The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, April 28, 2019

“Dat Doubt”: A Sermon on John 20:19-31 St. Bartholomew’s Church, April 28, 2019

Despair and doubt can be heavy burdens. Especially when you live in a world that seems to be turning away from what we were taught to see as “the Good,”—from compassion, from love of neighbor, including the stranger and the refugee. From basic honesty and integrity. From justice, let alone mercy.

When the apostles saw Jesus arrested, sentenced, and executed, they fled—all but one, the professed author of this Gospel, who, like Ishmael in Moby Dick, is the sole witness of the bitter end.

But endings are rarely clear and simple.

The 11 men of Galilee are hiding in the upper room they had rented for what turned out to be their last Passover with Jesus. They are cowering, afraid. Strike the shepherd, and then scatter the sheep, indeed (Matt. 26:31)

Except, the disciples don’t all scatter. Oh, a couple head off toward Emmaus, Judas has hanged himself, the women are—well, we don’t know where they are. But the majority of the Eleven hunker down.

They’re not safe—look how many people quizzed Peter if he was one of Jesus’s disciples—but they can’t quite bring themselves to flee. Among the detritus of the Last Supper, they–wait. It’s all they can do, really. They can’t give up on their years following Jesus, can’t admit that it is all over. In their hearts, they have what C.P. Snow described as “a bit of idiot hope,” or, more kindly, “the obstinate hope of the fibers.”

They can’t believe that this is the end. They doubt that life can be so empty, so cruel, so without hope.

In the 1970 movie Ryan’s Daughter, Robert Mitchum plays a schoolteacher in a tiny Irish village during the First World War. The schoolteacher marries Rosy, the beautiful young daughter of the pub landlord, played by Leo McKern, who is both a pillar of the local IRA, and an informer for the British. A wounded British soldier and Rosy have an affair—he’s so much more dashing than her aging, decent husband—and are found out by the villagers, who assume Rosy is the informer. Her father, afraid for his own life, lets the villagers seize his daughter, weeping at his cowardice. They publicly strip and shame her. Her betrayed husband opts to take her to Dublin so she can start a new life, though he is unsure that their love can be redeemed from her betrayal.

The village priest—who prevents the punishment of Rosy for her father’s crimes from being even more severe—gives one last word of advice as they get on the bus. In Trevor Howard’s clipped, accented tones, Father Collins says to the schoolteacher:

I think you have it in your mind
that you and Rosy ought to part.
Yes, I thought as much.
Well, maybe you're right,
maybe you ought, but I doubt it.
And dat's my parting
gift to you. Dat doubt.

That doubt—the doubt that it’s over, that it’s ruined beyond redemption—is what holds the disciples in place, and so they are mostly there when Jesus comes to them in the Upper Room. Paralyzed by doubt that hope can die, they are able to say to Thomas when he returns, “We have seen the Lord.”

Ah—when he returns. And where, I wonder, has he been?

Who is this disciple, forever known as Doubting Thomas? And what has he been doing?

Thomas has been out and about, while they’re all hiding.

Thomas may not have been the most spiritual of the disciples, but he’s got courage. And in fact he’s pretty bright. Because when Jesus tells the disciples about the death of Lazarus, and that he is going to Lazarus’s family and then back to Jerusalem, Thomas is the only one who knows what’s coming next.

Grim but loyal, Thomas says only, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (Jn. 11: 16)

So Thomas is skeptical of his remaining friends, who are still hiding away, while he’s doing whatever needs to be done in the city.

Of course, in the Synoptic Gospels, none of the disciples believe Mary Magdalene, Joanna or the other women when they report the empty tomb, and the strange men in dazzling clothes—angels? Almost certainly—who tell them that Jesus is not to be found among the dead, but among the living. The disciples dismiss the women’s testimony as “an idle tale,” except for Peter, who, hoping against hope, must see for himself—and sees that the tomb, at any rate, is empty.

But Thomas, that rather grim, pragmatic man who goes out to obtain food, or to find out if it’s safe for the disciples to leave Jerusalem—Thomas is, in the midst of his own despair, acting. He’s serving his brothers, seeing to their needs, their safety.

He is doing Jesus’s bidding, as Jesus did at the Last Supper, when he wrapped a towel around his waist and served the Twelve. Now, with Jesus and Judas dead, two other disciples departed, with the brotherhood of the disciples and their teacher shattered—Thomas keeps walking in the way Jesus taught him, even if the fire in his heart has been reduced to a flicker.

And Thomas’s courage, and his loyalty, are rewarded. Jesus comes back for him, to make sure that he doesn’t miss out on the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Of course, like any teacher, he answers Thomas’s challenge. He says to him, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”

Thomas doesn’t take him up on the offer. Instead, he answers him, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus then says, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

That, in case you haven’t worked it out, is us. You and me.

We haven’t seen Jesus in the flesh. We’re two whole millennia removed from anyone who has.

So Jesus is holding out to us the hope that we can be blessed in a way one of his most loyal, brave disciples was not, simply because we have come to believe.

In the very first chapter of this Gospel, we are told that “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” (Jn 1: 12-13)

Right, that’s not exactly self explanatory, is it?

Maybe we need to dig just a little deeper.

The Fourth Gospel, traditionally attributed to John, the son of Zebedee, is sometimes a very challenging one. It has dense, theologically rich discourses by Jesus about His role as the Bread of Life, or the vine to which we—that’s right, you and me—are the branches.

First, what we are called to believe is, as Jesus summarizes it, as we heard throughout Lent, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

But how can we love on command? I’ll steal a sentence from our Presiding Bishop: “Love isn’t an emotion—it’s a commitment.” Our as the teller of tales Steven Moffat put it, Love isn’t an emotion—it’s a promise. Make the commitment; vow the promise. And then walk the Way.

We’re not called to sentimental uselessness, but to action, action without malice, but with love.

Always remember that the early church didn’t see itself as a checklist of beliefs but as a way of life—it’s even called The Way, in the Acts of the Apostles.

And there is, I think, where we find the ultimate clue to what it is to come to believe.

This too:

Believe that you are loved. Don’t doubt it.

When you doubt it, because you will, don’t let that tear you down.

When you doubt it, because we all do from time to time, remember that when Thomas was too skeptical to believe the Good News at second hand, Jesus came back, just for him.

But there are things that you should doubt.

Doubt the cynical horselaugh.

Doubt the self-hatred that we all harbor within ourselves, that says you’re not worthy of God’s love.

Doubt the despair that invades your heart when you lie awake at night wondering what is it all for?

Doubt that might is right, that cruelty is strength, that mercy is weakness.

Because that is Thomas’s gift to us, that doubt. His example of going on, even when he couldn’t feel it, when all seemed lost.

But remember the even greater gift.

Most of all, don’t be afraid you’ll be left behind.

Jesus came back for Thomas; he won’t forget you.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

“Father, Forgive”: A Good Friday Meditation on Luke 23:32-35

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church,
April 19, 2019]

Did you see it?

Did you see the videos that have gone viral on the news, or are proliferating around Twitter, or did you watch in real time, as flames shot up the length of the towering spire of Notre Dame Cathedral?

Did you see—see for yourself—that elegant, finger pointing at the heavens crack, at about the halfway point, and slowly, inexorably topple, only to fall onto the already burning roof?

Did you see the blazing roof of the Cathedral?

And have you seen the pictures of the damage? The soot and charcoal everywhere, the near-total destruction of one of the great hallowed places of the world?

I say near total—two thirds of the roof is gone, leaving the cathedral open to the sky, the interior damage is still being assessed. The bell towers so beloved of Victor Hugo’s fictional Quasimodo, were spared.

As of today, nobody is quite sure what caused the fire—electrical problems, an accident on the part of the reconstruction team working to preserve and shore up the nearly 800 year old treasure.

So far as we know, there is no reason to believe that the Cathedral suffered anything but an accident.

As I watched it, though, I flashed back on another Cathedral destroyed by fire—and very much not by accident.

During the Second World War, the Nazi regime tried to cow the British into submission by what the British called Baedeker raids—bombing runs to destroy historic sites that had been chosen by the famous Baedeker Guide books.

In November 1940, one of those bombing raids opened up Coventry Cathedral to the sky.

The roof, the windows, the beautiful interior were reduced to smouldering, blackened rubble. Only the outer shell of the building survived.

Seeing Notre Dame burn makes me realize the shock and loss the people of Coventry endured, knowing that the treasure of their community was reduced to a shell because it had been awarded stars in a guide book. And at least at Notre Dame, nobody was, as far as the reports tell us, killed—one firefighter and two police officer injured, the firefighter seriously—but no deaths, as far as we know, and God grant that it remain so.

Coventry was not so fortunate.

568 people were killed, roughly 1200 injured, nearly 900 of them seriously. Almost 8,000 houses were destroyed outright, or so damaged that the occupants had to be evacuated

The next day, the very next day after the bombing raid, the Cathedral provost, Richard Howard, chalked on the wall of the ruined sanctuary the words, “Father, Forgive.”

Before the fires had died down, before it was safe to inspect the damage inside, Coventry Cathedral began its ministry of reconciliation.

While the losses were fresh.

While the outcome of the battle was far from clear.

While the war looked like it would end with Fascism triumphant, decency buried in rubble and scorched wood.

When it was safe to enter the ruined, shattered Cathedral, the people of Coventry doubled down on Howard’s bold move. A stonemason named Jock Forbes built an altar from the rubble. Behind it, two charred, twisted roof beams, still attached to each other, stood as the Cross behind the altar. Forbes had carved the words “Father, Forgive,” into the altar. I have been told that at the first service in the shell of the cathedral, under the twisted, blackened cross, and the open sky—the unjust skies that had rained down devastation and death so recently—that the people of Coventry prayed for their losses, but also for the souls of the German pilots who had inflicted those losses.

A few weeks later, on Christmas Day, Provost Howard spoke over the radio from the ruins. He asked those who were listening “to banish all thoughts of revenge” and called on them to “make a kinder, simpler world—a more Christ-Child like world.”

Coventry had taken its stand.

It has devoted itself to a mission of forgiveness and reconciliation ever since.

Half a century later, on my first trip to England, we stopped at the new Cathedral next to the ancient ruin. I was drawn into the ruins, and pulled by the inscription on the altar, to the twisted, blackened Cross,

And at once I was confronted with the best and worst of humanity.

I don’t need to specify the worst—the ruins had been tidied up, shored up, cleaned up. But the house of worship was a vestige, literally a shell.

But inside the shell was a pearl.

A pearl beyond all price, like the one in the Gospel.

That pearl was the echo, resounding from that day to the present, of people at their very best—following the example of Jesus Christ on the Cross, praying for his persecutors with his rasping, dying breath.

In that moment, standing there, I wasn’t thinking; I was in awe. And then it clicked in my mind—THIS. This is what we are meant to be. It’s all real, every bit of it, if we choose it, grasp it, and try to live it.

I say “try” advisedly, because we fail. All of us. Anyone whos’s driven in a traffic jam with me has living proof of that fact.

But at our best, we can follow the example of Jesus on the Cross, and forgive those who have hurt us. And we’d better get on it.

Because we are a long way off from the “kinder, simpler, more Christ Child-like world” that Richard Howard called out for in Christmas, 1940. We seem further from it than ever in my lifetime. Our British friends riven by conflict over Brexit, our own politics defaced with division and distrust curdling into contempt. We need the Cross today more than ever, and these words of Jesus call us to do better.

Because Jesus did. And Jesus does.

Maybe it’s because He knows us better than we know ourselves, and is able to understand how easy it is to fool ourselves into the worst betrayals, the worst crimes. After all, Peter has denied him out of fear, Judas has sold him for profit, the Temple authorities have betrayed him to the Romans, and the Romans—well, imagine the betrayal of finding in the occupier of your nation someone who understands exactly what is going on, knows that you’re not guilty, and then, as a matter of political expediency, sends you to an agonizing death anyway.

And yet he gasps, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

It’s all too common and all too tempting to read these words to mean that the whole cast of characters who betrayed Jesus that night and that day would have acted better if they knew he was the Messiah.

But that glib, easy reason lets us off the hook. It protects us from the duty to forgive. And allows us to hold on to our self-righteousness, out appalling certainty that we are right, and they—define the term yourself—are wrong. And only afterward do we realize that certainty is a betrayal of all Jesus taught us.

Like Peter, like Judas, perhaps even like Pilate. Like Paul in Acts, when the scales fall from his eyes. Only afterwards do they understand the enormity of what they have done.

And not just because Jesus was the Messiah. Because they have, in betraying Jesus, betrayed what was best in them.

As we do, as I do, when we burn bright with self-righteousness at the terrible things that happen in our poor world, and we give ourselves permission to hate whoever we think is responsible for them, to deny their humanity. As we do, as I do, when we feel that wonderful sense of justified anger, and give into it. As we do, as I do, when we accept an unjust status quo, and convince ourselves that there is nothing to be done. That so the world is, when in fact it is so we have made the world.

Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do.

Coventry Cathedral burnt cross

(Photo credit: sannse [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

"Pining for the Fjords": Trying to Resuscitate Lambeth Resolution 1:10

I regret to say that Ephraim Radner's article "CLEANING UP THE PLAYING FIELD: SIX RESOLUTIONS FOR LAMBETH" put me in mind of the above classic Monty Python sketch. Dr. Radner's "Resolutions" for the 2020 Lambeth Conference are an effort to revive the long-dead Lambeth Resolution 1.10 (1998), as a backdoor way to institute punishment on non-compliant churches.

Well, non-compliant progressive churches, that is. Because the fact that Dr. Radner does not acknowledge, is that the so-called Traditionalist provinces never themselves complied with the Resolution. The Episcopal Church did, but that didn't abate the Traditionalist disregard for the Resolution insofar as it would have affected their conduct.

Here are Dr. Radner's proposed Resolutions:
1. This Conference reaffirms the 1998 Resolution 1.10.

2. Those bishops and churches who contradict or contravene this affirmation (I.10), or who punish others on the basis of such an affirmation, stand outside the boundaries of Anglican teaching and witness as this Conference understands it.

3. We request that other Communion Instruments of Unity pursue their work on the basis of this teaching and witness.

4. We recognize the missionary and pastoral integrity of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) and its related member churches; and we urge serious deliberation, locally and at the international level, over how these churches can be integrated fully into the life of the Communion.

5. We commit ourselves as bishops to the work of formulating and pursuing extended, coordinated, and coherent formation and catechesis in the Christian faith within our churches and across the Communion.

6. We commit ourselves to gathering again in 10 years, and in the interim to developing ways by which, despite the real differences that divide us, we can fruitfully and honestly engage one another and our service of Christ according to the levels of communion we actually share.
But here's the problem; Dr. Radner only focuses on one part of the Resolution, missing the reciprocal obligations the 1998 Lambeth Conference attempted to create:
This Conference:

a. commends to the Church the subsection report on human sexuality [1];
b. in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage;
c. recognises that there are among us persons who experience themselves as having a homosexual orientation. Many of these are members of the Church and are seeking the pastoral care, moral direction of the Church, and God's transforming power for the living of their lives and the ordering of relationships. We commit ourselves to listen to the experience of homosexual persons and we wish to assure them that they are loved by God and that all baptised, believing and faithful persons, regardless of sexual orientation, are full members of the Body of Christ;
d. while rejecting homosexual practice as incompatible with Scripture, calls on all our people to minister pastorally and sensitively to all irrespective of sexual orientation and to condemn irrational fear of homosexuals, violence within marriage and any trivialisation and commercialisation of sex;
e. cannot advise the legitimising or blessing of same sex unions nor ordaining those involved in same gender unions;
f. requests the Primates and the ACC to establish a means of monitoring the work done on the subject of human sexuality in the Communion and to share statements and resources among us;
g. notes the significance of the Kuala Lumpur Statement on Human Sexuality and the concerns expressed in resolutions IV.26, V.1, V.10, V.23 and V.35 on the authority of Scripture in matters of marriage and sexuality and asks the Primates and the ACC to include them in their monitoring process.
In 2004, The Windsor Report added to these principles a request, implicit in the plea for unity in the Resolution, for a moratorium on the part of the Episcopal Church "to effect a moratorium on the election and consent to the consecration of any candidate to the episcopate who is living in a same gender union until some new consensus in the Anglican Communion emerges," and, reciprocally, for
those bishops who believe it is their conscientious duty to intervene in provinces, dioceses and parishes other than their own to
♦express regret for the consequences of their actions
♦ to affirm their desire to remain in the Communion, and
♦ to effect a moratorium on any further interventions.
(Windsor Report para 155).

Now, as I pointed out in 2010, when the Episcopal Church, after complying with the requested moratorium placed upon it for over 6 years, finally abandoned its adherence, it did so after the reciprocal obligations in the Resolution and in the Windsor Report had been systematically, comprehensively, and shamelessly flouted by the Traditionalists:
But I find I do have a word to say to the self-styled reasserter community, and to the communion conservatives joining them in deploring TEC's lack of "gracious restraint" in no longer honoring the Windsor Reports moratoria after six and a half years of compliance: Congratulations.

Seriously. In the years since the requests were made, TEC complied. In return, it was subjected to cross-boundary jurisdictional crossings, attempted property seizures, a farcical "listening process" and a never-ending wave of bile and venom. Additionally, our Presiding Bishop was insulted at the 2007 primates meeting, where seven Global South primates refused to take communion for fear of being polluted by her presence. And then of course there was the Lambeth Walk. And, finally, the ongoing effort to replace TEC as the North American Anglican entity. So, in view of all these, riddle me this, Batman:

What incentive did your side ever give the Episcopal Church to continue its adherence to the requested moratorium?

I mean, really. You go all out to tear her apart from within, demonize her and her leadership, replace her in the worldwide communion--and then you're surprised that she doesn't continue in a posture of "gracious restraint" which your "side" has been flouting for the same 6 1/2 years she's been complying. I mean, I know you have a low opinion of TEC, but what adverse consequence do you have in your arsenal that you haven't already launched at TEC? What benefit did TEC receive by holding off for 6 1/2 years? None, and none.
I wouldn't use the Batman reference nowadays, but, frankly, I stand by my point: The Resolution was never received by the Traditionalists of the Anglican Communion, only its condemnation of same-sex relationships. Sections (c), (d), and (f) (which gave rise to the so-called "Listening Process") of the Resolution were simply disregarded, or cavalierly "complied with" in form only. So, for example, The Church of Nigeria's Report on the Listening Process did not reflect the testimony or views of any person but the Archbishop of Nigeria, stating simply:
The Primate of all Nigeria has said “Our argument is that, if homosexuals see themselves as deviants who have gone astray, the Christian spirit would plead for patience and prayers to make room for their repentance. When scripture says something is wrong and some people say that it is right, such people make God a liar. We argue that it is a blatant lie against Almighty God that homosexuality is their God- given urge and inclination. For us, it is better seen as an acquired aberration.”
The rest of the report comprises arguments from Scripture to support this statement--not any evidence of any listening at all--and the "Report" as a whole can be accurately summarized by the old Ring Lardner line, "Shut up, he explained."

In sum, Radner seeks to elevate to canonical status a Resolution that has, for nearly a decade, been rejected by the Churches making up the Anglican Communion, on both sides of the divide. That the Resolution was frail at birth, and died nine years ago, after TEC alone had kept it on life support from 2004-2010, is the one thing the actions of the Churches establishes.

Why on earth would we pay lip service to a dead parrot? It's not pining, it's passed on.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Found Words: Albany Edition

As readers may know, my wife and I bought the home of which I was renting a floor in Albany from the estate of my late landlady--herself an advent feminist, defender of the right of children to be free from abuse, a collector of old Albany stories and memorabilia (I have a beautiful old silver matchbox with the Capitol Building embossed on it that she left behind. We used to compare historical characters--I fed her tales of James Michael Curley, she'd regale me with the legends of Erastus Corning, and of his namesake great-grandson.

She also did stained glass, many of which I have great affection for. And, in her workshop she had some items posted where she alone would see them, and draw inspiration.

Here's one, that she typed out--the paper, once a creamy, heavy bond, now is brittle, crumbling around the edges, and I'm posting it as much so I don't lose it as to share it with you. The lines are blocked as Bernadette typed them:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved
in your heart,
Try to love the questions themselves.

Do not seek he answers,
which cannot be given
because you would not be able
to live them
And the point is,
to live everything.

Live the questions now.
Perhaps you will then,
without noticing it,
Live along some distant day
into the answers.

Rainer Maria Rilke

[The poem is a paragraph from Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, p. 43.]