The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, February 17, 2019

“The World Turned Upside Down”: A Sermon on Luke 6:17-26

[Delivered at
St. Bartholomew’s Church
February 17, 2019

(at 4:10)

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

Like many great stories, the one about the British forces under Lord Cornwallis playing the song “The World Turned Upside Down” at the surrender ceremony that ended the siege at Yorktown is probably not true.

(Don’t tell Lin-Manuel Miranda, ok?)

But as George MacDonald Fraser once wrote, if it isn’t true, well, it ought to be.

Lord Cornwallis’s song choices aside, “The World Turned Upside Down” is a British song that dates back at least to the 17th Century, and, I think, it can shed a light into today’s Gospel.

Yes, you heard me. Shed light into today’s Gospel. Yes, that's what I said. I said it.

And why would the Beatitudes, among the most beloved passages in Scripture, need light shone into them?

Who can’t get on board with the blessings? What could be more comforting than knowing that the poor, the hungry, those whose devotion to Christ causes them to be marginalized and excluded will know joy, even if they suffer now?

Sure, that's easy.

But then we have the next verses, and these are all too often pushed to the side, or minimized:

But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.

“Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.

“Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.

“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”
For those of us who are not the oppressed, these latter verses can be a little--daunting.

Are we meant to seek out suffering, so that we can earn the rewards of the poor, the persecuted, the reviled?

Are we supposed to crush every natural instinct for happiness, instead dwelling in somber misery, hoping that the loss of joy in this life will be more than made up for in the next?

Are we supposed to be Puritan vegetable folk, like Lord and Lady Whiteadder in the old British comedy Blackadder, treating themselves to the sumptuous meal of a turnip apiece?

It sounds almost comic in our contemporary hedonistic society, but a terrifying number of people do exactly that.

In her latest book, Shameless, Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber writes about the torment inflicted on gay, lesbian, trans, and other people whose sexuality does not fit the calcified limits of fundamentalist or even traditionalist interpretations of Scripture.

Many are taught to hate themselves from their childhood on up, and become their own torturers.

This self-torture isn’t limited to sexuality of course. Bolz-Weber points out how women in those traditions are not allowed to own or claim their own talents, identities and joy in life, and how all too many men in clerical collars are eager to clamp women in spiritual chains.

As a man in a clerical collar, I have to acknowledge the truth of this, and can only recoil in horror at the abuses she describes.

And it isn’t limited to fundamentalists, either—as someone raised in the Roman Catholic tradition, I experienced teaching aimed at pushing me toward a patriarchal role, one that is not who I am, or want to be—the kind of man I have no desire to be. Nothing like as extreme as what Bolz-Weber describes, but nonetheless a very real efforts at conditioning.

She writes that: “We should not be more loyal to an idea, a doctrine, or an interpretation of a Bible verse than we are to people. If the teachings of the church are harming the bodies and spirits of people, we should rethink those teachings.” [1]

Bolz-Weber reminds us that “[f]ive hundred years ago, Martin Luther took a look at the harm in his own parishioners’ spiritual lives, specifically their torment from trying to fulfill the sacramental obligations that the church determined would please an angry God.”[2]

She reminds us that Luther dared to think that the story of God coming to humanity in Jesus of Nazareth, and speaking to us the words of life—could free his parishioners from the harm their own church had done them, and tells us that Luther was “less loyal to the teachings of the church than he was to people.”[3]

So should we be.

There’s a reason I have often called Bolz-Weber my favorite living theologian, and here’s why: She says the truths I wish I had recognized for myself.

My favorite, well, how to put this discreetly--not-living theologian is Charles Gore, who lived from 1853 to 1932. Toward the end of his long ministry, he wrote a long defense of Christianity as rational, relevant, and still important in the post World War I era under the title The Reconstruction of Belief.

Here’s Gore, in agreement with Pastor Nadia, describing “the fluidity of all the religions of history”—including Christianity—“and the transitoriness of their specific forms”: “The letter killeth, we hear it said,” Gore wrote, “but the Spirit giveth life. The Spirit must be free to ‘lead us into all the truth,’ and we must expect to see all of the standards and formulas of the past, however venerable, superseded in the light of increasing knowledge, and the sacred books of the past read in a light their authors would not have recognized.”[4]

In other words, the Beatitudes are not Jesus telling us to seek out misery, to frown when others would smile, to turn away from the joys of life. His own life makes that perfectly clear—in the very next chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus quotes his critics, who after rejecting the ascetic John the Baptist as “having a devil,” then denounce Jesus himself. “The Son of Man came eating and drinking,” Jesus says, and “ye say, behold a gluttonous man and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners!” [Lk 7:34]

So what then are these Beatitudes saying to us?

The world turned upside down…

Jesus is shattering the old link between prosperity and moral worth. The notion, which pervades the ancient world, and recur throughout the Scriptures, that good things happen to good people. He’s not the first, or the only one to make this point. In The Book of Job, that good, deserving man is healthy, wealthy, and wise, the father of many children, universally respected.

All of that is taken away from Job. But he remains faithful, loyal, and clings to his integrity. He does not understand what is happening to him, but he refuses to deny the truth of the God he has loved his whole life.

But The Book of Job is a parable, a story, and it ostensibly ends with the restoration of the moral order—Job is, at the end of the story, once again healthy, wealthy, and wise, universally respected, the father of many new children.

Of course, if the Book were not a parable, Job would still be mourning the children lost, the shattering of his relationship with his wife, who urged him to “curse God and die,” and the hollowness of his friendships, as demonstrated by the facile rebukes his so-called comforters offer him, to find where he erred, and beg forgiveness—and then God will promptly end the pain.

Like Job, Jesus knows better. And he’s warning us: There is no connection between our status as children of God and our financial resources, our social status, our secular power or status.


The Prosperity Gospel, which seeks to con Christians into believing that there is, is the single most dangerous heresy in Christian history, because while most of the other famous heresies reflect failed efforts to grapple with the nature of Jesus’s relationship with the Father, this one tells you that if you are rich, successful and healthy, you stand well with God. And if you are not—well, too bad for you.

Jesus has rejected that ancient belief—more, he has inverted it. It’s part of the world that Jesus turns upside down. Not to exalt misery for its own sake, but to teach us the love of God and of neighbor, love that goes beyond intellectual precept into action.

In Jesus’s day, the way to wealth was filled with compromise and collaboration with the “domination system” of the Roman occupiers.

In our own day, we are similarly hemmed in by our choices—the television show The Good Place points out that acts that are on their face innocent—buying organic fruit, for example, or a cellphone or a tablet—enmeshes us in the exploitation of workers around the globe, and in their suffering.

Like Jesus’s audience in today’s Gospel, we cannot find a morally pure way to exist in our society.

But we can oppose what Gore called the “abiding sources of misery and strongholds of tyranny.” The call of Christ was not, first and foremost, to believe a doctrine, but to live a life. The first name of the Church was simply “the Way.”

And that way calls us as to live a life that is grounded in love. Not an emotion, but a promise. A promise to treat everyone we engage with as enshrine in our hearts and a fundamental concern for the well being of every other person—and to work in our various ways what to make as nearly as impossible as it may be the exploitation of the weaker by the stronger.

If we are complacent in our wealth, and believe it is ours because we are righteous—than woe on us indeed.

If we are full, and do not do not acknowledge our duty to do what we can to alleviate the suffering of the hungry—then, again, woe to us.

If we complacently rejoice, and just shut out the moral complexities and tangles of our interconnected, overly burdened planet, then, yes, woe to us.

Because when we do these things, we are closing our eyes to reality, and turning away from the costs of our comfort to others who are not as lucky as we are.

We would be part of the moral order Jesus repudiates—the simplistic notion that good things happen to good people, and that privilege equates to moral worth.

But if we use our privilege to work toward a more just world, to oppose exploitation and oppression, then we are alive to the inconvenient truths around us. If we truly wish to walk in the way, we must confront the fact that we are all tainted by the world we live in, and are all complicit in its violence and exploitation—but facing that fact and promising to try to build a better world means that we choose, by every act we take toward changing those conditions, large or small, we stand with the God whose redemptive love is over us and within us, and we will be answering, each in our own small way, God’s call to stand against the forces that crush the vulnerable and injure the little ones loved by God. [5]

And, when enough of us join in the effort, we just may see the world turn upside down.

The Kingdom of God is just that, and we are told that it is within us.

So let it out. Turn the world upside down.

And rejoice.

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


[1]-[3] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Shameless, at 5 (2019)
[4]Gore, The Reconstruction of Belief at 624 (1926).
[5] Gore, Christ and Society, at 165, et seq. (1928).

Monday, February 4, 2019

In The Castle of the Forest Sauvage

We begin:

An older boy, leading his foster-brother, angrily tries to fly a hawk, who flaps away, itself in a mood. The hawk will not be taken willingly, and heads deeper into the dark, frightening forest near the boys' home, the Forest Sauvage. The older boy, angry at himself, his brother (who warned him), and the hawk, storms off home. The boy follows the hawk into the depths of the Forest Sauvage, and pursues, even as the shadows lengthen.

The world changes.


As a better writer than me once put it, " I really didn't know. I wasn't sure. You lose sight sometimes. Thank you!"

I've been revisiting T.H. White's original, uncut, unblemished, "fully rounded, bright and done," The Sword in the Stone, and it is every bit as glorious--no, it is far more glorious than when I read it as a child. Seriously, it is a beautiful book.

But you must read it alone and apart from the compilation volume The Once and Future King. Brilliant though that volume is, comprising the two sequels, and a final book, The Candle in the Wind, that only appears in the tetralogy, the edits White made to Sword lose much of the grand daylight sense of whimsy and anachronistic comedy that make the original so special. The lost set pieces--Merlyn dueling Madam Mim (White's original cries out for Michelle Gomez to play the mad, funny, beautiful-but-deadly villainess), the rescue of Morgan le Faye's captives (Morgan as a jaded 30's sophisticate (Constance Bennett, perhaps?), whose sunglasses blot out what she doesn't want to see), and the lyrical visit to the kindly snake T. Natrix--the inserted materials from the aborted The Book of Merlyn are well worth having, but not in Sword. They are a harder, older man's writing, the writing of a man whose hope in his kind is flagging, and the sunset of that uncompleted volume is bright, but not like the dawn-filled sky of White's first Arthurian romance.

No. Read the original or go home. And do not watch the Disney movie. Wait for a proper adaptation (Michelle Gomez required!), or read the original--aloud, if you can; this marks two books I have read aloud to myself for the savor of the language. The Christmas dinner and Boxing Day boar hunt are beautiful in ways that I simply missed as a child, as a youth, as a young man. Now, ensconced in middle age, I laugh at Sir Ector--but for him, too. King Pellinore, Robin Wood, and, most surprisingly, William Twyti, King Uther's gnarled and wiry huntsman, strike different chords in me now. (I defy you to read aloud the boar hunt, and remain dry-eyed at “He [Twyti] said, 'Good dog, Beaumont the valiant, sleep now, old friend Beaumont, good old dog.' Then Robin's falchion let Beaumont out of this world, to run free with Orion and roll among the stars.” )

But White's use of language is extraordinary throughout. Here he is, setting a scene, and creating a song another man would simplify two decades later:
These marvels were great and comfortable ones, but in the old England there was a greater still. The weather behaved itself.
In the spring all the little flowers came out obediently in the meads, and the dew sparkled, and the birds sang; in the summer it was beautifully hot for no less than four months, and, if it did rain just enough for agricultural purposes, they managed to arrange it so that it rained while you were in bed; in the autumn the leaves flamed and rattled before the west winds, tempering their sad adieu with glory; and in the winter, which was confined by statute to two months, the snow lay evenly, three feet thick, but never turned into slush
Such gems are freely strewed by White throughout the novel; here's White describing the young Arthur (called the "Wart" because he's illegitimate (so everyone thinks), after falling asleep in the woods:
The boy slept well in the woodland nest where he had laid himself down, in that kind of thin but refreshing sleep which people have when they begin to lie out of doors. At first he only dipped below the surface of sleep, and skimmed along like a salmon in shallow water, so close to the surface that he fancied himself in air. He thought himself awake when he was already asleep. He saw the stars
above his face, whirling on their silent and sleepless axis, and the leaves of the trees rustling against them, and he heard small changes in the grass. These little noises of footsteps and soft-fringed wing-beats and stealthy bellies drawn over the grass blades or rattling against the bracken at first frightened or interested him, so that he moved to see what they were (but never saw), then soothed him, so that he no longer cared to see what they were but trusted them to be themselves, and finally left him altogether as he swam down deeper and deeper, nuzzling into the scented turf, into the warm ground, into the unending waters under the earth
Not a bit of showing off to be seen; the similes enrich and convey the feeling White wishes to convey, concretely.

Among all the character beats (on Sir Ector's "proper" son, Kay: “He was one of those people who would be neither a follower nor a leader, but only an aspiring heart, impatient in the failing body which imprisoned it.”), apothegms, the comedy, the call-backs (or forward; Merlyn lives backwards in time), and may have been Sherlock Holmes in the 1890s), comes the single best advice I have found in a book:
“The best thing for being sad," replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That's the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you.”
There speaks a man who has battled his own demons with curiosity, books, keen observation.

And then read the rest, The Witch in the Wood, The Ill-Made Knight, and then return to the omnibus, and read The Candle in the Wind. And don't neglect The Book of Merlyn, because this last gasp of White's Arthurian genius, as the Second World War engulfed, and threatened, everything he believed in, White manages one last affirmation of humanity:
He [Arthur, now in old age, the night before his final battle] caught a glimpse of that extraordinary faculty in man, that strange, altruistic, rare, and obstinate decency which will make writers or scientists maintain their truths at the risk of death. Eppur si muove, Galileo was to say; it moves all the same. They were to be in a position to burn him if he would go on with it, with his preposterous nonsense about the earth moving round the sun, but he was to continue with the sublime assertion because there was something which he valued more than himself. The Truth. To recognize and to acknowledge What Is. That was the thing which man could do, which his English could do, his beloved, his sleeping, his now defenceless English. They might be stupid, ferocious, unpolitical, almost hopeless. But here and there, oh so seldome, oh so rare, oh so glorious, there were those all the same who would face the rack, the executioner, and even utter extinction, in the cause of something greater than themselves. Truth, that strange thing, the jest of Pilate's. Many stupid young men had thought they were dying for it, and many would continue to die for it, perhaps for a thousand years. They did not have to be right about their truth, as Galileo was to be. It was enough that they, the few and martyred, should establish a greatness, a thing above the sum of all they ignorantly had
The Book of Merlyn closes with a dedication to Sir Thomas Malory, and asks prayers for his soul, and that of his humble disciple (White himself), who now "lays down his books, to fight for his kind."

The books are extraordinary, unlike any others in literatureI have read.

The story begins with a boy, chasing a hawk, into the Forest Sauvage, where he meets an old man (or a young man?) who will be his tutor.