Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Last Word: Grace
Rob Gieselmann, Pent. 29B (C. King Sunday), 2015

Just when he was about to die, Voltaire was asked
to renounce Satan. He retorted – and these are Voltaire’s last words – Now is not the time to make enemies.
Groucho Marx wanted these last words written on his tombstone: Excuse me, I can’t stand up.  In 2008, when he was dying of cancer, Randy Pausch published his last words in the form of a little book, entitled, The Last Lecture.
He wrote the book as a legacy for his three young sons. One of the chapters is entitled, The truth shall set you free .In it, Pausch tells about the time a Virginia patrolman stopped him for speeding. Pausch had just moved his family to Virginia so his in-laws would be able to help his wife with their boys after he died. He still carried his old Pennsylvania drivers’ license.
I just moved here, Pausch explained. What brought you to Virginia? the officer asked. Pausch thought about obfuscating – rather than state the uncomfortable truth – But he decided not to. I’m dying, he said. The officer didn’t believe him; Pausch looked healthy. So - Pausch pulled up his shirt and showed the officer his surgery scars.
The officer wasn’t sure what to say, but as Pausch wryly noted, I didn’t get the speeding ticket. The Truth Shall Set you Free!

I came to bear witness to truth, Jesus told Pilate. Pilate retorted, What is truth? Well – what is truth? Truth does not equal raw honesty – but it at least starts there, with honesty. In fact, I’d say spirituality starts with honesty. You remember the old television show, House – about the irascible Dr. House? House was fond of saying – ever so cynically – Patients lie. All patients lie. In fact, most of us lie, if not all of us. I just love your haircut. Yes! Those jeans make you look skinny. Often, people actually protect themselves with silence of untruths – they become afraid to speak what they feel.  Like, I think you drink too much. Or, You scare me.
Elephants in the living room, and don’t dysfunctional family systems begin and end with lies? I’m dying, Pausch said;
just saying it liberated Pausch. I’ve watched people going through death experience freedom – when they could face it head-on. George Bernard Shaw fell off a ladder when he was 94 years old. His sister tried to save him, but Shaw rejected her, and his last words being, Sister, you’re trying to
keep me alive as an old curiosity. But I’m done, I’m finished,
I’m going to die. Jesus, too, was going to die. Standing before Pontius Pilate, Jesus like Pausch spoke truth. But Pilate wasn’t used to truth - most people, after all, would lie to Pilate. This man deserves to die, the Jewish leaders lied.
Only - Jesus didn’t deserve to die, Pilate instinctively knew better. You can tell from the story. But Pilate engaged Jesus anyway. You must have done something, or you wouldn’t be standing here. Are you a king? My kingdom is not
of this world, Jesus answered – another truth. You’re a king, then? You say so. I came to bear witness to truth. What is truth?  Reminds me of the movie, A Few Good men – Jack Nicholson retorts to Tom Cruise’s cross examination, Truth, truth! You can’t handle the truth! *Two criminals hung on crosses, one on each side of Jesus. The first criminal couldn’t handle the truth; the second could. Both were dying cruel deaths; but both had committed crimes. One obfuscated – he was, I would guess, good at it. The other – perhaps for the first time in his life – became honest.
He turned to Jesus, and uttered his last words, Remember me when you come into your kingdom. This man dying on a cross was freed. Today you will be with me in Paradise. Jesus promised. The truth shall set you free. And isn’t that God’s nature? The exercise of unrelenting generosity and grace?  *This past week, I had a discussion about our church with some parishioners. I asked them What makes The Ascension different from most other churches in Knoxville? You know, What sets us apart? People threw out some great answers, like the way we encourage broad thinking. Via media. Our beautiful music and liturgy. One person observed, Everyone is welcome at the Ascension. Yes, I thought to myself, that is right, but I wondered: why is everybody so welcome? Why do you feel welcome? Isn’t it because you, too, have experienced the same unrelenting generosity and grace? You, too, have tasted the sweetness of love? I don’t know about you, but I welcome people to church because God accepted me. Most churches speak about welcome  - but often you have to do something to earn the welcome. Convert. Agree to a particular dogma. Conform to an unspoken moral code. This community – Knoxville – is chock-full of people who feel disaffected because they couldn’t quite pass some church’s litmus test.  When you invite people to Ascension, you are inviting them to do one thing – to receive and one thing only: experience first hand God’s unrelenting generosity and grace.

Today we celebrate. Our life together, and more –our future together. And perhaps you’d like to know what I think that future holds? Very simply – more lovely grace, for you and anyone in Knoxville who will receive it.

Aren’t we the lucky ones?

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Do the Peace of Jerusalem
Rob Gieselmann, Pent. 28B, November 15, 2015

In the television show,
Madame Secretary – Tea Leone stars as the Secretary of State of the United States.  Last Sunday, the show
opened with a disturbingly familiar internet clip of
an Isis terrorist murdering an American journalist, onscreen.  The terrorist is clothed head-to-toe in black – his face shrouded. He stares into the camera and speaks menacingly in farsi, but with an American accent. Tea Leone and her staff realize immediately that the man must be an American – so they set about discovering his identity. Once they think they have it, they invite the young man’s mother – an American – into the office, for her to confirm his identity. She hasn’t yet seen the Internet clip – so they show it to her.
Once again, there is the terrorist, shrouded in black – menacing. The woman watches the clip with bewilderment – Why are they showing this to her? she wonders.
But then the man – the boy, really – speaks – And her expression changes – from bewilderment to shock, and finally to perturbation. Her body shakes, her face contorts in horror. She realizes, her son, her beloved, is a murderer, and worse, a terrorist. Just a few short years before, she had nursed this boy at her breast. Held him in her arms, coddled him, and protected him. *Men don’t always appreciate the maternal instinct.

When Hannah was distraught at having no children, her husband, Elkanah, asked her, Aren’t I enough for you?
Hannah didn’t answer Elkanah, but if she had, her answer would have been, No. And I think of Hannah, and I think of all the mothers, this morning, who lost children in Paris on Friday night. Mothers both of the innocent and of the guilty –

For these mothers, all of them, we should pray. Now – the assumption is that Hannah’s motives were maternal only – but they were not. She was equally jealous of Elkanah’s other wife – the one with so many children. Maternal and jealous. Hannah’s soul was empty, for all the right reasons, plus a few dark ones. But God answered Hannah’s prayer, anyway, and she gave birth to Samuel. Samuel, who became the last of the judges, the first of the prophets – Samuel, who anointed two kings during his lifetime, Saul as Israel’s first, and David as Israel’s greatest.

And so it is, in life, some children become terrorists, while others become saints. This happens among the children of mothers, don’t ask me why. *Jesus warned, Not one stone will be left upon another. This prediction is not
judgment – neither Jesus nor God is condemning Israel. Rather, it is, as Rene Girard claimed. Girard by the way is the prominent French philosopher – and I would add theologian – who died just over a week ago – Girard claimed that humanity is responsible for its own history, not God. Hence, Jesus’ words are prediction, and not judgment. Not one stone will be left upon another.  **And, in fact, not one stone is left upon another. The Temple at Jerusalem was destroyed less than a generation after Jesus’ ascension, in the year 70. Only the Temple Mount still exists – the foundation - with its stone side, the Wailing Wall. When I visited the Wailing Wall some twenty years ago, I was given a free yamulkah – which I pinned to my head. I then walked-up to the wall, stood inches from it, just like I saw others do. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, the psalmist commanded, so I prayed for the peace of Jerusalem. All around me orthodox men likewise prayed. They rocked back and forth on their heels and toes, their heels and toes, like Hannah, uttering intense prayers, crying out to God. I suspect that they, too, prayed for the peace of Jerusalem. That they, too, prayed for the day when swords might be beat into ploughshares. Yet, even as I prayed, even as they prayed, there stood immediately above us, on the wall itself, a soldier holding an uzzi, guarding the peace. About a hundred yards away – on the Temple Mount itself – stands the second holiest site in all Islam, the Dome of the Rock. When I finished my prayers at the wall, I went to the mosque. Took off my shoes, and entered it solemnly. I don’t remember praying there, but I watched this stadium of men,
kneeling on their prayer rugs – Up and down, up and down,
worshipping the same god, the God of Abraham. And I don’t for the life of me understand how these faithful men –
the Jews and Muslims, could pray so close to each other, to the same God of Abraham, brothers – really – yet live in such a state of hate.

Brother will lift sword against brother, Jesus continued, and a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household –
Jihadi John, that Brit, so vengefully murdering his own brothers openly for all the world to see. *Woody Allen, in his pessimistic way, once said, Mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.

When will these things happen? The disciples asked Jesus.
I don’t know why Jesus didn’t retort, When WON’T they happen?  *Rene Girard blames it all on competition. Not competition as in capitalism and free markets – but in that very unholy need each of us has to obtain what we don’t have, but see in others. Like Hannah competing with Elkanah’s other wife – we’re never satisfied, are we?

This need to measure ourselves over against others leads, Girard says, to retaliation. And I would add, retaliation leads to war, and is evil.  **What happened Friday night is evil. No question about it. How did these children of God turn into terrorists working for darkness? I honestly don’t know. And of-course, it is too soon – to remind ourselves of this fact - that these terrorists were somebody’s children. But they were. I think what I want to  know is this: How is it Jews that prays at the wall.  Muslims inside the Dome.  Christians at St. George’s Episcopal Church nearby.  All Abraham’s children, praying for peace. But not willing to live peace? Brother against brother. And a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.

I know one cannot compare the ISIS terrorists
with the faithful religious elsewhere. And I am not offering you an answer today; This sermon is not one of instruction, but of lamentation. I am deeply grieved. I suspect you are, too. And I would prefer in my grief to turn to prayer and hope
rather than despair and retaliation. And my prayer is ironic – it is that one of these days, we actually stop praying for peace – And begin to do peace. 

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Boundary of the Ocean
Rob Gieselmann, Pent. 24B, Oct. 18, 2015

Seven or eight years ago, I kicked a sabbatical off with a short camping trip. I drove to Big Sur, and pitched my tent on a cliff, high above the Pacific Ocean.  The nights were deep and dark. No moon, no light pollution, only stars. Millions of them, their ancient light, piercing the eternal veil –

Several shooting stars flew high above, as I sat there, alone with God. One, and then another, and one of them flew so low above me, it seemed larger than any I’d ever seen before – Fiery orange, and the size of my fist, and I thought to myself – if I listen hard enough, I’ll hear it splash into the Pacific …
The thought was foolish, and the meteor landed miles away. I’m sure.  The stillness of that night, the holiness of that dark, and the only sound besides my heartbeat was the low rumble of waves that kept pushing in vain against the craggy coast. Those waves seemed to think they could alter the ocean’s boundaries. The swells moved in a cadence like marching troops, wave after wave after wave, but the army failed, and the shore didn’t budge, not even an inch. God was explaining to Job how foolish he’d been, God said of the oceans – No farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped. No farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped. To me, sitting high above it, the ocean seemed almost benign, only I knew better.
A roiled ocean emasculates and destroys. 

Growing-up in Florida, I learned to body-surf. October was always the best month for it.  The water isn’t winter-cold, yet, but the waves become large, when hurricanes flirt with the coast. To body surf, you have to yield to the wave, enter the wave’s fold, and if you do it correctly, the wave will carry you to the shore, and gently release you.  If you fight against the ocean, one of two things happens: either you won’t catch the wave, or the wave will slam you violently downward, against the ocean bottom, rolling you over and over. Complete chaos, and I wonder whether Jonah felt that chaos as he roiled around in the belly of the fish. I’m certain that’s the chaos Job felt with his life now upended. Before this, he had lived a harmonious life, abiding by all the rules. Do good, and you will receive good. But his rules betrayed Job. He felt as though swallowed by the waves, rolling over and over, thrust hard against the sand. To survive, Job needed to learn the lesson of the body-surfer, to let the waves enfold him. To enter into the chaos, rather than fight against it. He had to change. Before now, Job believed the same thing 90% of all religious people believe: That God was good -  because Job was good. Think about it – this faulty assumption placed Job at the center of his universe. God was good
because Job was good. But now, with waves crashing down on him, the perennial question became his question: Why do bad things happen to good people, and why do good things happen to bad people?

*Chaos theory is the construct that admits: not all of life is predictable. Not everything can be explained. The most obvious example is the weather – so many factors determine the weather, it is ultimately unpredictable – it acts chaotically.
Remember that time when Knoxville sunk to 24 below, back in 1985? Job – to survive - had to convert – to chaos theory, if you will, that he was not in control his life, that God or good or bad are not entirely dependent upon him. And sometimes – bad
things just happen. And when they do, God is still good.
All the time. *Theologians and scientists have parsed the relationship between religion and science in any number of ways – Anglican priest and physicist John Polkinghorne distinguishes between science and religion this way: science inquires into the physical universe – religion inquires into truth. To understand the distinction, you have to define truth as something distinct from fact. Truth does not equal fact. For example, The Genesis story claims God created the earth in six days. If that is a fact – as some people believe – then God created the earth in six literal days. But my junior high teacher taught me about evolution. Which is a scientific fact. Does the science of evolution render the Genesis story meaningless? To the extent the story claims to be science, then yes –  But it doesn’t claim to be science, it is a myth - a story not written for its factuality, but its truth. Six days, six thousand days, six quadrillion days – it doesn’t matter. What matters from the story is this: God is the breath of life – behind it all. And, God is a creator. Always a creator. Astronomer Owen Gingerich, takes a different tack from Polkinghorne, in his little book, God’s Planet. He says that science and religion overlap. That our understanding of one has always influenced our understanding of the other – The two cannot be divorced, one from the other. Science influences faith – for example, evolution has reminded us that the creation story need not be literal to contain truth.
And, faith influences science. Interpreting science, giving science and life meaning beyond cold fact. Because each influences the other, our understanding of God has evolved with the evolution of scientific thought. Which is exactly what is happening to Job  – his foundational belief that God is good because Job is good – has been challenged by fact. And let me insert here - the minute you think you understand God, God will resist you – and ask you the same question asked of Job: Were you there when I laid the foundations of the earth? Instead, the question of integrity – is the exploration question asked daily by St. Francis: Who art thou, O God, and Who am I?A question of integrity because the question never presumes its answer … James and John presumed to know the answer. Can we sit on your right and left in your kingdom? They asked Jesus. They presumed God planned to supplant the Roman occupation of Palestine. But God didn’t send Jesus to solve Israel’s political problems. And their very question reveals their need for spiritual evolution.  The kingdom of God, Jesus told them later, is within you.  An explosive and radical concept to men who wanted political change. Start with yourselves.
The ocean is bound not by rocky shore, but by the voice of God. And yet, the rocks keep the sea at bay. Which is it? The voice of God, or the rocky shore? Either way, I hear them, the troops of the ocean, swell after swell, and wave upon wave, crashing below me, as I sit alone with God on the cliff. Asking myself the question of Francis and of Job, Who art thou, O God, and who am I?

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Hope Defiant
Pent. 23B, 2015, Rob Gieselmann

I don’t know about you, but I’m wondering, why the rich man didn’t argue with Jesus.

Think about it – The man was honorable.  And unlike the Pharisees, he didn’t try to either manipulate Jesus or obfuscate the law for selfish purposes.  Instead, he lived a life Moses would have been proud of.  He was honest as the day is long, he didn’t commit adultery, and he brought honor to his parents.

And now he is seeking spiritual direction, and that from Jesus, the rabbi. Jesus loved him, Mark tells us.  Loved him, a phrase peculiarly out of place in this story, especially if the story is one only about money.  It is a story about money – but far more.
Upon loving the man, Jesus advised him to divest. Sell it all, and give the money to the poor, then you will inherit life.
But what I want to know – like I said – is this:  Why didn’t the man argue with Jesus?  Job argued with God, literally, like a lawyer.  He filed a complaint, a metaphoric lawsuit.  I have lived a righteous life.  He argued.

I have obeyed commandment from birth; exercised  my religion faithfully. Attended church every Sunday, if you will.  I should have been rewarded, not punished, yet here I sit on this mat my body wracked with boils, once rich, now destitute.  It isn’t right.  Where are you, God?  Job’s friend, Eliphaz, advised him to repent –  You must have done something wrong, or this wouldn’t be your plight.

*My wife Laura used to tell stories about family trips to the beach. The four kids would be piled in the backseat of the station wagon – They’d start bickering, and invariably Laura’s mom would swat her hand across the vacuum of the backseat –
That hand always seemed to catch Laura and not the others. She was the youngest, and couldn’t get out of the way fast enough.  Each time, Laura would protest, I didn’t do it.  To which her mother responded wryly,  Well, you did something to deserve that!

Eliphaz is saying to Job You did something to deserve your plight.  But Eliphaz misses Job’s point.  He has only God to whom to complain, but God has gone missing.  AWOL.  Absent without Leave.  And I wonder – how many times in your life have you turned to God in complaint, but God seemed to be missing.

*The translation is incorrect.  You just heard these words: If I go forward, God is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him.
Rather, Job is more poetic:  If I go eastward, God is not there;
or westward – still I cannot see him.  If I seek him in the north, he
is not to be found, invisible still when I turn to the south.

As if to say, I go east, and continue east, and yet cannot find the west. Think about it. God becomes the horizon, you move, and it moves, always beyond your reach. Where are you, Oh God?
Your soul cries out. Job’s soul cried out.

 *I want to know, why didn’t the rich man argue with Jesus like Job argued with God?  *Theologian Martin Buber
wrote this about Job – Job’s problem is not that his faith has broken-down.  Rather, it is that he has two faiths, not one.  One is a faith in justice – Job believes that justice will and must prevail. And the other faith – is in God.  Job believes in an all powerful, all prevailing God.  Which means, Job believes in justice despite believing in God, and he believes in God despite
believing in justice.  And right now – there is no justice.   Or, justice has fallen asleep.  And God seems AWOL.

***And here – and maybe you, too – here is when I think of people like Nelson Mandela and Elie Wiesel, for whom God went AWOL – both imprisoned unjustly, both freed later to lead subsequent remarkable lives.  Nelson Mandela – in South Africa – a lawyer who conspired with others to overthrow the legitimate yet immoral government of South Africa, Legitimate by law, immoral because of apartheid.  Mandela was imprisoned for twenty-seven years – 27, and you know, of course, that during at least  some of that time, he would have cried out at the injustice, cried out to God:  My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?

But God had not forsaken Mandela -  Twenty seven years, plus some, and Mandela became not only South Africa’s first black president, but also the man who brought spiritual peace to a divided country – engaging forgiveness through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  These days, Mandela is called the Father of the Nation.  And Elie Wiesel, who suffered as a boy in concentration camps that killed, literally killed, the rest of his family – and don’t you know he spent years following that experience wrestling with justice and God and darkness, and eventual light – In the end, he wrote about truth, and hope.  It was Elie Wiesel who said,  There are victories of the soul and spirit. Sometimes, even if you lose, you win.
Sometimes, even if you lose, you win –

And Job wrestling with his own demons, and darkness – and the absence of God – putting God on trial, not afraid to ask the hard questions of God – At the end of his quest, he and God reconciled, settled his lawsuit.  And to echo the psalm, his two faiths, in God and in justice,  kissed each other.  I don’t know about the injustices in your life. I can’t easily tell you where God is to be found – although I’m convinced she’s there .But I do know there is this thing called defiant faith. The rich man walked away from Jesus. He failed to engage. To argue, to question. Jesus loved him, and would have loved equally had he stood there and protested.  Indeed, Jesus himself would do exactly that with God, only later: protest – in the garden sweating drops of blood –  So Jesus loved the man,  And I have to say, I think it must have saddened Jesus to watch the man walk away.