The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

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.

Friday, June 22, 2018

"Roly-Poly Fish Heads": The Underwater Menace



The Troughton Era is getting well under way with The Underwater Menace, and it's clearly going to be a pretty mixed bag. On the positive side, there's a lovely opening scene when, as the TARDIS is landing, we hear each of the traveler's hopes:
BEN: We're just beginning to land.
DOCTOR: Hold tight, everyone.
JAMIE: Land?
POLLY: Don't be scared, Jamie, it's all right really.
BEN: I get a sort of queer feeling. See we never know what we're going to find, do we?
DOCTOR: Ah, that's the fun. Stand by, here we go.
POLLY: Please let it be Chelsea 1966.
BEN: Hope it's the Daleks, I don't think.
DOCTOR: Prehistoric monsters.
That's our Doctor,and he'll be this way all the way through Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and Deep Breath.

Some of the character beats are spot on--Ben is sarcastic, assured, and resigned; Jamie confused, and Polly--well, here's the thing. Polly, who was so brash, resourceful, and funny in The Highlanders, is afraid, hoping anxiously for home. And that's pretty much how Polly is used in this episode. Our stroppy, smart "Duchess" (as Ben often calls her) is reduced to screaming, panicked, damsel-in-distress for far too much of this story. Annette Wills tries, and finds a few moments when Polly is her more feisty self, but she's fighting the script and the director here.

(Although, fair dos, Polly gets to demonstrate her powers of deduction at the start of the adventure with what is, basically, a sherlockomito, based on her having found a bracelet in the sand:
DOCTOR: Yes, it's difficult to put a precise date on these people.
POLLY: I don't think it is.
DOCTOR: All right then, when?
POLLY: Oh, I'd say about 1970.
DOCTOR: Can you prove it?
BEN: Yeah, go on, prove it.
JAMIE: How d'you know, Polly?
BEN: Ah, she's been studying her crystal ball.
POLLY: Abracadabra.
(Polly produces the bracelet she found.)
DOCTOR: Oh, how interesting, yes. Hmm. It's Aztec. Fake of course.
BEN: Mexico Olympiad.
POLLY: When we first left Earth it hadn't happened yet.
BEN: No, that's right, it wasn't due till 1968.
POLLY: Right, so now is any time later than that.
So it isn't all bad for Polly.)

The basic plot is unpromising: The travelers land in Atlantis, are about be sacrificed to the Atlantean deity, the Goddess Amdo. The Doctor bluffs his way to a meeting with the scientist who has promised to raise Atlantis out of the sea, Professor Zaroff (a strong, mad performance by Joseph Fürst). Zaroff quickly discovers that the Doctor's claim that "vital secret will die with me" (signed "Dr. W", so further supporting the argument that the character is in fact named Doctor Who.) is a bluff, but is amused at the Doctor's effrontery. But then the Doctor discovers Zaroff's intentions are to raise Atlantis, but also to destroy the world, as scientists so often wont to do:
DOCTOR: Even supposing you succeeded, you know what will happen, don't you?
ZAROFF: You tell me, Doctor.
DOCTOR: Well, the water will be converted into superheated steam, the pressure will grow, and crack the crust of the Earth. Destroy all life, maybe even blow the planet apart.
ZAROFF: Yes. And I shall have redeemed my promise to lift Atlantis from the sea. Lift it to the sky! It will be magnificent.
DOCTOR: Yes.
ZAROFF: Bang! Bang! Bang, bang! That's all.
DOCTOR: Yes. Just one small question. Why do you want to blow up the world?
Meanwhile, the Atlanteans are planning to make Polly one of their "fish people"--former human beings converted into fish/human hybrids, and treated as food gathering slaves.

The three succeeding episodes are a bit of a run-around: The Doctor recruits a priestly ally, then the political leader, but Zaroff outwits him. Ben and Jamie effectively recruit some miners to help take down Zaroff, Polly screams a lot, but also plays a constructive part, the Doctor and Ben thwart Zaroff at the very end,and the TARDIS team takes off--who knows where?--while their Atlantean friends, who have seen their temple and lower levels flooded--grieve for them, and plan a new, more fair, Atlantis as their memorial.

Troughton is mercurial and charming, and Jamie is beginning to adjust. The design range from the silly--fish head masks for the temple ceremonies--to the sublime. There's an extended sequence among the fish people that doesn't advance the plot, but brings us back to the sheer demented weird spectacle of Auntie Verity's Pandemonium Shadow Show, best exemplified by The Web Planet. The show's not quite sure what it is yet, with Troughton but it's coalescing, and still determined to be Doctor Who.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Twenty-one Times Around the Sun



So, today marks 21 years of sobriety for me.

Please, for the love of sanity, don't react with any suggestion that I should be proud. It's just another day. The only thing I did right was, 22 years ago, saw a flash of light, like a spark on a subway track that lights the way the train is headed for a split second, and summon the courage to walk down a flight of stairs.

The rest was other people taking care of me, loving me when I was incapable of doing that, and what we call "Higher Power," be that God, the group, or the program.

The downside to the anonymous nature of the program is that you are limited in who you can publicly thank. My calm and always grounding sponsor, the wonderful couple who drove me to weekend meetings when I didn't have a car, all the many people who cared for me then--thank you, with all my heart.

One man I can thank publicly, though he is no longer with us, except in memory--Phil P., who hugged me as a newcomer, hugged me harder when I moved back to New York City after a few years away, and was my friend. He's the only person I know who wrote his story up for the Big Book He died in 2016, and I miss him still.

By a strange fluke, I had a mutual friend with Jonathan Larson, and Rent was a signpost on the way to that stairwell. So I remember:
There's only now, there's only here
Give in to love or live in fear
No other path, No other way,
No day but today

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Happy St.Columba Day!



From St. Adomnan’s Life of St. Columba:
Concerning a certain water beast driven away by the power of the blessed man's prayer.

Also at another time, when the blessed man was for a number of days in the province of the Picts, he had to cross the river Nes [Ness]. When lie reached its bank, he saw a poor fellow being buried by other inhabitants; and the buriers said that, while swimming not long before, he had been seized and most savagely bitten by a water beast. Some men, going to his rescue in a wooden boat, though too late, had put out hooks and caught hold of his wretched corpse. When the blessed man heard this, he ordered notwithstanding that one of his companions should swim out and bring back to him, by sailing, a boat that stood on the opposite bank. Hearing this order of the holy and memorable man, Lugne mocu‑Min obeyed without delay, and putting off his clothes, excepting his tunic, plunged into the water. But the monster, whose appetite had earlier been not so much sated as whetted for prey, lurked in the depth of the river. Feeling the water above disturbed by Lugne's swimming, it suddenly swam up to the surface, and with gaping mouth and with great roaring rushed towards the man swimming in the middle of the stream. While all that were there, barbarians and even the brothers, were struck down with extreme terror, the blessed man, who was watching, raised his holy hand and drew the saving sign of the cross in the empty air; and then, invoking the name of God, he commanded the savage beast, and said: "You will go no further. Do not touch the man; turn back speedily". Then, hearing this command of the saint, the beast, as if pulled back with ropes, fled terrified in swift retreat; although it had before approached so close to Lugne as he swam that there was no more than the length of one short pole between man and beast.Then seeing that the beast had withdrawn and that their fellow- soldier Lugne had returned to them unharmed and safe, in the boat, the brothers with great amazement glorified God in the blessed man. And also the pagan barbarians who were there at the time, impelled by the magnitude of this miracle that they themselves had seen, magnified the God of the Christians."
No, you can’t blame the Zygons,either. (Besides, there’s a treaty, so we have to let Zygon be Zygons.)

You’ll just have to take it on faith.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Lord of the Sabbath: A Sermon on Deut 5:12-15; 2 Cor. 4: 5-12; Mark 22: 3-6



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

We live, in case you haven’t noticed, in unsettled times.

We’re all living in an era where there’s constantly too much to do, working longer hours with more projects.

Or hourly workers, who have to cobble together several jobs to put together a living wage. Minimum wage workers in big box stores, but college professors, too.

I know an adjunct professor who managed to pay the rent on her little Jersey City basement flat by teaching at three different colleges, in three different boroughs of New York City. She’d get home, and pick up a novel, unable to read it, because the page would blur.

She told me that she was one of the lucky ones—she was making rent, unlike one of her colleagues who had to sleep in her car.

And let’s not mention politics and the twenty-four hour news cycle.

OK, we have to. Sorry.

But the Friday night news dump has become such a reliable flood of shock and outrage that you can get so worked up that getting a good night’s sleep is out of the question.

We want to be educated voters. We want to be efficient, hard-working members of our booming economy, each of us chasing Gatsby’s green light, the symbol of having arrived, of success.

And so, for all of our abundance, American workers are the most overworked in the developed world. Maybe it’s a secularized version of the Protestant work ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism described by Max Weber—trying to overcome the fear that we are unworthy by achieving spectacular concrete success in our callings.

Which would explain the McMansion, at least.

We even work to hard at distracting ourselves, at amusement.

Pop culture is popping all around us. Blink, and you’ll miss the new Star Wars film—what are we up to now? Solo's come, but has it gone yet?-- or The Death of Stalin in the arthouse, or the newest, bingeable TV show.

We want to be in the loop—to get everybody’s cultural references, to impress with being current. The Crown is so last year, and now we’re past Vanessa Kirby's sympathetic romantic Princess Margaret. Now we're watching Harriet Walter's icy, cruel Princess Margaret, while Benedict Cumberbatch's recovering addict tries to find a little kindness in himself. Patrick Melrose, not Melrose Place.

The Blacklist is passé, but Billions is still cool, I think. Right? [1]

It’s all a little like Brave New World, where fun was compulsory, and if you don’t enjoy yourself hard enough—well, maybe you just need more.

This is what Henry Higgins meant in My Fair Lady when he yearns to be free from “humanity’s mad, inhuman noise.”

And that’s just the up side. The luxury problems. The fortunate ones whose distractions are relatively benign.

I haven’t mentioned the burn out that people who care for stricken family members have to shake off, the fatigue of caring for a spouse or a child who just doesn’t seem to get better, and yet who you can’t give up on. Those caregivers who are a little more depleted, day after day, a little more exhausted, a little more depressed. And yet who still push on, out of kindness, out of loyalty. Most of all, out of love.

I’ve seen that in surprising places. In my pre-ordination training, making rounds at New York Presbyterian Hospital. On sick calls. Long ago, in visiting a relative who had had a stroke years before, and whose wife kept on loving him, kept on coaxing him to eat, to talk, to stay rooted in his own life. I think her love bought him a decade. But at a price—her own fatigue and exhaustion.

We live in a world that expects us to always be on the move, hustling.

We live in a world where sometimes we need to keep pouring out love, caring for those who need us, despite the strain.

And—you might be surprised to know—that’s always been the case.

Paul, in today’s reading from Second Corinthians certainly seems to be flagging. He writes:
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair. Persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;

Always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, he concludes, but life in you.”
Remember, too, that it is Paul who takes pride in earning his living while he evangelizes, on not taking support from the communities he visits. He describes himself and his companions as “your slaves, for Jesus’s sake.” He’s almost American in his work ethic!

But on reading this passage for today, I thought of a point well made made by the American cultural critic, Elizabeth Sandifer.

“The heart of classic tragedy,” she writes, “is generally that the hero is put into a position where their virtues become flaws. Othello, a brilliant soldier known for his decisiveness, is put into a position where the one thing he needs to do is slow down and think; Hamlet, a thoughtful and meticulous scholar, finds himself in one where delaying constantly makes things worse.”

So, here, I would suggest, Paul. His virtues—his need to prove himself a true apostle, to atone for his complicity in the death of St. Stephen, and in the persecution of Christians before his conversion, earnestness, persistence, endurance, a doggedness that won’t let him rest—all of these are leading him toward exhaustion.

Because nobody is called to live a death-in-life. Not even Paul.

He’s lost sight of the words of Jesus, as reported in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus invites us, “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

And that’s perfectly consistent with today’s reading from Leviticus.

We are told that “God made it a decree in Joseph, when he went out over the land of Egypt. I hear a voice I had not known: I relieved your shoulder of the burden; your hands were freed from the basket. In distress you called, and I rescued you.”

We’re not meant to prove our worth by imitating the ants as perpetual work machines, and we’re certainly not meant to so lose ourselves in the work, in the roles we play, that we go on and on until we shatter. We are not just expected to rest, we’re required to.

That’s why we are reminded today in Leviticus that the Sabbath is not an option; it’s a law. A statute for Israel. An ordinance of the God of Jacob.

And, like the Pharisees in today’s Gospel, we have the knack for turning things that are meant to be good for us, healthy for us, into burdens.

So often, we turn Sabbath-time into a chore—if we take vacation at all. It’s not the same as time to do the projects at home that we can’t get to because of our busy work lives.

And it’s not compelled fun.

Anything—even the Sabbath—can be made into an idol, abused. Look at today’s Gospel, where Jesus so offends the Pharisees that they join with their enemies, the Herodians, to conspire to kill him.

Why?

Because he healed someone on the Sabbath. He didn’t observe the ban on all work on that set aside day of the week.

Jesus’s answer is so self-evidently true that it’s hard to understand why the Pharisees aren’t satisfied with it: “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”

It’s not a law meant to oppress, it’s a law meant to create space for everyone, whatever their place in society, to breathe. It’s valuable because we need to rest, to step back and regain perspective. To just be.

To recharge and revitalize.

It’s easy to lose sight of that. In fact, William Ralph Inge, in his book Christian Mysticism, points out that religious doctrines—like the need for a Sabbath—start as fresh, life-enhancing insights taught by the person who has the flash of awareness, but as they are passed on again and again, they tend to decay from insight into rules, losing their connection to the values they serve. What was once a fresh idea becomes rigid, fixed, and with no obvious point other than obedience.

That’s what’s happened to the Pharisees here. They have forgotten the underlying purpose of the Sabbath and are enforcing a rigid rule the purpose of which is forgotten. It’s a test of conformity, nothing more.

Whereas the apostles, happily munching grain as they stroll through the fields with Jesus, enjoying their friendship and fellowship, have the right idea. That's sabbath done right.

So make time in your life for yourselves. Cultivate a space where you can be you, a time when you can push aside your cares, and enjoy what makes you happy. Because there’s always more work and worry, but that’s not what life is for.

It’s what we work for, those moments with friends, with loved ones, even with just ourselves and whatever it is that centers you.

Cheaper By the Dozen, a memoir about the family of the first efficiency experts, engineers Frank Gilbreth and his wife Lillian Moller Gilbreth, was written by two of their twelve children. The book ends this way:
Someone once asked Dad: "But what do you want to save time for? What are you going to do with it?" 
"For work, if you love that best," said Dad. "For education, for beauty, for art, for pleasure." He looked over the top of his pince-nez. "For mumblety-peg, if that's where your heart lies."
Only you can find your own Sabbath. I’d suggest you get on it, if you haven’t already. It’s wherever your heart lies.

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

[1] After the service, a departing parishioner kindly assured me that Billions is still delicious. I am relieved to hear it.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

“When the Fall is All That’s Left, It Matters”: A Sermon on 1 Sam. 3:1-20



[This Sermon was not delivered, because I wrote it unaware that we would not be using the reading that inspired it, but rather a complementary reading to the others from the Revised Common Lectionary. Still, I think it has some merit, and did not want simply discard it.]

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

Today’s reading from the First Book of Samuel is usually a great opportunity for a rallying sermon about God’s call to us. And we may get there yet.

But, I confess, my attention was diverted from the story of the repeated call of God to the young boy Samuel.

Because today, I am drawn to the tragedy interwoven with the call of Samuel, the first of the great prophets.

It’s a tragedy that reminds me of a great moment in The Lion in Winter, the film that pits Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine against Peter O’Toole as Henry II, and Anthony Hopkins (Richard the Lionheart, of course), John Castle as an oilily plotting Geoofrey, and Nigel Terry (A particularly feckless John) against each other and their parents.

Near the end of the film, the young princes have temporarily banded together, under Eleanor’s direction, in an effort to rebel against their father. Henry outwits them, and has them immured in the wine cellar—“the royal boys are aging with the royal port,” he declaims, while he tries to figure out what to do with them.

As they huddle in the darkening cellar, cooperating for the first time in their lives—it takes teamwork to break through a port barrel and jerry-rig a spigot with only a dagger--and John finally shows he’s good for something.

But then they hear footsteps approaching, and fear that their father is approaching, with revenge on his mind.

Richard refuses to be cowed. “He's here,” he says. “He'll get no satisfaction out of me. He isn't going to see me beg.”

Geoffery scornfully answers him, “you chivalric fool... as if the way one fell down mattered.”
Richard replies, “When the fall is all there is, it matters.”

But back to Samuel, who repeatedly hears God’s call, but who repeatedly mistakes that voice for Eli. Eli , is finally instructed by his mentor, Eli the priest to, on hearing the voice Samuel keeps mistaking for Eli’s, to answer simply, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

Samuel obeys Eli, and when he answers, God says to him:
See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.

On that day I will fulfill against Eli all that I have spoken concerning his house, from beginning to end.

For I have told him that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.

Therefore I swear to the house of Eli that the iniquity of Eli's house shall not be expiated by sacrifice or offering forever.
The next morning, Eli confronts a nervous Samuel, and commands the boy to tell him what the Lord has said.

And, on hearing the doom of his house and family declared, Eli answers simply, “It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him.”

When the fall is all there is, it matters.

Now, Eli has already been warned. His two sons have treated the meat offerings of worshippers to the Lord with contempt, the author tells us, by using them as, essentially, their own private source of rich food. And if any worshippers at the temple refused to give them the meat fresh and unburnt, they took it by force.

Eli, who was already old when this took place, remonstrates with his sons, who, predictably, ignore him. A man of God comes and tells Eli that his entire house will soon be punished—that they will all die, except for one survivor, left behind to weep in despair.

So Eli is not surprised.

Yet he continues to serve in the temple, continues to instruct Samuel, who grows into adulthood, and, on the day that the long-ago promised fall takes place, the now blind ninety-eight year old priest Eli topples to his death upon hearing that the Ark of the Covenant has been taken by the Philistines.

In other words, he falls because the most holy relics of God gathered by Moses have been profaned.

He dies for horror and shame that the temple he—unlike his sons—has served faithfully has itself fallen. His death is quick, and seemingly painless, and he dies of his great love for the God who he served to the end, knowing that the fall would come in retribution for his failures as a parent, not as a priest.

When the fall is all there is, it matters.

Eli serves in the temple for an unspecified number of years from his first warning (when Samuel is a very young child) until his death. But we know that Samuel is an adult at the time of Eli’s death, and yet Samuel’s prophecy that Eli’s house was about to fall had not yet occurred.

It’s so easy to view this story through the lens of modern concepts of justice, and come to the conclusion that God punishes His faithful servant for the acts of his sons, that God is cruel to Eli.

But is that really what happens in the story?

Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of preaching at this service about Romans chapter 8, where St. Paul tells us that all things intermingle for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to his purpose. I reminded you that this saying of St. Paul means that the tragic aspects of life remain tragic, the losses are real, and that pain does not simply cease because we are followers of the Jesus Movement.

Rather, how we, the called, according to God’s purpose, play a part in establishing the pattern of light and dark in our own lives, and those lives we touch. And it is in our response to the call that we get to be active participants in God’s unending, unceasing, untiring efforts to redeem this divided, broken world, which groans in pain.

Witness Eli.

Told that he and his entire family—except for one broken-hearted survivor—will fall, Eli does not respond with bitterness against either his sons or the young prophet he is rearing up to replace him. He does not abandon the temple, does not, as Job’s wife advises him, “curse God, and die.”

No, Eli answers simply "It is the LORD; let him do what seems good to him."

And he continues his service, educating Samuel, praying, performing his priestly duties, even as time robs him of his sight, his body of its strength, and on the darkest day, when the Israelites are driven before the Philistines, he finally falls, falls and dies, his last thought his grieving the loss of the Ark, that most potent of all symbols of the covenant between the Israelites and God.

He dedicates his long life, every day of it, to a life of service, silently rebuking the crimes of his sons, their faithlessness and their selfish, mercenary ways.

And his days are long in the land.

Eli, complicit in the sins of his sons because he did not prevent them, or restrain them, lives a life of love to the God who he has failed as a father.

But not as a priest. He continues in that role until his body quite simply gives out.

And he atones for his failures as a parent by raising Samuel, whose fame will completely eclipse his own reputation, and who is the first of the line of the great prophets, but who learned how to hear the call from Eli, and learned also from Eli to speak the truth, without fear.

Eli’s response—to not reject the God who has told him that he and his family will not, after all, be the channel of revelation, instead selflessly assists in the education, training and formation of the prophet who will replace him.

And in so doing, a dramatic amount of redemption is achieved. Eli is not forgotten. We can’t forget him—without him, Samuel could not recognize God’s call to his own destiny, and so when we encounter Eli it is in that role—the man who, upon learning that he himself will fall, makes the most of the unknown amount of time he has left. Thousands of years have passed, and we are still reading about Samuel—and we can’t read about Samuel without reading about Eli. His choice helped the light to blaze up, and overcome the darker parts of the pattern of his flawed fallible life.

When the fall is all there is, it matters.

We will each and every one of us fall one day. We’re mortal, and we, like Eli, are flawed and fallible. Our lives are finite, oh, so finite, and like Eli before us, we have no idea when that last fall will come. So, like Eli, we must make a decision.

Not a decision to be free of sin—of failure, or regret. We can’t achieve that.

Not a decision to leave behind us great accomplishments that will fade with the memories of those who knew us, loved us, or not, as the case may be.

No, I can’t help but think that for us here today, a first step in answering the call while recognizing our own weaknesses and failings, is found in the words of Henri Frédéric Amiel, as my own mentor Bill Tully used to quote to us so often:

Life is short and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who are traveling the dark journey with us. So be swift to love, make haste to be kind.

After all, when the fall is all there is, it matters.

In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.