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.
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.
I learned all of this because our youth group and parents of youth decided to host a Halloween party that extended particular welcome to other youth who are LGBTQIA+. And a blogger, who describes herself as Christian while using a punching fist as her logo, did deep enough Web work to find our little announcement on our Facebook page. She shared it with her followers, with explicit instructions on how to contact the church and exactly in what terms to condemn us.
Those messages via Facebook and email and phone have been painful to read and hear. And we—meaning the Ames UCC staff—have to read them all, and listen to them all, to make sure there is no direct threat, to create documentation in case someone escalates. That is the world we now live in.
But of all of the messages about my body and this body of Christ, I think one of the most disappointing was from a woman in Ohio who identifies herself as a member of our denomination.
Thankfully, Ames doesn’t speak for every UCC congregation! This liberal drivel is not accepted by the majority of congregations.
It is always those closest to us who can hurt us the worst. Which brings me to the first leg of the 3 Great Loves campaign.
LOVE OF NEIGHBOR
Our national church has asked us, for the next few months, to focus on and practice what it means to love our neighbor. The online resource kit for churches describes it as
…part of a denomination-wide effort that is about engaging the UCC to take action and to show the impact of our congregation, and the UCC, working together as one church, with one voice and one vision—a vision of A Just World for All.
I had a pretty decent sermon about how to make that happen, thanks to our core denominational values of covenant, unity, and autonomy. But right now, from where I preach and pray, all of that feels like academic rhetoric.
How do covenant, unity, and autonomy help me love the neighbor when the neighbor wants me dead? How do I unite with my denominational fellows when I have been reminded again that many in that denomination want nothing to do with me?
On Wednesday morning after taking in the first wave of hate and posting a response, I went into our regular Bible study. We talked about what was happening. Toward the end I called on Bill because he had been so quiet. He named his tendency toward defensiveness.
I’m not sharing this to embarrass or shame Bill, but because I know what Bill means. At times my defensiveness has wanted badly to manifest itself as aggressiveness. Not defensiveness of myself. Anyone who enters into public leadership, anyone who is bold enough to preach the good news of Jesus Christ, has to expect some punches. But I am very defensive of the people of Ames UCC, the kind, thoughtful, hard-working, and faithful people in that little church in the middle of Iowa.
And I know I am not alone. Look at the new rules for civic discourse, or the lack of them. Aggressiveness has been unchained, fed steroids, and made unaccountable through computer screens and avatars.
The anonymous author of Hebrews tells us to let mutual love continue, to care for strangers, to recognize that should any person suffer, so we suffer. This world is suffering, badly, in part because of the way we deem people different from ourselves as strange.
But mutual love has not died. The mutual love that is so absent online yet radiates abundantly from God.
THANKS BE TO GOD
I do believe that the United Church of Christ is uniquely outfitted to practice love of neighbor because of our diversity and even our disagreements. We have, through God’s covenant, found a way to be united and autonomous, simultaneously one church and 5,000 congregations, for over 60 years.
So even today, even when I am tired and heartsick and angry, I am still able to give thanks.
I give thanks for the hundreds of fellow UCC-ers and community members who have rallied to our church with expressions of love and thanks. Love for the safe harbor, thanks for the pain we are preventing.
I give thanks today for the century and a half of regular, middle-of-the-road Christians at Ames UCC who made a Halloween party of Pictionary and cake for queer kids and their friends a regular, middle-of-the-road part of Christian community.
I give thanks today for this Association and the ways it pulls us out of the echo chamber of congregational isolation to make sure we have the necessary hard conversations and remain accountable to each other.
But more than anything, I give thanks to God.
To the God of Creation and Exodus. To the God of the rainbow and of Ruth. To the God of the shepherd and the bleeding woman. To the God of the Upper Room and the road to Emmaus.
To the God who knows no strangers. To the God who sets for us a table of saints and sinners, bloggers and preachers, neighbors one and all.