The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Piercing the Veils: A Sermon Delivered at St. Barts, NYC July 12, 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. [1] 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.”[2] 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. [1] ELH , Summer, 1993, Vol. 60, No. 2 (Summer, 1993), pp. 503-526. [2] 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

On Not Being Tired

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.