The Hereditary Grand Falconer-Delfico

The  Hereditary Grand Falconer-Delfico
The Model for the Maitre d'Armes

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Disengagement to Marry

According to Rod Dreher:
Father Patrick Reardon, pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, has just released the following statement:

"Because the State of Illinois, through its legislature and governor’s office, have now re-defined marriage, marriage licenses issued by agencies of the State of Illinois will no longer be required (or signed) for weddings here at All Saints in Chicago.

Those seeking marriage in this parish will be counseled on the point.

Father Pat"

No longer be required or signed. No recognition of the state’s authority over marriage. One is reminded of Alasdair Macintyre’s famous remark about the decline of the Western Roman Empire:

"A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium."

I could be wrong, but it sounds like the pastor of All Saints parish has concluded that the continuation of civility and moral community no longer has anything to do with shoring up the American civil order, and in fact depends on repudiating it in the matter of marriage.
Well, that's one approach, I suppose.

Look, it is the right of any religious sect to choose to get out of the secular marriage business. If this is the beginning of a trend, so be it. I confess that it seems a little petulant--particularly if Dreher is reading Father Reardon's motivation correctly--in that civil marriage has always diverged, in this country, from sacramental marriage. Indeed, in many Christian denominations, marriage isn't a sacrament. Period. Moreover, divorce has long been more readily available under secular law than under the rules of many traditionalist Christian sects, not to mention the rules of other faiths.

Oh, yes. Other faiths. Faiths that have very different definitions of marriage and its meaning.

But let's be charitable here, and assume that Fr, Reardon is not applying Macintyre's lines here. He just wants out, either to prevent a claim that his parish be required to conduct a wedding outside of the framework of its faith (which I an quite sure would not be upheld by the courts, even if tried), or to avoid complicity in the doings of the state.

Or even assume Dreher reads Fr. Reardon aright.

He should live and be well.

I think he's wildly wrong, mind you. I believe full civil marriage equality is coming sooner than I thought. And in my own Diocese, it's already here, for which I am glad. My marriage shouldn't, in my view, be privileged by La Caterina's and my gender. That said, I value religious freedom for others as well as for myself. That includes, in my opinion, the right to not exercise a religion,as either agnostic or atheist, and the right to exercise religions with which I have little or no common ground.

And that includes, of course, the right not to serve as an agent of the state in weddings.

So, it's not how I would react, but just as I respected the right of those clergy who decided not to perform weddings until equal marriage was the law of New York State, it's my duty to recognize the converse right of those who hold opposite views to disengage.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

A Third Thomas

I don't normally recycle my own posts, but here's one that I think is worth revisiting in view of today's Gospel reading, the story of Thomas the Doubter.

I write this just an hour before it is the Feast Day of St. Thomas the Apostle. St Thomas is, of course, commonly thought of as "Doubting Thomas" based on John 20:24-28.

But I'd like to point out a different aspect of Thomas tonight. In John 11:7-16, when Jesus is called back to Judea to Lazarus's death-bed, the following takes place:
Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’
Think about that, because to me it's the flip side of Thomas' doubt. Thomas believes that Jesus is going into danger--his death--and that this danger will engulf them all. He answers with a fatalistic courage that would do a Norse saga hero like Skarp-hedin proud, "Let us also go, that we may die with Him." Pretty good, that. St. Thomas may have been slow to accept the tale his friends told of the Risen Lord, but he had a clear-sighted vision of what was to come in the return to the environs of Jerusalem, and of what it might cost him.

And walked in with eyes open, and no expectation that he would walk out.

One More Thought About Dreher

I've already said my piece abut Rod Dreher's massive overreaction to the notion that pro-GLBT rights people will use their First Amendment rights to criticize individuals and businesses who express their own opposition to marriage equality.

On reflection, I have a few additional thoughts, which I am adding because it troubles me to see the usually thoughtful Dreher, like some others, become so obdurate and viscerally angry on a subject that is only incidentally about religion or theology.

Underlining his thinking in the pieces I linked Thursday are, I believe two errors that undermine his arguments quite substantially.

First, Tribalism. Dreher exults in a "win" for a Catholic school teacher disciplined for ant-gay Facebook posts (she began a post "See, this is the agenda" and stated "they want to reengineer Western civ into a slow extinction") and the money raised by sympathizers--some who support GLBT equality--for Memories pizza after Yelp commenters posted hostile comments due to an interview in which the proprietor said he would not cater a gay wedding. In both cases, Dreher is gleeful about expression on his side of the argument, while horrified by those who disagree.

In other words, only one side of the discussion has a moral right to be aired for Dreher. It's all about cultural hegemony for him.

This bespeaks the second error. An absolute failure of the moral imagination. In the post I quoted Thursday, Dreher even analogized the criticism of businesses and individuals who opposed SSM to the Holocaust--carefully not predicting a Holocaust, but claiming the anger came from the same root: "The Holocaust was an extraordinary event. Nobody knows the future, but let me say on the record that I don’t believe we face that. But just because social demonization of the Other only very rarely turns into something like the Holocaust does not mean that it does not exact a terrible cost on the weak."

Invoking the Holocaust against critics of those who support the right of legal equality for a minority group who were a major target of persecution in the actual Holocaust shows that Dreher has really lost the thread here. This is especially so where legal equality has required a long, bitter struggle, and has only recently come into sight. Until United States v. Windsor, federal law mandated unequal treatment of spouses married to members of the same gender in states which had enacted marriage equality. Likewise, until Hollingsworth v. Perry, a state constitutional right to equal marriage could be overturned by ballot initiative. For heaven's sake, until Lawrence v. Texas, gays could be ailed for the crime of consensual sex, while straights had autonomy rights to protect them. Proposition 8, by the way, involved in Hollingsworth, succeeded in part due to the Mormon Church's donations and advocacy, in league with that of the Roman Catholic Church. Along the way, traditionalists have damaged the reputation of Christianity itself.

Despite that, Dreher makes no effort whatsoever to take into account the lived experiences of those whose equality is up for debate, or even to view those with whom he disagrees from a Christian perspective. If he had made such an effort the incredible bad taste and inappropriateness of the analogy would be self-evident. Dreher has internalized, and thus treats as non-controversial, the very othering he complains of--as long as it is limited to gays.

I try to read writers from a different perspective than my own, whether politically or theologically, to see the flaws in my own thinking. I value good disagreement, and have learned from it--there are examples of readers of this blog who have materially enriched my perspective by disagreeing with me.

Dreher needs to hear the other side, and to trust in God, I think, a bit more. Not easy, I admit, when you are losing an argument you believe is critically important. I go to that place of spiky defensiveness, too, and from the other political pole. But Julian of Norwich has it right: "All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well."

(Quotation corrected.)

Friday, April 10, 2015

A Tale of Two Thomases

The adaptation of Hilary Mantel's novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies has sparked much debate; in particular Roman Catholic Bishops Mark Davies and Mark O'Toole have been scathing:
But yesterday two bishops publicly attacked the drama for its depiction of St Thomas, a martyr who was canonised in 1935 and who was made patron saint of politicians by St John Paul II in 2000.

Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury said: “We should remember Wolf Hall is a work of fiction. It is an extraordinary and perverse achievement of Hilary Mantel and BBC Drama to make of Thomas Cromwell a flawed hero and of St Thomas More, one of the greatest Englishmen, a scheming villain.

“It is not necessary to share Thomas More’s faith to recognise his heroism – a man of his own time who remains an example of integrity for all times. It would be sad if Thomas Cromwell, who is surely one of the most unscrupulous figures in England’s history, was to be held-up as a role model for future generations.”

Bishop Mark O’Toole of Plymouth said there was a “strong anti-Catholic thread” in the series, which stars Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance as Cromwell and Damien Lewis as Henry VIII.

“Those modern parallels need to be cautiously drawn,” said Bishop O’Toole. “Hilary Mantel does have this view that being a Catholic is destructive to your humanity. It is not historically accurate and it is not accurate in what the Catholic faith has to contribute to society and to the common good as a whole.

“There is an anti-Catholic thread there, there is no doubt about it. Wolf Hall is not neutral.”

Bishop O’Toole said: “The picture of More is dark. More was a man of his time and heresy was the big sin, really, it was the big wrong on both sides. It is hard for us in our modern mentality to see it as wrong. They looked on heretics as we look upon drug traffickers. But it is inaccurate to say that he (St Thomas) condemned people to death.

“The other side which I think is dark, which it doesn’t give, are the things Erasmus describes – his enlightened family life, the fact that he did educate his daughters.”
Now, Mantel's novels are, as works of fiction, extremely well written, and compelling. They take Cromwell as the viewpoint figure, and More is seen in a very different light than in Robert Bolt's A Man for all Seasons, an equally well wrought drama, one which has cemented the legend of More as an enlightened, humane man averse to the forcing of anyone's conscience.

In Bolt, Cromwell is depicted as a soulless thug, an enforcer of the King's will whose efforts to save More's life are pragmatic--he fears the King's conscience will lead him, ultimately, to avenge More. Mantel portrays Cromwell as genuinely reluctant for More to be executed. He is the King's faithful servant, but strives to act prudently, and with a minimum of violence.

It should be noted that Mantel's view is based on the writings of, among others, Geoffrey Elton, of whom Derek Wilson writes:
The last 50 years have seen great shifts in the reputation of this man about whom, despite his importance, we still know remarkably little. Indeed it is the enigma behind the public figure which provides such rich pickings for novelists. Elton’s presentation of Cromwell as an administrative genius who single-handedly transformed a ‘medieval’ system of household government into a ‘modern’ bureaucracy was vigorously (in some cases bitterly) challenged by his peers. This somewhat esoteric debate over the nature of institutional change was significant in that it served to highlight the importance of the 1530s. England on the day after Cromwell’s execution, we now realise, was a vastly different place from the England that had awoken to the news of Cardinal Wolsey’s death.

But who was responsible for this transformation? That was the next question exercising the minds of rival theorists. Were the royal supremacy, the extinguishing of monasticism, the stripping of the altars, the growing involvement of Parliament, the disposing of ecclesiastical lands to a rising ‘middle class’, the promulgation of vernacular Bibles, et al, all innovations springing from the creative mind of the Putney brewer’s son, or was the minister, at all times, carrying out the policies of his royal master? Can we even think in terms of ‘policy’. Once Henry had set in train his plans to divest himself of his first wife did all the other changes follow inevitably, like a line of collapsing dominoes?

No one was, rightly, prepared to accept the concept of the English Reformation as a haphazard series of events over which no one had effective control. Therefore there must have been a mind behind it. Either Henry VIII was working to a caesaropapistical schema or Cromwell had a vision for a new England which he tried, with considerable success, to manoeuvre his master into endorsing. But ‘vision’ implies religious conviction and there was always a school of thought that clung to the pre-Elton assertion that Cromwell was a ‘Machiavellian’, by which was meant that his actions were governed by realpolitik, with no regard for morality or human sentiment. Thus, for example, he only brought down the abbeys to enrich the king and he cunningly allied himself with the New Learning in order to give his policies an aura of intellectual respectability. Any attempt to defend Cromwell’s reputation was always hampered by the fact that he never declared a clear personal statement of his own convictions. Even so, there remain few historians who would now sign up to the Bismarckian stereotype. If Cromwell did not write his own apologia pro vita sua, there were friends and other contemporary chroniclers whose letters and books provide details of conversations and actions that reveal attractive facets of his character. Moreover Cromwell lived in an age when people did hold religious beliefs – often passionately. Were it otherwise there could have been no Reformation.
Elton's England Under the Tudors maintains that Henry, not Cromwell, wanted More dead, writing that
Cromwell seems to have had a real liking for More whose integrity, personal charm, gentle determination, and miserable fate make him the most attractive figure of the early sixteenth century (not a difficult achievement.). . . . In any case, Cromwell probably realized the folly of a policy which made martyrs of these well-known men.
(P. 139). More recent biographers like John Schofield and Tracy Borman build on Elton's research to excavate a much more attractive figure than the Cromwell written by Bolt and masterfully enacted by Leo McKern.

And, with all respect to the bishops, More certainly was responsible for the death of heretics. Six "heretics" were burned under More's administration, and he was personally engaged in the proceedings of at least three. As More admirer Steven Smith acknowledges:
More [wrote in a letter] that he is content to leave every man to his own conscience and that they should leave him to his. But in fact, in his various offices, and especially as Lord Chancellor, More actively persecuted and prosecuted Protestant dissenters and in some cases approved their execution. As [biographer] Peter Ackroyd explains, "his opponents were genuinely following their consciences," but More "truly believed that Lutherans to be 'daemonum satellites' ('agents of the demons'), who must, if necessary, be destroyed by burning."
More did not merely do what his office demanded; he pursued the heretics zealously, exceeding both the efforts of his predecessor Wolsey and the king's own wishes. On occasion, he attempted to apprehend a wayward preacher toward whom the king was well disposed, hoping to act quickly before the king's leniency might step in to save the hapless heretic.
Steven D. Smith, "Interrogating Thomas More: The Conundrums of Conscience,"1 Univ. St. Thomas L.J. 580, 596-597, 598 (2003).

And a reading of the rhetoric deployed by More in his debates with Martin Luther is rather shocking--his essays are studded with invective, both violent and scatological (At one point he calls Luther "a turd from the devil's anus," to give one example). He wasn't Paul Scofield any more than he was Anton Lesser.

My point isn't to choose Mantel over Bolt, Cromwell over More--nor to choose the other way, for that matter. These were two very complex men in a world that was substantially different from ours in some ways, substantially similar in others. Both played power politics, and, ultimately, lost. Cromwell gave us much of what is great in the Reformation, while bearing responsibility for some of its early excesses. More played a part in violent repression of the reformers for as long as he could. He also gave us a noble example of personal courage and grace under terrible circumstances, and a vision of justice that is worth study even now.

Neither was a plaster saint nor a melodrama's devil.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Panic Attack: Rod Dreher and Overreaction

In the week since Indiana amended its Religious Freedom Restoration Act "to clarify that this new judicial standard would not create a license to discriminate or to deny services to any individual as its critics have alleged," there has been a--how to put this charitably--a freakout on the part of Rod Dreher over at the American Conservative about the impending death of religious liberty. To take but one example:
Liberal values like tolerance and pluralism, to which gay rights campaigners have long appealed, were a ruse. Don’t you believe it when the other side appeals to them. They have the power now, and they’re using it to demonize all dissent. It’s here, and where it is not now, it will be soon. Handwriting, meet wall.

To me, the most chilling thing of all this is what the Irish psychiatrists have said. Why? It brought me back to the year 2000, when I was in Jerusalem, and visited the museum at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial. There was an exhibit at the time tracing how the German media and medical establishment paved the way for the Holocaust in the early 20th century by taking advantage of the country’s mania for hygiene, and defining Jews as parasites on the body politic. The health of the German people meant ridding the body of Jews and other parasites.

The exhibit was stunning, because it showed how the mass persecutions didn’t come from nowhere. For twenty, thirty years, the German medical, political, and media establishments prepared the German people for it by training them to think that Germany needed to be turned into a “safe space” for das Volk, and to do that required expelling from public life the demons that threatened the health of innocent Germans. It was not about that at all, of course, but about rationalizing hatred of the Other — a hatred that eventually turned into an apocalypse.

Am I saying a new Holocaust is coming? No, I am not. The Holocaust was an extraordinary event. Nobody knows the future, but let me say on the record that I don’t believe we face that. But just because social demonization of the Other only very rarely turns into something like the Holocaust does not mean that it does not exact a terrible cost on the weak.

(Actually, the freakout has been evident elsewhere on the right, too, but I'm picking Dreher because when he isn't trumpeting the Apocalypse, he can write irenic and touching pieces about faith.)

Seriously, this is arrant nonsense. First and foremost, as Dreher's own commenters point out--with nary an acknowledgment from him--his facts are wildly wrong. He cites as examples of oppression medical professionals complaining that the research anti-SSM advocates are citing does not comport with the current state of scholarship. One Catholic school has ended playing against another over their different views on the topic. Aye, that's real Vlad the Impaler stuff.

Basically, Dreher's position is that traditionalist Christians should not face criticism, should note lose face, for their disparate treatment of GLBT people. Again, arrant nonsense. (I'm starting to sound a bit Jon Pertwee, here, but, c'mon.) Neither Free Speech nor Free Exercise insulates you from criticism or others rejecting your views, or even you along with them. Dreher's rights do not trump my right to think poorly of what is, to my mind, a grotesque distortion of Christian orthodoxy.

And I do. As I have written elsewhere, the selection of the so-called "clobber passages" on same sex attraction as the hallmark of Christian orthodoxy over, say, the prohibition agains usury--adverted to more than three times as often in the Bible than homosexuality, by any measure-makes the peripheral (at best) central, and marginalizes the core of Jesus's teaching. It's "interpretation in support of what is most comfortable to the interpreter." It's off-shoring the cost of discipleship, by defining morality as that which is congruent with the culture with which the interpreter is comfortable. In sum, Christianity on the cheap.

Dreher does not ever engage with the belief of orthodox and traditional Christians like me--I'm a Nineteenth Century Lux Mundi Anglo-Catholic who says the Creed without crossing his fingers at any point--who believe that recognizing the legitimacy of the lives, love and ministry of our GLBT sisters and brothers is part of the Gospel imperative. Nope. All evil liberal secularists, out to destroy faith, despite the fact that theologically we agree on quite a lot.

But the irony is this: the whole reason RFRAs became a thing is that in Employment Division v. Smith, the conservative wing of the Supreme Court--then comprising Scalia, Rehnquist, White, Stevens (Ok, he's a moderate-to-liberal), O'Connor, and Kennedy, in an opinion by Scalia, overturned a bunch of Warren Court precedents that allowed for some accommodation to avoid substantial burdens on free exercise of religion resulting from laws of general applicability. It was the liberals on the Court--Brennan, Marshall, and Blackmun--who voted for some degree of accommodation for religious practice.

So much for the evil liberal secularists.

Look, the point is quite simple: the Christian Right showed absolutely no desire to compromise when it thought it had the upper hand in the culture wars. With rare exceptions like Peter Ould, traditionalist Christians did not call out the abusive rhetoric on their side. Indeed, many re-aligning American Anglicans chose to affiliate with the Church of Nigeria, which supported jailing gays and those who advocated for their rights. And think of Proposition 8 in California, or the North Carolina same sex marriage amendment. All of these come at a cost. As Rachel Held Evans
pointed out:
When asked by The Barna Group what words or phrases best describe Christianity, the top response among Americans ages 16-29 was “antihomosexual.” For a staggering 91 percent of non-Christians, this was the first word that came to their mind when asked about the Christian faith. The same was true for 80 percent of young churchgoers. (The next most common negative images? : “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” and “too involved in politics.”)


In the book that documents these findings, titled unChristian, David Kinnaman writes:

“The gay issue has become the ‘big one, the negative image most likely to be intertwined with Christianity’s reputation. It is also the dimensions that most clearly demonstrates the unchristian faith to young people today, surfacing in a spate of negative perceptions: judgmental, bigoted, sheltered, right-wingers, hypocritical, insincere, and uncaring. Outsiders say [Christian] hostility toward gays...has become virtually synonymous with the Christian faith.”

Later research, documented in Kinnaman’s You Lost Me, reveals that one of the top reasons 59 percent of young adults with a Christian background have left the church is because they perceive the church to be too exclusive, particularly regarding their LGBT friends. Eight million twenty-somethings have left the church, and this is one reason why.
As the support for legal equality grew, conservatives turned to RFRAs, which ameliorate the conservative majoritarian reading of the First Amendment.

But exemptions that swallow anti-discrimination law are deeply problematic, and go beyond the liberal jurisprudence overruled by Scalia et al. A discussion of what exemptions should be allowed is a legitimate and important one. But it should be had with a little grace, and a little willingness to see the other side's perspective. Comparing having to live under the First Amendment regime prescribed by Scalia and his colleagues as the culmination of a left-wing plot, and dark hints at the Holocaust are discrediting to Dreher, not his interlocutors. Some of the Christian virtues of charity might be helpful here.

Or, as Sgt. Hulka might say:

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Agency Principle: A Sermon on John 13:1-17, 31b-35 Maundy Thursday, April 2, 2015

“Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.”

And so we come to the last great hinge of the Gospels—from the ministry of Jesus to the story of the Passion and the Resurrection. That’s what Maundy Thursday is, isn’t it? Up until now, Jesus has been healing the sick, teaching the crowds and feeding the people. He’s fed those hungry for the good news of God’s love and those hungry in the more literal sense. All along, in the Fourth Gospel, he’s been debating the authorities. Those debates are important—they’re about what God wants from us, what are God’s commandments to us. The Pharisees and scribes, the lawyers like me, have pointed out chapter and verse of the law. Jesus has answered back by pointing to the spirit of the law.

A woman taken in adultery? The law prescribes death. Jesus answers: Whoever is without sin may enforce that law.

Chalk that round up to the Spirit.

Raymond Brown, perhaps the greatest scholar of John’s Gospel, calls this part of the Gospel, Jesus’s ministry to the People The Book of Signs. The rest—the Last Supper, the Passion, the Resurrection—Father Brown names The Book of Glory.

We’re at the hinge right here, in tonight’s reading. We’ve heard the debates, we’ve eaten of the loaves and fishes, we’ve maybe hefted a rock, about to throw it at a terrified, helpless victim—and we’ve dropped it, ashamed.

What now? How does Jesus use this last night of peace, the proverbial eye of the storm?

He realizes that we’re still too dense to take onboard what he’s saying, we need him to demonstrate his teachings in a way we can’t fail to get. Jesus redefines what authority is, what it means to be a teacher and what it means to be Lord. He looks over his friends—his scruffy, well-meaning friends, including the brothers who argue over who will sit at Jesus’s side when that Twelve are enthroned in heaven, and the one who will leave in a scant few hours to sell him out. No, still not getting it.

So he, their Lord, their teacher, the Man in whose eyes they see God, kneels to them, and washes the dirt off their feet.
That image is so powerful that it’s uncomfortable for many people. Including me. I’ve been to a service where my feet were washed exactly once. I felt self-conscious, unworthy to be served in that strangely intimate way.


That’s the point.

Maundy Thursday is not comfortable, because it’s where Jesus finally demonstrates what God wants of us in an image we can’t escape.

We serve.

The word “Maundy” is old French for “mandate”—command. That is what the night is named for. Not the Last Supper, not the institution of the Eucharist, but Jesus’s making explicit his command to all who would follow him, all who want to walk the Way with him: We serve.

Jesus says so, quite plainly: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
And that love is to take concrete form, as Jesus’s washing of his disciple’s feet was concrete and practical. “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

In other words, we serve. We don’t just think lovely thoughts, or say kind things. We tie a towel around our waist, we get our hands dirty, our love is to be in concrete, not theoretical, form.

We are messengers, servants, of Jesus, he reminds us tonight, and that means we aren’t more important than he is. Well. Not many people think they’re greater than Jesus—even John Lennon’s crack that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus” was meant ironically. So if He can humble himself to serve the mundane needs of his friends—like Martha, serving the guests while her sister Mary listens and learns from Jesus—then that’s what we’re supposed to do, too.

Listening and learning have their place, but so does Martha’s practical activity. Mary may have chosen the better part at the moment Jesus was present and teaching, but Martha has something to teach us about how to implement Jesus’s last command to his disciples, and through them, to us. See a need we are especially equipped to meet, meet that need. Jesus has set us an example of what we are meant to do. We are, to use a legal term, his agents. That means we proceed under his directions, doing what he would have us do.

And so, we serve.

I’m not recommending an outbreak of spontaneous foot-washing in church every Sunday—and the Rector’s not the only one to be relieved, I’m pretty sure, to hear that. No, Jesus is telling us not to be too proud to serve in whatever capacity we can make a difference. If he can kneel to his students and perform the most humble tasks for them, then we can’t be led by ambition.
So we find the service that we are suited for. Not the service that makes us feel powerful, or important, but what we can be most useful at. But not in as if we’re worthless or useless either. Humility isn’t about self-hatred, or self-disparagement; it’s about being right-sized. Knowing our talents and weaknesses, and being clear-sighted about who we are. And then, in the light of that self-knowledge, finding out where we are called to be. And where is that? The theologian Frederick Buechner said that “[t]he place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

I believe that this is what Jesus is telling us to do. To get over ourselves, figure who we are at heart, and find a way to make our truest, best selves useful. So, it’s ok if you don’t want to literally wash feet or have your feet washed. Let’s just not be too proud to turn down the opportunity to use what we have to offer.

And so Maundy Thursday answers a question implied the collect for Monday in Holy Week: Mercifully grant, we asked, that we, walking in the way of the Cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.

How can that be? We follow Jesus’s example, but God knows our limits, and asks us to do that which we are made for. To come home to our true selves. And then to love each other in a way that matters.

We serve.

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

Friday, April 3, 2015

"It is Finished": The Beginning-- A Good Friday Meditation

(Photo by Millard Cook, 2014)

I again had the honor of preaching at the Liturgy of the Seven Last Words at my home parish,St Bartholomew's Church. The other preachers were exceptional this year, and the fact that it is Buddy Stalling's last Good Friday as Rector, added an emotional layer to the day.

You can actually hear my meditation here. The text follows:


It is Finished”

A Meditation on John 19:30
St. Bartholomew’s Church, Good Friday
April 3, 2015

John Wirenius

Many years ago, when I was a boy, the first book I read that wasn’t written specifically for children was T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. It retells the story of King Arthur, whose Round Table White sees as an effort to overcome the notion that Might makes Right. Might makes Right was seemingly triumphant in White’s own time—he wrote as the Second World War was getting under way.

The book ends, as every re-telling of the King Arthur story must, in tragedy: The Round Table is split, the best are killed and scattered, and nobody is quite sure what happened to Arthur, “that gentle heart and centre of it all,” lost in a futile battle he struggles to prevent. But he, and his friends, are remembered by White as having “tried, in their own small way, to still the ancient brutal dream of Attila the Hun.”

At the bottom of the last page, are two simple words: The Beginning.

Not “The End.”

I always remember that on Good Friday. The battle’s lost, Might triumphant, the forces of light scattered or simply dead. And White, off to join the war effort, ends the book with a simple request: “Pray for Thomas Malory, Knight,” who compiled the Arthur stories into a coherent tale, “and for his humble disciple”—that’s White—“who now voluntarily lays aside his books to fight for his kind.”

He didn’t expect to come back, you see. But as he lay aside his books, he wrote: “The Beginning,” anyway.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus says “It is finished” with his last breath. He says it from the Cross to which he was sentenced for opposing the exploitation of the poor pilgrims who came to Jerusalem, for helping people on the Sabbath, for preaching love to a world that was governed by hate, and by law.

The late, great historian Marcus Borg called the Roman order in Jerusalem where occupier and occupied united to crush the presumptuous prophet from Galilee an “imperial domination system.” Today we commemorate that system’s crushing, seemingly final, victory.

Jesus took on the powers and principalities of this world, and they put him to death in the most barbaric way the ancient world had designed—a slow death by suffocation, shameful, surrounded by mocking crowds. Those who hated Jesus are there to gloat. Almost worse, those who didn’t know him were just there for the show, as a public entertainment, like Victorians attending a public hanging, and betting on who lasts longest, while they picnic.

Jesus dies, the imperial domination system wins.

Every telling of the story of Jesus has to have that dark victory.
It’s part of the arc of the story. A great scholar of Jesus’s life, John Meier, says that the uncomfortable fact of that victory is part of how we can be sure he lived—nobody would make up a Messiah who sets the people alight with hope, only to have him die a shameful agonizing death, the end.

And Jesus says just that, doesn’t he. “It is finished.” “Finis.” "The End."

But what was finished?

Jesus’s ministry? His life? A ritual sacrifice, as the mid-twentieth century scholar C.H. Dodd suggests? Or is Raymond Brown, perhaps the greatest expert on the Fourth Gospel, right when he says that Jesus’s last words from the Cross are “a cry of victory,” a triumphant shout that he has defeated the powers and principalities by enacting his role as sacrifice to the very end?

That doesn’t feel right today, as we grieve in front of the black-draped, rough wood of the Cross, as we hear the choir ravage our souls with some of the most heartbreaking hymns and anthems composed in the nearly two thousand years since Jesus’s death—

And wait just a second, there.

Where is the power of the Caesars today? Who would have heard of Pontius Pilate other than a few obscure Latinists if he hadn’t made it into the Creed?

Here we stand in New York City, in 2015, in a building hallowed to that presumptuous prophet who gave his life not just to oppose an imperial domination system, not just to point a better way to live, but to point the way to wholeness of soul. Don’t take that from me; it’s in the opening chapter of John’s Gospel: “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” In the same chapter of the Gospel that first calls Jesus the Son of God, we are called to be Daughters and Sons of God.

And that Way—because that’s what the early Christians called it, not a creed but a way of life—has outlasted the Roman Empire in which it grew, and the rise and fall of a myriad of other empires. Domination systems—imperial or not—come and go. Through them all, pilgrims walk the Way.

So—a shout of victory? Not quite that, I think; the cost is too high—both on that day at Golgotha and in innocent blood since. No, not triumphant jubilation, exactly, but recognition that the world has changed forever.

Because what is finished is the notion that these domination systems will ever go unchallenged again. Jesus’s teachings are too subversive to sit well with exploitation, even when done in the name of God by self-professed Christians.

Jesus, in his words, and in the breaking of the bread and in the liturgy, keeps reminding us of who we are—and who we aren’t. In our hearts, we are not citizens of the Empire, whatever form it takes in our day. We just live in it.

In the moment of that terrible death, Jesus knew that one story was reaching a terrible and yet triumphant conclusion, ending in victory despite the tragic cost.

But he also knew that this story was not the end in itself. In the mysterious explosion we call Easter, Jesus on this day kindled the fire at which believers could, to paraphrase the Anglican martyr Hugh Latimer, light such a candle, by God’s grace, in all the world, as we trust shall never be put out.

And so the story ends.

It is finished.

The Beginning.