Nazis and Narratives

Published December 24, 2016 in the Ames Tribune

By Eileen Gebbie

Do I want to read another article on American Nazism, Aryan Nations and the Ku Klux Klan (now re-branded as “alt-right”)? Do I need to read about another hate crime against people who are Jewish or Muslim or queer or female or of color? How will such news prepare me for when the violence comes to my door and my soul (again)? How will reading about more physical, emotional, economic and spiritual violence help me to be an engaged citizen and faithful pastor?

These are the questions behind my daily choice to read the news or not.

As I write today, I’ve been following a story about a new campaign to go after people who are Jewish in Whitefish, Mont. It is being promoted by a prominent white nationalist website, one with a specific anti-Semitic agenda, and whose name is a specific reference to Nazism. To the site’s authors and readership, people who happen to be born into a Jewish family (and, presumably, those who convert) are not the same kind of humans as those who happen to be born into another kind of family. So the site has published the email addresses, phone numbers and Twitter names of people in Whitefish, whom the site has identified as Jewish. The site’s authors are advocating for a “Troll Storm”—intense and incessant harassment—against these people on the basis of their perceived religious identity.

Such behavior is vile and un-American, but it is not new or original. Our homegrown hate group, the Ku Klux Klan, was in its origins far more interested in destroying people who were Roman Catholic and Jewish than those who were black, as it is so famous for doing now. But I think this latest iteration of cruelty has stayed with me because I have been to Montana. I have family in Missoula and Miles City. I attended the installation of my great-grandparents’ photographs at the Range Riders Museum. So this harassment is in my own extended back yard, against my own neighbors.

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In Miles City, MT (second from left)

But what does that have to do with me as a Christian pastor at a church in Ames at Christmas?

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Peace Hangs on One Word: Joel 2.12–13 and 28–29

2016-12-4-yesDelivered at Ames UCC
on December 4, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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A WORD
A few years ago a poet named Christian Wiman wrote a book called My Bright Abyss. It’s his story of living with cancer, knowing the divine, and rediscovering Christian community, which just happens to have been through a United Church of Christ congregation.

As a poet, it is not surprising that Wiman reflects on the language and kinds of storytelling we encounter in Christian scripture. He states that, “Christ speaks in stories as a way of preparing his followers to stake their lives on a story.” (p. 90) In other words, Wiman believes that the use of stories to talk about life is a way of training us to stake our lives on those stories themselves.

He’s right, of course, that when we choose a religious tradition, we are saying that we would like the stories and ritual and even architecture of that tradition to inform us and our lives. But are we really saying we will stake our lives on them? Are we saying that we will risk our lives as the stories often directly ask?

Take last week’s story about Daniel, for example. Daniel stayed true to his faith regardless of a law that was enacted to scare and entrap him. His integrity revealed how willing people are, in a grab for power, to criminalize others, to make other people out to be a threat.

It was a risk, though. Daniel literally risked his life for the God of the exodus, the God of freedom. Will we? Will we let these stories do more than just inform our lives but be what we stake our lives upon? For me, some days, the answer can rely on just one word.
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What to Bring to The Night: Daniel 6.6–27

2016-11-27-remade-in-loveDelivered at Ames UCC on November 27, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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DANIEL AND THE GOLDEN BOOKS
The earliest Near Eastern reference to Daniel that has surfaced to date is of a Ugaritic king in the 14th century BCE. After that time, a whole cycle of Daniel stories spread across the region. In the Bible proper he’s in this book, Daniel, as well as Ezekial. He is also in the extra-Biblical books of Susanna, the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three, Bel and the Dragon, the Dead Sea Scroll called the Prayer of Nabonidus, and the Ugaritic Aqhat Epic.1

The first six chapters of the book of Daniel are a series of self-contained folk tales. Daniel shares qualities with other Biblical folk heroes, like Joseph’s gift of dream interpretation, and success in foreign politics like Mordecai, from the book of Esther.

As collected by our Jewish ancestors, these characters helped the Jewish community with how to live under occupation.

But because of my age and how I came up in Christian churches, I can’t hear “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” without picturing the Golden Books versions, all cartoony and not looking at all ancient near-eastern. Daniel looked, maybe, more like he came from Iowa. And what I can remember from those children’s versions is a really bad king and David as a cherubic tamer of lions. In my memory’s eye, there is a big confrontation between Daniel and the lions before his release by the king.

The moral was always that with enough faith God can save you from all dangers. The flip side of that was that if you were not saved, it was because you did not have enough faith.
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Dictators and Christ the King: Isaiah 6.1–8

Delivered at Ames UCC on November 20, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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2016-11-20-x-the-kingREIGN OF CHRIST
The stole I’m wearing today depicts the logo of the United Church of Christ. It is the Christus victor, Christ victorious. We have a cross, crowned, standing on and over the world. The world is segmented in reference to Jesus’ instruction to be witnesses to love in “Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1.8). It is a regal and universal symbol. I’m wearing it today to mark Reign of Christ or Christ the King Sunday.

For churches like ours that use a traditional calendar of seasons and holidays, today is the bridge between Ordinary Time and Advent, the beginning of our Christian year. So today is like our new year’s eve. And we mark New Year’s Eve with a reminder of whom we are most loyal to, the Christ, and whose world we live in, God’s.

Which is easy to forget in daily life. In daily life we are residents of Story County, Iowa and the United States of America. Here in Ames our mayor is Ann Campbell, our representative to the Iowa house is Lisa Heddens, our governor is Terry Branstad. At the national level our senators are Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley, our U.S. representative is Steve King.

Unlike the rulers of our scripture and of history, none of them are religious figures and they are not anointed by God. They do not inherit their positions and do not bequeath them to their offspring. They are our neighbors. From Campbell to King, they are regular humans with regular homes and regular families who probably all like to eat at The Café on Stange, too.

2016-11-20-regular-humansNow, Mayor Campbell and Rep. Heddens are a lot easier to get to than the others. Until this summer, Heddens was upstairs in our own building running People Place. Now she’s around the corner at NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. I’ve run into our mayor here for memorial services and around town at events for area nonprofits.

The rest, well, the rest have a whole lot of staff members and geography between us and them. The more power we give to regular people, it seems, the less access they give regular people. We, the very people they courted to get the jobs, the very people who could take those jobs away.

We may not have royalty but after a certain point, we have leaders who function at a scale that can put them at what can feel like a princely distance.

ISAIAH OF JERUSALEM
Isaiah of Jerusalem, the man anointed by angels and coal in our story today, was in a similar position. During his time, in the 8th century BCE, Jerusalem was under threat of conquer by the Assyrians. Isaiah was, personally, a wealthy Jerusalemite. But that didn’t mean he had easy access to the king in a time of crisis.

And looming war wasn’t Isaiah’s only concern. Jerusalem was his home, but it was also God’s. By the understanding of Isaiah’s day, Jerusalem was where God lived, literally, in the temple. So Isaiah was dealing with pending war and the loss of God.

Here he is, speaking with angels and being branded as a prophet then having to try to explain to his people why God would allow invaders to kill them and foreigners to close the opening between heaven and earth. This was a man in whose vision God was on a throne yet still had no answers for what was, in the end, the occupation of Jerusalem by two different foreign powers.

MUSSOLINI
Calling this Christ the King Sunday came in response to an occupation, of sorts.

The big holidays like Christmas and the Baptism of Christ and Easter and Pentecost are all scripturally based, all in reference to the stories we have in the Bible. But Reign of Christ Sunday started in 1925. In 1925 Pope Pius XI established this feast day for the Roman Catholic church. Why 1,925 years after the establishment of all of the other holidays, would he feel compelled to remind people of their true leader? What was happening in Italy in the first quarter of the 20th century?

It was the rise of fascism.
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A Step Backwards—To Hate

Published Nov 21, 2016 in the Ames Tribune

By Eileen Gebbie

When I was a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I had the opportunity to teach. Although I had never, myself, taken an introduction to sociology course, I was assigned to TA three discussion sections of 30 students each in the intro course at Illinois.

The lecturer for the course went through the primary markers that determine each of our life chances (our access to resources): race, class, sex/gender, sexuality and ability. I think if she were teaching it now, we would have also talked about nation of origin and religion.

As a result, we learned a lot of history and considered issues in the news. This included the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man in Wyoming, and the subsequent efforts to pass hate crimes legislation in local municipalities and at the national level. (The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act was passed by the U.S. Congress in 2009. Byrd was a black man who was lynched and decapitated in Texas in 1998.)

I don’t think any of my students believed killing Shepard was acceptable. Some may have thought he “asked for it” by being “too gay,” but I don’t believe anyone tried to justify the actual beating or leaving him exposed to the elements with his arms tied out to his sides, as in a crucifixion. But they also really struggled with the notion of special protection under the law.

It sounded too much like “special rights,” the phrase often used by anti-gay groups to suggest that the LGBTQIA community was trying to get access to more power and privileges simply by asking for the right to fair access housing, the right to not be fired because of their biology, and the right to enter into the civil contract that is marriage.

Yet when I asked them whether they thought crimes ever went ignored, under-investigated or under-prosecuted because someone might be a woman or Trans or Latino, they said yes. My majority white, majority Chicago-suburb students had no problem believing there could be inconsistency in the treatment of victims of crime.

As of this writing, not quite two weeks since the presidential election, America has seen a surge in hate crimes (or at least the reporting of hate crimes). More than 700 have already been documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
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God is Everywhere: The Book of Jonah

jonahlovejusticeDelivered at Ames UCC
on November 13, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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ASSUMPTIONS AND FEAR
I don’t generally like to assume how people are feeling or what they are thinking. It isn’t fair and it can be dangerous. Plus, my personality and my training tell me to do otherwise. I like to assume the best about people and so I want to understand who they are and why they are and how they got there.

I doesn’t mean I respect where everyone ends up. I have no patience or respect for those who publicly pronounce their hatred of others, for those who organize whole institutions around the destruction of those who are not Christian, or of people of color, women, or queer.

Neither does Ames UCC. This is a church that has always stood on the side of people who have been hated for those reasons. We do not all do so from the same political party, but we agree nonetheless.

So I will take the risk in assuming that if you are here today, if you have chosen to a come to a place like this, you have experienced some kind of grief, if not actual fear, since Tuesday night.

Fear of the voters who chanted “Jew S. A.! Jew S. A.!,” fear of the voters who laughed at or dismissed a man who treats women’s bodies as objects for his own pleasure, fear of the voters whose children approached other Black kids in Ames to ask if they knew they would be slaves again soon, fear of the voters in Boone who keyed “die fag #trump” into the cars of two women, fear that those voters’ voices will not only grow stronger and more emboldened, but also translate into law that will reduce protection and rights.

In other words, even though I know we are not homogenous in our formal party affiliations at Ames UCC, I know that we are united in our condemnation of such behavior.
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With Raven’s Help: 1 Kings 17

watchingweirdDelivered at Ames UCC
on November 6, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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A NATION
A nation was born. Its people had been unwelcome in their previous home land. They escaped persecution and poverty. They came to a new land, not an open or unoccupied land, but a new one.

They warred, they built a government, and lifted up leaders. They had a formal statement of values which, in theory, guided their actions.

But over time, things fell apart. Or, at least, the nation did not live up to its potential. The people who should have been protected by the founding rules were not. Corruption didn’t just occur, it was broadcast. Unity was impossible. Factions broke away and denied, rejected, any relationship with the others.

Sound familiar? Sound like America on the brink of this presidential election? As Qohelet wrote in Ecclesiastes (1.9), “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is the context for today’s passage in the first book of Kings.

The Hebrew people, freed from slavery, made a home through conquer and colonialism. The Ten Commandments, a testimony to respect and relationship, should have guided them to create a community of care and wisdom. Instead the people cried out for a king so that they could be recognized in international politics.

The kings acted as kings do, selfishly. Over time the nation broke in two, with Israel to the north and Judah to the south. Now Ahab is the king of Israel in the north. Ahab “did more to vex the Lord, the God of Israel, than all the kinds of Israel who preceded him” (1 Kings 16.33).

ELECTION
I cannot speak for God, but I feel pretty vexed right now. This election season has brought out the worst in us, us as Americans and as individuals. The violence has crossed all party lines. There seem to be no more social consequences for writing off people of a certain race or religion or geographic origin. Threats of violence no longer need be anonymous—you can tweet them right under your own name. It feels as if any awareness of shared humanity, even if not shared experiences, has been tweeted and talking head-ed out of existence. The concept of what constitutes a fact is now unstable.
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We Have Already Won: 2 Samuel 7.1–17

already-wonDelivered at Ames UCC
on October 23, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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NATHAN
Last week was Hannah, this week is Nathan. Pr. Hannah’s family has Biblical proportions!

Nathan isn’t a prophet that we talk about a lot, not as we do Amos or Isaiah. But he’s an important character in the story of David.

Remember that prophets are those people who have a singular focus on God with no regard for social niceties. However, not all prophets are created equal. Nathan is a prophet in the king’s court. He is employed by the king. We might question whether he is able to sustain a singular focus in such an arrangement.

When we first meet Nathan today, King David has just wondered aloud how it is that he himself lives in opulence, but the artifacts of God are still in a tent, as they have been since the Exodus. David decides to build a temple. Nathan encourages David to do so—Go for it! Build a temple! God is with you! That same night, though, through Nathan himself, God says not to build a temple.

Later, when David has become an adulterous villain, it is Nathan who calls David out on his abuses. Nathan keeps David in check when he threatens to reverse himself on promises of royal succession. Nathan also assures David of God’s forgiveness after a genuine period of repentance.

So, the speech of prophets is not always prophetic. But Nathan did do the work of one who upholds the heart of the Ten Commandments: reminding others to honor relationships.

LOST IN TRANSLATION
But the focus of today’s portion isn’t Nathan and his prophetic qualities. It’s this issue of whether or not, and when, David should build a temple for God.
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With Heart and Soul: 1 Samuel 1.9–11, 19–20 and 2.1–10

magnificatDelivered at Ames UCC
on October 16, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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FAST FORWARD
Your head may be spinning because we have jumped so far forward in time, Biblically-speaking.

The goal of our reading schedule, the Narrative Lectionary, is two-fold: First, take into account the full breadth and depth of our relationship with God, because it didn’t begin with Jesus. Second, help us understand the many allusions and direct citations of the Hebrew Bible within the Christian Testament, because Jesus did not live in a vacuum. But we go pretty hard and fast. Last week the escaped Hebrew slaves’ 40 years in the wilderness had just begun and now we are already well established in the promised land.

Here’s what we missed: Leviticus’ detailed instructions on religious practices and community norms to prepare the people for settlement. Numbers’ also very detailed descriptions of the priestly role. A restatement of the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, in Deuteronomy, along with three major speeches by Moses to prepare his people for arrival.

Deuteronomy is the last of the books of Moses, the ending of the Torah or the Pentateuch. What comes next, though, depends on if you are Jewish or Christian. The difference reflects our divergent understanding of the end-goal of scripture. The Jewish arrangement goes from Torah to Prophets to Writings. The Christians have Torah, History, Wisdom, and Prophets because the church fathers needed to prove that the Hebrew Bible predicts Jesus as the final messiah. So in the Jewish organization of the canon, Joshua and Judges are next. In the Christian, it is Joshua, Judges, and Ruth.

Regardless, between Torah and today, we have Joshua’s warring gore and Judges’ effort to make sense of how the promised land can hold so much conflict. We Christians then have Ruth’s story that affirms love over nationalist.

The books of Samuel, which were originally one, are in broad terms about the change in ancient Israel’s governance from judges to monarchs. Samuel is a judge and a prophet who anoints the first two kings of Israel: Saul and David. The books are full of contradictions and twice-told tales of imperfect men. But it starts with this woman, Hannah.
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No Fear, No Desperation: Exodus 32.1–14

husharborDelivered at Ames UCC
on October 9, 2016

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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LEADERSHIP TEAMS
When Genya C. preached on the story of Abraham and Sarah a few weeks ago, she shared how it wasn’t until she helped to launch the Godly Play curriculum for grade schoolers here that she came to know about our church leadership teams. Coming for worship with her family, she hadn’t realized all that happens behind the scenes. Genya is now the head of our Christian Ed team. But it’s the Financial Stewardship team I’ve been highlighting of late. They are charged with just that: the management and solicitation of financial gifts to God through Ames UCC.

Earlier this summer the Financial Stewardship team and I were working on the timeline and strategy for 2017. We looked at October for a good Sunday to set for the pledge deadline. When I glanced at the scripture schedule and saw today’s was about the golden calf, I said, “Oh, it has to be October 9.” Because what better story is there for talking about money and God than one of creating false idols? The preaching possibilities seemed to be many: Don’t make money your idol, money isn’t God, faith isn’t a shiny object.

Actually preparing such a sermon, though, feels bad. The result can only be pastor as finger-wagging nag or holier-than-thou know-it-all. Even if I confessed all of my personal financial mistakes and failures to give generously to church, the physical dynamics of this room would still put me in a position to sound like a real scold.

And it wouldn’t be an accurate depiction of the text.

FLIGHT
Look at what has happened: The people got ready to flee, marked their homes and themselves as loyal to God and then they fled. Their passage out of slavery was terrifying: An army bore down on them; a body of water blocked their way. But they got out. Just as God has done so many times for the subjugated, a way showed up out of no way. The sea of reeds revealed a path and to safety they went.

Or a semblance of safety. Moses and his people didn’t have a destination other than not-Egypt. And they did not have much food. They took on faith that God would guide them to a place where they could live without fear and with sufficient manna.

Once in the wilderness the people found God too loud and shocking, so they asked Moses to do all of the talking. Moses said yes and continued to embody the holy presence that they needed to stay strong. But sometimes Moses went away. Sometimes Moses was called to be in a different kind of communion with the divine, out of their eye sight and ear shot.

He had been gone from the Hebrews for upwards of 40 days by the time they turn to Aaron for help.

I can imagine that might have been stressful. Despite all of the evidence the Hebrew people have that they will be okay, it is still scary to be out of a house, with no permanent kitchen. And they believed that God had abandoned them once before. After all, it felt like God had allowed them to go from power in Pharaoh’s house then down into slavery. So if Moses is their link to God and Moses is gone, a bit of anxiety is understandable.
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