The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Friday, March 30, 2018

What Didn’t They Know?: A Meditation on Luke 23:32–35

[For the past several years, I have had the privilege of preaching at the Good Friday Liturgy of the Seven Last Words of Christ at St. Bartholomew's Church. It is one of the most moving liturgies of the year, and, as always, I am honored to share a pulpit with colleagues and friends I greatly respect and admire. This year's slate had some real standouts; when the audio and texts of the meditations are posted, I'll post a link. My own contribution is below..

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

“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

Just what was it that they didn't know?

It’s a public execution, a common event in the ancient world—and actually common into the early Twentieth Century in America; the last public execution in America was in 1936, only three years before my father was born. There are multiple criminals to die—at least three, including Jesus, Roman centurions and Temple leaders authorities to mock the condemned, and the carnival atmosphere of cruelty is strong.

This saying of Jesus’s, on the surface so typical of him, is missing in some of the earliest manuscripts of Luke’s Gospel, and that lets interpreters off the hook—they cut it and don’t address it, like Joseph Fitzmyer in his two massive volumes on Luke in The Anchor Bible Series series, or just mention it’s not clearly authentic, like the editors of The Jewish Annotated New Testament, and still don’t discuss it.

In the 12 volume The Interpreter's Bible, the preacher’s friend from 1952, the editors admit that they aren’t sure it’s authentic, wonder just who is being forgiven, anyway, and fondly picture the scribe who created what they call “one of the most typically Christian utterances credited to Jesus in the gospel tradition.”[1]

I suppose it’s better than the older theology, from the Church Fathers until the 19th Century, that claims that the whole point of Jesus’s forgiveness is that all concerned—from Judas, the Sanhedrin, and Herod through Pilate and the centurions, are committing the terrible sin of slaying the Son of God, killing the Incarnated Lord, and so Jesus’s forgiveness is of the very specific crime of deicide. A crime of rebellion. Of disobedience to the cosmic order. The worst kind of blasphemy.

But for that blasphemy, that rebellion, the older theology tells us, Golgatha is not problematic. Even the repentant thief seven verses later in this same chapter of Luke’s Gospel says “we are getting what we deserve for our deeds.”[2]

And there’s the problem.

Since so many commenters prefer to dismiss this, the first of the Seven Last Words, as pure legend—as fiction—let me help explain why I believe it is true and prophetic in every sense by using an actual fiction, a novel written by George MacDonald Fraser.

This fiction is about a very bad man: a bully, a coward, a selfish man who drifts into the British Army in the Nineteenth Century, and, because he’s both clever and lucky, rises to the rank of Colonel. He’s sent undercover during the Indian Mutiny in 1858, and finds himself stuck in a battle he’s hoped to avoid. He’s knocked unconscious, and, when he wakes up, he finds himself tied to a cannon, the muzzle at his back, just like the actual native soldiers who no longer wanted to serve the British, and tried to rebel, and lost the battle. He can’t even call out for help, because he’s gagged.

But this bad man manages to keep his wits, and winks at the soldier who’s about to light the fuse and execute him until the gag is removed, and he proves to the Captain who won the battle that he is a British officer.

And then he does a very strange thing, for him. As he’s gasping with relief, he sees the lines of mutineers (as the British called them) tied to cannons, all about to be horribly executed on the Captain’s order. And this bad, selfish man takes command. He is a Colonel, after all, and he orders the Captain to “cut ‘em all loose, and tell ‘em to run away, away as far as they know how—away from us—and never to get caught again.”[3]

He’s had enough, and even this bad man—and he is a very bad man—has his limits, on this day at what was very nearly his Golgatha.

And if even so bad a man as our Colonel would be moved to compassion by his Golgatha experience, I simply cannot believe, will not believe, that Jesus of Nazareth was forgiving his killers solely for their unknowing crime of murdering the Messiah.

I can’t imagine that, if Pilate suddenly listened to his own conscience and his wife’s dread, and sent men to prevent Jesus from being nailed to the Cross, that he would walk away, satisfied that justice had been done.

Even more than our bad Colonel, Jesus would have looked around him, seen the victims about to be put to a long slow death, watched the mocking, laughing, faces in the crowd, and prayed, just as he in fact did, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.“

Because they didn’t.

They couldn’t.

They’d been conditioned, like lab rats in a terrible experiment to believe that the cruelty surrounding them all was normal, was good. That it was all right to enjoy the sufferings of the condemned, to revel in them, in fact.

No—not like rats. Like the people in the Milgram Experiment, who are told by a “teacher” that they are required to test a student, and press a button that shocks the student whenever he or she gets an answer wrong. The tester is told that the shock increases every time a button is pushed, and that the shocks go from 15 volts, a minor shock, to a danger level of 450 volts. The so-called teacher stays with the tester, and at each mistake, would urge the admission of the higher shock.

All of the testers pressed the buttons to administer shocks up to 350 volts, and two thirds pressed the button labeled “Danger—severe shock.”

For all too many people, cruelty is acceptable if it’s required or even just encouraged by authority figures. If they give us permission to do it over time, it’s not just acceptable, it can be done light-heartedly, like the pictures from Abu Graib of American soldiers grinning and giving a thumbs up sign as they pose with a pile of naked Iraqi prisoners, or the infamous photo of one of those soldiers, Lynndie England, dragging a prone naked man on a leash.

Or less than a year ago, Americans marching under Nazi flags, and Confederate flags, in Charlottesville, and one driving a car into a crowd of peaceful protesters that same day, hurting many, and killing a 32 year old woman named Heather Heyer.

Mark Heyer, confronted with unbearable grief and loss, forgave his daughter’s murderer, saying “he don’t know no better.” He added, “I just think what the Lord said on the cross. Lord forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”[4]

And neither do we.

We walk by the poor and hungry, and turn an uneasy eye away from them.

We know not what we do.

We read about the mistreatment of women in the streets, in the workplace, and dismiss it with a “well, is it really so serious?”

We know not what we do.

We are so numbed by the shooting of children in our schools—more than one a week so far this year—that only when the students themselves mobilize and march for their lives, does the numbness begin to wear off, a little.

We know not what we do.

We buy our wonderful electronic devices, only to read by their light that they were made with slave labor—and it’s time for an upgrade, so we go out and buy more.

We know not what we do.

We acquiesce in the continuation of systemic prejudice against people of color, and watch in silence as schemes unfold throughout the nation to make it harder for them to vote, as they are sentenced disparately in the courtrooms.

We know not what we do.

Jesus’s forgiveness is not just for his executioners.

It’s for us. And we need it.

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

[1] Walter Russell Bowie, John Knox, G.A. Buttrick & Paul Scherer, “Luke: Exposition,” The Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 8, at p. 408.

[2]Lk 23: 41 (NRSV).

[3] George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman in the Great Game (1975), at 313.


Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Betrayer and the Betrayed

In my wanderings through the late, great Leonard Cohen's back catalogue, many of his songs have resonated with me, appearing multiple times in this blog, and even in my sermons. They've usually been the ones about spirituality, about faith, living if tattered, about forgiveness. But two songs touched me in a very different way. One of them I really focused on when I found a CD in the Prius la Caterina's sister kindly gave us. The CD was Cohen's "Songs of Love and Hate"; the song is "Famous Blue Raincoat." The lyrics:
It's four in the morning, the end of December
I'm writing you now just to see if you're better
New York is cold, but I like where I'm living
There's music on Clinton Street all through the evening.
I hear that you're building your little house deep in the desert
You're living for nothing now, I hope you're keeping some kind of record.
Yes, and Jane came by with a lock of your hair
She said that you gave it to her
That night that you planned to go clear.
Did you ever go clear?
Ah, the last time we saw you you looked so much older
Your famous blue raincoat was torn at the shoulder.
You'd been to the station to meet every train, and
You came home without Lili Marlene.
And you treated my woman to a flake of your life
And when she came back she was nobody's wife.
Well I see you there with the rose in your teeth,
One more thin gypsy thief.
Well, I see Jane's awake.
She sends her regards.
And what can I tell you my brother, my killer?
What can I possibly say?
I guess that I miss you, I guess I forgive you.
I'm glad you stood in my way.
If you ever come by here, for Jane or for me,
Well, your enemy is sleeping, and his woman is free.
Yes, and thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes
I thought it was there for good so I never tried.
And Jane came by with a lock of your hair
She said that you gave it to her
That night that you planned to go clear.


L. Cohen
You can't cope with Cohen unless you do close reading of the lyrics. The song, about betrayal, specifically sexual betrayal, works in an extraordinary complex of emotions.

A once close friendship invoked in the opening lines, but then belied with a slice of irony ("You're living for nothing now"). The story of the friend who, betrayed by his own partner--"Lili Marlene"--turns to his friend, our letter writer's, wife. The affair is witheringly described: "And you treated my woman to a flake of your life/And when she came back she was nobody's wife."

Anger bursts out again, in the flash of memory, and the writer sees his friend in a serio-comic romantic pose, "with the rose in your teeth," and dismisses him again as "one more thin gypsy thief."

Again, the letter writer cools it down, passes on Jane's regards--underlining that he, the writer, is still the man in her life. But then, the reckoning.

The admission that he misses his betrayer. That he forgives him. That he's glad that his onetime friend stood in his way.

The offer of hospitality, and the admission that "your enemy is sleeping/and his woman is free."

Why the sudden turn?

The recognition that he, the writer, had failed "Jane" at some very deep level--that he owed his former friend thanks "for the trouble you took from her eyes/I thought it was there for good so I never tried."

And we're back to the flash of memory, that Jane came by with a lock of her lover's hair, that the stage is set again, and asking, as in the beginning: "Did you ever go clear?"

And the writer identifies himself as the composer.

Everyone in the song is tainted--the unnamed friend/betrayer who stole from Cohen (the narrator Cohen at least) his peace, and his simple bond with "Jane;" Jane herself, of course; and "Cohen"--"Cohen" who failed the woman he loved, but not enough to see that the trouble in her eyes could be banished.

Not enough to try.

"Everyone betrays everyone," I once wrote, in a flippant but not entirely untrue moment.

We all fail, we all turn away when we're tired and someone we love needs our affirmation. By betrayals small and large, we mar the relationships that surround us.

And sometimes those relationships wither and die from betrayals, whether large or small.

But sometimes--sometimes in the moment of shock in which we feel most betrayed--why, suddenly, we see how we have ourselves betrayed, if only by failing to love as our beloved needs in the moment.

We all let each other down, not just in romantic or sexual relationships, but in many if not all our relationships with others. The friend we listen to an unkind anecdote about. The store clerk we show our anger. The sibling, mother, father, whose need we perceive, but, whether out of fatigue or other reason, we can't or just don't reach out to.

Mostly the betrayals are small, tiny fissures in strong, well pointed brick houses. Sometimes they are catastrophic--or can be if not healed.

Someone once asked me how I could use the Daily Office as my primary form of prayer--didn't it get rote?


But one line, in the Lord's Prayer, never does: "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us."

Whenever I hit that line, I become aware of my own need for forgiveness, and of my need to forgive--to pardon, knowing that I, too, am in need of pardoning.

Judas wasn't the only one to betray Jesus that night--Peter did too, and the others who ran, too.

We are all the betrayer and the betrayed.

We all need forgiveness; we all need to give it too, to recognize out shadow selves, and to give what we ourselves most need.

We need to take the trouble from each other's eyes, recognizing that it's been there so long because we--you, Gentle Reader, and me--that it's been there so long because we've never tried.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Between Books

Ronald Knox, who was, among other things, enough of a Trollope fan that he wrote the charming (if slight) Barchester Pilgrimage, was a Catholic priest, Sherlockian, detective story writer, and amiable eccentric.

He was also a formidable scholar. And who but Knox could begin his magnum opus with a dedicatory epistle to a novelist, his friend Evelyn Waugh? The opening of the epistle, though, speaks to every scholar who has put pen to paper, or keystroke to pixel, for that matter:
There is a kind of book about which you may say, almost without exaggeration, that it is the whole of a man's literary life, the unique child of his thought. Other writings he may have published on this or that occasion; please God, the work was not scamped, nor was he indifferent to the praise and blame of his critics. But it was all beside the mark. The Book was what mattered--he had lived with it all these years, fondled it in his waking thoughts, used it as an escape from anxiety, a solace in long journeys, in tedious conversations. Did he find himself in a library, he made straight for the shelves which promised light on one cherished subject; did he hit upon a telling quotation, a just metaphor, an adroit phrase, it was treasured up, in miser's fashion, for the Book. The Book haunted his day-dreams like a guilty romance.
Barring his restricting of writers to whom this feeling would be known to men, and disregarding women writers, even those of his own day and in his own field, such as Evelyn Undehill, the sentiment is profoundly true, although in my own case, each phase of life has produced a different Book.

When I was a young man, I read in the biographies of Oliver Wendell Holmes of his ambition to write his magnum opus, The Common Law (1881) before his 40th birthday (he just made it). In a fit of bravado, I resolved to write my book on freedom of speech before my own 40th birthday, and published First Amendment, First Principles in 2000; the revised edition with two added chapters came out while I was still under 40. It was the Book for me through my young manhood, finished and expanded before I hit the line of middle age. A young man's book, not to be mentioned in the same breath as the classic Holmes wrote, but it was the very best I could do, and it defined an era in my own life. It was, for that time, the Book, and I never thought I'd write another.

But then came the great surprise--Phineas at Bay, a novel, for me the greatest form of literature, and one which I had aspired to write when I scribbled a few stories by hand in off hours as an English major at Fordham College, or at Columbia Law School. But I had no staying power, and the stories waned and died. But then I had the Book, First Amendment, First Principles, and counted myself lucky to have written that.

In my mid-40s, though, I was gripped as I had been a decade before, and wrote the continued adventures of Phineas Finn, Marie Finn, and their set. I had another Book. It sells, a few copies little here and there, now and again, and I have been paid and have used that money to pay the light bill, so I meet Stephen King's criteria to be deemed a talented writer (thankya big big, sai King!).

In just a few weeks, I will be 52.

As I move into the latter half of middle age, I wonder: will lightning strike thrice? I don't mean in the quality of the books--I'm no Holmes, no Trollope, no King--but will the tank refill, inspiration ignite, and the wonderful madness of pursuing the Book again be mine to revel in? Frankly, I feel guilty hoping for it--once was luck, twice was inexpressibly joyful, but three times--why, it feels almost greedy to hope for it.


And earlier this week, I found that a drying up point at another novel I'd started over a year ago suddenly was not a stopping point. It's too early to tell if this will be a third "the Book"--but hope--well, hope comes unbidden.

Only time will tell.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

“For God So Loved the World” A Sermon on John 3:14-21

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church, NYC, March 11, 2018.]

So here we are, past the halfway point in Lent, and wondering what to make of these last few weeks before we commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus.

A few years ago, Martin Sheen starred in a film called “The Way,” a fictional story based on a real pilgrimage, the Camino de Santiago—the Way of St. James, made every year by hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world, to the shrine of St. James the Great, the brother of John, the "beloved disciple," traditionally the author of today's Gospel. In the film, the hardships and companionship of the pilgrimage open up the mind and heart of those who walk the way.

Lent can be, if we let it, just such a pilgrimage. And as every pilgrimage must have a destination, so too does our Lenten way: Jerusalem.

And, in fact, the pull of the readings over these past weeks has been to point us, along with the disciples, toward Jerusalem. Toward that brief, shining, joyous triumphal entry into the City. And toward the Last Supper, where Jesus promotes the disciples from “servants” to “friends,” and, in a shocking gesture of humility their Master—their teacher, that is—washed their feet. Their apprenticeship, he is saying, is over.

But also this pilgrimage leads to the Garden, where Jesus is betrayed and arrested, and then betrayed again, this time by Peter, and then—to the Cross. And yes, of course, ultimately to Easter but first we have to grapple with the way to the Cross, through the past few weeks’ reading.

Two weeks ago, Jesus rebuked Peter in the harshest terms when he tried to turn Jesus away from the path of suffering and death. Last week, after driving out the merchants and moneychangers from the Temple, Jesus spoke of his death and resurrection, in terms of the Temple’s destruction.

And now in the readings appointed for today, we are invited to see Jesus in the bronze serpent that was lifted up to cure the Israelites whose complaints along the way in their pilgrimage from slavery to freedom caused God to punish them by sending poisonous snakes among them. Well, to heal the ones who hadn’t already died from the snakebite, anyway.

And in the Gospel reading we flash back to almost the very beginning of Jesus’s ministry, so that we can be told of the judgment that we are to face at the end of our own journeys. But we are also given the key to the whole pilgrimage, laid out clearly for us, so that we can view the whole story, looking back briefly, before we continue on our own journey to Jerusalem.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

So often we hear of Christian teachers condemning those whose lives they decry as “unbiblical,” breaking fellowship with other Christians for being too lax, turning a dour expression upon high spirits or frivolity of any kind. Urging us to fear the world, to distrust it, to pull away from it, in case we become unclean by association with—well, pick your target. There are more than enough to go around.

Now Lent may seem an odd time for me to preach against asceticism. And in fact, I’m not preaching against asceticism in general, but against asceticism for its own sake. The great ascetics withdrew from the world not out of hatred of it, or fear, but because they knew from their own personal experience, that their love of the world and its joys made it harder for them to fulfill their own unique callings from God—to become their own best selves, to love God and their neighbors, and to do the work that they were born to do, to translate that love into action.

Sometimes we need to simplify our lives to understand what’s important. Nearly fifteen years ago, I lost my home, most of the books and other possessions I had spent my whole life gathering together. All but a very few were gone forever.

The shocking thing was the realization that that I had not in fact lost anything that I in fact needed.

Much that I had loved, but nothing I had needed. And the loss of those lesser loves clarified my life so that I could see what was in front of me, a new path that led me to be able to hear the call to serve in our church.

So asceticism isn’t a good in itself; it’s a stripping away of the incidental to see the essential. A turning down of the noise to let the small still voice of the Spirit rise up. But don’t take my word for it;
let me repeat those words of Jesus again:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

And the Evangelist goes further still, quoting Jesus as saying “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

The point of our pilgrimage to the Cross isn’t to suffer for suffering’s sake. It isn’t to despise the crowd that we will soon represent in the Palm Sunday Passion drama. It’s to see in the world what we have missed, that the judgment has come, and it’s not imposed on us by God—we are not, contrary to Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” who dangles us, like a loathsome spider over a flame, by a strand of our own web.

Now, that’s dramatic Eighteenth Century preaching, and I’m sure it was the collection plate was especially heavy that day, but it’s bad theology. And not at all biblical.

No; the judgment is self-imposed. As Jesus says, “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”

Jesus tells us that “those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God,” so we know that those of us who can feel securely righteous can just bravely stride out into the light, sure of our reward.

But what keeps people in the dark, rather than in the light?

We could easily write off the people who hesitate to approach the light as the obviously evil, malevolent and manipulative, enjoying being the villains of the piece. But Jesus’s words about them give me pause.

He says: “all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.”

In other words, they’re ashamed. They’re afraid. They don’t believe themselves to be worthy. Or, worse, they believe their errors, their sins, make them beyond forgiveness.

Or, as I was told early in my sobriety, I suffered from delusions of terminal uniqueness—that everybody else could find forgiveness and reconciliation, but not me. Telling your story at an AA meeting—will help you see this—I forced myself to talk about what I saw as the darkest, worst moments of my life, only to be surprised when the room rocked with laughter—not mocking, derisive laughter, but laughter with the attitude, “That all you got, kid?”

The laughter of those who’d been through the same, or worse.

And that experience is far from unique. In his semi-autobiographical novel The Light and the Dark, C.P. Snow depicts his closest friend Charles Allberry, as searching yearningly for God, but not being able to believe. But he’s come close on two occasions, as Snow has his fictional counterpart Roy Calvert say: “I’ve had the absolute conviction—it’s much more real than anything one can see or touch—that God and His world exist. And that everyone can enter and find their rest. Except me. I’m infinitely far away for ever. I am alone and infinitesimally small—and I can’t come near.”

It’s far more common than you may think. Maybe you’ve heard of “Imposter Syndrome,” which has been described as a persistent nagging belief that one was a fraud, that all our achievements were the result of luck, or seeming to be more competent than we in fact are. And, worst of all, the utter terror that some day, we’ll be found out for the fraud we are.

In case you’re wondering, about 70% of people experience this phenomenon.

So people stay out of the light for reasons that are eminently understandable: shame of sins, actual or exaggerated in the mind, fear of rejection by God. Fear of unworthiness, of having every black thought about themselves vindicated, and their worst fears of who they are be affirmed.

And that’s why Jesus tells his disciples again and again: Be not afraid. And in today’s gospel, he tells us, believe that his mission is not to condemn, but to save, to heal, not to judge.

We sing “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” as a standby at St. Barts—it’s practically our anthem—but maybe we don’t take the lyrics to heart:

“There is no place where earth's sorrows
are more keenly felt than heaven:
there is no place where earth's failings
have such gracious judgment given.”

But it costs us something to accept forgiveness: pride. We have to come forward, in all our imperfections, trusting in the love of our God to see us as we are, flawed and marked by life, worked on by time and events, hurt and in need of healing. We have to trust.

And it is very hard to trust.

But I take comfort from another verse from our hymn:

For the love of God is broader
than the measure of the mind;
and the heart of the eternal
is most wonderfully kind.

And if you have known one person—just one—who has loved you just as you are, unconditionally, or if you have been that person for another—than you know that our mind can rise to that kind of love, and if we can do it, God will do it.

So the judgment is, ultimately, one we pass on ourselves.

We can exile ourselves to the darkness, in self-inflicted fear. Or we can put aside pride, and fear, and step into the Light, knowing, in that wonderful phrase of Leonard Cohen’s, “every heart to love must come—but as a refugee.”

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