Our Public Square

Published October 27, 2017 in the Ames Tribune

By Eileen Gebbie

On Thursday night I sat down with my wife in a church basement for pie. We were attending a fundraiser for an area humane society. Everyone was friendly and smiling, thanking us for coming. I had spice cake, one of my favorites. It was the best hour of my day. Not just because of the frosting or the cause, but because nobody was calling me a heretic, witch, Satanist, pedophile, or abomination; no one was blaming me and my church for AIDS, the high suicide rate among people who are transgender, or the end of the world.

Let me go back a few days: On Monday night, my church came together with two non-profits and nine other churches (the Ames cluster of AMOS, A Mid-Iowa Organizing Strategy) to take responsibility for building an Ames that works for all families. Nearly 150 of us committed to identifying an actionable solution to the massive gaps in mental health care in Story County. We then asked for commitments from the candidates for Ames’s mayor, City Council, and hospital board. All Council and mayoral candidates agreed to continue to support the Story County Housing Trust Fund, which we identified and launched through an earlier AMOS effort, and to meet with us within six months of taking office, if elected. The hospital candidates all agreed to put us on the Board’s agenda—rather than just the open comment period—within three months so that we can formally bring our proposal regarding mental health services forward.

It was a fantastic night. For over an hour and fifteen minutes we listened, clapped, cheered, and reminded ourselves that the public square is ours. And it is ours to maintain as a place of civility and respect and tangible outcomes that benefit our common good.

Tuesday was pretty quiet. I spent my time preparing for the two different Bible studies I lead on Wednesdays, as well as a Halloween party our youth and their parents had been planning for LGBTQIA teens and friends on Wednesday night. We were still sorting out who was bringing the soda (not caffeinated!) and how many pizzas I had to order. Normal party prep.

Early Wednesday morning I woke up to a text from my church’s office administrator, which in itself is very unusual. Her message, from the night before, read, “We’re getting brigaded on Facebook. A conservative blogger is pretty upset about our party and is sending her followers after us.” I logged on, saw what she meant, and sent an email to the congregation. I asked them not to engage with online bullies, because that is both unproductive and antithetical to the embodied, real-time faith we are called to practice.

I also reminded them that, “On the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, this moment is a reminder that there has never been one kind of Christianity. Not in the days and months after the ministry, murder, and mystery of Jesus Christ, nor in the centuries since. At Ames United Church of Christ, we stand confidently in our conviction that the diversity of human gender and sexuality is just one example of the outcome of God’s invitation to the tehom, to create life, a truth with basis not only in love but in biology.”
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Love of Neighbor: Hebrews 13.1–3


1875002116
Delivered at Congregational UCC in Newton, IA during the Central Association of the Iowa Conference of the United Church of Christ
Fall 2017 Meeting

October 28, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.

SEEMINGLY INNOCENT
Ames UCC celebrates its 152nd anniversary in a few weeks. We are the oldest congregation in Ames but we are not the biggest nor the richest. We have an old-fashioned Congregational-style church downtown. It has a leaky roof and exceptionally narrow pews.

We have 202 members. I’m the only full time staff person. We are overwhelmingly white and straight. We are school teachers and medical techs; professors and corporate engineers. We are small business owners and retired farmers; food service workers and stay-at-home moms. We have a great mix of generations.

Basically what I’m saying is that if you walked in tomorrow for worship, you would not think, “Ah, this is a hotbed of heretical radicals.”

There might be a few cues that ours is a house of God that has not been frozen in the amber of time: sometimes we have a rainbow God is Still Speaking banner up. We always have one up about supporting Muslims and refugees. And I’m the third gay pastor. We also do a fair amount of public work around affordable housing, food, and refugees, and soon we will begin on accessibility of mental health care.

But, again, I don’t think many people would see us as a threat to God and civilization. Or, I didn’t think that until Wednesday morning.

ABOMINATIONS AND APOSTATES
On Wednesday morning, I learned that we are apostates, Satanists, a “pedophile filthfest.” We are the church from Revelation that portends the end of the world. We are not Biblical.

And it is all my fault. Well, partly.

It is the church’s fault for letting a woman be a pastor in the first place, given how easily we are swayed by Satan. And I clearly must be under the sway of evil: a woman who dares teach men, who has tattoos, who is married to another woman in the eyes of the nation, and God, thanks to Community UCC in Champaign, IL.

There are legions of prayer warriors now praying for my soul—both its damnation and its salvation—so that I do not corrupt any more innocent and apparently simple-minded people like those in Ames.
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Des Moines Register Op-Ed

On Saturday, October 28, 2017, the Des Moines Register published this Op-Ed piece, Ames church deserves kudos, not hate Campaign, for inclusive Halloween party for teens by Rekha Basu, in support of my church, the Ames United Church of Christ, after it suffered online attacks from a blogger and her followers. Thanks to the Des Moines Register for spreading the good news about our work.

Love Wins

22218394_1674120785954907_6048896865063890605_oOn the evening of Tuesday, October 24, a Christian blogger posted about a planned Halloween party at my church. The party was explcitly for LGBTQIA+ kids and their friends. When I got up on Wednesday, October 25, the day of the party, I was met by the now all-too-common violence that the Internet facilitates so well.

Below is an email I sent to the congregation in response to this. I also posted it on our Facebook page. As of this writing, my message has been seen by over 63,000 people—and we have gained nearly 200 new followers on our Facebook page. God’s good news of radical welcome will always find a way!

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

The United Church of Christ has, as a national denomination, long been on the forefront of not only prophetic witness but prophetic action. We have heard God’s call not to be a stiff-necked people or to make false idols. Therefore, we resist the temptation to deny scientific knowledge or worship the Bible as if it is God rather than precious stories about God. Ours is a faith found in the intersection of our sacred scripture, prayer, and life lived in Christian community.

Recently, fellow seekers of God from different branches of the Christian family tree have been critical of our Open and Affirming (ONA) position and a Halloween event that specifically welcomes LGBTQIA+ youth and their friends. The result has been a barrage of online messages and Facebook posts, some simply curious and others clearly bullying.

On the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, this moment is a reminder that there has never been one kind of Christianity. Not in the days and months after the ministry, murder, and mystery of Jesus Christ, nor in the centuries since. At Ames United Church of Christ, we stand confidently in our conviction that the diversity of human gender and sexual expression is just one more example of the gorgeous outcome of God’s invitation to create with the tehom, a truth with basis not only in love but in biology.

My request to those who stand in solidarity with our church’s expression of faith is to not engage with online posters, bullies, or trolls. I know the temptation, but in cyberspace there is no potential for conversation, not the kind Jesus calls us to have face-to-face and heart-to-heart.

If you are so moved, you are welcome to give the church a high rating on our Facebook page, make an independent post on our “wall,” and to be with us in worship on Sunday, October 29 at 10:30 a.m. The topic is why building temples to God is a way to avoid a spiritual journey with God. Perhaps that is where some of this distress is rooted: Ames United Church of Christ is choosing God over the temples of tradition, fear, and ignorance.

Yours along The Way,

The Rev. Eileen Gebbie, MA, MDiv
Senior Minister

I AM: Exodus 2.23–25, 3.10–15

2017.10.1 redeemDelivered at Ames UCC
on October 1, 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.

INCONSISTENT
Our church has seen pretty substantial growth over the last year. Really even in the last six months. I’m thrilled. I’m thrilled that this 152-year-old place and this 2,000-year-old religion still have so much life and relevance.

But I’m also surprised. I don’t think I’m supposed to say that, but it is true.

In my experience and in my studies, it is the churches that offer a lot more clarity and control than we do that grow. Most mega-churches are those that offer specific rules for who is inside God’s grace and who is out, as well as specific steps one must take—and specific phrases one must say—in order to get special protection or closeness to God.

We don’t, either in this local UCC church or at the national level.

What we offer is conversation.

What we offer is a framework for hearing Biblical interpretations—worship—then opportunities to seek your own through service and fellowship. We place a high value on taking personal responsibility for unpacking the assumptions about God in Christ each of us has, and constructing and re-constructing theologies and lives based on what new light breaks forth from God’s holy word and our lives.

That is hard.

That is hard because it means we cannot outsource our spiritual journey to a creed or church constitution. It is hard because it means we have to be in community, listening to many voices and perspectives. It is hard because it is unending.

So, in an average year it would surprise me to see such a steep rise in interest in a place that does not provide the comfort of rules. In a year where I have witnessed such groaning for a little stability, so many cries for a break from surprises and uncertainties, I am even more so.

But when I return to today’s encounter between God and Moses, maybe I shouldn’t be. Maybe what we are seeing at this church is the presence of the God of Moses—and an eagerness to be in service to that God like Moses.
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HERE I AM: Genesis 27:1–4, 15–23; 28:10–17

2017.9.24 torporDelivered at Ames UCC on September 24, 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.

JACOB
Jacob is a scoundrel.

Jacob is the grandson of Abraham and son of Isaac. You’ll remember from last week that Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac on an altar at God’s command, but an angel of God rescued them. That’s how far God had to go, after over a hundred years of trying, to get Abraham’s lasting attention.

And that’s how loyal Isaac was to his dad: Even though he was a grown adult and could have escaped the knife, overpowered his father, he did just as he was told. But Isaac’s capacity for loyalty did not guarantee the same in his own children.

Isaac’s wife Rebekah bears twin sons. Esau is the firstborn. This means he is slated to inherit all of his father’s wealth and power. His twin brother, Jacob, is born second born and jealous. As they come out of their mother’s body, the story goes, Jacob pulls on Esau’s heel, trying to hold Esau back so that he, Jacob, might be first. That didn’t work out, so once they are men, Jacob bribes Esau to relinquish his birthright. Then, to seal the deal, he tricks his father Isaac into doing the same.

Jacob is born needy, born grasping for more. He does not care about honor or respect or the well-being of anyone other than himself. Jacob is the complete opposite of the humanity God hoped for back in Genesis 1 and 2.

HERE I AM
But we aren’t letting go of that Genesis hope. We are keeping it right in front of us.

Our chancel visuals this fall are by Christy Oxendine. She read through the stories for these weeks and saw how each story builds on the other. Here is creation. On top of creation she added Abraham’s “Here I am” from last week and for this.

In Genesis 22 God cries out to Abraham, and Abraham answers, “Here I am.”1 Isaac cries out to Abraham, and Abraham answers, “Here I am.” The messenger of the Lord cries out to Abraham, and Abraham answers, “Here I am.”

Now, when Isaac is an old man, he cries out to Esau. And Esau answers, “Here I am.” Then, while Esau is gone to get food for Isaac, Jacob sneaks in with his identity masked. Jacob cries out, “Father.” And Isaac answers, “Here I am.”

In this portion of the Hebrew Bible the phrase “here I am” is hineni in Hebrew. It has no good English equivalent. The editors of the Jewish Study Bible say that we need to read into the phrase a sense of “readiness, alertness, attentiveness, receptivity, and responsiveness to instruction.”

In each of the moments I’ve cited, we need to hear “here I am” as not just “present” but “fully present and ready to act on your next speech.” It is the ideal posture to take in relation to God and each other.

We are not to passively exist. We are to look, listen, reach out to, and anticipate each other and God. It is an active mode of being in God’s world. “Here I am,”/hineni is the corporeal faith that Jesus lived during his ministry and still teaches in the Easter mystery.

But then today’s story seems to contradict all of the “here I am”s.
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We Are No Jonah

Here is the summary statement and call to action that I delivered at an action on October 23, 2017, which my church participated in through our membership in AMOS.

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Tonight we received public commitments from those who hope to represent us and our families in the city of Ames:

  • All of the mayoral and city council candidates said that they would vote to continue funding the Story County Housing Trust Fund.
  • They also all agreed to meet with us regarding new issues within six months of taking office, should they be elected.
  • All of the candidates for the city hospital’s board of trustees said they would work with us on mental health care availability, including putting us on the agenda at a board meeting within three months.

It feels good to have the people who want to be elected to governmental power recognize our own civic power. But I think there is more at stake here than these commitments and that recognition.

I’m a Christian priest, so my lens for understanding the world is a combination of the Hebrew Bible, the Christian testaments, and my life in Christian community. One of my inheritances from that tradition is the story of Jonah.

2017.10.23 AMOSThe story says that God asked Jonah to go to a big city and call on its rulers and people to repent of greed and self-righteousness.

Jonah’s response? He runs away.
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