Horatio

Horatio
[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Monday, October 31, 2016

A Halloween Reflection



If there is a movie with a creepier ending--no; not creepy. Stylized, horrific, but with an aesthetic quality, brilliantly framed and shot--I'm not aware of it.

Now, I saw it maybe a year after it came out, so I'd have been roughly 15. And that ending stuck in my head for 35 years, and counting.

The film has its bumps--Farrow's English accent, some longeurs along the way, and a cheap death or two--but Ambrose Bierce would have approved that ending, and as an adaptation of Peter Straub's Julia, it does an emotionally fraught, claustrophobic novel close to justice. (Certainly far more than Ghost Story, in which a stellar cast is strayed by a lame script out for cheap thrills.)

Last night I watched Bride of Frankenstein for the first time in 30 years. And, for a movie released less than 10 years into the "talkie" era, it holds up quite well. It is unquestionably a better film than The Haunting of Julia/Full Circle.

But it has no place in my nightmares; Julia got there first.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Suddenly Susan: Some Notes on Howatch

So for this Advent (starting a little early (November 6), ending a little early(December 18)), I'll be leading a book group at St. Barts on the Starbridge Novels of Susan Howatch. The books are old friends; I stumbled on them when Howatch was only partway through with the series, and bought Mystical Paths and Absolute Truths when they came out. They're interesting in several ways, but here's what grabbed me when I first read them: they succeed as moves first and foremost. Howatch's characters, particularly her leads, the conflicted intellectual Charles Ashworth, the mystic Jonathan Darrow, and the low church, ambitious Neville Aysgarth, are three dimensional figures whose struggles with their own flaws and with each other are credible, rooted in deep human insight, illuminated with deep empathy.

You can hear the overview of the novels that I gave at the St. Barts Rector's Forum over the summer here.

As Howatch explained in an interview with David Virtue (!):
Virtue: What makes good Christian fiction?

Howatch: It’s a vexed question. I don’t think of myself as a Christian novelist. I think of myself as a novelist who writes on Christian themes. I think there is a difference. A Christian novelist implies someone who thinks a Christian theme and tailors everything to fit. For me, the people come first and the Christian themes grow out of that. The important thing about Christian fiction is that first of all it should be good fiction; without that, nothing is possible. But because Christianity applies to the whole of life and the novelist’s concern should be the whole of life, if a novel is done well, it inevitably should have Christian themes in it because Christianity is dealing with the great fundamentals of life. Unfortunately many novelists today aren’t interested in broad interests or major themes.. . . I think it is extremely dangerous for any novelist to set out to evangelize, because you end up writing a Christian polemic. A novelist’s first duty is to write a story. A novelist’s second duty is to write a readable story, and without a readable story nothing is possible. You can’t write a polemic for a lost generation. That’s not the way it works. It would be phony. If you get the story right, the Christian themes will emerge from the interaction of the people, and they can be completely understated. In The Wonder Worker you can see the theology of healing, and you can see the business of sin and redemption and forgiveness at work. The themes are all there in the book. Once you start saying I am going to evangelize, that’s actually pride. When I had my religious conversion, one of the most important things was that I was working for years furthering my own self-interest. What I am going to do now, if I continue to write books, I am going to offer them to God to use as he pleases. That sets me free. I offer it to God and say “make of it what you wish”; otherwise you get carried away by pride.
By her standard, of writing good novels with compelling characters, and a storyline that naturally flows from their interactions, Howatch succeeds admirably in the Starbridge novels.

Each of the three clerics at the center of the series is the narrator in one book. The daughter of Aysgarth's best friend continues his story, as Darrow's son tells his father's story and his own. Ashworth then brings the series to a close. Importantly, there are no villains. While Howatch clearly has her favorites among the cast--she's quite fond of Ashworth, respects Darrow, and does not like Aysgarth as much as she does the other two--she gives them all their do, as she does for less central figures making up the work. The overlapping narration, in which the same event is often seen several times, through starkly different viewpoints, enriches the whole.

The theological component of the novels is rich, also, and worth noting, and I'll write about that next.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Humble, ‘Umble Stumble, Tumble: A Sermon Given at St Bartholomew’s Church, October 23, 2016

Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.

Maybe it’s the time of year. Nearly the end of October, as we near the end of the liturgical year, you have to wonder how all the readings fit together sometimes. Or maybe it’s the fact that we’re in an election year, both here at St. Barts and in the country at large. Whatever it is, I can’t help but connect these readings with the questions of power and leadership. Those themes resonated with the scripture readings I was trying to reconcile with each other, and maybe find some common thread uniting them.

And today’s readings can seem a little out of harmony with each other. We have Jesus, in Luke’s telling of his life, contrasting the ever so respectable Pharisee in the Temple with the wretched tax collector. The Pharisee’s prayer is not really what we’d think of as prayer; it’s more a love letter to himself.

Less prayer, more preening, as the Pharisee exults that he is not like other people. No, he’s special. He follows the law. He fasts, he tithes. And these things make him superior to all kinds of people: rogues, thieves, adulterers, and you know who else? That guy—yeah, that guy over there, the tax collector.

What about him, anyway? What’s he doing? The tax collector doesn’t even look up, just repeating over and over, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”And yet Jesus tells us that it’s that other, the tax collector who goes home with God’s forgiveness, not the Pharisee.

Meanwhile, in the Epistle, Paul is telling us that he has fought the good fight, has finished the race, has kept the faith. There is a crown of righteousness waiting for Paul. So he tells us, anyway.

Placing these two readings back to back is a little uncomfortable. Because Paul does not sound much like the forgiven tax collector. Does he sound a little too much like that Pharisee?
Isn’t that the lesson of this Gospel—that we are all miserable sinners who should be aware of the depth of our depravity, and lamenting our wrongs?

Well, if I were Jonathan Edwards—you know, Aaron Burr’s grandfather, the fire and brimstone preacher who wrote “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” that would be one way to go with this Gospel. I could ignore the Epistle, make us all shiver with the pangs of hell, and stalk off to coffee hour with a big scowl.

But I’d be lying to you. Because knowing and owning up to our failures and worst attributes is only part of the story. It’s a part of self knowledge, but not all of it.

And we do have the Epistle for today, and Paul’s calm confidence is very different from the lamenting of the tax collector. And, I’d suggest, just as different from the self-righteousness of the Pharisee.
So why are these readings paired together? Is there some way that they can be drawn together, instead of ignoring one in favor of the other? What are they trying to tell us in late October of 2016?

I have a theory.

We are introduced to three figures in the readings. We have the Pharisee, a leader considered righteous not just by himself, but by his community. He has the respect of those who see him in the temple. He patterns his life to the law, he gives to the poor.

The tax collector is an outcast, reviled by the community that looks up to the Pharisee, but you’d be very mistaken if you write him off as insignificant, or weak. This is a man of force, of violence even. The tax collector successfully bid for the office and serves the occupying power to his own profit as well as Caesar’s. Tax collectors were hated because they were part of the apparatus of oppression. They exercised power over the people, and were infamous for using force to twist more money than was due out of the people. That’s how they profited from their position. So very much a man to be reckoned with. Hated, yes. But feared, too.

Then we get Paul. The 18th Century theologian Johannes Albrecht Bengel called the Second Letter to Timothy “a last will and a swan song conveying a legacy." Those scholars who believe it was written by Paul himself also believe it was written shortly before his death; those who think it was written in his name by another author view it as similar to Plato’s depiction of Socrates’s final days. A sort of imaginative reconstruction of how he would have said goodbye.

However you view it, today’s Epistle reading depicts Paul’s final summation of himself as an apostle. And more than that, he’s saying farewell to that life of service, and encouraging Timothy to follow his example when Paul is gone.
Each of the three men we meet has exercised leadership. Each has something to tell us about leadership, and presents a different image of what it is, or what it can be.

Each of these men of power has used their position differently. The Pharisee has conformed to expectations but smothers in his own self-regard. Anything he has done has been for his own betterment, and others have only incidentally benefited. The tax collector has abused his power, and bitterly laments it. Paul, at the end of his life, sees that life as one poured out like a sacrifice for the good of others —a libation is a ritual sacrifice, a drink offering to a deity—and he celebrates that life as well worth living.

But there’s more to it than that, even. The tax collector and St. Paul have something in common with each other, something that the poor Pharisee lacks.

They’re self aware.

They know who they are, for good and for ill.

Paul knows that he has run the race, that he has done what he could.

The tax collector knows that he has not. He longs for a second chance.

Paul and the tax collector share a virtue we don’t like to talk about in our competitive, striving, big-talking world. That virtue is humility. And you can’t have that without self-awareness.

I don’t mean thinking little of themselves, or denigrating their abilities and their character. Self-abasement is not humility. In his novel Doctor Thorne, Anthony Trollope mocks that kind of false humility, saying there are “four degrees; humble, umble, stumble, tumble,” and then you just lay on the ground to be walked on. Mordred in the musical Camelot tells us it’s not the earth the meek inherit, it’s the dirt.

The tax collector was not wallowing in self-hatred, as Jesus tells the story. He was, as Luke earlier described the Prodigal Son, coming to himself, recognizing the extent to which he had immersed himself in an evil way of life, and seeking a second chance. He gets it.

The poor Pharisee doesn’t. Why do I say “the poor Pharisee”? Because he doesn’t see himself as he is. He thinks that his compliance with the law is enough, and that his conformity entitles him to look down on those whose lives are messy.

He doesn’t understand the dark secrets of his own heart, let alone the hidden virtues of those whose lives don’t outwardly conform to his expectations. He’s shut off from the complex multi-faceted world around him, and can’t hear or see all the people around him except as mirrors for his own self-admiration. He does not know himself, and that means he can’t know others, including God.
Humility might be viewed as a combination of knowing ourselves, and then getting ourselves out of the way. Trying to understand our flaws and virtues, and seeing ourselves as we are. But then letting it go, and getting on with life. Being open to its joys and sorrows, and seeing those around us as people to relate to and know in their own right, not just as reflections of ourselves. C.S. Lewis wrote that when someone has achieved humility they will not be thinking about it; they won’t be thinking of themselves at all.
I don’t know that humility is a state that can be permanently achieved. I certainly haven’t got there. It’s a process, and there are relapses, backsliding and fits of ego along the way. But that’s ok. We don’t have to achieve that serenity St. Paul displays at the end of his life at any set point in ours. But we need to seek self-awareness. It’s enough if we can start off with the tax collector, seeing ourselves as we truly are, good and bad, and then move forward from there.

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

Humble, ‘Umble Stumble, Tumble: A Sermon Given at St Bartholomew’s Church, October 23, 2016

Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.

Maybe it’s the time of year. Nearly the end of October, as we near the end of the liturgical year, you have to wonder how all the readings fit together sometimes. Or maybe it’s the fact that we’re in an election year, both here at St. Barts and in the country at large. Whatever it is, I can’t help but connect these readings with the questions of power and leadership. Those themes resonated with the scripture readings I was trying to reconcile with each other, and maybe find some common thread uniting them.

And today’s readings can seem a little out of harmony with each other. We have Jesus, in Luke’s telling of his life, contrasting the ever so respectable Pharisee in the Temple with the wretched tax collector. The Pharisee’s prayer is not really what we’d think of as prayer; it’s more a love letter to himself.

Less prayer, more preening, as the Pharisee exults that he is not like other people. No, he’s special. He follows the law. He fasts, he tithes. And these things make him superior to all kinds of people: rogues, thieves, adulterers, and you know who else? That guy—yeah, that guy over there, the tax collector.

What about him, anyway? What’s he doing? The tax collector doesn’t even look up, just repeating over and over, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”And yet Jesus tells us that it’s that other, the tax collector who goes home with God’s forgiveness, not the Pharisee.

Meanwhile, in the Epistle, Paul is telling us that he has fought the good fight, has finished the race, has kept the faith. There is a crown of righteousness waiting for Paul. So he tells us, anyway.

Placing these two readings back to back is a little uncomfortable. Because Paul does not sound much like the forgiven tax collector. Does he sound a little too much like that Pharisee?
Isn’t that the lesson of this Gospel—that we are all miserable sinners who should be aware of the depth of our depravity, and lamenting our wrongs?

Well, if I were Jonathan Edwards—you know, Aaron Burr’s grandfather, the fire and brimstone preacher who wrote “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” that would be one way to go with this Gospel. I could ignore the Epistle, make us all shiver with the pangs of hell, and stalk off to coffee hour with a big scowl.

But I’d be lying to you. Because knowing and owning up to our failures and worst attributes is only part of the story. It’s a part of self knowledge, but not all of it.

And we do have the Epistle for today, and Paul’s calm confidence is very different from the lamenting of the tax collector. And, I’d suggest, just as different from the self-righteousness of the Pharisee.
So why are these readings paired together? Is there some way that they can be drawn together, instead of ignoring one in favor of the other? What are they trying to tell us in late October of 2016?

I have a theory.

We are introduced to three figures in the readings. We have the Pharisee, a leader considered righteous not just by himself, but by his community. He has the respect of those who see him in the temple. He patterns his life to the law, he gives to the poor.

The tax collector is an outcast, reviled by the community that looks up to the Pharisee, but you’d be very mistaken if you write him off as insignificant, or weak. This is a man of force, of violence even. The tax collector successfully bid for the office and serves the occupying power to his own profit as well as Caesar’s. Tax collectors were hated because they were part of the apparatus of oppression. They exercised power over the people, and were infamous for using force to twist more money than was due out of the people. That’s how they profited from their position. So very much a man to be reckoned with. Hated, yes. But feared, too.

Then we get Paul. The 18th Century theologian Johannes Albrecht Bengel called the Second Letter to Timothy “a last will and a swan song conveying a legacy." Those scholars who believe it was written by Paul himself also believe it was written shortly before his death; those who think it was written in his name by another author view it as similar to Plato’s depiction of Socrates’s final days. A sort of imaginative reconstruction of how he would have said goodbye.

However you view it, today’s Epistle reading depicts Paul’s final summation of himself as an apostle. And more than that, he’s saying farewell to that life of service, and encouraging Timothy to follow his example when Paul is gone.
Each of the three men we meet has exercised leadership. Each has something to tell us about leadership, and presents a different image of what it is, or what it can be.

Each of these men of power has used their position differently. The Pharisee has conformed to expectations but smothers in his own self-regard. Anything he has done has been for his own betterment, and others have only incidentally benefited. The tax collector has abused his power, and bitterly laments it. Paul, at the end of his life, sees that life as one poured out like a sacrifice for the good of others —a libation is a ritual sacrifice, a drink offering to a deity—and he celebrates that life as well worth living.

But there’s more to it than that, even. The tax collector and St. Paul have something in common with each other, something that the poor Pharisee lacks.

They’re self aware.

They know who they are, for good and for ill.

Paul knows that he has run the race, that he has done what he could.

The tax collector knows that he has not. He longs for a second chance.

Paul and the tax collector share a virtue we don’t like to talk about in our competitive, striving, big-talking world. That virtue is humility. And you can’t have that without self-awareness.

I don’t mean thinking little of themselves, or denigrating their abilities and their character. Self-abasement is not humility. In his novel Doctor Thorne, Anthony Trollope mocks that kind of false humility, saying there are “four degrees; humble, umble, stumble, tumble,” and then you just lay on the ground to be walked on. Mordred in the musical Camelot tells us it’s not the earth the meek inherit, it’s the dirt.

The tax collector was not wallowing in self-hatred, as Jesus tells the story. He was, as Luke earlier described the Prodigal Son, coming to himself, recognizing the extent to which he had immersed himself in an evil way of life, and seeking a second chance. He gets it.

The poor Pharisee doesn’t. Why do I say “the poor Pharisee”? Because he doesn’t see himself as he is. He thinks that his compliance with the law is enough, and that his conformity entitles him to look down on those whose lives are messy.

He doesn’t understand the dark secrets of his own heart, let alone the hidden virtues of those whose lives don’t outwardly conform to his expectations. He’s shut off from the complex multi-faceted world around him, and can’t hear or see all the people around him except as mirrors for his own self-admiration. He does not know himself, and that means he can’t know others, including God.
Humility might be viewed as a combination of knowing ourselves, and then getting ourselves out of the way. Trying to understand our flaws and virtues, and seeing ourselves as we are. But then letting it go, and getting on with life. Being open to its joys and sorrows, and seeing those around us as people to relate to and know in their own right, not just as reflections of ourselves. C.S. Lewis wrote that when someone has achieved humility they will not be thinking about it; they won’t be thinking of themselves at all.
I don’t know that humility is a state that can be permanently achieved. I certainly haven’t got there. It’s a process, and there are relapses, backsliding and fits of ego along the way. But that’s ok. We don’t have to achieve that serenity St. Paul displays at the end of his life at any set point in ours. But we need to seek self-awareness. It’s enough if we can start off with the tax collector, seeing ourselves as we truly are, good and bad, and then move forward from there.

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

Sunday, October 16, 2016

"And They Keep On Sacrificing Us": Christa on the Subway



(Photo by Anglocat)

Sometimes events crystallize unrelated things into perspective. Yesterday, having arrived at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine early for the ordination of a very good friend, I decided to have a look at the installation The Christa Project, which, as described in the NYT, was originally installed in 1984:
Edwina Sandys had seen this before: the 250-pound bronze statue of a bare-breasted woman on a translucent acrylic cross being installed in the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine.

This time around, however, she does not expect to see something else she had seen before: the statue being packed up after a call from a ranking church official telling her it had to go.

That happened the first time “Christa,” Ms. Sandys’s sculpture of a crucified woman, was shown at the cathedral in Manhattan during Holy Week in 1984.

A controversy erupted, complete with hate mail attacking it as blasphemous. Overruling the dean of the cathedral at the time, the suffragan bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York called the statue “theologically and historically indefensible” and ordered Ms. Sandys to take it away.

This time, it is being installed on the altar in the Chapel of St. Saviour as the centerpiece of “The Christa Project: Manifesting Divine Bodies,” an exhibition of more than 50 contemporary works that interpret — or reinterpret — the symbolism associated with the image of Jesus.
When I read the article, I wasn't sure how I felt about this, not as a work of art, but as an altarpiece and thus a focus for devotion.

Not because I have any discomfort with the Imago Dei being represented as female (I always think of the Holy Spirit in that way). Certainly not because I believe in complementarianism--I'm rather forcefully on the record to the contrary.

Not that I would censor it, or press for its removal, or criticize anyone moved by it. I just wasn't sure how I felt about it, for me.

And not that I thought it blasphemous (it patently isn't), or scandalous, or bad art (it's very good indeed, beautifully fashioned, evoking old Rosary crucifixes, rather like the one I wear on a chain, given to me by my parents, who received it from my maternal grandmother on their wedding day).

No, my ambivalence stemmed from my discomfort with theologies that distinguish the "Jesus of History" from the "Eternal Christ." (Yes, that means much of the 20th Century, and almost all (to date) of the 21st. You're surprised? I wasn't dubbed "the Valid Victorian" in college for nothing, you know, and my classmates knew who they were dealing with.) That's because I believe that Christianity's primary claim is a historical one as well as a theological one, one that focuses on the life and nature of one person, Jesus of Nazareth, and when we begin to step away from the man who lived and died and was seen again, well--we run into the danger of rendering him abstract. I need flesh and blood, not pretty stories.

But when I saw the work twice, first with a fellow-deacon who showed it to me, and then later that day when I showed a friend, the wife of a deacon, I was struck by the fact that both women had the same reaction: they saw it as depicting the sacrifice of women in society, analogous to that of Jesus. One of them even murmured, on viewing the sculpture, "And they keep on sacrificing us."

I began to see that my theological beliefs might not need to drive this particular train, even for me.

All well and good, but what about the envisioning Jesus on the Cross as female? How did I feel about Christa?

This afternoon made up my mind for me. After serving at St. Barts, I took the shuttle, so I could get the A Train. As the packed train pulled in, and I left it, I heard a woman say, "Get your hands off me." I turned around, and near to the back of the platform, a young man and a young woman were standing next to each other. I couldn't tell if the words I'd heard were spoken in anger, fear, or as banter.

Their body language ruled out banter pretty clearly, and, with people brushing by them with that NYC three-mile-wide-stare, he grabbed her arm.

I'd like to say that I walked over, in my clericals, and intervened. I hope and trust that I would have, had it come to it, but what I in fact did do, was quickly walk down the tracks, looking for police officers, and, thank heaven, I found two of them. As I was pointing out the man and woman to the officers, two young women joined me, and corroborated my account, and the two officers moved in before things could escalate. When it was clear the all was under control, I left.

No wonder both of my friends had seen "Christa" as capturing their reality! In a full, bustling vibrant public space, here was a young woman being bullied, forcefully seized in a possessive way against her will. None of the men around her stopped, or even looked back. The women mostly just kept on, grim-faced.

We're in the last throes of the most vicious political campaign of my lifetime, and how men treat women has come to be central in that campaign. No; that's sugarcoating it, and I won't traffic in lies here. Women's right to be free from assault is, apparently, up for debate at this election, and the seeming public acquiescence in violating that freedom.

The Incarnated Christ, the Historical Jesus, you know what?--they're both big enough to embrace Christa. Julian of Norwich, who was a lot more theologically astute than I'll ever be,wrote of Jesus as Mother, and I defer to her wisdom. Christa crucified reminds women that their experiences are embraced by God, encompassed in God's love, and that they, every bit as any man, are fully invited to partake in the fullness of God's love and redemption of Creation.

I'm with her.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

SoCons and Scalia: A Religious Liberty Paradox

I've already touched on this, but social conservatives still seem to cling to the notion that Antonin Scalia was a defender of religious liberty, as witness Dreher's response, "I find this encouraging," to Trump's saying: "And I will appoint Justices to the Supreme Court who will strictly interpret the Constitution and not legislate from the bench, like Justice Clarence Thomas and the late and beloved great Catholic thinker and jurist, Justice Antonin Scalia."

Seriously? If I were a religious SoCon, Scalia would be anathema to me, because of his decision in Employment Division v. Smith, in which the Supreme Court overruled decades of precedent, returning to 19th Century principles to declare that "It may fairly be said that leaving accommodation to the political process will place at a relative disadvantage those religious practices that are not widely engaged in; but that unavoidable consequence of democratic government must be preferred to a system in which each conscience is a law unto itself or in which judges weigh the social importance of all laws against the centrality of all religious beliefs." Despite this, Dreher has repeatedly held Scalia up as a jurist to be emulated, even naming him ""Scalia il Magnifico", blaming liberals for the politicization of religious accommodation issues, when the liberals on the Court dissented in Smith.

Is this cognitive dissonance? Refusal to acknowledge that one so obviously on Dreher's side of what Scalia himself called a Kulturkampf could so have fouled their shared nest, thinking that they would have the political upper hand forever?

Or, more sinisterly, is it because Dreher assumed that the rule of Smith would be limited to the Native American Church involved in Smith, and not to "real" religions, such as his and Scalia's own?

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Drop and Give Me Twenty : A Sermon on Luke 17:5-10



[Preached at the Deacon's Conference of the Episcopal Diocese of NY, October 1, 2016]

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

So since this is a deacon’s conference, I can probably ask this: How many of you here give your sermons titles?

I admit it; I always do. I’m a little compulsive that way…so every one gets a title.

Which, today, may be something of a problem. Because today’s sermon takes its title from the movie Animal House: “Drop and Give Me Twenty.”

As this is the first time I’ve ever preached in front of our bishop, this title makes me uneasy.

But—famous last words--I can explain.

The Gospel for tomorrow morning, which we’ve just heard read, is Luke 17, verses 5 through 10. Now, this reading contains two separate pericopes:

First, we revisit the parable of the mustard seed in verses 5 and 6, and then, in the second pericope, the rest of the reading, Jesus tells his disciples—that’s us—that when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, 'We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done.”

Which of course put me in mind of Niedermeyer, the ROTC bully, hectoring his cadets with “you’re all worthless and weak. Now drop and give me twenty.” Push-ups, that is. Twenty push-ups.

So, I’m confessing, in front of my bishop, that at first glance, this gospel has me worried. Almost as worried as the opening of this sermon.

Because Jesus sounds like a really harsh taskmaster here, doesn’t he? Oh, you’ve done all that you were told to do. Great. So what? Any slave does that. Now impress me.

Yikes. How? Where’s “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” when I need him?

And what else are we to do? How else are we to serve Jesus, other than doing what he has told us to do?

Maybe you know, Shirley, with the Soap Closet Ministry you founded at St. John’s in Kingston? Or Denise, bringing the Eucharist and lunch to the park through Ecclesia?

Maybe we all know, with our various ministries, each of which brings us in a special way to the service of God’s people where we find them.

See the two things needed there? Us, and the people of God. We find the people of God, where they are, and respond to their needs as we perceive them. Each of us, by being out and about among God’s people, as one of God’s people, spots the need that we are equipped to do something about, today. It may not be the need we envisioned addressing, but we’re there, we see it, we step in. We use initiative, and instinct, and we step in.

And there it is.

We’re not called to be slaves, merely following direct orders. We are called to be active. We’re called to use what we have to help where we can.

As deacons, we are out in the world, the secular workaday world. That gives us a very different ministry from those of our sisters and brothers who are priests. We have the challenge and the honor of filling in the gaps in that secular workaday world. Often, we get to think through how to respond to those gaps, and create an ongoing ministry. Like Shirley, like Denise. Like all of us, really.

But sometimes it comes at us hard and fast.

We are just a few days after the anniversary of one such experience for me, so let me share it with you. Three work colleagues from my day job and I were driving south from Saratoga to Albany after a work function. I was in the back seat with another lawyer; an administrator from my office, Kim, was driving. Kim saw a motorcycle come off the ramp, and the rider lose control. The bike skidded under an 18 wheeler, the driver went flying.

Even in the back seat, I could see that. I was stunned, but Kim wasn’t. She slewed the car diagonally across the highway to stop traffic. And when the traffic stopped, and other cars joined her, she started to cross the Thruway to get to the rider.

I followed her.

Not that I’m brave; I’m not. I just couldn’t let her go alone. So I followed her.

When I got there, it was clear that the rider was dying or dead. Two young women were standing by him, horror struck.

I felt so useless. There was nothing I could do.

Then I realized there was one thing I might do: Last Rites. I didn’t have my prayer book, or anything to guide me, but I had to perform last rites once during my Clinical Pastoral Training. I didn’t know the words, of course, but I had the sense of it—the topics and the flow of it.

As I fished out my crucifix to help center me, I heard Kim—who knew I’d been ordained just three months before this—ask, “John, will you pray?”

I knelt next to Andrew—that was the rider’s name—and lay my hands on his arm. I prayed for him, and felt Kim and the two young women draw around into a semi-circle. We prayed together.

In this room, we all know that I didn’t do anything praiseworthy that day; I showed up. That’s all. I filled the gap. I answered the call. I did what was required of me at that moment, in that place. I didn’t fail. That’s all.

But the choices we make as deacons to be available to step into those gaps—those choices to be vulnerable to the needs of God’s creation are not the choices of slaves. We have chosen to be accountable, to be responsible, to be present for the needs of the people of God, even if we can only stand vigil.

So we’re not worthless or weak, and not unprofitable slaves who only do the minimum and work to rule. Jesus isn’t looking for slaves, who need to be ordered to perform each task.

The whole point of the pericope is that we aren’t slaves at all. Paul in his letter to the Galatians helps to clarify the point of Luke’s story: We are not called to be slaves but children of God, and through God, heirs. [Gal 4:3]. Or, put it another way; in traditional art apprenticeships, the learner goes from being alunno (pupil) to amicus (friend).[1] In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples, “I no longer call you servants but friends.” [Jn 15:15]. They have graduated from their apprenticeship. We are walking the same path, following in the same Way, from pupil to friend, from foster child, to heir. And the more we embrace our calling, use our initiative and gifts, the more we leave behind the fear-based life of the slave for the full life in Christ that we are called to live. Never attaining perfection, but growing more and more every day.

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

[1] See Robertson Davies, The Lyre of Orpheus (1987).