Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Saved by Grace through Faith
Rob Gieselmann, August 9, 2015

The Torah – the first five books of the Bible – adjures you to write God’s words on your heart, to bind them on your hands. Teach God’s instructions to your children, and speak of them at home. Faith, you see, begins at home, with family. In old Jewish tradition the home is the schoolhouse – The word rabbi is actually the conflation of two concepts:  teacher and father. The rabbi is parent, and the parent is rabbi. Teaching begins at home, and the first lesson to learn is: to love to learn. There is an old ritual – when a child is about to start school. The parents will write the Hebrew alphabet on slate, then pour honey over it – they give it to the child, inviting her to lick the honey. The lesson is that learning is sweet. Taste and see that the Lord is good, the psalmist wrote. And when it comes to Scripture and tradition, there is an extraordinary connection between food and soul, eating and love. To ancient Jews, the Torah itself was thought of as bread, and the word, the scroll, was metaphorically eaten. Taste and see.

Sometimes Jesus trips me up. On the one hand, in this morning’s reading, Jesus claims nobody can come to him unless the Father first draws that person. The implication is some people are in and some are out. On the other hand, Jesus says, you have to believe. Which is it, then? Who then is responsible for your faith:  you, or God? Well, if Jesus is ambiguous, others are, too: Take the Apostle Paul. He sounds clear enough, when speaking about salvation – You are saved by grace through faith. Only, Paul never says, and it is ambiguous in the Greek, whose faith counts. Yours, or Jesus’? I can’t resist telling you – about a friend’s grandmother. Whenever people would ask whether she was saved, she would reply, Why no, and how unattractive of you to remind me. But thinking about Paul’s meaning, I for one hope it is Jesus’ faith that saves me. My faith is terribly and regularly flawed. Now I said this a couple weeks ago, but I want to be clear: When I speak about salvation – which I will do from time to time – I’m almost never speaking about the by and by. Salvation instead is about the here and no God wants to transform our struggling existence – our chronic isolation, our aloneness – and the feeling that perhaps our lives have little or no meaning – into lives of connection and purpose. Salvation is a chalkboard with Hebrew letters written on it, and coated with honey. Taste and see that the Lord is good. And I swear if Jesus’ faith is not the hinge to that salvation, then I’m in big trouble. 

Last week – the prophet Nathan confronted King David after his illicit affair with Bathsheba. Nathan predicted: the sword will never depart from your house. In this morning’s reading, that civil strife is being played out: Several years earlier, one of David’s sons raped his own sister, David’s daughter. David didn’t do anything about it, didn’t punish his son, so another one of David’s sons, Absalom, executed justice – He killed his brother, the rapist. From that time forward, David and Absalom were at odds, father against son. And eventually, Absalom organized a rebellion against David. The rebellion failed, Absalom was captured and then killed. When David heard that his son had been killed – even though his son was his political enemy – his anguish was palpable. O Absalom, my son, my son, O Absalom. Would that I had died instead of you. And I, and every parent in this room, would have cried out in exactly the same way. Parents aren’t supposed to outlive their children, regardless of the circumstance. I had lunch this week with an old friend of mine, Eddie. The last time I saw Eddie was ten years ago, and he was unmarried. Since then, Eddie has married and fathered a son, now eight. We compared notes about being parents, and he remarked, I had no idea it would feel like this, this extraordinary. Being a parent, and most parents – fathers – I can tell you - there is a before and an after in a father’s life, before fathering, and after. And I don’t for the life of me understand why when Jesus tells us that God is Father – or parent. Well – why would anybody think God wishes ill of people, you, or anybody else? Or – that God will only accept you if you do something – or think the correct way. Where does that come from, anyway? The Father draws everybody, and the faith required is Jesus’ first, and all that is asked of you and me is that we show-up, with perhaps a little hope in our hands. 

When Jesus said, God so loved the world, do you think he meant part of the world? He meant, the world. The whole thing. And when Jesus quoted Isaiah, saying that all shall be taught of God, He likewise meant all, and get this: I think when Jesus called God father, he may have envisioned God as rabbi, teacher and parent as one. Pouring honey across slate, so you can learn to love, and love to learn. Taste and see that the Lord is good. If I’m right, there is no ambiguity in Jesus’ words, just poetry.

Bert Ackerman sent me an excerpt from Richard Rohr this past week. Rohr wrote about St. Therese.  She lived during the fourth century and must have at one point in her life, equated spirituality – faith – with being good, or perfect. She eventually rebelled against perfection and correct thinking, correct living - in favor of a faith of imperfection. Imperfection – like the six year-old who starts first grade tomorrow – he’s not supposed to know his multiplication tables, yet – And you and I are just beginning to learn to love. And there is this Rabbi, we call Father, who pours honey across slate …I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of God I can love in return.

Dignity: You Feed Them
Rob Gieselmann, Pent. 13B, August 2, 2015

The kids were drawing pictures with crayons.  The Sunday School teacher stopped at each child’s desk to admire his or her religious art – a cross, or Moses parting the Red Sea – but when he came to Susie, he was taken aback, unsure of what she was drawing. Susie, what are you drawing? he asked.  Susie answered, Well, I’m drawing God. The teacher protested, But Susie, nobody knows what God looks like?! And without missing a beat, Susie responded, They will in a minute! Well - What does God look like?

Moses asked a similar question, facing God in the burning bush: Who shall I tell them sent me? God answered, Tell them this: I am that I am. I am, the verb to be, essence, God is life itself. Just the other day, I passed a guy  wearing a t-shirt, with the simple, un-capitalized words, i am. At first I was scandalized – God’s name, I am, is so sacred you’re not supposed to utter it, much less wear it on your chest – certainly not in reference to yourself.  But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered whether the guy is onto something. He carries life around with himself everywhere he goes – in his mortal body, the very flame and flicker of God exists. i am. Child of God, of essence. You and I are made in the image of God, ruach, the breath and spirit of God flow through souls like blood through veins. God said of you and me and all of this world at the moment of creation, It is Good. People are good. *Jesus might have worn the same t-shirt. Seven times in John’s Gospel, Jesus blasphemously and scandalously declared,  I am.  I am the bread of life, I am living water, I am the vine.    
But sometimes, Jesus can be so confoundingly esoteric. Do not work for food that perishes, but for food that endures to eternal life – he said, after feeding the multitude.  What does that mean? If one isn’t careful, one might conclude Jesus doesn’t think much of this world or this life. Only the spirit life matters. But let’s not forget, it was Jesus and not the disciples who first noticed how hungry the people were – He devised the game plan to feed the people. It matters to Jesus when people are hungry, spiritually and physically.  

Tuesday night, the Ascension vestry threw a lovely party to welcome me.
Thank you, Katie, Tracy and Vestry! Afterwards, some of us were standing around on Market Square Mall, when two homeless men walked-up and asked us for money. They didn’t say they wanted money so they could buy food. Maybe they wanted food, or a stiff drink – Regardless, I quickly pulled two bucks out of my pocket and gave it to them. To be honest, it wasn’t so much that I’m charitable, but more because I wanted to get back to our conversation. Essentially, I dismissed these two men with my two bucks. But they politely thanked us, and disappeared. Now, I realize how frustrating these encounters can be – you don’t know whether somebody is going to spend your money on food or alcohol, or medicine or drugs. Worse, the exchange itself feels like an intrusion – you are forced out of your own world and into their, and on their terms; you find yourself on the defensive. I have one friend who keeps granola bars in her purse, and hands them out when asked for money. But I didn’t have a granola bar on me, so like I said, I dismissed the men with two bucks. How often have I dismissed somebody who didn’t comport himself according to my rules? Reminds me of the Catholic bishop – the one in Iowa, or maybe it was Nebraska – one of his priests had given first communion to a girl in his parish. Only - the girl was allergic to wheat, so the priest gave her a rice wafer. The Body of Christ. The bishop heard about this, and revoked the girl’s first communion – rice isn’t wheat, and Jesus used wheat. I am wheat bread, Jesus said, not I am rice bread. By revoking the girl’s first communion, the bishop dismissed her humanity.

I’m about forty years late – but I’ve decided to read John Steinbeck’s, The Grapes of Wrath.  I was supposed to read it in high school, but I read the Cliff Notes instead! The Joad family are sharecroppers, and it is the Great Depression. Evicted from their land, the Joads are on their way to California, a dozen of them, piled impossibly onto a rickety old car, with almost no money. Somewhere in western Oklahoma they stop for gas and a little bread. Pa only has ten cents to spend on bread – he’s saving every penny. Could  ya slice me off ten cents’ worth? He asks Mae, the woman behind the counter. Mae is irritated – Pa’s dirty, his money is dirty, his kids are dirty. You can only buy the whole thing – all or nothing. Mae’s co-worker – Al - watches all this, and says, Gawd Almighty, Mae, give ‘em bread. After hemming and hawing, she sells him ten cents worth. But she watches Pa pull his few greasy bills from his pocket to pay. She watches his dirty boys stare at the candy behind the counter. Pa knows he shouldn’t, but he asks Mae, How Much? A Penny, Mae answers. Two for a penny. How are they going to make it to California if Pa buys the kids candy at every stop? But these are his boys … So he pulls out the penny, buys the candy, and they leave. As the door shuts, another customer – Bill, a trucker who regularly stops by – practically accuses Mae – Them wasn’t two-for-a-cent candy. Mae retorts, What’s that to you? Bill says, Them was a nickelapiece candy. I swear, something spiritual happens in the distribution of bread to a person who is hungry. Mae gave Pa bread – a charitable act – and she changed. And you and I change impossibly when we distribute bread to someone hungry. Spiritually or physically. Here, at this altar, or out there. And I’ve thought about it. I think I know now what I’m supposed to do when I encounter a homeless person – or should I say, when I encounter Jesus disguised as homeless – Turn my shoulders square to him, and give him my attention. Donate a little piece of my soul – I’ve got enough to share, anyway. The boys wanted candy, and Pa wanted to feed his family. And we’re all hungry for something, and Jesus is trying very hard to feed each one of us. Jesus plainly said to his disciples, at one point: You give them something to eat. And isn’t that what we promised at baptism: to give away a little bit of respect. Respect the dignity of every human being. You feed them.
How Can That Be?
Rob Gieselmann, Pent. 12B, 2015                        July 26, 2015

Good morning,

Perhaps you’ve heard about the mother who wanted to teach her son what certain symbols and gestures mean in the Episcopal tradition.The little boy had seen people genuflect, and cross themselves. He would lean into his mom and ask, What does that mean? And she would patiently explain       everything to him. So when the boy saw the priest go into the pulpit, remove his watch, and place it in front of himself on the pulpit, the boy leaned into his mom and   asked, Momma, what does that mean? To which she responded, Absolutely Nothing!

         Desmond Tutu used to tell a similar story – of a girl, whose father was a priest. Each Sunday he would kneel in prayer before entering the pulpit. Why do you do that, she asked him one day. So God will make us better        preachers, he replied. To which the responded, Then why doesn’t God do it?

         I don’t mind telling you, a preacher might feel a lot of pressure on his first Sunday in a church, armed only with the story of David and Bathsheba. Really, God? You had to give me that Scripture? Well – of course there is Jesus and the multitude … But King David sinned, big sins that are hard to ignore. He violated at least four of the Big Ten. He coveted his neighbor’s wife, committed adultery, murdered, all while, dismissing God.

         Four of ten, but we could look at it like my friend, Bruno Tapolsky.  Bruno is French, and when it comes to the Ten Commandments, he quips:  In France, we have only six.  Perhaps King David thought he lived in France.         Regardless, God became angry at David, which you would expect of God in response to leaders who take egregious advantage of their power. God remains positioned on the side of justice and kindness and mercy, always against injustice and evil. Now, maybe you’re starting to worry about your new priest-in-charge, but I’m going down this road for a reason. I hope to tell to you, on this my first day in a long time with you, one of my foundational beliefs. What is it we are doing here, anyway?

         The San Francisco Bay Area is a Garden of Eden. If you have lived or visited there, you are aware of its exquisite natural beauty. I used to jog through its mountains and redwood forests; ride my bike along the coastal trails. Would stroll at night along the waterfront, watching lights glitter as twinkling stars. So when my friend John - not his real name, although what I’m going to share isn’t a confidence, as he is quite open about his life.

         When John asked me to join him on the Bay for one last   sail the week before I moved, I immediately said, yes. John docks his sailboat at Sausalito, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, so we sailed southward past the   Golden Gate and Alcatraz, eastward along Fisherman’s Wharf, and finally back north, behind what is called Angel Island – to Sausalito. While we were sailing south toward San Francisco, I was seated facing west, watching the Pacific fog, the way it cascades like a waterfall across the ridge above Sausalito – So extraordinary …

And as I watched the fog swirl and fall, I felt my heart grow full and satisfied, at peace, but also – and this is my point – overflowing with gratitude.  Not just for the beauty of the earth, but also for John, my friend, my good friend. I watched John as he turned the great wheel to  adjust for wind gusts, and I thought about him, as a human being – and his journey, which-due to his own behavior – has not always been easy. In his twenties, John was a monk; he later resigned his order on good terms, married, and became a Lutheran pastor. Clearly touched by God, John nonetheless did not feel complete, or at least during a particularly difficult time in his life, he          committed at least two of King David’s four sins. He had an affair – and it became public. He was forced out of the church.  He then wandered through a dry wilderness, struggling deeply with his identity, all while trying     desperately to hold his marriage together. 

         Now … when Jesus asked Philip where they could buy food, it wasn’t because Jesus was worried about food.  Scripture tells us, this was a test.  But here’s the thing. Most of us think God tests people like an old school marm        might – ruler in hand, just itching to knuckle us. You don’t measure-up! We imagine God chiding. But God doesn’t test you to prove you how bad you are, but to teach you. Jesus didn’t test Philip to prove Philip didn’t have enough faith – Jesus already knew Philip didn’t have enough faith. Jesus tested Philip to teach Philip how to engage faith. Jesus did not expect Philip to believe Jesus could feed 5000, but to learn Jesus could feed 5000. That God still provides manna in the wilderness, in an amount that is neither too much, nor too little.  No need to hoarde, and no need to beg, in God’s         world. Give us today our daily bread. With God, Jesus taught Philip, there is always just enough bread to feed those spiritually hungry and physically hungry.

Which brings me back to my friend John.  He struggled for years, spiritually starving in a wilderness of his own making. The same as King David, who as you’ll find out, I believe next week, suffered awfully as a result of his indiscretion. But you see, there is this thing called Grace.

         So if you want to understand the spiritual principal that guides me most fundamentally, listen now:  When Jesus and Scripture speak about salvation, which they do often, neither is so much referring to heaven and hell.

But this world. This life. Salvation begins today. It means nothing if not the transformation of a wilderness life into one of depth and meaning. God takes you and me where we are, with who we are, regardless of how we got          there. Regardless of the life you’ve led, the good or bad – or like most of us –the somewhere in between. And transforms us. Salvation is the conversion from a meaningless, nihilistic life into one of depth, grace and hope.  God loves you, after all. God is for you, after all. God has a purpose for you, after all. You aren’t alone, and you needn’t wander alone. And you needn’t die alone.
So there I was, the fog swirling above Sausalito, watching John, and it struck me. Because John now lives   the most extraordinary life – he is one of the most humble, generous people I know. He lives with an integrity I only dream of, and he touches other peoples’ lives.  Literally, John feeds those hungry in the wilderness,  helps people with AIDS.  Prays gently and kindly for all   types of people who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  And there is King David – After David sinned, God could have changed the plan, but God didn’t. David became Jesus’progenitor, anyway.  

And you have to wonder,
         how can that be?