Attend to One Another: Luke 6.1–16

2017.1.29 resist findDelivered at Ames UCC
on January 29, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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HEARING
A news story came across my e-mail recently with the title “The greatest challenge your pastor will face in 2017.” Can you guess what the challenge was? The author said that it is all of you.

He described how, on any given Sunday, the preacher may say one thing but congregants hear another. That’s a given in this style of teaching. We have a lot of teachers here, so I know you can relate. But the author predicted the phenomenon would be more pronounced in light of the presidential election.

So let me ask you this: How many of you here today want me to address the week’s news about refugees and walls and women’s bodies? And how many of you would be very frustrated if I did?

Group dynamics are always tricky, but even more so in a time of conflict and even in a space of faith. Just look at today’s story.

ANTI-SEMITISM
The first conflict is in the temples, which prompts a reminder before I get into the meat of my sermon. Beware our human tendency to conflate a few with all.

The greatest sin of Christianity has been to take the reported behavior of a few people who were Jewish, many years ago, as representative of people who are Jewish, for all time. The shock of those in today’s scripture, and their reprimand of Jesus, does not characterize all people who are now, or were then, Jewish. I know that you know this, but given the persistence of hate groups and speech against people who are Jewish by people who claim to be Christian, it bears repeating.

Now, let’s talk about Judas, the focus of our greatest conflict as Christians.
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Public Servants

January 21, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

My grandfather was a soldier.
My grandmother was a public servant at the federal level.
My mother was a public servant at the state and federal levels.
My aunties–biological and chosen–were public servants at the federal level.
My uncle was a public servant at the federal level.
My stepfather was a public servant at the state level.
My father-in-law was a soldier.
My brother is a public servant at the state level.
My sister works in a public school.
My sister-in-law teaches in a public school.
My cousin teaches in a public school.
My brother-in-law teaches at a public university.
My wife taught in public schools and at a public university.

Each worked hard to receive training and do their jobs well with and for fellow Americans, regardless of race, class, sex, economic background, sexual orientation, abilities, nation of origin, or religion. Each entered public service for common good and not to personally enrich themselves (and at times even at the risk of their own lives).

Which, in addition to their positions, is why I am appalled by so many of the nominees for our nation’s cabinet and the new president’s top advisors. Their careers have been marked by self-interest and their training is in no way related to the concerns they would now have to tend. Or, even worse, their careers or training to date have been directly opposed to those concerns. By refusing to remove conflicts of interest that will be personally enriching while making decisions for all of us, they serve only themselves, and not us at all.

As a Christian priest, I do not engage in partisan politics. Instead, I work within my church and my local IAF alliance to build power and then address specific issues we are struggling with. This allows me to be in relationship and solidarity with people with whom I might not share a party platform but do share pressures around housing, jobs, and mental illness, for example.

In that work, I am a public servant. And you can be, too.

My family taught me that public service is a privilege, but one open to all people. If you have not already, please seek out the alliances in your community that transcend name-calling and take no pleasure in the suffering of others. Because this new cohort of leaders will betray that role and all of us because of our race, class, sex, sexual orientation, economic background, abilities, nation of origin, and religion.

Truth: Luke 4.14–30

2017.1.15 jubilant loveDelivered at Ames UCC
on January 15, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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heard rather than read.
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A long time ago, it seems now, I taught a course on rhetoric and argumentation. Throughout the semester we went over different types of arguments and logical fallacies: how to make a parallel case, how to avoid a straw man, for example. The project for the term was to take a racial or ethnic conflict—and I came up with 72 different ones ranging from reparations in the United States to Greece’s treatment of the Cypriots—and lay out the arguments on both sides, then make a case for one side.

This required research. And, as the Internet was just starting to be widely accessible, it required teaching the students how to assess if an online source was valid because we were learning that anyone could and would post anything. The criteria were authority, purpose, format and publisher, relevance, date, and documentation.

If only the Internet came with those criteria posted every time we turn on a browser. If only we had to accept those terms with each and every click and scroll. Because twenty years later, the validity of online information is a moot point. Truth has taken such a hit over the last year that the Oxford Dictionaries word of the year for 2016 was “post-truth”:

..relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.1

But here’s something that has been eating at me even more than the collapse of credibility: Post-truth sounds a lot like my theology and that of our branch of the Christian family tree.

For example, one of the stories we did not hear in this year’s cycle with Jesus is his trial in the wilderness. According to the story, Jesus is alone for forty days, beset by ha-satans, the forces of non-being. They have a powerful conversation in which Jesus only responds with scripture, demonstrating a fierce loyalty to God. We know because we have a word-for-word account of their dialogue, as if Luke secured a transcript of this solitary experience forty years after Easter.

This is not possible.
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Faith is Not So Tidy: Luke 3.1–22

2017.1.8 best caseDelivered at Ames UCC
on January 8, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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NEAT AND TIDY
Luke tells a good story, he’s a good story teller. The Gospel of Luke and its sister book the Acts of the Apostle are beautifully crafted cases for Christ. Rather than a collection of Jesus stories with no segues or explanation, each element within Luke’s gospel is connected, and is a stepping stone to the predicted end.

In the second chapter, for instance, a barren woman is able to get pregnant, a classic Biblical sign of God at work in the world. That woman, Elizabeth, now pregnant with John, visits her cousin Mary, now pregnant with Jesus. John gives Elizabeth’s bladder a good kick, and Elizabeth proclaims Mary blessed among women.

This is a foreshadowing of today’s story: John, now born and grown and working as a religious leader, kicks back against those who think he is the anointed one. No, he says, not I. But, the one I have preceded all my life.

In the Gospel of Luke, the structure of the story leaves no room to doubt that Jesus is the Son of God. The structure of Luke’s story of faith is neat and tidy.

But, man oh man, the contents are not. Look, for example, at the company Jesus keeps, right from the very start.

2017.1.8 not just ritualJESUS’ BAPTISM
Although the Christmas story tells us that Jesus is going to be someone special, the audience for that is pretty small, once you exclude the sky full of heavenly host. Jesus’ baptism, then, is considered his debut act of ministry, the moment at which Jesus declares his commitment to God and God blesses that commitment.

The version most commonly represented in art and story is from the Gospel of Mark. In it, John is in rough clothing and eating bugs. John cites the prophecy from Isaiah and predicts Jesus. Jesus is then clearly baptized by John and just as he comes out of the water, the heavens open right in front of everyone, in direct response to John moving Jesus through the water.

Not so in Luke. In Luke, we just hear that sometime after everyone was baptized, including Jesus, Jesus was praying, but where and for how long and with whom, we don’t know. Only then does God speak.

That crucial moment almost reads as an addendum to what came before: seventeen verses of John preaching and chastising and getting arrested, then only two about Jesus and his baptism. In Luke, it is the lead up to the baptism and holy blessing that get the attention, that have the weight. And it is not tidy. The lead up to baptism and blessing are messy.

John has rejected his birthright. This one who could have been—should have been?—a temple priest like his father is instead a hollering, river-wading name caller. People, he says, there is one coming who will straighten everything out. But you are a brood of vipers! You think you can rest on who you are related to and do no work of your own. Bah!

Then things get messier, because it turns out that the people who were drawn to John, at least the ones who warrant naming, are tax collectors and soldiers. This first group consists of fellow Israelites who make their living off of taxing their own neighbors on behalf of an occupier, while taking a cut for themselves. The second are the agents of occupation who keep the rule of foreign law, including suppression of resistance, through violence, extortion, and pinning crimes on innocent people. John tells them to clean up their acts and be prepared to be judged by fire.

These are the people chosen by Jesus to be his first witnesses. These are the very first members of what we now call the body of Christ.
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No Right Answers: Luke 2.21–38

2017-1-1-not-rightDelivered at Ames UCC
on January 1, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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POETRY
I was a literature major in college. That meant I got read a whole lot of books that I loved. But I also had to take a class on poetry. I remember the day we talked about Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for death.” It felt like we spent an hour on the first stanza:

Because I could not stop for Death–
He kindly stopped for me–
The Carriage held but just Ourselves–
And Immortality.

Our professor kept asking what it meant. We kept saying, “She didn’t want to die. But death came anyway.” Which it does. But she kept at us: “What else? What else?” She seemed, to me, disproportionately excited to look for more meaning within those 20 words.

I know I passed the class, but I remember feeling dense and dimwitted throughout. Poetry confused me and I felt like I was never “getting it” or getting it “right.”

Twenty years later, I can say the experience of being Christian can feel the same. As people who are seeking the divine, in part through Christian scripture, we can also feel dense and wonder if we will ever get it “right” or know what our scripture “really means.”

TEMPLE PRESENTATION
Look at today’s portion from the gospel community of Luke, for example. It begins with Jesus being presented as an eight-day-old newborn to the temple in Jerusalem.

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

The passage implies that this presentation is a required religious purification ritual for the whole family. But it wasn’t. Ancient Judaism did not have any such requirement. Luke makes this false connection by pairing it with a quotation from God’s instruction to Moses in the wilderness in Exodus 13. Yes, God asked for first born sons to be dedicated to service to God, but that was never implemented as a formal religious purification ritual rule.1

Women did a forty day period between delivery and a ritual, which is detailed in Leviticus 12, but Mary is only a week out of the barn. And there was no requirement for the fathers of newborns.

Saying that it was time for “their” time for purification, meaning the whole family’s, is not historically accurate.

So what does that mean? What does the story mean as told and what does the discrepancy between story and history mean?
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We Are Family: Christmas Day 2016

Delivered at Ames UCC on December 25, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
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JOSEPH’S FAMILY
There’s something about the Christmas story that has been bothering me this year.

As we hear in the Luke version of Jesus’ story, the Roman emperor tells everyone to go to their home towns to be registered. So we learn that Joseph is from Bethlehem but living in Galilee. That’s a 70 mile separation, a long way by foot and by mule.

But what is bothering me is why Joseph left his family, why he wasn’t already in Bethlehem at the time of the census. Why did he leave his family, his clan, his tribe in the first place? Did work take him away or war? Was he a refugee or merely an émigré? The story doesn’t say.

We know that it was important for the early Jesus storytellers to link Jesus to Bethlehem, to prove that he was the anointed one predicted in the older Hebrew prophecies. But they could have just said he was there at his birth, they didn’t need this elaborate story of hardship.

FAMILY HARDSHIP
As you all know, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s can themselves be a hardship for some us because of our families of origin.

With the juggernaut of family-themed advertising, those of us whose families are broken or cruel or broke or without a home, can be left feeling lonely, angry, or even like failures by this morning. After seeing ad after ad, we might want to scream, “Why can’t I come to a well-lit house on Christmas Eve to be surrounded by exclamations of joy and shiny gifts?”

Why? Because family is complex.

Maybe that is why our faith ancestors in the community of Luke included Joseph’s distance from his family, when none of the others did. Maybe the followers of Luke heard a holy call to tell a story as complex as real life, a story to remind us that God is in the complexity of real life. Including the complexity of family. Including the family we enter into through God.
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Why Leave Home to Come Here? Christmas Eve 2016

2016-12-24-godnessDelivered at Ames UCC
on December 24, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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What brought you here tonight?
Why have you come to this place instead of staying home?

Our Christmas story has answers for all of its characters. Mary and Joseph have to get back to Bethlehem for a census. The shepherds have angels send them on their way. The astronomers need to see this unprecedented star, the first one they had ever known to hold still. And Jesus, well, he is just doing what babies do, without any regard for his surroundings.

The community of the disciple Luke gives everyone a reason to be away from home on the night Jesus is born, except for us.

NARRATIVES
You may have seen my editorial in the paper yesterday, where I wrote about narratives. All of us have a narrative, a story, of our own lives, our family lives, our state and national lives. So do institutions, like this church.

The narrative of Ames UCC usually starts like this:  We were the first church in town, beating out the Methodists across the street by one year. We shut down taverns in our early days, but are no longer so temperate. More recently we took a stand for peace over war, symbolized by the weekly ringing of our bell. We are open to and affirming of all people, most explicitly members of the LGBTQIA community, those of us who have been so maligned by other Christian churches. We also tell our national church’s narrative of abolition and suffrage.

We tell these stories to remind ourselves and others of who we are and what we should be working on now, such as affordable housing and refugee asylum. But we didn’t come up with these stories and work on our own. Our church narrative goes back to the Biblical one, to this night’s story of shelter and awe and gift-giving.

WE AS A CHURCH
We, as a church, are willing to constantly interrogate how we are acting like an emperor, to look for who is now struggling on an open road, and wonder whether we are really ready to receive gifts from those of different languages and religions because of tonight’s story.

We, as a church, are motivated to set this open table and bring gifts to Food at First and the Emergency Residence Project because of this baby in a barn.

Now, generosity and justice are by no means exclusive to those of us who follow the Way of Christ. The magi themselves tell us so.

But that baby-turned-man-turned-mystery is our collective star in the darkness and at the dawn. The theophany that so startled the shepherds and held still for the magi endures, for us as a church, through Jesus Christ.

So that is the narrative of this church, the story of why this church is here. But what about you?
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