Friday, December 24, 2021
“What Right Have You To Be Merry?”: A Sermon on Luke 2: 1-20 Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church, NYC, December 24, 2021
What Right Have We to be Merry?; A Sermon on Luke 2: 1-20 St. Bartholomew’s Church, December 24, 2021 What right have you to be merry? What reason have you to be merry? So asked Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, 178 years ago tonight, and maybe, just maybe, it’s about time we took that question seriously. After all, the story was published in 1843, and we’ve pretty much just assumed that it was bad-tempered spite on the part of old Ebenezer to ask it. And maybe that’s true. He is, after all, the villain of the story as well as its protagonist, and his salvation requires some pretty heavy lifting on the part of the three spirits of Christmas. On the other hand, villains often are the dark mirrors of ourselves, the part of us we reject as unworthy, the parts of our true selves that we repress because we can’t bear to acknowledge them. We all want to be our best selves, kind, brave, generous but prudent. We act the parts of the people we want to be, and mostly we try to live up to that image. But that image—the “Glittering Image” as Susan Howatch called it—isn’t our real self either, because it’s only a part of the whole that comprises each and every one of us. This darker half of ourselves, the unacknowledged fears, desires, and thoughts, can have a kind of wisdom that we shut out of our minds. After all, what reason does Scrooge’s nephew Fred have to be merry? As Scrooge points out, every Christmas for Fred is “but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, and not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in 'em through a round dozen of months presented dead against” poor Fred. For that matter, what reason does Scrooge’s clerk, Bob Cratchit, who applauds Fred’s defense of Christmas have to be merry? What reason do Cratchit’s wife and six children have to be merry? They are desperately poor, living on the slender salary Scrooge provides Bob. Mrs. Cratchit struggles to provide decent meals, sometimes even with meat, for her husband and her children, who are already becoming introduced to the life of the working poor in early Victorian London. Their lives are dirty, laborious, and their surroundings ramshackle. And her youngest son, Tiny Tim, is visibly failing, and very likely to die. What right do Fred or the Cratchits have to be merry? What are they celebrating? Isn’t Scrooge right, when he caustically suggests that Fred’s celebration is simply driving him deeper in debt, allowing him to postpone the moment when he is forced to confront his failures and, at long last, set his house in order? Today’s reading from Luke makes it immediately clear that Joseph’s house is not remotely in order; although he is a descendant of King David, the carpenter hasn’t even been able to find a room at the inn for his wife to give birth to her mysterious child—a child that Joseph knows is not his, and yet, trusting in God, gives his name to. Mary’s house isn’t in order, either—She’s alive be cause Joseph chose not to seek to enforce the Law against her, shows mercy to her, and, then, later responding to the Spirit, goes even further, and accepts her as his wife.(Matt 1:18-25) And now Mary places her newborn son in a manger, and the only thing that hasn’t gone wrong with their plans is some kid trying to cheer her up by playing a drum at her, and waking up the newborn son who has just gone to sleep. Cause that’s just what she needs right now. No, fortunately, the Little Drummer Boy has no place in our story, and Mary is at least spared that ordeal. But what happens next is an astonishing, sudden shift of perspective. We leave the exhausted couple and the newborn Jesus, only to find shepherds astonished by the sudden appearance of an angel, announcing the birth of the Messiah, good news of great joy for all the people. The shepherds make their way to Bethlehem, and find the little family, just as the Angel told them—even to the detail of the child in the manger. Our reading ends with Mary, having heard the shepherds’ tale of what they saw and heard, and how it led them to her. She “treasures all these words and ponders them in her heart.” She knows that the words of the angel Gabriel to her have resounded again, in an even more spectacular form. And so she has confirmation that the world has changed somehow—that the barriers between heaven and earth have thinned, that something extraordinary is happening because of the infant lying in the manger. But what is the nature of the change? Or as I used to ask at the end of a theological reflection in our EFM group, “So what? Why do we care?” Rome fell, but here we are in a national landmark that is in fact a sanctuary raised to honor the child borne by Mary, and I am speaking these words under a beautiful painting of her and her child. Yes, evil still exists. Yes, discord and strife tear at the world. But they are not normative, not what we consider the measure of right conduct. Nobody reveres Herod, Pontius Pilate, Annas or Caiaphas. They are only known at all by most people because of their roles in the story that begins tonight. The old brutal dreams of might makes right, of tribe and power defining what we call the good has been on the run ever since Jesus showed us a better way, since God so loved the world that She offered her only begotten Son to be with us, not to lead our tribe to supremacy, but to lead us all to the deeper wisdom of love. Not just a wishy-washy ethic of sentimentality, but a way of life. That Way, as the disciples and their direct successors called what the world terms Christianity, involves a commitment to seeing, every day, the beauty of a Child of God, in every person, even when we are divided from them. That Way has survived empires, wars, corruption of its so-called leaders, and still is going strong. It doesn’t need an army. It never has. It has you, each and every one of you, who is here, not out of compulsion or social pressure, but because you want to be. Because the Way speaks to your heart. Scrooge had a kind of wisdom, but it was of the lower kind—pragmatic wisdom, how to survive in a hostile world. Fred and the Cratchits refused to accept that the world was by its nature hostile. Their wisdom was deeper than his. What right have you be merry? The best right in the world, that of a child of God, in the world created by God. What reason have you to merry? Here we are in a dark time of our own, strife, cruelty, and division broadcast throughout the 24 hour news cycle, world without end. We’re still in the midst of a global pandemic still raging, the numbers mounting in the wrong direction. How does the light of the Christmas star reach us? What reason do we have to be merry? The best reason in the world: that we are here again together, celebrating the end of those old, dark ways, and to repel the dark with the Light of the World. Just by being here, we refuse to let cynicism, despair, and disease have the last word. We refuse division, we turn away anger. The Light of the World is coming, and we are ready for it to dawn. And, if your heart isn't ready, that's all right. We can repurpose those wonderful lines of Hamlet's: If it be now, ‘tis not to come – if it be not to come, it will be now – if it be not now, yet it will come – the readiness is all. Let yourself be ready when you can, and embrace the readiness for joy. In our hearts, let us choose now. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Sunday, November 14, 2021
Tonight is, of course, All Hallow’s Eve, the beginning of the three principle days of Allhallowtide, for centuries a time in the liturgical year for remembering the dead, especially the saints (known as the hallowed) martyrs, and all the departed. It used to be celebrated for an octave—eight days, prior to the the Roman Catholic Church abolishing it in 1955. However, an Anglican tradition of Allhallowtide has remained, mostly in the United Kingdom. We gain more insight into All Hallow’s Eve Sam Potaro’s Brightest and Best: A Companion to the Lesser Feats and Fasts (Cowley Press, 1998), p. 199. Potaro views All Hallow’s Eve as traditionally using “the most powerful weapon in the human arsenal, the power of humor and ridicule, to confront the power of death.” Now, the appropriation of the fearful and of dread for pleasure is everywhere present in our society; the unending stream of horror films, books, television shows are all evidence of our appetite for a good scare. And what is a good scare? It’s a safe one. One we know won’t really hurt us. This isn’t a Halloween story, but it makes the point: When I was a boy of 11, my grammar school had a paperback book fair. I only had a little money, so I bought one book: Dracula by Bram Stoker. I’d never seem the film, but that’s what I walked out with. And later that very afternoon, my twin sister and I discovered that our beloved grandmother had died. I couldn’t bear it, not right away. I hid, and feverishly read Dracula. Because even at 11, I knew that I was safe from the Count and his three brides. That book kept me from falling apart, the good scare protecting me from my first experience of loss, of death, of separation. Most of all, it protected me from the experience of losing one of the key sources of unconditional love I’d ever known. The loss of love is perhaps the greatest human tragedy. Halloween teaches us to laugh at it, ridicule it, play with it. Because Halloween is not about the devil, or the occult, not really. It’s about rejecting the finality of death. It’s about rejecting fear, or, rather, putting it in its place. Ultimately, it’s about refusing to accept the ultimate death of love. By playfully treating death, and fear and all of the ghastly creatures and things associated with death, we cut them down to size, reaffirming that death will not have the last laugh—or even if it does, we will have laughed first, and better. It’s a half-conscious assertion of the Greek Neoplatonist Plotinus’s maxim that “nothing that truly is can ever perish.” The Gospel appointed for this evening feels on the surface like it’s miles away from this evening’s sermon—it’s a daylight story in which Jesus defeats one set of questioners only to bond with another. It’s another in a series of controversies between Jesus and the established religious authorities. Of these debates, this is my personal favorite. Normally, these things follow a pattern: Religious authority figure—a Pharisee, a scribe, a Saducee—poses a question to Jesus. Of course, it’s not posed in good faith; it’s a trap. The classic of the genre is reported in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In Matthew and Mark, it’s posed by the Pharisees, although Mark adds “some Herodians” to the mix. Luke has the question posed by “spies.” But the question is an inherently dangerous one: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not?” The idea, of course, is to trip Jesus up—he’ll either hew to the Hebrew law, and qualify as a rebel in the eyes of the Roman authorities, or he will choose submission to Rome, and lose his status as one “teaching the way of God without partiality.” They’ve constructed a perfect lose-lose scenario for Jesus here. Except, of course, that they haven’t; he foils them easily, asking whose head is on the coin, and, seeing the Emperor’s, answering give to the Emperor that which is due to the Emperor, and to God what is God’s. Sensation! Jesus wins again, as the baddies slink away, gnashing their teeth in frustration. And there are multiple variations on this theme throughout the Gospels. So tonight’s variant looks like it’s going to be yet another Wile E. Coyote-style failure. Except this one goes off the usual rails. The scribe comes near, and hears the Saducees disputing with one another, largely because Jesus has trounced them in an effort to trap him with a ridiculous hypothetical—If a man marries and dies, and each of his 7 brothers marries his widow, each dying in turn, whose wife will she be in the Resurrection. Jesus takes them down easily, pointing out that in the Resurrection, there will be no marrying, but living as angels in heaven do. And then he pointedly reminds them that God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. And God, speaking to Moses said I AM the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—meaning that they are in a very real way, still alive. Our scribe, having witnessed the trouncing of the Saducees, sees that Jesus answered them well, and asks “Which Commandment is the first of all?” This inquiry doesn’t feel like a trap—the scribe seems to genuinely want to learn from this itinerant prophet who has just reduced the so-called experts to futile bickering. Jesus answers without hesitation: “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God is One; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all mind, and with all your strength.” He then adds, “The second is this “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and “There is no other commandment greater than these.” The scribe answers enthusiastically “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and there is no other. He also adds that “to love one’s neighbor as oneself—this is much more important than all the burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Jesus sees the sincerity and the wisdom in the answer. He doesn’t just parrot Jesus’s own answer, he goes a step further, placing the love of God and neighbor at the pinnacle of our duty. And so Jesus gives him a rare compliment, telling him “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” He has embraced the core of the Law—the core of Jesus’s own teachings—that love is the indestructible, unending source of our being, and our returning that love toward our Creator and our fellow human beings—that is the sum and substance of our duty to God. Do we love? Do we let that love spread beyond our narrow little hearts to join with the love we have received? If so, we are not far from the Kingdom of God. It’s right here. Tonight is All Hallow’s Eve, and the monsters walking outside are children seeking candy, or playing silly tricks. The monsters in our hearts— fear, jealousy, anxiety, hatred—they may try to make a home there, but if we join the generations who mocked their fears, their hatreds, their nightmares—then we are set free to love, like the Souls—our sacred dead, by whom I mean those we ourselves have lost, and long for—and the Saints we celebrate the following day. And in doing so, we stand with the wise, open-hearted scribe, learning from Jesus the lesson the Saducees couldn’t understand: Death is the human tragedy, but it does not have the last word. The loving Creator has the final word, bringing us home. Nothing that truly is can ever die. And we—you, me, everyone here and throughout this world. We truly are, and we are called not to death, but to life.
The best doctors are intuitive, with an empathy that enables them to understand how their patients feel—emotionally, as well as physically. This empathy often extends to friends, family, and strangers. My wife’s father was a doctor, in a small town, rural North Carolina, and her experiences as a doctor’s daughter played a major role in forming her identity. If I’m unwell, Catherine will swoop in, organize a plan to get me well, and make sure that I’m getting the best treatment possible. When I had surgery in 2020, and then again in 2021, she made sure that I was cared for by her, the surgeon, and all and sundry. My wife is the best patient advocate I could ever have. Of course, her mother, Mabel, was also in the medical profession. She attended the Baptist Hospital School of Nursing in Winston-Salem, NC and received a BSN and later a MPH from UNC Chapel Hill. After a long career, she retired in 1998 as Director of Psychiatric Services at Gaston Memorial Hospital in Gastonia. In the 1970s, she had been one of the founders of the Albemarle Mental Health Center in Elizabeth City, an example of her life-long commitment to the care and dignity of psychiatric patients. Her father, Dr. Stephen Pugh, died before I met her, and so I only know him through family stories. He made house calls, sometimes taking his fees in vegetables rather than charging his poorer, often African-American patients money that they didn’t have. In the 1960s, they inculcated a thoroughgoing opposition to racism in their daughters, and were fierce opponents of Jim Crow. They were carers, first and foremost. I mention them, because we are in the middle of a crisis that has had an outsize impact on our beloved physicians, and nurses, and other carers. According to the foremost British medical journal The Lancet, The pandemic has placed substantial demands on already overstretched, understaffed, and under-resourced health systems. COVID-19 has tested doctors and health-care workers to the limits of their professional competence and taken a considerable toll on their health and wellbeing. Core principles of medical professionalism—ie, primacy of patient welfare, patient autonomy, and social justice—have been challenged during the pandemic. Many doctors worldwide have had to change the way they work, having to prioritise patient care and make difficult decisions based on insufficient resources, including withholding and withdrawing potentially life-saving treatments  The effect on nurses was in some ways even graver. According to a 2021 study, RNs, primary front-line workers in the COVID-19 pandemic, encounter not only the stresses and risk of a serious and potentially fatal health condition, but also the increased risk of a mental health impact. The pandemic has subjected RNs, and other front-line healthcare workers, to situations of unparalleled stress, as routine roles and responsibilities are disrupted and there is a necessity to work outside of their normal routine.  Coping with this changed work environment, one that is now a site for exposure to life threatening infection, presents a challenge the health care work force may be ill-prepared to address. This daunting task is complicated further by concerns not only about personal risk but also worry about infecting family members and others in their social network. These situational factors increase the risk for psychological morbidity and burnout. But here’s the shocking fact in the study: Applications to nursing programs have gone up, in this time of peril, stress, and uncertainty. More people are looking to learn how to help than were before the pandemic. Empathy. The great gift of loving one’s fellow human beings—and by love, I don’t mean an emotion, but rather a promise. A promise to care for and support the fundamental well-being of the other, and to strive for their health and welfare. That love, that empathy, have not been crushed by the politicization of the virus, of masks, or quack remedies that would be funny if they weren’t so potentially deadly. Nor has it been crushed by the risk of infection, the strains on the medical system, or sheer fatigue and burnout. Doctors, nurses, and other carers are still striving to ameliorate the suffering of humanity, bringing comfort and healing where they can. St. Luke’s empathy is strong, so strong that his Gospel is the one in which so many of our most dearly loved stories come from. Luke’s compassion, his interest in people whatever their social status, makes his Gospel warmer and more relationship-based than the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, or John. Of the two Gospels that describe Jesus’s birth, Matthew’s gives us an account of the Magi, the famous three kings of orient visiting the newly born-Christ, finding him in a house, and giving him treasures. Luke tells us of Mary and Joseph being turned away from the Inn, surrounding the baby Jesus with lambs and protective shepherds. He also gives us the story of the blind old man Simeon, whose long wait for the Messiah ends when Jesus is brought to the Temple for circumcision, and the joy of Anna the Prophetess when she sees in the baby Jesus the hope of all who long for redemption. It is Luke who tells us of Jesus at 12 years old staying behind in the Temple and debating the teachers of the Law while his frenzied parents look for him. Luke also who gives us the story of Martha who serves while Mary listens to Jesus, and when Martha complains Jesus tells her that Mary has chosen the better part and will not lose it. It is a rebuke, but a gentle one, implicitly inviting Martha to stretch her heart and join with her sister in receiving the better part too. Throughout Luke’s writing, the love, compassion, and joy of God, is demonstrated in the life and ministry Jesus again and again. As Bernard Shaw, that agnostic admirer of Jesus, admits “It is Luke's Jesus who has won our hearts.” In the closing to his letter to the Colossians, Paul sends greetings from “Luke, the beloved physician.” (Col, 4:14). Despite writing in his Gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles one quarter of the Old Testament, Luke normally keeps to the background other than his use of the word “we” in describing the companionship he provided his difficult patient. It’s fair to say that St. Paul was not exactly an easy person to impress or, for that matter to sustain a relationship with; his battles against Peter show his combative streak, and his falling out with Barnabas—the very first of the Apostles to accept Paul’s conversion from a bitter foe of the nascent Church and to accept him in the Church in Jerusalem. Their split resulted from Paul’s anger that Barnabas wanted to have his cousin, Mark (or “John,” or even “John Mark”) who had left them during their first missionary journey, accompany them on their journey to Cyprus. When Barnabas refused to cast aside Mark, Luke writes that “the contention was so sharp between them that they departed asunder” (Acts 15:36-40). Asunder is a heavy word, suggesting a significant degree of alienation. Luke sets the facts out without judgment. Notably, though, in Colossians, there is also a friendly reference to Barnabas and—yes, to John Mark, his sister’s son. This letter was written during Paul’s imprisonment, probably in 62 AD, and reflects the events of Acts Chapter 27-28. But then, in today’s Epistle—2 Timothy 4:5-13, which was read at the 11:00 sermon, we find Paul feeling that “the time for my departure has come” and asks Timothy to come to him soon—because Demas, Crescans, and Titus have all left him. He writes simply, “Only Luke is with me.” And, in his loneliness, he asks Timothy to bring Mark with him. I like to think (and I’m not alone in this ) that near the very end of Paul’s story, the empathy and love that were so characteristic of St. Luke both as a physician and as a writer wore away the old warrior’s grudge and caused him to renew his ties with Barnabas and to long for the presence of his former friend John Mark. The best doctors and nurses can never stop hoping for a happy ending. That’s why they never give up. And, in that sense, we are all called to be physicians and nurses of the heart. . Christine Kovner, et al., “The psychosocial impact on frontline nurses of caring for patients with COVID-19 during the first wave of the pandemic in New York City,” Nursing outlook, vol. 69, Issue 5, pp 744-754 (Sept. 1, 2021).
Open My lips, O, Lord, and my mouth will speak thy Praise. In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: In 1970, the cartoonist Walt Kelly drew a poster for the very first Earth Day. It was a portrait of Pogo, the opossum protagonist of Kelly’s long-running strip, also named “Pogo,” holding a stick with a spike in it, trying to pick up an enormous amount of litter, only to gaze further and see the degradation of the environment stretching out as far as the eye could see. Pogo says simply, “We have met the enemy, and they is us.” In today’s Gospel reading, one of the disciples marvels to Jesus about the magnificence of the Temple, and even of the stones used to build the Temple. Jesus immediately casts down the unnamed disciples’ tourist enthusiasm, saying that all of these great buildings will be thrown down, and that not one of these magnificent stones will remain on another. It’s an image of total devastation that Jesus tosses out to the disciple, and this understandably troubles his closest disciples, Peter, James and his brother John and Andrew. So they join Jesus when he sits down across from the Temple, and they ask when will all of these things happen and how will we know it is coming? Jesus’s answer is another warning: Do not be fooled; he warns the disciples that there will be not just one, but many who present themselves in his name, and will say “I am he!” These false Christs will lead many astray, he tells these closest disciples. Then he tells them that worse is to come: wars, and rumors of wars, nations against nation, kingdom against kingdom, earthquakes and famine. Jesus finally tells them that “This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.” This passage (and its equivalents in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels) is the beginning of what is called “the Little Apocalypse.” And, let me tell you, it only gets worse from here. The Sun and Moon go dark, stars fall from the sky, the powers of the Heavens are shaken, and life only survives at all because God shortens the days to save the Elect, the chosen ones of God. The Little Apocalypse provides an ending that reaffirms the power and goodness of God—the Son of Man “coming in clouds with great power and glory. .. sending forth his angels, and shall gather together his elect from the four winds.” So, happy ending for those of the Elect who manage to hold out to the end. For the rest of us—neither the sheepo nor the goats, for us in-betweens—who knows? So what do we do with this passage? Back in 1912, Professor Burton Scott Easton published an article on the Little Apocalypse in a scholarly journal called The Biblical World, [Aug.1912, Vol. 40, No. 2, pp. 130-138, “The Little Apocalypse.” ] Easton pointed out that the Hebrew tradition was “extremely fond of predictions of the end of the world and a really voluminous literature of such predictions existed.” As an oppressed people, they saw themselves as the Elect, who would be redeemed by God, while the rest of the world would suffer for sinning against God. In the Book of Revelation attributed to John, you see the same disdain for those who are not of the Elect, and who are depicted as oppressing the Church and the world. The sufferings of the once powerful are to be rejoiced at, as they clear the path for the Kingdom of Heaven. Although many of these apocalypses have been lost, examples can be found in the Book of Daniel, the Apocalypse of Baruch, the Revelation to John, and especially the book known as Fourth Ezra. Fourth Ezra was written at about the same time many estimate the Revelation was. (Easton, p. 131; see also Translations of Early Documents, Series 1: The Apocalypse of Ezra (trans., GH Box, SPCK, 1917, chaps. 3-14. Mark’s Little Apocalypse and Fourth Ezra both describe wars, kingdom against kingdom, tribulations, and close with the coming of the Son of Man, and the gathering of the chosen few to him. Easton tells us that in Fourth Ezra “before the rule of God begins, hostility to God will reach a climax,” and that “the parallel to the Little Apocalypse is perfect.” (p. 132). So the Little Apocalypse is a summary version of already-held beliefs about the end times. As Easton wrote “It is very much as if the Apocalypse had said ‘the events of the end will be those you have always expected.’” In other words, it is nothing new—and we could treat it, as some scholars have, as wishful thinking in. reaction to the sacking of Jerusalem to Rome in 70 AD, or even a prophecy of that event attributed to Jesus only after the event. But that doesn’t mean that this passage is meaningless to us, or that it has no message for us in 2021, as we blink our eyes and look around the COVID-altered landscape we all are living in. After all, today’s Gospel provides a warning we can see coming true in the world today, even in our own beloved community. Human carelessness, greed, pride, and arrogance are endangering us all—whether by refusing to take steps to protect each other from the pandemic that still surrounds us, or by our recklessly continuing to destroy the environment that supports our very lives, even as “extreme climate events,” to use the current euphemism, are increasing in frequency and severity. Wars and rumors of wars? In a recent book, Our Own Worst Enemy (August 2021) Tom Nichols, a Professor of National Security Affairs, at the United Sates Naval War College, says that the greatest threat to American democracy is “We, the People,” who are bringing about the death of liberal democracy and the rise of illiberalism and authoritarianism, which rests on the nihilism, conspiracies, misinformation, and a type of propaganda that says, “Everything is possible; therefore, nothing is true.” Nichols warns us that such information degradation fuels a “Cold Civil War.” And indeed, at least one poll—the “Edelman trust barometer” for 2021 found a majority of Americans believed that we are locked in just such a cold civil war. As Pogo says, “We have met the enemy and they is us.” But there is, in Jesus’s warnings about false messiahs in the Little Apocalypse, an answer to the question of living in dangerous times: Don’t trust the charlatans, the liars who raise absurd expectations. Don’t live in fear. Instead, use your intelligence guided by experience. That’s a start. But like the friendly little opossum, we have to do more; we have to pick up the trash. Which means really looking at ourselves—where have we caused division in our families, out workplaces, our network of relationships? Can we repair the harms we have caused—or if we haven’t caused them, can we help repair them anyway, taking the first step, whoever was at fault? At yesterday’s diocesan convention, the theme was “Your Faith Has Made You Whole” and the image of the Japanese art of Kistugi—that of honoring the broken ceramics of our lives by repairing them with precious metals to bind the broken surfaces—gold, silver, or platinum. You’re the gold, the platinum, the silver. We all are. We’re all the broken ceramic, too. I can’t fill my own broken places, and neither can you—but we can fill each others’ needs, by reaching out in love. We can all fill the cracks in different ways—simple as calling a friend or relative we love but haven’t kept up with, or reaching out to someone we have dropped for whatever reason, to repair a broken tie. Every day is a chance to take the steps toward reconciliation, and living in wholeness with those we free ourselves to love, either by forgiving them, or by asking their forgiveness. And we don’t know how many of those chances we get, how many days we have. None of these nostrums will prevent the end of the earth. And we almost certainly won’t be here to see it. But our own world—this earthly life—will be richer and holier if we live as if our kindness and love to each other would end the world. And who knows? If cynicism and disdain can spread like COVID, maybe love and forgiveness can, too. Now that’s something worth catching. In the Name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.
Wednesday, July 14, 2021
Nowadays, we all seem to be living in the world foreseen by the old western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It’s one of Jimmy Stewart’s better outings, a story about an honorable United States Senator (I told you it was an old movie) who goes back to the West to attend the funeral of an old friend, played by John Wayne. The Senator’s first claim to fame, and the beginning of his glorious career as a stateman, was that he stood up to the local bad man, Liberty Valance, and ended his career of violence by shooting him. We viewers come to see that the Senator did stand up to Valance, but Valance had already shot him once, when Wayne’s character shoots the villain, firing at the same time as the Senator fires his last round, which goes wide. Telling the story to the local newspaper editor, the Senator is stunned to see him tear up his notes of the interview. The Senator asks if he isn’t going to use the story, and the editor answers him, “No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Life in 2021. This all seems a far way off from Jesus of Nazareth, but so is the Gospel reading for today—it alludes to Herod’s belief that Jesus is John the Baptist retuned from the dead, and the people’s belief that Jesus is Elijah, or simply a prophet, but a mighty one, like one of the prophets of old. But the balance of today’s Gospel tells the story of the death of John the Baptist. Unusually, we have a non-Christian account of the events that partially tracks the Gospel account. Flavius Josephus, a Jewish collaborator with Rome, tells us in his Jewish Antiquities that Herod Antipas fell in love with Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Philip’s wife, who was the daughter of Aristobulus, their brother. Antipas proposed to her, and they married. [JA, 18.110]. Herod Antipas’s divorced wife complained to her father, who went to war against Herod, wiping out Herod’s army. Before this, Herod had killed John the Baptist, who Josephus described as “this good man, who had commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, righteousness towards one another and piety towards God.” Herod, feared that John the Baptist would use his great influence John had over the people to raise a rebellion,” and had him executed. Josephus concludes his account by noting that “the Jews thought that the destruction of his army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God's displeasure with him.” No bewitching dance, no cruel request from Herodias and her daughter for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Just a politically expedient killing in a prison. But, of course, Josephus was presenting an account of his people aimed at protecting himself, and incidentally, them, by showing their great loyalty to virtue and moral government. We know that there was a Salome. Josephus identifies her as the daughter of Herodias and stepdaughter of Herod Antipas, confirming the Gospels on that point. He also tells us that she married twice; first to her uncle Philip the Tetrarch, and then, after his death in 34 CE), she married her cousin Aristobulus of Chalcis, making her queen of Chalcis and of Armenia Minor. So however John the Baptist died, Salome seems to have made out all right. But the Gospel story of her dance, Herod’s promise, and Salome’s demand of John’s head has been percolating through our culture for two millenia, and has been immortalized not just in our holy scripture, but in art, drama, film, and in just about every kind of media you can think of—if you look hard enough you can even find “Salome’s Dance” as a plot point in Marvel Comics. Brad Brucknell takes us through a lot of those media representations, especially Oscar Wide’s 1892 play, Salome, and its offshoots. It’s Wilde who created the “Dance of the Seven Veils” that Salome is said to have used to charm Herod, and she chooses, in Wilde’s play, to seek his head not for her mother’s revenge, but for her own desire to own the Baptist. Brucknell points out that Wilde’s play can be boiled down to the classic dichotomy of the virgin and the wanton femme fatale.  More recently, Adeena Karasick has sought to reclaim Salome; in her 2014 article “Salomé: Woman of Valor,” Karasick answers back that “Salomé has been serially exploited by Gustave Flaubert, Charles Bryant, Oscar Wilde, Richard Strauss and Atom Egoyan, forever entrenching her in social consciousness as a dangerous woman, a female praying mantis who both literally and metaphorically cannibalizes the head of her lover.” And there’s truth in this—the villain in the Gospel story is Herodias, not Salome, who simply obeyed her mother’s command. And Herodias had reason to fear John, as Josephus’s account makes clear. Looking soberly at both stories, John the Baptist was executed for posing a danger to Herod’s rule, whether or not Herod wanted to kill him. The Gospel portrays John as Jesus’s forerunner or role model in his death as well as in his ministry. Both challenge the Imperial domination system of Rome. Both earn the sympathy of the ruler who ultimately orders his execution—Pilate’s evident reluctance to kill Jesus matches Herod’s desire to keep John alive. So here’s a different legend: John and Jesus each had an uncanny ability to reach the conscience of those who had been coopted into the imperial domination system, those who had learned to live by its rules. If Wilde’s fervid play has any poetic truth in it, it is that Salome wanted to find herself in the prophet, to cherish him, and change herself, trapped like a fly in amber by the trappings of the Court of her step-father. And we know that both Pilate and Herod found within themselves a stirring of conscience, a desire for something other, something better, when confronted by these inconvenient Galilean prophets. These hard-faced, hard-hearted rulers within a corrupt regime briefly found their better selves in engaging with these prophets, and found themselves touched by their innocence, their righteousness. We live in a world that is wracked with corruption and lies. The most basic facts are turned into partisan battles—do vaccines work? Are our elections rigged—and all of this is done without evidence, just by shameless assertion. The temptation to tune out, to not care, to withdraw, can become irresistible. But if even hardened tyrants like Pilate and Herod can hear the sweetness and purity of mercy, of kindness, then surely we can too. In a way, we are Pilate, we are Herod—I don’t mean that we are as jaded or cynical as they were. But like them, we have a choice: We can open our hearts to the fundamental truth that the keystone of life is love, and do our best to fan that truth into a flame that will warm our hearts for life, or we can, maybe sadly, reject it. Neither Pilate nor Herod had the courage to change. But we can. We can take the side of John the Baptist, of Jesus, and we can try to live lives grounded in kindness, in letting go of grudges and resentments. We can try to offer our help to those who need it, and recognize that we are all connected. And if we do, we can dissolve the hard places in our souls that have grown over the years without our realizing it. And in that small way, we can join Jesus and John, walking in their way of compassion and love. In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  ELH , Summer, 1993, Vol. 60, No. 2 (Summer, 1993), pp. 503-526.  Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies & Gender Issues No. 26 (Spring 2014), pp. 147-157.
Monday, June 7, 2021
“A House Divided Cannot Stand” A Sermon on Mark 3:20-35 Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church, NYC June 6, 2021
Sometimes the Lectionary seems to know just what we need and assigns us those readings. Not always, of course—there are weeks when we tumble into the seemingly endless morass of Psalm 119, or, even worse, the vindictive psalms, or a dry stretch of Leviticus, and the preacher struggles to find a way to relate the experience of ancient times to the way we live now. Today, though, we have a stark warning against submitting to the autocratic rule of a would-be king and a pointed observation by Jesus that the scribes those who accused him casting out demons by Satan’s power misunderstand how power works. If Satan has risen up against himself, then Satan can no longer stand, and his very end has come. On a hot June day just about 165 years ago, Jesus’s observation was reframed by a man most Americans think of as one of the greatest leaders this nation has ever had. A man who many claim as a prophet and as a martyr. On June 16, 1858, Abraham Lincoln stood on a speaker’s platform in Springfield, Illinois and spoke words that, at the time, cost him his chance of election to the United States Senate, but ultimately led him to the Presidency. Four lines into his speech, Lincoln quoted the Gospel, and announced that “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” and then he added that this meant that a Nation could not be half slave and half free. Lincoln explained that he did not expect the Union to be dissolved – that he did not expect the house to fall -- but that he did expect it would cease to be divided. Simply put, the house would become all one thing or all the other. For Lincoln, that meant that either the opponents of slavery, would arrest its further spread, and place it on the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new--North as well as South. He then described how the political and legal systems could not only easily fail to contain slavery but might instead entrench it even in the free states. The division in the United States, like that in June 1858, is disquieting, even a little frightening. Views are so at odds that the very concept of the factual has been called into question by an increasing segment of the political world and even the best journalists struggle to keep up with the blended truths and lies that are often indistinguishable. Laura Marks, my friend and former landlady, is a writer and a producer of the show The Good Fight. During its 4-year run so far, the program has tried to capture the experience of the era of bad feelings we currently live in. Even the opening sequence emphasizes instability, loss of security, and disruption. As the credits roll, we view a series of objects representing normalcy—briefcases, law books flanked by handsome bookends, furniture, computer screens, and office phones, only to watch each explode in front of us, climaxing in a desk, shattered and splintered. Even the backdrop, the spotlight, and the fragments of the desk fall down among the devastation, and we are left to contemplate the wreckage. That opening sequence leaves us in a landscape in which nothing is stable, nothing is secure. And I think Laura and her colleagues are right: that’s how life in these United States has felt since 2017, and still feels even today. For those of us who hoped that the election and inauguration of a President who ran on a return to normalcy, and hopefully, toward thawing relations between our warring factions, . But as Goya wrote many years ago, “the sleep of reason brings forth monsters,” and dispelling those monsters is not a simple matter. Relationships once sundered are hard to restore. The concept of truth is even harder. In her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt wrote that the “ideal subject of totalitarianism is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction [that is, the reality of experience] and the distinction between true and false . . .no longer exist.” Michiko Kakutani’s 2018 book The Death of Truth pursues Arendt’s thought, and traces the fraying of the very concept of truth. She warns us that “Without commonly agreed-on facts—not Republican facts and Democratic facts—there can be no rational debate over policies, no substantive means of evaluating candidates for political office and no way to hold elected officials accountable to the people. Without truth, democracy is hobbled.” And our present day shows that the crumbling of the concepts of truth and objective reality feeds the growing division in our house. No sermon can answer Pilate’s question, What is Truth? on the grand scale, but we can start looking at our own truths, the ones we are reluctant to face, let alone to own. Truth begins with acknowledging that every single one of us is at once a sinner and a saint, both at the same time. That we fail, as well as succeed, in big and little ways. Some of you know that I’m a sober alcoholic, and let me just say that no one decides to go to AA because their lives are going so well. Before I could look the truth in the eye, I caused a lot of hurt, a lot of damage. Only after that could I drag myself down the steps to my first meeting at Trinity Wall Street. So, I can tell you that in the search for our own truth, we don’t get to assume that we are the heroes of the story and that someone else, someone very different from us is responsible for the brokenness we mourn. We have met the enemy, and he is us, and she is us, too. Except that we, or he, or she, isn’t really the enemy—not if we are willing to try to look the truth head on, own that truth, and try to incorporate that truth into our lives. But here’s the thing—our own brokenness, the brokenness of the world, can call us to a more full life. Because once we embrace truth, and bring it into our lives, we can see our own failings, our own share in the state of things we deplore, and stop us from only deploring others. And that can begin the healing from division. “Famous Blue Raincoat,” a Leonard Cohen song, tells a tale of a man betrayed by an affair between the woman he loves and a friend he thought of as a brother. He recounts the affair, and then asks what compelled him to write. To his own shock, he is writing because of his need to forgive and to receive forgiveness. He needs to admit his own failings, adding “Thanks for the trouble you took from her eyes/I thought it was there for good, so I never tried.” Just as we are part of the problem, just as we bear our scars that may make it hard for us to open up to those we fear may turn on us, so too we can surprise by a sudden flash of a smile, an unexpected moment of trust. One of my favorite St. Barts memories took place when Dean was still very new to the parish. After the 11:00 service, a young man, only in town for the day, came up to me and asked if he could be baptized. Like any good deacon would, I sought out our new rector, briefed him, and asked how we should proceed. Dean paused for a long moment. Then he grinned like a schoolboy, and said “It’s like Philip and the Ethiopian—'Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’” So we joined the young man in the chapel, Dean made sure he knew what he was getting himself into, that he understood the promises he was making, and –well, we baptized him. On the spot. Right then and there. So we’re not just our flaws. We’re not just our failures of courage or of love. We’re also our moments of generosity, of spontaneous kindness. Our very failures can fuel our becoming our best selves. We members of the Church, as followers of what the Apostles called “the Way,” owe each other a fundamental commitment to each other’s well-being. And by well-being, we mean their own flourishing as a unique child of God, and embracing the flesh and blood reality of the human being standing in front of us. That commitment is a choice to embrace each other, as we are, in the light of truth, binding up the wounds of division and hurtfulness. As long as we continue that work, the binding up of wounds, the reaching out in love, our house will stand. Because a house built on love will not fall. It cannot fall. And it will prevail. In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.
Wednesday, January 20, 2021
This blog has withered in these past four years. Watching my country tearing at itself at the behest of a would-be authoritarian engendered a profound disillusionment in me that, I will be frank, gravely diminished my faith in my fellow Americans, and drained much of my creative energy. I did not like who We, the People were becoming. The real end of the Trump Era was the January 6, 2020 riot at the U.S. Capitol--nothing less than an attempted coup incited by a defeated leader who sought to extend his time in office. The number of our elected representsatives were prepared to use their positions toward that end, even before the violence broke out, was shocking but not surprising. The recoiling at the breach of the Capitol froze the outgoing Administration in shock--even Mitch McConnell had finally had enough. As he said yesterday"The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people." This morning, for the first time in a very long while, I woke up with no fatigue, no anger I had to repress. I know we are not healed yet. But, after a long dark spell in survival mode--partially pandemic, partially pragmatically blunting my own edges to try to rebuild my own community by encouraging mutual love--I have reached the morning. There's a light dusting of snow on the ground. My cats nudge me awake. I'm not tired. Not a tiny bit.