God in Disasters: Genesis 6.5–22, 8.6–12, and 9.8–17

Delivered at Ames UCC
on September 9, 2018.
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read. Please join us for worship at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

DISASTER
How do you tell the stories of the disasters in your life?2018.9.9 failings

When I talk about being hospitalized for a mental health crisis in high school, I always express gratitude for the adults outside of my family of origin who helped to make that happen. When my wife talks about her childhood home burning down in the middle of the night, she always mentions how Tinkerbell, the family fox terrier, alerted everyone and saved their lives.

Maybe your disaster is about a lay-off from work; a suicide; a car accident; a heart attack; an assault; a stroke; a fall. From the Italian for “ill-starred event,” disasters befall us all. How we tell the story of each reveals something about us. It reveals something about what we notice, what we value, and why we live as we do in the aftermath.

This is especially true when in the telling of our disasters we invoke the presence of God, like in Noah’s.

NOT SUITABLE FOR KIDS
I have said it before and I will say it again, I do not know why we teach this story to children, how so many happy, cartoon depictions of this story ever proliferated. Look at the broad strokes: Humanity becomes so naughty that God not only kills almost all the humans, but the animals and the birds, too, with a flood. How can a story like that instill in a child anything but fear of failure and God alike?

It’s not that I completely disagree. Humans are bad and so there are floods.

Humans are bad at thinking globally or in terms of natural systems. We are also bad at accepting the consequences of our actions. The climate change behind rising sea water and unprecedented storm seasons is on us. So is the engineering and city planning that leaves whole populations of humans, animals, and birds at ongoing risk.

The bad thinking and actions of humans does lead to flood. However, that’s very different than saying a specific group of humans are bad and so God inflicts the disaster of a flood.

Lots of Christians say just that, blaming Katrina and the death toll in New Orleans on the gays, as just one example. But doing so feels an awful lot like a repeat of the conversation between God and Adam in the garden: Why did you eat that pomegranate, Adam? Uh, she made me!

Blaming God by way of queer people is a way to avoid taking responsibility rather than a faithful characterization of God.
Continue reading

Authority and Worth: Mark 10.17–31

2018.8.26 churchDelivered at Ames UCC
on August 26, 2018
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read. Please join us for worship at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

TWO QUESTIONS
There are two questions we have to answer for ourselves when confronted by this scripture. Because it is a confrontation between us and Jesus, just as it is between Jesus and the rich man.

One, what authority do we give Jesus in our lives? And, two, what does that authority require us to do with our money?

AUTHORITY
When we come into a building labeled United Church of Christ, as ours is in such large letters on the east, it is a safe assumption that Jesus is the highest authority in this place; that the in-house ritual worker—me—will describe Jesus’s teachings, and teachings about Jesus, as paramount; and that Jesus will be named as a conclusive expression of the Godhead.

But that does not mean any one of you will accept all or even most of what the church promotes or I have to say. That is not required in our particular branch of the Christian family tree. We do not have a creed or tests of faith. Instead, we have lifelong learning and prayer and discernment about the person, place, and passion of Jesus Christ.

So where are you on that today?

Consider, for a moment, where you are in your conversation with God regarding Jesus.

Maybe you understand him to have been a real, historical man or perhaps a composite of many Jewish zealots and movements. Maybe you believe he physically healed the sick but did not raise the dead. You may accept his death on a cross but reject the idea that God wanted him to die that way.

The longest conversation we have with God is usually about Easter and whether Jesus literally came back from the dead or metaphorically did or did in a way we do not have language for.

Your position on each of those key elements of our story, your own Christology, to use the theological term, will determine in part how you respond to Jesus when he tells you to sell all that you have and give it to the poor.

DODGE
One answer may be to dodge the question. Because who here is really rich, like the man in the passage?

One percent of our population now owns forty percent of the national wealth. Twenty percent owns ninety percent of the wealth. I don’t know that any of us are in that category. I do know that twenty two percent of the Ames population is working and above the poverty line but not really able to afford living here.

The majority of us who come to this place, though, are affording to live here, have sufficient health care coverage, can do some saving, and can even afford the occasional vacation or new car. Though we may not be dripping with gold and Gucci, we do have more than our daily bread.

So Jesus is addressing us, too.

And if we give him any authority in our lives, we do have to decide how to faithfully use our financial resources.
Continue reading

Light in You: Matthew 9.19–34

Delivered at Ames UCC on August 19, 2018
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read. Please join us for worship at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

2018.8.19 lampSTEWARDSHIP
I suspect that more than a handful of you, on seeing the cover of our bulletin today, thought, “Oh, she’s going to preach about giving money to the church. But isn’t it too early for the pledge drive?”

Yes, it is. It will be another four weeks before you receive a letter and pledge card along with a proposed budget that would fund the dreams of our church leadership teams. And though this is the first of three sermons on stewardship, I’m not going to speak to your time, talent, and treasure today.

Instead, I want to speak to your spark. Actually, I’m going to invite you to let Jesus speak to it.

MATTHEW 6
My preaching professor once said that sometimes we need to let scripture speak for itself, let the passage do all of the work. This passage does both well, as Jesus’s meaning here is not hard to find, particularly once returned to its larger context. In this case: a very long speech by Jesus.
Continue reading

Wombs of Women: Ruth 4

Delivered at Ames UCC on August 12, 2018
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read. Please join us for worship at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

THE TRICK
2018.8.12 wombs Remember how Ruth used sex to trap Boaz into marrying her and redeeming Naomi’s land? The next day we see Boaz trick a kinsman, referred to either jokingly or pejoratively as So-and-So, into giving up his claim to the role of redeemer-kinsman.

Recall that being a kinsman-redeemer is an opportunity to demonstrate God’s preferences for manna and mercy over money and might. There is no profit in buying Naomi’s land because Naomi will continue to work it for her own benefit and buy it back one day. Yet the opportunity to honor covenant living is powerful enough that it will take a little doing to get it away from Mr. So-and-So.

So Boaz tells a lie: If you serve as redeemer you also have to marry Ruth.

No, he doesn’t.

The only marital law regarding widows is, as I described last week, between brothers. Mr. So-and-So is not a son of Naomi or a brother-in-law to Ruth. Nonetheless, Mr. So-and-So is duped (or possibly glad to be shut of the kinsman-redeemer burden).

And so, after a little sandal removal, the honor of being a kinsman redeemer is Boaz’s. And the sacrifice of being husband to Ruth is, as well. For when Boaz and Ruth have a son, it will count as son to her late husband.

THE WOMEN
No wonder the townspeople then begin to celebrate: Look at the good and godly choice Boaz has made. They cry out,

May the Lord make Ruth like Rachel and Leah,
may your house be like that of Tamar!

Wait, what? What kinds of blessings are these? Who would want to live like Rachel and Leah and Tamar? Are they actually offering a curse?
Continue reading

Love: Ruth 3

Delivered at Ames UCC on August 5, 2018
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read. Please join us for worship at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

2018.8.6 LoveLOVE
Sometimes I get into conversations with people who aren’t religious who want me to offer proof of God or with people who are religious who want me to defend my concept of God. Often, I’ll talk about love. When I do, sometimes I get eye-rolls or accusations of making God weak. Why do we need a religion to practice love? Doesn’t calling God love deny God’s true power over us?

I don’t understand either response.

I don’t understand because nothing takes more focused, collective preparation than living into the love of God. And nothing, not any of the Biblical tantrums or pouts attributed to God, asks more from of us than God’s love.

Just look at the book of Ruth.

HESED
The book of Ruth offers a depiction of love which, in our tradition, is paralleled only by that of Jesus. It is a kind of divine love known as hesed. That’s the Hebrew writing on the cover of your bulletin. Hesed is hard to define, but you will see some attempts listed there, too: loving-kindness, so a love that takes a kindly form. Long-acting love, a love with long-term repercussions. Steadfast love, a love unmoved by time. Devotion: a love with a worshipful quality. Covenantal devotion: Love that is worshipful and relational at the same time. A love the will not let you go, no matter how hard you try. Hesed is a love shown in “loyalty and commitment (to other people) that go beyond the bounds of law or duty.”1Hesed is to manifest God in the world between people.

The moment on the threshing floor that we just saw in light and shadow is considered the ultimate expression of hesed, of divine commitment, humanly expressed.

How is that possible? How is this story of sexual trickery a story of divine love?
Continue reading

No Christian Nationalism

Published July 23, 2018 in the Ames Tribune

By Eileen Gebbie

Christian nationalists bear false witness to God.

Now let me dissect that sentence.

A Christian is a person who devotes themselves to the revelations about God found in the person of Jesus and the ongoing presence of the Christ with the strength of the Holy Spirit. That revelation is most clearly stated in what is called the mandatum novum, or new commandment, found in what we call the Good News of Jesus Christ according to John, chapter 13, verses 34 to 35: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’”

It’s not really such a new commandment as love, respect and neighborliness are already enshrined in the Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments/Teachings in the Hebrew Bible’s book of Exodus.

In that portion of our story, after working with God to free themselves from an oppressive state, the Hebrew people received lessons on how to survive as a community. These lessons included not killing or stealing or lying or being greedy for what’s on the other side of your neighbor’s fence. The tools for survival were entirely relational, rather than personal or national.

But over time, our stories tell us, the descendants of the escaped slaves got antsy for a king, someone who could get them into the international market, make them a real player in the region. A prophet of the God of freedom, in a book called Samuel, warns them a king will make their children into tools for war and profit and indulgence, a king will take their personal resources for his personal gain, laughing all the way to the bank. (I added that last part.) And then all of that happens to the people.

Both the Hebrew and Christian testaments to God are about that cycle of freedom, blowing it and working on freedom again. So a Christian is, by definition, a public lover and freedom-worker unconcerned with bolstering state identity because states ultimately only care for themselves.

A nationalist, on the other hand, has loyalty to the state — one, and only one, state. Nationalism is the promoting of that one and only state over and above all others, even over and above all other people in the state. It is not to God — which if there is such a force, must transcend not only state but planet — it is to a temporal, human-made, human-corrupted, human-destroying state that nationalists pledge their allegiance.

So when an organization like Project Blitz (the people trying to slap In God We Trust all over public spaces, reverse United States v. Windsor, and allow doctors to refuse to treat people who happen to be female or queer) describes itself as Christian nationalist, it is betraying the God of Moses and Jesus, both.

It is making itself into a Pharaoh by attempting to enslave a nation by making its theology law and it is refusing to heal the sick as Jesus did, preferring to nail bodies again and again and again onto the very cross Jesus put to shame.

In this nation, we may choose to trust God, under any name, or not. We may choose to accept the teachings of science, or not. But we may not, as a matter of faith or matter of law, continue to create second-class citizens through cultural or legal violence.

Christians are to be known by the love that we show for all people. Christian nationalists only show love for people like themselves. As someone who continues to stake her life on these stories (truly, given the types of shootings that now happen daily), I gladly profess my devotion to God over nation, and to all of God’s people, which are absolutely all people. And from that place of risk and joy I say again, Christian nationalists bear false witness to God.

Eileen Gebbie is the senior minister at Ames United Church of Christ.

Listen for Redemption: 1 John 4.1–6

2018.7.8 right nowDelivered at First Christian Church
on July 8, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read. Please join us for worship at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays (except in July and August when things change up, so please check the calendar here).

FAKE NEWS
The temptation to preach about fake news, in response to this scripture, is real.

Twenty years ago, I was at the University of Illinois teaching students about online sources and how to vet them for reliability and accuracy. Surely, I thought, people would understand that just because anyone can publish online does not mean that they should or that their content could be trusted. You know how that has gone.

But I’m pretty sick of the Internet and fake news. I want to give my attention to God. I want to understand how we can vet the voices that say they speak for God.

1 JOHN
For our authors of 1 John, the test is clear: If a spirit, or a person speaking for Spirit, will affirm the relationship between God and Christ, and that Jesus was fully divine and fully human, then the spirit or the speaker is trustworthy.

Yet authenticity of spirits and speakers is not their only concern. It is the timing of the spirits and speakers, good or bad, that is also an issue:

…every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world.

It seems this community has been warned that spirits that are anti-Christ are coming and may in fact have already arrived. Which means that Jesus will be back soon, too.

For this Johannine community, which existed about 80 years after Jesus’s death and Easter mystery, the return of the Christ is imminent. They are experiencing the intense pressure of a very short time frame to get ready and show themselves worthy for a total and final encounter between the power of God and the powers of nonbeing. As chapter two reads, “Children, it is the last hour” (2.18).

The stakes, for assessing whether a spirit or speaker is of God or not, are quite high, then: If at any moment, quite soon, Christ will be revealed again they cannot not risk having been lead astray for a single moment.

PENTECOST
In my experience of the United Church of Christ, we don’t talk that much about spirits or the Spirit. Some strains of the UCC and some congregations do, just not the churches I have been a member of or served, probably because they have been majority white and come out of our Congregationalist stream.

The regular exception is Pentecost.
Continue reading

Servants Between Ashes and Dust: 1 John 1.5–2.2

Delivered at First Christian Church on July 1, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read. Please join us for worship at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays (except in July and August when things change up, so please check the calendar here).

UNIQUE RELATIONSHIP
Grace and peace to you, First Christian Church, and isn’t it great to be back in this sanctuary together, Ames UCC?

In addition to being a joy, these July services we share are also unique.

There are six different churches downtown—our two, First United Methodist, Grace Lutheran, Body of Christ, and Holy Transfiguration Orthodox—six churches all professing devotion to God in Christ Jesus with this same scripture as our teacher, yet we continue to maintain our own buildings and pastors and services and ministries. We are so insistent on practicing that love of God in Christ Jesus with distinct music, art, liturgy, and theology, that we mostly remain out of touch and independent.

But here we are, every July, as well as at the beginning and end of Lent, together. During the highest of holy days and the most ordinary of times, for over fifty years, we have come together to give God our united thanks and praise.

Thank you.

NO ATONEMENT SACRIFICE
Because of the unique and long-standing nature of this relationship, the amount of flexibility 2018.7.1 no atonementand openness to difference it demonstrates, and the trust I hope that I’ve personally earned, I’m going to risk being completely transparent with you about my theology of the cross.

Namely, that I completely disagree with this reading. Not all of it, and not all of 1 John, but its interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’s death.

Which puts me in good company, if not in terms of theology, then in the fact of disagreement. This essay, 1 John, is part of an early schism about whether Jesus’s body matters or not. One side said it does not, that it is only a mask. The side represented in 1 John said it does, that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human, so his body is essential to the teachings and the gift. Which I do agree with.

But I cannot accept the authors’ theology that God intentionally had Jesus die as a blood sacrifice to atone for the sins of the world.Instead of an individual bull or goat or dove, the traditional sacrifices for individual sins, they argue that Jesus was a universal lamb to compensate for a whole a universe of sin. Which makes God a murderer and the “structural, civic violence”1 of an empire necessary and holy.

That’s the theology and the God that I grew up with and that is most commonly professed. 2018.7.1 lifeIt is not, though, the theology I can stake my life on or the God that I can love.

Am I saying Jesus didn’t die? No. Am I saying Jesus’s death is inconsequential? No. Am I saying we don’t sin? No way.

I’m saying that it isn’t Jesus’s death, but his life and his resurrection, that are the mechanisms which might redeem us from sin. It is what he did before and after that ordinary, brutal day that may give us means to stop deceiving ourselves and have fellowship with God and each other.

Might and may are probably the most important words there. Jesus’s life and his resurrection might redeem us, if we remember to allow them to.
Continue reading

What We are Witnessing: 1 John 1.1–4

2018.6.24 herodDelivered at Ames UCC
on June 24, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read. Please join us for worship at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays (except in July and August when things change up, so please check the calendar here).

1 JOHN
What is the most powerful act you have witnessed or experience you have had because of your faith or life in a community of faith? Have you ever used that experience to justify your faith or life in a community of faith? Today’s passage is all about witnessing and using the fact of being an eyewitness to bolster an argument. An argument about Jesus.

Here are the two sides: Early Christians who believed Jesus was fully divine, called Docetists, versus those including the followers of the disciple John who authored this essay, who believed he was divine and human.

For the Docetists, divinity could not suffer pain, as on the cross, so the physical appearance of Jesus was a mask, his carnality unimportant. For our authors, having witnessed Christ’s life and death with their own eyes, they were convinced that Jesus was fully divine and fully human. They give this witness statement that their joy might be complete.

Which reminds me of another set of witnesses from the beginning of Jesus’s life, a group of people from whom we have no letter or essay describing and interpreting what they saw: the magi.
Continue reading

Resilience in the Ordinary Times of Hate

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Recently, within an hour of each other, I received two text messages:

Roof repair + scotus + immigration madness = I just want to cry

The tent camp situation is making me physically ill. 108 degrees in Arizona. What in the name of God can we do? What do we do??

Then I was sent a link to this tweet by comedian Solomon Georgio:

We are living through a time of enormous every day and existential threats. For some of us, this is new. For others, it has been their reality for generations.

I offer this list of practices for maintaining emotional, physical, and spiritual resilience, particularly for those of us who, due to our race or education or employment or religion or nation of origin or sexuality or gender, have been shielded from having to do so before.

Pr. Eileen Gebbie

Pray

I do not suggest prayer as a technique to lure God into solving our problems. I suggest prayer because it grounds us in the source of all being, in the generative power of creation. Because it allows our souls to soar above the debris and damage to gain the vantage point of justice and grace.

Walk, Eat, and Sleep

Nothing is more important than your own good health. It’s the putting on of your oxygen mask so that you can live to help others do the same.
Continue reading