The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Laugh Hard. Run Fast. Be Kind: A Pentecost Sermon on Romans 8

[Delivered at St. Barts, NYC, May 20, 2018]

Pentecost! The onrush of wind, divided tongues of fire, the disciples and the disciples speaking the languages of all who were gathered there!

The birthday of the Church, the coming upon the crowd of the Holy Spirit, fulfilling Jesus’s promise that he would send upon them, as he calls her, the Advocate.

You don’t get much bigger than this. Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost could be called the big three joyful feasts of the Church.

Christmas. The beginning of Jesus’s life, the birth of new hope in the frail baby cradled in his young mother’s arms.

Easter. The shocking reversal of the story that had seemingly ended in tragedy and futility.

And now Pentecost. The new courage of the disciples, who are now out in the world preaching in every tomgue known to the ancient world, and the sudden proof that the Spirit would lead the Jesus Movement to every corner of the globe.

Heady stuff.

But we live in an age where the very nature of the Christian faith is up for debate. Where the name of Jesus is claimed by those who defend white nationalism, misogyny, anti-semitism, and who display contemptuous indifference to the poor, the refugee, the sick and suffering.

The problem has gotten so widespread that a wide group of religious elders from many Christian denominations, including our own Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry—who you might have noticed had a good day yesterday—have released a statement and an accompanying video [above] of them each reading portions of the statement in turn, declaring the need to “Reclaim the name of Jesus,” by returning to his words, and the example of his earliest followers. I commend the letter and the video to you. I’ve watched it several times, and think hearing these very different elders speak real biblical truth is an act worthy of our notice and admiration.

But what about our emulation?

How do we reclaim the name of Jesus? After all, we’re not high-ranking religious leaders. I can tweet the video out, and tell you about it, but that’s clearly not going to make much of a ripple, let alone the world-changing wave the apostles began so many years ago on their Pentecost.

And then I read the Epistle for today.

Now, I’m going to read part to you again, because, for reasons that I don’t quite get, the Lectionary cuts off the last, and most critical verse.

And, since you’ve heard it once before, I’m going to read in the Authorized Version—the so-called King James version—because the NRSV sacrifices some of the emotive power of the passage in creating the most accurate translation. The 17th Century language conveys the intensity in a way that the NRSV just doesn't.

So here goes, back to the language of Shakespeare:

For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.

And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body. For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what [one] seeth, why doth he [or she] yet hope for?

But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it.
Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.
And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God.

And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.
Now there’s a lot here we could unpack. But let’s start with the high points.

First: The conflict, division, and pain that is currently afflicting the world is not God’s will for us, or for the rest of creation. Cruelty, waste, the abandonment of people to poverty, war or homelessness—the whole tragic litany of our species’ willingness to exploit or ignore the suffering of our fellow living creatures is not how God made the world.

It’s how we have made the world.

Second: Hope. In Hesiod’s Works and Days, which includes the earliest version of the Pandora myth, after Pandora releases all of the ills and pains we suffer, hope remains behind. It’s unclear whether hope is a good thing, or the last, most subtle torment of all—that we are denied the ability to come to terms with the human condition because of our persistent belief in hope.

St Paul, who, as a Roman citizen, would have known this story, and its ambiguities, squarely rejects this reading. We are saved by hope, he writes, with absolute certainty. And not by realistic hope, that we can plan or plot to bring to fruition. No, no—if you see it coming, or can help make it happen—that’s not hope. It’s not salvation.

No, hope is the unexpected. The surprise from God, not the salvation you work out for yourself. It’s finding your partner, your other half, the person who completes you, after giving up on the search.

It’s God calling you into a new way of life, not dramatically, but in the still, small voice that is liberated in your heart, and, after years of not even knowing it was there, points you in the new direction.

To just put a little flesh on that, when, 12 years ago, I stood alone and gazed around, bidding farewell to home I had thought would be mine for the rest of my life, and asked myself what now? The answer rose out of some long-hidden corner of my heart: You’re free to be a deacon now. Free to be something I didn’t even know I wanted. Until I knew, among the ruins of an old life.

Those inarticulate, seemingly unfocused yearnings, that we all have, those moments when you grasp in the dark knowing there’s a name just out of reach, a desire for a more authentic, truer you—that’s the Spirit, uttering groanings on our behalf, because we’ve lost touch with exactly what that more authentic self, that truer life is. We can’t formulate it into words, but deep within our souls, that truth is laboring to give birth to realization.

And now the most important part. And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God. Read that the wrong way, and it’s unbearably smug; “Oh, everything works out for the best. It’ll all be ok.”

No. That’s absolute rubbish.

Susan Howatch in her novel Absolute Truths suggests that the translation of this passage is slightly off. The Greek verb, she argues should read not “all things work together for good,” but rather “all things intermingle for good.” The bad things remain bad. The good remains good. But together, she says, they make a pattern.

Bad things happen to us, to the ones we love. Even to the ones we struggle to love, struggle to not hate.

Those sufferings are not from God.

But the question is what God does with them, and us. What we do with our anger and pain.

I knew, many years ago, a woman who had been abusive to her children, one of whom was close to me. She had spent decades putting off the reckoning, keeping a glossy front, and playing the part of the good mother. When she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she could have continued playing a part, but instead she suddenly realized that, with regard to the relationships she had so damaged, it was now or never. So she reached out to her children, admitted the wrongs had done to them, and asked their forgiveness.

She died not all that long afterwards. But she died reconciled with her family, having used the last months of her life to care about them, and for them.

Her cancer was terrible. Her reaction to it was of God. She seized the opportunity while she still could, and did what she could to achieve healing.

And the final pattern of her life, the one her children, and even me, the outsider, all looked back on after her death, painted a portrait of a person who had made very grievous errors, but had loved the ones she hurt enough to try to heal the wounds she inflicted, an to try in her last days, when selfishness or fear could have led her.

And yet, had the sudden recognition of her impending mortality not come, would she had ever taken those steps?

That pattern echoes in each of our lives, though rarely so dramatically. Every mistake we make, every time we are betrayed by those we trust, every hurt we inflict—leads to something. They become a part of us, of our story.

How do we react? Do we try to play our part in the work of redemption by learning to forgive, and, what’s even harder, to seek and accept forgiveness ourselves.

Do we listen for that still, small voice of the Advocate inside, leading us to where we are needed, what we can do?

Do we welcome the stranger, receive each guest as Christ, as the Rule of St. Benedict, hanging outside these church walls for as long as I can remember, require?

Do we reclaim the name of Jesus, by modeling in our own lives exemplifying what he taught us?

Do we become more open, more loving?

Do we embrace the life of abundance and abundant love Jesus promises us, and toward which the Advocate urges us?

Well, that may sound like a lot.

In fact, it is.

And I’m not here to pretend that I live up this goal every day.

Especially on days when I’m under-caffeinated.

So start small.

Embrace life in abundance.

Use the time you have, because it’s finite, and we don’t know when it will run out.


Still daunting? OK. Try it this way; I’ll steal a dictum from Steven Moffat, a secular writer as a good staring point.

Laugh hard.
Run fast.
Be kind

Because if we try to do these things, then the pattern of our own lives will be one in which we can affirm, with St. Paul, that all things work together for good to them that love God, and that we—you and I—have been called according to his purpose, and that we have done our best, in our own small way, to make our answer “yes.”

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

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Herr Doktor von Wer: The Highlanders

Well, we're back. Since I have managed to find a watchable version of Patrick Troughton's sophomore story, The Highlanders, we can carry on traveling, after all.

The thing that stands out about The Highlanders is just how competent everybody is in this story. Polly shows steely courage and initiative, getting herself and the laird's daughter Kirsty out of danger, and becomes a proactive force in her own right. In fact, in the end, Polly saves the day--her quick obtaining of a blackmailing hold over Lieutenant Algernon Ffinch (the least bad of the English portrayed in the story) repays her throughout the story, and gives the TARDIS crew a guide back to the ship after the Doctor's hostage, the creepy solicitor-slave trader Grey, escapes.

Throughout, Anneke Wills is the standout of this story--once she has some of Ffinch's hair and his identity disc, and can thus prove he was outwitted by, as she puts it, "two girls" (Kirsty helps!), her blackmailing mixes charm and menace--the stiff Englishman finds himself called "Algy" almost affectionately by Polly, even as she is coercing him into handing over all his money, violating orders, and risking court martial. Polly's teasing familiarity is both an assertion of power over him (his title and grandiloquent name--that is, his very identity-- are taken from him by her as much as is his money), and yet she is not entirely cruel to him; the stakes are kept bearable for him. (Like Arnold Zeck before her, Polly knows that a blackmail victim must be allowed hope, and not be "pushed to extremities".) She's gutsy, funny and flirty.

Michael Craze's Ben is also very good--escaping torture because he's familiar with the techniques of Harry Houdini, reassuring the rattled young piper Jamie (a solid, but not yet outstanding Frazer Hines), that the Doctor is trustworthy, and figuring out the Doctor's plan pretty quickly.

And Troughton? He's a protean force here, masquerading as a German Doctor von Wer" (yes, that's "Doctor Who" auf Deutsch), complete with Teutonic accent, and an old beggar woman as the plot requires. He naps at one critical juncture, as Kirsty and Polly are champing at the bit to have a plan of action. The Doctor here is less a cosmic hobo than a man--well, I hate to outsource my own commentary, but Elizabeth Sandifer pretty much nails it:
From there, almost immediately, the story just becomes a compilation of "stuff we couldn't get Hartnell to do." Prance about in a comedy German accent and do intense and oddly violent comedy scenes of humorously torturing people? Check. Cross-dress? Check. Be oddly obsessed with stealing people's hats? Check. Basically, liberated by his metaphysical change from the tedious requirement that he be remotely sane, the Doctor goes completely nuts here, hamming for the camera, firing off one-liners to nobody in particular, and generally having a good time, while, distantly in the background, some kidnappings and rescues go on.

This is where the spotters guide approach falls short, then. Because this isn't the last historical, due largely to the fact that other than having no overt science fiction elements, nothing about it even faintly resembles historicals we've seen before. In terms of televised Doctor Who, The Smugglers was the last historical, and this is just a parody of the genre to reiterate after last time that the entire rulebook has been chucked out the window.
We don't yet know what Doctor Who, as Sandifer writes. We're not yet sure who the Doctor is anymore. But he's fast, and funny, and watchable. Even in a recon.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Graduation Day: A Sermon on John 15: 9-17

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church, May 6, 2018]

Robertson Davies’s novel What's Bred in the Bone tells the life story of a man who almost literally paints himself into a corner. Francis Cornish is, at his death, a wealthy patron of the arts with an extensive art collection, known as a superb art expert who famously exposed a faker of genius. Yet his friends and relatives never understand why this brilliant and talented man—once a talented enough young artist himself to become the apprentice of a great (if possibly dishonest) artist—dried up into a possessor of others’ works, a man who supported artists with money and advice, but laid down his brush with no body of work of his own.

We the reader know better, as we are told the story, by two narrators. The first is the Lesser Zadkiel, the Angel of Biography, and the second is the Daimon Maimas, whose job it was to lead Cornish to make the most of himself. In their telling, Cornish became an apprentice of the Italian artist Tancred Saraceni in the last years before the Second World War broke out.

And what did Saraceni do in those years?

He took worthless, but genuine, old paintings, and faked them up to seem like the work of Old Masters, and traded them on the black market to recover genuine paintings from the Third Reich for their real owners--for a profit, of course.

As his apprentice, Cornish excelled. But, Saraceni warned him, he was being tested, always tested, to see if he would be Saraceni’s successor, or just a perpetual apprentice. Whether he was ready to face the world as amici di Saraceni rather than the lesser alunno di Saraceni. That is, “friend of Saraceni” as opposed to “student of Saraceni.”

In the last year before the war broke out, Saraceni left Cornish his final exam: to do a new painting in the old manner, unsupervised and undirected—merely given an old canvas. With six months of isolation, Francis creates a triptych of the Wedding of Cana, one that incorporates in it the myth of his own life up to this point, and yet is "in the final accents of the Gothic voice." And, as he has done with his other work, he uses recipes for antique paints, mixes ancient dust from the castle in which Saraceni has been working him, in artificially created cracks mimicking those that occur as a painting ages. He creates at once a work intensely truthful, and yet gloriously fake. When Saraceni comes back, shortly before the outbreak of war, he views the tryptich, and, impressed, finally addresses Francis as “Maestro.”

And so his apprenticeship is over. Francis is welcomed as a friend of Saraceni, not merely a student. No mere technician, or even gifted fraud, Francis has created his masterpiece—the work that establishes him in his own right.

Unfortunately, because when it is found by the Allies after the war, it is hailed as an authentic last flowering of the Gothic world, Francis can never claim it. So he stops painting, for fear of reducing his great work, his self-summation, to a discarded fake.

The rest of his life, he develops talent in others, and spreads what he has learned.

Davies was an Anglican, and while seldom directly didactic, his novel, with its supernatural narrators, parallels today’s Gospel reading.

We are at the Last Supper, once again. Nowhere near the Sixth Sunday of Easter, the shadow of Golgatha begins to loom large now.

And yet Jesus takes the time to tell the disciples something they desperately need to hear, something to tide them through the horror to come, and the guilt that will only be dispelled when they meet again on the other side of the Empty Tomb: Their apprenticeship is over. They are amici di Jesus, friends of Jesus, not the lesser alunno di Jesus.

How can this be? We know that the disciples are yet to pass their final exams, are yet to demonstrate their worthiness—and yet.

Their apprenticeship is drawing to a close. Jesus tells them to keep his commandments, but then tells them that “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

That’s all.

But then he explains further: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends.”

And he adds, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.”

He doesn’t ask them to be true to him, to die for him.

He doesn’t ask Peter to avow his love for Jesus, and risk execution himself.

He asks them to be true to each other, to be willing to die for each other.

Not for him.

Because he first has to show them how to do it.

And they do what he asks. After Judas’s betrayal, there are eleven men hiding in the upper room, afraid but united. After he appears to them, twice—Thomas misses the first appearance—there are eleven men, and an unknown number of women, who begin to bravely speak their truth.

Eleven who tell the story of the love of God for women and men, a love so great that God will stop at nothing in order to make that love clear, so clear that a movement will form to spread the awareness of that love to all people.

Everyone. Not just the children of Abraham by blood, but as the first letter of John says, quite clearly, that “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child.”

Now some will tell you that those who do not formally receive the news and avow themselves followers of Jesus do not warrant such love. But think again of what Jesus says: “You are my friends if you do what I command you.”

And what is the command?

Simply this: Love one another as I have loved you.

As C.S. Lewis and Karl Rahner point out, this commandment, and not the name in which the commandment is performed, is the vital part in reaching graduation day. As Lewis writes in The Screwtape Letters, God doesn’t play by rules—or fairly. Just ask the laborers in Jesus’s parable who start at the beginning of the day, only to receive the same wages as those arrive at the very end.

No, it’s not about rules, or fairness. It’s all about love. Sacrificial love, an offering of the self. And passing it on. Telling the story, as it caught you. Sharing experience, strength, and hope.

And in so telling, these Eleven, and those whose lives they touch, create what our Presiding Bishop calls the Jesus Movement, a wave of humanity from 2,000 years ago crashing on the rocks of these hard, bitter times in our world with simple message: Love one another as I have loved you.

The fictional Francis Cornish in Davies’s novel has to protect his great vision by making himself effectively invisible, and empowering others to tell their truth through their own eyes.

Jesus, too must leave us, so that we can complete out transition and receive the Holy Spirit, move from alunno to amici. And in so doing, tell the story as best we can.

But not just our own story.

To graduate, we are called to love one another, even when it’s risky, even when it hurts, even when it makes us vulnerable. Jesus’s love is both the spark that lights the paschal candle, and the flame that we pass, one to another, in the Easter Vigil. By accepting that love, and symbolically passing that flame, we are echoing the acts of the apostles—disciples no longer—and declaring our willingness to dedicate ourselves to sacrificial love.

That message makes tyrants afraid, because love casts out fear. So the willingness to speak that truth has throughout the past two thousand years, has caused and in some places is causing today, the death of those who share that method. However tense our fractious polity has gotten, we are safe to worship in our faith communities, to gather together and share the stories and the sacrament. To love one another, as community, as sisters and brothers in Christ. We should remember that such sacrificial love in other places, and in other times, has been and remains acutely dangerous.

Here, in divided America, that commandment is an antidote—perhaps the antidote—to the increasing suspicion and anger that mar our exchanges. Because love doesn’t stay confined. It spreads out, from those who are consciously following the commandment to love to those who find themselves surprised by an unexpected kindness, a shared moment across an ideological divide, a class divide, a racial divide.

So we hope. So we believe. And so we try to live.

But that hope should gain strength from the fact that we are here, tonight, in this chapel. Though empires have risen and fallen, as wealth has been built up, stolen, and squandered, as we have seen revolutions and counter revolutions sweep the globe, that simple command, difficult though it is to live up to, continues to echo, and to bear fruit. And every day we are presented with the opportunity to live up to our high calling of being friends, not servants, of Jesus of Nazareth.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

"Obtuse, Cold-Blooded, Sickening Drivel": Hanson and the The "Redistribution of Sex"

Sometimes you make a mistake in letting one sail over the plate. I was appalled by George Mason University Professor Robin Hanson's post advocating the "redistribution of sex" as a proposed solution to violence among self-identified "incels" (short for "involuntary celibates"). But then, rather to my astonishment, it got picked up by NYT columnist Ross Douthat.

Indeed, Douthat tried to normalize Hanson's piece by citing an essay in the London Review of Books by Amia Srinivasan, which, while pointing out the socially (and thus politically, in part) constructed nature of desire, unequivocally answered the question with a solid no:
The question, then, is how to dwell in the ambivalent place where we acknowledge that no one is obligated to desire anyone else, that no one has a right to be desired, but also that who is desired and who isn’t is a political question, a question usually answered by more general patterns of domination and exclusion. It is striking, though unsurprising, that while men tend to respond to sexual marginalisation with a sense of entitlement to women’s bodies, women who experience sexual marginalisation typically respond with talk not of entitlement but empowerment. Or, insofar as they do speak of entitlement, it is entitlement to respect, not to other people’s bodies. That said, the radical self-love movements among black, fat and disabled women do ask us to treat our sexual preferences as less than perfectly fixed. ‘Black is beautiful’ and ‘Big is beautiful’ are not just slogans of empowerment, but proposals for a revaluation of our values. Lindy West describes studying photographs of fat women and asking herself what it would be to see these bodies – bodies that previously filled her with shame and self-loathing – as objectively beautiful. This, she says, isn’t a theoretical issue, but a perceptual one: a way of looking at certain bodies – one’s own and others’ – sidelong, inviting and coaxing a gestalt-shift from revulsion to admiration. The question posed by radical self-love movements is not whether there is a right to sex (there isn’t), but whether there is a duty to transfigure, as best we can, our desires.
Douthat offers "an alternative, conservative response, of course — namely, that our widespread isolation and unhappiness and sterility might be dealt with by reviving or adapting older ideas about the virtues of monogamy and chastity and permanence and the special respect owed to the celibate." He acknowledges that this "is not the natural response for a society like ours. Instead we tend to look for fixes that seem to build on previous revolutions, rather than reverse them."

Douthat's seeing a convection between Hanson's post and Srinivasan's effort to expand empathy and compassion and push back on the social construction of desire, while defending the right of individuals to choose their own partners doesn't speak well of him (he reductios her arguments ad absurdum).

Douthat suggests that "incels" will turn to technological solutions, which I think is both profoundly sad, and wildly optimistic. I'd just suggest that Douthat has rather missed the point of the manifestos of Alek Minassian and Elliot Rodger, who murdered 6 people in 2014, and who Minassian perversely titled "Supreme Gentleman."

They are not looking for respect for their celibacy. Rather, Rodger's and Minassian's manifestos sound in domination, in a sense of entitlement to women's bodies, whether or not the women's souls are involved. They sound in status, and a truly toxic masculinism--the "Pick-up Artist" as a totemic figure.

As for Hanson--well, Hanson's post reminds me of Herman Wouk's phrase in War and Remembrance (p. 151): "obtuse, cold-blooded, sickening drivel." He suggests that "Sex could be directly redistributed, or cash might be redistributed in compensation." In an update, he is surprised that his talk of sex being "directly redistributed" has caused such recoil:
A tweet on this post induced a lot of discussion on twitter, much of which accuses me of advocating enslaving and raping women. Apparently many people can’t imagine any other way to reduce or moderate sex inequality. (“Redistribution” literally means “changing the distribution.”) In the post I mentioned cash compensation; more cash can make people more attractive and better able to afford legalized prostitution. Others have mentioned promoting monogamy and discouraging promiscuity. Surely there are dozens of other possibilities; sex choices are influenced by a great many factors and each such factor offers a possible lever for influencing sex inequality. Rape and slavery are far from the only possible levers!
Note that he does not rule them out, and never expands upon his earlier words about "direct redistribution," focusing in the update on the cash alternative.

Moreover, Hanson is treating sex--that is, the sexual use of a woman's body, to be more precise--as a commodity. There is nothing about the woman's desire, or lack thereof. No empathy for those whose sexual availability is treated as a public good to be parceled out as needed for the needs of others.

Simply put, Hanson shows no awareness of women as human beings in their own right, as having inner lives of equal complexity and value to those of the men whose needs he seeks to address. It bids fair to replace in obliquity Richard A. Posner's infamous 1985 Columbia Law Review article in which he treats rape as a "market bypass." (To be fair, Posner grew in his decades as a judge, and I suspect he probably flinches on remembering this particular piece.)

If there was ever a question that we as a culture need feminism, men as much as women, Hanson is Exhibit "A."