Sunday, November 5, 2017

Proper 26, Year A: November 5, 2017

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Roy Parker, OHC

Proper 26 - Sunday, November 5, 2017

To hear the sermon in its fullness click here.

Br. Roy Parker, OHC
Significant portions of these remarks are indebted to the New Yorker magazine of October 23rd, and in their entirety appeal to your intercessory prayer and action for social justice.

The Gospel passage is Jesus’ denunciation of the exploitation of power by a social class deemed prophetic and therefore untouchable. The passage is entitled “Jesus Denounces Scribes and Pharisees,” in this instance comprising the first twelve verses of Matthew 23, but, on closer inspection, practically the entire chapter is dedicated to this indictment of those entrusted with the interpretation and application of religious law in the daily life of Palestinian Judaism, those trustees who cry “Peace” when they have something to eat but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths.

An extraordinary series of “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” comprises, apparently, the most passionate verbal denunciation by Jesus of anyone in the Gospels. We might wonder, Why does Matthew devote practically an entire chapter to the problem, whereas the other Gospels have only a couple of verses? A good guess may be that Matthew is writing for Jewish-Christians. Therefore we’re presented with a lengthy catalog of indictments against a group whose position as interpreters and teachers of the Torah — the revealed laws upon which Israel's identity depends — confers a privilege and respect which shields it from the censure one would expect. This lengthy catalog is repeatedly marked by the phrase "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" and perhaps nowadays Jesus would have said, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, scumbags!" Each of those Woes introduces a description of how this privileged class of supposed teachers, who are actually abusers, have perverted the original life-giving revelation into something oppressive and self-serving. In fact, the starkest examples of this perversion appear to be regulations associated with the Temple, giving rise to an observation by Abraham Heschel on one occasion that the most pervasive institutional sin should be called “the sin of the sanctuary,” as true, apparently, of Christians as of Jews. That sanctuaries are a promise and possibility of a portal between earth and heaven would seem the reason.

Therefore, Jesus concludes his list of woes against the scribes and Pharisees, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem . . . how often have I desired to gather your children together . . . and you were not willing. See, your (temple) is left to you, desolate, devoid of God.”

The untouchability of those associated with the sanctuary has, as we know, been compromised by a broad indictment of the priestly caste in the Western Church; it’s differently reflected in an interview between Marin Alsop, Director of the Baltimore Symphony, and Scott Simon of NPR’s Weekend Edition at the time, several years ago, when Maestra Alsop had accepted her appointment as director of the symphony. Scott Simon asked her why the symphony’s board of directors had taken so long to approve her appointment, to which she replied that in the culture of this country there remained the myth of an ultimate male authority figure casting its shadow over the legitimacy of any such female figure. In the time of Jesus, of course,  the myth of an ultimate male authority figure was writ even larger in the popular imagination.

If it’s legitimate to regard these so-called untouchables as abusers of the tradition entrusted to them, a comparison with the current revelations of sexual abuse by other male power figures may be useful as revealing just the beginnings of an undoing of the male mystique which informs American society. Furthermore, I regard the courage of the revealers as not unrelated to the passionate denunciation expressed by Jesus in the Gospel.

We talk about assault as if it were a new phenomenon as if it weren't the people in positions of authority who are so often responsible: lawyers, judges, priests, teachers, police officers, doctors, CEOs. Why do we act so shocked? The subject of sexual abuse is treated like global warming — we think that if we pretend it’s not happening, then maybe it will go away. For years - for centuries - the economic, physical and cultural subjugation of women has registered as something like white noise. Lately, it appears that we’re starting to hear the tune.

What had been a backdrop is now in the foreground; it has become a story with rotating protagonists which never seems to leave the news. Sexual harassment and assault is an issue that crosses all boundaries, political or otherwise. It's about predators in power who know that they are untouchable and the people who enable them. Thanks to mainstream feminism, victimized women have been supported to an unprecedented degree by much of the media and the public. At the same time, political backlash insures hard limits for this support. The increasing narrative clarity about male power does not always translate to progress. For women, it feels, all at once, shockingly possible, suddenly mandatory, and unusually frustrating to speak up.

We should pay attention to the dynamics that make this progress irregular: not all abusers meet with consequences, and not all women can attain firm ground. Men are still more often held to a standard of consistency than of morality. The star abusers were disgraced, in part, because of their hypocrisy; men who never pretended to see women as equals or as worthy of respect can generally just keep on as they were. There are significant constituencies in America who are not yet interested in holding men accountable for abusive behavior. And there are still huge swaths of women - the poor, the queer, the undocumented - who can’t count on the security that feminism has conferred on its wealthier, whiter adherents, or trust that their victimization would even become news.

Nevertheless, the hunger for and possibility of solidarity among women beckons. Recently, women have been posting their experiences of assault and harassment on social media. We might listen to and lament the horrific stories being shared, and also wonder: Whom, exactly, are we reminding that women are treated as second class? 

Being heard is one kind of power, and being free is another. We have undervalued women’s speech for so long that we run the risk of overburdening it. Speech, right now, is just the flag that marks the battle. The gains won by women are limited to those who can demand them. Individual takedowns and social media stories do not yet threaten the structural impunity of powerful men as a group. On one side of the issue, the moral weight is crushing, the energy vital and sincere. On the other side, there is disavowal and retrenchment. In between are plenty of people who would rather we just talked about something else. This type of problem always narrows to an unavoidable point. The exploitation of power does not stop once we consolidate the narrative of exploitation. A genuine challenge to the hierarchy of power will have to come from those who have it.

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