Friday, January 13, 2017

Joy and Hope
Rob Gieselmann, Christmas 2016 (A)
(rhinocerous joke: why do you never see a rhino hiding in a tree? They are so good at it)

Broadcaster Alistair Cooke liked to tell the story about planning a Christmas entertainment show with Leonard Bernstein. You remember Leonard Bernstein - he conducted the New York Symphony and composed the scores for West Side Story, and Peter Pan.  The group was tossing  ideas around, when Cooke suggested they offer a shortened version of Handel’s Messiah – Cooke noted, a hackneyed idea, but people will like it nonetheless. Bernstein looked bewildered, and confessed: Messiah? I don’t know the work. Imagine that, Leonard Bernstein unfamiliar with Handel’s Messiah. Somewhat ironically, Bernstein composed his own version of a faith symphony, years later, for the grand opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Bernstein aptly named his work, Mass, a postmodern interpretation of the Christian mass. At first, the entire cast: the priest, the choir, and the altar party,sing as though unified – harmoniously. At some point, though, division intrudes, an unpleasant note; the discordancy grows, and the choir falls into disarray. Their chaos and bitterness becomes palpable. They no longer believe God exists, and even if God does, why do we need him? They wonder. The tension builds into climax, when the priest himself finally erupts, throwing the chalice and paten, the holy bread and the wine, to the floor, smashing them to bits. Everyone on stage collapses into silence. And the stage turns dark. But … Then … after a minute … you hear a flute – darting about, searching for its note. The flute is the Holy Spirit, for with God, there is always, always redemption.  Always an element of hope.

When the Spirit fixes on its note, one member of the altar party rises to sing a simple song of praise. The rest rise, too, returning to unity, singing harmonically. It is a fulfillment of the prophet: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. There is now peace. Pax Tecum. Go in peace, the priest intoned, sending them forth in the name of God.

And this is what is on my heart this dark night: I am wondering, how in this present world of chaos, this world in which trucks plow through throngs of Christmas shoppers, developed nations have fallen into political chaos, and wars ravage even children, Where do you – you – find your peace? On that night, so many, many years ago, the shepherds too, wondered at peace. They were equally afraid, Sore afraid.On your bulletin cover, you can see a representation of this fear –
This unique version of the shepherd scene was painted by seventeenth century Dutch artist Adam Pynacker. My son, Tate, and I stumbled across this painting at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always imagined the shepherd scene to be placid. But Pynacker paints of shepherds consumed by fear – The skies are roiling black, the storms held at bay only by the beating of the angels’ wings. The shepherds are stumbling over each other, for they are sore afraid. Even the animals are afraid, the bull ready to charge, the goat bucking rebellion. Deep darkness covethe earth, said the prophet. The deepest darkness. And yet – when life is darkest; when the stage turns black – there is, if only you could hear it – the singular sound of a flute seeking its note. The choir was sore afraid. The shepherds were sore afraid.You and I – we are sore afraid. Darkness forms a shroud about us.

But do you not know? Have you not heard?


The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. For unto you is born this day in the city of David,  a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
                 
In the old Provencal French countryside, they still tell an old Christmas legend – about a little shepherd, whom everyone thinks has been lost – they search and search for him, until they find him at long last kneeling at the foot of the manger – in sheer delight. He is exactly where he wants to be.

Dorothy Day – that twentieth century Catholic social activist – believed Christians have an obligation to delight. Despite the world’s great suffering, despite your own struggles and pain, despite chaos and discordance and confusion – We would be contributing to the misery of the world, if we failed to rejoice in creation. The world, she said, will be saved by beauty. One day, a wealthy woman came into their center and donated a diamond ring. Dorothy Day didn’t sell the ring to raise money to feed or house the poor. Instead, she gave the ring to one of their poorest of ladies – Outright. Just gave it to her. When criticized, Dorothy responded: This woman can sell the diamond to buy food. But, she might decide just to enjoy it.  Do you suppose God created diamonds only for the rich? What diamonds did God create for you? The tiniest and most insignificant shepherd delighted in the baby at the manger. A poor old woman who could barely feed herself wore a diamond on her finger. And if you listen carefully – amidst the world’s fear and chaos – I promise, you will hear the single note of a flute rising. The Holy Spirit of God, intoning, delighting in, joy. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
Seize that joy, my friends, on this holy night. Delight in that grace. And be not afraid. For don’t you know? The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

Merry Christmas.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Crosses and the Other Side
Rob Gieselmann, Pent. 18C, Sept. 4, 2016

I remember a poem from years ago – Only I cannot
recall the poet or the actual words of the poem – Age
seems to have eroded my memory …But the poem left
me with an image.  It is winter, and a man is walking
through snowy woods late at night. He is walking
backwards, away from his cottage, staring at the light
shining through the front window of the cottage. As he
walks backwards the light disappears from his view. He  stops – then walks back towards the cottage, and the light reappears. He reverses course again, and the light disappears. And he realizes, now, that there exists an invisible line dividing his sight – a perimeter beyond
which the light is no longer perceivable. A circle within
which he can see.

*Jesus is traveling from his home in Galilee towards Jerusalem, through Samaria. Somewhere along the way,
he crosses some invisible perimeter – he becomes the
man in the poem – Only he has walked inside the circle, through the perimeter of truth. The truth about his
life. That truth, though, perversely dark, remains
evanescent. Now he can see now what he could not see
in Galilee. He is going to die. On the cross. How is it nobody can see his cross. That the people would turn against him. He must have wondered. Instead, the people crowd him
like crazed fans at a rock concert, or Big Orange Volunteers at the home-game opener. Pressing in on every side. No, they don’t see the cross like he does, but it is there. Jesus tells them as much – and he tells them about their own crosses, too. Cross and death loom like a red moon rising – for all of us.

*What do you think Jesus meant when he said you’d
have to carry your cross? Give away your possessions?
The disciples once claimed they’d given up everything to follow Jesus. But they hadn’t - not really - had they? Given up everything. They had families, and, to a person, each of them abandoned Jesus at the end, Peter included.  And if not these men, who then could take up their crosses?
In light of that - I don’t think I am a very good at following Jesus.


**
When I was young and impulsive – I promised Jesus I’d follow him wherever he would lead me. They say some people grow into faith, while others leap. I lept.
Leave it all, I had imagined, as a young man and follower of Jesus. I might just as well  have been the young man who promised to follow Jesus wherever he went, to whom Jesus retorted, foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. Abandon everything, only – I seem to give away my possessions – metaphorically – only to buy them back right away.

**
I’m older, now, and I, like Jesus, seem to have crossed some invisible perimeter into the field of the cottage light.
I will turn 58, soon, which places me on the back side of middle age. And these days it is as though I see things that were once outside my field of vision. In July, I attended my fortieth high school reunion. My old friends had aged – everybody that is, except for me – You’ve heard the old
line: I was young once, but I got over it. Reminds me of the the Simon and Garfunkel lyric - I’m older than I was,
but younger than I’ll be, that’s not unusual. Just a few years ago, when I was in my forties – and even as late as 50 – people called me the “young Episcopal priest” – I would laugh at them - only in the Episcopal Church is a priest called young at 50. But I’m no longer 50, and soon I will be 60, entering my seventh decade. And I have seen what many of you already know – that there is an invisible perimeter - a dividing line separating those who see the cottage light from those who do not. Turns out – you are young only until you aren’t. And somewhere along the way, your own cross as a cottage light comes into view. And at that point, if you haven’t done so already, you face the choice:  What do I want my life to be about? Is it my possessions? Money? All that I own? The concept of ownership is actually an illusion – ephemeral. You cannot take it with you, after all. But there is something you will
take with you. And that is this: You will take with you the
very real substance of a life well-lived. Or not.
        
Which is why I must ask, what kind of life  do you lead? What values have you purchased along the way? Now, please do not misinterpret my melancholy – I believe
deeply in resurrection. I believe that Jesus at Easter
leads to life beyond the grave. Like I said Thursday at
Chalmers Wilson’s funeral, We are Easter people!
The nineteenth century religious philosopher James Martineau said, I don’t believe in resurrection because
I can prove it, I am forever trying to prove it because I believe it. People across the world –  not just Christians,
but people of all traditions – have this inalienable sense that life does not end at the termination of the physical body.
Meaning now – that how you choose to live this life now – makes a difference. Which is – what Paul is telling
Philemon – that he, too, has a choice – to do good in accepting Onesimus, his runaway slave, back as a
brother – Or not. Yes, how you choose to live, to forgive,
to be generous – or not –  Brings Jesus’ imperative
into view – your cross, your possessions, laying up treasurers.  These concepts are all about the soul – The quality of the soul. The care of the soul. Although they hint at the world to come, Jesus is certainly speaking about the life you live today. Whether you are young, or old. Whether your cross is yet in view, or not. And so – acquire possessions
if you must, but I’m wondering what you might purchase on your way, as you travel to Jerusalem?



Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Once More: Literal About Grace
Rob Gieselmann, Pent. 16C (Aug. 21, 2016)

Sometimes it is all about what you see –  and what
you don’t see.  The writer to the Hebrews speaks about t
wo worlds, two mountains, as though exist simultaneously.

First there is the fiery mountain, an image taken from Moses and the ancient Hebrews – The mountain was tempestuous, and portended judgment. Shuddering fear, for even touching the mountain would result in certain death. But there is this second Mountain, Mt. Zion, on which is located the City of God, holy and spiritual Jerusalem. Angels – myriads of them - live there, as does love, absolute love – and you. (Right now) On this mountain every person – you, me, all of us is a first-born child. Each person inherits absolutely everything.
My daughter Tilly likes to tell anybody who will listen, My Dad loves me the best. She especially likes to say this within ear-shot of her brother, Tate. In fact, I do love her best. But I love Tate best, also. If I had a third child, I’d love her best.

Because the nature of love is such that you can love 100 people at 100% each. So you see – you are to God, the first-born, the best-loved: you inherit everything. Problem is – most of us don’t see very well – we can’t see the holy mountain, for the mountain of judgment. *The synagogue official likewise could not see.  He was blind to what we around here have been calling the literal grace of God.
Why was this religious man so blind? Why are so many religious people – leaders and otherwise – portrayed in Scripture as blind?




Throughout history, blind. Men and women fail to
see love for shuddering fear of judgment. It is as though
they cannot see the holy Mountain for the Mountain of Judgment, fear. *Jesus – on this day - is teaching in the synagogue. The woman bent double walks in to listen to him. Jesus calls her over, touches her, and heals her. Violating it seems the very law of God, healing on the Sabbath. The devout synagogue official reproves not
Jesus, but the woman – Now – in a world in which the true meaning of Sabbath seems to have dissipated – This
man’s complaint seems irrelevant.

When was the last time you took a day to do nothing?
When was the last time your children complained of boredom – for want of something to do? Did you know that boredom is crucial to the development of a child’s creativity? Being bored forces a child to create – to find something fun to do – Adults, too – we need what I like to call porch time – that empty time of staring into space and dreaming – Sabbath has a deeper meaning – an important place in human life – but when was the last time we honored it as more than the day we go to church?

Religious rules – like Sabbath – are intended to facilitate
life, not – as in this case – inhibit it. This woman – a child
of Abraham – one of God’s first-born, has waited 18 long years to inherit grace. She shouldn’t have to wait until tomorrow – She shouldn’t have to wait one more second. For grace.

*In his novel, East of Eden, John Steinbeck tells a parable about the lives and deaths of three men. The first man happened to be the richest man in the century.
He became rich by clawing his way there, leaving the souls and bodies of many people in his wake. Once rich, he used his money benevolently – to buy back the love he had squandered to become rich. (I think this man must have
been a Kardashian.) When he died, people lauded him openly, but secretly they said to themselves, Thank God
that [SOB] is finally dead. The second man was similar.
He had this trait – of being beguiling. He could trap people
with his winning smile, yet he would take advantage
of their flaws through bribery and blackmail. This man rose to great power, enabling him to disguise his malevolence behind apparent virtue. Appearances are deceiving, so when this man died – there was no real sadness, none at all.
A big so-what? The third man was flawed. He made many mistakes in his life, but he dedicated his life to others, to make them brave and dignified. He encouraged people when they were at their worst, poor and frightened and afraid. And, of course, when this man died, the people cried out in great lament, and asked, how can we go on now? Whatever will we do? I don’t know why so many religious people – in Scripture and alive today – erect a fa├žade of a grace they don’t believe in? Don’t rely upon. They make
their homes on the mountain of judgment – I’ve seen these people, and you have, too – They are like the synagogue official - more ready to honor the Sabbath or maintain some hollow ritual or rule than they are to forgive, to heal to restore. I’m speaking of Christians, here – not just the religious unknown. Christians for whom church is more important than faith. For whom the Bible is more important than the people. For whom – and forgive me here – the sacrament is more important than the grace it conveys.

What is it we do here, anyway? If we can’t be literal about grace – shouldn’t we just go home? If we decline to forgive –
to heal – to love – Why bother? But I have a vision instead, and I think you do, too. In my vision, I see you – and me – walking perhaps hand in hand down golden paths of
charity on the holy mount – carrying grace in
our hearts, and encouragement on our lips? God’s
first-born and irrevocable love for all others.

For don’t you know? Now abideth three things:
faith, hope and charity. And the greatest of these is
charity.