The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Saturday, March 28, 2020

A Faint-Hearted Universalist’s View

I recently received a splendid comment from a reader, who asked me a very knotty question indeed. So of course your Anglocat, merrily rushing in where angels fear to tread, finds himself treading some fairly deep theological waters. Here is the essence of the question: Describing (fairly) my views on the afterlife as “universalist”, how do I reconcile these views with the fact that the majority of church teaching has not held to this position.

I know, bit of a yorker, right?

I am a universalist, but in (to steal a phrase from constitutional law), a faint-hearted one. That is to say, my belief in the Grace and mercy of God outweighs my knowledge of the sinfulness not just of the world, but of myself. I believe in the forgiveness of God because I need God’s mercy, and because the nature of God offers love and deep compassion. That is not to say that I don’t believe that sin harms us; it clearly does, and it hurts the soul. I just don’t believe that God ever gives up on us.

So here’s my response, lightly edited, as Lent slowly draws toward a close, and Holy Week approaches:

Before I give my own thoughts, let me refer you to two of my favorite theologians: C.S. Lewis, and specifically his book The Great Divorce, which addresses this very topic (as does his more famous The Screwtape Letters, hinting that God bends the rules for us). Lewis's point boils down to the contention that we can reject God’s love, and refuse to enter into joy; God will not force us into relationship with Him. (The book suggests that the door from Hell to Heaven is always ajar, but it is well worth a read.)

It occurs to me that Christopher Marlowe in his The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus is heading in the same direction when he has Mephistopheles, on Earth, say that: “Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it./Think'st thou that I, who saw the face of God/And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,/Am not tormented with ten thousand hells/In being deprived of everlasting bliss?” In other words, Hell is a state of mind, not a place.

The second is Nadia Bolz-Weber, in her book Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint, describing Grace: “God's grace is not defined as God being forgiving to us even though we sin. Grace is when God is a source of wholeness, which makes up for my failings. My failings hurt me and others and even the planet, and God's grace to me is that my brokenness is not the final word ... it's that God makes beautiful things out of even my own shit. Grace isn't about God creating humans and flawed beings and then acting all hurt when we inevitably fail and then stepping in like the hero to grant us grace - like saying, ‘Oh, it's OK, I'll be the good guy and forgive you.’ It's God saying, ‘I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word. I am a God who makes all things new.’” For Bolz-Weber, we are all sinners and all saints, and both at the same time.

So now my own thoughts, understanding that I fully agree with Lewis and Bolz-Weber. The first response I’d make is to refer you to the Gospels: Matthew 7:11 (“If ye, then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?”). See Luke 11:13 for the parallel passage. Also, John 3:16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

These passages are a reminder to me of two things: First, that God’s mercy is far greater than that of humanity. Second, that God loves everything He has created, and longs to put things right between sinful humanity and Himself. The first point, the mercy of God excelling ours, is important because in every criminal justice system, there is a concept of proportionality, that means that, for any crime, however horrific, there comes a point where the punishment outweighs the crime, and becomes itself unjust. God’s Justice is not that—think of the parable of the workers in the vineyard, where the early morning workers are paid the same as those who only work an hour. That’s mercy to the latecomers, but not injustice to the earlier arrived workers. (Matt. 20: 1-16).

If Hell is in fact a state of mind, and not a place, it is self-inflicted by our inability to accept Grace. Lewis’s suggestion that the opportunity to accept Grace doesn’t end with death is hopeful, but not, of course, verifiable. But I cannot accept that the God who calls us ever hardens His heart against us.

As to traditional readings of Hell and damnation, I think we, as did our ancestors, sometimes look for what lawyers call “bright lines,” rules that are clear and unbending, guaranteeing clarity of outcomes. Life isn’t that way, in my 54 years on this planet, and I suspect that Jesus Christ wasn’t laying down inflexible rules, but speaking fortissimo to His followers to help them reevaluate their own lives and beliefs.

I hope you find this helpful and really do read Lewis and Bolz-Weber, who are each far more eloquent and learned than am I.

Peace and welcome.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Context is Everything: A Lesson from “Dark Shadows”

I have been out of work for two weeks after a minor surgery (still recovering, but on the mend), and have been forced for most of that time to lie on my side. So I’ve been binge-watching the old Gothic oater “Dark Shadows” from the beginning (thanks, Amazon Prime!)

Here’s the lesson: Context is everything.

When I was a kid, and watched it in reruns after school, they started with Willie Loomis’s discovery of the vampire Barnabas Collins, who pretty savagely turns him into his Renfield. From that beginning, you kind of pity Loomis.

Watching it with all the episodes leading up to the discovery, in which we see Loomis as a violent thug, who tries to sexually assault (in order) Maggie Evans, Victoria Winters (twice), and Carolyn Stoddard (three times), well, not so much.

After watching those episodes, when Willie opens the vault, I can only say, sucks to be you, vamp chow.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

“The Old Order Changeth:” A Sermon on Luke 2: 22-40

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church, February 2, 2020]

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

Today’s gospel reading—as well as the reading from Malachi—have a wintry feel to them. They seem designed for a dark night, a cold night. You might expect the presentation of our Lord at the Temple—the ritual purification of the child Jesus and his acceptance as a member of the people of Israel—to be a joyous event. And, in a way, it is. But there are undercurrents throughout the story that hint at a tragic dimension to the occasion.

In Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s, finale to his epic poem cycle “The Idylls of the King,” the last poem is titled, simply, “The Passing of Arthur.” In that poem, Sir Bedivere brings the dying king to the river, and places him in a barge in which four Queens sit, ready to take Arthur to Avilon for healing. And, seeing his king resting in the boat, Bedivere comes to a realization: It’s over. The story in which Bedivere was a character has ended. He exclaims “For now I see the true old times are dead/… Such times have been not since the light that led
The holy Elders with the gift of myrrh.” And now, Sir Bedivere, the last survivor, must “go forth companionless,
And the days darken round me, and the years,
Among new men, strange faces, other minds."

Arthur’s answer brings Bedivere no comfort. He simply replies, “The old order changeth, yielding place to new.”

And that is what is happening in the Temple. Jesus’s presentation is the culmination of Simeon’s life—and the end of it. The righteous and devout old man had learned from the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. But now that the day has come, the old servant of the Lord knows that his time has ended—he has been dismissed in peace, and his part in the story of God and the people of God is almost at an end.

But first he has some news to deliver. That Jesus is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” So far, so good, but then he adds to Mary that “a sword will pierce your own soul too.” The uncomprehending parents are amazed. Even more when the prophet Anna approaches and begins to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

The news is profoundly mixed, that it is hard to imagine how Joseph and Mary could respond to it. Joseph can’t help but be aware that his own presence in the crowning moments of the story is not alluded to—this good, gentle man who was willing to spare Mary shame and disgrace even before the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream—well, indications are that he won’t see the redemption of Israel through the child who is, by his mercy—and yes, his obedience to God’s call, his son at least in the eyes of the Lord.

Joseph knows only that the story will go on, and that, like Simeon himself, that he has played his part thus far.

But Mary—Mary is promised nothing but that a “sword will pierce her soul too.”

We know, because we know how the story turns out, that the sword will not be literal; it will be the mother’s agony of seeing her beloved son rise to great heights, only to be disgraced and executed by the tortuous methods of the Roman Empire, a death reserved only for rebels and traitors.

What are the parents to make of this prophecy, glorious and dire, terrifying and yet hopeful, culminating in the redemption of Israel?

So we look to the reading from Malachi for comfort, or at least illumination.

We do not get comfort. But possibly some light.

The unknown prophet named by tradition as Malachi starts off on a joyful note--the Lord whom we seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom we delight—he is coming. But then the prophet asks us, darkly, “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?”

He tells us that the Lord will refine us like silver—which involves a lot of fire—and the experience will be like cleansing garments with fuller’s soap. Now, fuller's soap is not Ivory Snow, or some nice gentle cleanser that softens your hands while you do the dishes. It’s made of alkali, urine and chalk. It’s like taking a bath in bleach, only it smells worse. A lot worse.

What on earth is going on with these readings? How can the day of the Lord be joyous, if we must ask if we can stand in it? How can the redemption of Israel be welcomed if it comes with so much loss?

What does it mean to welcome the new if we are of the old order?
Susan Howatch in her final Starbridge novel, Absolute Truths depicts an aging bishop, Charles Ashworth, recently widowed, who sees himself, as, in his own words, “living out those terrifying lines from Tennyson, “the old order changeth, yielding place to new.”

His own son, also a priest in the Church of England, dances with the lovely young daughter of a colleague, while the father grieves his losses, the passing away of the comfortable, secure world in which he flourished.

And he nearly loses himself his disdain for the cheap, vulgar, flashy era in which he is condemned to live, a traditionalist bishop in a radical time, a staunch believer in an age in which the absolute truths by which he has always set such store are rejected by the culture around him, and the church itself seems increasingly less relevant and less able to communicate to a people that horde, and sleep and feed, and know not me, as Tennyson writes in “Ulysses.”

And then, young Rachel breaks away from Ashworth’s son, and holds out her hands to the bishop, inviting him to dance. He accepts Rachel’s invitation, and, as they waltz, he recognizes the generosity, the kindness of the younger set—Charley happily admiring his father’s dancing skill, and Rachel reaching out to the formidable old bishop whose bereavement is common knowledge. As Ashworth, our narrator tells us, “I danced, and I danced, and I danced”—all the while grieving for that precious old order, but also realizing that if the new order can reach out in sympathetic love to the old, than the old order, in yielding place to new, must do so in love—with grace if it can mange it.

Historians have written of decades that throw a shadow into the decades that follow them—the “long 1960s”, which continued into the 1970s.

And now we are living in what they are beginning to call the “Long 1980s.” Not the real 1980s, you understand, but a sclerotic as-remembered version of them, with macho preening, culture wars, and a divide between left and right, city and rural, that seems to go on and on, with ferocious heat, but oh, so very little light.

We keep fighting, over and over, the battles of yesteryear, trying to ignore the fraying of our national fabric, and the threats of the 2020s that are, increasingly looming over us—the catastrophic harms threatened by climate change will not be put off by rallies and slogans, as we waste what time there is left to mitigate the harm.

But nothing lasts forever. Somewhere under the ice, whether for weal or woe, is stirring a new Era to replace the long 1980s.

And, eventually, the ice will crack, and the new era will come.

The old order changeth, yielding to new.

That change won’t be easy. Like Sir Bedivere, we look for safe ground on which to stand, and find none. Change can be painful—it can be like the refining of silver, like being washed in fullers soap.

The comfortable world of consensus that I can remember as a young man was only comfortable because it excluded voices who questioned injustices and inequities that papered over divides. The structures and social codes that many of us assume as a given are being tested and failing. Much that we are used to will be lost, or altered out of recognition. Much needs to be, as we are seeing the trust in the legitimacy of our national political branches erode ever further.

What will never change, what will never alter, is this: Jesus’s message that only by reaching out in love, however hard that is to live up to, is how we break the logjam. Reaching out in love doesn’t mean we don’t feel anger, or that we just surrender to those whose vision of the world appalls us. It means that we remember their humanity. That they are as much the beloved children of God as we are. That, like us, they are 100 % sinner and 100% saint. Because love is not an emotion; it’s a promise.

How do we stand up to the day of the Lord?


Don’t ever give up on love.

Because, as I’ve told you before, hate is always foolish, but love, love is always wise.

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

Sunday, January 19, 2020

What Will Become of His Dreams? A Sermon for the Feast Day of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King

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

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

We don’t often use the term “saint” in the Episcopal Church; we are, after all, the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States, not the Roman Catholic Church. But the term “saint” is used often by St. Paul, and is used to describe all followers of Jesus Christ. All of us. Our Lutheran brothers and sisters still use the term in this way.

But we tend to reserve it, in the old Catholic meaning, for followers of Jesus Christ who have demonstrated heroic virtue in the living of their lives in Christ.

Today we honor the life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. And I don’t think we will go far wrong if we think of him as St. Martin, in either definition.

You have to remember what a young man he was. Thirty-nine, when he was gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had gone to support African American sanitary public works employees, members of AFSCME Local 1733.


St. Martin was only six years older than Jesus was when the Romans executed him as a troublemaker. In Dr. King’s last speech, on April 3, 1968, he talked about the bomb threats and other threats that had been made on his life. He said:
We've got some difficult days ahead, but that it didn’t matter with [him] now. Because [he’d] been to the mountaintop. . . Like anybody, he said, he would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But [he wasn’t] concerned about that now. [he] just want[ed] to do God's will. And, St. Martin said, [God allowed him ] to go up to the mountain. And that [he had ] looked over. And …seen the promised land. He warned that he may not get there with [us], [and added that he wanted] those with him that night, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So he was happy that last night, not worried about anything. He affirmed that he was not fearing any man. And ended, quoting, that Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
The next day, April 4, 1968, James Earl Ray, shot him dead. According to his biographer, Taylor Branch, the autopsy revealed that Dr. King had the heart of a 60 year old. Branch suggests that the stress of his 13 years leading the civil rights movement accounted for the condition of his heart.

They were perilous years, years in which he was arrested twenty-nine times, confronted by angry and often violent white supremacists. Spied on by the FBI, targeted by its all-powerful Director, J. Edgar Hoover, who hoped to strip away his legitimacy by probing into his personal life. Branch’s three volume biography, America in the King Years, portrays King in his times, and captures in a way no short list of dangers faced, of successful protests, of standing up for equality, can

They couldn’t intimidate him, or silence him, or coopt him. But they were wearing him, and that great heart, out.

I can’t help but think of Byron’s lines:

For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.

But despite the wear, Dr. King kept on keeping on.

Until the bullets found him.

Like Joseph’s brothers in today’s reading from Genesis, his brothers—his “sick white brothers” heard their brother Martin’s dream, and decided to kill him. “Here comes this dreamer,” they said, “come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. . . and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”

They thought that by killing the man, they could kill the dream.

They were wrong.

The dreamer had caught the soul of the Nation, had stirred what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our natures,” and a Nation felt a stirring of shame.

Dr. King’s campaigns were permeated by the teachings of Jesus. His strategy of non-violent protest was sparked by Ghandi’s, but in fact was centered on the Gospel. You can hear it in Jesus’s words in today’s Gospel reading: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. . . . Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was committed to the teachings of Jesus Christ, and under Dr. King’s leadership pursued justice, peace, and love.

That’s why, despite all the hostility and violence he faced—even in Harlem, he was stabbed in the chest with a letter opener by a woman and was hospitalized for weeks—he could, on that last day in Memphis, sincerely refer to those who were threatening his life as his “sick white brothers.” Just as Joseph never stopped loving his brothers despite their betrayal of him, Dr. King never gave up on love. Like Moses, he didn’t get to the promised land, but he got to the mountaintop.

I’ll be 54 this year, which means I only lived in a world with Dr. King for two years. He will have been gone for 52 years in April.

“We shall see what will become of his dreams.”

That dreamer, America’s own Joseph, African-Americans’ Moses, was one of those who brought about a wholesale change in this country, still trying to shed the evils of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation. Not alone—and he’d be the first to agree—but with his colleagues in the SCLC, brave individuals like Rosa Parks, courtroom warriors like Thurgood Marshall—we began as a Nation to slowly, partially, start trying to do better.

Far from unanimously—massive resistance to the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v Board of Education declaring segregation in public schools unconstitutional continued well into the 1980s, and sometimes still flares up. Even here in New York City, we have heavily segregated schools and massive disparities between resources for schools. Only now, two decades into the Twenty-first Century, are we in New York beginning to try to effectively grapple with these problems by making school funding uniform throughout the State and by eliminating programs that tend to exclude African American and Hispanic students.

Labor rights in New York State have been extended to farmworkers, predominantly people of color, for the first time. Those rights were extended to most other employees in 1937.

But if New York is straggling, but trying to change, much of the country is falling back into the bad old ways.

Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder[1], which gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Court has turned a blind eye to the 14th and 15th Amendment’s guarantees of racial equality and of equal voting. The Court upheld gerrymandering and allowed states to pass laws aimed at making voting harder, especially in African American districts.

According to a 2018 report of the United States Commission on Civil Rights—an independent panel made up of Democrats, Republicans, and independents—“at least 23 states have enacted newly restrictive statewide voter laws" since the Shelby County v. Holder decision, with moves like closing polling places, cutting early voting, purging voter rolls and imposing voter ID laws.[2]

Things have not improved since.

What has become of his dreams, indeed?

I’ve often preached of the polarization and the division that are tearing our body politic, but is It’s a mistake to view our own St. Martin—as someone who stood for unity above all else. In his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he wrote that:
[he had] almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season.” [3]
Nearly three years ago, Bishop Dietsche reminded us that “we have been given two parallel charges by which to make our Christian witness: On the one hand, to never flag in our advocacy for the little ones of God, to make no peace with injustice, and to never fail to face down the unjust policy of uncaring power, and on the other hand to cultivate by the Spirit within us a more expansive generosity toward those whose convictions we hold reprehensible than we ever imagined ourselves capable.[4]

He also reminded us that it can be done, and it has been done. He quoted St. Martin, who “was that generous.” Who “after the beatings and firehoses and spitting and humiliations and martyrdoms, and just one year after Bloody Sunday, preached from [our cathedral pulpit] and said to the Diocese of New York, “Love is the greatest of all the virtues. This is the meaning of the cross, . . . It is an eternal reminder of the power of love over hate.”[4]

He never gave up, did St. Martin. And neither can we. I know, it’s winter, you’re cold, the division and anger have been going on too long.
And the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.
But not today.

And not tomorrow.

Not until we can look ourselves in the mirror, meet our reflected eyes, and say that we have not flagged in our advocacy for the little ones of God, have not made peace with injustice, and have done it all in the spirit of love, for friend and adversary alike.

Not til we have made it to our own mountaintop, and seen the Promised Land.

In the Name of God, Creator Redeemer, Sustainer.

[1] 570 U.S. 529 (2013).
[2]U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, An Assessment of Minority Voting Rights Access in the United States (2018), (visited on January 18, 2020).
[3] M. L. King, “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963, archived at (visited on January 18, 2010).
[5] “Bishop Dietsche’s Holy Tuesday Sermon,” April 11, 2017, archived at (visited January 18, 2019).

Thursday, December 12, 2019

MASH Revisited: S 1, eps 10 & 11: “I Hate a Mystery”/Germ Warfare

Remember back in “Requiem for a Lightweight” how Trapper John ended a surprisingly nice conversation between Maj. Houlihan and Hawkeye by calling her “Frank’s bag?” Well, that slightly nasty streak comes out again in “I Hate a Mystery,” and Trapper turns it on—surprisingly—Hawkeye.

Ok, a little plot recap, for those who aren’t watching with me. There’s a crime wave at the 4077th, with small personal valuable items disappearing. We first find this out during a poker game, where Captain Jones and Trapper are grousing about Hawkeye’s run of good luck at the table, his having won over $300 (he claims it’s because his “heart is pure”; the other Swampmen aren’t buying). As they wrangle, Frank notices his mother’s picture is where he keeps it—but without its silver frame. Then Margaret discovers her hairbrushes, a gift from her father, are gone. As is Trapper’s watch.

Henry tries to stage a camp wide meeting in the mess tent, dims the light to allow the culprit to return the stolen items, and, when the lights come upmore Items have been stolen.

So Henry does a bunk-to-bunk inspection (welcome, Radar’s teddy bear!), getting drenched in the shower, and—oh, hell, this sequence is one of the funniest scenes the show ever shot, and just go watch it here.

I have to say, Rogers and Alda are perfect in their reaction to Henry’s misfortune in searching the Swamp. (Rogers is laughing so hard you can actually count his fillings.). But Alda—that hyena-like laugh that keeps taking him over, and laying him out flat—I don’t know if it was direction, Alda’s ability as an actor, or genuine—or a combination of the three—but it is utterly contagious and totally in character.

As is his sobering up when Henry opens his footlocker and finds all the missing items.

Mark the sequel: Trapper goes utterly cold toward Hawkeye, convinced that his erstwhile friend is guilty. He doesn’t speak to him, only to Radar or Jones. There’s a bit of a mean streak in John McIntyre, and Rogers delivers it.

With Radar stalking him, Hawkeye dodges into Father Mulcahy’s tent, and, with Mulcahy thinking he’s there to make a confession, the two men try to take seats. Both folding chairs keep snapping at the hands of the man who is trying to unfold them, so after a bit of comic choreography, Pierce flees. He gets Henry to reveal where the recovered items, evidence for the court martial the Majors have been pushing for, are hidden, over the company loudspeaker.

Later, he calls everyone into the mess tent, and, sweeping in with a hat and what our friends at TV Tropes would call a “”Badass Longcoat”, does a nifty little Ellery Queen/Nero Wolfe pastiche, identifying his colleagues as suspects. He announces that the chemical he has smeared on the re-stolen items will turn the fingers of the culprit blue, and watches as Ho-Jon, the Swamp houseboy, fearfully checks his hands, only to breathe a sigh of relief, and hold them out, saying—“look, no blue!”

Proving himself the culprit. It was, of course, a bluff. Ho-Jon confesses that he stole the items and Hawkeye’s winnings to bring his family down out of the combat zone to Seoul.

Burns, Margaret, Leslie, all agree to let Ho-Jon sell the money. Margaret even gently murmurs, “they’re just brushes. I have others.”


“The only reason I'm paranoid is because everyone's against me.”—Frank Burns

“Germ Warfare” is a light little episode. It doesn’t start that way; Pierce and Burns are at war over a POW who is taking up room that an American soldier could use, and so the Majors push for his transfer to another camp, even though his wounds might reopen on the way. Burns has the regulation son his side, so Henry can’t back Hawkeye up.

So they move him to the Swamp, but, because he needs a transfusion of AB-, which they are low on, they need a donor. A sleeping Burns is AB-, as Radar confirms, so Hawkeye (“Excellent, Igor!” Pierce intones as the blood flows) and Trapper (“Yes, my Count! But be quiet!” He replies, in character as Igor—NOT the mess hall Igor) get the pint they need. They give the North Korean (named Pai) Franck’s blood, and he shows signs of hepatitis. the rest of the episode is a MASH farce—Feydeau in khaki, with Hawkeye and Trapper tricking Frank into giving them another type of sample (beer. It’s not Frank’s friend.), the two Swampmen keeping Burns away from patients, and Houlihan and Burns away from each other. (Both Pierce and McIntyre seem to genuinely care about protecting Burns and Houlihan from getting sick.)

Finally, as Burns is about to go into OR, they handcuff him to Houlihan, to the confusion of Col. Blake. Trapped, they confess. When the analysis of Frank’s sample is brought in, he’s clear.

We return to the Swamp for the stinger—Burns is amicably playing checkers with Pai (!), and McIntryre and Pierce bring Frank some flowers as an apology—which he accepts, visibly touched, only to throw them back when the boys ask if he’d be interested in serving as the donor for a heart transplant.

There’s not a lot to unpack in these two episodes—they are quite funny and stand up pretty well. In fighting to keep Pai in a bed, Hawkeye uses a line from the film, calling Henry “a Regular Army clown.” (In the movie, that line is disdainfully tossed at Major O’Houlihan (Sally Kellerman) by Donald Sutherland’s Hawkeye. It’s pretty withering, but Alda says it in exasperation, not dismissal, as Sutherland does).

The draining of Frank’s blood is based on a similar incident in the novel, but again the series is kinder and lighter here.

There are some nice grace notes in the two episodes—Houlihan softening when she learns why Ho-Jon was stealing, Burns playing checkers with Pai, and his willingness to accept the amends of Hawkeye and Trapper.

Only 11 episodes in, and the Majors are growing, and the Swampmen are showing some darker streaks. This is some fine comedy, in a highly unlikely setting, with sharp writing—sharper every episode, as it emerges from the shadow of the film—and character development is beginning to complicate things.

Monday, December 2, 2019

MASH Revisited: S. 1, Ep 9: “Henry, Please Come Home.”

This episode gets its own entry because it’s at once a throwback to the film, and a step forward in the development of the characters. The premise is simple: Henry Blake has impressed General Hammond by the efficiency and good results achieved by the 4077th, the highest in all Korea. As a result, General Hammond offers Henry a sinecure position in Tokyo, where he advises on how to get similar results. At the mercy of the gunger-ho than usual Frank Burns, the Swampmen realize that they are no longer in control, and that Frank’s willingness to enforce discipline will make their lives a misery. (Frank even confiscates the still. Just because he can.)

So Hawkeye and Trapper (thanks to a defy little maneuver by Radar) get a furlough to Tokyo, where they visit a relaxed, comfortable Henry. He’s genuinely glad to see them, but in no way interested in returning to the 4077th. Not even the charms of Lt. Leslie Scorch, his mistress at the 4077th, are enough to entice him back. Hawkeye and Trapper, anticipating this reaction, have arranged for Radar to feign a serious illness, and, when Trapper and Hawkeye prepare to depart, Henry insists on going with them. Henry, in his concern, decides to do an exploratory surgery (Gary Burghoff’s appalled terror is pitch-perfect), and the whole thing falls apart. Blake is about to return to Tokyo, but when he hears Burns announce that he intends to court-martial Pierce and McIntryre, Henry realizes that Burns (though technically correct) doesn’t consider the consequences. Not just the 40787th’s efficiency rating, but the lives that will be lost at the removal of the men he described (just before his departure) as “two of the best cutters I’ve ever worked with.”

So, beings Henry, he stays.


So, the throwback to the film is in the Tokyo frivolity—the Japanese singers doing adaptations of Wesytern songs, the hinted at availability of sex For hire as routine, and the tacit acceptance of this. The Tokyo scenes, to that extent, partake of some of the worst aspects of the film—though not historically inaccurate.

What we see here, though, is some deepening of the characters—Henry’s deep concern for Radar leads him to not just return to see what is up, but to one of his very few medical misjudgments in the series. He takes Radar’s suffering at face value and acts to investigate it, though Burns, correctly, sees it as the sham it is quite quickly.

Henry also gives up his release from the hellish (albeit with good company) 4077th to save Pierce and McIntyre from punishment, not just for their sake (he’s pretty angry at being fooled at the moment), but because he immediately sees the consequences: more dead soldiers. Unnecessary deaths. Because he gets it, he sacrifices his own comfort and stays. Earlier in the episode, Henry refers to “my right hand, Cpl. Radar O'Reilly, who incidentally is in command of this unit, and just uses me as a front.”

This is also the episode that proves that statement false; Henry is a terrible administrator. But he’s the right CO for this time and place. He just doesn’t know it.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

The Problem of Non-Parables: A Sermon on Luke 20: 27-38

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew;s Church, NYC, November 10, 2019]

Sometimes the Gospel readings are so self-evident that it’s almost impossible to miss the point, that the difficulty in writing a sermon on it is not just re-stating the obvious lesson.

Sure, we sometimes want to hide from the implications of those Gospel readings for our own lives, but shutting out the Gospel to maintain our own comfortable existence is a struggle against out desire to not want to know where we are going wrong. Think of Jesus’s telling us that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

That’s hard.

We struggle with it.

And one way of struggling with that is to domesticate it, paper over the chasm between what Jesus teaches us and the lessons of the culture in which we live. Of course, to do that, we have to deceive ourselves as to what Jesus is telling us. Or, as Susan Howatch so memorably paraphrased Jesus, “High and wide is the gate which leads to self-deception and illusion, but for those seeking truth, strait is the gate and narrow the way—and brave is the woman or man who can journey there.” [Glittering Images, 190].

With parables, of course, we have to look for the meaning—C.H. Dodd in the 1930s and Joachim Jeremias in the 1950s and 60s pioneered the art of stripping away the centuries of allegory and theology that well-meaning preachers like me have added to the parables, and tried to recover them as Jesus’s audience would have experienced them and heard them. And then they had to deal with Gospel warnings that the disciples outside the Twelve were told parables so that they could hear, but not understand, and be lost.

And today’s discussion between Jesus and the Saducees has been the source of reams of speculation on the nature of the afterlife, from the Church Fathers to our own day. Will we really be pure souls, loving only God, and no longer those who have enriched our journeys below?

Are we really hoping and aspiring to enter the kind of afterlife that led Mark Twain to recommend heaven for climate, but hell for company?

But, hold on—aren’t we missing something here?

We aren’t dealing with a parable today. No, this is part of a test of Jesus’s acumen.

Specifically, of his legal acumen.

Which means we are, at long last, playing on my home turf.

The legal test comes in two prongs. The first question, posed by the scribes and Pharisees, involves them showing Jesus a coin, and asking if it is lawful to pay the Emperor tax. This question is an effort to put him into a Hobson’s Choice, a question where there is no safe or good answer. It’s as much a test of Jesus’s political savvy as of his legal ability—will he slight the Emperor or the Torah?

Jesus brushes this one away easily. He asks whose name and image is on the coin, and, being told that the name and image are Caesar’s, he simply answers, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s—and to God the things that are God’s.

Now that is a good answer. Succinct and to the point, but, best of all, avoiding the political pitfall of advocating denying the legal authorities their due, without slighting the legal responsibilities under Jewish law. Clever, unanswerable, unassailable. Advantage, Jesus.

The next question, though, is like something out of torts class. A tort is a civil wrong—an accident, or act of negligence that harms someone in their person and their property. And torts professors are famous for their a long, detailed hypothetical stories, in which an improbable series of events are posited to make you question the legal fundamentals.

The classic torts class hypothetical used when I was in law school was based on a real case: Palsgraf v. Long Island Rail Road. So a woman named Helen Palsgraf decided to take her two girls to the beach in 1924. This was her big mistake. While she was waiting to board the Long Island Rail Road train, an earlier train pulls in, and, as she’s waiting, two men start getting on the train. One of them is lugging a package along with the help of sme LIRR employees. They drop the package, it explodes, a piece of shrapnel hit a large coin-operated scale on the platform, which teeters over and hits Mrs. Palsgraf. After this incident she develops a stutter, and sues the LIRR.

So how about it?

Is the LIRR liable?

Or to use an actual Talmudic legal question summarized by Herman Wouk in his Inside, Outside a cow is tethered in a market. It kicks a stone, which flies into a market stall shattering a vase. Is the cow’s owner liable?

By the way, that one is so well known in the Talmud, that it’s just summarized as “Stone in market—so what?”

Here, instead of the ricocheting shrapnel, or the bovine launched rock, we have the legal hypothetical of the perennial widow. Seven bridegrooms for one wife, they all fall down.

So, say these Sadducees, who don’t believe in the Resurrection of the Dead, in the next life, whose wife is she, anyway?

They’re trying, of course, to make the Resurrection look silly, and to make Jesus look silly for defending it. Their regular opponents, the priests and the scribes, can’t be happy—they don’t like Jesus any better than the Sadducees do, but this is not just Jesus under attack, but their own special belief is being made to look ridiculous, along with Jesus.

In other words, unlike a torts hypothetical, it’s not a question posed in good faith to test the limits of doctrine.

So Jesus does what’s called in fencing a “disengage.” That’s when a fencer tries to block her opponent’s sword, and then lunge, but the other fencer—well, the other fencer moves her sword under the first fencer’s sword, and now controls the bout.

Jesus disengages with the question by denying its premise; rather than talk about whose wife she is, he tells us, “those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.”

So, she’s nobody’s wife. Indeed, she “cannot die anymore, because she, [and all they who are resurrected], are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.”

Then Jesus knocks out the Sadducee with a simple appeal to the Torah; the story of the burning bush, where Moses “speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” and adds that “he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

Game, set and match.

It’s a wonderful example of how the itinerant preacher from Nazareth keeps besting the sharpest minds of his own tradition when they try to trip him up.

But is there more to it?

Well, let me suggest two implications of Jesus’s words. First, Jesus tells us straightforwardly that the long-dead patriarchs were alive to God in Moses’s day, and in Jesus’s own day. Jesus teaches us that he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive."

Second, terrible use has been made in Christian teaching of hell, as a place of eternal punishment and suffering. Yet when Jesus speaks to the Sadducee about the resurrection of the dead, he makes very clear that only those who are worthy of resurrection will see it.

How do these two statements match up—how is that all are alive to God, and yet only the worthy will see the resurrection of the dead?

And, I think back of the Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, who reminds us that:
God's grace is not defined as God being forgiving to us even though we sin. Grace is when God is a source of wholeness, which makes up for my failings. My failings hurt me and others and even the planet, and God's grace to me is that my brokenness is not the final word .... Grace is God saying, "I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word.
Or, as she also says, “We’re all sinners, we’re all saints, 100 % of the time.”

In other words, we are here to come to the table of a God who loves us in all our brokenness, who is always working to redeem us. And who is always trying to coax us into playing our own part in the redemptive process—forgiving others as we have been forgiven, and freeing them to go on, doing the same.

Passing the redemptive love around—like we pass around communion bread, but more intentionally. Understanding, as out bishop told us in his address at Diocesan Convention yesterday, that we need to redeem our time, because our time is evil, and the accelerating disdain among our conflicting tribes is bringing that evil into ever greater potency.

When Bishop Dietsche finished his address, I couldn’t help but think of Leonard Cohen’s song, “The Future,” where Cohen tells us us:
You don't know me from the wind/
You never will, you never did
I'm the little Jew/
Who wrote the Bible

I've seen the nations rise and fall
I've heard their stories, heard them all

But love's the only engine
 of survival.
And, in essence, that’s what our bishop told us yesterday, that only reaching out across our divides in love, dropping our hostility, and meeting people where they are, and as who they are, can create the Beloved Community we all yearn to belong to.

To do our part in that cycle of redemption, we have to accept that we are all broken, all sinners, all saints, and that it’s from our brokenness that—to steal another Cohen line—that’s how the light gets in.

And that light is the light of God.

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