The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Thursday, December 31, 2020

The End or the Beginning? A Deficit of Optimism

Back in 2016, before things went agley, I postulated that we were, at long last, leaving the shadows of the "Long 1980s" and would see, at long last, what followed them. To say I got that wrong is to put it mildly. Instead, we have lived (at the federal level) through a comic book version of 80s kitsch, disassociated from the problems actually facing the nation and its people. The coronavirus has killed over 330,000 Americans since March, and, well, here we are. Elizabeth Sandifer put it well:
The key thing to know here is that there exists a model of spiritual enlightenment in which enlightenment is a horrifying and bleak thing. The adjective I'm going to use for this sort of enlightenment - Qlippothic - is important. Basically, it suggests that there is a form of enlightenment that can be found by encountering and contemplating the darkest parts of humanity. The Qlippoth refer to the hollowed out, vacant, and rotted shells of spiritual concepts. And the whole radical idea of Kenneth Grant is that there's not actually a difference between those, which are basically the horrible nightmares within humanity, and actual enlightenment.
That's a pretty spot-on depiction of 2020 as of this last day of the year; the Senate holding up more than token relief payments, a soft coup attempt picking up steam, one that will fail, but will further divide a polarized populace, as we retreat to our corners until-- What? I wish I could offer some inspiring, inspiriting words this morning. But I'd be faking it. Don't get me wrong; We the People have elected a good, decent man and a strong, determined woman who will together try to bind up the wounds of division. As in the film, after the mourning comes the morning, letting the sunshine in. Let us hope, dafka--despite all the bitterness, loss, and hatred--that the next Act of the drama will take us beyond these futile worn-out arguments and measures, and that we have at least one more second Act after all.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

The Hero's Welcome

US Supreme Court Justice William Brennan - 1976 official portrait.jpg
By Robert S. Oakes - Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. DIGITAL ID: <a rel="nofollow" class="external text" href="">cph 3b07877</a>, Public Domain, Link

Aye, the hour grows late, and we've time fair nay mair tales...what's that? I promised one? Aye, so I did. The year was 1987, and Uncle John was a law student, at Columbia Law School, a lowly first year student at the time. The Law School was convening a celebration of the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution, and then-Chief Justice Rehnquist was there, but he was not the focus of the event. No, CLS had decided to honor the contribution to constitutional law of Associate Justice, William J. Brennan. The event was divided, like Gallia, into three parts. First, a relatively brief gathering, open to all, where Dean Black, Rehnquist (and, if I remember aright, Justice Thurgood Marshall) spoke about Brennan, and his jurisprudence. Brennan himself said a few words, and the event recessed. The second part was a formal dinner, the tickets for which were prohibitively expensive. When I told my then-significant other, Holly, about it, she was fiercely determined we should attend. She insisted on buying the tickets (she was working, I was not; at the time CLS discouraged first years from working during term.) When we bought the tickets, the woman behind the counter raised an eyebrow that we should be attending. It was a very generous gift on her part, and we went in our best. True fact: As far as I could tell, I was the only student there except for one 2L I recognized who was working the event as a waiter. Another True Fact (tm): Other than my professors, most of whom were socializing with each other, the judges and scholars from other places who were gathered,I didn't know any of the people there. I was seated--as happened several times in my first year--next to Visiting Professor Arthur Chaskalson, an anti-apartheid lawyer from South Africa, (praise to Jack Greenberg for inviting him!) who was one of the bravest people I've ever met, and was courtly and gracious as always (he had to be sick of me turning u at all these dinners, and invariably being his companion, but he never showed it.) As Arthur (what? He told me to call him Arthur. He was a mensch, ok?) was caught up in the social whirl. Holly and I were pretty much deserted, until my Torts professor, Kendall Thomas, came over to keep us company a bit. Always one to look after the underdog, and for this one night I was that, Professor Thomas visited with us a bit, made Holly laugh, and went on his way. Dinner ensued, and then--well, this: The desserts and liqueurs were wheeled out, and the large cluster of academics, judges and Illustrious Alumni and Visitors swooped down on them with a remorseless efficiency. Justice Brennan stood all alone, for just a moment. Holly, God bless her, pushed me in the lower back, and hissed "Go SAY something to him." So I did. I have no idea what undergraduate gabble I spewed, but he took my hand, and as I was about to stagger off, having failed to communicate to this great man in my chosen profession, he wouldn't let me go. He insisted on talking to me, and asked me questions about what I hoped to do and be. Somehow he closed the gap of age and eminence, and I relaxed, and it was a lovely conversation. He caught eye of Holly, who was a very pretty woman, and beckoned her over. And he charmed us both. Not with facile charm, but by being interested in us as people. He teased us--"you're headed to Legal Aid," he said to me (and years later Vivian Bergerwould make that happen), and he praised Holly's acting ambitions, and brilliance was in the air. We left, awed, but warmed and excited about the potential in our young lives. After graduation, when I published my first law review article, on the First Amendment, the subject on which the now-retired Justice was the greatest living expert, I sent him an offprint, thanking him for his kindness that night. To my shock, I received a reply--Justice Brennan thanked me for the article, saying he was sure he would read it "with pleasure and profit" and thanking me for thinking of him. His signature was spidery but clear. I framed that letter, and it hangs in my office to this day. One is not often blessed by one's heroes.

Monday, August 10, 2020

What They Did in the Shadows: Dark Shadows, The Beginning: Episodes 1-5

By Uploaded by TheCustomOfLife; from World of Soap Themes (Webmaster: Brian Puckett)., Fair use, Link

Before the pandemic, I had a minor surgery, but one that laid me up for a month, to my astonishment. Confined to laying on my side, I couldn't easily read and so I was stick with the pleasures of streaming video, which led me to the old Gothic soap opera, Dark Shadows. I watched it throughout my recovery, and, outsode of work hours, followed it through the next few months. Then, I was lured by Amazon into buying the complete series on DVD. Yes, the infamous "Coffin Set." Now, this may seem daft, but that's just because it is. But when the series came, I fired up the first episode, to see the new introduction by Alexandra Moltke, and to test the quality of my purchase. In doing so, I found that the quality was very high, and found myself drawn into theses first episodes all over again. So a few thoughts. First, the series uses its paltry budget extremely well; the main Collinwood sets are handsome and convincing, and the stratgic use of location filming at Seaview Terrace in these first epsiodes really cements Collinwood in the viewer's mind--it's as much a presence as is Shirley Jackson's Hill House. It also looks lived in, a place that has been inhabited for centuries in a way that the locales for the 1991 revival and the 1970 film House of Dark Shadows don't measure up to, beautiful as they are. The first episode introduces Victoria Winters, a foundling seeking her identity, traveling to Collinsport Maine to take a job with the Collins family as a companion/governess. A fellow traveler on the train from New York, Burke Devlin (Mitchell Ryan who gives her a ride in his chauffered car to the hotel where she can get a taxi. We also meet Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott), the tough-talking hardboiled blonde, Eve Arden-type waitress at the coffee shop. She's kind to Victoria, still waiting for her taxi,but urges her to get back to NY. The episode ends with Victoria's arrival at Collinwood, and Elizabeth letting her in. In the second episode, we meet Elizabeth's daughter, Carolyn (Nancy Barrett) who humiliates her nice guy boyfriend Joe Haskell (Joel Crothers) to dance with the local skels (to use NYC-talk). Carolyn is presented as seeking distraction, recklessly dancing with anyone, until Joe throws a punch, and Devlin orders him to take her home. Devlin tries to use their spat as a chance to bribe Joe to spy on the Collins family for him. Joe demurs. Episodes 3 and 4 focus on the rest of this night, especially Roger's increasingly edgy efforts to pump Victoria for information regarding Burke Devlin. He's hiding his terror of the man well, but it's costing him. He vacillates between charm and panicked frustration. Edmonds is awfully good. As is Bennett, quietly playing the piano in the gloomy sitting room, her head quietly drooping as the notes fade. When we first see Victoria and Elizabeth togther, the similarity is striking--Victoria's hunt for her identity, and the fact that the checks that paid the Foundling Home in which she was raised are postmarked from only 50 miles away from Collinsport raises the thought that they are mother and daughter. (We so often think of Victoria as a governess that we forget that her time with Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (a regal Joan Bennett) is as much a part of her job as educating the appalling brat David. (Roger Collins has his issues, but his snide exhortations to Victoria to "give him a good kick" have considerable justification (albeit not good child-rearing even in 1966). Despite David's nasty efforts to scare her off (much smaller, and thus more credible, than the Grand Guignol he attempts in the revival or HODS) Roger's apology, Carolyn's friendship, and Elizabeth's quiet need, plus her own desire to know, impel her to stay. The show is an extraordinary achievement thus far, and in this slowly unfolding plot the actors have a chance to make their marks. The core cast is extremely good--Bennett brings all her years of film acting to the small scree, Edmonds is a superb general utility player, finding character notes and comic moments in the blandest lines, and Barrett makes a strong impression. Moltke is more gentle, more tentative--with a strong backbone when challenged.

Coming Home

It has been a long fallow period in the world, and on this blog. Not so in life--work continues, co-writing with a good friend a project regarding Anthony Trollpe (more to come!), and other events have made the plague time pass. But yesterday, fter six months away (one and a half due to healing from an operation, the rest due to the Coronavirus), I returned home to St. Bartholomew's Church, whre I have been a regular attendee since 2007 (occasional attendee even earler--mid 1990s), where I became an acolyte, from where my wife and I were married, where I discerned a call to the vocational diaconate, and where I returned as deacon in 2014, and have served since. In the video above, the Church is mostly empty. The Rev. Susan Anderson-Smith and teh Rev. Deborah Lee preside and preach respectively, and I have the honor, forthe first time since early in this bizarre, calmitous year, of reading the lessons, leading the psalm, proclaining the Gospel, and dismissing the people. Fittingly enough, the prescribed dismissal was that used by J.D. Clarke, my beloved predecessor and mentor as St. Barts's deacon: "Let go into the World, rejoicing in the Power of the Spirit!" After a long adventitious exile, I had come home. And tonight, I remember the beautiful words of Be Jonson's "A Farewell to the World": But what we're born for, we must bear: Our frail condition it is such That what to all may happen here, If 't chance to me, I must not grutch. Else I my state should much mistake To harbour a divided thought From all my kind—that, for my sake, There should a miracle be wrought. No, I do know that I was born To age, misfortune, sickness, grief: But I will bear these with that scorn As shall not need thy false relief. Nor for my peace will I go far, As wanderers do, that still do roam; But make my strengths, such as they are, Here in my bosom, and at home.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Where’s The Override?

The classic moment In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan where Khan, flustered as his commandeered ship’s shields are dropping, looks helplessly around the unfamiliar console asking “Where’s the override? The override?!”is a meme at Anglocat Central. Where la Caterina is very keyed in to physical reality, a crowded field of vision bewilders me, and I can (or should I say “Khan”) unconsciously reproduce that sequence in real time while the object I seek is literally right in front of me.

This came to my mind this morning when I was seeking the smaller baking sheet to heat up a frozen breakfast. It took me 10 minutes to see the bloody thing, and it’s a weird experience when I finally can lock on to it.

I dont know if this is just some weird fluke of my own mind, or if others can, in this one aspect at least spare a drop of sympathy for the beleaguered Khan Noonien Singh (C’mon, I grew up on Trek. Of course I know his full name.)

But I can.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Thoughts from the Plague Year: A Good Friday Meditation on Mark 15:33-37

[Delivered in Video Format at St. Bartholomew’s Church, April 10, 2020]

Author’s Note: The video at the link and text below were created as part the annual Seven Last Words service at St. Bartholomew’s Church. Because of the need for social distancing in what Daniel Defoe would call this “Plague Year”, the service was streamed and recorded on video at the link. I commend the words, prayers and music created by my friends and colleagues at my beloved St. Barts to your attention. This little reflection is only a small piece of a mosaic created by the people of the parish in what very well may prove to be our Finest Hour—separated physically, but united in love and prayer for the people of God and the World.


The last time I drove from our apartment in Brooklyn back to Albany was only a few weeks ago. I couldn’t help notice how empty the City’s streets were. The BQE, which is always choked with traffic was wide open. No traffic in Queens of the Bronx. The silence, the lack of people in every neighborhood I drove through, were eerie.
It was an arrest of life, to steal a phrase from C.P. Snow’s 1970 novel Last Things.
Our Diocese, like many others, of all denominations, has eliminated in-person group worship services, livestreaming services to feed the spiritual needs of the people of God in a time of famine. Our bishops have announced that, as long as the people of God cannot receive the Eucharist, they will fast from it, in solidarity with us.
After months of false optimism, the White House has accepted the necessity of social distancing, school closure, and staying at home. Even with those measures, the coronavirus task force “predict[s] a best case scenario of 100,000 to 240,000 fatalities in the United States.”
That’s their best case scenario, though there is some dispute about the numbers.
The emptiness of the streets, the closing of theaters, restaurants and bars, the lack of human contact are the markers of that arrest of life. A life on pause, waiting to see what happens next.
In my lifetime, our nation has been brash, sure of itself, and increasingly hubristic. Since the end of the war in Viet Nam, the fall of then-President Richard Nixon, and the end of the “malaise” described by then-President Jimmy Carter, we have seen American exceptionalism become an article of faith, one nobody could question. The last superpower.
Today, like every other nation on this small blue globe circling an indifferent Sun, we wait. We wait for the “all clear” sign, or for the descent into something worse. We wait for symptoms to manifest in ourselves, or in those we love. We watch and we wait.
For the first time in my life, America is afraid.
We weren’t after 9-11. We were angry, we were hurt, but our City was NOT afraid after the Towers fell, and the Nation as a whole didn’t quail.
But in this time of fear, those of us who have no active role can be tempted to despair—to glibly invoke Stephen King’s pandemic novel The Stand, or The Walking Dead, and to think of this virus as a\the scourge of an angry, Jonathan Edwards version of God punishing His people.
We are hard-wired to feel fear; it can be, as Steven Moffat has written, a “superpower”—as Moffat wrote, “So much blood and oxygen pumping though your brain, it’s like rocket fuel. Right now, you can run faster and you can fight harder, you can jump higher than ever in your life. And you are so alert, it’s like you can slow down time.”
But that superpower is a liability when there is nothing tangible to grapple with. We are trapped with our fear, and it can lead to despair.
Jesus said to his disciples, over and over, Be. Not. Afraid.
And He knew despair.
As death came for Him, he cried out, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
What a desolating fall from the spontaneous pomp and pageantry of Palm Sunday.
Of course, Jesus had warned the disciples that he would be put to death, but this cry of abandonment, of despair, coming from Jesus after His courage throughout His long ordeal is especially heart wrenching.
There are some who try to take some of the harsh edge off this moment. Professor Michael Guinan, of the Fransiscan School of Theology in Berkeley points these words come from Psalm 22—they are the very first words of the psalm, and, although the psalm may begin with a cry of despair, it ends with praise and thanksgiving. The psalm is, ultimately, “the prayer of a just one who suffers innocently, of one who is surrounded by enemies and mocked precisely because of his fidelity to God. When God hears []his cry and delivers [him] , the just one offers praise and thanksgiving.” For Guinan, “these are not words of despair but an expression of faith.”
But the knowledge that he would put to death wouldn’t necessarily protect Jesus from the horror of actually going through the ordeal that culminated in his death. Betrayed, by his own disciples, arrested on false charges, denounced by his own people and handed over to the Roman occupiers.
Crucifixion was a protracted death, one that was meant to break the spirit of the condemned and terrify the rest of the populace into submission to the unquestioned might of Rome. It’s a lower class version of the Roman practice of the damnatio memoriae, which eliminates every trace of the discredited victim’s accomplishments and life.
All of the humiliations inflicted on Jesus at each step of the way are meant to deprive him of his dignity, reduce him from the charismatic teacher and prophet who rode into Jerusalem a scant five days before to a pariah. An outcast. By destroying the condemned man’s honor, the degradation ritual which ends with his death as a public spectacle doesn’t just destroy the body of the man—it is intended to erase Him as ever having been a member of the community, and to erase His impact on the lives of all who saw Him.
And through it all, Jesus maintained a stoical front. His words are laced with the comfort he provided to those he loved—his mother, and St. John, the beloved disciple who becomes her son. Even the repentant thief, a complete stranger, finds comfort in Jesus’s promise that they would be together in Paradise that very day.
That Jesus, like any person, would shrink from the physical horror of death we all fear doesn’t make this cry an act of despair. But his quoting Psalm 22 isn’t serene. It isn’t a final scoring of an academic point on a debate. Jesus is, as Guinan says, making a statement, but not an academic one.
Herman Wouk in his novel War and Remembrance explains the Yiddish word “dafka” as meaning “perversely, ironically, despite everything.” It carries a wry bit of humor whenever it is used. And that’s how it seems to me Jesus is invoking Psalm 22. He cries out the opening line, articulating the agony of abandonment, implying the rest of the psalm—the Lord’s rescue of the just man, the reinstatement of all that has been lost, and, ultimately, the reconciliation of a fractured sin-stained world.
Jesus believes, dafka,that all this will happen, that he will be restored, despite all the evidence of his senses. Far from being the obliterated, His name will live on, and His legacy will be a movement that stands against the brutal strength of Rome, and for the reconciliation of all humanity. The reign of love—God’s love—will prevail, and the gates of hell itself will not prevail against it.
We believe, dafka, that all this is true, more true than the news on television that can be so wearying and depressing. You all believe it, or you wouldn’t be spending three hours with us today, mourning the death of an itinerant Jewish preacher two thousand years ago, and, even in our mourning celebrating dafka the transforming power of love to convert our hearts, and the hearts of those who we hate, and who hate us.
Albert Einstein said that in the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity. Here in our fractured nation, can we really continue viewing our fellow Americans, our sisters and brothers who are as weighted down by this crisis as we are, as enemies? New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, in his daily press conferences on March 31, 2020, rejected the idea, saying “There are no red states, there are no blue states. The virus doesn’t attack and kill red Americans or blue Americans, it kills all Americans,” and added “Keep that in mind.”
Keep that in mind. We are all equally vulnerable, all fearfully looking to our loved ones, hoping that they will not get sick, or if they do, that they will be part of the 80% who recover. The “Other” we dislike or even hate—well, they’re in the same boat with us. And so our belief in love, the only engine of survival, is no longer a belief we cling to, dafka, but a necessity. We need the Other; the Other needs us. Because at the end of things, we are the squabbling, annoying family of humanity, not different tribes. And in this moment, when we are all winded and bruising and vulnerable, we can see in the weary humanity of those whom we have struggled maybe too fiercely, too sure of our own righteousness, we can see not a stranger, but a brother. A sister, a mother, a father, an aunt, an uncle.
And come together, as all families do, in times of trouble, and learn to love one another all over again.
In the Name of God, Father Son, and Holy Spirit.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

A Faint-Hearted Universalist’s View

I recently received a splendid comment from a reader, who asked me a very knotty question indeed. So of course your Anglocat, merrily rushing in where angels fear to tread, finds himself treading some fairly deep theological waters. Here is the essence of the question: Describing (fairly) my views on the afterlife as “universalist”, how do I reconcile these views with the fact that the majority of church teaching has not held to this position.

I know, bit of a yorker, right?

I am a universalist, but in (to steal a phrase from constitutional law), a faint-hearted one. That is to say, my belief in the Grace and mercy of God outweighs my knowledge of the sinfulness not just of the world, but of myself. I believe in the forgiveness of God because I need God’s mercy, and because the nature of God offers love and deep compassion. That is not to say that I don’t believe that sin harms us; it clearly does, and it hurts the soul. I just don’t believe that God ever gives up on us.

So here’s my response, lightly edited, as Lent slowly draws toward a close, and Holy Week approaches:

Before I give my own thoughts, let me refer you to two of my favorite theologians: C.S. Lewis, and specifically his book The Great Divorce, which addresses this very topic (as does his more famous The Screwtape Letters, hinting that God bends the rules for us). Lewis's point boils down to the contention that we can reject God’s love, and refuse to enter into joy; God will not force us into relationship with Him. (The book suggests that the door from Hell to Heaven is always ajar, but it is well worth a read.)

It occurs to me that Christopher Marlowe in his The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus is heading in the same direction when he has Mephistopheles, on Earth, say that: “Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it./Think'st thou that I, who saw the face of God/And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,/Am not tormented with ten thousand hells/In being deprived of everlasting bliss?” In other words, Hell is a state of mind, not a place.

The second is Nadia Bolz-Weber, in her book Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint, describing Grace: “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 ... it's that God makes beautiful things out of even my own shit. Grace isn't about God creating humans and flawed beings and then acting all hurt when we inevitably fail and then stepping in like the hero to grant us grace - like saying, ‘Oh, it's OK, I'll be the good guy and forgive you.’ It's God saying, ‘I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word. I am a God who makes all things new.’” For Bolz-Weber, we are all sinners and all saints, and both at the same time.

So now my own thoughts, understanding that I fully agree with Lewis and Bolz-Weber. The first response I’d make is to refer you to the Gospels: Matthew 7:11 (“If ye, then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?”). See Luke 11:13 for the parallel passage. Also, John 3:16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

These passages are a reminder to me of two things: First, that God’s mercy is far greater than that of humanity. Second, that God loves everything He has created, and longs to put things right between sinful humanity and Himself. The first point, the mercy of God excelling ours, is important because in every criminal justice system, there is a concept of proportionality, that means that, for any crime, however horrific, there comes a point where the punishment outweighs the crime, and becomes itself unjust. God’s Justice is not that—think of the parable of the workers in the vineyard, where the early morning workers are paid the same as those who only work an hour. That’s mercy to the latecomers, but not injustice to the earlier arrived workers. (Matt. 20: 1-16).

If Hell is in fact a state of mind, and not a place, it is self-inflicted by our inability to accept Grace. Lewis’s suggestion that the opportunity to accept Grace doesn’t end with death is hopeful, but not, of course, verifiable. But I cannot accept that the God who calls us ever hardens His heart against us.

As to traditional readings of Hell and damnation, I think we, as did our ancestors, sometimes look for what lawyers call “bright lines,” rules that are clear and unbending, guaranteeing clarity of outcomes. Life isn’t that way, in my 54 years on this planet, and I suspect that Jesus Christ wasn’t laying down inflexible rules, but speaking fortissimo to His followers to help them reevaluate their own lives and beliefs.

I hope you find this helpful and really do read Lewis and Bolz-Weber, who are each far more eloquent and learned than am I.

Peace and welcome.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Context is Everything: A Lesson from “Dark Shadows”

I have been out of work for two weeks after a minor surgery (still recovering, but on the mend), and have been forced for most of that time to lie on my side. So I’ve been binge-watching the old Gothic oater “Dark Shadows” from the beginning (thanks, Amazon Prime!)

Here’s the lesson: Context is everything.

When I was a kid, and watched it in reruns after school, they started with Willie Loomis’s discovery of the vampire Barnabas Collins, who pretty savagely turns him into his Renfield. From that beginning, you kind of pity Loomis.

Watching it with all the episodes leading up to the discovery, in which we see Loomis as a violent thug, who tries to sexually assault (in order) Maggie Evans, Victoria Winters (twice), and Carolyn Stoddard (three times), well, not so much.

After watching those episodes, when Willie opens the vault, I can only say, sucks to be you, vamp chow.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

“The Old Order Changeth:” A Sermon on Luke 2: 22-40

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church, February 2, 2020]

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

Today’s gospel reading—as well as the reading from Malachi—have a wintry feel to them. They seem designed for a dark night, a cold night. You might expect the presentation of our Lord at the Temple—the ritual purification of the child Jesus and his acceptance as a member of the people of Israel—to be a joyous event. And, in a way, it is. But there are undercurrents throughout the story that hint at a tragic dimension to the occasion.

In Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s, finale to his epic poem cycle “The Idylls of the King,” the last poem is titled, simply, “The Passing of Arthur.” In that poem, Sir Bedivere brings the dying king to the river, and places him in a barge in which four Queens sit, ready to take Arthur to Avilon for healing. And, seeing his king resting in the boat, Bedivere comes to a realization: It’s over. The story in which Bedivere was a character has ended. He exclaims “For now I see the true old times are dead/… Such times have been not since the light that led
The holy Elders with the gift of myrrh.” And now, Sir Bedivere, the last survivor, must “go forth companionless,
And the days darken round me, and the years,
Among new men, strange faces, other minds."

Arthur’s answer brings Bedivere no comfort. He simply replies, “The old order changeth, yielding place to new.”

And that is what is happening in the Temple. Jesus’s presentation is the culmination of Simeon’s life—and the end of it. The righteous and devout old man had learned from the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. But now that the day has come, the old servant of the Lord knows that his time has ended—he has been dismissed in peace, and his part in the story of God and the people of God is almost at an end.

But first he has some news to deliver. That Jesus is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” So far, so good, but then he adds to Mary that “a sword will pierce your own soul too.” The uncomprehending parents are amazed. Even more when the prophet Anna approaches and begins to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

The news is profoundly mixed, that it is hard to imagine how Joseph and Mary could respond to it. Joseph can’t help but be aware that his own presence in the crowning moments of the story is not alluded to—this good, gentle man who was willing to spare Mary shame and disgrace even before the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream—well, indications are that he won’t see the redemption of Israel through the child who is, by his mercy—and yes, his obedience to God’s call, his son at least in the eyes of the Lord.

Joseph knows only that the story will go on, and that, like Simeon himself, that he has played his part thus far.

But Mary—Mary is promised nothing but that a “sword will pierce her soul too.”

We know, because we know how the story turns out, that the sword will not be literal; it will be the mother’s agony of seeing her beloved son rise to great heights, only to be disgraced and executed by the tortuous methods of the Roman Empire, a death reserved only for rebels and traitors.

What are the parents to make of this prophecy, glorious and dire, terrifying and yet hopeful, culminating in the redemption of Israel?

So we look to the reading from Malachi for comfort, or at least illumination.

We do not get comfort. But possibly some light.

The unknown prophet named by tradition as Malachi starts off on a joyful note--the Lord whom we seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom we delight—he is coming. But then the prophet asks us, darkly, “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?”

He tells us that the Lord will refine us like silver—which involves a lot of fire—and the experience will be like cleansing garments with fuller’s soap. Now, fuller's soap is not Ivory Snow, or some nice gentle cleanser that softens your hands while you do the dishes. It’s made of alkali, urine and chalk. It’s like taking a bath in bleach, only it smells worse. A lot worse.

What on earth is going on with these readings? How can the day of the Lord be joyous, if we must ask if we can stand in it? How can the redemption of Israel be welcomed if it comes with so much loss?

What does it mean to welcome the new if we are of the old order?
Susan Howatch in her final Starbridge novel, Absolute Truths depicts an aging bishop, Charles Ashworth, recently widowed, who sees himself, as, in his own words, “living out those terrifying lines from Tennyson, “the old order changeth, yielding place to new.”

His own son, also a priest in the Church of England, dances with the lovely young daughter of a colleague, while the father grieves his losses, the passing away of the comfortable, secure world in which he flourished.

And he nearly loses himself his disdain for the cheap, vulgar, flashy era in which he is condemned to live, a traditionalist bishop in a radical time, a staunch believer in an age in which the absolute truths by which he has always set such store are rejected by the culture around him, and the church itself seems increasingly less relevant and less able to communicate to a people that horde, and sleep and feed, and know not me, as Tennyson writes in “Ulysses.”

And then, young Rachel breaks away from Ashworth’s son, and holds out her hands to the bishop, inviting him to dance. He accepts Rachel’s invitation, and, as they waltz, he recognizes the generosity, the kindness of the younger set—Charley happily admiring his father’s dancing skill, and Rachel reaching out to the formidable old bishop whose bereavement is common knowledge. As Ashworth, our narrator tells us, “I danced, and I danced, and I danced”—all the while grieving for that precious old order, but also realizing that if the new order can reach out in sympathetic love to the old, than the old order, in yielding place to new, must do so in love—with grace if it can mange it.

Historians have written of decades that throw a shadow into the decades that follow them—the “long 1960s”, which continued into the 1970s.

And now we are living in what they are beginning to call the “Long 1980s.” Not the real 1980s, you understand, but a sclerotic as-remembered version of them, with macho preening, culture wars, and a divide between left and right, city and rural, that seems to go on and on, with ferocious heat, but oh, so very little light.

We keep fighting, over and over, the battles of yesteryear, trying to ignore the fraying of our national fabric, and the threats of the 2020s that are, increasingly looming over us—the catastrophic harms threatened by climate change will not be put off by rallies and slogans, as we waste what time there is left to mitigate the harm.

But nothing lasts forever. Somewhere under the ice, whether for weal or woe, is stirring a new Era to replace the long 1980s.

And, eventually, the ice will crack, and the new era will come.

The old order changeth, yielding to new.

That change won’t be easy. Like Sir Bedivere, we look for safe ground on which to stand, and find none. Change can be painful—it can be like the refining of silver, like being washed in fullers soap.

The comfortable world of consensus that I can remember as a young man was only comfortable because it excluded voices who questioned injustices and inequities that papered over divides. The structures and social codes that many of us assume as a given are being tested and failing. Much that we are used to will be lost, or altered out of recognition. Much needs to be, as we are seeing the trust in the legitimacy of our national political branches erode ever further.

What will never change, what will never alter, is this: Jesus’s message that only by reaching out in love, however hard that is to live up to, is how we break the logjam. Reaching out in love doesn’t mean we don’t feel anger, or that we just surrender to those whose vision of the world appalls us. It means that we remember their humanity. That they are as much the beloved children of God as we are. That, like us, they are 100 % sinner and 100% saint. Because love is not an emotion; it’s a promise.

How do we stand up to the day of the Lord?


Don’t ever give up on love.

Because, as I’ve told you before, hate is always foolish, but love, love is always wise.

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

Sunday, January 19, 2020

What Will Become of His Dreams? A Sermon for the Feast Day of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew's Church, NYC]

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

We don’t often use the term “saint” in the Episcopal Church; we are, after all, the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States, not the Roman Catholic Church. But the term “saint” is used often by St. Paul, and is used to describe all followers of Jesus Christ. All of us. Our Lutheran brothers and sisters still use the term in this way.

But we tend to reserve it, in the old Catholic meaning, for followers of Jesus Christ who have demonstrated heroic virtue in the living of their lives in Christ.

Today we honor the life of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King. And I don’t think we will go far wrong if we think of him as St. Martin, in either definition.

You have to remember what a young man he was. Thirty-nine, when he was gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had gone to support African American sanitary public works employees, members of AFSCME Local 1733.


St. Martin was only six years older than Jesus was when the Romans executed him as a troublemaker. In Dr. King’s last speech, on April 3, 1968, he talked about the bomb threats and other threats that had been made on his life. He said:
We've got some difficult days ahead, but that it didn’t matter with [him] now. Because [he’d] been to the mountaintop. . . Like anybody, he said, he would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But [he wasn’t] concerned about that now. [he] just want[ed] to do God's will. And, St. Martin said, [God allowed him ] to go up to the mountain. And that [he had ] looked over. And …seen the promised land. He warned that he may not get there with [us], [and added that he wanted] those with him that night, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So he was happy that last night, not worried about anything. He affirmed that he was not fearing any man. And ended, quoting, that Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
The next day, April 4, 1968, James Earl Ray, shot him dead. According to his biographer, Taylor Branch, the autopsy revealed that Dr. King had the heart of a 60 year old. Branch suggests that the stress of his 13 years leading the civil rights movement accounted for the condition of his heart.

They were perilous years, years in which he was arrested twenty-nine times, confronted by angry and often violent white supremacists. Spied on by the FBI, targeted by its all-powerful Director, J. Edgar Hoover, who hoped to strip away his legitimacy by probing into his personal life. Branch’s three volume biography, America in the King Years, portrays King in his times, and captures in a way no short list of dangers faced, of successful protests, of standing up for equality, can

They couldn’t intimidate him, or silence him, or coopt him. But they were wearing him, and that great heart, out.

I can’t help but think of Byron’s lines:

For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.

But despite the wear, Dr. King kept on keeping on.

Until the bullets found him.

Like Joseph’s brothers in today’s reading from Genesis, his brothers—his “sick white brothers” heard their brother Martin’s dream, and decided to kill him. “Here comes this dreamer,” they said, “come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. . . and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”

They thought that by killing the man, they could kill the dream.

They were wrong.

The dreamer had caught the soul of the Nation, had stirred what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our natures,” and a Nation felt a stirring of shame.

Dr. King’s campaigns were permeated by the teachings of Jesus. His strategy of non-violent protest was sparked by Ghandi’s, but in fact was centered on the Gospel. You can hear it in Jesus’s words in today’s Gospel reading: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. . . . Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was committed to the teachings of Jesus Christ, and under Dr. King’s leadership pursued justice, peace, and love.

That’s why, despite all the hostility and violence he faced—even in Harlem, he was stabbed in the chest with a letter opener by a woman and was hospitalized for weeks—he could, on that last day in Memphis, sincerely refer to those who were threatening his life as his “sick white brothers.” Just as Joseph never stopped loving his brothers despite their betrayal of him, Dr. King never gave up on love. Like Moses, he didn’t get to the promised land, but he got to the mountaintop.

I’ll be 54 this year, which means I only lived in a world with Dr. King for two years. He will have been gone for 52 years in April.

“We shall see what will become of his dreams.”

That dreamer, America’s own Joseph, African-Americans’ Moses, was one of those who brought about a wholesale change in this country, still trying to shed the evils of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation. Not alone—and he’d be the first to agree—but with his colleagues in the SCLC, brave individuals like Rosa Parks, courtroom warriors like Thurgood Marshall—we began as a Nation to slowly, partially, start trying to do better.

Far from unanimously—massive resistance to the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v Board of Education declaring segregation in public schools unconstitutional continued well into the 1980s, and sometimes still flares up. Even here in New York City, we have heavily segregated schools and massive disparities between resources for schools. Only now, two decades into the Twenty-first Century, are we in New York beginning to try to effectively grapple with these problems by making school funding uniform throughout the State and by eliminating programs that tend to exclude African American and Hispanic students.

Labor rights in New York State have been extended to farmworkers, predominantly people of color, for the first time. Those rights were extended to most other employees in 1937.

But if New York is straggling, but trying to change, much of the country is falling back into the bad old ways.

Since the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder[1], which gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Court has turned a blind eye to the 14th and 15th Amendment’s guarantees of racial equality and of equal voting. The Court upheld gerrymandering and allowed states to pass laws aimed at making voting harder, especially in African American districts.

According to a 2018 report of the United States Commission on Civil Rights—an independent panel made up of Democrats, Republicans, and independents—“at least 23 states have enacted newly restrictive statewide voter laws" since the Shelby County v. Holder decision, with moves like closing polling places, cutting early voting, purging voter rolls and imposing voter ID laws.[2]

Things have not improved since.

What has become of his dreams, indeed?

I’ve often preached of the polarization and the division that are tearing our body politic, but is It’s a mistake to view our own St. Martin—as someone who stood for unity above all else. In his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he wrote that:
[he had] almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season.” [3]
Nearly three years ago, Bishop Dietsche reminded us that “we have been given two parallel charges by which to make our Christian witness: On the one hand, to never flag in our advocacy for the little ones of God, to make no peace with injustice, and to never fail to face down the unjust policy of uncaring power, and on the other hand to cultivate by the Spirit within us a more expansive generosity toward those whose convictions we hold reprehensible than we ever imagined ourselves capable.[4]

He also reminded us that it can be done, and it has been done. He quoted St. Martin, who “was that generous.” Who “after the beatings and firehoses and spitting and humiliations and martyrdoms, and just one year after Bloody Sunday, preached from [our cathedral pulpit] and said to the Diocese of New York, “Love is the greatest of all the virtues. This is the meaning of the cross, . . . It is an eternal reminder of the power of love over hate.”[4]

He never gave up, did St. Martin. And neither can we. I know, it’s winter, you’re cold, the division and anger have been going on too long.
And the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.
But not today.

And not tomorrow.

Not until we can look ourselves in the mirror, meet our reflected eyes, and say that we have not flagged in our advocacy for the little ones of God, have not made peace with injustice, and have done it all in the spirit of love, for friend and adversary alike.

Not til we have made it to our own mountaintop, and seen the Promised Land.

In the Name of God, Creator Redeemer, Sustainer.

[1] 570 U.S. 529 (2013).
[2]U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, An Assessment of Minority Voting Rights Access in the United States (2018), (visited on January 18, 2020).
[3] M. L. King, “A Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” April 16, 1963, archived at (visited on January 18, 2010).
[5] “Bishop Dietsche’s Holy Tuesday Sermon,” April 11, 2017, archived at (visited January 18, 2019).