The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Monday, December 31, 2018

Don't Dwell on What Has Past Away, Or What is Yet To Be....

We are in a liminal moment.
Neither here nor there.
2018, with its joys, woes, losses, gains, pains and joys, and everything else--
its time is drawing to a close,
and with it, a new year, as yet unformed, uncharacterized, awaits,
its blank pages inviting our words and deeds to fill them.
It's all up to you, and me, all of us where we go from here.

So hear some wisdom from Leonard Cohen:

You can add up the parts
You won't have the sum
You can strike up the march
There is no drum
Every heart, every heart to love will come
But like a refugee

And one more, from the Bard:

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.

And one last, again from the late Mr. Cohen:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That's how the light gets in

May 2019 find you ready, ready to love and forgive--including yourselves. Happy New Year; thanks for coming on the prowl with me in 2018.

"Bunnies! Bunnies, It Must Be Bunnies!": Return to Watership Down

Er, no. Sorry, Anya. Let's try again:

Rather, I was thinking of the late Richard Adams's Watership Down, adapted by Netflix and BBC 1 recently in a splendidly dark, faithful manner (with, admittedly, a little nip here, a little tuck there). None of the changes are terribly plot-altering, although one rabbit who survived in the original gets a heroic death in the adaptation.

Now, if you were, as I was, a child in the 1970s, and had, as I did, a passion for books, odds are that you read Watership Down before you were ready for it. Or, if you were a little bit younger, you were traumatized by the 1978 animated movie. (Oddly,I missed the film, even though Watership was a favorite book. Still haven't seen it.) I remember the suspense, and the need to see what happened next driving me on, and on--even when the legends of El-ahrairah and Rabscuttle broke the momentum. From Fiver's first prophetic vision, until the bittersweet ending, I was stuck to this book until I finished it. Like Dracula and The Three Musketeers, Watership Down transported me into a bigger world than a Long Island boyhood would lead you to imagine. Throw in T.H. White and Mark Twain, and you have a portrait of the Anglocat as young, er, boy, actually.

So, as you can imagine, I watched this adaptation with considerable interest.

I'm going to start by emphasizing the wonderful work done by the script and the cast--distilling Adams's long novel into four hour long episodes and keeping almost all of it intact is a remarkable feat. The storyline doesn't skip any of the major set-pieces, and the cast build the relationships between our heroes (and our villains) swiftly. Nicholas Hoult (Fiver), James McEvoy (Hazel, his older brother), and John Boyega (Bigwig) are the three stalwarts who do the main lifting among the Sandleford rabbits, though the ingenious Blackberry (a very good Miles Jupp), and the inimitable Olivia Coleman as Strawberry also shine. At first, Hazel and Bigwig are in tension over who should lead, with Bigwig thinking the notion of "Hazel-rah" to be ridiculous--until Bigwig's distrust in Fiver, and thus in Hazel, nearly leads to his death. From then on, these three very different characters form a mutually loyal troika, determined to protect the members of their new warren.

As a fan of Peter Capaldi (of course as the Doctor, but check out The Thick of It, or even more compellingly, The Hour), I was delighted to see him as the irascible, but ultimately friendly gull Kehaar. Yes, Capaldi's Scottishness is a long way from Kehaar's Eastern European accent in the novel--but Capaldi captures the defensiveness, the vulnerability of the injured bird with comedic brio, and ultimately, his affection for his furry friends. At the beginning of the last episode, Kehaar gets his "crowning moment of awesome" when he swoops down on General Woundwort to remind him of just why rabbits fear birds, especially large angry ones.

Speaking of Woundwort, Ben Kingsley does a fine job with our Mad Efrafan leader, and brings a complexity and a rage to the part that is truly formidable. Bigwig's climactic battle with Woundwort, and our last glimpse of the General are. . . perfect.

Fiver is not given what Adams gave as his climactic moment--eerily expressing sorrow for Vervain's and the invader's imminent death, and drive them to retreat or surrender by his calm certainty--but a variant on Hazel's big moment. Any more would spoil a lovely moment so...go watch it yourselves.

Some have criticized the animation. I am tempted to reply with Bigwig's response to Woundwort in the Honeycomb, but will simply say: Seriously? Yes, it's imperfect, but it works, and the script, the vocal talents of superb actors, and the storytelling had me 15 minutes in.

But then, the book has held me much longer.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

What Reason Have You to Be Merry? A Sermon on Luke 1: 46-56

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church, New York City
December 23, 2018.

What right have you to be merry?

What reason have you to be merry?

So asked Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, 175 years ago tomorrow, and maybe, just maybe it’s about time we took that question seriously.

After all, the story was published in 1843, and we’ve pretty much just assumed that it was bad-tempered spite on the part of old Ebenezer to ask it.

And maybe that’s true. He is, after all, the villain of the story as well as its protagonist, and his salvation takes the three spirits of Christmas some pretty heavy lifting.

On the other hand, villains often are the dark mirrors of ourselves, the part of us we reject as unworthy, the parts of our true selves that we repress because we can’t bear to acknowledge them. We all want to be our best selves, kind, brave, generous but prudent. We act the parts of the people we want to be, and mostly we try to live up to that image. But that image—the “Glittering Image” as Susan Howatch called it—isn’t our real self either, because it’s only a part of the whole that comprises each and every one of us.

This darker half of ourselves, the unacknowledged fears, desires, and thoughts, can have a kind of wisdom that we shut out of our minds.

After all, what reason does Scrooge’s nephew Fred have to be merry? As Scrooge points out, every Christmas for Fred is “but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, and not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in 'em through a round dozen of months presented dead against” poor Fred.

For that matter, what reason does Scrooge’s clerk, Bob Cratchit, who applauds Fred’s defense of Christmas have to be merry? What reason do Cratchit’s wife and six children have to be merry? They are desperately poor, living on the slender salary Scrooge provides Bob. Mrs. Cratchit struggles to provide decent meals, sometimes even with meat, for her husband and her children, who are already becoming introduced to the life of the working poor in early Victorian London. Their lives are dirty, laborious, and their surroundings ramshackle. And her youngest son, Tiny Tim, is visibly failing, and very likely to die.

What right do Fred or the Cratchits have to be merry? What are they celebrating? Isn’t Scrooge right, when he caustically suggests that Fred’s celebration is simply driving him deeper in debt, allowing him to postpone the moment when he is forced to confront his failures and, at long last, set his house in order?

And we, here, today. Our Government is shut down, our politics are toxic, with the poisonous ooze of hatred coursing through the veins of the body politic. And we can’t pretend that because we’re in New York that this poison can’t effect us. Seventeen years ago, our skyline was changed forever, nearly 3,000 people died, and 6,000 were injured in an act of terrorism the reverberations of which are still vibrating through the fabric of our Nation.

And the tide of home grown hatred has lapped to the very doors of St. Barts. Two weeks ago, when I was standing on the steps greeting parishioners as they came inside for the 11:00 service, one of our ushers called me to the front door nearest to 51st Street. There, etched in the door in red pen, were two swastikas. Right outside. Right here. At St. Barts.

What right have we to be merry? What reason have we to be merry?

Mary and Elizabeth live in a time of terror, of ethnic hatred. The land of Israel occupied, Roman soldiery brutally enforcing the Emperor’s order, extorting whatever they wanted from the people living under occupation, and tax collectors doing the same. The religious establishment tainted and corrupt, complicit with the occupying forces, and life dependent on submission to brute force, with no real hope for justice.

Even Mary, Jesus’s mother, knew from her own experience the fear of death by execution. We are told in Matthew’s Gospel that when it became known that Mary was pregnant, that Joseph decided to save her life from a death by stoning by taking on himself the shame of what he believed was her crime.[1] Only after this remarkable act of mercy did he receive the illumination that led him to welcome her as his bride.

Her cousin Elizabeth was granted the gift of a child late in life, but at the time of Mary’s visit featured in today’s Gospel, her husband remained mute, from causes she did not know. The future of a widow—and Zechariah’s age and his new infirmity had to have her concerned for him—was extremely precarious, as was the future of Elizabeth’s child.

And yet, the meeting of the two women is joyful. Not merely the happiness of two relatives meeting after a time of separation, either. No, this is a meeting marked with the solemn joy of those who see that history, which may be, as Nicholas Meyer wrote, “replete with turning points,” is at a turning point like no other, and that these marginalized women—Elizabeth, long thought barren, and Mary, whose child nearly cost her her life—are the catalysts for what is about to begin.

About to begin, I say, but in fact, Mary presents it as a fait accompli, a thing that is already accomplished. A destiny fulfilled. Hear her words:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

Mary is not speaking of things to come, but as things accomplished. She believes—no, she knows—that the intervention of God into the world through the birth of Jesus will by its very occurrence create the very changes she describes.

Elizabeth knows it too, as witnessed by the fact that the older woman defers to the younger, and forthrightly tells her that she is “blessed among women” because she “believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

And, in fact, so it has been. Rome fell, but here we are in a national landmark that is in fact a sanctuary raised to honor the child borne by Mary, and I am speaking these words under a beautiful painting of her and her child. Yes, evil still exists. Yes, discord and strife tear at the world. But they are not normative, not what we consider the measure of right conduct. Nobody reveres Herod, Pontius Pilate, Annas or Caiaphas. They are only known at all by most people because of their roles in the story that begins tomorrow night.

The old brutal dreams of might makes right, of tribe and power defining what we call the good has been on the run ever since Jesus showed us a better way, since God so loved the world that She offered her only begotten Son to be with us, not to lead our tribe to supremacy, but to lead us all to the deeper wisdom of love. Not just a wishy-washy ethic of sentimentality, but a way of life. That Way, as the disciples and their direct successors called what the world terms Christianity, involves a commitment to seeing, every day, the beauty of a Child of God, in every person, even when we are divided by them. That Way has survived empires, wars, corruption of its so-called leaders, and still is going strong. It doesn’t need an army. It never has. It has you, each and every one of you, who is here, not out of compulsion or social pressure, but because you want to be. Because the Way speaks to your heart.

Scrooge had a kind of wisdom, but it was of the lower kind—pragmatic wisdom, how to survive in a hostile world. Fred and the Cratchits refused to accept that the world was by its nature hostile. Their wisdom was deeper than his.

What right have you be merry?

The right of a child of God, in the world created by God.

What reason have you to merry?

The best reason in the world: that we are here again together, about to celebrate the end of those old, dark ways, and to repel the dark with the Light of the World.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
[1] See John Wirenius, “The Man of Mercy,” (December 18, 2016).

Friday, December 7, 2018

Hat-Tip: Words and Music

I write to music. It can't be the music that can overwhelm you, and compel engrossment into itself alone. But it needs to resonate with my mood. Not something so powerful as to distract me, but something that jibes with the general emotional state I'm evoking in myself, and hope to share with my readers. Phineas at Bay was largely written to film scores, mostly John Barry, specifically his score to Mary, Queen of Scots (1971).

This year, this parlous year, in which division and distrust have increasingly marred the country I love, I have preached on those themes, and on love--not sentimental goop, but real love, that is, a fundamental commitment to the well-being of the other, however you describe that "other," as the only hope to heal our divisions, and our world.

Just as I have written books because I myself needed them to exist, so too I have preached, as I often do, the sermons I need to hear. I have made myself confront the sins to which I all too easily can fall prey--arrogance in my sense of rightness, self-certainty, and righteous indignation. I have sought to call myself, as well as those who hear me, to the better angels of my own nature.

Along that path, this year, I have written several sermons to the accompaniment of Murray Gold's "The Shepherd's Boy" above. Somehow this piece speaks to me in this year of discord. Perhaps because the long build, the deceptive gentleness of the theme, its reaching a crescendo long delayed, speaks to me of the rebuilding, the re-weaving of the fabric of a nation fraying in ways I never expected to see ours fray.

I won't deny that Steven Moffat's recent writing seems to me to be seeking to that same basic mission, with his repeated emphasis on the virtues of courage and kindness. Ultimately, they are what I think we need: the courage to see ourselves in the other, and the kindness to trade them as we would treat ourselves. It is not easy to forego the luxury of righteous indignation, and choose instead the harder path of love, but, oh, I am trying. And I have many companions on the way--not just my friends and colleagues at St, Barts and throughout the Episcopal Church, but also friends and family writ large. But to my surprise, fiction, storytellers--often authors whose work I haven't visited in many years have come to my aid--T. H. White has more to say to me in my fifties than he did when I was a child, and I learned much from him then. Mark Twain and Henry James, Jean Anouilh and Jean Giradoux, have flared back into relevance this year. They have been good companions on the journey.

So too have Gold and Moffat.

I have read less theology than usual, but more stories, more parables, and I have found in them the resources to do that which has been needful, if only to myself. Robertson Davies's reminder to "never overlook the charm of narrative for the human heart" has come true for me this year. And so being an English major has turned out to be eminently practical after all. As has a taste for music.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

"This is a Story of the Triumph of Good Over Evil. It is, of Course, A Fantasy."

As Filmstruck is shutting down, I am watching some of its buried treasures. Tonight, The Madwoman of Challot.

The Madwoman of Challot is a peculiar play, a poetic fantasia I first encountered in a 1984 adaptation by Dave Davis at Fordham Lincoln Center.

The play, first performed after the death of author Jean Giraudoux, is heavily stylized, taking place mostly in a Parisian tabac, with the denizens of the tabac as participants in the action, and, sometimes, as a Greek chorus. The play depicts the dream-and-romance addled Countess Aurelia, who, upon discovering that greed and selfishness are eliminating spontaneity, happiness, freedom. The Countess, once awakened, knowing the weaknesses that greed brings with it, takes radical action to protect her City, her friends, and her belief in Romance (definitely, the R is capitalized). Before she does, she and her friends have a trial for these malefactors of great wealth (Hmmm..."male factors"? Most of Aurelia's friends are women; all of the conspirators are men). The defendants are represented by the Ragpicker of Challot, Aurelia prosecutes, her friend Constance sits as Judge, and her friends Gabrielle and Josephine--watch. As do our Greek chorus.

The play was filmed in 1969, with Katharine Hepburn as Aurelia, Danny Kaye as the Ragpicker, Richard Chamberlain and Nanette Newman as the young lovers, and, stellar among a variety of great baddies, Yul Brynner and Donald Pleasance.

The film manages to maintain much of the atmosphere of the play, and, 24 years after the production, the joins to the contemporary world of 1969 are less seamless than in the original (though time has smoothed those joins a little). Hepburn is superb--at moments tragic, frail, and at other times slashingly contemptuous of the evil she has been forced to see. At one point, her smile and bearing were pure Jo March. It's a marvelous performance.

But so too is that of Danny Kaye. After charming the jury, wooing them, he shouts a brutally honest answer when Aurelia asks him what he'll do if given access to unlimited oil under lying Paris in this fable. Here's just a short clip, his furious finale as representative of the forces of heedless capital answering the question:

I've seen Kaye in a lot of films, but never this angry, never this powerful. It's a side of him that is astonishingly watchable.

The film abandons (probably wisely) the play's Greek Chorus ending, and instead ends as it begins, with another morning walk wit Aurelia. This time she discards her 1919 newspaper, signaling her readiness (after Chamberlain briefly assumes the role of her lost lover from her youth). It's a strange movie, and an extraordinary one. But it was a pleasure to watch this rendition of a parable, a story of the victory of good over evil. As the film's first title card reminds us, "It is, of course, a fantasy."

Thursday, November 22, 2018

"Love Changes Everything": A Meditation on a Forum

I won't try to expand on Buddy Stallings's recent sermon at St. Barts, or on the great exchange between Buddy and Dean Wolfe, our Rector, who graciously invited Buddy to return, and engaged him in a thought-provoking dialogue.

These are both great resources, and I will not pretend to add to them.

I will, however, touch on a few thoughts that being present for both raised in my own mind. So, if you've a mind to, tarry with the Anglocat for a bit. But don't miss Dean and Buddy.


Both in the sermon and in the forum, loving those with whom we disagree with, those who hurt us, was held up as the only cure for our divisive times. Neither Dean nor Buddy trivialized the sacrificial nature of such love, or denied the difficulty of loving those who hate us, torward whom we may feel a visceral anger--partially rooted, no doubt, in fear, fear that they will take away what we cherish. What is that "it" we fear losing? Safety, for many, simple physical safety, such as I, a middle class straight white male get to take for granted, almost all of the time (until I don't, that is. We all die, after all, and that includes me). Economic security, certainly. Others live lives that are far more menaced, far more in peril than do I, to the great shame of our society.

But to look at those across the divide, while they fear many of the the same things we do, the single greatest conservative concern seems to me to be a fear of the loss of Culture and Tradition--seeing these building blocks are seen by many as under siege, and that creates a different kind of fear. If you look at Rod Dreher's blog today, almost every post visible on the page relates to a fear of the loss of cultural hegemony, and a resulting extirpation at the hands of the militant left they so dread. I know, I know; the Right has the Presidency, the Judiciary, and, until January, both houses of Congress. But the fear is very real, nonetheless. Just read the posts.

How do we love across the divide?

Steven Moffat struggled with these very concerns in parable form in the last phase of his tenure on Doctor Who. As he wrote the Doctor, played by Peter Capaldi, the character underwent a character arc from a point where he described his companion Clara as his carer, adding "She cares so I don't have to," to his almost last words being "Hate is always foolish, and love is always wise." So I'm not ashamed to quote him. He offers the example of the show's definitive villain, trying to find a way back to her onetime friend:
DOCTOR: Nobody can have that power.
MISSY: You will, because you don't have a choice. There's only way you can stop these clouds from opening up and killing all your little pets down here. Conquer the universe, Mister President. Show a bad girl how it's done.
(Missy drops a deep curtsy. The Doctor rips the bracelet off.)
DOCTOR: Why are you doing this?
MISSY: I need you to know we're not so different. I need my friend back. Every battle, every war, every invasion. From now on, you decide the outcome. What's the matter, Mister President? Don't you trust yourself?


DOCTOR: Thank you. Thank you so much.
(He kisses Missy gently.)
DOCTOR: I really didn't know. I wasn't sure. You lose sight sometimes. Thank you! I am not a good man! I am not a bad man. I am not a hero. And I'm definitely not a president. And no, I'm not an officer. Do you know what I am? I am an idiot, with a box and a screwdriver. Just passing through, helping out, learning. I don't need an army. I never have, because I've got them. Always them. Because love, it's not an emotion. Love is a promise.
Two seasons later, Missy, without hope, without witness, without reward, will die trying to honor that promise.

Now, why did I inflict that sic-fi parable on you? Because we live in an age in which the culture of hatred in which we live has infected much of Christianity itself. If I simply refer you to the Gospels--with which this secular parable is absolutely consistent--if you are not an a Christian, or, worse, if you have encountered toxic Christianity, it may well be meaningless to you. And we need the non-Christians, not just the members of other faiths, either, because we aren't enough if we keep to our churchy enclaves.

Love is not an emotion; it's a promise. We aren't asked to not have feelings, but we are asked to not let those feelings corrupt us. We are asked--no, required, both by the Gospel, and by the torn and tearing fabric of the nation in which we live to forego the luxury of indulging the dubious (but very real) pleasures of self-righteous anger. And once again, I refer you to a non-religious source. Bernard Shaw, in his Nobel Prize-winning St. Joan, when the self-righteous Chaplain sees the burning of Joan, which he has egged on:
The Chaplain staggers in from the courtyard like a demented creature, his face streaming with tears, making the piteous sounds that Warwick has heard. He stumbles to the prisoner's stool, and throws himself upon it with heartrending sobs.

WARWICK [going to him and patting him on the shoulder] What is it, Master John? What is the matter?

THE CHAPLAIN [clutching at his hand] My lord, my lord: for Christ's sake pray for my wretched guilty soul.

WARWICK [soothing him] Yes, yes: of course I will. Calmly, gently--

THE CHAPLAIN [blubbering miserably] I am not a bad man, my lord.

WARWICK. No, no: not at all.

THE CHAPLAIN. I meant no harm. I did not know what it would be like.

WARWICK [hardening] Oh! You saw it, then?

THE CHAPLAIN. I did not know what I was doing. I am a hotheaded fool; and I shall be damned to all eternity for it.

WARWICK. Nonsense! Very distressing, no doubt; but it was not your doing.

THE CHAPLAIN [lamentably] I let them do it. If I had known, I would have torn her from their hands. You don't know: you havnt seen: it is so easy to talk when you dont know. You madden yourself with words: you damn yourself because it feels grand to throw oil on the flaming hell of your own temper. But when it is brought home to you; when you see the thing you have done; when it is blinding your eyes, stifling your nostrils, tearing your heart, then--then--
Then, of course it is too late.

So, concretely, what do we do? Not give in to anger and hate, yes. But try to meet people in circumstances that promote relationships, not degrade them. I'm a member of The Anthony Powell Society, and many fellow enthusiasts are not of my political or other beliefs, but we laugh at the same jokes in Powell's books, enjoy the same eccentricities in society. We become friends, and differences matter less. Same in Anglicanism. My devotions have been greatly enriched by The Anglican Breviary.

Know thy enemy. S/he might someday cease to be one.

A "Local Crime" Across Multiple State lines: The Peculiar Preference for FGM

In a decision that is causing shock waves in the media, a federal District Court has found unconstitutional on federalism grounds a statute banning female genital mutilation ("FGM"). (I am uncomfortably reminded of the Supreme Court’s prior blithe dismissal of of an admittedly meritorious death penalty appeal with the blithely bloodless opening line, “This is a case about federalism”)

The District Court decision and Ilya Somin’s defense of it do not, to my mind, bear close scrutiny.

The federal government put forward two arguments for the constitutionality of the statute: first, that the statute fell within the scope of Congress's power under the Commerce Clause, and, second, that the statute was enacted in fulfillment of the ratified treaty, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Tellingly, the District Court admits "that it may invalidate a federal statute “only upon a plain showing that Congress has exceeded its constitutional bounds, and that the lack of constitutional authority to pass the act in question must be clearly demonstrated.” (Decision at 3, citations and Court's quotation and editing marks omitted).

The Somin post, like the decision, is based on the assumption that FGM is, as the District Court held, a purely local, intrastate crime, a factual assumption belied by the very facts of the case before the court, in which several of the the victims were brought across state lines to undergo the procedure.

Somin acknowledges that the court “potentially misses a key point. To the extent that FGM targets almost exclusively girls rather than boys, and the practice is the result of ingrained sexism in the societies that engage in it, it seems likely that banning really does help ensure that girls get the "measures of protection" needed by minors on par with boys [under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights]. The connection between FGM and gender-based discrimination against girls is much stronger than Judge Friedman suggests.” But he falls back on the District Court's false description of FGM as a “purely local crime” to find the treaty doesn’t apply, again due to federalism. Critically, the opinion itself notes that “The government alleges that four of the victims are residents of Michigan, three are residents of Illinois, and two are residents of Minnesota,” so one can hardly see how the "purely local crime" rationale applies to the facts of this case.

Moreover, the court makes no findings as to whether the clinic or doctors accepted a fee for performing the FGM, which is kind of critical in an interstate commerce determination where the interstate nature of the transaction is clear as to 5 of the 9 victims.

It is true that the Rehnquist Court did radically rewrite federalism limitations, and, as Roberts is a Rehnquist protege, he could push to do so even more. But my position is pretty simple: even if the statute’s constitutionality doesn’t extend to “purely local crimes,” (that is, violations purely within the geographical boundaries of one state) the interstate dimension of the case at bar would render that argument inapt as to this case.

Under the Court's and Somin's logic, the long-standing, Supreme Court-affirmed Mann Act would be unconstitutional. The Supreme Court held to the contrary in 1914, and that decision remains good law today.

One can hope that this decision is reversed, as it should be, under long-standing Supreme Court precedent, but if we've learned one thing about the Roberts Court, it's that consistency and stability in the law are not afforded a high value in its stochastic holdings.

Monday, November 12, 2018

"Widow’s Houses and The Widow’s Mite” A Sermon on Mark 12:38-44

[In lieu of the usual invocation of the Trinity, the Deacon, with the help of the Director of Music, leads the congregation in the hymn Dona Nobis Pacem]

On Friday evening, at the Diocesan Convention, I participated in a Liturgy for Listening and Lamentation in which our bishops played an unusual part for them. They were supplicants, confessing “sinful complicity with the evil actions of sexual harassment, exploitation and abuse within our Church.” Imagine, all our bishops—Andy Dietsche, Mary Glasspool, and Allen Shin—confessing to the laity and the clergy gathered in Convention.

We heard stories of the victims of sexual harassment, abuse, and exploitation, and all three orders of the Church—bishops, clergy and the people of God—lamented and confessed our “arrogance in insisting that our claims to being right outweigh” our duty to build honest relationships, and to acknowledge that we contribute to the injustices within our diocese, the larger church, and—let me add one more category—the world.

And at the end of the Liturgy, we sang, as we just have tonight, Dona Nobis Pacem.

Give us Peace.

Just before that, we had watched a drama with music and movement, and dance, in which the complicity of our diocese, the Diocese of New York, in slavery was laid bare. Using stories of the enslaved, those who enslaved them, the defenses of slavery written by Samuel Seabury, the grandson and namesake of the first Episcopal Bishop in America, and the story of William Jay, the abolitionist son of the first Chief Justice of the United States, we confronted again the shadow side of our beloved Episcopal Church.

Now, this morning just at the 11:00 service, as I sat in the marble seat reserved for me just to the right of the altar—very nice, really, one of the best seats in the house, if you don’t mind my using the theatrical jargon—I was dressed in this nice long white alb, the richly embroidered green deacon’s stole I’m wearing now, and the heavy but handsome dalmatic—that’s green and gold, with two bands across the front, in case you’re wondering what a dalmatic is—I was mentally rehearsing the Gospel, and—well, actually, I was beginning to wonder just how much trouble I was in. I was, quite frankly, a bit nervous.
Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.

You see, the shadow side of the Church stretches all the way back to before there was a Church. To when the Temple had to be cleansed, to when the scribes leading the synagogues, the priests, the Pharisees and the Saducees all had to be rebuked.

But today it's the scribes' turn. Ah, the scribes. Actually, they’re also referred to as the lawyers. And since deacons are non-stipendiary, did I mention my day job is--you guessed it--a lawyer. My tribe doesn’t get rave reviews in the Gospels. So here I am, wondering why I agreed to preach tonight, anyway.

Bt since we're here: Today, Jesus focuses his righteous indignation on the scribes. He’s in Jerusalem, at the Temple, but he’s not indicting the priests. No, he’s condemning those who made copies by hand of the scriptures, and who taught the law, and interpreted it. Outside of Jerusalem, they often kept the lights on at the synagogues, keeping alive the tradition of prayer and reading of the scriptures for those too far away to go to the Temple.

So, maybe they got a little puffed up, a little arrogant. They liked the distinctive apparel, the prominent seats. Understandable, isn’t it?

Maybe they were showboating with increasingly ornate prayers, and were losing themselves in the part. Is that really so bad?

Yes. Yes it is, Jesus tells us. Because that arrogance brings complacency with the way things are, and institutional thinking, and that in turn leads to entitlement—the kind of entitlement that leads to exploitation and covers up abuses.

The very entitlement to which our bishops, clergy, and laity confessed, and the effects of which we lamented just this past Friday night.

And Jesus levels a charge of just such abuse against the scribes—they “devour widow’s houses,” he says. But what does he mean by that?

As it happens, the question answers itself. Jesus is sitting opposite the Treasury, in front of the trumpet shaped chests into which the members of the congregation throw their offerings to support the Temple. And a widow, comes up, and throws in two copper coins, amounting to the equivalent of a penny. Jesus says to his disciples “this poor widow has put in more than all who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in all she had, all she had to live on.”

Heartwarming, isn’t it? Emphasizing the widow’s devotion to her faith, and to God? On one level, yes, but there’s a deep irony here. The widow is in fact a victim of the scribes’ exploitation of her faith, of their betrayal of her love of God, which they have manipulated through their teaching to the point where her gift is more akin to an act of self-immolation.

Remember the status of widows in Biblical times. Robin Gallagher Branch, in the Biblical Archaeology Review reminds us that a widow is “lacking the protective care of a husband” in the patriarchal society in which that care is often critical for survival.[1] That’s why widows are, as Branch notes, “grouped together with the fatherless, poor, and resident alien,” and “come under God’s protective care,” with God “command[ing] that they not be oppressed.”[2]

Branch evokes the precarious status of widowhood in the Bible by quoting the Book of Lamentations, which uses the word “widow” to describe Jerusalem after Nebuchadnezzar razed the City. “Gone is her resemblance to a queen,” Branch writes, “vanished are her protectors, lovers, friends. Slavery, affliction and harsh labor await her in exile.” [3]

The widow who gives, as Jesus put it, “all she had, all she had to live on,” is not an exemplar of stewardship, but rather a vulnerable woman who is being preyed upon by the scribes, who are literally consuming her household, and her ability to support herself. Jesus acknowledges the sincerity of that love, and the magnitude of her generosity—but as the very next verses, the start of the next chapter, indicate, her self-sacrifice is in vain; every stone of the Temple will be thrown down.[4]

The predation is not sexual in nature, it’s financial, but as Robertson Davies has an investigator say in The Cunning Man, “financial fraud is awfully dull," but it’s awfully cruel. I can tell you this myself from any one of a number of cases my wife has handled in her practice of defending homeowners in foreclosure cases.

And, as we are gathered in a Byzantine style national landmark of extraordinary beauty, well—this passage can’t help but make us ask—ok, make me ask—have we got it wrong? Are we as far from the teachings of Jesus as the false prophets of the Prosperity Gospel—you know the ones, they tell you that if you just give enough and believe enough you’ll be rich yourself. And not just in heavenly wealth that you can’t touch until you die. Oh, no, good solid coin of the realm.

Of course, if it doesn’t work out that way, you’ve only yourself to blame. You just didn’t have enough faith to move that mountain.

That’s how exploitation works: The abuser takes what he wants, and uses his authority to convince the victim that it’s her own fault, that she brought it on herself, or, at a minimum, that the consequences to her fro reporting the abuse will be devastating, and she won’t be believed anyway.

Recent events have shown that those dire promises can come true. Just this past Thursday, NPR reported that Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is still receiving death threats. She had to move four times, has had to pay for a private security detail, and hasn’t been able to return to work.

Dona Nobis Pacem.

Give us Peace.

But how can there be peace without justice?

That’s the question the Diocese is wrestling with, both as to our complicity in slavery and as to the exploitation by clergy of vulnerable lay and clergy members of our church.

What would justice even look like?

Question: What was the crime the scribes committed?

Proposition: to use the language of Friday’s Litany, it was that they failed to honor the indwelling God-given dignity of those entrusted to their care.

More bluntly, they viewed the widow who gave all she had as a means to their end—preservation and glorification of the Temple—and not as an end, a person in her own right. They treated her as a thing, and taught themselves to believe that their treatment of her was justified because it served the Temple.

You can be sure, as Jesus indicated, that she was not alone.

So, in addition to dehumanizing the widow, and those like her, they made an idol of the Temple. It became more important to beautify and honor the thing than to care for the people for whom it was built.

No wonder the thing was torn down.

If we—all of us, clergy and laity—fail to honor the indwelling God-given dignity of those who come to us trusting us to care for them, we too will fall.

And we’ll deserve it.

But we don't have to. We can choose the alternative. We can use this building, our combined treasure and talent, to honor the indwelling, God-given dignity of all who come to us. And when I say we, I mean we--clergy, laity, all of us. We can welcome the stranger, comfort the grieving, be with each there, for each other.

We can meet each other in the love of Christ.

Then we won't fall. And we won't fail, even if, one day, we do fall.

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


[1] Robin Gallagher Branch, “Biblical Views: Biblical Widows—Groveling Grannies or Teaching Tools,” Biblical Archaeology Review 39:1 (Jan/Feb. 2013).
[2] Id., citing Deut. 24:17, Ezek 22:7, James 1:27, Zech 7:10.
[3] Id., paraphrasing Lamentations, 1:1-3.
[4] Mark 13: 1-2.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Wither the Doctor?

None of this is about the casting of Jodie Whittaker. She’s great, and the best thing season 11 has going for it is her performance, and her rapport with her supporting cast, who are all quite engaging. The casting is great.

So I like Jodie fine, but it seems to me that she’s propping up an increasingly rickety season.

Edited to Add: The Tsuranga Conundrum is slightly better than Arachnids in the UK, though it has enough plot holes and unused Chekov's Guns for a shootout at the OK Corral. I did like the way the Doctor worked out a way to save the ship and send the Pting off happy. It was a cute-comic end for a monster that didn't quite cut it.

The cast seem to be working well, as an ensemble and individually. It’s just the writing is....blah. Some good ideas, some good sequences—a very watchable first episode, and Rosa had some great comedic moments mixed in with the history (Ryan awe-struck addressing Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King by their full names was well handled). Bradley Walsh's agony at having to make a seat unavailable to force the conflict between Rosa Parks and the bus driver grounded the moment quite well, but Vinette Robinson brought enough gravitas to the part that the scene would have worked without him.

But the villains have been dreadful. Krasko was a bore, and Robertson actually started out as a great takeoff of Trump, only to blow out of the storyline when he got bored. "Tim Shaw" isn't exactly making anyone's "best of" list, either, I suspect.

At least we are being spared (thus far) the misanthropy that made Torchwood so dreary, leaching all the fun out of Captain Jack.

The new visual aesthetic is excellent, I should add, richer color palettes and new sights that up the spectacle quality of the program. The music. . . not so much. Even the theme--if you're going to stretch it out, can I have the middle 8, please--is slightly off.

We are in rough waters, right now, and if this incarnation of Doctor Who does find its way, Jodie Whittaker will have been its savior for keeping it moving and afloat.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

"I Can Be Wrong!"

Susan Howatch's character Lewis Hall: "Now just reflect on that sentence for a moment. Say to yourself quietly, calmly, intelligently: 'I CAN BE WRONG'"

I am reminded of my late grandfather, whose medical condition went undiagnosed, because his GP assumed that his memory lapses and befuddlement had to be Alzheimer's Disease. It wasn't; it was the result of a lifetime's work with asbestos and brick. But the doctor--no doubt well-meaning--assumed that what seemed true at the surface must be--that the easy answer was the right one.

The lesson I took from that, and which I have tried to take with me in every professional capacity, from public defender in criminal appeals to the present, is to look in the mirror every morning and say to myself, as Howatch's Lewis Hall advises, "I CAN BE WRONG." And to review every case from scratch.

Every professional whose work impacts the lives of others owes that to them, to try to resist complacency and self-regard smothering our doubts, and treating any case--any person--as routine. No case is routine for the client, the patient. They only have the one life, and we owe them our best work, and a healthy dose of self-doubt in our assessment. And as Trevor Howard almost ends Ryan's Daughter, "That's my gift to you--dat doubt!"

Sunday, October 14, 2018

"Even When You Fail": A Sermon on Mark 10:17-31

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church,
October 14, 2018]

Today’s Gospel made me think of that great moment in The Four Musketeers when Charlton Heston—as the villainous Cradinal Richelieu—tells his henchman Rochefort, “I love you, my son—even when you fail.”

Ok—you may not see how that applies, but we’ll get there. Or I’ll just slip out the back door.

The first thing I have to remind you is this:

Don’t let familiarity breed content. Not contempt, content. Just because you’ve heard it over and over again, shouldn’t make it easy.

Today’s Gospel is as tough as it gets, as counter-cultural as you can imagine, not just in Jesus’s time but in our own.

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."

Think about it, hear it fresh—and understand that he means it. He’s not kidding. How do we know this? The shock of the disciples. They “were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’" And, even though Jesus’s answer brings some reassurance, it isn’t by diminishing the seriousness of what he has just said. Rather, he says to them that “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

This encounter of Jesus with the young man—traditionally, he was called the “Rich Young Ruler,” suggesting that he enjoyed a position not just of wealth but of power—is one that Christians have long tried to water down, to soften.

A rather charming story was invented, dating to at least the 15th Century, possibly as early as the 9th, which explains that the “Needle’s Eye” was the name of a gate in Jerusalem, and that a camel loaded down with its owner’s many possessions could not get through the gate. No, the owner would have to remove a bag or two, and leave them –for the poor, in some tellings, or just remove them all, and then reload the poor beast after guiding it through the gate in others.

This fable, which you can find used in biblical commentaries, in sermons across denominational lines (I won’t cite any, because there are far too many to single out just one or two of those who have fallen into the trap), was known to be false as long ago as the 19th Century.

Sources from The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, [Brown, Fitzmeyer & Murphy, 1990) at 618] to Vincent Taylor’s Gospel According to Mark, agree with the Mormon scholar Hugh Nibley, that there was no such gate.

Oh, there’s one now, if you go to Jerusalem. Of course the City was razed by the Romans in 70 AD, so the City was rebuilt by the Cusaders when they took Jerusalem. They added a Needle’s Eye Gate then, which means they went to a lot of trouble to convince themselves that it wasn’t that hard for the rich to get to heaven.

The medieval roots of the fable disprove Nibley’s almost too perfect suggestion this gate idea was “invented by an obliging nineteenth-century minister for the comfort of his well-heeled congregation.”

Which could have been describing the St. Barts of his time. It may even apply to our own time.

In fact, the 19th Century clergy debated the topic vigorously, with the Rev. Edmund Tew rather neatly dismissing the notion of such an ancient gate as it “falls short in one important desideratum, the support of any authority which recommends itself to the acceptance of those most competent to form a true and impartial estimate of its worth.”

Which is a very oblique, proper Victorian way of saying “They made it up.”

In the same exchange, he rejects the notion that the camel isn’t an error for the ancient Greek term for “cable”, which at least you could try to find a bigger eye to pass it through, say, tethering a boat to an eyehook. But I trust Reverend Tew; he’s pretty thorough.

So, no. We are stuck with an actual camel and an ordinary sewing needle. What can we do with them?

Well, there’s one last way to try to escape—maybe we can treat the story as being one of the stories attributed to Jesus for which the evidence is thin.

Trying to know when the Gospel of the day is closest to the Jesus of history is not an easy thing to do. John P. Meier, a Catholic priest who has written five volumes—so far—trying to do just that--and is pretty much the gold standard on the subject-- gives us several criteria that suggest a story or saying in the Gospel is more likely to be authentic.

By all of Meier’s criteria, we are looking at what is very likely an authentic story of Jesus—it appears in all of the synoptic gospels, today in chapter 10 of Mark’s Gospel, in Chapter 19 of Matthew, and in Chapter 18 of Luke, so it passes the multiple source test.

Jesus’s indictment of the wealthy would certainly help get him into trouble with the authorities, especially in an imperial domination system, in which the religious and Temple authorities were profiting from their collaboration. So that’s another test passed—it helps explain why the authorities wanted to kill Jesus.

It’s consistent with a plethora of other scriptural passages about money. The Hebrew Scriptures as well as the New Testament have 15 separate conemnations of usiry—lending money out at any amount of interest, nit just an unreasonable rate, which is the biblical definition. In the Beatitudes as described in Luke’s Gospel, after the blessings on the poor are pronounced, Jesus warns the rich, the well-fed, and those who laugh, that they have received their comfort now, and will not receive the Kingdom.

And it certainly fits what Meier calls the criteria of embarrassment and of discontinuity—far from claiming the titles attributed in the Gospels, titles like Lord, Son of Man, Son of God, or Christ, Jesus will not even let the rich young man call him good.

Let’s think about that for a second. When the rich young man approaches him, he addresses Jesus as “Good Teacher.” Jesus brings him up short: “Why do you call me good? There is no one who is good but God.”

So what are we to do with this teaching, in such close proximity to Jesus’s refusal to be called “good”?

Is there no way to come to terms with this difficult gospel?

Maybe. Maybe if we start by asking the question the other way around. Instead of trying to domesticate this gospel, and make it easier, let’s try admitting that it’s uncomfortable. In fact, it’s impossible.

This is a pretty familiar scene in the Gospels, actually. Every time some well-meaning type goes to Jesus for affirmation, it goes down this way: Jesus praises what they’re doing right, and then ups the ante. Hey, Jesus, someone will say to him, I’m following the law, and then he’ll tell them that if they have felt lust, it’s just as if they’ve committed adultery, and broken the law.

The rich young man seems on pretty solid footing at first—he knows and has kept all of the commandments.

And then Jesus puts his finger on the weak spot: Jesus “loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’"

And when the rich young man hears this, “he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

And from there, Jesus castigates the rich—who were considered the favorites of God in traditional Judaism—look at Job both before and after Satan’s bet with God. Today we also tend to venerate the rich and the famous, to equate wealth and good fortune with virtue.

But Jesus says not once but twice how hard it will be for them to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, as hard as it would be for a camel to go through the eye of a needle

The heresy of the Prosperity Gospel brushes aside Jesus’s words to valorize wealth as a sign of God’s favor, a linkage that Max Weber traced Max Weber traced back to Calvinism and the insecurity it instilled in believers who were left of wondering if they were among those lost forever or among the elect—the saved. Success in their calling became a way of validating their faith. We look to money for reassurance, for security, even though Jesus reminds us in the parable of the foolish rich man who is plotting how to enjoy his wealth, while his life will be required of him that very day, that we can try to protect ourselves from life’s hardships with our money and possessions—but they will not save us from grief, or death.

So what is it about wealth that makes it especially dangerous? Maybe that very sense of security, that temptation that we stand right with God—or worse, do not even need God, because we are cushioned by wealth and the comforts it can bring us.

It’s one form of idolatry, isn’t it? Finding something other than God to worship—that is, to honor at the fire of our hearts. Politics, sex, the quest for increased physical fitness—anything can become an idol, even things that are good in themselves, if they become ways to wall us off from our own need for God.

And we tend to want to worship idols, like the Israelites and the Golden Calf, and the Baals, and all their “whoring after idols” as the Hebrew Scriptures remind us again, and again. Why?

Maybe because idols don’t ask anything from us but our worship. But God asks more. God wants us to be in loving relationship with each other, as well as with God.

When the rich young man leaves sorrowing at the thought of losing his possessions, the disciples, stunned at the notion that the Kingdom may be inaccessible to the wealthy, the privileged, exclaim: Then who can be saved? Jesus answers, “With men, this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

In other words, we can’t solve this; only God can.

Like Jesus, maybe we should not worry about being called good, and focus instead on doing the good works we are called to. And not presume to think that those works make us good, since only God is good.

In my training as a deacon, I served for an academic year—only one day a week—on the chaplaincy staff at New York Presbyterian Hospital. A large part of my days there was going from room to room on my assigned floor or floors, introducing myself as part of the pastoral care team. We were strictly told that when people declined our company, we had to accept it with good grace.

And lots of people did just that—most kindly, some gruffly, a very few with annoyance or even anger. Lots with comments about why they didn't have any interest. But they all perked up just a little bit in asking me to leave.

After a few days, I realized that patients had almost no control over who came into their rooms and what they did there, and I realized that giving them that control was one gift I had to offer. So I took to introducing myself as “the one person you can throw out.” And once I did that, even those who took me up on it, usually did so with a smile.

And that offer to be of service, or to be a companion with no strings attached, was the opposite of idolatry—it wasn’t about me at all. I just took “no” for an answer, and learned not to mind if the barrage of refusals made me look a bit ridiculous. The smiles more than made up for it.

And maybe that is our answer. To just show up and do our part. Answer the call. Try not to be afraid of rejection. Open our hearts to being hurt. Don’t mind looking a little ridiculous.

Because we’re not good. Only God is good, and that’s just fine.

There’s a reason that the Lord’s Prayer has us ask God to forgive us our sins, while reminding us to forgive those who have sinned against us. So that we can remember to act as lovingly as we can, and trust God—who’s a much better employer than Cardinal Richelieu—to love us—even when we fail.

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

Friday, October 5, 2018

"It's Dogged as Does It..."

Three stories are in my mind this evening. The first, from Anthony Trollope's The Last Chronicle of Barset (ch. 61), involves the Rev. Josiah Crawley, an impoverished priest in a rural county who is wrongfully suspected of theft, but cannot prove himself innocent. Crawley receives a letter demanding his resignation from his parish, and melancholic as he has long been, sits in the rain struggling to decide what do. An elderly farmer approaches him, and, after trying to find out what troubles Crawley, takes his hand, and offers him the only advice he can: '
Tell 'ee what, Master Crawley;--and yer reverence mustn't think as I means to be preaching; there ain't nowt a man can't bear if he'll only be dogged. You to whome, Master Crawley, and think o' that, and maybe it'll do ye a good yet. It's dogged as does it. It ain't thinking about it.' Then Giles Hoggett withdrew his hand from the clergyman's, and walked away towards his home at Hoggle End. Mr Crawley also turned away homewards, and as he made his way through the lanes, he repeated to himself Giles Hoggett's words. 'It's dogged as does it. It's not thinking about it.'
The second, a parable told by the Doctor in Heaven Sent. The Doctor is trapped in his own bespoke hell--pursued by a childhood nightmare (called the "veil") in a clockwork castle that resets every time the Doctor dies at the Veil's hands, and he crawls, as he dies, to the "reception room" and himself starts the cycle over. If he tells what his captors want him to, it will end. The only thing that does not reset is a crystal wall, labelled "Home." The Doctor chooses to fight on, punching his way through the wall, despite the pain, despite the horrible moment that happens in each cycle when he remembers every previous one, and weeps, wanting to give in. As he struggles on, he tells himself--or his captors--a story:
There’s this emperor, and he asks the shepherd’s boy how many seconds in eternity. And the shepherd’s boy says, ‘There’s this mountain of pure diamond. It takes an hour to climb it and an hour to go around it, and every hundred years a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on the diamond mountain. And when the entire mountain is chiseled away, the first second of eternity will have passed." As the wall finally breaks, untold years later, the Doctor completes the story: "You may think that’s a hell of a long time. Personally, I think that’s a hell of a bird.”
One last story. When Clarence Darrow was an old man, a detractor asked him what good his life had been, in view of the continuation of many of the evils had fought against. "Hasn't your life been for nothing?" Darrow replied: "Ask the men I've saved from the gallows. The men and women I've saved from prison."

My point is, if recent events have left you bloodied, exhausted, angry, or near giving it all up--think about how big the task is, and savor the victories along the way, the moments of connection, of friendship, of mutual support. Doing anything worth doing isn't a sprint; it's a marathon. And, slowly, that mountain gets whittled away, that wall breaks. Meanwhile, be good to each other, and to yourselves. And, bear Steven Moffatt's parting advice in mind:

Laugh hard.
Run fast.
Be kind.

Monday, October 1, 2018

"The One I'll Care for Through the Rough and Ready Years": Charles Aznavour (1924-2018)

It's with some sadness that I note the death of Charles Aznavour, a songwriter whose lyrics and melodies touched a melancholic strain of romanticism that has always moved me. (Like Inspector Morse before me, I've always "been more attuned to life's adagios than its legatos.") It's a sort of karmic pun that his death was reported on the seventh anniversary of my wedding to the woman whose impact on my life his lyrics so well described:
She may be the reason I survive
The why and wherefore I'm alive
The one I'll care for through the rough and ready years.
The lyrics are quite apt, though I'll spare you the personalia. So I will miss him.

Still, these two stories from his obit made me smile with the old rascal:
Mr. Aznavour’s career spanned the history of the chanson realiste, the unvarnished tales of unrequited love, loneliness and anomie that found their apotheosis in the anguished voice of Piaf. He wrote songs for her and for Gilbert Bécaud, Léo Ferré, Yves Montand and others. When Piaf rejected one of his songs, “I Hate Sundays,” he gave it to Juliette Gréco, then the darling of the Left Bank philosophers and their acolytes. When Piaf changed her mind, she was enraged to find that she’d lost the song and, according to François Lévy, one of her biographers, confronted Mr. Aznavour, shouting, “What, you gave it to that existentialist?”


In “Yesterday When I Was Young,” an autobiography published in 1979 — it shares its title with the English-language version of one of his best-known compositions — Mr. Aznavour recalled a Brussels promoter who had ignored him for years and was now offering him a contract. He offered 4,000 francs. Mr. Aznavour asked for 8,000. The promoter refused. The next year, he offered 16,000.

“Not enough,” replied Mr. Aznavour, now a major star. “I want more than you pay Piaf.” Piaf was then making 30,000 francs. Again the promoter refused. The next year, he gave in. “How much more than Piaf do you want?” he asked. “One franc,” Mr. Aznavour said. “After that I was able to tell my friends I was better paid than Piaf.”
"She"(1974), my favorite of his songs, heads this post, a cheerful-resigned celebration of the heights and depths of love, of the many faces the beloved presents at various moments. (If you're thinking Billy Joel's 1977 "She's Always a Woman" might bear some influence, well, perhaps, but Aznavour's Gallic philosophical resignation and muted yearning create a different vibe than Joel's song.) Rather than (as I've seen it described) a sexist musing on the mutability of women, I read Aznavour's lyrics as consistent with Robertson Davies's observation in Fifth Business that "I cannot remember a time when I did not take it as understood that everybody has at least two, if not twenty-two sides to him"--or her.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Advise and Dissent: A Question of Character

Judge Brett Kavanaugh in his opening statement this evening established beyond doubt that he will not be capable of serving as a Justice of the Supreme Court:
This whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit fueled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election, fear that has been unfairly stoked about my judicial record, revenge on behalf of the Clintons, and millions of dollars and money from outside left-wing opposition groups. This is a circus. The consequences will extend long past my nomination. The consequences will be with us for decades. This grotesque and coordinated character assassination will dissuade competent and good people of all political persuasions from serving our country, and as we all know, in the United States political system of the early 2000s, what goes around, comes around.
How can any party aligned with the Democratic Party or liberal causes appearing before Justice Kavanaugh--if he is confirmed--even pretend to believe that they are appearing before a neutral? In a closely divided Court, where most of the "big" cases will be decided on a 5-4 vote, Kavanaugh's vote will not carry legitimacy in the eyes of those who lose. That's a problem for the Court, which is itself becoming increasingly perceived as partisan, and, as a recent study has found, indeed appears to be ruling in a more partisan way even in the previously neutral area of free speech:
Ideology is not a significant predictor of votes—indicating no meaningful difference between liberal and conservative justices for conservative expression. The gap only emerges when the speech falls into a liberal grouping, as indicated by the positive Justice Ideology Liberal Speech. That is, the difference between liberal and conservative justices grows larger when the speech originates from a liberal enclave. Notice too that Liberal Speech is negative and significant, suggesting that conservative justices are less likely to support liberal speech than conservative speech.
And indeed, 4 of the 9 have recently indicted their fellow members of the Court on just such grounds, in National Institute of Life Advocates v. Beccaria:
If a State can lawfully require a doctor to tell a woman seeking an abortion about adoption services, why should it not be able, as here, to require a medical counselor to tell a woman seeking prenatal care or other reproductive healthcare about childbirth and abortion services? As the question suggests, there is no convincing reason to distinguish between information about adoption and information about abortion in this context. After all, the rule of law embodies evenhandedness, and “what is sauce for the goose is normally sauce for the gander.”
The Court is at a point where its own members are questioning its impartiality and its commitment to the Constitution which it is tasked with protecting. This is, quite simply, quite dangerous.

Kavanaugh's open contempt for the Democratic senators was striking--he tried to turn the tables more than once, and ask his questioners the questions they asked him. This was especially jarring in his blatant disrespect toward Senator Amy Klobuchar:
Kavanaugh's drinking as a high school and college student has become a line of questioning in a hearing about sexual assault allegations made against him. The Minnesota Democrat addressed her father's own struggle with alcoholism during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, including the fact that her father still attends Alcoholics Anonymous as age 90 to combat his struggle. She then asked Kavanaugh if he had ever drank so much he "didn't remember what happened the night before or part of what happened."
"You're asking about blackout, I don't know, have you?" he responded.
"Could you answer the question, judge?" Klobuchar said, looking somewhat surprised by the response. "So, you have, that's not happened? Is that your answer."
"Yeah, and I'm curious if you have," he added.
While he did apologize to Klobuchar (though not to the other senators he interrupted, and quizzed as though he were the judge, Kavanaugh's nastiness and presumptuousness--demonstrated that he is a bully and a partisan--just what you don't want in a member of the United States Supreme Court. (He similarly repeatedly asked Senator Whitehouse if he liked beer, after testifying that he did.) At times, he was, in my opinion, patently lying (the "Renate alumnus" testimony, in particular rang brazenly false), squirming away from questions, filibustering to avoid them. Kavanaugh's repeated refusals to request an FBI investigation does not bode well, either--he seemed desperate to avoid a closer look at his past. When Dick Durbin pinned him down, he simply rolled his eyes and sat in silence.

Finally, I cannot write about this without saying something about the compelling, heart wrenching testimony of Christine Blasey Ford. I felt utterly nauseous as I listened to her and watching the Republican men on the committee viewing her with overt indifference and as a speed bump to roll over. Simply, Dr. Ford was brave, credible--and ignored by the majority. It was a dreadful spectacle, and while Dr. Ford presented her account with grace and strength, the reactions in the room suggest that even if they acknowledge the truth in their hearts, these men will ram through this nominee.

The institutions we rely on are creaking.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Feeding the Dogs A Sermon on Mark 7: 24-37

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church, September 9, 2018]

In the Name of God, father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

We’re coming up on it again. That parlous day, as Sir Thomas Malory might have called it. The day when America lost its quiet self assurance, as planes smashed into the Twin Towers, and the Pentagon, and into a field in Pennsylvania.

On this coming Tuesday, September 11, we will have our annual Service of Hope and Remembrance. We will grieve the dead, honor the heroes—those fallen, and those who lived to tell the tale. We will come together, as we have every year. And as we should.

But today’s Gospel takes us to a different part of the American reality, a place we need to recognize and acknowledge if we are to get past it.

We have been at war now for seventeen years.

And not just against our attackers, but against those we were convinced assisted them, such as the nation of Iraq, or even, more recently, against those who seem like them, such as Syria.

Just as bad, we have been at war against each other, against ourselves.

I won’t score the innings—this is a sermon, and time is limited—but I’ll point out that we are, in this Year of Our Lord 2018, more polarized, and more hostile in our polarization, than we have been for decades—and we are divided primarily by party affiliation, not by issues. In other words, we are split by tribalism, far more than by principled disagreements. This comes from a recent article in Political Quarterly by Lilliana Mason.

This is not a new thing—it’s an old one, dating back to Old Testament times, and prevalent in Jesus’s lifetime.

As today’s Gospel demonstrates.

Today’s Gospel makes for uncomfortable reading, and poses a deep challenge for us as members of the Jesus Movement.

Because today’s Gospel tells a story of a religious leader who loses sight of the humanity of those who come to him for aid, and rebuffs one such person, insulting her in the process.

What makes this story so hard to grapple with, so painful in a very real way, is the not just the bigotry (Paul and the apostles fall into this trap more than once), but that the bigotry is displayed by Jesus.

That’s right, Jesus.

Here he is, traveling through Tyre, and a Syrophoenician woman—a Gentile—approaches him, and “bow[s] down at his feet.” She humbly begs him to cast out a demon from her daughter.

Unlike the similar account in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus doesn’t ignore her. But he doesn’t reply as we would expect.

Jesus’s reply is cutting even two millennia later.

He spurns her, saying “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.”

But she answers back, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

At this point, Jesus says “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”

And the woman discovers on her return home that the long nightmare of possession is over.

Happy ending, right?

Well, yes, the ending is happy enough. But though I’ve poured over various Bible commentaries looking for an answer, none of them make this story any less rough for me.

Because Jesus’s behavior is genuinely shocking here. He insults the woman, calling her and her tormented, haunted daughter dogs, in comparison with the beloved children of Israel.

This story troubled me for years, because it’s such out of character behavior for Jesus. I could never really believe the apologists who said he was just testing her faith, or testing the disciples, because I couldn’t imagine Jesus putting a woman tortured with anxiety and fear for her daughter through such a test, or treating her as a teaching tool.

No, it was, of all people, the agnostic playwright George Bernard Shaw who helped me see my way through this passage.

Shaw wrote prefaces to his plays that were sometimes longer than the plays—essays on subjects related to the play, if only tangentially.

That was how he rolled.

In 1915, he wrote a play retelling the story of Androcles & the Lion. That’s an old fable about a tailor who finds a lion with a thorn in its paw, and, feeling sorry for it, removes the thorn.

Later, the Romans throw Androcles into the arena with a group of other Christians, only for the lion to remember him and protect him. Shaw’s play is about Christian faith in times of persecution, and just what they believed. And what led them to risk death, rather than betray their faith. So of course appended an exegesis of all four gospels, with his own interpretation of what Jesus means to us today.

He directly tackles the story of the Syrophoenecian woman, which he finds to be authentic. Here’s what he tells us about the story.

In all four gospels, there is nobody who beats Jesus in a verbal joust. Except for this one nameless, desperate, Gentile woman. She wins the argument, by her humility, her insistence that the crumbs of mercy that fall from the table of the children will suffice to save her child—in other words, she believes in Jesus when his own behavior has given her no reason to.

Shaw describes the story as “somehow one of the most touching in the Gospel; perhaps because the woman rebukes the prophet by a touch of his own finest quality.”

And he’s right.

Shaw acknowledges that Jesus’s behavior toward her is “certainly out of character,” as he says “the sins of good men” often are. He credits the woman with having melted the bigot out of him and “made Christ a Christian."

Just this once, Jesus gets as much as he gives in a miracle story. He’s come back to himself, as he describes the prodigal son in Luke’s gospel.

Just this once he needed to be called back to his truest, best self.

It wasn't his disciples who did it.

It wasn't his friends, or his family.

It wasn't the religious authorities.

No, it was the other, the hereditary enemy, the woman of another people, the dog, who was there for him.

It’s uncomfortable—it feels like heresy—to say that, but I think any other reading of the Gospel diminishes it, smoothes it over.

Lies about it, in other words.

In 1889, Charles Gore in postulated in one of his contributions to a book called Lux Mundi that Jesus in his life and ministry was limited to the knowledge of his age. He did not know that the Earth circles the Sun, and not the other way around, or about evolution—of which Gore was an early adopter.

This landed Gore, an up-and-coming young clergyman, in so much trouble that he wrote a book expanding on his account of Jesus as both true man and true God, but yet limited in knowledge. He called it the “kenotic” view of the Incarnation. He took the term “kenosis,” meaning “emptying,” from Phillipians 2:7, in which Jesus is described as having the nature of God, but not counting equality with God a thing to be grasped, and instead emptied himself, and took the nature of a servant.

The view is widely held now, but was quite controversial when Gore first proposed it. And I think it helps us see how Jesus could have fallen into tribalism, one of the gravest errors of his time—and of ours—and how this incident may be where he transcends it.

Jesus, having been raised to think of the priority of the children of Israel, is shocked into caring for the other, the “dog.” And so he cannot see her as an other, any more, but sees her in her full humanity. I imagine him a little taken aback, a little quiet in his words to her.

The tribalist reflexes instilled in him by his culture, by his uprbringing in occupied territory—he has recognized that he must transcend them, and so begins the mission to the Gentiles. Jesus has taken the first step that leads to Paul’s mighty declaration in Galatians that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

For us as a Church and as a people, the lesson is one we are still struggling to live into. We are a people of hope, and we profess that we are called to follow Jesus in walking the Way of the Cross. At a minimum, we must reject tribalism. We must open our eyes and see the person in front of us in their full humanity, and not as a symbol of the “Other,” the different, the alien.

Our St Barts’ ethos of “Radical Welcome” is an effort to walk in that Way, not political correctness.

We are called to open our hearts to Samaritans, to unbelievers, to the unclean.

Because nothing and nobody made by God is unclean.

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

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

The Flesh Failures: Back to the Future

Some time ago, I postulated that we were leaving behind the shadow of the "Long 1980s," and that we were about to see what came next.

As G.B. Trudeau's Uncle Duke once famously said, "Hellooo, more of the same!"

Except it isn't.

As Elizabeth Sandifer has explained:
The key thing to know here is that there exists a model of spiritual enlightenment in which enlightenment is a horrifying and bleak thing. The adjective I'm going to use for this sort of enlightenment - Qlippothic - is important. Basically, it suggests that there is a form of enlightenment that can be found by encountering and contemplating the darkest parts of humanity. The Qlippoth refer to the hollowed out, vacant, and rotted shells of spiritual concepts. And the whole radical idea of Kenneth Grant is that there's not actually a difference between those, which are basically the horrible nightmares within humanity, and actual enlightenment.
And that's what we seem to be living in, all too often--a hollowed out, vacant, rotted shell of the culture wars on the 1980s, all the old cliches and tropes, but with none of the belief, none of the hope, none of the conviction.

None of the life.

As Trudeau once wrote, "Backlash never plays like the original."

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

"Doc" Simon: On Outliving One's Era

Yeah, I know. That's the one we all think of.

Or, if I'm being very honest, it's this:

In memorializing the late Neil Simon, Frank Rich writes:
It is probably impossible for those theatergoers who didn’t grow up with Neil Simon’s plays to understand how big a deal he was in his prime, both to the theater and American pop culture. That was during the 1960s and 1970s when the phenomenal one-two punch of Barefoot in the Park (1963) and The Odd Couple (1965), which between them piled up about 2,500 performances in their original runs, was followed up by one smash Broadway hit after another. As the Simon assembly line quickly accelerated, his hit plays begat hit movies, which then begat television sitcoms, which sometimes begat additional television sitcoms. He wrote musicals too (the best is Little Me, as originally guided in 1962 by Bob Fosse), and Hollywood screenplays. For a while it was all Neil Simon all the time — remarkably so given that his mainstream branch of domestic comedy was in conflict with a culture, in theater and movies alike, that was moving fast in the opposite direction.
Rich isn't the only one to sound this note--not quite disparaging, but viewing the late "Doc" Simon as a dinosaur, whose era long ago ended. Even Charles Isherwood's considerably more appreciative obit in the NYT ends on a similar note, quoting Simon as saying"I know how the public sees me, because people are always coming up to me and saying, ‘Thanks for the good times,’”.... “But all the success has demeaned me in a way. Critically, the thinking seems to be that if you write too many hits, they can’t be that good.”

There's a tendency to write Simon off as a joke-machine, but (as Isherwood notes), the flip humor covers real emotion:
Agony is at the root of comedy, and for Mr. Simon it was the agony of an unhappy Depression-era childhood that inspired much of his finest work. And it was the agony of living in Los Angeles that drove his determination to break free from the grind of cranking out jokes for Jerry Lewis on television and make his own name. As he wrote in his 1996 autobiography, “Rewrites” (the first of two volumes), the plush comforts of Hollywood living might extend your life span, but “the catch was when you eventually did die, it surely wouldn’t be from laughing.”
I still have my copy of The Comedy of Neil Simon, the 1971 collection of his plays from "Come Blow Your Horn" through "Last of the Red Hot Lovers." This is decades before the more overtly autobiographical trilogy, or Lost in Yonkers.

And yet, in his introduction, "Portrait of the Artist as a Schizophrenic," Simon levels with us, describing himself as split between the "Human Being" who lives life, and the "Monster" who lives underneath the bland, benign face with the kind smile. The Monster observes, and writes, and hones all the experiences of the Human being, or of anyone whose behavior catches his watchful eye, into drama. Oe comedy. Quoting a moment from Barefoot in the Park when the newlyweds are squabbling, Simon tells us it's a recast version of a fight between him and his wife--this time without the frozen veal chop being hurled at him--and he thinks, "Damn you, Monster, they're just a couple of nice kids starting out in life. Give them a break, will you?"

Even then, Simon was motivated by the need to find the story, and the humor in the story.

Yeah, the plays are mixed in quality. And have aged, some badly, some quite well. The one-liners are usually good, though, and based in character and place.

And that's a way in which Simon was a dinosaur. His New York--Manhattan--is gone. Oh, little pieces of it can be found, but the self-consciously wry, dirty and yet beautiful city of my youth where strange but likable people made kvetching an art form, crafting a poetry of exasperation, and piling on the frustration like Pastrami on a sandwich at Katz's--that world has left only behind trace elements. Hell, nowadays the staff at the Strand are polite. Usually.

There was a lot wrong with it, and a lot that had to go (and still has to).

But there's something to be said for the old New York, the one I remember in my student days, and the first years of my career, when Manhattanites strode out into the world with no armor but the bracing sarcasm of Simon's characters, women and men alike (the televised version of The Odd Couple nailed it when they cast raspy-voiced Brett Somers as Oscar's ex-wife, opposite her actual husbandJack Klugman, and giving as good as she gets). It was Simon's era, Gelbart's, Matthau's and Lemmon's, and it shaped me.

Thanks, Doc.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Flesh and Blood: A Sermon on John 6: 41-51 (et seq)

(Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church, NYC, August 12, 2018)

It doesn’t look like bread, does it, the little wafer we hand out? It is, of course, but it looks almost like a simple disc of some unknown substance. Not quite cardboard, certainly not bread you’d get a sandwich on. More like a Necco wafer, if your remember those, than what you think of when you think of bread.

But it is bread.

It’s made from unleavened wheat flour and water. The bread most Episcopal churches use is made by Cavanagh Altar Breads, a secular baker out of Rhode Island that provides altar bread to C.M. Almy, which sells it to Catholics, Protestants, and those of us in between.

Apparently, Cavanagh’s bread has something like 80% market share, and its popularity was enough to put the Poor Clare Nuns of Bernham, Texas, out of the business. A few orders of nuns have stopped competing and started distributing as retailers, so there’s a whole distribution chain in which these wafers travel.

When we give it to you, we remind you what it is: “The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven.”

But how can something that barely qualifies as bread be the Body of Christ? And does the recurring liturgical formula, “The Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven,” become so rote that we don’t hear it, don’t take it in?

Because if you think about it, “the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven” is not an easy teaching. The Eucharist, which we share, which is central to this service, is one we don’t reflect on often.

[That’s strange because, in breaking with Roman Catholicism, the Church of England in the Thirty-nine Articles rejected the traditional 7 sacraments taught in that faith, holding instead in Article 25 that “[t]here are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord. The other five were denied the status of sacraments on the ground that they were more properly viewed as “states of life allowed in the Scriptures”, such as marriage, or holy orders, or else they are the result of “corrupt following of the Apostles”—extreme unction, Penance, or Confirmation.

Now, we’ve moved away from the 39 Articles and, since the success of the Anglo-Catholic movements of the 19th Century, we have welcomed back confirmation, anointing of the sick, and Confession.] (Bracketed paragraphs omitted in delivery).

But, for all the quarrels about the sacraments that have marred Anglican Church, the two sacraments on which the most Low Church and High Church partisans have always agreed on are baptism and “the Supper of the Lord.”

So the Eucharist—the eating of bread and drinking of wine in commemoration of the death of Jesus—is at the core of our liturgy, at the core of our worship.

Normally, we just do it, and don’t grapple with the language Jesus uses. But today, I don’t think we have a choice in the matter—we have to listen to what Jesus says, and try to understand the emotionally-laden language he uses.

Which means that this week and next, we’ll be facing some of the harder to bear language in the Fourth Gospel, in which Jesus talks at length about what it means to say that Jesus himself is the Bread of Life.

So it’s our duty to wrestle with this Gospel and next week’s, each part of the same conversation, but broken up in our weekly reading so that this week we get to think of Jesus as the bread that comes down from heaven, so that whoever eats of it shall not die, and not just let it sail over our heads.

A nice metaphor. Jesus is like manna from heaven—a phrase that nowadays can mean simply a great gift, unexpected and welcome, life-enhancing.

Not too threatening yet, right?

We feed on Jesus, and, since we are still in the more abstract part of the Gospel today, we can think of it as Jesus nourishing us with the Spirit, or by his teachings.

But then this Gospel reading has a sting in its tail. Jesus then tells is that “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

And we, like the crowd, do a double take. He can’t mean it literally, can he?

Next week it gets a little frighteningly concrete. The crowd is murmuring “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

And here’s where Jesus really does an un-Episcopalian thing: crosses the line of good taste and discretion. Jesus says to them

“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”

Archbishop William Temple in his Readings in St. John's Gospel (First and Second Series) reminds us that these words were especially shocking to Jesus’s Jewish audience because to consume the blood of sacrifices was a grave offense under the Law.

Not to mention what Raymond Brown, the great scholar of the Fourth Gospel, calls “the Jewish repugnance at the cannibalistic thought of eating his flesh.” Brown asserts that these words led to claims that the early Christians were in fact cannibals and blood-drinkers, and the Roman historian Tacitus says that Nero “fastened the guilt” for the great fire of Rome “on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace.” (Annals, 15:4)

Even today these words can draw strong reactions when they aren’t cushioned by routine, safe in a church. These last few verses disturbed the writer Alan Ryan enough that he wrote a story, called “Following the Way,” about a young man who, over a period of years, keeps meeting a Jesuit priest who repeatedly invites him into the order, only for him to discover at the end that the chalice which promises eternal life is not filled with wine.

Mind you, I graduated from a Jesuit college, and I’m not taking any bets about their induction ceremonies.

But just as Ryan found in these lines fuel for a Gothic fantasia, the Gospel itself tells us that “because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” In fact, only the Twelve remained—and one of them, as Jesus rather pointedly observes, is a devil.

So why did Jesus choose such provocative, such offensive, language?

Quite possibly because it was the only language that came close to doing the job. Temple reminds us that to eat something is to take it into ourselves and to use it as the basic building blocks assembling our bodies; we make Jesus’s full humanity—his flesh—his mortality—a constituent element of who we are. We make our own the dying of Jesus.

Likewise, the book of Deuteronomy tells us, “The blood is the Life”; (No, I didn’t recognize Count Dracula was quoting Scripture until I read Temple either. Apparently Shakespeare was right to warn us that the “Devil can quote Scripture for his purpose”).

By drinking from the cup, Archbishop Temple tells us, we accept the life of Jesus into ourselves, the resurrected life.

Temple urges us to see a synergy in the eating of the Bread and the drinking from the cup, that each requires the other.

Or, as Temple puts it, by eating the bread, we receive the power of self giving and self-sacrifice; by drinking the cup, we receive, through that self-giving and that self-sacrifice, the life that is triumphant over death and united to God.

Which is beautiful and eloquent Eucharistic theology—but what does it mean here, today, this minute?

Let me try a translation:

We Christians believe that we are called to lives of service, not of selfishness. By eating the bread, we make part of our very physical being a perpetual reminder of that calling. We literally take it into ourselves and let it become a part of our anatomy.

By drinking of the cup, we claim that the love of God, the deathless and unkillable love of God is so much a part of the redemption of Creation that that love flows through our very arteries and veins. We acknowledge that we are called to love, and that love literally pervades our being—again, our physical being.

We ourselves claim the blessing and assert that the love of God surges through us, is that of which we are made.

So how can we refuse to love, to forgive, to care for others? How can we allow ourselves to let that love become just a dry routine, instead of a call to arms?

But not to literal arms, not to violence, or triumphalism. We are called to the much harder task of building bridges to those with whom we disagree. To those who have hurt us, or, even harder, to those whom we have hurt.

We are called to a life in which we pray and try to live the beautiful words of St Francis:

Where there is hatred, let me sow love,
Where there is injury, pardon,
Where there is doubt, faith,
Where there is despair, joy;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.

And how can we, knowing our own faults and weaknesses, our own moments of anger and unkindness, even hope to achieve this?

We eat the bread of life, we drink from the cup of love.

It’s in our muscle memories, our own sinews, our very DNA.

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