The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Cyrano--a New Adaptation by Erica Schmidt at the New Group



I'm delighted to report that Cyrano, director Erica Schmidt's bold adaptation of Rostand's classic, is an innovative, compelling reworking of the original. As a lifelong fan of the original (José Ferrer was my first Cyrano, and until now my favorite), I've always loved the play, and when I hear it was to be adapted into a musical, I was. . . concerned. (Wrongly; the score by Aaron Deesner and Bryce Dessner is admirable; the lyrics by Matt Berlinger and Carin Besser are as well). Then I heard that Peter Dinklage was to take on the part, I was...intrigued. I thought Dinklage could be a great Cyrano--if the script let him.

It did, and he is.

From his first bellowing denunciation, to his sharp pull of the heartstrings at the very end, this is a Cyrano to remember. He's as witty as Ferrer, but exceeds his in the emotional nuances. Cyrano's fear, his self-loathing that motivates his heroic feats--all these feel organic and fully realized. Cyrano's bravura is a defense mechanism, as Dinklage plays the role--in part. Because Cyrano's repugnance at time-serving, compromise, and lack of gallantry--these are deeply held views that define the gallant man he has created himself to be, despite the world's disdain. And these views put him on a collision course with the Duke de Guiche (A first-rate Ritchie Coster, in a nuanced performance, at turns a comic monster, an ogre of exploitation, and a dangerous foe. But also a man in love, and one who comes to have a deep admiration for Cyrano).

Cyrano's love, Roxanne, played by a luminous Jasmine Cephas-Jones is stronger than in most versions of the story and neither Cyrano nor Christian (Blake Jenner, a strong, solid performance) can refuse her anything.

But the surprise of the show is that Ms. Schmidt has made some risky directorial choices, and they all come romping home successfully. First, she severs the link between Cyrano and the 17th Century in which Rostand set his play and the real man (no, really!) lived. Rather than unmooring the play, it sets it in a non-specific but nonetheless concrete world adjacent to ours, in which in the first act the soldiers evoke heroic musketeers (d'Artagnan, a character in Rostand's play, does not appear in Schmidt's adaptation), but in the second act evoke the American Civil War. Rather like Christopher Fry's The Lady's Not for Burning, this Cyrano is all of a piece, sealed off from our time.

The choreography by Jeff and Rick Kuperman--which is superb--compresses Cyrano's battle against 100 men into a shadow dance, music and rhythm depicting Cyrano's strikes again his many foes, and their gradual defeat. Similarly, the workers at the pastry shop heighten the emotional resonance of Cyrano's critical conversation with Roxanne, and then with Christian.

The last scene--Roxanne at the convent, de Guiche visiting her, and Cyrano's newspaper--begins softly, and ends with the tragic ending we knew was coming. As the leaves fall, Dinklage poignantly asks, "Can they rest, now?"

Cyrano finally can, as well.

The whole production has a feel of--appropriately enough--Cocteau's magical Beauty and the Beast (1946), and like it, is suffused with enchantment, in this case, through the brilliant staging and the music and choreography which take us away from the mundane world, even that of the 17th Century, and into the magical worlds created by artists like Cocteau, Fry--and Erica Schmidt, whose vision for Cyrano is fresh and challenging (this production censures Cyrano for his pride, instead of applauding it) and yet feels as old as tragedy itself.

A sublime evening at the theater, and one that lingers.

Monday, October 7, 2019

"Requiem for a Lightweight"/"Chief Surgeon Who?": MASH Revisited, S. 1 eps. 3 & 4



No, no; I don't intend to force episodes together into mini-reviews. It's just that these two go together so naturally that it's hard not to look at them together. That's partially because the first focuses more on Trapper John, while Hawkeye is the focus of "Chief Surgeon Who?" We start seeing some differences between the two Swampmen, and each has a moment in the Sun.

For Trapper, in "Requiem" it's winning the affections of Nurse Margie Cutler (Marcia Strassman) because "you fought for me." And indeed Trapper does--albeit a little reluctantly. Still, the good doctor (he fights under the name "Kid Doctor" against General Barker's large and loutish "Killer."

For Hawkeye, it's being appointed Chief Surgeon of the 4077th by Col. Blake, over the vehement (if shrill) protests of Major Burns, and the more formidable objections of Major Houlihan, relayed to General Barker (Sorrell Booke), another of the Major's amorous conquests. (General Hammond in the pilot and "To Market, to Market," was as well. He's also one of the very few actors from the film to recreate his part for television, as did a considerably more important character, Gary Burghoff's Radar O'Reilly. More on Radar a little down the road).

In "Requiem," we see both doctors are infatuated with Margie. When their infatuation offends Margaret, she transfers Cutler to another unit. In Trapper and Hawkeye's effort to persuade Henry to countermand Houlihan's transfer and get Cutler back, Hawkeye puts aside the venery for a moment, and appeals to Henry's best side; the man is a good doctor, and Hawkeye urges him that "Real talent in the operating room is hard to find." Henry glumly agrees, and offers to do it if either Hawkeye or Trapper will participate in the inter-unit boxing tournament. Hawkeye claims shoulder damage, and wheedles Trapper into agreeing to fight.

We get several training scenes that are pretty amusing, including one in which Father Mulcahy reveals that he is an experienced trainer for CYO boxers, and, asked to give Trapper some advice says "Prayer. I don't think he has one."

But let's take a look at a moment when Trapper is working the bag (Frank's bag, if he did but know it) in front of the Swamp. Trapper is, as mentioned, working the (Frank's) bag. Hawkeye is resting comfortably in a chair sipping a martini when Margaret walks by. Hawkeye gives her a cheery "Oh, Good morning, Major," and Margaret's response is--well, I find it interesting. Loretta Swit gives a brilliant, happy smile, and responds with an even more cheery cheery "Good morning, Captain." It's a well acted moment; Hawkeye in a good mood, carelessly being polite, Margaret's persona unfolds a little bit, she allows herself to be warm. Even when Hawkeye decides to get rid of her, he does so in the same friendly tone, saying "'Im afraid I can't ask you to stay. My boy's in training, and he's not even supposed to look at a women until after the fight." Margaret, still friendly, answers, "Oh, I understand." Swit plays the moment as Margaret enjoying being friendly with Hawkeye and Trapper; she seems genuinely happy. Then of course it shatters. "Just a minute," the Major almost growls, "isn't that Frank's bag?"

Trapper answers, pretty brutally, "I thought you were Frank's bag." It's rather nasty. Alda plays it quiet, almost as if Pierce doesn't quite know how to react to Trapper's dig. Margaret, angry, but hurt, storms away. It's a moment when, for just a minute, you can see Margaret and Frank's side of things.

When the boys discover that Trapper's opponent is, apparently, a killing machine, it's John Orchard's "Ugly John" Black, the anesthesiologist, who comes up with a plan (based on his own experience): douse the boxing gloves with ether, get in a "lucky shot" (and hold it to the face of the other fighter), and declare victory. And it's likely to work except that Frank--in a moment of surprising acuity--swaps out the ether for an ether bottle filled with distilled water. At the end of the first round, the somewhat battered Trapper is holding on, but the switch is found out--Hawkeye gets fresh ether, and the day (and Margie Cutler's affections) is saved.

"Chief Surgeon Who?" contains some resonance of "Requiem." As in the earlier episode, General Barker is drawn to the 4077th, this time based on a complaint from Major Houlihan, about the inappropriate behavior of the newly appointed Chief Surgeon, Hawkeye. Ironically, it's Frank's own complaint about Hawkeye's behavior in the OR that gets Hawkeye the unsought post. In particular, Hawkeye offends by countermanding Frank's recommendation dealing with pancreatic injury. Frank, relying on "the book," says "drain it." Pierce belays that order, imperiously saying "resect it." He criticizes Frank as "a year behind in your journals," and Hawkeye's advice is taken.

With Frank demanding charges against Pierce, including failure to salute a superior officer, Henry has him brought into the room. Watching Burns and Pierce spar, Henry makes a decision: "What I obviously have to do is appoint a chief surgeon...He'll be in charge of all surgical situations. In addition to his own work, he'll assist each shift to help with the tough cases. The job will be a killer." Burns assures Henry that he can adjust, only to find that Henry has given the job to Hawkeye. Burns protests, but, as usual when it comes to medical matters, Henry knows what he's doing. Pinning Frank with his eyes, he raps out "Face it! Pierce is the best cutter in the outfit. He's certified in chest and general surgery. In case you haven't read the papers, there's a war on. We're here to patch guys together. We can't be so G.I. we lose patients." Frank plaintively asks "Are you implying he's a better doctor?" Henry saves Frank's face a little, answering "Yes, when the heat's on."

Burns resorts to Margaret for comfort and passion, although his effort to be brave at the slight leads to him weeping against her torso. Meanwhile, at the Mess Hall, a coronation of the new Chief Surgeon is under weigh. (The scene, in a nice use of source material, is a toned down version of a similar scene in the novel and the film.) Radar leads Hawkeye in while bestrewing his path with confetti. Hawkeye, when urged to give a speech that starts off funny, then changes: "But let me say this, honestly, when you live in a cruddy situation like this long enough, you get to love a few people and even hate a few. I guess outside of our families we'll never be closer to anybody than we are to each other."

Trapper then asks, "You finished?" and Hawkeye responds "What did I get on the humble meter?," to the annoyance of those who thought Pierce was moved. The mood lightens when Radar runs in with Hawkeye's orb (a volleyball) and scepter (a plunger).

Burns and Houlihan have lured General Barker to the unit, where he is confronted by Corporal Klinger (first appearance!) in a WAC uniform. Barker is unimpressed. Concerned that Pierce is neglecting a patient, he's infuriated to find him playing poker. When he returns, Hawkeye is gone. But then, wandering the camp to find Blake, he runs into a series of romantic trysts including, to his intense annoyance, Margaret (whom he had hoped was waiting for him) and Frank. Several hours later, he finds Hawkeye scrubbing up, and goes in to watch. Pierce's delay has given the wounded soldier time to receive blood and fluids and to stabilize. In surgery, he finds additional injuries that Barker did not, and performs coolly and calmly. On their way out of the OR, Henry challenges Barker:
Blake: Well, sir, what do you think of my chief surgeon now?

Barker: I'm not very good at apologies, Pierce, but forgive a rusty old doctor, will you?

Pierce: I think you're very good at apologies, General.

Blake: Major Burns is probably going to continue to complain to you about the promotion.

Barker: May I make a suggestion about Major Burns?

Blake: Yes, sir.

Give him a high colonic and send him on a ten-mile hike.

Pierce: With full pack.

Barker: Good touch.
The next scene bookmarks Margaret's brief rapprochement with Hawkeye in "Requiem." In a busy OR, Trapper asks Hawkeye for an assist. But Burns has a tough issue, and asks "Can you give me a hand with this resection? " Hawkeye makes sure Trapper can keep his patient's situation stable, and goes to assist Burns. Calmly, respectfully, he looks to Frank, and says "I'm ready, Doctor." The two start working. Hawkeye says to Frank, "We'll split the fee, right? After a second, Burns answers, matching Hawkeye's tone, "right."

Beneath their masks, both doctors smile.

Transcripts of the episodes:

Requiem for a Lightweight

Chief Surgeon Who?

Saturday, October 5, 2019

“To Market, To Market”: MASH Revisited, S. 1, ep. 2

The surrealism of Henry Blake’s “handmade American antique” desk sailing through the air as the dazed C.O. watches from below (while still recovering from the disappearance of the entire back wall of his office) is all the more irresistibly funny for McLean Stevenson’s surface calm through the whole sequence. He underplays it beautifully, leaving the audience to fill in what Henry is thinking, with only his darting eyes to provide a clue. Stevenson’s contribution to MASH is sometimes under appreciated, because he’s so good at playing confusion overlaying panic, which is itself desperately suppressed, that you could miss it. Hawkeye and Trapper are more pyrotechically funny, but Stevenson makes you empathize with Blake, who just wants some normalcy.

Jack Soo (of Barney Miller fame) comes close to walking off with the episode as the perversely likable Charlie Lee, a black marketeer who is willing to sell anything to anyone, and from whom Hawkeye and Trapper John try to repurchase the 4077th’s stolen hydrocortisone. Trapper is more bewildered by the bizarreness of having to give money to the guy who has their drugs because his agents stole them than Hawkeye is, but he’s game enough to join Hawkeye in convincing Charlie that his desire for “only the best” mandates a finestkind desk. And the boys know just where to find him one...

An interesting character beat takes place when, prior to the realization that the 4077th’s drugs have been stolen, Hawkeye and Trapper accuse Margaret of making a mistake in the inventory. Her anger at having her professionalism questioned is volcanic, and when she can’t explain the discrepancy, Loretta Swit plays Margaret’s bluster as frustration that she genuinely can’t account for it. Even this early, the dichotomy between Margaret’s hardline persona and her professional perfectionism is being thinly sketched; Major Houlihan is a consummate nurse who doesn’t tolerate errors—especially her own.

Frank and Margaret are unexpectedly effective in their efforts to thwart Pierce and McIntyre (they unknowingly trap Hawkeye and Trapper in Henry’s office, thinking they’re barring the captains’ entrance, and go off for some, er, private time). Their escape requires toppling the back wall to Henry’s office, and Radar improvising a quick desk lift from a chopper pilot.

The whole thing has the feel of a Damon Runyon story, with con and mark changing places swiftly throughout. Hawkeye and Trapper prove to be as quick thinking and fast talking as Charlie is. Their goals are laudable—to save lives by replacing the stolen drugs—and if they don’t feel guilty toward Henry, well, they do care about the wounded.

MASH hits its stride in its second episode, humane, funny and surreal (I kept expecting the desk to hit a rock, a tree, or just to fall, but it sails, as Henry mutters, “up, up, up.”)

The series has achieved liftoff.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

MASH Revisited: S 1, Ep 1: Pilot



Our friends at Hulu having provided, I watched the first episode of a show that I was a fan of from childhood through high school, until it vanished, as 70s and 80s TV shows did, prior to the modern age of video, MASH.

Not having seen the pilot in--30 years? Probably.--it was not entirely what I remembered. The casual 70s sexism, the intrusive, studio-mandated laugh track, the crassness the scripts sometimes showed (some left over from the original film)--I'd forgotten those defects.

But even 47 years later, there's a lot to admire and enjoy. First, that the series had the sheer guts to be squarely anti-war in the middle of the Vietnam War. Second, Alan Alda's Hawkeye has a wounded, cynical tone in his voice over letter to his father, and the seeds are already sown of the man who will break in the last days of the war. Wayne Rogers and Alda have a casual comfort in their roles, and in riffing off each other.

No-one sulks like Larry Linville or glowers like Loretta Swit. The casting seems inevitable now, but that's an illusion--this is, after all, only two years after the original film, and it's inspired that Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds didn't try to echo the performances of Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, Robert Duvall and Sally Kellerman. If Linville lacks Duvall's underlying menace, he's a lot funnier. (Swit was pretty menacing though; don't mess with her!) Alda doesn't have Sutherland's faintly amused air of detachment--he's fully present in every moment.

One thing I'd never liked was the too cheery, slightly brassy theme music; I'd always preferred the film version. But in the pilot, we get a little of the original theme's controlled wistfulness, with the orchestra rising as the choppers descend on the second verse. The way the chopper rocks a little as the titles begin is a nice touch, too.

The story was slight--Hawkeye and Trapper throw a raffle to send a young Korean man to college in the United States (Hawkeye's alma mater)--but the jokes (mostly) worked, and the performances were strong.

The patient has a heartbeat...







Sunday, September 8, 2019

Without Hope, Without Witness, Without Reward: A Sermon on Luke 14: 25-35

St. Bartholomew’s Church
September 8, 2019

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

I can’t believe I volunteered to preach on today’s Gospel. I mean, really, what was I thinking?

There’s no softening this one.

Today’s Gospel is Jesus at his most forbidding, his most challenging. “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

Then the follow up: “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

And just in case you didn’t see it coming, Jesus adds “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

So I did what I always do—I went to my sources. On Luke, that means I go to Joseph Fitzmyer’s massive and brilliant explication of Luke in the Anchor Bible series, The New Oxford Annotated Bible, and the commentary on Luke by my favorite Anglican theologian, Charles Gore—I say my favorite Anglican theologian, because I’m a fan of Nadia Bolz-Weber. Just to be sure, I consulted The Interpreter’s Bible—12 volumes I was given by the priest who supervised me at my field parish, where I trained for an academic year before I was ordained.

Basically, all the commentary can be summarized in four words: “Yeah. He meant it.”

Oh, Gore, with his typical subtlety, points out that “hate” here does not mean an emotion, but that just as love is an action, a promise, a commitment, so too here is hate—“the will directed toward action,” not feeling or emotion.[1]

And, Gore tells us, Jesus is laying down the “the sternest, most repellent claim—the claim for absolute renunciation of all natural ties and every kind of self-interest as the first condition for discipleship.” [2]

And yet, we don’t live that way.

We can’t live that way.

We do love our spouses, our families—biological or logical—our friends.

And we do not give away all our possessions.

Even in the Roman Catholic Church, only clergy, monks and nuns, are called to celibacy and lives of renunciation of the world. And yet even they engage lovingly with family.

The most fundamentalist churches, priding themselves on fidelity to scripture, do not follow this passage, because it is so hard to deny love, family, friendship.

We do not, in part because we recognize it as a form of self-harm. Without love, we grow distorted, angry, bitter. Like plants without sunshine, we wither without love, and only a very, very few of us can recognize a genuine call to celibacy and withdrawal from the world.

But even that is not what Jesus is speaking of here. Because picking up our cross means being in the world, but embracing shame, humiliation, and the rejection of the broader community, up to and including death.

This is Christianity at its most costly, its most harsh, its most difficult.

I’m not going to suggest that this is an easy Gospel. I’d be lying to you. But I think if we pull these verses out and make them into a self-standing, isolated code of life, we will either reject what Jesus is teaching us, or condemn ourselves to lives of self-inflicted isolation and deprivation. And when I think of Jesus in the Gospel According to John saying that he has come so that we might have life, and have it in abundance, we have to reflect more deeply on this Gospel to truly understand it.

The secular writer Steven Moffatt has written that “Good is good in the final hour, in the deepest pit – without hope, without witness, without reward. Virtue is only virtue in extremis,” he says, and tells a tale of two old friends, who have taken radically different paths. One is a hero, the other has become a criminal. When the hero asks his old friend for her help against seemingly insuperable odds, she refuses to throw away her life in a futile cause, and leaves him. But then, she changes her mind, and returns to help her former friend—only to be killed before she can reach him.

She dies, without hope, without witness, without reward.

She dies, knowing that her death did not help, that she will not be remembered or honored. She dies knowing that no one—not even her friend—will even know that she was coming to help him.

Virtue is only virtue in extremis—that is, virtue is only virtue when it costs. It is easy to lead an inoffensive life. But, if we look at Moffat’s tale as a parable, maybe we can catch a glimpse of what today’s Gospel is teaching us.

We are called to lives of heroic virtue, unheroic people though we may be, though I am. We are called to, as Gore wrote, direct our wills toward action—in plain language, to be ready to subordinate everything—comfort, family life, our position in the community—to witness the truth of Jesus Christ. To back up our professed belief that the ultimate truth, the absolute truth of the world is love. Not love as a pleasant feeling, or a diluted ethic of niceness, but love as a commitment, a promise.

That promise is a frightening one to make, because it requires us to actually be willing to pay the price of redeeming our word.

We can all point to stories of heroic virtue. Some are famous—Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela—so famous that the very establishments that sought to break their commitment now honors them, if only by lip service.

But there are stories of quiet heroism, of loving despite cost. The gentlest man I have ever known was my grandmother’s second husband when my sister and I were in our early teens. We called him Uncle Fred. He had served in World War II, and had helped liberate a concentration camp.

That youthful experience of wholesale, industrialized horror burned all the violence out of him. Later in his life, when we knew him, his much-loved daughter was murdered, her killer suspected, but never caught.

A little grimmer, a little greyer, Uncle Fred turned his love toward my grandmother, my sister, me, and our younger cousin.

It took heroism to commit to love again after his wartime experience, and to maintain that commitment, that promise, after my Aunt Carol’s murder.

He did it without witness—he was just acting like a normal person, not flaunting his sorrows. He did it, and here I must depart from Moffatt a little bit, with hope—hope not that the pain and loss would be magically healed, but that refused to give in to the face of the most obscene evil, both on the world stage and in his own family life. Uncle Fred continued to believe in the primacy of love, and to teach the children who loved him to love.

I know he did it not for reward, but I like to think his last family, the family he and my grandmother created in marrying—was rewarding to him.

That life of virtue in extremis, in the face of loss and the experience of cruelty, may shed a light on today’s Gospel. Jesus teaches us to put family ties, self-esteem, possessions behind the source of all of those good things—to not let ourselves be held hostage by them.

In AA we call this putting first things first—sobriety is more important than anything else. Because it is the condition of any kind of wholeness, of any spiritual growth.

Jesus is warning us that discipleship is hard.

That we may pay a price for it.

And if we intend to follow Him, we need to find courage inside our anxious hearts, and be ready to lose anything and everything along the way.

So when we lose them, when we are hurt to the very heart, we will not, as Job’s wife invites her husband to do, “curse God and die.” Rather, we continue on, always remembering that we are called to live abundantly, to our last breath, and to remember that the feeling of hate is always foolish, while the promise of love is always wise.

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

[1]Charles Gore, “The Gospel According to Luke,” in Gore, Goudge & Guillame, A New Commentary on Holy Scripture, Pt. 2: The New Testament, 228-229 (1929).

[2]. Id.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Have You Seen the Muffin Man?



[David Hemmings as Charlie Muffin, and Rohan McCullough as MI6 Secretary Janet exploit each other]

Brian Freemantle's Charlie M and its sequels are what I'd call school-of-le Carré espionage thrillers, but they have their own unique flavor because of the downmarket nature of the leading character, the illegitimate, Mancunian Charlie Muffin, whose inexpensive clothes lower-class origin, make him an outsider in the British Secret Service. Well, at last as it has become under new leadership--Charlie was in favor with the previous leadership, which found him in the 1950s, and set him against the Soviets.

But in 1979, Charlie finds himself disposable, deliberately sacrificed by the snobbish new administration in an operation at--perfect location--Checkpoint Charlie. Cheating death, Charlie finds himself unsure who to trust, and how to react...

The first novel has a great final twist that I won't ruin, but suffice it to state, Charlie spends the next several volumes vulnerable to treachery, relying on his professional training, his instincts for danger, and, most of all, his ruthless need to survive.

Charlie has few reliable friends or allies (to the point that the captured KGB spy Charlie had unmasked is probably his most sincere sympathizer), but manages to outplay the toffs who look down on him in their deadly game.

Until he loses.

That's when the series takes a level in quality. Charlie's ruthlessness can be breathtaking, and Freemantle keeps him just the right side of likable. His rapport with several of his foes--they bond over professionalism, and the lack of it among their colleagues--keeps Charlie and the reader wondering who, if anyone, can be relied on.

I'm trying to give you the flavor of the books without spoiling them, but they are quite fun, and startling on occasion. And Charlie--who in the film version of the first novel was played by a wonderfully world weary David Hemmings, with his aristocratic boss played by Ian Richardson--is a rumpled, clever, reverse snob with a chip on his shoulder. He uniquely is an outsider; even George Smiley, for all his dowdiness, has an Oxonian background, was recruited by the scholarly amateurs who in le Carre's novels created the "Circus"--the Secret Service--and joined the right clubs. Even his chronically unfaithful wife, Ann, raised Smiley's social status--as Edith, Charlie's wife, raises his a little. But Charlie's unfashionableness, disdain for his "betters", and fierce refusal to be condescended to (unlike Smiley)--makes him a thorny proposition indeed.

And a damned good read.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

"'Til the World Turns Upside Down": Hamilton in 2019



When I first heard the score to Hamilton, I bought it, and would listen to it on my drives to and from Albany. And then....the world was turned upside down politically in ways which have been inimical to my own ideals, and Hamilton's brand of idealism seemed inadequate to the times.

I was wrong.

I am fresh from seeing the show at Proctors in Schenectady, and, as A. Burr and A. Ham could both say, "it blew us all away."

Watching the superb cast--from leads to the ensemble--enact the story, the play's form of idealism seemed just what we need in 2019. There are no easy solutions for the problem posed in Hamilton. Alexander's own harrowing childhood renders him unable to say no to sexual temptation, such is his need to connect. Burr's own similar, though more cushioned past, leaves him a morally empty opportunist, yet one who thinks he can remain friends those he has betrayed. The Revolution's brutality is underscored by the fragility of Washington's army, and the desperation with which he wages war, on the verge of collapse.

Hamilton's own affair with Maria Reynolds, and his effort to salvage his reputation as a public servant by confessing that sin in public reduce him to a laughing stock, cost him Eliza's love (for a time), and, indirectly, lead to his eldest son's death. Other friends die (Laurens), fail him (Washington retires, showing us how to say good-bye, and peacefully transition power, but leaving Hamilton at the mercy of his enemies), or are abandoned by Alexander himself (Lafayette).

So, no. This is not an epic of easy optimism. It is, to use a term I learned from Herman Wouk, idealism dafka--despite expectations, ironically, or paradoxically. It's a portrayal, with wonderful music, lyrics, choreography, and story--of idealism in the face of the odds. In the face of loss, in the face of the possibility of loss so devastating as to be called simply "the unimaginable."

It's a reminder that America is an ideal that has never been fulfilled, but that is nonetheless vital. The mixed race cast, with people of color playing the Founding Fathers, the confluence of rap, jazz, with traditional American musical theater forms reinforce that this story is all of ours. And, as Hamilton and Lafayette remind us: "Immigrants. We get the job done."

Langston Hughes said it beautifully, but Lin-Manuel Miranda is a helluva lot more fun.

****

But how is it, o Anglocat, as a play?

The answer is simple: excellent. Now, the production I saw was a matinee, with two of the leads--Alexander Hamilton and Eliza Hamilton--portrayed by standbys. If not for the slip setting this out in the program, I would never have guessed.
Tré Frazier
brought a strong presence, a powerful voice, and a honed intelligence to the part of Alexander, and Stephanie Jae Park brought a range from fragility to steel to Eliza. Stephanie Umoh was a standout as the strong, witty, flirtatious, but fiercely loyal Angelica Schuyler, as was Peter Matthew Smith, by turns foppish, menacing, lubricious (his delivery of "my sweet, submissive subject" is only marginally less creepy than the 50 Shades series), and petulant as King George.

I can't improve on the Albany Times-Union's praise for "Josh Tower as a complex, sympathetic Aaron Burr; Paul Oakley Stovall playing an imposing George Washington; Bryson Bruce, foppishly flamboyant in different ways as the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson; and Jon Viktor Corpuz as the antislavery activist John Laurens and Hamilton's eldest son, Philip, whose death by duel predated his father's similar fate by three years."


The Ensemble is almost always in motion, the dancers playing parts (Redcoats and rebels, audiences to street oratory and presidential cabinet meetings (Epic rap battles!); they give the scenes a depth and complexity that textures the experience--we are watching symbolic living history, not a diorama.

How is Hamilton in 2019?

Indispensable.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

A Forum on John’s Gospel

Between the 9:00 and the 11:00 services at St. Bart’s We have an event, known as the Rector’s Forum, where various speakers address issues relating to the Church, its mission, or the issues of interest to members of our parish. This summer, the clergy at St. Barts were given the opportunity to speak about various books of the New Testament. I spoke today, on the subject of the Fourth Gospel. Unlike a sermon, this wasn’t pre-scripted, but here, with some slight elaborations, are my bullet point notes:

The Outlier: Gospel According to John:


* What is its Claim to Historicity:

1. Author: Other than John’s Gospel, only Luke’s has some claim to identifying its author, by retrojecting Acts. The attribution requires (not unrealistically) assuming the “I” of Luke in Acts is the author of the Gospel (which is linked ). Mark is anonymous, linked to “John Mark” by tradition, and Matthew to Matthew the Levite by quotations from older works only found in Eusebius’s History of the Church (4th Century CE). The latter fits with the serious engagement with law that is throughout Matthew.

2. The Fourth Gospel claims to be the work of an eye-witness, and tries to prevent against the rumor of its author’s death as an impediment to faith. Jn. 20:2, 21: 20:

Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” 21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?” 22 Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” 23 So the rumor spread in the community[c] that this disciple would not die. Yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”

See Matt 16:28; Mark 9:1. Luke 9:27 (“But I tell you of a truth, there be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the kingdom of GOD.’)

See Browning, A Death in the Desert,

What happens when “there is left on earth
"No one alive who knew (consider this!)
"—Saw with his eyes and handled with his hands
"That which was from the first, the Word of Life.
"How will it be when none more saith 'I saw'?”


(According to Abp Temple, at xvii Browning’s poem was “the most penetrating interpretation of St. John which exists in the English language.” See his Readings in St. John’s Gospel)


24 This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. 25 But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

Antisemitism: Address the Wm McD Tully line that John’s Gospel reflects the “divorce between the nascent Christian movement” and Judaism; NB: from Oxford Annotated Bible that the “Jews” referred to were the authorities, not all Jews. But call out harm done; see Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword.

*How about the lengthy discourses?
As both Temple and John A.T. Robinson argue, judging the Gosepls by the standards of modern biography—quotes are exact, everything fully sourced—is imposing a 21st Century standard on a 1st Century document, one that was handwritten and hand-copied, too.
More applicable standard that of ancient biography, under whic, as Temple notes “the convention of historical writing in the ancient world approved the attribution to leading personages of speeches expressing what was known to be there view in a form which is due to the historian. In such compositions, key-words actually spoken would naturally be spoken.” (Readings, xvii) ; See also John A.T. Robinson, The Priority of John (1985) at 31.

*Different from the outset:

(a) Matt: The genealogy of Jesus, from Adam to Joseph;

(b) Mark: Isaiah on the Messenger, and John the Baptist;

(c) Luke: Refers to other narratives by “many” and writes an orderly account to the “Most Excellent Theophilus” (Aareal person of high rank? Or an ideal Christian?)

(d) John: Begins with poetry, or, rather a hymn.


I. Per Ed L. Miller--a complete hymn by the same author of the Gospel and the Epistles , with internal aesthetic literary coherence and internal theological logic. 4 sets of couplets, “suitable for antiphonal recitation and bearing a carefully ordered theological point.” [1]

Miller: use of Logos, “Word,” as a Christological title from the body of the Gospel through the ambiguity of the Prologue of the First Epistle to the clear identification of the λόγος with Jesus Christ in the Gospel Prologue. According to this proposed trajectory, λόγος and (perhaps) ῥῆμα are already used “in a theologically and christologically suggestive manner” in the body of the Gospel,3 where the two terms refer to the preaching and teaching of Jesus. [2]

The Logos Hymn makes multiple theological points, which the rest of the Gospel unpacks.

The Logos Hymn, verses 1-5:

1 In the beginning was the Word,/ and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

2 He was in the beginning with God.

3 All things came into being through him/, and without him not one thing came into being./ What has come into being

4 in him was life,[a]/ and the life was the light of all people.

5 The light shines in the darkness/ and the darkness did not overcome it.

Verses 6-8 describe the role of John, the “witness to the Light.”

Verse 9 makes the first major theological claim: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”

Verses 10-13: The Mission of Christ, the Rejection, the Faithful

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.

11 He came to what was his own,[c] and his own people did not accept him.

12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God,

13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

Verses 14, 16-18:

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us/ and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,[d] full of grace and truth. . . . 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. /

17 The law indeed was given through Moses/ grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

18 No one has ever seen God/ It is God the only Son,[e]who is close to the Father’s heart,[f] who has made him known.
Even in the NRSV bland, accuracy over euphony translation, you can hear that verses 1-5 are more rhythmic, though the later verses retain some poetic drive.

Paul Anderson notes the theological positions being staked out in the prologue, and elaborated on in the narrative:

Throughout the rest of the Johannine narrative, these three themes are displayed in dramatic ways.

1. While Jesus as the Christ came into the world, some received him, but others did not; they preferred darkness over light ( Jn 3:18–21), they claimed “we see” (while being blind, 9:41), and they loved the praise of humans rather than the glory of God (12:43).

2. On the other hand, Jesus’ disciples come to follow him (1:37–51), the Samaritans and Galileans believe—including the royal official and his household (4:1–54), and so do many of the Jews (or Judeans?)—as do also the Greeks that had come to Jerusalem for the festival (8:31; 11:45; 12:20–21). In that sense, Jesus reaches out to sheep within his fold but also beyond it, gathering those who receive him into a new community of fellowship and love.

3. On the cross, however, the full glory of the Son of Man is revealed, and as he is lifted up, all are drawn to him (12:32). And, in the presence of Jesus, something of the divine presence is encountered—an experience that continues on in post-resurrection consciousness (20:16–28). Encountering the glory of the flesh-becoming-Word is thus not only attested in the Prologue; it is documented in the narrative. [3]
II. “The Charter of Christian Mysticism” or “Anti-Mystical”

W.R. Inge, Christian Mysticism (1899): The first three gospels are not written in the language of mysticicsm….The Gospel of St. John. . . is the charter of Christian Mysticism. Indeed, Christian Mysticism, as I understand it might almost be called Johannine Christianity.” (P. 44)

Abp William Temple: Readings in St. John’s Gospel, First and Second Series (1945): “In the proper sense of the word ‘mystical’, as signifying a direct apprehension of God by the human mind St. John is strongly anti-mystical. But he is even more strongly sacramental.” Matter is the vehicle and instrument of the Spirit, and a reverence for the sacramental without the ethical and material component ;eads toward magical thinking.

III. Different Timeline & Different Ethics:

Temple: Synoptics appear to take place over 1 year; John describes 3 separate Passovers.

The Synoptics weight ethics more highly, John emphasizes, again and again, belief in Jesus as the Christ.

IV. The human touch: Jesus as put upon son at the Wedding at Cana; Mary as confident, slightly bossy, Mother. The Woman Taken in Adultery/The Samaritan Woman

V GBS—explain the Preface to Preface to Androcles and the Lion, GBS’s familiarity with form-criticism, well-read commentary of each Gospel and its concerns—an easy in to biblical scholarship.

NOTES

[1] The Logic of the Logos Hymn: A New View, 29 New Test. Studies, pp 552-561 (1983).

[2] Ed. L. Miller, “The Johannine Origins of the Johannine Logos,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 112/3 (1993) ; see also Latham, Joseph Michael, "Word of Life, Word of God: An Examination of the Use of the Term Logos in the Johannine Literature" (2013). Dissertations, 528.

[3] The Logic of the Logos Hymn: A New View, 29 New Test. Studies, pp 552-561 (1983).
Ed. L. Miller, “The Johannine Origins of the Johannine Logos,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 112/3 (1993) ; see also Latham, Joseph Michael, "Word of Life, Word of God: An Examination of the Use of the Term Logos in the Johannine Literature" (2013). Dissertations. 528.

[4] Paul N. Anderson, "The Johannine Logos-Hymn: A Cross-Cultural Celebration of God’s Creative-Redemptive Work," in Creation Stories in Dialogue: The Bible, Science, and Folk Traditions (Radboud Prestige Lecture Series by Alan Culpepper), eds. R. Alan Culpepper and Jan van der Watt, BINS 139 (Leiden: E.J. Brill 2016)--uncorrected proofs.



Monday, August 12, 2019

“Where Your Treasure Is”: A Sermon on Luke 12:32-40


Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church
August 11, 2019

[Note: This sermon got away from me; I went on a long extemporaneous digression where I commented on the themes expressed here, but not quite as written here. It’s that rare instance where I genuinely can say that the meat is here, but the feeling in the room was very different.]

If it be now,
'tis not to come;
if it be not to come, it will be
now;
if it be not now,
yet it will come:
the readiness is all
.

We’re nearly at the end when Hamlet speaks these lines. The young prince of Denmark, looking for proof that his father was murdered by his uncle Claudius, who has taken the throne that should be Hamlet’s and married Hamlet’s mother, has not been subtle enough. King Claudius knows that he’s given himself away, and that Hamlet must die before he finds proof.

So Claudius makes a bet with Laertes that Hamlet is better with a sword than he is, and has set up a seemingly innocent fencing bout between the two young men. The passions run deep, however; Laertes blames Hamlet for his sister’s suicide after Hamlet has rejected her love, and Hamlet knows this. Still—an innocent fencing bout? A chance to repair his friendship with Laertes. What could go wrong?

Hamlet’s instinct tells him that something will most assuredly go wrong—he knows that this is not the innocent sport it seems, but that, in some way he can’t see, it is a deathtrap.

His friend Horatio tells him to back out, to not take the risk. That the auguries—prophetic circumstances here—don’t feel right. He too fears a trap, though he can’t spot it either. Trust your fear, Horatio says, and let me tell the King you aren’t well enough to fence.

Hamlet refuses, musing on his instinct that tells him death is near.

He says:
Not a whit; We defy augury: there's a special
providence in the fall of a sparrow.

And then he continues with the words that have haunted me for decades, let alone in preparing to preach on this Gospel:

If it be now,
'tis not to come;
if it be not to come,
it will be now;
if it be not now, yet it will come:
the readiness is all:
since no man has aught of what he
leaves, what is't to leave betimes?

Hamlet means only to acknowledge the inevitability of death and the end of his quest for justice. And his acceptance that it is out of his power to add a second to his life. And so—be ready, he says, and he fights Laertes, who has a poison on his blade, kills Claudius and dies.

The quest is over.

The readiness is all.

And yet these words have rung differently for me ever since I first saw Hamlet onstage in my college days. And they fit this Gospel, despite their gloomy origin.

Because what can we take from a Gospel lesson, recorded fully two thousand years ago, that depicts Jesus telling the disciples that the Father will give them the Kingdom, but reminds them in several ways and analogies that they “must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

Over two millennia have passed since those words have spoken, and we still wait for the Kingdom, still wait for the Son of Man. We live in a world that is overcrowded and overheated, in a world teeming with injustice and cruelty, and the world is still all too often divided bother against bother, father against children, children against parents.

Has the promises failed? Will they ever be fulfilled? Or will we just slowly cook ourselves into extinction?

Last week, we heard the story of the Rich Fool, who put his faith in his goods, and said to himself, I will say to my soul, soul: you have may goods laid up for your many years. Eat, drink, and be merry. But that very night, Jesus tells us, his life was required of him, and he died. And so it is, Jesus adds, with those who are not rich toward God.

Today, we are told that the moment is coming so we should sell our goods, and give alms. More we are told to make purses for ourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.

And then the key point: For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Jesus in not naïve. He is not promising us that He will return in our lifetime, and magically solve all our problems.

In fact, in the ten verses between last week’s Gospel reading and today’s Jesus expressly tells us that we cannot add an inch to our height, a day to our lives, and that we should Stop. Worrying. About. IT.

Hamlet has a piece of the truth right. The readiness is all. But he is seeking to attain the wrong kind of readiness. He stoically embraces being ready for death, instead of embracing readiness for life. That’s why his story is a tragedy. As a former English major let me remind you that a tragedy is not a sad story, but a story of an otherwise great person, who is brought down by a flaw—technically called the tragic flaw—in her or his own makeup.

Hamlet’s tragic flaw isn’t his hesitation. It isn’t his desire for justice. It is his turning his back on life—rejecting the love of his mother, that of Ophelia, rejecting life itself in order to play the avenging son. The tragedy flowers out of the melodrama, and the brilliant young man throws his life away in the exact wrong way.

Wait—am I saying there’s a right way to throw away your life?

Yes, I think I am. In between last week’s Gospel and this week’s, Jesus urges us to consider the ravens, who eat what is gathered by people, the beauty of the flowers that are more beautiful than the clothes of the greatest Kings or Queens.

And then today he tells us that what we value defines who we are. Where we stand is who we are.

That our treasure is where our heart lies.

That’s the danger of possessions. They can possess us. They can load us down, with the need to take care of them, protect them, insure them. I remember when I was a boy, we never used the good furniture in the living room, unless company was coming. Keeping the furniture fresh and new was more important than enjoying it. My grandmother had her furniture wrapped in heavy transparent plastic, so that the upholstery would stay good-as-new. We’d slip around on it, shifting uncomfortably on it, and making odd noises as we did.

Things are made to be used. And, ideally, shared.

We should carry them lightly, not reverentially. And sharing them is part of what Jesus is talking about here. But it’s far more than that. Every morning that you wake up, you have a choice. You can approach the world outside as filled with opportunities to love and to serve, to help and receive help. Or you can view it through the lens of anxiety and fear.

Now before those of you who are, like me, more pessimistic by nature, start thinking that you are failing, remember what Jonathan Larsen wrote in Rent: “I’m a New Yorker. Fear’s my life.”

I get that.

So I’m not saying your in-built temperament will keep you from walking the Way—which was how the early disciples described the Jesus Movement, not a set of beliefs, but a way of life. But I am saying that the gloomy auguries in your mind are not your friend.

Like Hamlet, push them aside.

Find your equivalent, but here’s mine:

Not a whit, we defy augury:
there's a special
providence in the fall of a sparrow.
If it be now,
'tis not to come;
if it be not to come, it will be now;
if it be not now, yet it will come:
the readiness is all.

The readiness for life. Adopt that, and live it.

Laugh hard.

Run fast.

Be kind.

You might just find that the Kingdom has been all around you all the time; that it is in you, and around you.

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





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.