The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Greatest Treason: The Implication of Christ

This is not a sermon. I am speaking not in my official capacity as a deacon, but solely for myself, from my heart, because I believe that the Gospel teaches that Jesus stands with the oppressed, the victimized, the disenfranchised--and yes, with the repentant, too. But the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not a charter for abuse, nor can it, without wholesale distortion, be twisted to justify the abuse of minors or the harassment of women or of men by the powerful. And, in the last week, I've had a bellyful of watching just that twisting take place.

Rod Dreher has an important and, I think true, as far as it goes, take on religious defenses of Roy Moore's candidacy, either instrumentally (such as Gov. Kay Ivey's brushing aside her concerns about the accusations made against him, on the ground that "I believe in the Republican Party, what we stand for, and most important, we need to have a Republican in the United States Senate to vote on things like the Supreme Court justices”), or by theologically justifying or mitigating the acts of which Moore stands accused.

Citing and generously quoting Bethany Mandel's op-ed in the New York Times, Dreher draws his conclusion:
Roy Moore is not a pastor, but he has made his Evangelical Christianity so much a part of his public persona that he is rightly regarded as a religious leader. He has held himself out as the embodiment of a man of faith, one whose religious principles are the most important thing to him. He has raised his voice repeatedly in judgment of those who, in his view, violate God’s law. Now there is credible evidence that he sexually abused underage teenage girls in his 30s. There is no proof yet, but the evidence is credible. You can be quite sure that the world of unbelievers is watching how conservative Christians react to this news. And you can be certain that the adolescent and young adult children of Evangelicals — especially Alabama Evangelicals — are watching their parents, their pastors, and the adult community in which they were raised, to see how they react to all this.

This is a time of testing for Evangelical men and women in Alabama (and elsewhere). As you may recall, I heard from a small group of Evangelical pastors in Nashville that they were dealing with young believers in their late teens and early twenties — college students, basically — who were having profound crises of faith because of their parents’ and home churches’ enthusiastic support of Donald Trump. At the time, I told the pastors that I didn’t understand why their elders’ support of a politician would cause a crisis of faith. Those pastors told me pretty much what Bethany Mandel wrote here: “The foundation of so much of my religious practice is inextricably tied to that period of my life….” That is, those young Nashville Evangelicals had been so formed by the faith as practiced in their families and church communities that they were having a very hard time separating belief from the means through which they had come to believe.
You may ask why I, as a non-Evangelical--indeed, a liberal Anglo-Catholic--am writing about this test for a community very different than my own. Dreher is right that this behavior, like that Bethany Mandel was subjected to, like that of the Roman Catholic Church in the sex abuse crisis, will cost people their faith. Some will be unchurched, while remaining believers, some will find other spiritual homes, and others will become agnostics or atheists. But the harm goes beyond this.

The thing is, all of this behavior becomes the model of what Christianity is to the non-Christian, and that's not unfair. We are what we do. Charles Gore and his "Holy Party" called Christianity first and foremost "the Way," and we can't paper over hypocrisy with prayer, or by distorting the Gospel.

We are what we do. Faith without works is dead, after all, and while we're all flawed and are going to screw it up, sometimes right royally, we can't react to our failures by calling them successes. I'm no Barthian, but I think we have to accept that Barthian insight into human sinfulness and divine forgiveness requires us to accept when we fall short, seek forgiveness, and, where possible, to make amends, not to use our cleverness at self-deception to say that, no, what we did wrong was quite all right, indeed, the only correct thing to do.

And all of us, whether liberal or conservative, Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox--whatever--are going to be tempted to such cognitive dissonance either for ourselves or for those we admire. But this fraught situation becomes especially toxic where politics come into play, because power--secular power, and spiritual power, provide ample opportunities for abuse.

As I've written before, T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral has long been a foundational text for me, especially the lines given Becket in rejecting the blandishments of the Fourth Tempter:
Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain;
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
Now, credit where due; Eliot, like Anouilh, assumed the fundamental righteousness of Becket's cause in his dispute with Henry II. I do not. (Free earlier draft here.) Indeed, the Becket case, and John Henry Newman's theological justification of suppression of the truth through persecution, are given as archetypes of these temptations by me for just that reason in Command and Coercion.

Let's focus on the words of the Third and the Fourth Tempters, for a moment. The Third Tempter argues that Becket should bring his spiritual authority to form a political coalition with secular, political actors,the barons, and overthrow the King :
For us, Church favour would be an advantage,
Blessing of Pope powerful protection
In the fight for liberty. You, my Lord,
In being with us, would fight a good stroke
The Fourth Tempter takes it a step further, commending Becket for rejecting the purely political, instead advocating for ecclesiastical dominance of the secular state:
You hold the keys of heaven and hell.
Power to bind and loose: bind, Thomas, bind,
King and bishop under your heel.
King, emperor, bishop, baron, king:
He adds, "When king is dead, there's another king. And one more king is another reign," and then pictures all the kings in succession, attending at Thomas's shrine, adding, "Think of the miracles, by God's grace/And think of your enemies in another place."

In each case, Becket is offered power--secular power by the Third Tempter, the power to bring his enemies forever for his own personal glory down by the Fourth--in exchange for abusing the spiritual office entrusted to him, ironically enough by the King with whom he is at war.

The Governor, like the Third Tempter, argues that morals be damned, the greater good requires her party prevail--even if a little cooperation with evil has to be accepted to get there. In all conscience, that's bad enough, to put it quite mildly. But watching clergy and other religious leaders contort the Gospels to justify sexual predation is even more appalling. Because if you take Christianity at all seriously, it is is a Way, not a Why, a following of a man who, we are told, was the heir to the throne of David, but so resolutely stood for the outcast, the poor, the women who were so often ignored, and preached that they, and not those religious authorities who made logic-chopping distinctions to justify their seemingly righteous exclusion of those others, were blessed. This is, in truth, the greatest treason: to abuse spiritual authority for gain.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

“The End is Nigh!” A Sermon on Matt 25: 1-13 St. Bartholomew’s Church November 12, 2017

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

“Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her,” we are told in the Book of Wisdom. We are also told that “one who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care, because she goes about seeking those worthy of her, and she graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought.”

It’s comforting, isn’t it? Far more comforting than Jesus’s parable of the ten bridesmaids. Five of whom were foolish, and five of whom were wise.

They were all in place on time, awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom—but he was delayed. He was delayed so long that the bridesmaids, both wise and foolish, fell asleep. When the cry went up that the groom had arrived, the foolish bridesmaids realized that their lamps were beginning to flicker, and they had not brought any extra oil to keep them going.

They asked their fellow bridesmaids to share their extra oil with them, but the wise bridesmaids refused to share.

So much for solidarity.

No, the wise bridesmaids sent the foolish bridesmaids to the oil dealers, in the middle of the night, and by the time those five foolish bridesmaids returned, the doors were closed, and, when the poor women asked to be admitted, they were turned away with that particularly cutting line Jesus uses so often in his parables: “Truly, I tell you, I do not know you.”

The line doesn’t particularly fit here, though, if you think about it for a minute.

Of course the bridegroom knows them. They were selected as bridesmaids, they’ve waited long into the night, and, because he was late, they get rejected.

Hardly seems fair, does it?

Well, of course not.

It’s a parable, not a true story. If this were a realistic story, the fact that all of the bridesmaids fell asleep might have played a role, especially in view of Jesus’s last words, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

If this were a realistic story, Jesus would be doing little more than telling us, as I learned in the Boy Scouts, to “be prepared.”

But for what?

Jesus doesn’t really specify; he just starts out the parable with the simple sentence, “the kingdom of heaven will be like this.”

Most readings of this parable interpret the wedding and the long-delayed coming of the bridegroom to be the Second Coming of Christ, which will end the current, sinful order, and institute the Kingdom of Heaven.

Or, as some of our friends who stress the Book of Revelation like to think of it, the End Times.

Which certainly fits with Paul’s description in the reading from First Thessalonians, where he writes that

we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died.

For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.

Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.

These warnings of vigilance were given nearly two thousand years ago. That’s a long time to wait. And yet, in this same Gospel, Jesus says “Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.“

Some cite this saying, and this parable, and other warnings of the end of things as imminent, as proof that Jesus and the disciples were wrong.

But, again, that’s taking the parable as a realistic, straightforward story.

If we open our eyes a little wider, and put away literalism, we can see that the world of Jesus and the disciples did end. In 70 AD, after successfully besieging Jerusalem, the Romans sacked the City and the Temple. As Flavius Josephus, himself a former member of the rebellion that sparked the siege, described the fall of the Temple:
While the Temple was ablaze, the attackers plundered it, and countless people who were caught by them were slaughtered. There was no pity for age and no regard was accorded rank; children and old men, laymen and priests, alike were butchered; every class was pursued and crushed in the grip of war, whether they cried out for mercy or offered resistance
Through the roar of the flames streaming far and wide, the groans of the falling victims were heard; such was the height of the hill and the magnitude of the blazing pile that the entire city seemed to be ablaze; and the noise - nothing more deafening and frightening could be imagined.
Three years later, when the garrison at Masada killed itself rather than surrender, the last spark of rebellion was extinguished.

The literal end of the world is one event that will happen at a time we cannot know; scientists can’t tell us, because we can accelerate the day, or try to postpone it.

But in a very real way, the end of the world happens again and again, on a large scale and on a small.

When the Third Reich collapsed, and the camps were discovered by the allied troops, when atomic bombs went off in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, a world ended.

When one partner in a loving marriage dies, what Kurt Vonnegut called “a Nation of two,” a small world, has ended, never to be recaptured in this life.

When politics split a town over party and racial lines, ending friendships, causing the local high school to fear race riots, a world has ended.[1]

We don’t live in the post-World War II consensus anymore, and we don’t live in an era of civility, or an Era of Good feelings.

That world has ended.

But when the world fails us, or, maybe I should say, when we fail the world, the Kingdom of God breaks through, and invites us to walk with Wisdom.

We have a choice: to frantically deny the change, to try to put the clock back, or to recognize that the world we are living in is still God’s world, not ours, and that, as Jesus also said, “behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”

And that kingdom of God isn’t ours to have for ourselves; we are, like the bridesmaids, both the foolish ones and the wise ones, the carriers of the lamps, meant to each of us contribute to the lighting of the way from the old world that is dying, to the new one that is being born.

How do we do that? By, living our lives in such a way that we are, as St. Francis is so often quoted, preaching the Gospel, using words if necessary. And the best way I know to do that I learned here, from Bill Tully’s favorite blessing, urging us to remember that

Life is short,
And we do not have much time
to gladden the hearts of those who
make the journey with us.
So… be swift to love,
and make haste to be kind

And what if this was a realistic story--what then would become of those poor, foolish bridesmaids, left out in the cold night?

Well, we learn from our mistakes, sometimes, and Wisdom, we are told, “hastens to make herself known to those who desire her.”

And Jesus himself tells us in Matthew’s Gospel, “Keep on asking, and it will be given to you; keep on seeking, and you will find; keep on knocking, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks, it will be opened.”

So I think of the variant of the parable told by Thomas Merton in a poem he titled “Les Cinq Vierges (For Jacques).” I found it, newly translated from the original French, in an essay by Marie-Eloise Rosenblatt, titled “Got into the Party After All.”

It goes:

There were five virgins
Who arrived for the Wedding of the Lamb

With their motor-scooters burned out
And their gas tanks

But since they knew how to
They were told to stick around anyhow.

So that’s it: there were
Five rowdy virgins
Without gas
But really caught up
In the action.

There were then ten Virgins
At the Wedding of the Lamb.[2]

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


[1] Marie-Eloise Rosenblatt, in “Got Into the Party After All: Women’s Issues and the Five Foolish Virgins” in Amy –Jill Levine, ed., A Feminist Companion to Matthew, 171, 172-3 (2001)

[2] See Matt Viser, “A year after Trump’s election, York, Pa., is forever changed,” Boston Globe, Nov. 4, 2017.

[3] Thomas Merton, “Les Cinc Vierges,” trans. Marie-Eloise Rosenblatt, in “Got Into the Party After All: Women’s Issues and the Five Foolish Virgins” in Amy –Jill Levine, ed., A Feminist Companion to Matthew, at 178.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Our House

Posting was light last week, largely because la Caterina and I were involved in buying the house of which I have been renting the bottom apartment since my career radically shifted three years ago. We still rent in Brooklyn, where her job is, and bounce back and forth between the two. It makes for a peripatetic existence (for me more than her, as I journey back to the City most weeks, though she comes up when she can).

Which is home? You many ask. The short answer is both--we are home for each other and so I'll always be a Brooklynite, even though the home we own is in Albany.

But there is a special pleasure in our having bought this house, as my late landlady, a feisty, retired social worker who devoted her career as a social worker to creating meaningful protections for at-risk children, and dedicated her retirement to preserving the neighborhood in which the house stands, poured a lot of herself into the place. There are stained glass windows and ornaments that she made herself in the basement. These grace notes personalize the redbrick row house, as much as the original wainscoting, the flourishing ivy in the back (must knock some of that off, where it's a bit too intrusive), and the bow window, made for cats to take their leisure and view the world from above. And I am a fan of the baronial claw foot tub.

Bernadette and I became friends in our time together, with her telling me tales of Mayor Erastus Corning while I told her about James Michael Curley and The Last Hurrah, among many other conversations we shared. When I became a deacon, she was delighted for me, and, before she became ill, she would cat-sit for me. She never raised my rent, or charged for the cat-sitting.

At the closing, the executor of Bernadette's estate gave me two versions of the history of the house, as written by Bernadette. They each tell the story of Thomas Williams, who built this house and its two flanking neighbors in 1892. (A Williams family portrait has hung in the hallway since Bernadette found it in the building, and I keep it there, in memory of both her and him.) Williams lived here for 40 years--until about 1931, and was succeeded by another longtime Albany family, who passed it to a young man who did some renovation after a fire in the unit I rented--which retains all its period charm--and sold it to Bernadette in 1979. From 1979 until shortly before I moved in, Bernadette worked on renewing the fabric of the old place, and while there is much we can do to make it the home we want it to be, we have a good foundation to build on.

The folder of history and pictures of the repairs she had effected had one last thing--Bernadette's last charge to her successor in interest, her last message, it turned out, to me: "It's a great little house," she wrote, "take care of it."

So we will.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Ten Years On

Well, I'm two days late, but ten years ago, I inaugurated this blog, originally an ecclesiastically themed companion to my more personal one, and now the main place to read my longer ramblings, sermons, and and jeux d'esprit. Apparently over 170,000 people have visited (including repeated visits by the same people); I am grateful for your kind attention and, when you give them, your comments.

It has been for me, if not always for us, a good decade--the diaconate, writing, a new and wonderfully challenging career, but most of all, la Caterina, family, our cats, and now our new house, have led to a steady upswing in my own life.

Alas, despite all this, I am still more Professor Fate than the Great Leslie.

(Although Curtis was pretty good with a blade, if lacking sartorially:


"I Am Your Ser-Vant": Power of the Daleks, Parts 4-6

For my money, the creepiest moment of The Power of the Daleks is when Lesterson, the scientist who revived the Daleks, believed their protestations "I am your servant," until it was far too late to stop them, comes to admire them.

He steps out of the shadow in which he is hiding, and grating in his best impression of a Dalek voice, "I am your ser-vant." Robert James is great throughout, but his final moments are superb.

It's especially chilling because he is, at this point, completely sincere.

There are other deliciously creepy bits--the assembly line of the newly fashioned Daleks is beautifully animated, and flows much more naturally the human movements (my main complaint about the animation is that walking looks all too often like sideways hopping), the massacre of both the rebels and the guards by the Daleks--while the usurping Lieutenant Governor Bragan thinks his plans are working, humanity within the colony's capital is being efficiently wiped out.

There are moments that are touching--Valmar's sincere grieving for his colleague and fellow rebel Janley. In the wasteland her errors have indirectly caused, he can't leave her body, and murmurs, "She wasn't as bad as you think" to the Doctor. (Richard Kane infuses a touch of unexpressed passion in his dealings with Pamela Ann Davey's all-business Janley, and it adds to the poignancy of the moment.)

This is the first Dalek story to raise the threat level the pepper pots pose to the level they now do; the Doctor notes that all is not well with the colony, and then adds darkly, "Add to that one Dalek." Ben replies, "Oh, blimey, you don't half make mountains, don't you? One Dalek?"
The Doctor's answer will be echoed throughout the history of the program, most notably by Christopher Eccleston in 2005: "Yes! All that is needed to wipe out this entire colony."

So too will the "I am your servant" ploy reappear:

All this, and the first circle chanting "Exterminate!" "Exterminate" over and over again. We're setting some show standards here in this episodes, codifying tropes that will go on for half a century. And such is the cleverness of David Whitaker's script that the characters who are caught up in it all--the double-dealing Bragen, the honorable Hensell, the cold-blooded Janley, the enigmatic, flippant Quinn, and the tragically self-confident Lesterson--are each distinct, important characters. They're interesting in their own right. Even Janley's death, telegraphed as it was, counted for me, and Hensell--Doctor Who's early version of Ned Stark--dies rather than dishonor himself. And you believe it.


In a way, these last three episodes of political intrigue, the Daleks being cunning instead of only blazing away, and the Doctor's brilliant (or lucky; the episode seems genuinely ambiguous) is Doctor Who on good form, but not spectacular. But think about it, for a second, what has been accomplished.

A new Doctor has been inaugurated, in a painful process that acknowledges the pain of the loss of Hartnell, and the need to regain the audience's trust;

The Daleks are back, an existential threat in essentially the manner they will hold for the rest off the classic series, and, frankly, through the revival The Daleks remain the parable of nuclear war they always were, but now have a motive beyond their old enmity with the Thals:
POLLY: You've all underestimated these Daleks.
KEBBLE: Better brains than us, I suppose.
POLLY: I only know what the Doctor has told me. He says they're capable of exterminating whole nations.
VALMAR: Perhaps, but what would they want to kill us for, after we've taken over. We're friendly with the Daleks.
POLLY: But don't you see? Human beings can't be friends with Daleks. They don't have friends.
VALMAR: I don't see why not.
POLLY: It's a kind of hatred for anything unlike themselves. They think they're superior.
VALMAR: The girl's got something.
It's been intimated before, but Polly's articulation of it rings down the decades;

And a story of human vulnerability has been told--how we are capable of unleashing forces that seem benign but escape our control.

Just the story we need at this time, really.