The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, November 14, 2021

"You Are Not Far From the Kingdom of God” A Sermon on Mark 12:28-34 October 31, 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.

"Only Luke is With Me" A Sermon on Luke 4: 14-21 (Preached at St. Barts, NYC on October 18, 2021)

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 [1] 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. [2] 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. [1]. 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).

"We Have Met The Enemy, and They is Us: A Sermon on Mark: 13: 1-8

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.