God is Other: Revelation 1.17–20, 4.1–7, 5.1–8, 6.1–8

2017.8.13 lambDelivered at Ames UCC
on August 13, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be
heard rather than read.
Please join us Sundays
at 10:30 a.m. All are welcome.

MONSTERS
Our scripture is full of fantastic beasts, cataclysmic events, and magical/miraculous imagery: A talking snake in Genesis’ Eden. A talking donkey in the book of Numbers. A whale that can swallow Jonah whole and then still spit him out. A flood that destroys the world. Ten plagues that free the slaves. An angel that balances Jesus atop the temple. Water becoming wine.

But the beasts and cataclysms and magic and miracles of the book of Revelation are so concentrated, they can sound so extreme, that today I’m mixing up the order of worship a bit by integrating Dan’s reading of the scripture with my teaching/preaching on it. And thank you to Ben and Barbara for the sung preview.

But before we get to Revelation, let’s get to its author: John of Patmos.

JOHN OF PATMOS
John of Patmos was a Jewish man from Jerusalem who at the time of his vision-writing, about 90 CE, was living on an island—Patmos—off the coasts of Turkey and Greece. As a Jew from Jerusalem writing in the year 90, this John may well have witnessed the final destruction of the Jewish temple in the year 70.

Remember that, for Jewish people during the temple period, the temple was the home of God on Earth, the nexus between this world and another. It was literally and materially an intersection between the sacred and the profane. And the Romans crushed it. The Romans closed the door.

In doing so, the Romans didn’t just insult the Jewish people, they attacked God. Their destruction of the temple was not only aggressive warfare, but the height of sacrilege and blasphemy, too.

Imagine how we would feel if a foreign nation burned this house of God to the ground. Though we understand God to be everywhere, we still come to a particular place to practice that relationship. How bitter, how angry, how venomous might we feel toward those who took it from us?

John of Patmos leaves Jerusalem, possibly in exile, possibly as a refugee. But he cannot escape the violence of Rome. When John is on the mainland of Turkey, he is constantly confronted by celebrations of Rome’s violence. He even has to look at a statue of the man who took the temple down.

Kind of like how Black and Native Americans have to look at statues of genocidal generals and Presidents throughout the US.

John also has to contend with a culture that has come to revere the Roman emperors as divinities. Wasn’t it enough for God to be taken away, now they have to put themselves in God’s place? John is surrounded by insults to God and the hubris of rulers. He is a body under threat, a soul under attack.

And then he has a revelation.
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Add More to Church: Ephesians 6.10–20

2017.8.6 dispensaryDelivered at Ames UCC
on August 6, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be
heard rather than read.
Please join us Sundays
at 10:30 a.m. All are welcome.

GET RID OF IT
Let’s get rid of all of this. Let’s get rid of the pews and the hymnals and the organ and the windows and the bricks. Let’s get rid of our logo and our slogan and any future inside jokes about being Congregational versus being Evangelical and Reform. Let’s just get rid of all of this because Jesus didn’t risk everything just so that we can get all attached to and bent out of shape about our personal preferences and historic traditions.

I am, of course, paraphrasing the opening of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Or, as those of you were here for the first two weeks of this letter will remember, Pseudo-Paul’s not-letter to the not-Ephesians.

Once we are on the Way of Jesus, he teaches (whoever he was), we are a new people unbound by suspicion or hate, living beyond society’s walls and delineations.

Except that we are not, of course. Except that over time, since the time of the Pauls, the Christian church became one of the most conservative, entrenched, boundary-setting institutions in human existence. Which has backfired, of course. Which has been our downfall. The numbers of Americans who identify as Christian continues to decline.

These days, adults who grew up in homes without a religious affiliation of any kind are more likely to stay religiously unaffiliated than those who grew up in a religious home. Meaning, being a-religious is more meaningful over time than being religious, for younger Americans.

In my most pessimistic moments, I say, “Who cares?” God is not religion. The church is not God. And if the church has failed to make this Way of engaging with God compelling, if the church has failed to be faithful to the God it claims to worship and serve, then so be it. We reap what we sow.

God will God onward, with or without me or you or the New Century Hymnal.

HOLY COMMUNION AND THE ARMOR OF GOD
But last week, for about an hour, we did manage to be faithful to pseudo-Paul’s vision of the church, maybe even to God. Members of our church, First Christian, and First Baptist came together at Brookside Park. We got outside of our individual sanctuaries, these tyrannies of preference and tradition, to gather at Christ’s open table, in prayer, in song, and in body. There were 167 of us, a new record.

Afterward, I was visiting with a member of our community, one of those younger adults raised without religion from all the studies. (I did get permission to tell this story.) This woman, who is bucking the statistical trend, asks me what Communion is. She’d just taken part in it for the first time.
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Year ‘Round Faith: Ephesians 2.11–22

2017.7.23 no hostilityDelivered at First Christian Church
on July 23, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read. During July we worship at 9:30 a.m. at either Ames UCC, First Christian, or Brookside Park. Please see the website for details so that you may join us.

DIVISIONS
What are the top ten most intractable divisions between people that you can think of this morning? What tools have leaders used to try to bridge those divides, or eliminate them? And how much hope do you have that in your lifetime those opposing sides will come together for once and for all, and be able to work together with respect for each other’s voices and well-being?

AFTER FAITH
Last week, I responded to the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (or not-Paul’s sermon to churches in Asia Minor), about the partnering of theology and prayer. Theology is only a fun game without the prayerful dialogue with God to make it real. It is when the two come together that faith may take root and grow.

So what? To what end? To what end faith? Is faith an end in and of itself? Some traditions say yes. For some traditions it is the leap of faith that is the goal. But in our two traditions faith is often a stepping stone to action.

We have good reason to believe that faith naturally does and should lead to action. Our ancestors in the Hebrew Bible tell us to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. Every prophet’s indictment is for failing to do so. For Jesus, faithful action took the form of food (as in the miracles of the 3,000 and 5,000 and the last supper), healing (of lepers, of possession, of mental illness), and listening (to women, to children, to God).

For the Paul of this letter, an additional task follows from faith: bringing together different types of Christians.
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Your Imagination

Published July 17, 2017 in the Ames Tribune

By Eileen Gebbie

I begin each Sunday morning at 5 a.m. with coffee and final sermon preparation.

In my tradition, a sermon is a talk (10–20 minutes) about the day’s Bible story. It might be a description of the passage’s historical context or language, to illuminate the authoring community’s cultural reality and assumptions;  a critical analysis of the story using the tools of post-colonial, womanist, feminist, liberation or other theologies; a “what in the world does this have to do with the world now” reflection; or a combination of these.

The result is that one week I might say, “God is like X” and another “God is like Y.” The Bible is, itself, inconsistent and self-critical. Successive stories are in dialogue with those that came before, and with different outcomes. So one of the cornerstones of my tradition’s faith is an understanding that faith is an issue of dialogue rather than dogma, asking questions rather than asserting answers.

So, what is the point? What is the point in my offering a sermon if there is so much room for interpretation and even disagreement? If going to church does not provide clear instruction and consequences for disobeying those instructions, why bother? Who needs to go to a special building to be reminded that life is uncertain and we can’t all just get along? And on top of that, why deal with being asked to sing potentially annoying songs and shake hands with strangers?

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Theory, Prayer, Faith: Ephesians 1.1–14

Delivered at First Christian Church on July 16, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read. During July we worship at 9:30 a.m. at either Ames UCC, First Christian, or Brookside Park. Please see the website for details so that you may join us.

SABBATICAL
This is the last Sunday that First Christian Church will be without their pastor, Mary Jane Button-Harrison. She’s been on a three-month sabbatical, or process of clergy renewal, after about a dozen years of ministry in this church (and about 10 before that). When she left, she went straight to Plum Village in France, the home of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peacemaker Thich Nhat Hahn. From there she went to a series of other spiritual homes to focus on the concepts of boundaries and belonging. Over the last week she has started to write about what she’s learned, on her website and Facebook page.

Ames UCC’s own Minister for Families and Children, Pr. Hannah Hannover, is also on sabbatical, after ten years at our church. She’s using the time to renew her faith and understand whether she is called to ordination into the national church in addition to being licensed to our local church.

And I’ve just had a month off from preaching thanks to vacation and these joint services.

All of this has given me room and reason to think about the dynamic of pastor and congregation. What is a church without her pastor? What is a pastor without her church? How does faith happen in the mix?

EPHESIANS
Today we have a kind of blog post, a letter from Paul to the church in Ephesus, to help in our wonderings.

I should clear up, though, that Paul did not write it and it was not for the Ephesians. There is plenty of evidence that someone other than the Paul of the Acts of the Apostles wrote this letter and that originally it had no specific recipient.
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Our Calendar, God’s Calendar: Psalm 100

Delivered at Ames UCC  on June 11, 2017

©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 when we have a different schedule—see our website).

CALENDAR
Who knows what this is? Yes, it is a calendar of the liturgical church year. Liturgy means “work of the people” so this is a calendar of the seasons of our work as people of faith.

Last week was Pentecost, with all its red excitement. Now we go into Ordinary Time, which is a season to reflect broadly on Creation and Church, so it is a cool green. We will stay green until Advent, way off in November.

I love this calendar, for several reasons. First, the design. I just think it is neat. Second, the lack of dates.

While the rest of our calendars are numbered and the years just keep going up, going up into digits that still feel impossibly futuristic to me, this calendar is eternal. This calendar has no concern for what year we are in or even what month we are in, since sometimes Easter (the white square with cross) can be in March or April. This calendar does mark the passage of time but it has no beginning or end, only cycles of preparation, transformation, celebration, and application.

Our scripture is the same: Although time does progress within it, marked by the rise and fall of human nations, it has endured because what it has to teach transcends all such specificity. And so it allows us to transcend our specific time.

IGNATIUS OF LOYOLA
A few weeks ago, I took a retreat to a Jesuit center a couple of hours west of here. The Jesuits are a Roman Catholic order of priests, formally called the Society of Jesus (thus, Jesuit) founded by Ignatius of Loyola in France in the mid-1500s. I’d heard for years about “Ignatian spiritual exercises” but all I knew was that, when done in full, they take 30 days. I don’t have that time, but I do well with structure, so I asked for a four-day version.

I learned many things during those days, about myself and God. But what I want to share with you today is Ignatius’ use of imagination within prayer and with scripture. Ignatius believed our imaginations, our ability to mentally place ourselves someplace we physically are not, is a gift from God.

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Apocalypse Already: Acts 2.1–21

2017.6.4 pentecostDelivered at Ames UCC
on June 4, 2017

©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–
see the church website for details).

THANKS, BUT NO THANKS
Sometimes this passage feels like a bait and switch. It lures us in with this marvelous moment of human unity and a prediction of even more, only to tell us it won’t really happen until after an apocalyptic encounter between the realms of Earth and those of heaven. I want a direct experience of God, for sure. But who would want the great and glorious day of the Lord if it must be preceded by blood, fire, smoky mist, a blacked sun, and a red moon?

Why does Peter interpret this joyous symphony of speech as a sign of some frightening end of time? Why does God’s presence require apocalypse?

The Bible is quite self-referential. Books of the Bible quote each other constantly, either to retell stories in slightly different ways or to prove a point. The Gospels in the Christian Testament, for example, draw heavily on the prophets of the Hebrew Bible to credential Jesus. So when we hear Peter respond to this theophany, it is not his original speech. He is quoting the prophet Joel.

JOEL AND PETER
Joel’s prophecy is in a book of his name, in a section of the Hebrew Bible known as the Nevi’im, or the Prophets. Like Lamentations, which I referenced last week, Joel’s book is about destruction and loss. But unlike Lamentations, Joel makes a case for God’s coming redemption from suffering in the form of equality among all people. However, that can only happen, Joel says, after an apocalypse.
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Stay in Sorrow: Galatians 3.1–9, 23–29

2017.5.28 foolsDelivered at Ames UCC
on May 28, 2017

©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.

WHO DID IT?
Who has bewitched you? You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you??

I feel like screaming this to the young man who died to kill others in Manchester last week; to the young man who murdered Bible students in Charleston; to the young man who gunned downed dancers at a nightclub; to the young man who did the same at a youth camp in Norway; to the older man who killed at a women’s health clinic; to the University of Maryland college student who lynched a Bowie State University student; to the young man who has made bomb threats against synagogues in three countries; to the man and woman who abandoned their child in order to destroy social service workers in San Bernardino.

Christians, Muslims, and Jews, who so bewitched you that you thought the violent deaths of strangers was your right and the most faithful response to God and care of country?

You foolish people, who has bewitched you??

Then I look at Paul’s letter today and have part of the answer.

GALATIANS
As a progressive Christian church, one of our all-time favorite lines comes from this letter from Paul, the Roman Jew turned apostle to Jesus Christ, to the emerging Christian community of Jews and Gentiles in Galatia, which is contemporary Turkey.

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

This is how my own leadership has been justified to fellow Christians who prefer women to be quiet and gay people to go through “conversion therapy.”

But as with all scripture, this magnificent piece of sacred truth exists within a larger context. Paul’s letter to the Galatians is not, really, a universal testimony advocating total human liberation and equality. It is a letter for a specific people addressing a specific problem at a specific time a long time ago.

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Ames High School Baccalaureate

2017.5.24 aweOn Wednesday, May 24, 2017, I participated in an interfaith service of celebration for the Ames High School Class of 2017 at the Ames Middle School. A voluntary event for participants, its goal is to recognize the role of god in our lives and give the school’s visual and performing artists one last chance to share their talent. My fellow speakers were Imam Mahjoob Jaily of Darul Arqum Islamic Center and Father Charles Ahenkorah of St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Catholic Student Center.
My remarks follow:

Thank you, Ames Community School District and Ames High School community for inviting me to participate in this, your 2017 Baccalaureate. I am The Reverend Eileen Gebbie from Ames United Church of Christ. If you don’t know of my church, we bear the distinction of being the oldest one in Ames—by one year—and sharing a parking lot with one of Ames’ most important public institutions, the library.

In the Christian tradition, we practice many different types of prayers, from silent and solitary to corporate and loud. But one writer has described the content of all types of prayers as falling into three categories: help, thanks, and wow.

So, I will offer my remarks tonight, prayerfully, in those categories.

HELP
First, help.

I need your help. I need your help badly.

Ours is a world that is hungry and angry, alienated and frightened. None of those are new: The human experience has never been easy, we have never been particularly fair with or kind to one another. As you already know from your schooling, the history of humanity is defined by tribalism, which requires some people to be seen as acceptable and welcome with others seen as foreign and unwanted. I do not need to name for you all of the violence done because of the boundaries we create through religion, race, sex, and nation of origin.

But I believe that you can help us find a new way through all that old ugliness.

You are of a generation far more experienced with and exposed to the varieties of human existence than ever before. Your generation knows best—from your families of origin to the families that are made up of your friends—that it is not only possible to come together across religious, racial, sexual, and national identities but it is joyous, too.

So, please, help me. Help me and the older generations to know and do better so that you are not the last generation of all.

THANKS
Second, thank you.

Thank you for making it to this day. Thank you for doing your homework and showing up for your teams and clubs and for putting in your hours of rehearsal and for sharing your talents with others.

Some of you may shrug this off with a, “Pfft, no big,” but it is. It is a big deal to get through high school. High school is a test of every facet of your self at the same time that you are trying to define that self. Even if you have a stable home life and parents to help with homework and sufficient money to eat every day and have a cell phone, the relational pressures of this time of your life could have become too much, could have overwhelmed all of your talents and drive.

And if you made it to this day all while being uncertain about clothing or meals or bed, I thank you doubly.

Thank you all for loving yourselves throughout the moments when the world treated you, or you simply felt, unlovable or unloved.

WOW
Lastly, wow.

Wow is an expression of awe. We humans, regardless of age or education, need awe.

Our ability to be of help and to be grateful for the help of others is grounded in our ability to stand in awe before that which gives us the strength for both. You may call it love, you may call it God. Whatever your name for all that is sacred and holy in creation, find a community that will help you develop a deep and lasting connection with that divine power.

Even though your final exams are over, even though you may be going straight to work after graduation or to the military or to more learning, life itself will continue to test you.

A faithful community of awe will not only feed your good works and precious souls, it will also help you when you are sick, mourn with you when you grieve, and celebrate with you when you are blessed. And it will show you the profound honor of doing the same, with and for others.

So, Ames High School Class of 2017, help, thanks, and wow.

Amen and congratulations!

Ritual is Just the Beginning: Acts 15.1–18

2017.5.14 our courseDelivered at Ames UCC
on May 14, 2017

©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.

AVOIDANCE
Since resurrection day I’ve focused on a succession of new characters in our passages from Acts of the Apostles: Cleopas, Stephen, Philip the Evangelist, and the Ethiopian. Today we have two more, Paul (though we saw him briefly, earlier, under the name Saul) and Barnabas. But there have been two recurring characters or elements that I have avoided until today: male genital modification and the Holy Spirit.

PENISES AND SPIRIT
The Ethiopian is a eunuch. He is a man who has been castrated. This week we have Jewish followers of Jesus stating that the Gentile followers of Jesus must be circumcised as they had been. We have also had talk of metaphoric, or spiritual circumcision. Stephen decries his co-religionists:

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. (Acts 6.51)

Stephen is saying they have failed to cut away what prevents them from hearing and loving God, from being led by the Holy Spirit.

Paul is also concerned with the work of the Holy Spirit. When he pushes back on the Jewish followers of Jesus, it is through Spirit:

 And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as God did to us; (Acts 15.8)

Throughout the Acts of the Apostles there are moments when the Holy Spirit comes upon people, sometimes at baptism, sometimes later. Sometimes the Holy Spirit “falls upon” a whole group at once, sometimes on individuals who have been physically touched by those who have already received the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is, by this account, wholly unpredictable.

PREDICTABILITY
Predictability may be one of our biggest problems as humans, at least for we humans who want to rise above our humanity, even just a little bit. The Bible is, in its entirety, a testament to our predictable shortcomings. We want so badly to do better, and yet…

Remember how Abram and Sarai went out into the wilderness to show their faith in God? For decades they wandered. And for decades God promised them a child. But they became impatient. Abram and Sarai let their impatience over take their faith, so they forced the slave Hagar to bear their next generation. As a result, their wanderings extended.

When God made the promise of a child again, it came with two markers: a change in their names to Abraham and Sarah plus circumcision for Abraham and all the men in his household for all time forward.

It is as if our Biblical forebears are saying we need to have some literal skin in the game or we will be lost and aimless forever.
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