ended his first life, the Doctor is nonetheless recognized:
CYBERMAN 1: You are known to us.
DOCTOR: And you to me.
Subtle, a little ominous, but not much more.

As the base is held captive, Jamie, who has been unconscious for most of the story rallies. Ben and Polly try to brainstorm ideas, and Jamie refers to sprinkling witches with holy water, a less than helpful idea, but one that sparks an inspiration in Polly--the Cybermen are made of metal, and plastic--which nail varnish can melt. So Poly and Benthey concoct a super-solvent, fill several squirt bottles with it, and sally forth to battle. (May I just say it's nice to see Polly mostly back on form after her rather unfortunate dumbing down in the last story.) And it works. The Cybermen inside the base are killed, and those outside are laying siege to the base--yeah. We're in the iconic Troughton "base under siege" plot line. As it's his first go at one of these, the story nips rather nimbly along. But the Cybermen are different then those the Doctor first met. The singsong voices, bandaged faces, are replaced by more typical robot like features, including an electronic voice that is damnably difficult to follow. They have less body horror, less dark magic than they were. They are also weaker in a very real sense--rather than conquerors certain of their position, offering conversion wholesale (which they view as an improvement), they are planning to destroy earth for no other reason than "to eliminate all dangers." They have learned fear, fear of Earth, that is. (Yes, they claim to be without emotion, but the Cyberman's sarcasm tends to undercut these claims.) Just like the Doctor, they have been altered through their first encounter, and are less formidable for the change.

It ends with the Cybermen (hopefully_) destroyed, and off to the next adventure. The stakes are a little lower than in their previous meeting, but the real takeaway of this story is that standing up and fighting against a foe becomes easier each time you do it. It only needs believing your own eyes, and remembering who you--and they--really are.