The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, November 10, 2019

The Problem of Non-Parables: A Sermon on Luke 20: 27-38

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew;s Church, NYC, November 10, 2019]

Sometimes the Gospel readings are so self-evident that it’s almost impossible to miss the point, that the difficulty in writing a sermon on it is not just re-stating the obvious lesson.

Sure, we sometimes want to hide from the implications of those Gospel readings for our own lives, but shutting out the Gospel to maintain our own comfortable existence is a struggle against out desire to not want to know where we are going wrong. Think of Jesus’s telling us that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

That’s hard.

We struggle with it.

And one way of struggling with that is to domesticate it, paper over the chasm between what Jesus teaches us and the lessons of the culture in which we live. Of course, to do that, we have to deceive ourselves as to what Jesus is telling us. Or, as Susan Howatch so memorably paraphrased Jesus, “High and wide is the gate which leads to self-deception and illusion, but for those seeking truth, strait is the gate and narrow the way—and brave is the woman or man who can journey there.” [Glittering Images, 190].

With parables, of course, we have to look for the meaning—C.H. Dodd in the 1930s and Joachim Jeremias in the 1950s and 60s pioneered the art of stripping away the centuries of allegory and theology that well-meaning preachers like me have added to the parables, and tried to recover them as Jesus’s audience would have experienced them and heard them. And then they had to deal with Gospel warnings that the disciples outside the Twelve were told parables so that they could hear, but not understand, and be lost.

And today’s discussion between Jesus and the Saducees has been the source of reams of speculation on the nature of the afterlife, from the Church Fathers to our own day. Will we really be pure souls, loving only God, and no longer those who have enriched our journeys below?

Are we really hoping and aspiring to enter the kind of afterlife that led Mark Twain to recommend heaven for climate, but hell for company?

But, hold on—aren’t we missing something here?

We aren’t dealing with a parable today. No, this is part of a test of Jesus’s acumen.

Specifically, of his legal acumen.

Which means we are, at long last, playing on my home turf.

The legal test comes in two prongs. The first question, posed by the scribes and Pharisees, involves them showing Jesus a coin, and asking if it is lawful to pay the Emperor tax. This question is an effort to put him into a Hobson’s Choice, a question where there is no safe or good answer. It’s as much a test of Jesus’s political savvy as of his legal ability—will he slight the Emperor or the Torah?

Jesus brushes this one away easily. He asks whose name and image is on the coin, and, being told that the name and image are Caesar’s, he simply answers, give to Caesar what is Caesar’s—and to God the things that are God’s.

Now that is a good answer. Succinct and to the point, but, best of all, avoiding the political pitfall of advocating denying the legal authorities their due, without slighting the legal responsibilities under Jewish law. Clever, unanswerable, unassailable. Advantage, Jesus.

The next question, though, is like something out of torts class. A tort is a civil wrong—an accident, or act of negligence that harms someone in their person and their property. And torts professors are famous for their a long, detailed hypothetical stories, in which an improbable series of events are posited to make you question the legal fundamentals.

The classic torts class hypothetical used when I was in law school was based on a real case: Palsgraf v. Long Island Rail Road. So a woman named Helen Palsgraf decided to take her two girls to the beach in 1924. This was her big mistake. While she was waiting to board the Long Island Rail Road train, an earlier train pulls in, and, as she’s waiting, two men start getting on the train. One of them is lugging a package along with the help of sme LIRR employees. They drop the package, it explodes, a piece of shrapnel hit a large coin-operated scale on the platform, which teeters over and hits Mrs. Palsgraf. After this incident she develops a stutter, and sues the LIRR.

So how about it?

Is the LIRR liable?

Or to use an actual Talmudic legal question summarized by Herman Wouk in his Inside, Outside a cow is tethered in a market. It kicks a stone, which flies into a market stall shattering a vase. Is the cow’s owner liable?

By the way, that one is so well known in the Talmud, that it’s just summarized as “Stone in market—so what?”

Here, instead of the ricocheting shrapnel, or the bovine launched rock, we have the legal hypothetical of the perennial widow. Seven bridegrooms for one wife, they all fall down.

So, say these Sadducees, who don’t believe in the Resurrection of the Dead, in the next life, whose wife is she, anyway?

They’re trying, of course, to make the Resurrection look silly, and to make Jesus look silly for defending it. Their regular opponents, the priests and the scribes, can’t be happy—they don’t like Jesus any better than the Sadducees do, but this is not just Jesus under attack, but their own special belief is being made to look ridiculous, along with Jesus.

In other words, unlike a torts hypothetical, it’s not a question posed in good faith to test the limits of doctrine.

So Jesus does what’s called in fencing a “disengage.” That’s when a fencer tries to block her opponent’s sword, and then lunge, but the other fencer—well, the other fencer moves her sword under the first fencer’s sword, and now controls the bout.

Jesus disengages with the question by denying its premise; rather than talk about whose wife she is, he tells us, “those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.”

So, she’s nobody’s wife. Indeed, she “cannot die anymore, because she, [and all they who are resurrected], are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.”

Then Jesus knocks out the Sadducee with a simple appeal to the Torah; the story of the burning bush, where Moses “speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” and adds that “he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

Game, set and match.

It’s a wonderful example of how the itinerant preacher from Nazareth keeps besting the sharpest minds of his own tradition when they try to trip him up.

But is there more to it?

Well, let me suggest two implications of Jesus’s words. First, Jesus tells us straightforwardly that the long-dead patriarchs were alive to God in Moses’s day, and in Jesus’s own day. Jesus teaches us that he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive."

Second, terrible use has been made in Christian teaching of hell, as a place of eternal punishment and suffering. Yet when Jesus speaks to the Sadducee about the resurrection of the dead, he makes very clear that only those who are worthy of resurrection will see it.

How do these two statements match up—how is that all are alive to God, and yet only the worthy will see the resurrection of the dead?

And, I think back of the Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, who reminds us that:
God's grace is not defined as God being forgiving to us even though we sin. Grace is when God is a source of wholeness, which makes up for my failings. My failings hurt me and others and even the planet, and God's grace to me is that my brokenness is not the final word .... Grace is God saying, "I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word.
Or, as she also says, “We’re all sinners, we’re all saints, 100 % of the time.”

In other words, we are here to come to the table of a God who loves us in all our brokenness, who is always working to redeem us. And who is always trying to coax us into playing our own part in the redemptive process—forgiving others as we have been forgiven, and freeing them to go on, doing the same.

Passing the redemptive love around—like we pass around communion bread, but more intentionally. Understanding, as out bishop told us in his address at Diocesan Convention yesterday, that we need to redeem our time, because our time is evil, and the accelerating disdain among our conflicting tribes is bringing that evil into ever greater potency.

When Bishop Dietsche finished his address, I couldn’t help but think of Leonard Cohen’s song, “The Future,” where Cohen tells us us:
You don't know me from the wind/
You never will, you never did
I'm the little Jew/
Who wrote the Bible

I've seen the nations rise and fall
I've heard their stories, heard them all

But love's the only engine
 of survival.
And, in essence, that’s what our bishop told us yesterday, that only reaching out across our divides in love, dropping our hostility, and meeting people where they are, and as who they are, can create the Beloved Community we all yearn to belong to.

To do our part in that cycle of redemption, we have to accept that we are all broken, all sinners, all saints, and that it’s from our brokenness that—to steal another Cohen line—that’s how the light gets in.

And that light is the light of God.

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

Monday, November 4, 2019

Elspeth P. Kitten, a Memorial

"“My heart has joined the Thousand, for my friend stopped running today.” --Richard Adams, Watership Down

The little devils came to my door. I know it sounds like a setup for a joke. But it's true, mind you, and how I became a cat fancier on the epic scale. A group of kittens led by Giles, the Cat Who Came in From the Cold came to my door, and I kept two, and found homes for the rest. But a week or so later, I found two very small kittens outside, on a the stump of a tree. Then my three cats and la Caterina's three (Elspeth, Betty, and Buster) became a pride with mine. Elvis and Giles kept the peace until such time as the cats all saw each others as siblings and friends.

Over the tears, we have lost them, all but one of them, Elspeth P. Kitten. She has been with me nearly 19 years. Nearly 8 years ago, she survived a bout of hepatic lipidosis (la C was excellent at frae-feeding her, and even I could do it, having been her person since kitten hood). She made a full recovery, and resumed her ornery, lovable ways.

In some ways she was always a kitten--she used to curl up against me, jam her tail into her mouth and nurse while kneading me.

Elspeth was our mouser, once excelling herself by launching herself through the air on a moonlit night, and bringing down a bat on the wing--and was widely rumored to be a witch. (Just ask my sister in law!)

You know where this is going; we lost Elspeth today. She'd become a little thin--but not dangerously so. She had trouble with her eye, and her third eyelid, more precisely called her "nictitating membrane." But she seemed, mostly herself. But I was worried, and la C brought her up for a vet visit. I brought her in this afternoon, to the good vets of Sand Creek Animal Hospital and was informed that her third eyelid was inflamed because she couldn't blink. And she couldn't blink because she had a facial nerve paralysis. The result of either a stroke or of a brain tumor.

Once again, I had to say goodbye.

I stayed with her till the end, holding her and petting her. I had been the first person to care for her, and I was the last. La Caterina, who was such a good kitten mama to her, couldn't be with us, and it couldn't wait. So I held my dear friend, that soft, soft fur against my cheek one last time.

Vogue la Galère, lttle Elspeth, cat of magic and mischief. Let your ship sail free.

Friday, November 1, 2019

MASH Revisited: The Matter of Mulcahy

(Not Season 1's Mulcahy)

Many years ago, when I was in high school in the 1980s, the Catholic League riled me. You see, my primary memory of the Catholic League in high school was its consistent denunciations of the television version of MASH, based on its portrayal of Father Mulcahy, the Catholic chaplain of the 4077th MASH unit as "weak" and "indecisive".

As a fan of the show even as a student, this seemed to me an absurd misreading of the character portrayed in the series. And, even though we are only in season 1 in this rewatch--and not even halfway through season 1--I want to challenge that reading of the series. Because I think that the critics were wrong from as early on our rewatch as season 1.

But let's begin where the critics have a point.

In the original film, religion takes something of a beating, including through Robert Duvall's Frank Burns,and (to a lesser extent) Rene Auberjonois's Father Mulcahy. In the film, Mulcahy is affable good natured, but, yes, a little weak, and a little easily imposed on (watch Donald Sutherland fast-talk him into presiding over a "Last Supper" for the suicidal dentist.)

The problem is, none of this really carries over into William Christopher's portrayal of the priest. Take this first shank of Season 1. We have met Father Mulcahy three times: In the pilot, played by George Morgan (the celibate priest wins the trip to Tokyo with Lt. Maria "Dish" Schneider); we see Christopher's Mulcahy in "Requiem for a Lightweight" in which he s sensibly skeptical of Trapper John's winning a fair fight; and we see him in "Cowboy," demonstrating a respect for faiths other than his own.

Let's dwell on it a moment. On seeing that a wounded soldier on the operating table is named "Goldstein," Mulcahy asks "Think he'd mind?"

Now, I had forgotten this moment entirely--I haven't seen the show in 30 years. So I expected Mulcahy to offer a Catholic prayer, almost certainly (for the period) in Latin. Instead, he recites, gently, and with meaning:
Mi Shebeirach avoteinu v’imoteinu,
Avraham, Yitzchak v’Yaakov, Sarah, Rivkah,
Rachel v’Lei-ah, hu y’vareich et hacholim
[names]. HaKadosh Baruch Hu yimalei
rachamim aleihem, l’hachalimam ul’rapotam
ul’hachazikam, v’yishlach lahem m’heirah
r’fuah, r’fuah shleimah min hashamayim,
r’fuat hanefesh ur’fuat haguf, hashta
baagala uviz’man kariv. V’nomar: Amen.
It's a lovely moment, because it's so understated. Mulcahy doesn't just refuse to impose his faith tradition on the wounded Jewish soldier--he knows how to pray for Goldstein in his own tradition. This means Mulcahy cared enough for non-Catholic--indeed, non-Christian wounded, to learn to care for them by having studied and memorized prayers outside his own tradition. In "Cowboy," we see Mulcahy drawing on that preparation, caring for the patient by meeting him where he is--the first rule of good pastoral care, as I was taught in my diaconal training.

Yes, Mulcahy isn't quite the character we'll get to know much better in later seasons. But even now, he is not the easily led figure from the film. He's a wry, ex-CYO boxing coach with enough scholarly chops to have looked beyond his own perspective, and one who knows that he is called to be a chaplain for all, not just his own co-religionists.

Not bad for a first draft.