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.