“Counterfeit Ways” by Mark W. Harris – October 19, 2008

“Counterfeit Ways” by Mark W. Harris

October 19, 2008 – First Parish of Watertown

Call to Worship – from Arnold Ludwig

Fantasy often represents a convenient way for people to temporarily lie to themselves in order to make life more palatable. Although (we) may not fully believe in the actual reality of the products of (our) fantasy, (we) can invest enough belief in them to offer (ourselves) some degree of satisfaction. If (we) were to remain chronically frustrated in the satisfaction of (our) hopes, ambitions and desires, without having access to the solace of fantasy and the temporary solutions and pleasures it provides, it would become difficult to sustain hope and optimism toward the future.

Readings – from Abide with Me by Elizabeth Strout
from Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Sermon – “Counterfeit Ways” Mark W. Harris

There are many Islamic tales from the Sufi tradition that feature the fool Nasrudin. One story tells of a neighbor who Nasrudin didn’t like very much. He came to Nasrudin’s house one day, and asked him if he could borrow Nasrudin’s donkey. Not wanting to loan his animal to a neighbor he didn’t care for, Nasrudin told him, “I would love to loan you my donkey, but only yesterday my brother came from the next town to use it to carry his wheat to the mill to be ground. Sadly, the donkey is not here.” The neighbor was disappointed. He thanked Nasrudin, and began to walk away. Unfortunately, when he was only a few steps away, Nasrudin’s donkey which had been out behind the house the whole time, let out a very loud bray. Upon hearing this, the neighbor turned to Nasrudin, and said, Mullah Sahib, I thought you told me that your donkey was not here. Nasrudin then turned to the neighbor and said, “My friend, who are you going to believe? Me or the donkey?

How many of us have used deception to try to fool one of our neighbors to keep them from using something of ours? While most of us might not refuse to help on the grounds that we simply dislike the person, there is often an unwillingness to help based on prior experience with the person. Somehow the lawn mower we have loaned so many times before always comes back broken, or the tool is missing a piece, or years go by and the neighbor seems to have forgotten who the item in question belonged to the first place. At our cottage in Maine, Andrea and I have had the unsavory problem recently of dealing with a neighbor who refused to move a tractor trailer from our property for years, after we gave them permission to park there for one winter. In the end we had to sue her, as she claimed the property was really hers. Would you let her park on your property again? With the missing or broken items the logical response might be to confront the person, and say I can’t loan you this item because of prior experience. Unfortunately that honesty sometimes results in a very angry response, so that the neighbor you once waved to on a daily basis, refuses to look your way for a year. Sometimes deception really works. I would love to loan you that first edition, but my insurance policy prevents me from doing so, or you know I gave my steam cleaner to my brother, and never got it back. Otherwise, I would be happy to loan it to you. A little deception, and the neighbor stays friendly, but never asks again to borrow that item that you do not really want to part with. So we can see that deception may lead to some neighborhood social cohesion, and a little piece of mind for you.

What? Is the minister suggesting that we use deception on a daily basis? Isn’t the clergy usually imploring us to speak and live with integrity, and not try to be deceptive? Is this a new approach to faith development? Some years ago, David Rankin, a former minister of this church told the story of meeting with a search committee from a Unitarian Universalist church here on the East coast. He said it was a very congenial meeting until one of the member of the committee asked about his personal theology. When Rankin responded that he was a Christian, the faces turned suddenly to stone and the room went dead. All the air was suddenly sucked out. Finally, he said after the longest meditation he had ever endured, the chair of the search committee said, “Well, maybe we won’t have to tell anyone.” This did not meet Rankin’s criteria for honesty and integrity, and so it ended his conversation with this church forever. Perhaps it reminds us of the military policy on gay and lesbian soldiers of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” It was unfair and unjust to the integrity of all those soldiers to be closeted in order to serve. We would all want full disclosure and full acceptance. Yet as much as we abhorred “don’t ask, don’t tell, it also reflected a reality about the society.

I see that reality in colleagues from many faith traditions. They are Lutheran, Episcopalian, Methodist and Catholic. Being actively gay or lesbian in any of those traditions is not accepted. You can be defrocked. You can have your calling to ministry be denied, if you admit what your sexual identity is in any way, shape or form. Just two years ago I conducted a wedding for two women, one of whom was an Episcopal priest. Her own pastor could not marry her, and she could not publicly reveal that she was united in marriage to the woman she loved, something all straight people just take for granted. Yet clearly her calling, her identification with her faith tradition is so meaningful, even if it asks her to deny her very being, the use of deception outweighs the truthfulness of publicly stating who she is. I am sure it is painful living with this deception, but the alternative is for some people, more painful. And perhaps, too, there is always the hope that we can be change agents within the institution, so that some day deception will be less necessary.

While this seems like a violation of their personal integrity on some level, it also speaks a truth that in many circumstances, all of us use some forms of deception in order to make our way in the world – to save our livelihood, our families, our sense of privacy, and even our lives. Sometimes we are not ready to reveal something until the time is right, or we feel comfortable, and so, in the meantime we use deception. Sometimes this deception is perpetrated upon us. This is something clergy live with every day. People in the community frequently project their ideas of what clergy should be like all the time. In the reading from Gilead, we see how the joking stops when boys are around the minister. It is like my former parishioner in Milton, who always apologized when she said a swear word around me, even something as innocuous as hell, because somewhere in her conscience she was not suppose to say such words in front of clergy, as it will besmirch their purity of body and spirit, or else maybe it is the fear of swearing before God’s representative will surely send you to hell. For me, the reality is I can swear with the best blasphemers. Sometimes it seems as though we clergy live out this deception of who we are. People’s projections may reflect that they expect us to be different than human somehow. It is reflected in what the minister in Gilead says, “people see us as being a little bit apart.” Perhaps he also feels he must keep his dying condition a secret, so the parishioners are not faced with the reality of his demise. All of this reminds us that there is, as he says, “a lot under the surface of life.” There is a lot of malice and dread and guilt and loneliness. I have had conversations about how it is acceptable for parishioners to not believe in God, but since I am clergy it is expected that I have to believe in God. I have to represent that reality. Perhaps the deception lives on, even among liberals that the clergy must live believing that God exists, even if they do not. Somehow it gives comfort, or security or hope in a chaotic world.

The security of deception is real. Nature built that right in. Merely surviving in the world depends upon camouflage – how creatures become the color of their environment striped or brown or white in order that they might better blend in to protect themselves from predators. They are deceiving the hunters so that they might live. We also enhance our true colors in order to propagate, as the male birds wear brighter coats to attract a partner who is coaxed into mating by such beauty. In similar ways humans use deceptive touches to enhance our beauty that partners might be attracted to us. The story of Adam and Eve illustrates the key role of deception, and how an awareness of good and evil is necessary to live in the world.

Art forms are also used in deceptive ways to beautify an area or even to trick the viewer into believing that he/she is seeing something actual when in fact it is an illusion. In Boston at Mass Ave. and Boylston we see a building painted on a otherwise undescriptive wall, and perhaps we wonder if there is a real building there, or if part of it contains a real window or a door. Near Sheffield in England, where Andrea and I stayed a few years ago, there is a grand country estate called Chatsworth House. On one of the interior doors, it appears as though a violin and its bow are suspended, but as you approach the objects, you realize it is only painted to appear as though they are there. Churches may have columns that are not really there, or soaring arches that are only an illusion. This effect is called Tromp l’œil, or “trick the eye.” It is an art technique involving extremely realistic imagery in order to create the optical illusion that the depicted objects appear in three-dimensions, even though it is really a two dimensional painting. It is almost as if the human psyche enjoys being tricked, as we have all experienced in magic shows.

The original idea for this sermon arose out of seeing the movie The Counterfeiters. It is an academy Award winning foreign film which tells the story of Salomon or “Sally” Sorowitsch, who is Berlin’s most famous forger. It is based on the true life story of a man who used his counterfeiting skills to helps the Nazis implement a plan for forging the British pound and the American dollar, and then using the counterfeit currency to flood the market, and destabilize the two country’s economies. It was called Operation Bernhard. At first it seems as though Sally is operating out of the sheer need for self-preservation, as he finds some protection and comforts and privileges from painting portraits of German guards and their families in the concentration camp. These privileges increase as he is transferred to a section of a camp devoted to forgery. As the counterfeiting operation begins to unfold, a socialists printer objects as he feels what they are doing supports the German war effort. We realize with Sally that the idealism of living with pure integrity cannot be possible in such a situation. At one point Sally castigates the printer by saying, “Nobody’s prepared to die for a principle.” Although it appears at first as though he is only looking out for his own neck, we soon learn that Sally, despite his life of deception and crime is now using those skills to address broader questions of life and death, especially when they come to appreciate the wider war that the Nazis are fighting , and most especially his relationships with others in the community of the camp, and his concern for them. Keeping them alive becomes more important than anything. We see the complexities of balancing the demands of the Nazis who will stop at nothing to achieve their goals, fellow prisoners who want to sabotage the operation, and his growing attachment to his fellow inmates. When do you stop cooperating with evil? How do you balance staying alive with your obligations to others, and the challenge to fight injustice? While life in the camps was more horrific than anything we could ever imagine, the Counterfeiters also reminds us how much guile or deception it takes to survive in our world, in the complex balancing of life’s struggles. In these times of fear and chaos, we want to protect our families, and have some hope in a future where we can pay our bills and maintain our homes. And the world is often not a place where others seem to live with integrity or concern for others.

It seems odd perhaps to say that deception can help us balance the threats on our lives. Most of us live on the brink of being fed up with deception having just about seen the end of the Presidential campaign. We know that many presidential candidates will tell us anything we want to hear in order to get our vote and to get elected. This is exasperating because we want to hear the truth and we want to know that we can trust our future presidents with such an important job. Then we hear accusations of association with terrorists that are exaggerated rumors or outright lies. And even when the falsehood that the candidate is a Muslim, for instance is dismissed as untrue, we never address the question of what would be wrong if a candidate were a Muslim? Perhaps it is just like the clergyperson who must at least appear to believe in God, the candidate must at least appear to be Christian, so there is a secure, comfort level that we are in no danger. Television tries to provide a truth meter on how close the candidates claims are to actual truth. Yet isn’t it absurdly ironic that a media based on the creation of false images is the judge of how truthful each candidate really is.
The Rev. Tyler Caskey, the main character in Abide with Me, seems very different from Sally, the lifelong criminal. In the passage I read, Charlie says Tyler would turn the other cheek if he popped him one. Perhaps he seems closer in spirit to the idealist activist in the movie who lives by the power of an idea, and Sally ends up protecting him. In his conversation with Charlie, Tyler hears how his parishioners are out to get him, due to a rumored affair with his housekeeper. He is told they go after weakness, especially when they expect you to be strong. Charlie seems to say in their conversation that the Christianity Tyler offers up is a deception. He says it is gobbledygook that he carries on with as though it meant something. He uses it to make himself feel superior. Now it appears as though Tyler, who has never had a satisfactory relationship with his daughters, finally wishes to move beyond the facades of ministerial role and Christian doctrine. He responds that faith does mean something, “if you think how we live our lives means something.” Tyler does not want his religion to be based on false ideas or deceptive roles or pipe dreams of rosy futures. He wants his faith and his life to be real. He does not care what people think. He wants it to be a living truth in the present.

In the novel Gilead, the lonely old minster probably would have given anything to have been able to laugh with the boys. He realized that sometimes deception is good in the service of relationships, to protect oneself or others, to fantasize, or to keep the peace, but the tragic deception is when we believe in a lie. He was not ready perhaps to share that he was dying, but if he could have been human with the boys, and lived in the moment with them., then his life would have seemed more meaningful. We need deception sometimes because we need to hide our pain or sorrow, but we can’t live our lives believing in false promises, that it is going to get better and better, as it may not. Most of us are slugging it out day to day, and in our daily realization of how vulnerable we are to larger forces in the world, disease and personal trauma, we are only too aware of how dangerous and fearful life is. We can be wiped out. The link between Sally and Tyler is that they want to reject the bigger illusion or deception that so many people put their faith in – that human progress or religious salvation will make it all better. Instead they use smaller deceptions to protect the self in their vulnerability and then the self is truly free to embrace the reality of meaning found only in relationship, in the moment.

Life sometimes hangs in the balance. People come after us, and want to take our property or our livelihood. When I lost a job once, the person who engineered my demise said to someone, “I didn’t want to wreck his life or anything.” It was my family, my friends, and members of this congregation who stood by and helped. It didn’t make losing my livelihood any better. But it made it bearable. I was not so alone. Then I could begin again. We are hurt by calamity and disease. It is a jungle, and so we protect ourselves with what deceptions we have. We take care of our families. We are loyal to our friends. We affirm the right of privacy. In the real world Adam and Eve are forced from the idea of Eden because it does not exist. No paradise, only here and now with each other. They come to recognize that the real world is their literal fight against being hurt, losing relationships, and feeling alone. They will use their wills to seek the good because so much evil can befall them. And so we do what we can to stay afloat, affirming the loves and loyalties we have for self and others. Our faith must be grounded, not in a principle like reason or progress or salvation in the sweet by and by, but in love, right now. We must have the will to turn to one another, and not say, I know it will turn out all right, but rather, however it turns out, I will stick by you, I will support you and I love you.

Closing Words – from Annie Dillard

Divinity is not playful. The universe was not made in jest but in solemn incomprehensible earnest. By a power that is unfathomably secret, and holy and fleet. There is nothing to be done about it, but ignore it, or see. And then you walk fearlessly, eating what you must, growing wherever you can, like the monk on the road who knows precisely how vulnerable he is, who takes no comfort among death-forgetting men, and who carries his vision of vastness and might around in his tunic like a live coal which neither burns nor warms him, but with which he will not part.