The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, February 28, 2016

“I Wonder What They Meant?” A Sermon on Luke 13: 1-9

(Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church February 28, 2016)

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

Well, this Gospel is a fire and brimstone sermon in the making, right?

You know those Galileans whose blood Herod mixed with their sacrifices? Not especially bad people. Sorry. We’re not off the hook.

Hey, those 18 people in Jerusalem, who were crushed when the tower of Siloam fell on them?

Nope, not evildoers. Not especially, anyway.

Just plain folks, you could say.

And unless you repent—well, it could happen to you. In fact, strike the could. It will happen to you. Because we’re all going to die, one day.

Feeling good yet?

Didn’t think so.

This is one of the famous “hard sayings” of Jesus. It’s hard because it’s flinty, tough minded, unpleasant. It’s hard because it’s hard to bear. It’s hard because we don’t recognize the Jesus we love in this story.

This sounds like John the Baptist in one of his less friendly moods. It sounds very punitive. Very judge-y. Where’s that “friend of sinners” when we need him?

But then Jesus moves into the parable, so relief is at hand, we think. So the fig tree is, once again, barren. That’s three years in a row! And the owner tells the gardener to cut it down. It’s a waste of soil.

But the Gardener intercedes for the tree—“Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”

Well, that’s a relief. Stay of execution. I was feeling nervous there—hey wait a second. The Gardener is only asking for one last chance. One last chance for the tree to show its value, to become a good useful tree. And if not—cut it down.

Jesus’s parable and response to the bad news about his fellow Galileans is to call his listeners to repent.

Now think about that for a second. Jesus has just been told about an atrocity—the Galileans weren’t just killed; their blood was used to profane the altar, making their religious sacrifices a kind of human sacrifice—the very kind of sacrifice the Hebrew Scriptures condemn the worship of Moloch and the Baals for. It was an atrocity in a holy place.

The closest modern parallel I can think of is the shooting in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last June, in Charleston South Carolina.

And in the wake of this atrocity, Jesus calls his listeners—friends and maybe even family members of the victims—to repent.

I had to wrestle with this Gospel, I admit it. And when something bubbled up from my subconscious, it was a question, from an old Leonard Cohen song, of all things. Here’s the question:

When they said,




I wonder what they meant?

But what does repentance mean? The term in the Gospel is metanoia, which translates as “to think differently after,” or “to change one’s mind”

That doesn’t get us very far, though. Does the Gospel reading help us any more? We don’t know how Jesus’s listeners reacted. We don’t know much about the murdered Galileans, cut down in a holy place, their deaths used to pollute something sacred.

But we have a glimpse into what Jesus may mean here from the reaction of the worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and their families: They forgave the young man, twisted with hate, whom they had welcomed into their spiritual home, and who betrayed their welcome, killing nine of their brothers and sisters.

The church community forgave him anyway.

What does repentance look like?

A lot like forgiveness, if you look closely.

Both require us to make the effort to see the people who have hurt us not just through the lens of the pain they’ve inflicted on us, or those we love. When we do that, we’re repenting, in a very real way. We’re re-thinking. Going past the anger, to see the situation in the round. Forgiveness is the mirror image of repentance—they both require us to look beyond ourselves.

But let’s not complicate it.

Repentance is just a fancy word for changing your mind. [1]

Let me give you an example—the one that caught my attention.

I once knew a woman who had a terminal diagnosis. Stage 4 cancer. She could have drowned in self-pity, or just let other people look after her. Instead, she took a long hard look at her life. And she realized that she’d hurt a lot of the people she loved. She’s been tough, critical, sometimes even cruel. So she got busy. She reached out to the people she had hurt, the friends she’d driven away, the children she’d made afraid of her.

She apologized. But even more, she made amends. She did her best to help each of the people she’d harmed to start healing from the damage she’d done. She repaired the damaged relationships in her life, to the best of her ability. And in doing so, she discovered a happiness that eluded her in health.

Repentance isn’t easy. It takes up 4 of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. First, sober alcoholics make a searching and fearless moral inventory of themselves—that’s the Fourth Step.

Then—and here’s the first hard bit—then, comes admitting to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. That’s the Fifth Step.

By the way, the shocking part of the Fifth Step is that all the secrets we find so unspeakable—they’re always old news to your sponsor, or, if you try this in the sacrament of reconciliation, to the confessor. The harder it is for us to say, generally, the more used to it a confessor, a sponsor or a therapist is.

Then after coming to terms with ourselves, and laying it all before God, come the next hurdle. The Eighth Step requires alcoholics to make a list of all persons we had harmed, and become willing to make amends to them all. Not to actually make the amends yet—just to become willing.

The actual amends come in the Ninth Step. That’s making direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. So, when we can, without causing more damage to them or someone else, try to put right what went wrong—do so. When it can’t be done, pray for the person we’ve harmed, and do something concrete, maybe help someone in a similar situation. The Ninth Step can be humiliating, especially when those who have been harmed aren’t ready to forgive. But at the end of it, the burdens of the past are gone. If the relationship that was injured is still dead, at least there’s been an effort at closure and reconciliation. To end it well.

Now why did I take you through that?

Because it’s a blueprint—one of several—for repentance without self-hatred. Repentance isn’t about self-loathing; it’s about coming to terms with ourselves, strengths and weaknesses, and recognizing the shadow side of ourselves—and forgiving him or her. And then moving on.

And we all need to do it, because we’re none of us perfect. Every one of us can reach out today to someone we love but haven’t kept up with, or to repair a broken tie. Repentance means fixing little things as well as big; we don’t have to be the notorious sinner St. Augustine was, or St. Paul, who persecuted the Early Church, in order to correct the things that lie on our hearts.

Oh, no fire and brimstone yet. Well, we still have the threat of death, or of being cut down like the fig tree if it doesn’t turn it around. So God is still pretty scary, right?

Oh, come on. Of course we’re all going to die. Everyone is mortal, so we’re all going to die. That’s the very point Jesus is making. Bad things happen to good people. It doesn’t matter that those Galileans weren’t terrible sinners; they died anyway. Same thing with the people crushed in the tower collapse.

Jesus is rejecting a type of thinking called theodicy—the effort to get God off the hook for the problem of suffering. He’s rejecting the Psalmist’s contention that the good will live in and inherit the land, while the wicked will be swept away. He’s pointing out that life and death are mysteries, and the story doesn’t end in a satisfying way. If you treat it as a story, that is.

But it’s not a story. The end isn’t going to be aesthetically satisfying, with sweeping theme music. It’s just as likely to be a sudden surprise.

What Jesus is saying is that we none of us know how much time we have. Every day is a chance to take the steps toward reconciliation, and living in wholeness with those we love. And we don’t know how many of those chances we get.

So repent.



It just means changing your mind.

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


[1] Yes, I ripped off Steven Moffat. Get over it.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Restorative Justice Redux

In view of my speaking this coming Sunday at the St. Barts Forum on Reconciliation, I thought I'd share a post from three years ago:

I think the hardest teaching in the Gospels is Jesus's telling us to love our enemies. It's so easy, as Bernard Shaw pointed out, to "throw oil on the flaming hell of your own temper" and hate. In politics, in religion, in life. Even in intramural civil disputes over property in the Anglican Wars, I've seen each side treat the other treated as not fellow Christians with whom relationships have broken down, but with contempt as bigoted schismatics on the one hand and as libertine emissaries of Lucifer on the other. I have sometimes been guilty of this myself; I have a quick temper and years as a litigator have sharpened my ability to jab or cut with words.

Last week, I was profoundly touched by an article in the New york Times about restorative justice in criminal law; Andy and Kate Grosmaire (Andy is, like me, a postulant for the diaconate in the Episcopal Church)initiated a restorative justice process with the family of their daughter's fiancé, who had murdered her in an argument, and which, thanks to a prosecuting attorney who was willing to try the process, resulted in a surprising degree of healing and reconciliation. Even in cases as serious as murder, other examples can be found.

As the author, almost 20 years ago, of a study of dismissing criminal cases in the interests of justice, I have long hoped that my ministry would encompass trying to bring reconciliation between offenders and the larger society. What I have read on restorative justice in following up on the article about the Grosmaires seems to point a way forward to me. And then, of course, I read about the horrific murder of my law school classmate, Theresa Gorski. I was, simply, shocked. I still am, I think. I asked my church to put Theresa and her children on the prayer list--but I couldn't bring myself to add her husband, Christopher Howson,who is accused of her murder.

I once wrote that we are none of reducible to our worst moments. I believe this with all of my heart, mind, and soul. Andy and Kate Grosmaire, in the worst of circumstances, saw this, and were able to bring themselves to forgive the man who had killed his beloved daughter. That is living one's faith in the most extraordinary way. And it's necessary for healing, and to bring healing.

I'm not saying that, if I were so tested, I could do what the Grosmaires did, what Sharletta Evans did. I hope I never am so tested--save me from the time of trial, indeed--but I can try to apply the lesson demonstrated so heroically by them in my own way.

Pray for Theresa, and her children. Pray for Christopher. Pray for all whose lives were shattered by this horror, and all similarly situated. And, in conflicts great and small, try to remember the humanity of those who hurt me--and hope that those I offend do the same for me. A bit late for a New Year's Resolution, perhaps, but I think that's the one for me. That, and continue exploring the world of restorative justice, to see where I may be led.


February 24, 2016: Since I first published this post, I have been looking into restorative justice, and Vera Institute and the the New York Peace Institute (to name but two) in New York City, and the Center for Community Justice in Schenectady, provide opportunities to train, to volunteer and to participate in the hard, but critical work of reconciliation.

As I grow into my calling, I find that the work of reconciliation calls to me in a way that gets beyond my experience as a litigator over more than 20 years. Not to disparage the utility of litigation--but where reconciliation can be achieved, it forms a more full, lasting resolution than any imposed result can. That's a lesson I've learned in my decade now as a labor neutral.

Or, as Winston Churchill famously put it, "Jaw-jaw is better than war-war."

Friday, February 19, 2016

Twice Blessed: Harper Lee's Novel

I am sorry to read that Harper Lee has died. She wrote one book, To Kill a Mockingbird, thetis standard fare in high schools, and is an undisputed classic. She played a major part in the creation of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.

And then decades of silence.

Last year, Go Set a Watchman, an earlier draft of the novel that became Mockingbird, was published, giving rise to questions of exploitation and legacy tainting. After all, the Atticus of Watchman is a cranky old racist, whose daughter catches him betraying his own values on the very courtroom in which he embodied them.

But this is the Atticus we all love to think of:

Through the glories of pre-ordering, I got a copy of Watchman on the day of publication, and read it immediately. For what it's worth, I think that while Mockingbird is the more artfully crafted of the two, it also has the easier lift. Ultimately, it's reassuring--Tom Robinson dies, but if he hadn't broken and tried to escape, Atticus liked his odds on appeal, we're told. Even more reassuring, the Judge who assigned Atticus, and the Sheriff, Mr. Heck Tate, each try to even the playing field, and Atticus himself, the ultimate avatar of the lawyer as hero, leaves everything on that field, pulling out all the stops to save his client. Mockingbird is a beautiful, funny, tender book--but it isn't challenging.

Watchman, by contrast, undermines the heroism of Atticus's younger days--Robinson is acquitted and survives, the trial is accorded only a few lines--but, worse, confronts us with the awful identity of the racist: Someone we love. Someone who helped form us, a parent, a good and wise person in so many ways--but the oppressor and racist. He betrays Calpurnia, by representing her grandson, intending to steer him into a guilty plea. He both is and is not the Atticus we love. He did give Scout her moral compass, but his own has gotten distorted somewhere.

It's an extraordinary achievement, if you read the books together. The flaws Atticus demonstrates in Watchman don't contradict the man in Mockingbird. If you trim the lines in Watchman about the trial to harmonize with the events of Mockingbird, they're the same man--Atticus in Mockingbird has a paternalistic superiority that is not edifying, if you look close enough.

That's in fact how I read the two: together. The rough edges of Watchman work for me, because the writing is good enough to carry me along, and to bridge the distance between the nostalgic hindsight of Scout's childhood memories, and the baffling complexities of the adult Jean Louise struggling with the aging, flawed man before her.

Together, the books have greater life than either on its own.

Harper Lee wrote one novel, after all. A two volume classic, with both the soft-focus, hopeful story of heroism a child discovering the harshness of the world needs, and the moment when we let go of reassurance, and see our parents in the round, flaws and all. It's a novel that will live.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Heresy and Hope

I admit it; I'm not much of a heresy hunter. But there is one that has always rankled me, because, unlike so many heresies that debate or question the nature of Jesus, this heresy devalues his teachings, in favor of a credulous embrace of the world, or, worse, provides a modus operandi for snake-oil salesmen (and women) in clerical collars.

I refer of course to the prosperity gospel:
In the Gospel of Saint Matthew, we are told that Jesus said, "You cannot serve both God and money" and, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

The "prosperity gospel," an insipid heresy whose popularity among American Christians has boomed in recent years, teaches that God blesses those God favors most with material wealth.


Few theological ideas ring more dissonant with the harmony of orthodox Christianity than a focus on storing up treasures on Earth as a primary goal of faithful living. The gospel of prosperity turns Christianity into a vapid bless-me club, with a doctrine that amounts to little more than spiritual magical thinking: If you pray the right way, God will make you rich.

But if you're not rich, then what? Are the poor cursed by God because of their unfaithfulness? And if God were so concerned about 401(k)s and Mercedes, why would God's son have been born into poverty?

Nowhere has the prosperity gospel flourished more than among the poor and the working class. Told that wealth is a sign of God's grace and favor, followers strive for trappings of luxury they can little afford in an effort to prove that they are blessed spiritually. Some critics have gone so far as to place part of the blame for the past decade's spending binge and foreclosure crisis at the foot of the prosperity gospel's altar.
In my unchurched days, after I had left the Roman Catholicism of my youth and before I re-entered religious observance as an Episcopalian, I stood aghast at the antics of these prosperity gospel preachers on television, my fundamental belief in Jesus of Nazareth revolted by the hucksters who twisted his words that he had come to people "that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly" into crass commercialism. In college, I saw its origins in the Calvinist fear that one could not know if one was of the "Elect" (saved), and in the hope that if one was successful in one's calling, that might--might, mind you--be a sign that was one of the Elect.

Yes, yes; The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism per Max Weber gave me some insight, but oversimplified Calvin's teaching. Still, Weber had sussed out a part of American Christianity, and many of the misapplications of calvinist thought.

So, it was with some interest that I read Kate Bowler's recent essay "Death, the Prosperity Gospel, and Me", in which the author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (2013). In her article, Bowler describes how her own cancer has led her to reflect on her research into the Prosperity Gospel:
I am a historian of the American prosperity gospel. Put simply, the prosperity gospel is the belief that God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith. I spent 10 years interviewing televangelists with spiritual formulas for how to earn God’s miracle money. I held hands with people in wheelchairs being prayed for by celebrities known for their miracle touch. I sat in people’s living rooms and heard about how they never would have dreamed of owning this home without the encouragement they heard on Sundays.

I went on pilgrimage with the faith healer Benny Hinn and 900 tourists to retrace Jesus’ steps in the Holy Land and see what people would risk for the chance at their own miracle. I ruined family vacations by insisting on being dropped off at the showiest megachurch in town. If there was a river running through the sanctuary, an eagle flying freely in the auditorium or an enormous, spinning statue of a golden globe, I was there.


This is America, where there are no setbacks, just setups. Tragedies are simply tests of character. It is the reason a neighbor knocked on our door to tell my husband that everything happens for a reason.

“I’d love to hear it,” my husband said.

“Pardon?” she said, startled.

“I’d love to hear the reason my wife is dying,” he said, in that sweet and sour way he has.

My neighbor wasn’t trying to sell him a spiritual guarantee. But there was a reason she wanted to fill that silence around why some people die young and others grow old and fussy about their lawns. She wanted some kind of order behind this chaos. Because the opposite of #blessed is leaving a husband and a toddler behind, and people can’t quite let themselves say it: “Wow. That’s awful.” There has to be a reason, because without one we are left as helpless and possibly as unlucky as everyone else.


The prosperity gospel tries to solve the riddle of human suffering. It is an explanation for the problem of evil. It provides an answer to the question: Why me? For years I sat with prosperity churchgoers and asked them about how they drew conclusions about the good and the bad in their lives. Does God want you to get that promotion? Tell me what it’s like to believe in healing from that hospital bed. What do you hear God saying when it all falls apart?


The prosperity gospel has taken a religion based on the contemplation of a dying man and stripped it of its call to surrender all. Perhaps worse, it has replaced Christian faith with the most painful forms of certainty. The movement has perfected a rarefied form of America’s addiction to self-rule, which denies much of our humanity: our fragile bodies, our finitude, our need to stare down our deaths (at least once in a while) and be filled with dread and wonder. At some point, we must say to ourselves, I’m going to need to let go.
I've ordered her book, because someone who can see past the charlatans, the well-meaning cranks, the eccentrics, and gaze into the human hopes that this especially American heresy is trying to support is the right person to write its history. The fact that she can view with compassion as well as objectivity--the double vision of the truly great historian--means that she can see it in the round, not just the shadow side that is flaunted so often.

Which is just the kind of historian I need to understand the allure of the thing, and to help me understand, rather than stand in judgment.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Antonin Scalia

Antonin Scalia died today. He was one of the longest serving justices in American history. I have written here often about his drawbacks, and the damage his increasingly lawless decisions were causing to the structure of constitutional law. I won't link the posts; I stand by them, but his better side deserves mention too.

I also have noted that he was a firm believer in the Sixth Amendment--the only one on the Court, currently. In early years on the Court, he joined in Texas v. Johnson, defending speech he hated. Even recently, he could surprise, rising to the defense of an increasingly tattered Fourth Amendment. His off the bench writings could be engaging, and in A Matter of Interpretation, he engaged constructively with his critics, exhibiting less pugnacity and more perspicacity.

I think he enjoyed being Antonin Scalia; he was one of three justices (that I can think of) who were the subject of a play. (Scalia, depicted in The Originalist, O.W. Holmes in The Magnificent Yankee and W.O. Douglas (sorta) in First Monday in October).

May he rest in peace.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

"They've Summoned Up a Thundercloud": "Command and Coercion" in 2016

You know, I was really hoping my 2012 Command and Coercion: Clerical Immunity, Scandal, and the Sex Abuse Crisis in the Roman Catholic Church could become irrelevant to the news. But, as John Allen reports at Crux, my thesis remains depressingly relevant:
Given what a cancer the clerical sexual abuse scandals have been for the Catholic Church, one would imagine the Vatican would want new bishops to get a state-of-the-art presentation on best practices in terms of preventing such meltdowns in the future.

The Vatican has been running just such a training course since 2001 for newly appointed bishops around the world, and almost 30 percent of the Catholic prelates in the world today have taken it.

It’s more than a bit surprising, therefore, to discover that at least last year, the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, the body created by Pope Francis to identify “best practices” in the fight against child abuse, was not involved in the training.


The presentation was entrusted to French Monsignor Tony Anatrella, a consulter to the Pontifical Council for the Family and the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers, who’s based at the Collège des Bernardins in Paris. He’s a psychotherapist controversial for his views on homosexuality and “gender theory.”

Although his presentation was long on therapeutic analysis, Anatrella did a credible job of slogging through components of the Code of Canon Law governing clergy accused of sexual crime with a minor.

In other ways, however, his presentation seemed seriously wanting. For instance, Anatrella argued that bishops have no duty to report allegations to the police, which he says is up to victims and their families. It’s a legalistic take on a critical issue, one which has brought only trouble for the Church and its leaders. Why, one wonders, was it part of a training session?

Most basically, canonical procedures kick in only after abuse has been alleged. Presumably the goal ought to be to stop those crimes from happening, and in that regard it’s striking that Anatrella devoted just a few paragraphs to abuse prevention, using abstract language without concrete examples.
Let's not bury the lede: The instructor of the Vatican training course on sexual abuse is teaching bishops that "bishops have no duty to report allegations to the police, which he says is up to victims and their families."

From the Guardian:
A document that spells out how senior clergy members ought to deal with allegations of abuse, which was recently released by the Vatican, emphasised that, though they must be aware of local laws, bishops’ only duty was to address such allegations internally.

“According to the state of civil laws of each country where reporting is obligatory, it is not necessarily the duty of the bishop to report suspects to authorities, the police or state prosecutors in the moment when they are made aware of crimes or sinful deeds,” the training document states.
Even in the age of Pope Francis, it seems, the twin imperatives of "command and coercion"--a phrase I plucked from the writings of John Henry Newman, where they were used approvingly to describe the Church's duty to suppress even truthful information where necessary to maintain faith in the Church's authority--and of clerical independence from secular law, the dubious cause in which Thomas Becket died, and which was perpetuated in canon law to at least 1984, though there is reason to believe it remains substantially undisturbed, still hold sway.

So, clearly the scandal is far from over. Which means, damn it, that I can't leave it behind. You have to understand, writing the article had the exhilarating impetus of having stumbled across something that had not been, until I wrote about it, explored in legal historical writing. Just about all of the legal historians of clerical immunity--"benefit of clergy" as it is commonly called, through "benefit of the forum," or "privilegium fori" is more accurate, describe its rise and fall from the perspective of secular law's willingness to honor it, not the Church's insistence on it, and its use of canon law to enforce it. Even the great R.H. Helmholz and Leona C. Gabel tell the story that way. So, C&C was satisfying to write--I found a small piece of the puzzle of why good men could become complicit in terrible deeds.

But that's done. Now, if I pursue it further, it'll be working out the ramifications of the canon law process, and mostly a hard slog through the unpleasantness of violated lives and vows. But how can one let it go, when, the story continues, continues seemingly along the lines I wrote on?

So, I'm dusting off C & C, and additional research materials I received after its publication, and seeing if I can re-work it into a more expanded treatment.

How I wish it wasn't needed.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Alas, Poor Creon: A Digression Upon a Sermon

So, here's a thought I have had after re-reading my Transfiguration Sunday Sermon to post it.

Here's the passage from Inherit the Wind I used in the sermon:

You can see that I wrenched it a bit out of context, making a point different from that the authors intended. But not, I think, disrespectfully, or unfaithful to what they wrote. Lawrence and Lee are pretty clear in the play that progress comes at a price, but is resoundingly worth it. I have tried to draw out the cost a little bit more, and, in the sermon, pout out that the cost includes losing the ability to relate to the ancient world, and some of our foundational texts, including the Bible.

But I don't associate myself with a simplistic view attributed to "Col. Drummond" that " we must abandon faith in the pleasant poetry of Genesis." Yes, yes--they're right that we can't take it as a history text--but as early as the Third Century, Origen knew that. So, what is genesis, and its creation story, and what does it have to tell us? The answer isn't, nothing, any more than it is a documentary history. It's some of the oldest stories a people who started a journey that we are still on, all these years on, told themselves about that journey. It's a window in to their world.

So my point was not to devalue the book of Genesis. Rather, my point is that you have to enter into the world of the biblical text sympathetically, with an effort to understand what exactly it is, and what it isn't. We have to make the imaginative leap to try to learn what the work in its essence is, and what its authors were tearing to communicate to its readers. Sometimes that means needing to restore and explore the cultural milieu of the text. (A friend recently gave me a copy of The Jewish Annotated New Testament that has proven a fertile place to learn about Jesus's and Paul's own setting.)

It's not easy. Proof-texting is a lot easier, but it is, in its own way, disrespectful to ancient texts; it assumes that nothing has changed, that the rise and fall of empires, cultures, and the passage of the texts themselves from one language to another is irrelevant. It assumes that we've got a simple job ahead of us, a science, not an art. It's crude.

And, most of all, it leads us astray, into missing the kerygma because we stay on the surface level.

Let's take a simple example--a non-biblical one to make it easy. If you read Antigone solely through modern eyes, it's easy to see it as a story about a purely noble resistance to tyranny. But fact, Martha Nussbaum has persuasively argued that both Antigone and Creon are right, and wrong. Werner Jaeger came to a similar conclusion. By simply reading post-Enlightenment values into Sophocles, we could miss much of the nuance in the ply. We don't have to, though; through imaginatively engaging with the play from the perspective of its time, not our time, we can read it more richly. Certainly, Jean Anouilh's WW II-era adaptation gives Creon a perspective that, while not as morally attractive as Antigone's, is not without salience, due in part to such an imaginative engagement and finding a modern parallel to the Occupation of his own country.

None of this means we can't have any certainty, of course. But it means that a little epistemic humility is in order, on all our parts.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Turn and Face the Strange: A Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church on February 7, 2016]

[This sermon is one where I went "off book" for a little bit, and so my notes don't perfectly reflect the text as delivered. I've amended it to reflect what I said, to the best of my recollection, while I'm pretty sure all the concepts are there, it's not verbatim.]

So, you heard it right. Jesus goes up the mountain to pray, and then—something happens.
Something that is hard even for Luke to describe—the best he can come up with is to say that “while [Jesus] was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Matthew is a little more explicit—Jesus’s face “shone like the sun.” [1] Mark adds that Jesus’s clothes became “dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.” [2]

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

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

Moses, who after he received the tablets of the Law directly from God, came down from the Mountain unaware that his face was shining with an unearthly radiance [3], and that people could only speak to him if he wore a veil; Elijah, who was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire.[4]

Peter, John, and James are exhilarated and terrified, and frankly who can blame them? Only Peter tries to do anything, and I have to admit, his effort to be helpful—“Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah"—sound like it’s right out of as Woody Allen movie. But at least he tries to be a part of what’s happening.

A mysterious cloud covers the mountain, and a voice is heard, saying “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

And then it’s all over.

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

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


I could take the easy way out of this story. “Oh, it’s a glimpse of heaven,” I could say, or “what a vivid metaphor. Let’s unpack it.”

But I can’t really do that here, not and be honest with you.
Because this story is so strange, that I think it has a kind of truth that the Gospel writers are struggling to articulate, and only imperfectly succeeding at, and if I use their struggle to domesticate the story, I’m smothering that truth.

So I’m going to do something different. I’m going to invite you to, in the words of the late David Bowie, “turn and face the strange.”

Something happened. What was it?

We’re handicapped by the fact that we live in a scientific, empirical age. We live by science and technology and it’s enriched our lives in many ways. But, it’s like Lawrence and Lee wrote in Inherit the Wind: progress has never been a bargain; you’ve got to pay for it. They say that it’s as if there’s a man behind a counter who says “all right, you can have a telephone, but you’ll have to give up privacy, the charm of distance. Mister, you may conquer the air, but the birds will lose their wonder, and the air will smell of gasoline!”[5]

And Lawrence and Lee are right.

As a culture, we have lost the sense that the ordinary can transcend itself, that in day-to-day life, there can be moments when the light gets brighter, the air is alive with currents and motes tumbling through sunbeams, and our hearts beat just a bit faster. They come out of nowhere, little moments that we can treasure, or dismiss as a fleeting feeling.
Back in 2011, I had one of those moments in this very church—next door, actually in the main sanctuary. I was sitting in the congregation as the choir sang a new piece of music, Evan Solot’s The Hawk, and suddenly—well, I was a little bit more alive. The music had set something free in me. I felt, in that moment, serene, centered, and at one with my Creator.

That’s not normal for me.
It’s not normal for most of us, I suspect, but many people have moments when they are pulled into alignment with the universe; some have experiences that are even more striking, harder to ignore.
These experiences are common enough to have been studied by the psychologist Abraham Maslow, who called them “peak experiences.” He believed that all people were capable of having them.

In the Church, we would call these mystical experiences, and the 19th Century scholar William Inge wrote that the mystical facility is one which everybody has but which few develop. But the lives of the mystics, from Julian of Norwich to Thomas Merton, have shown us that these experiences aren’t to be written off lightly. They’re not nothing.

In the ancient world people were far more open to these experiences than we moderns are. They write of them without embarrassment, without doubt. They have not called into question their own experiences.

But the Transfiguration isn’t a subtle little intimation of immortality, or an ordinary peak experience. It’s much more dramatic, much bigger, and shared—it’s not just Peter, or John, or James alone who experiences it, or even Jesus—it’s all of them. It has a reality to it that transcends any physical or psychological explanation for its cause.

And it’s not just a feel good moment. It’s terrifying as well as exhilarating, until the voice speaks and it all just ends. But the disciples remember. They remember well enough that slightly different accounts of the experience appear in 3 out of the 4 Gospels.

But the really important part is what happens next.

They come down from the mountain, and rejoin the day-to-day world.
In today’s reading from Second Corinthians, Paul references Moses’s transfiguration, and that veil he wore. Paul tells us that “when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed,” and that “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” Paul tells us that “since it is by God's mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.”

Well, that’s self-explanatory, right?

But wait—Paul is comparing us to Moses, as well as to his followers wandering in the desert.
Catch that thought for a second: we are both the viewer and the viewed, only without the need for any veil. By walking the Way—which is what the early Christians called their faith, because it is a way of life and not a set of doctrinal principles—we are like Moses, being with God on the mountaintop.

Like Moses, we are changed by our engagement with God, and not just once, but daily, even if we don’t realize it ourselves, just as Moses didn’t until the people hid from his altered face. It’s like C.S. Lewis wrote, that if we are really walking the Way, then, taking our lives as a whole, with all our innumerable choices, all our lives long we are slowly turning the central part of us, the part that chooses, into a creature in harmony with God, with others, and with ourselves. Or, like Dorian Gray, we can choose another path—but those choices will, one at a time, change us, too, even though we might not notice the changes until they accumulate.

Turn and face the strange. Because those choices? They do accumulate. We change, even though we don’t see it daily. So do others around us. We can see Transfiguration in those moments when we see the reality that underlies the workaday appearances of those we love, those who have blessed our lives. Maybe that’s when the beauty that isn’t evident is perceived, and we’re shocked by the glimpse of a level of reality we don’t often grasp. And that if we respond to that insight, we can respond to that beauty, respond to those changes.

Lent is coming in just a few days, and often we dread it. The solemnity, the penitential rites. We miss our alleluias. But Lent can be a mountaintop experience, too. You don’t have to put away something you love for Lent. You can pick something up instead. Try something new to change your perspective. Add a short daily prayer from the Book of Common Prayer’s Daily Office. If you do that already, try a different from of daily prayer. Me? This year I’m changing my usual Rite II daily prayer for an older from. Why? The unfamiliar language makes me think more about what I’m praying, and what it means. But that’s me. There are as many different ways of shaking up spiritual practices as there are people. The whole point is to give the kaleidoscope a twist, in the hope that all the shapes will reform, and give you a glimpse of a new perspective.

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

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

1. Matt 17: 2.
2. Mark 9: 2-3
3. Exodus 34: 29-30.
4. 2 Kings 2: 11.
5. Jerome Lawrence & Robert E. Lee, Inherit the Wind (1955), at 93.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Silence of the Justice

From The New York Times today:
When the Supreme Court returns from its winter break this month, it will hear two minor cases and reach a major anniversary. Unless something very surprising happens during the arguments that day, Justice Clarence Thomas will have gone 10 years without asking a question from the bench.

Maintaining a decade-long vow of silence takes monkish dedication and a certain stamina, and Justice Thomas has no modern competition. It has been at least 45 years since any other member of the court went even a single term without asking a question.

Justice Thomas’s explanations for his disengagement from this aspect of the court’s work have varied, but he seems to have settled on one in recent years. It is simply discourteous, he says, to pepper lawyers with questions.

“I think it’s unnecessary in deciding cases to ask that many questions, and I don’t think it’s helpful,” he said at Harvard Law School in 2013. “I think we should listen to lawyers who are arguing their cases, and I think we should allow the advocates to advocate.”

His is an unusual conception of the role oral arguments play at the Supreme Court. The justices know the lawyers’ arguments well by the time they take the bench, having read stacks of briefs, most of them very thorough.

Oral arguments are a chance for justices to probe the contentions in the briefs and for lawyers to address the issues that most trouble the justices.

“If oral argument provides nothing more than a summary of the brief in monologue, it is of very little value to the court,” Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote in 1987.

Justice Thomas acknowledged at least the premise of this point in his remarks at Harvard. “Most of the work is done in the briefs,” he said.

But he may well be right that his colleagues go too far in the other direction, interrupting one another and spraying lawyers with questions that seldom get full and considered answers.

“We look like ‘Family Feud,’ ” Justice Thomas told a bar group in 2000.

Asked about the free-for-all state of arguments at Harvard in 2013, he said, “I don’t like it that way, but I’m nobody’s boss.”
Something you won't hear me say often: I see his point. He's not the only one to hold the position, either. Justice William O. Douglas held the same viewpoint, believing they the time belonged to the lawyers, and not to justices who wanted to lobby their colleagues.

Douglas, like Thomas, also had concerns about the seemliness of the way it was done. Having seen some arguments, listened to more, and read the transcripts of still more, I think Justice Thomas is right--there's a tendency on the current Court to showboat, to treat the argument as a sporting event. When I saw it in a death penalty case, at the very beginning of my career, I was appalled at the cavalier attitude several justices betrayed in oral argument toward performing what should be the most solemn aspect of their duties, regardless of one's opinion on the merits of the death penalty.

This isn't to say that no levity, no spark, is appropriate. But an argument in the Nation's highest Court should, perhaps, not be quite so easily confused with a bear-baiting, with counsel as the bear.