The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, October 22, 2017

"The Honor of God": A Sermon on 22:15-22

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church on October 22, 2017]

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

A long time ago, back when I was in high school, I stumbled on the 1964 movie Becket, based on the play by Jean Anouilh. It starred Richard Burton as Becket, and Peter O’Toole as King Henry II. As history, both the play and the movie are wildly inaccurate, it turns out. Becket was not an oppressed Saxon, Henry fought his way to the crown without his help, and, frankly, was as smart as, if not smarter than, the Archbishop. But it caught my imagination, and got me seriously interested in Becket and his King, friend and foe.

The story goes like this: As Henry’s Chancellor, Becket was his closest friend, and most trusted servant. That much is true. When the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had an adversarial relationship with the King died, Henry managed to invoke ancient custom and nominate Becket. When Becket became Archbishop in 1162, he and the king soon quarreled, and an increasingly bitter conflict built up. Things came to a head when Henry, after Becket rejected an effort to discuss things, growled in the presence of several of his knights, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

And you haven’t heard that line properly until you’ve heard Peter O’Toole spit it out.
Four of the knights, thinking that Henry’s frustrated explosion was a command, rode off to Canterbury, and butchered Becket on the altar of the Cathedral. Becket had several opportunities to protect himself, but insisted the Mass go forward, and so the knights were able to get to him. And Richard Burton made the most of that death scene, his last words—in the film, not in life—being “Poor Henry.”

What Anouilh and the film only hint at was the subject of their feud. There were several areas of conflict, but the most important was whether clergy who committed crimes would be tried in the Church's own courts, or whether secular courts, that is, the king's courts, would try those cases. When Henry inquired into the matter in 1163, “he was told that since his coronation nine years before, more than a hundred murders had been committed by clerks,” as clergy were called, “as well as innumerable cases of theft and robbery with violence which had escaped the rigors of secular justice.” [1]

Becket insisted that only the Church had jurisdiction over clergy, and maintained that “since they are not under secular kings, but under their own king, the king of heaven, they should be ruled by their own law.”[2] He insisted that he was defending nothing less than “the Honor of God.”

After Becket’s murder, the Pope forced Henry to accept his position. As a result of the sainthood of Thomas Becket, “benefit of clergy” allowed priests, monastics and others to escape secular courts, no matter what the crime. In 1917, when the loose bundle of authorities making up canon law were complied into a code, that Code expressly stated that to bring a cleric before a secular tribunal for any crime was a delict—canon law’s word for a crime—until 1983, when it issued a new Code of Canon Law. Even in the 1983 Code, the Church did not expressly repudiate those rules. These rules played an important part in protecting abusive priests, from Becket’s age into our own.[3]

Ultimately, Henry had the better of the argument. In fact, however, Henry not only had to give way on the main issue, he did penance for his role—inadvertent as he insisted it was—in Becket’s death by having himself flogged at Becket’s tomb. In the play and the film, when the Saxons, Becket’s supporters, see the King has done this penance, they flock to his banner, and defeat the revolt Henry’s son is leading against him. The throne is again secure.

Henry then addresses his assembled barons, including Becket’s murderers. The script describes him as speaking “with a touch of hypocritical majesty beneath his slightly loutish manner,” as he says, “the Honor of God, gentlemen, is a very good thing, and taken all in all, one gains by having it on one’s side.”[4]

Political partisans have been all too quick to seize the fictionalized Henry’s standard, and to mobilize their supporters by assuring them that God favors their cause. We have heard God invoked all too often as demanding the restriction of women’s rights, the rights of our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers, and their roles in society. We have heard that God demands judges of a certain kind, and laws that are punitive to the poor and dispossessed.

It’s fair to say that all too often political figures twist the Bible to justify their public policy preferences, to remake God into a partisan figure. Many years ago, in a very different era, H. L. Mencken called our own Episcopal Church “the Republican Party at prayer,” a label that stuck for decades.

But before we get to pleased with ourselves, and too sure at our own righteousness, have not political causes we do firmly believe in been justified by resort to scripture? After all, the Civil Rights Movement led by, among others, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King also invoked Scripture, and the will of God that all of God’s children were created equal, and should be equal before the law and in society.

It’s puzzles like that that make me say, with W.R. Inge, that “the silence of God has, at all times, been a trial to [hu]mankind.”[5]
But then we come to today’s Gospel. When the Pharisees try to trap Jesus by asking him if it is lawful to pay the taxes demanded by the hated Roman occupiers, he asks a simple question, while holding a coin. He asks “whose head is this, and whose title?”
They reply, “The emperor’s.” And so Jesus moves in for the rhetorical kill, saying to them, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

A brilliant debating move, but far more than that. It contains a self-evident truth that offers a resolution to the conflicting claims of Church and State.

But how do we apply it?

How do we know when we are serving God’s will or refashioning God in our own image, to justify our own desires? There’s no simple answer of course, but, as the Roman Empire was crumbling around him, St. Augustine in The City of God tried to grapple with the problem. He began by distinguishing between the “City of Man” and the “City of God.” The “City of Man” is what he also called the temporal city, the worldly kingdom around us. By the City of God, or “the celestial city,” Augustine didn’t mean the Kingdom of God, but rather “that part thereof which is as yet a pilgrim on earth and lives by faith.” [6] Or, to put it more bluntly, us. The People of God, who are trying to walk in the Christian Way.

Augustine tells us that the Temporal City, “the faithless worldly city aims at earthly peace,” and that the “Heavenly City” “uses this peace, also,” and so “willingly obeys such laws of the temporal city as order the things pertaining of this mortal life [so] that both the cities might observe a peace” as far as possible.[7]

There are limits to this peace. And in those limits, we begin to discern what belongs to God, and leave the rest to the Emperor. The limits are simply this: “the Heavenly City observes and respects this temporal peace here on earth, and the coherence of [people’s] wills in honest morality, as far as it may with a safe conscience.”[8]

In other words, we accept that we live in a deeply flawed world. The Temporal City is run for the worldly, by the worldly. We don’t mistake it for the Kingdom of God, and we don’t assume that Christian values will move it. And yet we live in and among the Temporal City. We dissent from the evil in our world, and try to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God through the streets of that City.

Thomas Becket fought for special privileges for members of his order. He and his supporters claimed to be above the law that applied to the laity. Where was the seeking of justice and loving of mercy in that? Brave man though he was, sincere though he was, time has shown the weakness of his cause, that he sought to model the Heavenly City after the temporal City, with its hierarchies., an din so doing replicated its injustices.

Dr. King and those who walked with him did not turn to violence. They bore witness, spoke their truths, and appealed to the better angels of those who lived in the Temporal City. They won, not because they spoke in God’s name, but because they spoke the truth, which is of God, and softened the hearts while convincing the minds of their oppressors. They didn’t seek to dominate those who had oppressed them, they merely sought equality. And that work goes on, and must go on.

We can find another clue in the meeting of Margery Kempe, the emotionally turbulent mystic who in 1415 sought the counsel of Julian of Norwich, whose own The Revelations of Divine Love is a spiritual classic. When Margery asked how she could tell whether the promptings of her heart were of God, Julian laid down a simple rule: Did they bring about more love, or more pride? Service or self-aggrandizement? Compassion, or contempt?[9]

The Temporal City will always need reform, will never be perfect. We who live in and among it are ourselves imperfect. The division between the Heavenly and the Temporal Cities is not watertight. It’s a delicate balancing act, but because we live in both cities, we must always be careful to, while rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s, focus more on rendering to God what is God’s. Compassion, not contempt. Service,not self-aggrandizement. Love, not pride.

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

[1] John Wirenius, Command and Coercion: Clerical Immunity, Scandal, and the Sex Abuse Crisis in he Roman Catholic Church,” 27 Journal of Law and Religion 423, 446 (2011) (quoting W.L. Warren, Henry II, at 464-465 (1973).

[2] Id. at 445.
[3] Id at 468-471.
[4] Jean Anouilh, Becket: Or the Honor of God at p. 116 (trans. Lucienne Hill, 1961).
[5] Inge, Mysticism in Religion at 14 (1948).
[6] Augustine, 3 City of God, Bk XV (19) (John Healy, trans. 1903).
[7] Id.
[8] The Booke of Margery Kempe, (Sanford Brown Meech & Hope Emily Allen, eds.) at 42-43 (Early English Text Society 1940).

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