The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, March 11, 2018

“For God So Loved the World” A Sermon on John 3:14-21

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church, NYC, March 11, 2018.]

So here we are, past the halfway point in Lent, and wondering what to make of these last few weeks before we commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus.

A few years ago, Martin Sheen starred in a film called “The Way,” a fictional story based on a real pilgrimage, the Camino de Santiago—the Way of St. James, made every year by hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world, to the shrine of St. James the Great, the brother of John, the "beloved disciple," traditionally the author of today's Gospel. In the film, the hardships and companionship of the pilgrimage open up the mind and heart of those who walk the way.

Lent can be, if we let it, just such a pilgrimage. And as every pilgrimage must have a destination, so too does our Lenten way: Jerusalem.

And, in fact, the pull of the readings over these past weeks has been to point us, along with the disciples, toward Jerusalem. Toward that brief, shining, joyous triumphal entry into the City. And toward the Last Supper, where Jesus promotes the disciples from “servants” to “friends,” and, in a shocking gesture of humility their Master—their teacher, that is—washed their feet. Their apprenticeship, he is saying, is over.

But also this pilgrimage leads to the Garden, where Jesus is betrayed and arrested, and then betrayed again, this time by Peter, and then—to the Cross. And yes, of course, ultimately to Easter but first we have to grapple with the way to the Cross, through the past few weeks’ reading.

Two weeks ago, Jesus rebuked Peter in the harshest terms when he tried to turn Jesus away from the path of suffering and death. Last week, after driving out the merchants and moneychangers from the Temple, Jesus spoke of his death and resurrection, in terms of the Temple’s destruction.

And now in the readings appointed for today, we are invited to see Jesus in the bronze serpent that was lifted up to cure the Israelites whose complaints along the way in their pilgrimage from slavery to freedom caused God to punish them by sending poisonous snakes among them. Well, to heal the ones who hadn’t already died from the snakebite, anyway.

And in the Gospel reading we flash back to almost the very beginning of Jesus’s ministry, so that we can be told of the judgment that we are to face at the end of our own journeys. But we are also given the key to the whole pilgrimage, laid out clearly for us, so that we can view the whole story, looking back briefly, before we continue on our own journey to Jerusalem.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

So often we hear of Christian teachers condemning those whose lives they decry as “unbiblical,” breaking fellowship with other Christians for being too lax, turning a dour expression upon high spirits or frivolity of any kind. Urging us to fear the world, to distrust it, to pull away from it, in case we become unclean by association with—well, pick your target. There are more than enough to go around.

Now Lent may seem an odd time for me to preach against asceticism. And in fact, I’m not preaching against asceticism in general, but against asceticism for its own sake. The great ascetics withdrew from the world not out of hatred of it, or fear, but because they knew from their own personal experience, that their love of the world and its joys made it harder for them to fulfill their own unique callings from God—to become their own best selves, to love God and their neighbors, and to do the work that they were born to do, to translate that love into action.

Sometimes we need to simplify our lives to understand what’s important. Nearly fifteen years ago, I lost my home, most of the books and other possessions I had spent my whole life gathering together. All but a very few were gone forever.

The shocking thing was the realization that that I had not in fact lost anything that I in fact needed.

Much that I had loved, but nothing I had needed. And the loss of those lesser loves clarified my life so that I could see what was in front of me, a new path that led me to be able to hear the call to serve in our church.

So asceticism isn’t a good in itself; it’s a stripping away of the incidental to see the essential. A turning down of the noise to let the small still voice of the Spirit rise up. But don’t take my word for it;
let me repeat those words of Jesus again:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

And the Evangelist goes further still, quoting Jesus as saying “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

The point of our pilgrimage to the Cross isn’t to suffer for suffering’s sake. It isn’t to despise the crowd that we will soon represent in the Palm Sunday Passion drama. It’s to see in the world what we have missed, that the judgment has come, and it’s not imposed on us by God—we are not, contrary to Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” who dangles us, like a loathsome spider over a flame, by a strand of our own web.

Now, that’s dramatic Eighteenth Century preaching, and I’m sure it was the collection plate was especially heavy that day, but it’s bad theology. And not at all biblical.

No; the judgment is self-imposed. As Jesus says, “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”

Jesus tells us that “those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God,” so we know that those of us who can feel securely righteous can just bravely stride out into the light, sure of our reward.

But what keeps people in the dark, rather than in the light?

We could easily write off the people who hesitate to approach the light as the obviously evil, malevolent and manipulative, enjoying being the villains of the piece. But Jesus’s words about them give me pause.

He says: “all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.”

In other words, they’re ashamed. They’re afraid. They don’t believe themselves to be worthy. Or, worse, they believe their errors, their sins, make them beyond forgiveness.

Or, as I was told early in my sobriety, I suffered from delusions of terminal uniqueness—that everybody else could find forgiveness and reconciliation, but not me. Telling your story at an AA meeting—will help you see this—I forced myself to talk about what I saw as the darkest, worst moments of my life, only to be surprised when the room rocked with laughter—not mocking, derisive laughter, but laughter with the attitude, “That all you got, kid?”

The laughter of those who’d been through the same, or worse.

And that experience is far from unique. In his semi-autobiographical novel The Light and the Dark, C.P. Snow depicts his closest friend Charles Allberry, as searching yearningly for God, but not being able to believe. But he’s come close on two occasions, as Snow has his fictional counterpart Roy Calvert say: “I’ve had the absolute conviction—it’s much more real than anything one can see or touch—that God and His world exist. And that everyone can enter and find their rest. Except me. I’m infinitely far away for ever. I am alone and infinitesimally small—and I can’t come near.”

It’s far more common than you may think. Maybe you’ve heard of “Imposter Syndrome,” which has been described as a persistent nagging belief that one was a fraud, that all our achievements were the result of luck, or seeming to be more competent than we in fact are. And, worst of all, the utter terror that some day, we’ll be found out for the fraud we are.

In case you’re wondering, about 70% of people experience this phenomenon.

So people stay out of the light for reasons that are eminently understandable: shame of sins, actual or exaggerated in the mind, fear of rejection by God. Fear of unworthiness, of having every black thought about themselves vindicated, and their worst fears of who they are be affirmed.

And that’s why Jesus tells his disciples again and again: Be not afraid. And in today’s gospel, he tells us, believe that his mission is not to condemn, but to save, to heal, not to judge.

We sing “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” as a standby at St. Barts—it’s practically our anthem—but maybe we don’t take the lyrics to heart:

“There is no place where earth's sorrows
are more keenly felt than heaven:
there is no place where earth's failings
have such gracious judgment given.”

But it costs us something to accept forgiveness: pride. We have to come forward, in all our imperfections, trusting in the love of our God to see us as we are, flawed and marked by life, worked on by time and events, hurt and in need of healing. We have to trust.

And it is very hard to trust.

But I take comfort from another verse from our hymn:

For the love of God is broader
than the measure of the mind;
and the heart of the eternal
is most wonderfully kind.

And if you have known one person—just one—who has loved you just as you are, unconditionally, or if you have been that person for another—than you know that our mind can rise to that kind of love, and if we can do it, God will do it.

So the judgment is, ultimately, one we pass on ourselves.

We can exile ourselves to the darkness, in self-inflicted fear. Or we can put aside pride, and fear, and step into the Light, knowing, in that wonderful phrase of Leonard Cohen’s, “every heart to love must come—but as a refugee.”

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

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The St. Valentine's Day Massacre: Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin

Well, here we go again.

What's shocking is how unshocking it all is. The well worn kabuki drama in the wake of these mass shootings--30 this year, counting yesterday's--unfolds in almost rote fashion. Politicians offering "thoughts and prayers," but no action. In fact, anyone who demands action is guilty of a knee jerk response, or politicizing a tragedy.

Since the 2012 Sandy Hook mass shooting through yesterday's atrocity at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., 438 people have been shot, 138 killed, in 239 school shootings.

The reaction of the Speaker of the House?
Ryan similarly said the conversation about the Florida shooting shouldn't become a discussion about gun control.

"I don't think that means you then roll the conversation into taking away citizens' rights, taking away a law-abiding citizen's rights," Ryan said. "And so obviously, this conversation typically goes there."
Yes, of course. That's what all the concern is about.

Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin.

Those are the words carved by a mysterious finger on the wall during Belshazzar's Feast. Daniel translated them for the king, explaining the disaster about to befall the King, and giving as the reason: "You have been weighed in the balances, and found wanting."

And Belshazzar rewarded Daniel for telling him the truth, but that very night, the king died, and soon thereafter his kingdom was sundered, and the writing--probably flaked off the wall, over time, or maybe erased to not embarrass the new ruler.

After all, it was so political.


In his opinion for a split court finding that the Second Amendment created an individual right to own weapons, Justice Scalia explained that the right the majority found in the Amendment was not an absolute:
Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. From Blackstone through the 19th-century cases, commentators and courts routinely explained that the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose. See, e.g., Sheldon, in 5 Blume 346; Rawle 123; Pomeroy 152–153; Abbott333. For example, the majority of the 19th-century courts to consider the question held that prohibitions on carrying concealed weapons were lawful under the Second Amendment or state analogues. See, e.g., State v. Chandler, 5 La. Ann., at 489–490; Nunn v. State, 1 Ga., at 251; see generally 2 Kent *340, n. 2; The American Students’ Blackstone 84, n. 11 (G. Chase ed. 1884). Although we do not undertake an exhaustive historical analysis today of the full scope of the Second Amendment , nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.

We also recognize another important limitation on the right to keep and carry arms. Miller said, as we have explained, that the sorts of weapons protected were those “in common use at the time.” 307 U. S., at 179. We think that limitation is fairly supported by the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of “dangerous and unusual weapons.” See 4 Blackstone 148–149 (1769); 3 B. Wilson, Works of the Honourable James Wilson 79 (1804); J. Dunlap, The New-York Justice 8 (1815); C. Humphreys, A Compendium of the Common Law in Force in Kentucky 482 (1822); 1 W. Russell, A Treatise on Crimes and Indictable Misdemeanors 271–272 (1831); H. Stephen, Summary of the Criminal Law 48 (1840); E. Lewis, An Abridgment of the Criminal Law of the United States 64 (1847); F. Wharton, A Treatise on the Criminal Law of the United States 726 (1852). See also State v. Langford, 10 N. C. 381, 383–384 (1824); O’Neill v. State, 16Ala. 65, 67 (1849); English v. State, 35Tex. 473, 476 (1871); State v. Lanier, 71 N. C. 288, 289 (1874).

It may be objected that if weapons that are most useful in military service—M-16 rifles and the like—may be banned, then the Second Amendment right is completely detached from the prefatory clause. But as we have said, the conception of the militia at the time of the Second Amendment ’s ratification was the body of all citizens capable of military service, who would bring the sorts of lawful weapons that they possessed at home to militia duty. It may well be true today that a militia, to be as effective as militias in the 18th century, would require sophisticated arms that are highly unusual in society at large. Indeed, it may be true that no amount of small arms could be useful against modern-day bombers and tanks. But the fact that modern developments have limited the degree of fit between the prefatory clause and the protected right cannot change our interpretation of the right.
(Emphasis added; citations left in to emphasize Scalia's point that regulation is well entrenched in the jurisprudence.)

So we the people are not barred by constitutional law from taking steps through legislation or enforcement of existing laws from trying to ameliorate the harm done by those who abuse the Second Amendment; we are barred only by politics.

So, yes, it's political.

On the national level, our politics are failing. The well-worn script is dusted off, "thoughts and prayers"; "don't politicize a tragedy"; "it's not time yet."

It's never time yet.

But those who object that laws do not automatically compel obedience have a point. We need laws, yes, but we need more, as I wrote in the hours after the Sandy Hook shooting, a cultural change:
But that is not enough. We need a cultural shift, and this is not something the law can do, and that politics can only help a little bit. We need to stop glamorizing guns, and gun culture. We have to not accept that guns are cool, and that killing is manly, or strong, or sexy, or whatever the hell it is that explains our long-term love affair with guns.

We have to cut it right out.

Let me tell you something; I don't hate guns, per se. I played with toy guns as a child; my Uncle Bill taught me to shoot a pistol one summer up in Rhinebeck. It was fun; I enjoyed it. I understand that implements of death can be domesticated.

I fence. Fencing is an athletic discipline that takes what used to be a perversely beautiful, skill-intensive way to kill somebody, and reimagines it as a fun competition. It has not brought back the sword as a major weapon of mayhem. Gun owners, you want to sever that link between your hobby and death. Step up. Draw lines of what is and isn't acceptable behavior. Don't be afraid of bucking the NRA, and keep guns out of places where they don't belong--schools, churches, etc. Shame people who think it's ok to bring guns where they don't belong, and those among you who feel that the omnipresence of guns is the only way to be sure your rights won't be taken away.

As to those who say guns don't kill people, people kill people? Cut it out. Do you have any idea how inane that is? Guns make the difference between working hard to kill one person, or two, and being able to, without discernible skill, talent, or physical or mental stamina, indiscriminately slaughter. It's the difference between retail and wholesale murder, and if you don't know the difference--why, I just don't want to know you.

And remember the murdered.
We aren't changing; a little over 6 years ago, we were shocked as a nation by Sandy Hook. Now? We are saddened, angry, but more than anything else, weary, oh, so damned weary, after Parkland.

This is the second day of Lent, so let me, as a deacon of the Church say this most emphatically clearly: Our culture's indifference to the safety of our children, to all of our people, is a sin. Period. The writing on the wall isn't at all mysterious; we are carving it every day, etching it across schools and churches, legislative halls, across the bodies of our children, across our very souls.

And if we do not repent--that is, re-think who we are and what we value, what will that writing say?

We know. Belshazzar knew in his heart, too--why else would he reward Daniel for telling him his death was imminent?

We will have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

“Coming Down From the Mountain” A Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church, NYC, February 11, 2018]

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

So, you heard it right. Jesus goes up the mountain to pray, and then—something happens.

Something that is hard even for the Evangelists to describe. In tonight’s Gospel, Mark writes that he is “transfigured” and that his clothes become dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” [1]

Luke struggles to describe it, too—the best he can come up with is to say that “while [Jesus] was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” [2]

Matthew adds a new detail—Jesus’s face “shone like the sun.”[3]

In reading these three tellings of the Transfiguration, it’s pretty clear that the Gospel writers are reaching for a way to capture the experience, and not quite succeeding. They don’t know how to put into words the sheer unearthliness of what happens to Peter, John, and James on the mountaintop with Jesus. It’s like trying to catch lightning in a bottle.
But they try to convey this experience for which there are no words—so Jesus’s face just alters, or it shines like the sun, his clothes are whiter than possible on earth. They’re grasping for metaphors to tell us that Jesus the teacher, the rabbi, the wise man, became suddenly very, very Other.

And if that’s not enough, Moses and Elijah appear, talking with Jesus. Not only are these two of the greatest figures in the Hebrew Bible—the lawgiver and the archetype of the prophet—but they’re both figures who were more than a little uncanny, a little unearthly themselves.

Moses, who after he received the tablets of the Law directly from God, came down from the Mountain unaware that his face was shining with an unearthly radiance, and that people could only speak to him if he wore a veil[4]; Elijah, who was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire.[5]

Peter, John, and James are exhilarated and terrified, and frankly who can blame them? Only Peter tries to do anything, and I have to admit, his effort to be helpful—“Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah"—sound like something out of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. In some translations, it's not "dwellings" Peter talks about building, but booths. That's almost better, because it's so futile. Why would Jesus, Elijah, or Moses need booths? To sell lemonade?

It doesn't matter that it's absurd, though; it matters that he wants to be a part of what’s happening, to be useful.

A mysterious cloud covers the mountain, and a voice is heard, saying “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”
And then it’s all over.

No Moses, no Elijah, Jesus back to normal, no booths for Peter to build.

So they go down the mountain, and rejoin the others.


This is the kind of story that makes me realize my own shortcomings. Because I can’t help but think that we Episcopalians, in our Twenty-first Century way, are not comfortable with these moments when the Gospel asks us to step outside of the realm of the senses, and into something—very different.

Something happened. What was it?

We’re handicapped by the fact that we live in a scientific, empirical age. We live by science and technology and it’s enriched our lives in many ways. But not in all ways.

In today's Epistle, Paul warns us of that the cost may be more than we think. That we may be closing ourselves off from a whole realm of experience, because we are so accustomed to the everyday, workaday world around us, that we accept its appearance as our limits.

Or, as Paul writes, “In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”

The god of this world, with a lower case g, not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, or Elijah and Elisha. Of Jesus.

That god is the drab heaviness of routine, the tired hurrying about, the weight of anxiety. That lower-case g-god is the one we were warned about by William Wordsworth:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not

Not too far off from New York City in 2018, is it?

So when we reach a Gospel passage like today’s, it’s easy to write it off as a metaphor. A story. After all, the world we see and touch, the five senses, that’s reality, right?


This stand, holding my notes. To my senses, it’s a single object, solid, hard metal pieces attached to each other.
But basic science—I mean the stuff I learned in high school, so really old fashioned, baby science—tells us that it’s not anything of the kind. It’s a little galaxy of tiny particles in orbit around each other, branching out like a child’s model of the universe. It’s nothing like what it feels like or looks like to us.

But our eyes are blinded to the miraculous by the lower case g god of this world. We take things for granted, as we see them, even when we know they aren’t so.

As a culture, we have lost the sense that the ordinary can transcend itself, that in day-to-day life, there can be moments when the light gets brighter, the air is alive with currents and motes tumbling through sunbeams, and our hearts beat just a bit faster. They come out of nowhere, little moments that we can treasure, or dismiss as a fleeting feeling.
Seven years ago, I had one of those moments in this very church—next door, actually in the main sanctuary. I was sitting in the congregation as the choir sang a new piece of music, Evan Solot’s The Hawk, and suddenly—well, I was a little bit more alive. The music had set something free in me. I felt, in that moment, serene, centered, and at one with my Creator.

That’s not normal for me.

It’s not normal for most of us, I suspect, but many people have moments when they are pulled into alignment with the universe; some have experiences that are even more striking, harder to ignore.

In the Church, we would call these mystical experiences. We are told that the mystical facility is one which everybody has but which few develop. But the lives of the mystics, from Julian of Norwich to Thomas Merton, have shown us that these experiences aren’t to be written off lightly.

They’re not nothing.

In the ancient world people were far more open to these experiences than we moderns are. They write of them without embarrassment, without doubt. They have not called into question their own experiences.
But the Transfiguration isn’t a subtle little intimation of immortality, or an ordinary peak experience. It’s much more dramatic, much bigger, and shared—it’s not just Peter, or John, or James alone who experiences it, or even Jesus—it’s all of them. It has a reality to it that transcends any physical or psychological explanation for its cause.
And it’s not just a feelgood moment. It’s terrifying as well as exhilarating, until the voice speaks and it all just ends. But the disciples remember. They remember well enough that slightly different accounts of the experience appear in 3 out of the 4 Gospels.

But the really important part is what happens next.

They come down from the mountain, and rejoin the day-to-day world.

But in a changed way.

A transformed way.

Dare I say it—a transfigured way.

Those glimpses of beauty, those moments of one-ness—cherish them, hold on to them. I don’t mean try to prolong them, or extend them—I mean remember that you are capable of them.

Because they are our visits to the mountain.

Lent is coming, and the point of it isn’t to suffer; it’s to make room in your heart for the tragedy of Good Friday, the unexpected, inconceivable triumph of Easter Sunday.

Step back from the world while you can, just a little bit. Look for the unexpected grace note—the stranger’s smile, the perfect beauty of the bright-eyed sparrow in the subway station.

Take some time to feel your own heart beat, to savor the moment.

And heartened by the glimpse we come down from the mountain, like the disciples. We rejoin the swim of life, but participate in a new way. Restored, refreshed, encouraged.

Transformed, even if only a little bit.

And, perhaps one day, willing to build that silly booth.

To act, whether wisely or not, out of love.

Because the booth isn’t silly, after all. It’s an act of love, an offered sharing of the self. It’s community ministry’s breakfast feeding program, our overnight shelter. It’s giving some of who you are, what you have, to what you love.
And getting far more in return.

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


1. Mark 9: 2-3.
2. Lk 9: 28-36.
3. Matt 17: 2.
4. Exodus 34: 29-30.
5. 2 Kings 2: 11.

Monday, February 5, 2018

The #MeToo Moment and the Archivist

Professor Catharine A. MacKinnon is justly well known as a scholar and activist; my first published law review article was an argument that the anti-pornography civil rights cause of action that she and the late Andrea Dworkin were advocating for at the time violated the First Amendment. I was impelled to write the piece because, while I strongly disagreed with MacKinnon and Dworkin, I disliked the patronizing and often overtly sexist tone many of their critics took, and I tried to argue the case against the ordinance while acknowledging the seriousness and legitimacy of the concerns that animated their efforts. I was younger then, and sometimes too much in love with my own rhetoric, so I may not have succeeded as well in my effort to disagree with them while treating them with the respect they and the women on whose behalf they were advocating deserved, but I did try.

In a later article, I found myself arguing on the same side as Professor MacKinnon, contending that the civil action for sexual harassment based on the creation of a "hostile work environment" was consistent with the First Amendment. I argued that the requirement that the harassment effectively change the plaintiff's terms and conditions of employment rendered the proof of the claim through words evidence of a "verbal act" and thus the statute didn't regulate ideas or pure expression, but differential treatment in the workplace.

So I was curious to read Professor MacKinnon's op-ed in the New York Times, "#MeToo Has Done What the Law Could Not." My first response was to think that MacKinnon was giving herself and other advocates too little credit. But then, as someone who has represented plaintiffs in Title VII cases, I found myself nodding when I read:
It is widely thought that when something is legally prohibited, it more or less stops. This may be true for exceptional acts, but it is not true for pervasive practices like sexual harassment, including rape, that are built into structural social hierarchies. Equal pay has been the law for decades and still does not exist. Racial discrimination is nominally illegal in many forms but is still widely practiced against people of color. If the same cultural inequalities are permitted to operate in law as in the behavior the law prohibits, equalizing attempts — such as sexual harassment law — will be systemically resisted.
I'd like to disagree with that, but more than just the news today in 2018 had me nodding along with this passage.

My own experience in my years as a plaintiff's side employment discrimination lawyer, representing mostly women and people of color who had been subjected to differential pay and treatment, and cases I had seen my colleagues bring, and yes, damn it, the news too, lead me to agree with her. My old and dear friend Anthony Clark has just published a thorough and powerful article in the Daily Beast detailing sexual harassment by, and lack of consequences to, Allen Weinstein, the late Archivist of the United States, that underlines MacKinnon's point perfectly. Anthony painstakingly and meticulously lays out how, despite an investigation that substantiated the allegations against him, Weinstein was allowed to resign, reputation intact, and go on to another post:
But Weinstein resisted leaving, offering investigators, through his attorney, a variety of reasons why he should remain, chief among them the need for “continuity” in leadership at the Archives. Weinstein inferred that a deputy of his was under investigation (there is no publicly available information to support this claim) and also said that another individual who was available to assume leadership of the agency “had health concerns.”

Later that summer, Weinstein’s attorneys dropped the push to keep Weinstein on the job. But in an effort to avoid a potential prosecution, they provided the explanation that his medication was to blame for his behavior.

On Dec. 4, 2008, several weeks before Bush’s second term ended, Weinstein announced his resignation, effective in two weeks. He immediately became a visiting professor at the University of Maryland College of Information Studies, from which, 18 months later, he was fired after university officials learned that he had sexually assaulted at least one student there.
MacKinnon sees a significant improvement, one stemming not from the law, but from a cultural change. She writes:
This logjam, which has long paralyzed effective legal recourse for sexual harassment, is finally being broken. Structural misogyny, along with sexualized racism and class inequalities, is being publicly and pervasively challenged by women’s voices. The difference is, power is paying attention.

Powerful individuals and entities are taking sexual abuse seriously for once and acting against it as never before. No longer liars, no longer worthless, today’s survivors are initiating consequences none of them could have gotten through any lawsuit — in part because the laws do not permit relief against individual perpetrators, but more because they are being believed and valued as the law seldom has. Women have been saying these things forever. It is the response to them that has changed.

Revulsion against harassing behavior — in this case, men with power refusing to be associated with it — could change workplaces and schools. It could restrain repeat predators as well as the occasional and casual exploiters that the law so far has not. Shunning perpetrators as sex bigots who take advantage of the vulnerabilities of inequality could transform society. It could change rape culture.
She proposes certain reforms to make the law more effective--personal liability for perpetrators, longer statutes of limitation in which to file an action, "prohibitions or limits on various forms of secrecy and nontransparency that hide the extent of sexual abuse and enforce survivor isolation, such as forced arbitration, silencing nondisclosure agreements even in cases of physical attacks and multiple perpetration, and confidential settlements."

Some of these measures would have helped Maryellen Trautman, who went on the record with Anthony about Weinstein's behavior toward her. Some raise issues as to implementation and degree. But after decades in which legal protections were only intermittently able to protect, we seem to be at a time when there is a chance to do better.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

All Things to All People” A Sermon for Epiphany V, 2018

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church, February 4, 2018]

“I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.”

The Devil has a lot to complain about. We see it in today’s Gospel, where demons are exorcised without even being given a chance to speak to Jesus “because they knew him.”

Jesus just casually heals the sick, banishes the demons, and gets on with the real business at hand: Preaching the Gospel—the Good News.

And then we have the Epistle; St. Paul will be under the law with you, if that’s where you are; he’ll be outside the law with you, if that’s where you are. And why? He says it flat out: “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.”

When I first read this passage, really focused on it, in my high school religion class, I couldn’t help but think that St. Paul sounds a little bit like a con man here. We don’t generally hold people who try to be all things to all people in great respect. We value a certain integrity, a candor, even, in how people present themselves to us. And we’re not the only ones to feel that way—in the world Jesus lived in, Julius Caesar was scathingly described as having been “every woman’s man, and every man’s woman.”[1]

Nowadays, we hear a lot about “social engineering,” the human part of hacking. When you find common ground with someone, getting them to trust you, and then take advantage of that trust.

“If you look and act if you belong, and carry it with a high hand, people will assume you belong.” I had to test that back on September 11, 2001, when I found myself one of huge crowd evacuated from Reagan Airport, and a swarm of us were trapped in DC, sheltering in the Marriot lobby.

Cell phones were down, and only landlines were functioning. I stashed my luggage behind a potted plant, pulled out a leather folder, and pulling my tie into place, stalked authoritatively into the manager’s office, nodding curtly at the secretary, and made calls. I called the client who I had been in meetings with for several days, and my client and got a place to stay for the night, and she promised to let my family know I was all right.

I looked and acted like I belonged, and so everybody assumed I did.

Social engineering.

Or, if you prefer, the tricks of the con man.

It’s a little uncomfortable to think of St. Paul, becoming all things to all people. Like the prelude to a trick.

We can all admit that the motive is different, of course. Paul is acting for the good of those he engages. The end is good, whatever we think of the means. It’s all for the sake of the Gospel—but it sounds a bit manipulative, maybe.

C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape is a Senior Tempter in the bureaucracy of Hell. One of his grievances is that God does not play fair in the battle over souls. He cheats, Screwtape complains, and, worst of all, “He really loves the hairless bipeds He has created and always gives back to them with His right hand what He has taken away with His left.”[2]

Well, that’s one way of looking at it—God cheats to save us. The demons don’t get a chance to speak, for the very reason that they know the truth about Jesus. St. Paul will be anything to you to get you to hear the Gospel—for your own good, of course.

And, there is a kernel of truth in this. Jesus is, famously, a “lover of souls,” and God’s love for us is so strong that rules do get flouted in the story of salvation—Jesus saves the woman taken in adultery by the best bit of lawyering this lawyer can think of: Whoever here is without sin can start the execution. Now that’s clever. Seriously clever. Jesus turns around the vengeance seeking crowd with one sentence.

Jesus teaches us to forgive not seven times but seventy times seven times, a poetic way of saying an infinite number of times. So, yes: in Jesus’s thought, rules give way to the felt necessities of life—the Sabbath was made for us, not we for the Sabbath.

So we could say that Paul is behaving manipulatively here. And we could try to defend him through Machiavellian ethics—it’s all right to be false, as long as the people you are deceiving are led to salvation that way.

But that’s the sort of thinking that led Cardinal Newman to believe that the Church was right to persecute Galileo, or Augustine to believe that the use of torture to obtain conversions was a good thing. It’s the sort of thinking that led the theologian Father Romanus Cessario in the February 2018 issue of the prestigious religious journal First Things to defend Pope Pius IX’s kidnapping a little Jewish boy from his parents, because he had been baptized by his nanny when he was dangerously sick.

These examples should be enough to prove that this kind of thinking is pretty clearly inherently dangerous. If Augustine, Newman, and other learned and pious people can go so far astray by defending doing wrong so that good can result, we’d probably be best advised to avoid that approach.

Also, if we are agreeing with Screwtape we’ve probably gotten it wrong.

So let’s look at the Epistle again, with a more sympathetic eye. There’s a phrase that’s often used in counseling, or spiritual direction, “meeting people where they are.” It means that the counselor or spiritual director isn’t swooping in and laying down the law, but encountering the reality of the person the counselor or spiritual director is trying to help. Not sitting behind a desk or behind expertise, but listening. Building trust and not tearing defenses away too quickly.

I think that’s what Paul is doing here—it’s an extension of the lesson from last week, where we are urged to give each other a break, to “take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”

Paul’s account of his ministry reflects the same notion, that his freedom, his rights, his knowledge matter less than sharing the gospel.

The King James translation is actually a bit more emphatic about the sharing than the NRSV we heard read today is. Where the NRSV simply says “ I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings,” the King James makes the sharing central: And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you.

The “with you” is the critical difference, I think. Paul needs to share what he has experienced in order that he can continue to benefit from the Gospel. It’s not enough for Paul to have found his own peace and redemption through his experience of Jesus.

The harsh defender of the law who encouraged the stoning of St. Stephen has become himself a lover of souls. Maybe he’s even afraid that if he doesn’t keep sharing the experience with others, he’ll relapse into that self-righteous, legalistic frame of mind.

Or, as we say in AA, you have to give it away to keep it.

So Paul is not saying that he will lie to people if that’s what it takes to bring them to faith in Jesus. He’s saying he will enter into their experience, empathize with them, and even identify with them. After all, he was the man under the law. He knows what that’s like. He’s been the outsider—dependent on the very Christians he had come to Damascus to persecute. And, finally, he knows what it’s like to be free. He’d like to keep it that way.

You have to give it away to keep it.

Jesus doesn’t have time to talk to the demons, and they don’t really have anything to say to Him. They know Him, after all. And the demons are really beside the point. They are the shadows that obscure the real self. They have to be dealt with, but the real mission is to spread the Good News—that we are free to be children of God, free to realize our own best selves through the love of God. Jesus is too busy spreading that Good News to wallow in the darker side of our nature.

So should we be. We all have our demons—our guilts, our fears, our disappointments in ourselves in our lives. We know those skeletons in our cupboards all too well, and we can wheel them out when we need to beat up on ourselves—stir up that self-hatred.

But we can push them aside, and listen to the people around us everywhere. Instead of raging at the people who push out buttons, we can all try to identify with them, hear what they’re suffering, what’s making them angry. We can respond with kindness, even if it’s an effort and not reflecting all of our feelings at that moment. Because love isn’t an emotion; it’s a promise. And if we keep that promise even when it costs us to do so, when it hurts to do so, then we are living the promise, however we feel in the moment. And when one of them does respond, it will be from the heart.

Good advice.

I might even take it myself.

After all, you have to give it away to keep it.

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


[1] Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars (Trans. Alexander Thompson, revised T. Forester) (Stillwell: Digireads 2007), p. 77.

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan, 1943), p. 47.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Prayer Kitty

This--how you see her here--that's how I like to remember her. Betty the Prayer Kitty, whose love for the nubby-textured red version of the Book of Common Prayer warred with her love of the two volume black Daily Office Book. Betty, who shared my journey to the diaconate with me, by cuddling ferociously to the liturgical books that formed the core of my rule of life as a Christian.

Betty was, as you can see from the photo (click to embiggen, as we say on the intertubes), a subtly beautiful cat, with gold fur highlights in the seeming brown-grey patches that made continents against the ocean of white that made up most of her body. She lived a remarkable life, nearly 19 years old when she died tonight, and< was the last survivor of her litter. (We lost Elvis, the Comfort Kitty in 2014, and their brother Buster a year later (Buster was basically Steveie Smith's galloping cat come to life.

Betty kept on keeping on, a gallant High Church lady of the old school.

Except when she and my cat Elspeth went to war every now and again.

About two years year ago, she began to seem wan, a little bullied by Elspeth. We moved her up to the Northern Residence, where she rallied, and soon asserted sovereignty over the Albany home. (Poor Ninja cat!) And then Betty got sick, an instance of what the NYT called "the mystery of the waiting house cats"--hyperthyroidism. Despite the fact that she was already well over than the 12-15 years house cat life expectancy, she responded well to treatment, gained back most of the weight she had lost, and enjoyed her new digs. She was a happy, snuggly kitty, claiming the bedroom, leaving Ninja the couch. Peace reigned in the land.

Yes, I had to make sure she got subcutaneous fluids (not from me, folks, I have a very skilled cat sitter), and twice a day orally administered medicine (that I got quite handy with. I'm apparently a natural with a syringe.)

And there was much rejoicing.

Until a few weeks ago, when Betty quickly lost all the weight she'd gained, and her kidneys were malfunctioning. Suffice it to say that, once again, I had to accompany another beloved pet to the vet for one last time, one more goodbye.

I read the light tone of so much of what precedes that last sentence, and I can't help it or change it. Betty was a happy cat, a companionable animal, whose heart shaped little pink-and-brown nose, whose golden tinted fur, whose kneading my chest, always made me smile.

Even now, sad as I am, and ravaged by the ordeal of having to make the choice for her, and hold her to me until the end, a pale reflection of all the happiness we shared in the nearly 12 years we shared together comforts me little bit. Better to have been with her in that moment than not. Better to have shared all of the experience, to the end.

Better to have loved to the last moment. And beyond.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

"I Just Do Favors For Friends": Eight Million Ways to Die

A reader has asked me what I think of Lawrence Block, especially his Matthew Scudder novels. I'm always glad to get suggestions of topics you who are kind enough to follow the blog would like to hear about, so, here goes--but with a caveat. I'm not going to talk about all of the Scudder books, but focus on one, Eight Million Ways to Die (1982). You'll see why in a minute.

Twenty-one years ago tonight I was not yet sober. But I was slowly beginning to realize that things were sliding out of control, and signposts were beginning to break through my denial. One of the first signposts was a friend giving me a paperback of Eight Million Ways to Die, the novel in which retired cop turned (unlicensed) private eye Matt Scudder runs out of places to run from his alcoholism, and must face it or die.

Even as he's falling apart, he gets a difficult new case--a young prostitute named Kim asks him to help her out of the life, he seemingly succeeds with her pimp, only for Kim to turn up dead mere days later. The pimp, a cultured African-American known as "Chance,” hires Scudder to solve the crime. Scudder digs in with all his usual tenacity, but his addiction is crippling him, as he floats from AA meeting to bar, to hospital. Scudder takes Chance's mooney, unsure if he's being paid by Kim's killer. The two develop a genuine rapport, and Scudder, stubborn even as his own body is betraying him, pursues her killer.

The depiction of AA meetings is moving and reminds me of rooms I have been in over the past 20 years. Matt's silence and fear brings back my own earliest days, sitting behind a pillar that no longer exists in a building since torn down, peeping around the solid object to see the speaker. I have not been brave often in my life. Going down those well-remembered stairs for the first time required, quite possibly, the only genuine courage I have ever shown.

So I can't be objective about this well-loved book. All of the things that Scudder is forced to face in himself--the acceptance as routine things he would have once perceived as calamities--blackouts, waking up in a hospital, and sneaking out as the afternoon shadows lengthened--Matt Scudder helped me see where I was heading.

Years later, I wrote Lawrence Block an email telling him some of this, asking if I could bring to a book signing for his last (to date) Scudder novel the hardcover of Eight Million Ways to Die I had snatched up when I found it. His reply was extraordinarily kind, and ended with an instruction: make sure I made myself known to him when he signed the book. I did so, and he didn't just sign it, he inscribed it with warm words of encouragement.

So, not objective.

But the novel is awfully good.

Block uses New York City skillfully, mixing real places with fictitious--you could, if you wanted, follow Scudder's odyssey through the City, and many of the places were ones I knew when I lived in Manhattan. Its denizens are cruel and kind, sometimes both in the same scene. Scudder's people, like Smiley's are almost all alike victims and villains, hunter and hunted.

If Kim doesn't get enough time to become fully realized, her fellow "employees" of Chance do, and Chance himself grows through the novel, turning from an exploiter in denial of his exploitation into a young man who has a conscience, and needs to find his true self.

The plotting is taut and well-crafted, and Block mixes dark comedy in with the noir palette and tragic glimpses into shattered lives.

The Scudder novels are all good, but this one is the hinge on which the series turns from first rate genre fiction into literature (mind you, A Stab in the Dark begins that movement).

The alcoholic PI is a staple of genre fiction, but none has been so deeply psychologically fleshed out, so thoroughly believable, in his flaws and virtues, as Matt Scudder.

"I just do favors for friends," Scudder says when asked about his fee structure in Jimmy Armstrong's bar (where I used to eat, and a close friend was a bartender). Scudder did me one hell of a favor when I met him, so this is the least objective of reviews, as I said at the beginning of this post.

Still. The book is great, the series is cumulatively superb. A New York treasure.