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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Faithful Evangelism: Acts 8.26–39

Delivered at Ames UCC on May 7, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
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JOKE SET-UP
2017.5.7 xian hegemonySomebody in our church—who shall remain nameless—told me that today’s reading sounds like the set up for a joke: An evangelist and a eunuch meet on a road…It’s not a funny story in that sense, but it is one both odd and joyous. Odd because of Philip’s whisking away by the Holy Spirit, joyous because, unlike with Stephen last week, no one dies because of witnessing for Jesus.

THE EVANGELIST
It begins with Philip. This is not the Philip you may be thinking of, one of Jesus’ disciples who had a particularly prominent role in John’s gospel. The Philip in this book, the Acts of the Apostles, is new. Biblical scholars refer to him as Philip the Evangelist to distinguish between the two. He is, as Stephen was last week, ordained to be a table servant, a caretaker of the widows and growing Jesus Way movement community.

But after Stephen’s lynching, there is a general assault to crack down on all movement followers. Some go to jail, some flee Jerusalem, including Philip the Evangelist. We find that, while he is on the road, Philip the Evangelist has the power to heal, just as Jesus did. He converts all of Samaria, we are told, to the new Jesus Way. You might remember from other references to the Samaritans that they and the Israelites were generally hostile to each other and practiced competing versions of Judaism.

So Philip the Evangelist seems to be a powerful and important figure in the early months after resurrection day.
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Real Religious Freedom

Published May 5, 2017 in the Ames Tribune

By Eileen Gebbie

Over the last few days I have been watching a friend’s Facebook feed as she tours a plantation-turned-national-historic-place in South Carolina. My friend and the tourist site share the same name because that is where her people were once owned. My friend has been walking freely on the ground where her great-grands once walked while being shackled, bloodied, and denied their humanity. And she reports that such denigration endures: The slave quarters were moved to build a restaurant and a hotel now sits on top of the un-excavated slave cemetery. The experience of the “founding father,” who signed the Declaration of Independence and who lived there, has been restored. But that of the captive humans who made his success possible has been re-written or ignored in favor of commerce and convenience.

I have been reading all of this while watching the U.S. President sign a declaration of religious independence and talk about how rarely enforced tax codes have oppressed people of faith and houses of worship.

The photos of people behind the President as he signed the “Religious Freedom” executive order suggest that the order has diverse, multi-faith support. I cannot speak to the Jewish or Sikh Americans shown on the White House lawn; that is not my place. But to my fellow Christians standing there grinning while wearing vestments and habits and crosses, I say for shame. No American Christian has any right or reason to ever claim persecution or oppression on the basis of religion.
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Death is Not the Goal: Acts 6.1–7.2a, 44–60

2017.4.30 libertyDelivered at Ames UCC
on April 30, 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.

JARRING AND SHOCKING
I find today’s reading jarring and shocking. Just two weeks out from Easter and the Biblical world feels unfamiliar and dangerous. No more Jesus, Marys, Peter, or temple. Now we have someone named Nicanor and complaining Hellenists and a synagogue of the Freedman. No more of Jesus’ teachings on feeding and healing. Instead we have a story that seems to be saying that death is the model of post-resurrection faithfulness.

How did we get here?

Healing and feeding aren’t gone altogether. In the chapters before Stephen is killed, we hear about the massive growth in the Jesus movement as well as its organization: Participants had to give up all they had to the group and live in community. The named disciples quickly became overloaded with trying to host at God’s table and spread the good news. Wisely, the disciples laid hands on a new group to serve as deacons—the managers of feeding and tending to the poor.

One of the new table servants is Stephen. Interestingly, Stephen does not restrict himself to that role. He, too, left the table to teach in public. That is what gets him in trouble. To a group of rabbis, Stephen reiterates the core stories of the Hebrew Bible, specifically Exodus: how God has worked through Moses, Abraham, and Joseph.

Stephen concludes with a condemnation of those rabbis and teachers for not really understanding what God has meant and meant to do. Angels have spoken to you, he says, and yet you practice our religion only in the most surface of ways. Stephen stands in the company of all Hebrew prophets in this way. They have always been critics of empty faith. But, unlike the prophets, Stephen is then lynched.

What is so jarring or shocking about all of that, you might ask? Jesus was killed and the Christian tradition is full of martyrs. Death hardly seems avoidable, based on precedent. Why would resurrection day change any of that?

ON ITS OWN
It’s not that. I live in this world so I know that resurrection did not stop human violence. What shocks me is what happens as Stephen is being lynched: He prays for the forgiveness of his killers, just as Jesus did. The parallel and message are clear: Closeness to Christ is in the willingness to be murdered for the Word.

Instead of preserving a story of abundant living in the light of resurrection morning, the Acts of the Apostles seem to want to perpetuate the lethality of Good Friday night. Taken on its own, Stephen’s story teaches us that aggressive critique of religious establishments to the point of being killed is the point of resurrection day.

The key phrase there is “taken on its own.” Not only does Stephen’s story seem to leave behind all of Jesus’ lived teachings, but the Christian contribution to Biblical tradition leaves behind one of that tradition’s most important qualities: multi-vocality.
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Learning and Hospitality: Luke 24.13–35

2017.4.23 easter chrisitansDelivered at Ames UCC
on April 23, 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.

ANXIOUS CHURCH DEATH
I am pretty picky about what articles and books I read about Christianity and church life. Some of that is theological. I am not, obviously, going to read anything based on Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians to keep women quiet. Or the work of Christians who ignore the gospels in order to lean on the handful of words in Leviticus’ temple rules to decry queer people. Not everything preserved in scripture is right or holy. I hope you feel entitled to make the same distinction.

But I also tend to ignore articles about The Death of The Church. I think you probably know what I mean because these pieces have been ringing our death knell for at least 20 years, if not 40. Oh! The church is dying! Oh! The good news of life in radical generosity and relationship is no longer meaningful! Oh! Get a smoke machine and a praise band!

The anxiety level among pastors of “mainline” Protestant churches like ours, and that of the membership, can easily surpass any joy. Maybe that’s why I saw an uptick in articles during Holy Week about “how to behave on Easter.”

The notion that my colleagues in Christian ministry felt compelled to write pieces about anything other than the last supper and the garden and the cross during Holy Week, was so curious to me that I had to read a couple. Basically, they were about how regular attendees can be sure not to blow it with less regular attendees or newcomers on our highest of holy days.

The suggestions included not saying “You know, we are here every week,” scooting into the middle of the pew so that anyone who might be feeling shy doesn’t have to clamber over you, not kicking anyone out of “your” spot, and talking to each other. Basically, be thoughtful and polite.

So rather than teaching seekers how they might think, or more importantly pray, about Easter, these posts read to me as testimonies to church death anxiety. It was as if Easter hasn’t taught us about how holiness begets new life in spite of death.

EMMAUS
Look at what we hear today. Today’s verses follow immediately from last week’s. From last week’s climax at the tomb with the Marys and Joanne and Peter, we are moved immediately to a road between Jerusalem and Emmaus. The very same day that the disciples have found the tomb empty, the word has spread far enough that Cleopas (who is not a disciple) and someone else (also not a disciple) know all of the details.

When Cleopas and his friend meet a stranger—the rising Jesus did not look as he once did—all of that has already happened. They must have really evoked their disappointment that Jesus didn’t redeem Israel from yet another occupation, because the rising Jesus reminds them, more brusquely than the angels did the Marys and Joanne, that all of this was according to plan. To reassure them, the rising Jesus teaches them to interpret scripture, the Torah, prophets, and writings of the Hebrew Bible.
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