The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? A Sermon on Luke 10:25-37

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church, New York City]

One of my earliest pop culture memories is that of a friendly faced, slender man taking off his suit coat, hanging it in the closet, and putting on a cardigan. He’d change out of his outside shoes to slippers, and, all the while, sing gently an invitation:

“Would you be mine, could you be mine? Won’t you be my neighbor?”

Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood was a safe place, a place where angry voices were reconciled, where divisions were healed by empathy, where everyone was a neighbor, with a place in the neighborhood. All were welcome.

Race, religion, gender didn't matter, and everyone, person or puppet—everyone was welcome to Mr. Rogers.

That’s what we all called him. In fact, he was the Reverend Fred Rogers, a Presbyterian minister of the Gospel, who from 1968—when I was two—to August 31, 2001 told children throughout the world that they were special, that there's only one person in the whole world that's like you, and that's you. And people can like you just the way you are.”

Nearly two weeks after Mr. Rogers went off the air, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 began what will soon be 18 years of endless war. In this war-forged America, neighborliness is a trait that seems to be harder and harder to find.

Today, the New York Times warns us that ICE is mounting a major operation to seize those who it believes are not lawfully within our borders. On the same page, the President of the United States has told four Congresswomen—all women of color—to go back to the countries they came from. Three of them, of course, were born here, and the fourth came as a refugee, rising to represent her district, and thus her state in the U.S. Congress.

At our southern border, we are caging asylum seekers and their children in facilities that have been described by observers as “concentration camps.” Rather than impel our government to improve the conditions, the a highly technical debate over the name has ensued, over whether the term “concentration camp” can be applied to anything outside of the Third Reich.

Not that it is relevant, but the British created concentration camps, overcrowded, crude facilities that held prisoners without trial, during the Boer War of 1898-1902. We called them internment camps when the United States imprisoned Japanese-American citizens en masse, because their ethnic origin made the government distrust their loyalty (unlike German-Americans, who remained free unless there was evidence that they took action against the United States).

So never mind the nomenclature, look at the reality on the ground. As Judge William Fletcher of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals described our modern-day camps, the children are “cold all night long, lights on all night long, sleeping on concrete and you’ve got an aluminum foil blanket” against the cold. In response to Judge Fletcher, the United States argued that its legal obligation to provide “safe and sanitary conditions” to migrants who are children do not include soap and toothpaste.

Not all those children are held in camps. But the number that have been separated from their families is itself a daunting figure. Something like 3,500 children have been separated from their parents by our Government, with no plan to keep track of the children in place.

The war at home has other casualties beyond those who seek asylum here, though.

Racist and antisemitic violence continued to plague the country, increasing by 30 percent from 2014 to 2017.

The Anti-Defamation League and the SLPC have recently issued reports warning of a new kind of hate group: men who express violent anger toward and loathing for women.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has also documented a rise in hate groups focusing on women as the primary target. Describing misogyny as the “gateway drug” into the world of hate groups, the SLPC has cautioned that violence against women, always rife in abusive relationships, is becoming a cause of its own.

In 2018, a Florida yoga studio was the scene of a mass shooting by an avowed male supremacist. As the Washington Post described his beliefs, “The term encompasses a worrying new array of assaults by men who view women as genetically inferior, inherently treacherous or unwilling to provide them with the sex and submission they see as their birthright."

How far we have fallen from the gentle request of Mr. Rogers to his viewers, “won’t you be my neighbor.”

Jesus would have recognized our world, though. And the familiarity of today’s gospel reading should not blur how radical it was when Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan, and, sadly, how radical it still is in our time.

The original auditors would have been shocked at the events of the parable. That of the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan, the one who would show mercy would be the hated Samaritan would appall the listeners. That it would be the Samaritan—the hereditary enemy, and not the most holy of the People of God—who would cross over and take care of the injured man, pay for his stay at the inn, and promise more money if it was needed turns the moral order of those listening to Jesus completely upside down. The shocked lawyer—as always, my other profession doesn’t come out well in the Gospel—can’t even simply say “the Samaritan.” He can only answer “the one who showed him mercy.”

Jesus’s truth, even in a parable, is so subversive of the moral order which informs this lawyer’s life, that it is literally unspeakable.

But always, this unspeakable truth has a way of mirroring life. Mercy wells up in the human heart, in the volunteers who offer sanctuary, the lawyers who provide free representation in immigration hearings. The shooter in the yoga studio was stopped by a brave young man who struggled to stope the senseless violence. The families of his victims forgive the racist shooter who in 2015 killed 9 Christians in prayer the American Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston, South Carolina. Heather Heyer’s father forgives her murderer, yet another white supremacist.

So the parable of the Good Samaritan is not just a moral lesson about mercy over righteousness. It’s a reflection of the deepest wellspring of human nature. It is hope, when our hope fades.

So shines a good deed in a weary world.

Let me tell you a story.
One day, 22 years ago, I was shocked to wake up in a hospital. I was even more shocked when I was discharged later that day. I was newly unemployed, I still had insurance, and, apparently, my blacking out the night before was not going to kill me. The emergency was past, and I could go home.

The sun was beginning to set, and the hospital was not in a good part of town. I couldn’t find a cab, and it was a long walk to my apartment.
I headed downhill, and after a few blocks, I began to get that uneasy sensation that you can get when someone is following you. I sped up, but I was still tired. I heard footsteps behind me, and a man passed me, and turned to face me.

He was African-American, about my age—early thirties, at the time. Taller than I am, and bigger than I was then. An athlete by the look of him.

And I was a tired, washed-out white guy in a neighborhood that wasn’t familiar. So he says to me, and this was just the cap to a perfect weekend, “I just got out of prison today.”

I nodded. Really, what did I have to say to that?

Then he goes on: “I haven’t done anything good for anyone else in a long time. A really long time.”

He paused. Then he said, “You look like you’re having a tough day. Let me walk you home.”

I didn’t want him to. I didn’t trust him. I didn’t want anyone, even if I had trusted him. I just wanted to slip away, alone, get home and forget all about being in that hospital, of having lost consciousness. But I didn’t know any way out. So I said yes.

We didn’t talk much that I remember. We just trailed through the City until we reached my door. I fished out my keys, ready to disappear into my safe bright little box. And the man turned around to face me again.

Here it comes, I thought, expecting—what? Him to ask for money? A mugging? I honestly don’t know that I had any expectation. Just that something was going to happen.

And then it did.

“Thank you,” he said, clearly meaning it, and he took my hand.

“Thank you,” I heard myself say, not really having planned to. And he disappeared from my life.

Who was my neighbor that day? The ex-con, the other. The man who wanted to turn his life around, and wasn't sure if he could.

And was my friend, even though I never knew his name, on the day when I needed one most.

We are all each other’s neighbors, as Mr. Rogers taught us as children, as Jesus taught the young lawyer. Sometimes you’ll be the injured man in the road. Sometimes you have the choice—to be the Samaritan. To pass by on the other side, or to show mercy. To love.

Seize that moment. Trust your kindness. It’s the best of you. And it’s of God.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

“The Laborer is Worthy of His Hire”: A Sermon on Luke 10: 1-10

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church, June 23, 2019]

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

I smile whenever I hear this reading, particularly when Jesus reminds the 70 disciples to accept the hospitality that is offered to them, because, as the King James version puts it, “the laborer is worthy of his hire.”

That’s because a lawyer I once knew used to quote that line in explaining that he would pay, would absolutely pay, the young law student working for him one summer, and would do it as soon as the next check from a client came. Because the laborer, as he assured the student, was worthy—-oh so worthy, so very, very worthy-—of his hire.

I don’t think I ever got it all, to be honest, but he did pay me some of what we’d agreed. And I wrote briefs, met clients accused of all kinds of crimes, and got to see my boss joust with prosecutors state and federal.

I think I grew up that summer.

If I ever did at all.

And that summer changed me. The first of many such changes. Learning comes at a cost. Childhood fades a little each day, as you see how the world wags, and what wags it. Only a very few years later, I was the one in court, arguing to judges, jousting with prosecutors, and striving to free my clients.

We change, leaving our past selves behind, like a butterfly leaves its chrysalis.

Not just us, though.

We’re here in New York City, the town that Luc Sante describes as having no truck with its past, that led him to say that “self-reinvention is an essential trope of the American project.”

So perhaps you won’t be surprised to know that our church, this church, in which we gather tonight has constantly been reinvented too. The plain, simple church built in 1835, all the way downtown between Great Jones Street and Lafayette Place, was replaced in the 1870s by a much grander building at 44th Street and Madison Avenue.

Some of that second building has stayed with us in this, the third St. Bartholomew’s Church. The portals and the great bronze doors outside—they come from that second St. Barts.

The dome was added to Bertram Goodhue’s majestic basilica design, St Barts Mark 3, and the dome was restored—really refashioned, would be a more accurate word—in 2017. I was in the first party that was led up the scaffolding to see, just this once, before the scaffolding was removed, the dome close to.

To be honest, I didn't have a choice/ Despite my fear of heights, Lynn Sanders made me go up, and not miss a once-in-a-lifetime sight. Even through my palpable terror, it was worth it: We were allowed to walk around the entire new dome, to see the fresh, smooth tiles making up the dome, firm, and strong, and bright and new.

In all of its incarnations, St. Barts has relied on its parishioners, its neighbors, the people who come to it to worship, to find a still, quiet place away from the noise outside those old portals, or to savor the beauty of the sacred.

Of course, not all of St. Barts’s members have supported it with equal zest. Clarence Day, whose stories about his parents were the basis of the play, the film, and the television show Life With Father tells us that his father, also named Clarence Day, was a member of our church—St. Barts Mark 2, that is-–and particularly enjoyed when the Rector preached pugnacious sermons that were “like a strong editorial in a conservative newspaper.” He particularly enjoyed sermons in which the rector, "instead of nagging at him, gave all wrong-thinking persons a sound trouncing, just the way he would like to."

But then, when the Rector began calling for what he consistently called “a new Edifice”—and you could hear the capital letter “E” in that title—Clarence Sr began to fear the worst.

That he was going to be asked to contribute.

Beyond his usual pledge, he would have to stump up more cash.

At first, he thought it would be a tolerable $50, or even a hundred, which was still enough to depress him. But when he found out that he was expected to give a thousand—well, he did it but was never the same man.

He did receive a reward, though. Possibly from his son, although I can’t prove it. Clarence Sr hated to be told that he should be humble, or should follow the lives of the saints instead of good sound business principles. He rebelled mightily against the notion that the "meek"--creeping little nobodies that they were--would inherit Secaucus, let alone the Earth. His son was a little bit like him here, and admits that he also found “blessed are the meek” to be uncomfortable--too reminiscent of Uriah Heep, of weakness. Neither Day liked that suggestion. But with her usual ability to defuse these conflicts, Lavinia Day, wife to one Clarence and mother of the other, blithely corrected the translation for them: “Blessed are the debonair,” Lavinia translated the verse, based on her French Bible.

And that’s how our window, fourth from the back, on the left side if you’re facing the congregation, and toward the entrance of the chapel, reads at the very bottom. Blessed are the debonnaire. It's attributed--patently falsely, unless it's Lavinia Day's translation of her French Bible that is meant--to the "French Bible," even though every word other than "debonairre" is English.

Clarence Day Sr’s grudging support of the New Edifice makes for amusing reading, and the incorporation of Lavinia’s more palatable version of the beatitude into our stained glass windows is wonderfully ironic. But Clarence Sr’s vision was blinkered. A rich man, he saw only the cost to his wallet in the rector’s request for support, and not the opportunity to participate in and to sustain a community.

If you look around the chapel, the sanctuary, the corridors to the community house, you will see the names of some of those who have given of themselves to St. Barts—members of the vestry, wardens, clergy, and others. Some names are emblazoned on our walls for the financial support they have provided, others for work they have done in keeping the church running, some for the ministries they supported by volunteering their time. Many are listed in our bulletins, on the chairs in the sanctuary. And even more are known by the kindnesses they have shared with our guests in our overnight shelter, our soup kitchen, our food pantry.

And some are wholly anonymous, whether in giving funds, or in their volunteer work. They just show up and get on with it.

St. Barts isn’t just a building. It’s a community—a big sprawling family of people who may not agree on every doctrine in the Prayer Book, but who have chosen to be a part of a family that believes in an ethos of service. But not service of the haves to the have nots; our long time deacon, my mentor and friend J.D. Clarke, taught me early what our ethos was on my first night in the shelter.

He said, “You take our guests—never clients, always guests—by the hand. You look them in the eye. You share a meal together.”

Every night I served in that shelter, I ate with our guests, we listened to each other, told our stories, and became more than just strangers, we became brothers and sisters, if only for an evening.

The Laborer is worthy of her hire.

That can sound like a good deal for the disciple. And it is, though not in the normal sense. After all, they wander, dusty, tired, from street to street, town to town. Maybe they are received. Maybe not. If not, the wandering continues, until they find some welcome, however poor.

The hire—the reward—is in the labor. In giving, we receive. In knowing each other, we find ourselves known.

I would not presume to tell you how you can yourself find that hire. I would not presume to tell you how much you should give, in terms of financial support, volunteering time and effort, or what it is that you feel called to do.

I would only refer you to the words of Frederick Buechner, who famously wrote that “[t]he place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Many of us have found that place here, at St. Barts.

In so doing, we have found friends, a shared sense of purpose, and a renewed commitment to reach out our hands to all of God’s children. We have found family, not biological, but, to steal a great phrase from Armistead Maupin, a logical family, bound together by the inspiration of the God who calls us into relationship with each other and with God, through the life of service modeled for us by Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ who draws us together.

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

Sunday, May 26, 2019

“How the Foot” A Sermon on John 5: 1-9 St. Bartholomew’s Church May 26, 2019

[There are a few paragraphs that I cut from the sermon, but that I'm including as a prefatory note, to commemorate the late, great Herman Wouk, who died a little over a week ago. Wouk kept writing until shortly before his death at the age of 103. No, I’m not exaggerating. But though he’ll always best be remembered for The Caine Mutiny, The Winds of War, and War and Remembrance, the novel I discuss in this sermon, Inside, Outside, is special to me.

It tells the story of young I. David Goodkind, whose life tracks Wouk’s own in many ways (though Goodkind becomes a lawyer specializing in tax law and free speech cases), from childhood to the threshold of old age. It’s warm, and touching, and sometimes farcical—Inside, Outside reminds us that Wouk got his start writing comedy for radio, and he’s never been funnier than in this book.

But underlying the nostalgia and the warm humor is a character arc that seems to have matched Wouk’s own: David finds himself feeling trapped in the rules-oriented traditional Jewish life of his parents and extended family, and slowly falls away from it, disappointing his father and his scholarly grandfather, only to find himself drawn back into his faith in middle age. He may not follow all the rules as closely as his parents did, but he cherishes what they mean to him.

When David is sent to study at a yeshiva, his grandfather proudly takes him to meet another student. This student is a youthful Talmudic prodigy known as the “Kotzker Iluy” which translates from the Yiddish as the “genius from Kotzk”, the town from which his family immigrated to America.

We all know what happens in verses ten through whatever, right? (OK, it’s verse 47; I looked it up for you.).

In case you haven’t worked it out, here’s the tell—today’s Gospel reading ends on “That day was a Sabbath.”

And, as usual, whenever Jesus cures someone on the Sabbath, and they carry their pallet, or even just walk away and are recognized, two things are guaranteed to happen:

First, the people who know the cured person will be awestruck. They’ll want to know how this incredible—literally—change has freed from suffering their friend, neighbor, or, in this case, the poor man they’ve seen languishing for almost forty years, unable to get into the pool in time to benefit from an angel’s stirring the water.

They’ll find out, the authorities will get wind of it all, and, of course, Jesus will come under their jaundiced eyes, and be required to account for his breaking God’s commandment to refrain from work on the Sabbath.

Just how serious this commandment is, and how rigorously it is enforced in certain aspects of the Jewish tradition is a major theme in the late Herman Wouk's last great novel, Inside, Outside (1985).

It tells the story of young David Goodkind, who finds himself feeling trapped in the rules-oriented traditional Jewish life of his parents and extended family.

David’s parents send him to study at a yeshiva, to his great discomfort. One day, David catches his sister using the wrong dishtowel to dry the meat utensils instead of the milk utensils, and she storms out when he tells her. David asks a fellow student if his sister’s breaking the rule is really so terrible. The other student says that everything will break down if you don’t follow the rules. David gets a second opinion from another student, who asks, “what kind of religion is it that you can disintegrate with a dishtowel?”

Finally, he goes to a prodigy, known as The Genius from Kotzk, who kindly asks David what he’s learning—at the yeshiva everyone is learning, not studying or teaching—and David tells him. A Talmud chapter, known by its first two or three words—in this case “How the Foot”—a section on the law of contributory negligence. The prodigy’s eyes light up, and he smiles. “How the Foot?” he says, “you’re learning a marvelous chapter like “How the Foot,” and you worry about dishtowels?”

The Genius from Kotzk reminds me of another young scholar who confounded his teachers in one way: He grasps that the rules aren’t the essence of the spiritual life. That’s not that to say that they’re trivial, or have no place in the spiritual life. Rather, rules don’t matter more than the reasons for them, and certainly not more than those for whose good they were created.

Or, as Jesus put it more simply, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.” (Mk. 2:27).

It would be easy to just denounce the Pharisees as those who haven’t learned that their lives have been structured around a deeply flawed understanding of what is justice.

But that’s oversimplification. And as our former rector Robert Norwood wrote back in 1932, his last year at St. Barts, it’s just not true. As Norwood said:
The Pharisees and scribes were not bad people as we think of badness. Many of them were heroic, and we owe much to them. We do not scruple to say that even Jesus owed the Pharisees and the scribes a debt which he gladly paid on the cross. He loved them; he loved many things for which they stood. But there was one thing about them which he did not love—their dogmatism.
And then Norwood points out that this dogmatism “is still in the Church,” and that is the one thing Jesus cannot love.” Not the people who carry this dogmatism, but the dogmatism itself.

Rather, out former rector reminds us, “We must be set free from anything like ecclesiastical narrowness,” that obsession with rules is a “fetter which we must break if we would walk with Jesus.”

Norwood warns us that “there are many people in our world who are crippled and impotent at the beautiful gate of life,” and that they will always be on the outside, unless one of else helps them. He adds, “[i]f our Christianity is not helping the lame at the Beautiful Gate, it is of no value.”

No wonder they called Norwood ‘the poet of the pulpit.”

But how do we put this into practice—how do we help those who have been wounded, or, even worse, discarded by our ever faster moving society, by our ever-increasing acrimony?

How do we live with one another, when our divisions threaten to tear us apart?

It’s the question of our time, in my opinion. Look at Brexit tearing the United Kingdom apart—literally, as the Scots consider leaving the UK rather than leaving the European Union—and the major parties tearing themselves apart, and the far right possibly triumphing in the very nation that defied the Nazis. Look at our own dysfunctional politics, with the Executive Branch refusing to cooperate with the Legislative Branch unless it surrenders its oversight powers.

And look at how those battles between would be and maybe power brokers are poisoning the body politic, leeching out into the relationships between we the people who have to live with the consequences of their decisions and teaching us how to hate. How to hate each other, that is.

Having been tainted by these dark lessons, how do we live lives that are not framed by hatred?

We are living in a stormy time, my sisters and brothers. We are witnessing the rejection by large factions of the world of kindness, of forbearance. We live in a time where arrogance and triumphalism is rampant, and in which cruelty is becoming normalized, and even valorized.

But we are not just witnesses. We are not just helpless viewers of events on a screen. We are participants in the drama. I know it’s a cliché, but when I was a child, my mother taught me that every life we touch, we affect for either good or bad. We must model the virtues we profess, while standing up for the least of us.

Not the least of these, you notice. Because we are not ourselves yet healed. We are at the pool, hoping for the stirring of the waters. We can push each other out of the way, demanding “our rights,” like road-rage filled drivers, or we can help each other heal by speaking truth, but with love. By sharing experience, strength and hope. By reaching out to the stranger, and finding a sister or a brother.

I’ve been preaching about this for the past year, and I’ve quoted saints, sages, and scriptwriters. But here’s one more quotation from the poet of the pulpit, our own Robert Norwood, that puts it better than I can:
Be more concerned with your kindness than your goodness. If you will study Jesus in relation to people, you will find that he did not care much for conventional goodness. I have discovered that the people who put the emphasis on their goodness are narrow, hard, intolerant and mean. . . .I have seen “good” people in the church make the church a hissing and a by-word. There goodness was of no value. It was full of dry-rottenness.

Suspect your goodness, but be reverent toward your innate kindness. Practice it in every season. Believe in it above everything else. Be confident in your kindness. ….Do not trust even your intellectual conclusions or your religious practices. But trust your innate courtesy, that sudden softening of your heart, that ability to forget yourself, your rights and your wrongs, in pity for your neighbor, his problems, her needs.
In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Herman Wouk, In Memoriam

I first met Herman Wouk (in print, never in life) through Herbie Bookbinder, the fat, clever, put-upon "General Garbage," who is the hero of City Boy: The Adventures of Herbie Bookbinder. Set over half a century before I was reading it (1980-ish, I'll guess), it made me laugh, made me wince with familiarity, and enter into a world of New York City that was already gone, and yet which Wouk brought back to human, humane, life.

Adelle Waldman has an appreciation of the late Herman Wouk that is in fact a strong defense of just two of his books--The Winds of War (1971)and its sequel, War and Remembrance (1978). She doesn't discuss his other novels, and that's just fine. Because Wouk's books, especially Winds and War, are often, as Waldman notes, dismissively "often grouped with middlebrow writers of popular historical fiction — James Michener and Leon Uris." One of my favorite literature professors, Nick Loprete, dismissed him with a glib one liner--"too much wind," he said, "and too much war."

But I'm with Waldman, especially where she writes:
Although sweeping, the novels aren’t melodramas. They are the kinds of books in which an attractive young woman in a doomed love affair comes down with a cold — and doesn’t die. She doesn’t even become seriously ill. She takes some aspirin and goes to bed early.

These are also novels in which you can’t immediately tell whether a character will turn out to be mostly admirable or mostly not. With Wouk, it takes hundreds of pages of seeing the character in action before you can decide — and even then, your verdict is liable to remain uncertain and subject to change. Even in literary fiction, this kind of authorial restraint and fidelity to human complexity is surprising.
Yes, very true--and Waldman's exegesis of Wouk's depiction of the slow corruption of people of good will through normalization of the abhorrent by its repetition, as exemplified by Rhoda Henry's slow acclimatization to Nazi Germany during her stay as an attache's wife, is especially resonant today, as long-held norms are fragmenting in law (good-bye, stare decisis) and politics (around the globe).

Waldman touches on the character of Aaron Jastrow, the scholar who found fame in America, is caught up in Fascit Italy, and, ultimately, dies in a concentration camp near where he studied as a boy. She is very good on Jastrow's glib sophistication that leads him into the trap, but I value even more the passage I have previously cited, in which a wiser Jastrow, returns to his roots as a talmudic scholar, even though heh is imprisoned in the "paradise ghetto" of Theresinstadt. Jastrow lectures on the Book of Job in contrast to the Iliad, and points that:
In Job, as in most great works of art, the main design is very simple. His comforters maintain that since one Almighty God rules the universe, it must make sense. Therefore Job must have sinned. Let him search his deeds, confess and repent. The missing piece is only what his offense was.

And in round after round of soaring argument, Job fights back. The missing piece must be with God, not with him. He is as religious as they are. He knows that the Almighty exists, that the universe must make sense. But he, poor bereft boil-covered
skeleton, knows now that it does not in fact always make sense; that there is no guarantee of good fortune for good behavior; that crazy injustice is part of the visible world, and of this life. His religion demands that he assert his innocence,otherwise he will be profaning God's name! He will be conceding that the Almighty can botch one man's life; and if God can do that, the whole universe is a botch, and He is not an Almighty God. That Job will never concede. He wants an answer.

He gets an answer! Oh, what an answer! An answer that answers nothing. God Himself speaks at last out of a roaring storm."Who are you to call me to account? Can you hope to understand why or how I do anything? Were you there at Creation? Can you comprehend the marvels of the stars, the animals, the infinite wonders of existence? You, a worm that lives a few moments and dies?

My friends, Job has won! Do you understand? God with all His roaring has conceded Job's main point that the missing piece is with Him. God claims only that His reason is beyond Job. That, Job is perfectly willing to admit. With the main point settled, Job humbles himself, is more than satisfied, falls on his face. So the drama ends. God rebukes the comforters for speaking falsely of Him, and praises Job for holding to the truth. He restores Job's wealth. Job has seven more sons and three more daughters. He lives a hundred and forty more years, sees grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and dies old, prosperous, revered.

Satisfied? A happy ending, yes? Much more Jewish than the absurd and tragic Iliad. Are you so sure? My dear Jewish friends, what about the ten children who died? Where was God's justice to them? And what about the father, the mother? Can those scars on Job's heart heal, even in a hundred and forty years? That is not the worst of it. Think! What was the missing piece that was too much for Job to understand? We understand it, and are we so very clever? Satan simply sneered God into ordering the senseless ordeal. No wonder God roars out of a storm to silence Job! Isn't He ashamed of Himself before His own creature? Hasn't Job behaved better than God?
It is a chilling indictment, and yet Jastrow has returned to his faith, despite--or because of--the insanity and horror of his situation, but he doesn't return blindly--he later says that as he must answer to God for his apostasy, God must answer to Jastrow for Auschwitz.

Wouk's later novels--with the exception of the under-appreciated Inside, Outside (1985) (both touching and wonderfully, ruefully funny. Philip Roth must have felt the burn in that one, too.) don't hit the same high point, but his fertile mind teemed with lesser novels in different genres, from science fiction to Hollywood comedy. But he never failed to interest me, to enlighten me, and to do so while thoroughly entertaining me.

Vogue la galère, O teller of tales; let your ship sail free!

Sunday, April 28, 2019

“Dat Doubt”: A Sermon on John 20:19-31 St. Bartholomew’s Church, April 28, 2019

Despair and doubt can be heavy burdens. Especially when you live in a world that seems to be turning away from what we were taught to see as “the Good,”—from compassion, from love of neighbor, including the stranger and the refugee. From basic honesty and integrity. From justice, let alone mercy.

When the apostles saw Jesus arrested, sentenced, and executed, they fled—all but one, the professed author of this Gospel, who, like Ishmael in Moby Dick, is the sole witness of the bitter end.

But endings are rarely clear and simple.

The 11 men of Galilee are hiding in the upper room they had rented for what turned out to be their last Passover with Jesus. They are cowering, afraid. Strike the shepherd, and then scatter the sheep, indeed (Matt. 26:31)

Except, the disciples don’t all scatter. Oh, a couple head off toward Emmaus, Judas has hanged himself, the women are—well, we don’t know where they are. But the majority of the Eleven hunker down.

They’re not safe—look how many people quizzed Peter if he was one of Jesus’s disciples—but they can’t quite bring themselves to flee. Among the detritus of the Last Supper, they–wait. It’s all they can do, really. They can’t give up on their years following Jesus, can’t admit that it is all over. In their hearts, they have what C.P. Snow described as “a bit of idiot hope,” or, more kindly, “the obstinate hope of the fibers.”

They can’t believe that this is the end. They doubt that life can be so empty, so cruel, so without hope.

In the 1970 movie Ryan’s Daughter, Robert Mitchum plays a schoolteacher in a tiny Irish village during the First World War. The schoolteacher marries Rosy, the beautiful young daughter of the pub landlord, played by Leo McKern, who is both a pillar of the local IRA, and an informer for the British. A wounded British soldier and Rosy have an affair—he’s so much more dashing than her aging, decent husband—and are found out by the villagers, who assume Rosy is the informer. Her father, afraid for his own life, lets the villagers seize his daughter, weeping at his cowardice. They publicly strip and shame her. Her betrayed husband opts to take her to Dublin so she can start a new life, though he is unsure that their love can be redeemed from her betrayal.

The village priest—who prevents the punishment of Rosy for her father’s crimes from being even more severe—gives one last word of advice as they get on the bus. In Trevor Howard’s clipped, accented tones, Father Collins says to the schoolteacher:

I think you have it in your mind
that you and Rosy ought to part.
Yes, I thought as much.
Well, maybe you're right,
maybe you ought, but I doubt it.
And dat's my parting
gift to you. Dat doubt.

That doubt—the doubt that it’s over, that it’s ruined beyond redemption—is what holds the disciples in place, and so they are mostly there when Jesus comes to them in the Upper Room. Paralyzed by doubt that hope can die, they are able to say to Thomas when he returns, “We have seen the Lord.”

Ah—when he returns. And where, I wonder has he been?

Who is this disciple, forever known as Doubting Thomas? And what has he been doing?

Thomas has been out and about, while they’re all hiding.

Thomas may not have been the most spiritual of the disciples, but he’s got courage. And in fact he’s pretty bright. Because when Jesus tells the disciples about the death of Lazarus, and that he is going to Lazarus’s family and then back to Jerusalem, Thomas is the only one who knows what’s coming next.

Grim but loyal, Lazarus says only, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (Jn. 11: 16)

So Thomas is skeptical of his remaining friends, who are still hiding away, while he’s doing whatever needs to be done in the city.

Of course, in the Synoptic Gospels, none of the disciples believe Mary Magdalene, Joanna or the other women when they report the empty tomb, and the strange men in dazzling clothes—angels? Almost certainly—who tell them that Jesus is not to be found among the dead, but among the living. The disciples dismiss the women’s testimony as “an idle tale,” except for Peter, who, hoping against hope, must see for himself—and sees that the tomb, at any rate, is empty.

But Thomas, that rather grim, pragmatic man who goes out to obtain food, or to find out if it’s safe for the disciples to leave Jerusalem—Thomas is, in the midst of his own despair, acting. He’s serving his brothers, seeing to their needs, their safety.

He is doing Jesus’s bidding, as Jesus did at the Last Supper, when he wrapped a towel around his waist and served the Twelve. Now, with Jesus and Judas dead, two other disciples departed, with the brotherhood of the disciples and their teacher shattered—Thomas keeps walking in the way Jesus taught him, even if the fire in his heart has been reduced to a flicker.

And Thomas’s courage, and his loyalty, are rewarded. Jesus comes back for him, to make sure that he doesn’t miss out on the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Of course, like any teacher, he answers Thomas’s challenge. He says to him, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

Thomas doesn’t take him up on the offer. Instead, he answers him, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus then says, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

That, in case you haven’t worked it out, is us. You and me.

We haven’t seen Jesus in the flesh. We’re two whole millennia removed from anyone who has.

So Jesus is holding out to us the hope that we can be blessed in a way one of his most loyal, brave disciples was not, simply because we have come to believe.

In the very first chapter of this Gospel, we are told that “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” (Jn 1: 12-13)

Right, that’s not exactly self explanatory, is it?

Maybe we need to dig just a little deeper.

The Fourth Gospel, traditionally attributed to John, the son of Zebedee, is sometimes a very challenging one. It has dense, theologically rich discourses by Jesus about His role as the Bread of Life, or the vine to which we—that’s right, you and me—are the branches.

First, what we are called to believe is, as Jesus summarizes it, as we heard throughout Lent, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

But how can we love on command? I’ll steal a sentence from our Presiding Bishop: “Love isn’t an emotion—it’s a commitment.” Our as the teller of tales Steven Moffat put it, Love isn’t an emotion—it’s a promise. Make the commitment; vow the promise. And then walk the Way.

We’re not called to sentimental uselessness, but to action, action without malice, but with love.

Always remember that the early church didn’t see itself as a checklist of beliefs but as a way of life—it’s even called The Way, in the Acts of the Apostles.

And there is, I think, where we find the ultimate clue to what it is to come to believe.

This too:

Believe that you are loved. Don’t doubt it.

When you doubt it, because you will, don’t let that tear you down.

When you doubt it, because we all do from time to time, remember that when Thomas was too skeptical to believe the Good News at second hand, Jesus came back, just for him.

But there are things that you should doubt.

Doubt the cynical horselaugh.

Doubt the self-hatred that we all harbor within ourselves, that says you’re not worthy of God’s love.

Doubt the despair that invades your heart when you lie awake at night wondering what is it all for?

Doubt that might is right, that cruelty is strength, that mercy is weakness.

Because that is Thomas’s gift to us, that doubt. His example of going on, even when he couldn’t feel it, when all seemed lost.

But remember the even greater gift.

Most of all, don’t be afraid you’ll be left behind.

Jesus came back for Thomas; he won’t forget you.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

“Father, Forgive”: A Good Friday Meditation on Luke 23:32-35

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church,
April 19, 2019]

Did you see it?

Did you see the videos that have gone viral on the news, or are proliferating around Twitter, or did you watch in real time, as flames shot up the length of the towering spire of Notre Dame Cathedral?

Did you see—see for yourself—that elegant, finger pointing at the heavens crack, at about the halfway point, and slowly, inexorably topple, only to fall onto the already burning roof?

Did you see the blazing roof of the Cathedral?

And have you seen the pictures of the damage? The soot and charcoal everywhere, the near-total destruction of one of the great hallowed places of the world?

I say near total—two thirds of the roof is gone, leaving the cathedral open to the sky, the interior damage is still being assessed. The bell towers so beloved of Victor Hugo’s fictional Quasimodo, were spared.

As of today, nobody is quite sure what caused the fire—electrical problems, an accident on the part of the reconstruction team working to preserve and shore up the nearly 800 year old treasure.

So far as we know, there is no reason to believe that the Cathedral suffered anything but an accident.

As I watched it, though, I flashed back on another Cathedral destroyed by fire—and very much not by accident.

During the Second World War, the Nazi regime tried to cow the British into submission by what the British called Baedeker raids—bombing runs to destroy historic sites that had been chosen by the famous Baedeker Guide books.

In November 1940, one of those bombing raids opened up Coventry Cathedral to the sky.

The roof, the windows, the beautiful interior were reduced to smouldering, blackened rubble. Only the outer shell of the building survived.

Seeing Notre Dame burn makes me realize the shock and loss the people of Coventry endured, knowing that the treasure of their community was reduced to a shell because it had been awarded stars in a guide book. And at least at Notre Dame, nobody was, as far as the reports tell us, killed—one firefighter and two police officer injured, the firefighter seriously—but no deaths, as far as we know, and God grant that it remain so.

Coventry was not so fortunate.

568 people were killed, roughly 1200 injured, nearly 900 of them seriously. Almost 8,000 houses were destroyed outright, or so damaged that the occupants had to be evacuated

The next day, the very next day after the bombing raid, the Cathedral provost, Richard Howard, chalked on the wall of the ruined sanctuary the words, “Father, Forgive.”

Before the fires had died down, before it was safe to inspect the damage inside, Coventry Cathedral began its ministry of reconciliation.

While the losses were fresh.

While the outcome of the battle was far from clear.

While the war looked like it would end with Fascism triumphant, decency buried in rubble and scorched wood.

When it was safe to enter the ruined, shattered Cathedral, the people of Coventry doubled down on Howard’s bold move. A stonemason named Jock Forbes built an altar from the rubble. Behind it, two charred, twisted roof beams, still attached to each other, stood as the Cross behind the altar. Forbes had carved the words “Father, Forgive,” into the altar. I have been told that at the first service in the shell of the cathedral, under the twisted, blackened cross, and the open sky—the unjust skies that had rained down devastation and death so recently—that the people of Coventry prayed for their losses, but also for the souls of the German pilots who had inflicted those losses.

A few weeks later, on Christmas Day, Provost Howard spoke over the radio from the ruins. He asked those who were listening “to banish all thoughts of revenge” and called on them to “make a kinder, simpler world—a more Christ-Child like world.”

Coventry had taken its stand.

It has devoted itself to a mission of forgiveness and reconciliation ever since.

Half a century later, on my first trip to England, we stopped at the new Cathedral next to the ancient ruin. I was drawn into the ruins, and pulled by the inscription on the altar, to the twisted, blackened Cross,

And at once I was confronted with the best and worst of humanity.

I don’t need to specify the worst—the ruins had been tidied up, shored up, cleaned up. But the house of worship was a vestige, literally a shell.

But inside the shell was a pearl.

A pearl beyond all price, like the one in the Gospel.

That pearl was the echo, resounding from that day to the present, of people at their very best—following the example of Jesus Christ on the Cross, praying for his persecutors with his rasping, dying breath.

In that moment, standing there, I wasn’t thinking; I was in awe. And then it clicked in my mind—THIS. This is what we are meant to be. It’s all real, every bit of it, if we choose it, grasp it, and try to live it.

I say “try” advisedly, because we fail. All of us. Anyone whos’s driven in a traffic jam with me has living proof of that fact.

But at our best, we can follow the example of Jesus on the Cross, and forgive those who have hurt us. And we’d better get on it.

Because we are a long way off from the “kinder, simpler, more Christ Child-like world” that Richard Howard called out for in Christmas, 1940. We seem further from it than ever in my lifetime. Our British friends riven by conflict over Brexit, our own politics defaced with division and distrust curdling into contempt. We need the Cross today more than ever, and these words of Jesus call us to do better.

Because Jesus did. And Jesus does.

Maybe it’s because He knows us better than we know ourselves, and is able to understand how easy it is to fool ourselves into the worst betrayals, the worst crimes. After all, Peter has denied him out of fear, Judas has sold him for profit, the Temple authorities have betrayed him to the Romans, and the Romans—well, imagine the betrayal of finding in the occupier of your nation someone who understands exactly what is going on, knows that you’re not guilty, and then, as a matter of political expediency, sends you to an agonizing death anyway.

And yet he gasps, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

It’s all too common and all too tempting to read these words to mean that the whole cast of characters who betrayed Jesus that night and that day would have acted better if they knew he was the Messiah.

But that glib, easy reason lets us off the hook. It protects us from the duty to forgive. And allows us to hold on to our self-righteousness, out appalling certainty that we are right, and they—define the term yourself—are wrong. And only afterward do we realize that certainty is a betrayal of all Jesus taught us.

Like Peter, like Judas, perhaps even like Pilate. Like Paul in Acts, when the scales fall from his eyes. Only afterwards do they understand the enormity of what they have done.

And not just because Jesus was the Messiah. Because they have, in betraying Jesus, betrayed what was best in them.

As we do, as I do, when we burn bright with self-righteousness at the terrible things that happen in our poor world, and we give ourselves permission to hate whoever we think is responsible for them, to deny their humanity. As we do, as I do, when we feel that wonderful sense of justified anger, and give into it. As we do, as I do, when we accept an unjust status quo, and convince ourselves that there is nothing to be done. That so the world is, when in fact it is so we have made the world.

Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do.

Coventry Cathedral burnt cross

(Photo credit: sannse [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

"Pining for the Fjords": Trying to Resuscitate Lambeth Resolution 1:10

I regret to say that Ephraim Radner's article "CLEANING UP THE PLAYING FIELD: SIX RESOLUTIONS FOR LAMBETH" put me in mind of the above classic Monty Python sketch. Dr. Radner's "Resolutions" for the 2020 Lambeth Conference are an effort to revive the long-dead Lambeth Resolution 1.10 (1998), as a backdoor way to institute punishment on non-compliant churches.

Well, non-compliant progressive churches, that is. Because the fact that Dr. Radner does not acknowledge, is that the so-called Traditionalist provinces never themselves complied with the Resolution. The Episcopal Church did, but that didn't abate the Traditionalist disregard for the Resolution insofar as it would have affected their conduct.

Here are Dr. Radner's proposed Resolutions:
1. This Conference reaffirms the 1998 Resolution 1.10.

2. Those bishops and churches who contradict or contravene this affirmation (I.10), or who punish others on the basis of such an affirmation, stand outside the boundaries of Anglican teaching and witness as this Conference understands it.

3. We request that other Communion Instruments of Unity pursue their work on the basis of this teaching and witness.

4. We recognize the missionary and pastoral integrity of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) and its related member churches; and we urge serious deliberation, locally and at the international level, over how these churches can be integrated fully into the life of the Communion.

5. We commit ourselves as bishops to the work of formulating and pursuing extended, coordinated, and coherent formation and catechesis in the Christian faith within our churches and across the Communion.

6. We commit ourselves to gathering again in 10 years, and in the interim to developing ways by which, despite the real differences that divide us, we can fruitfully and honestly engage one another and our service of Christ according to the levels of communion we actually share.
But here's the problem; Dr. Radner only focuses on one part of the Resolution, missing the reciprocal obligations the 1998 Lambeth Conference attempted to create:
This Conference:

a. commends to the Church the subsection report on human sexuality [1];
b. in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage;
c. recognises that there are among us persons who experience themselves as having a homosexual orientation. Many of these are members of the Church and are seeking the pastoral care, moral direction of the Church, and God's transforming power for the living of their lives and the ordering of relationships. We commit ourselves to listen to the experience of homosexual persons and we wish to assure them that they are loved by God and that all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ;
d. while rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture, calls on all our people to minister pastorally and sensitively to all irrespective of sexual orientation and to condemn irrational fear of homosexuals, violence within marriage and any trivialisation and commercialisation of sex;
e. cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions;
f. requests the Primates and the ACC to establish a means of monitoring the work done on the subject of human sexuality in the Communion and to share statements and resources among us;
g. notes the significance of the Kuala Lumpur Statement on Human Sexuality and the concerns expressed in resolutions IV.26, V.1, V.10, V.23 and V.35 on the authority of Scripture in matters of marriage and sexuality and asks the Primates and the ACC to include them in their monitoring process.
In 2004, The Windsor Report added to these principles a request, implicit in the plea for unity in the Resolution, for a moratorium on the part of the Episcopal Church "to effect a moratorium on the election and consent to the consecration of any candidate to the episcopate who is living in a same gender union until some new consensus in the Anglican Communion emerges," and, reciprocally, for
those bishops who believe it is their conscientious duty to intervene in provinces, dioceses and parishes other than their own to
♦express regret for the consequences of their actions
♦ to affirm their desire to remain in the Communion, and
♦ to effect a moratorium on any further interventions.
(Windsor Report para 155).

Now, as I pointed out in 2010, when the Episcopal Church, after complying with the requested moratorium placed upon it for over 6 years, finally abandoned its adherence, it did so after the reciprocal obligations in the Resolution and in the Windsor Report had been systematically, comprehensively, and shamelessly flouted by the Traditionalists:
But I find I do have a word to say to the self-styled reasserter community, and to the communion conservatives joining them in deploring TEC's lack of "gracious restraint" in no longer honoring the Windsor Reports moratoria after six and a half years of compliance: Congratulations.

Seriously. In the years since the requests were made, TEC complied. In return, it was subjected to cross-boundary jurisdictional crossings, attempted property seizures, a farcical "listening process" and a never-ending wave of bile and venom. Additionally, our Presiding Bishop was insulted at the 2007 primates meeting, where seven Global South primates refused to take communion for fear of being polluted by her presence. And then of course there was the Lambeth Walk. And, finally, the ongoing effort to replace TEC as the North American Anglican entity. So, in view of all these, riddle me this, Batman:

What incentive did your side ever give the Episcopal Church to continue its adherence to the requested moratorium?

I mean, really. You go all out to tear her apart from within, demonize her and her leadership, replace her in the worldwide communion--and then you're surprised that she doesn't continue in a posture of "gracious restraint" which your "side" has been flouting for the same 6 1/2 years she's been complying. I mean, I know you have a low opinion of TEC, but what adverse consequence do you have in your arsenal that you haven't already launched at TEC? What benefit did TEC receive by holding off for 6 1/2 years? None, and none.
I wouldn't use the Batman reference nowadays, but, frankly, I stand by my point: The Resolution was never received by the Traditionalists of the Anglican Communion, only its condemnation of same-sex relationships. Sections (c), (d), and (f) (which gave rise to the so-called "Listening Process") of the Resolution were simply disregarded, or cavalierly "complied with" in form only. So, for example, The Church of Nigeria's Report on the Listening Process did not reflect the testimony or views of any person but the Archbishop of Nigeria, stating simply:
The Primate of all Nigeria has said “Our argument is that, if homosexuals see themselves as deviants who have gone astray, the Christian spirit would plead for patience and prayers to make room for their repentance. When scripture says something is wrong and some people say that it is right, such people make God a liar. We argue that it is a blatant lie against Almighty God that homosexuality is their God- given urge and inclination. For us, it is better seen as an acquired aberration.”
The rest of the report comprises arguments from Scripture to support this statement--not any evidence of any listening at all--and the "Report" as a whole can be accurately summarized by the old Ring Lardner line, "Shut up, he explained."

In sum, Radner seeks to elevate to canonical status a Resolution that has, for nearly a decade, been rejected by the Churches making up the Anglican Communion, on both sides of the divide. That the Resolution was frail at birth, and died nine years ago, after TEC alone had kept it on life support from 2004-2010, is the one thing the actions of the Churches establishes.

Why on earth would we pay lip service to a dead parrot? It's not pining, it's passed on.