Monday, June 26, 2017

Stories on Story-Telling Sunday

Stories on Story-Telling Sunday
Rob Gieselmann, Pent. 7A, June 25, 2017

One summer during seminary, I spent a month in Uganda, with my friend, Augustine Salimo. Augustine was an archdeacon, and in charge of 40 churches. His position accorded him great respect among the people – a respect that gave him authority – which he exercised benignly, much like the lord of a manor might. His glance alone would instruct a person to do this – or a nod of his head, to do that.

The same was true of his wife, Zelda. And among those under their collective authority was a household servant girl – this girl was about fifteen years old. I can’t recall her name, but I do recall that she had a child of her own, a little boy – a child with a child, this girl was essentially a house-slave. For where else could she go to support herself and her boy?

*Hagar was also a servant-girl, a house-slave. Egyptian, and perhaps you see the irony. Abraham, the father of the Hebrews, possessed an Egyptian slave. And only several generations later, his great-grandson would be sold into Egyptian slavery. Anyway, God had made a promise to Abraham years before – that his offspring would number the stars of the sky, the sand on the shore. But Abraham and Sarah had become old without children. And can’t you just imagine the conversations they had at supper? Year after year, decade after decade, Abraham repeating God’s promise – I’m going to father nations. All the while, Sarah knowing it was her fault they had no children? She was the reason he couldn’t be a father of nations. And each night, each year, each decade, Sarah’s soul grew just a little bit smaller. A little more bitter. So one year, she decides to fulfill Abraham’s dream by giving him Hagar, the servant-girl. Let her make you the father of nations, Sarah said, sardonically. Then, when Hagar became pregnant, Sarah resented her. She drove Hagar from home, into the wilderness to die – Not once, but twice - this second time equally bitter, when Sarah feels Isaac’s position is threatened by Abraham’s firstborn, Ishmael. And I have to ask, what or who in this world threatens you? Religiously – could it be the Catholics? Southern Baptists? Muslims? Buddhists? Or politically – could it be Republicans? Democrats? Those Bernie Sanders supporters? Or personally – could it be someone at work? A sibling? In-laws?

God rescued Hagar both times, for God takes-up the cause of the down-trodden, and this second time, sets Hagar completely free.  ***One’s enemies will be the member’s of his household. Indeed. Sarah against Hagar. Isaac against Ishmael. Egyptians as slaves of Hebrews, and Hebrews as slaves of the Egyptians. Each of us is defined by other people – including our enemies. Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas claims that the story of others elevates you – shapes meaning into your life: … The significance of [your life] is frighteningly contingent upon the story of another. The story of Hagar became the story of Sarah. The story of Isaac became the story of Ishmael. And our lives – yours and mine – are irretrievably intertwined, for better, for worse. Nobody – not a single person, not a single nation, is defined in isolation, but in terms of “other.” Sarah may said of Hagar, I have no need of you. But like the apostle wrote, The eye cannot say  to the hand, I have no need of you. Sarah needed Hagar, not as a slave, but as definitive. For better, for worse, Sarah became who she was because Hagar became who she was. And vice versa. And you and I, what story will we write? Will our enemies be the members of our own household?

This past week the political pundits got it wrong yet again. They kept saying that a Democrat had a real chance to win that expensive Georgia house seat. Turns out, he didn’t, and afterwards, these same pundits tried to interpret – They asked, Who won? Not in the sense of which candidate won, but which party won – did the Democrats or the Republicans come out better? You’d think everything
is a zero-sum game. But it’s not zero-sum, pretty much ever. Who won? I’ll tell you who won – we all won. We all won because our stories are dependent the stories of others. We all won because our lives are inextricably entwined. We all won because we live in a democracy and every time we have an honest election, everybody wins, even when your party doesn’t win. So I’m wondering – why are we so polarized these days? Politically, religiously, socially? I hear most educated people repeating the same refrain: we have to listen to one another, but if my observation is correct – nobody’s listening, at least not very well. It’s as though we are a nation of Sarah’s. We’d all like to drive the opposition into the wilderness. I have no need of you. What I’m wondering – though – is what would it be like to listen to the heartbeat of the person you disagree with the most? The heartbeat of Hagar? To lean over, put ear to chest, and feel – thump/thump,thump/thump,thump/thump? Wouldn’t the heartbeat you hear be the heartbeat of God? And if so, then why aren’t you listening? Why does the eye say to the hand,  I have no need of you?

***One day, while I was still in Uganda with Augustine, I remembered that I had brought with me – extra toiletries – to give away. Not hotel toiletries; a little nicer – but still on the small side. Lilac, if I’m remembering correctly. I said to the girl, Here - these are for you.

She really had no idea what I was saying. She looked bewildered, at first – so I said it again –  Here, these are for you. For me? For me, she asked? Yes, for you. I want to thank you, for cooking for me. For me? Yes – you. As it dawned on her that these simple nothings were a gift for her – It dawned on me that she’d might never have received a gift before. A smile crossed her face, then laughter, and she began jumping up and down, and running about – And to this day – truly, to this day – I’ve never experienced such pure and raw gratitude. And her gift to me – was this: that her story has become a part of mine. From her – I received far more than I left behind. 

So – what do you have to risk? Making yourself vulnerable to the enemies in your household? By listening to the heartbeat of another? What do you risk?

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Wise as Serpents, Innocent as Doves, Witty as Rabbits

The Reverend Christopher Hogin
Wise as Serpents, Innocent as Doves, Witty as Rabbits
Matthew 9:35-10
The Episcopal Church of the Ascension
June 18, 2017

            People often ask what’s my favorite book? Well, there is book one everyone in the human race should read. It’s called Watership Down, by Richard Adams. In this novel, written for children, Watership Down makes bold socio-political and theological statements.  Ironically, the book is not even about humans, it’s about rabbits.
            The story begins in a peaceful warren called Sandelford. One day, a timid rabbit called Fivel has a vision. He sees a disaster befalling the community. He tells the elders that the entire warren must vacate or face destruction. The elders ignore him to their ultimate detriment.
Undaunted, a small group of rabbits leave the warren striking out on their own to find a promised land. They go out into the wilderness making themselves vulnerable to predators. During the journey, they encounter several rabbit warrens. The first consists of a group of well-fed rabbits. All their needs are met, but there is a hollowness in their soul. Something is not right. They lack wit: a basic survival skill rabbits need to survive. We later find out that the warren is situated in a field where there is plenty of food—but there is a catch. The food provided by man is actually bait designed to snare the rabbits.  Essentially it’s a welfare state where rabbits exchange freedom and liberty for the security of having their needs met.
            The next warren encountered goes to the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s a fascist state called Efrafa. Like the previous warren, the rabbits give up their liberty for the purpose of safety, but governed by a dictator. The rabbits live long and safe lives, but they no longer live. Like those in the welfare state, they are no longer rabbits.
            Both the fascist and the welfare state warrens share one thing in common: neither acknowledge the rabbit king, or God. The rabbits who strike out on their own retell the stories of their God, the rabbit king. By doing so these stories help them survive in an uncertain and dangerous world. The rabbit king (or God) bonds the community together. They trust one another, and in doing so they never lose sight of what it means to be a rabbit. When confronted with a dangerous more powerful enemy, such as the fascist warren, they defeat the dictator by using rabbit wit. When tempted by a complacent welfare state, they see through the illusion of safety, recognizing it for what it is—a trap.
Theologian Stanley Hauerwas of Duke Divinity, wrote a famous article about Watership Down. He writes, “The stories of El-ahrah (The Rabbit King) define what a rabbit is supposed to be, how he is supposed to use his gifts to survive in a hostile world. When rabbits lose contact with these stories, they form societies which are ultimately self-destructive.”
Most of us long for easy happy lives. We don’t like pain and we don’t like challenges. We want to be safe and lulled into a sense of security. The problem is that when we have easy lives, there’s a tradeoff. We can lose out on what it means to be human. We can lose out on our primal instincts of facing and confronting whatever is afflicting us, and then finding a creative solution. By doing so, we grow in body, mind and spirit.
Here’s the thing: we live in a dangerous, volatile, and uncertain world not unlike the world the rabbits of Watership Down. Jesus recognizes that in our Gospel reading today. He doesn’t hold any punches, and doesn’t make any promises that the life you and I live will be easy. If anything, it will be quite the opposite. We face dangers each and every day, from getting into our car in the morning, to crossing the street.
As Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel, we are “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” When Jesus commissions his disciples, he says, “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves, so be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Jesus is not only talking to his disciples he’s talking to us.
And sometimes Jesus assumes a maternal air, giving us comfort and hope, embracing us like a mother. Other times he speaks to us as a father, like he does in today’s Gospel (which is appropriate as we celebrate father’s day). He essentially says, “Children, it’s rough out there! It’s a broken world. There will be family betrayal, you will be persecuted from time to time. You will be harassed and will feel helpless. Stay strong! Never forget who you are! Most importantly, endure!” As a father, he says, stay strong, be tough, and endure. I am with you.
What is difficult in your life right now? What is causing you pain, or disappointment, or fear? What is it? Think about it. Whatever problem or disaster you are encountering, remember it’s an opportunity to learn. It is an opportunity to dig deep within—to use our wits, and to draw upon thousands of years of survival techniques we as humans acquired from God. Don’t shy away from whatever it is that’s afflicting you right now. Instead of lamenting, ask yourself, “What can I learn from this? How can I creatively solve my problem?”
Let us take a cue from the rabbits of Watership Down. Let us not be complacent in our troubles or in our brokenness. God came into our lives to help us survive. God gave us this church because God recognized we need one another as we go out into the world. Like the rabbits of Watership Down, we will only survive by cleaving to God, and one another, which helps us grow and become stronger.
Finally, this is a sending off Gospel, which is appropriate. It is appropriate because today we send off two of our beloved parishioners, Paul and Mary Lee Bergerone. Both have served this church for over forty years. Mary Lee as a physical therapist, deacon, and priest. Paul, as a professor and historian. He served on the vestry and taught classes. You both have played an important role here in the growth and development of this church. As you move forward in this new life, know that you are loved and supported here by your Ascension family. God is with you, and so are we.

God, the Environmentalist Supreme

God, the Environmentalist Supreme
Rob Gieselmann, Trinity Sunday 2017


1. Nicene Creed

I’m not a big fan of the Nicene Creed. Choreographically, during the service, it feels clunky and out of place. And - I may be wrong, here - but I’m guessing that all our minds have drifted at one time or another during the Creed. Obviously, the Creed is intended to say something significant – as a theological statement of the Trinity – that concept of God as equally one and three persons. 

Further, the very first word of the Creed, the Latin word, Credo, “I believe” - means far more than mental acquiescence – like you agree with the concept of God. Its holistic meaning is: I give myself to … God the Father Almighty – So you see - the intent of the Creed is rock solidAs is its location in the liturgy itself. It follows the proclamation of the Gospel – first thing – as your response to hearing of the Word of God – You hear God speak, and answer by giving yourself to God. You could say, I return to God, the Father almighty. But instead of words of donation – We say, I believe – and, I believe, gets confused with mental agreement.

Which leads to the real problem: Words fail to capture God – Words can never adequately describe God. God is infinite, and words are finite. And any description of God is destined to fail. Regardless of the edict of the Council at Nicea.

2. Alternative
What if we said, instead, something like this:

I return to God, this day, the one who made me of earth.
I return to God, this day,
the one who loved me when unlovely.
I return to God, this day,
the one who fills my soul with hope.

Because – God is not static – God is relational. Think about it. When you tell a someone, I have a husband. That word, husband, does not describe the six foot man standing next to you with graying hair and a bit of a paunch. Instead, when you use the word, husband, you are saying: I have a relationship with another person that no one else on earth has. Husband. Relational. What if that is what you meant when you utter the Creed?

3. Annie Lamott put it this way:

"I didn’t need to understand the hypostatic unity of the Trinity; I just needed to turn my life over to whoever came up with redwood trees."


1. Have you ever walked among the Redwoods? 

These coastal giants are taller than any other plant or animal on earth. They reach high as if to God, stretching from a dark earth, rendered dank because of the redwoods themselves. The density of the forest creates its own rain – when the damp Pacific air moves across the redwoods, it condenses and falls to water the trees.

2. The coastal redwoods, you may have heard, are in danger.

They exist along a narrow swath of land from the Monterrey coast to Oregon. As the southern tip of their habitat warms, the rain will no longer fall and the trees will die. They are showing signs of stress already. When it comes to climate change – I find that I don’t care so much about the swath of condominiums along Florida’s southeastern shore – that they might fall into a rising Atlantic Ocean – I figure someone will come along and build new ones, I’m sure of it.

Rather, I care about climate change because of the Redwoods. I care that they will disappear, along with those birds and animals that are unique to their habitat. I also care about the synchronistic fireflies my daughter Tilly and I saw last Sunday night in the Smokies – that they, also, might disappear.

D. I care about these things because I am – an environmentalist.

Now – I’m not an environmentalist because I’m afraid of climate change, or global warming, as some people call it – I’m a soldier of hope. Rather, I am an environmentalist because God is an environmentalist. And somewhere along the journey, I gave myself to God. Just like I do each week at the creed: I return to God, the One who made me. The Creator of Heaven and Earth.

E. Indeed – the Earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains.

Perhaps you noticed one particular word repeated this morning in the recitation of the poem of creation:

God saw the light, that it was good.
God saw the earth divided from the seas, that it was good.
God saw the seeds and vegetation, that they were good.
God saw the sun and the moon, that they were good.
God saw great sea monsters, and birds, and fish, that
they were good.
God saw the wild animals, that they, too, were good.
and…God saw you and me, and proudly declared, you are good.

As one philosopher wrote centuries ago, God would not have created the world if among all possible creations this one had not been the best.

Yes, I am an environmentalist. Because God is an environmentalist. I believe in God, the Maker of Heaven and Earth.

4. Last Sunday night, Tilly’s birthday, we found ourselves at the trailhead to Rainbow Falls with a dozen other people. The sun had set, dusk had fallen, the sky had turned to its slate grey, and one by one fireflies came out from their hiding.

The blue ghosts, first – they are those fireflies, we learned, that fly closest to the earth. They don’t blink, but maintain a soft blue glow as they try to attract mates. Then – and all too slowly – the blinkers came out. We wondered, had the fire diminished their numbers? Were there so few because of the bright light of the moon, or the change of the air pressure of the front moving through? Excessive pollution?

Who knows, but we found some – several patches blinking synchronistically … We were mesmerized – but it wasn’t just the fireflies that captured my soul – It wasn’t the shrill of the distant fox, the companionable warmth of others around me – It was rather that I could close my eyes and stand very, very still, and recall every night in my life I’d spent outside – as though this night contained them all.

For in each one of those nights – high in the trees, I could hear – the whisper of God, the ruach, Wind of God that hovered first at creation – I had forgotten. I always seem to forget – what that voice sounds like – until I find myself back there, out there, in that dark, where the night is not night, but as bright as the day. And I find, like God found of all creation, that it is Good.

So yes, I am an environmentalist. Because God is an environmentalist. So, this morning, as I once again recite the Creed, you can know that – I stand and return to God, the One who created me of the earth.