The Words of Our Faith: Philippians 2.1–13

2018.5.13 no wayDelivered at Ames UCC
on May 13, 2018

©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.

OMAR IBN SAID
In the very early 1800s there was a man named Omar ibn Said. He was educated, he tithed, and he taught his Muslim faith to the children of his community in Senegal. Then, at age 37, married and with a family, Omar was kidnapped during a raid, and put to sea on one of the last ships to participate in the Atlantic slave trade before it was banned. Despite being a small and delicate man, Omar survived the middle passage, those six weeks below deck of filth, starvation, stench, and fear. In the autobiography he wrote years later, Omar said that on his arrival at the slave auctions in Charleston, South Carolina, “In a Christian language they sold me.”

However, Omar escaped from the man who would own him. He walked 200 miles, but even though he was under threat for every inch of those miles, he did not give up his practice of praying five times each day. Unfortunately, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Omar ibn Said was captured and jailed.

Then Omar did something remarkable, at least to the white people of Fayetteville.

As the account of Omar I’m basing this on notes, white people were used to being around black people and African people, and they were used to believing that black people and African people were all ignorant subhuman animals, who would do no more than toil and birth more property. Imagine their reaction when Omar ibn Said covered the walls of his jail cell with Arabic. In Arabic, Omar scratched out verses from the Koran that presumably already had and would continue to sustain him in his life before and certainly during captivity.

The white people were agog.

In our reading today, Paul is scratching out a Christian hymn that presumably already had and would continue to sustain him in his own life before and during captivity.

2018.5.13 witnessCHRIST HYMN
Because in addition to walking and preaching and teaching over thousands of miles all for the love of God and God’s love of all people, Paul also repeatedly went to jail for that very work. That’s where he is as he writes this letter to the emerging church in Philippi.

While jailed, Paul was visited by Epaphroditus, who delivered gifts from the Philippians. This letter serves as a thank you note for that support, and offers furthers guidance for persevering in their faith, even when there are struggles and struggles in their church. That guidance, that guide, is the vision of God in Christ expressed in verses 5–11, which you see offset in your bulletin today.

Known as the Christ Hymn, the words are not Paul’s, but most likely by another, otherwise unknown author and were probably sung by Paul and the Philippians in worship, maybe as part of the rite of baptism.1 The hymn teaches the singers to share in the mind of Christ: Be humble, take risks, give thanks to God.

What a comfort that must have been to Paul. What a comfort, even as a newcomer to a brand-new expression of faith, to have those lines to present in his mind. Not only memorized, but tattooed on his heart, just like those Koranic verses were for Omar ibn Said, so that their meaning could be useful in a time of trial.

OUR HEARTS
What do you think you have tattooed on your hearts?

What holy, weathered, and well-loved words would sustain us should we find ourselves suddenly captive, like Omar, or predictably jailed, like Paul?

I imagine many of us know the Lord’s Prayer by heart. And the more I pray it, the more layers and life I find within each word, as it moves from giving praise, to naming the goal, to asking for sustenance, to confessing brokenness, to requesting protection, and to a conclusion of joyous surrender.

I know

Love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might and your neighbor as yourself.

and

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.

and snippets from psalms Mary’s Magnificat and the Beatitudes and Genesis.

I have a lot of refrains from hymns to draw on; I’ll spare you those recitations.

But what if I prayed fives times each day, no matter what, like Omar ibn Said did two hundred years ago and billions of Muslims do to this day?

In 2018 I’ve taken on the discipline of praying the divine hours, also known as the divine office. It’s a Christian practice of fixed 2018.5.13 lords prayerhour prayers that go from the time of rising through bedtime: lauds, midday, vespers, and compline. Each hour’s prayer can take as little as five minutes, but the inertia of habits and the easy distractions of measurable outcomes and laundry can be a struggle to overcome.

JUST DO IT
Then I learn about Omar ibn Said and I hear Paul’s continued instruction from prison:

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for (God’s) good pleasure.

Yes, Philippians, yes, Amesians, faith work is hard and faith community is hard, but do the work of faith anyway. Don’t make excuses or be seduced by false comforts. Learn to pray, be in worship, commit to community.

Do the work of faith for you do not do so alone or only for yourself. There is no solitary prayer, or baptism, or communion.

The moment we open our mouths or our hands, we are not speaking or working only for or with ourselves but with the voice of the whirlwind, the hands that carried babies out of slavery, the centuries of disciples whose witness has proven just how weak the forces of nonbeing really are.

Even though on the run, the words of his faith allowed Omar to rest within the holy collective. Even while in jail, the the words of his faith allowed Paul to step into divine freedom.

That’s what I want for all of us.

That’s what God offers all of us: the way out of no way, the language that names the vision that offers the tools that opens the plantation gates and the jail doors and the shackles of violence, division, and distrust that both bind and divide us at this very moment.

2918.5.13 whirlwindBE READY
In our racist society it is unlikely that many of us here today will be trapped in a jail cell simply for the color of our skin though we could easily be because of how the content of our scripture compels us to fight that racism.

So like Omar ibn Said and Paul, if you haven’t already, find the words of faith that most stir and comfort and energize you. Don’t just memorize them but study them, interrogate them, ask yourself and God why they move you so. Know your own witness. And if you have done all those things already, teach us how and what you have gained from doing so.

Let each of us have the words of our faith at the ready so that even when we are fleeing, we remain grounded, and even when our language cannot be understood, our very ability to use it renders our captors agog.2918.5.13 sell out

And let us never again use our Christian language, the language of Christ, to sell or to sell out other people, but to ever and only bear witness to freedom, peace, righteousness and God’s love for all people.

AMEN

1Coogan, Michael, ed. 2001. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

What is the Next Right Thing?: Philippians 1.1–18a

2018.5.6 indecentDelivered at Urbandale UCC
on May 6, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

GREETINGS
Grace to you, Urbandale UCC, and peace from God our Creator and your siblings in faith and in wonder at Ames UCC. I am Eileen Gebbie, the senior minister at Ames UCC, where I have the honor of serving with Pr. Hannah Hannover, the minister for families with kids (and the rest of us).

We are the oldest church in Ames, having beat out the United Methodists across the street by one year, and worship in a classic brick sanctuary. But on the exterior of our traditional space are testimonies to our contemporary faith: a God is Still Speaking rainbow banner and another proclaiming our love of our Muslim neighbors and all refugees.

We have been a Just Peace church since 1986, and a devoted team rings our memorial bell every Wednesday as a reminder. And we have been Open and Affirming for 18 years. I understand that next week you are celebrating the 25th anniversary of your own vote to become Open and Affirming. That would have been in 1993, if my math is right.

BALLOT MEASURE 9
In 1993 I was in my home town of Portland, Oregon. In the fall of 1992, I and my fellow Oregonians voted on the first anti-gay ballot measure in the United States. I should clarify, it was the first anti-gay and anti-pedophile ballot measure in the U.S. because the authors assumed they were one and the same.

In the year leading up to that vote, the measure’s supporters threw every homophobic and ignorant argument at us that you can imagine and that I cannot repeat in a house of God. But, of course, they did it in the name of God. In the name of God they conflated love with abuse, mutuality with violence. It was ugly. The late Donna Red Wing was on the forefront of our defense and received death threats as thanks.

I wish I could say the results offered redemption, but they didn’t really: We defeated the measure by only 56%. Not 90%, not 80%, not even 70%. Not a number that would demonstrate that ignorance and religious bigotry were minority positions to rebut and a minor problem to solve. It left me shaky. And it landed me, with many others, firmly and far beyond the walls of any Christian church.

I know that Iowa has been on the forefront of gay rights, and that gay marriage became legal here in 2009, but I can imagine that in 1993 there were plenty of Christian people in Iowa who would have agreed with the Christian people in Oregon who favored legal bigotry.

That’s the environment in which this Christian church offered a different witness to God in Christ. That’s the culture in which this Christian community stood in solidarity with their—our— queer siblings in Christ.

The same queer solidarity that got Jesus killed and kept his movement alive.

SOLIDARITY
Look at the company Jesus kept: At any given moment he may have been with women householders like Martha, compromised tax collectors like Zacchaeus, bereft Roman soldiers like the one with the sick servant, bereft fathers who begged for the life of their daughters when so many other Biblical dads let them die or worse, hungry people who needed food and rich people who eventually paid for his grave.

The company Jesus kept was indecent, it was improper, and it went against all that was socially right. The disciples and apostles, like Paul, kept it up after the Easter mystery.

PAUL
Paul, the Jewish Roman citizen and persecutor of followers of the Way, had an epiphanic encounter with his God through Christ, and became a most fervent teacher, preacher, and traveler on behalf of that same Way he once scorned. Paul traveled thousands of miles over hundreds of hours to nurture the growth of countercultural holy feasts and practical care.

It was hard.

There’s evidence in the letters to the Corinthians and to the Galatians that Paul and other preachers did not agree. The Acts of the Apostles reveal tense negotiations between Paul, who never met Jesus the man, and the disciples who had.

And Paul can be as hard on us as any contemporary oppressor, like all of that business about silent women and obedient slaves. That’s not gospel, that’s not good news; that’s cultural violence.

But Paul did follow Jesus’s radical relationality by bring together people who were Jewish and those who were not. And he did leave us with a model of passionate service and public love, as in the opening of this letter to the Philippians:

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.

That’s how I feel being in a space that has for 25 years offered a living, Christ-like solidarity, one that has wrestled with the baggage of our religious tradition to bear witness to the truth of our faith. You have practiced passionate service and public love. And I thank God for knowing of you. Because of you, I have joy to pray. And, as Paul shows, such joy and thanks leads to hope.

NEXT?

And this is my prayer, Paul continues, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best

Paul hopes that the Philippians’ faithfulness to the queer company of Christ will lead to more knowledge and insight so that they will always do what is best.

2018.5.6 white churchesI share this hope and this prayer for the entire United Church of Christ. As far as the UCC has come in welcoming people who are LGBTQIA, we are still only 30% officially Open and Affirming.

And despite our significant accomplishments for racial justice, we remain a highly racially segregated branch of the Christian family tree.

As of 2016, 86% of UCC churches are overwhelmingly or exclusively white. Only 5% of our churches identify as multiracial. In their statistical reporting, the national church notes that in 2006 the number of white churches was at 90% and multiracial at 1%, so there has been some movement toward the middle, but not much.

Why have we been more successful in the ONA movement than movements for other marginalized, demonized, and falsely characterized people?

Is there anything each of our churches might do or stop doing to be more genuinely welcoming and safe for people of color? Not for our sake, not so that we white people can feel good about ourselves, but for the sake of the body of Christ.

Who have we left outside the church walls now?

How will we continue to be counter-cultural feast-makers and practical caregivers?

How might the passionate service and public love we celebrate today overflow into more knowledge and insight to help us know what to do next?

FINAL THANKS
I am glad for the opportunity the Central Association of the Iowa Conference of the UCC provided to remind us that the church is bigger than our individual congregations.

It means that the body of Christ, that queer configuration of grace, repentance, feasting, prayer, humility, boldness, justice and every variety of human expression imaginable is even bigger still.

I thank God when I remember this.

And, again, I thank you.

I do not know if the vote 25 years ago was easy or it was hard, but either way, I know that it put you firmly on that old and dusty Way.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

AMEN

Equality before God: Acts 17.16–31

2918.4.19 fallDelivered at Ames UCC  on April 29, 2018.

©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.

WARNING
A word of caution before I fully begin: Today I’m going to touch on violence against women.

If that is too raw a topic for you, too personal a pain, feel free to step outside into the beautiful air for ten minutes or go get some coffee in the Fellowship Hall. Do so knowing that you have done nothing to deserve the pain you have suffered, absolutely nothing. But I do hope you will come back for our song and prayer, for the good news of this community of peace, healing, and love.

Let’s all stand for a moment to stretch so that if anyone feels like leaving, she may do so unselfconsciously. Thank you.

ATHENS
Today Paul is in Athens, having left Philippi to continue his work of nurturing holy feast communities. That’s a 410-mile, or 118-hour, hike. Added to last week’s total, that’s at least 1,800 miles and 500 hours he’s gone for the love of God and God’s love of all people.

Athenians were known for their intellectual curiosity, so it is no surprise that outside of the Areopagus (the main administrative building) Paul finds people to engage with, in debate and conversation. The passage says that in addition to everyday Joes, Paul encounters followers of different philosophical schools.1

Paul calls attention to a local altar with an inscription that reads “To an unknown God.”

But God is known, Paul says. Look to Genesis he says. That is the God known and knowable by virtue of our existence here today. We may think we are searching for God, but God is always near. And God hopes we will return our attention to God. God hopes that we will finally return to the potential with which we are all gifted.

Humanity clearly has a very hard time with seeing each other as equally gifted of God, equally beloved of God.

TORONTO
As you know, in the week since we were last together, ten people were murdered and 15 injured by a man driving a van; he just plowed into them.

In some ways this event is unremarkable. Motor vehicles as weapons are becoming increasingly common. And the death toll was also not nearly as severe as in other terroristic events over this last year.

But this particular crime, this particular criminal, returned to light a vicious ideology promulgated online. In it, straight men who have not been sexually active rail against men who have been and the women who have “denied” them. Members of this “community” have encouraged each other to castrate sexually active men and to rape all women, among other things. In this online space, the Toronto van driver has been praised as a saint.

At the core of this ideology is entitlement: entitlement to the bodies of women. The men—and it is only men who promulgate this position—are angry because they have not gotten what they feel is rightly theirs. Which is not new: Entitlement to female bodies has been around as long as there have been females.

What is different with Toronto is the weaponization of the hate and the application of that weapon at a larger and random scale. This isn’t a stalker obsessed with one woman. This isn’t an ex-husband who goes on to kill an ex-wife. These are straight men who have become so obsessed with their lack of sex, and so unwilling to look to their own part in that reality, that they have made what they call “involuntary celibacy” the fault of all women, and so the death of any women will do.

Our own ideology, our religion, is not free from such violent misogyny. Just open the Bible. When the townspeople want to attack your houseguests? Send out your daughters to be raped instead. That’s the story of Sodom. Want a baby? Rape your slave. That’s Abraham and Hagar. And, really from the start, women are nothing but trouble for men. Just look at Eve tricking Adam into eating the forbidden fruit.

No. Let’s not. Let’s not give any more credence to that old lie. But do let’s go to Eden. Do let’s go to the God of Genesis as Paul suggests.

2018.4.29 adamEDEN
Please recall that Genesis is a theological exploration of the relationship between the world and divinity, not a biology textbook, so please hear the following as metaphor.

In Eden, in the garden, God makes a rather queer being, the adam. The adam is queer in the sense that it was, as yet, unusual and unique in its nature. It was also queer in the sense that it contained all manner and potential of human gender, and biological, and sexual expression.

Into the adam God breathes life. Then God invites the adam to split, to serve as the original chromosomal pair, and so we have male and female. And we can say now that was just the first division. Biology is not so binary.

Things go well for awhile in Eden. Then they don’t.

A being of God’s own creating, a snake, a fellow God-born garden-dweller approaches the female and the male. It invites the female to eat a pomegranate. She does. She invites the male to do the same. He does.

The two feel ashamed as they hear God coming toward them through the garden. God learns what has happened and is upset. The humans are banished. In their banishment, the male and female have children, two boys. One of those boys grows up to kill the other.

It’s a mess. Our story about the relationship between holiness and humanity is of initial unity with God quickly destroyed by forces we could not resist, immaturity we could not conquer, and emotions we could not contain.

2018.4.29 internetForces we cannot resist, immaturity we cannot conquer, and emotions we cannot contain: sounds just like the Internet, doesn’t it?

DOESN’T HAVE TO
But it doesn’t have to.

That’s the story of Genesis: This world doesn’t have to sound, feel, and act like Eve, Adam, Cain, and Abel. It does not have to include male supremacism, nor any of the other hierarchies of hate.

Adam blames Eve for his choice. He does not take responsibility for his own actions. He could have. He could have been honest about what he had done without pointing a finger at her.

Cain is jealous of his brother Abel God says to Cain,

Why are you angry…sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you but you must master it. (Genesis 4.6–7)

Cain could have kept that creature at the door and spared his brother’s life its rage.

And before all of that, Eve and Adam could have remembered that they were never alone in the garden.

The story says that only after eating the apple do Eve and Adam hear God walking toward them. This makes God sound more like a superhuman being rather than a literally universal life force.

Since that is not possible, it must be that in the time it took for the snake to get their attention, the humans forgot about God. For a brief moment their senses became so narrow that they lost their awareness of God’s constant presence. That same constant presence Paul preached on at the Areopagus. That same God that is known and knowable, ever ready for the return of our attention.

START WALKING
Genesis is an exceptional book because of the accuracy, not of its geology and biology, but of its depiction of the human condition: We blame, we get jealous, we kill. Look at Toronto.

But it grounds that depiction in a unity with each other, the queer adam from whence we all come and whose legacy of divine breath we all yet breathe. Whatever else is in the Bible, whatever else we need to banish from being promoted as religious truth, in the beginning we were equal, we were one.

2018.4.29 snakeGod is still calling us to return to that potential with which we are all gifted. So we must teach our children that the only body they may claim is their own and never believe anyone who tells them differently.

And we need to do both in the name of the God of Genesis with as much fervor and intensity as all of the people online combined. If Paul could spread God’s good news by walking for thousands of miles without the benefit of real shoes, imagine how far we can go.

Let me end by saying that if you, any of you, of any sex, of any gender, have ever been assaulted and need to speak of the violence you’ve endured, you can tell me or Pr. Hannah. And if you are currently being hurt in your home or elsewhere, do tell me or Pr. Hannah. Together, be assured, we will get you free.

As for the rest of us, let us not be distracted by the snakes of misogyny. Let us join with the real saints in light in the public square, at city hall, in our schools, at our workplaces, to share the good news of our equality and our unity in God. That is our human story, that is our human song.

AMEN

1 Levine, Amy-Jill, ed. 2011. Jewish Annotated New Testament Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Faith is not Formulaic: Acts 16.16–34

2018.4.22 salvationDelivered at Ames UCC on
Sunday, April 22, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard, rather than read. Please join us for worship on Sunday mornings
at 10:30 a.m.

HOW
How is all of this supposed to work? This coming into the sanctuary of a Sunday, the going to Bible study, the attending regional youth events? (Several of our youth are at Urbandale UCC today to meet other kids who will be going to the July youth event.) What are the faith outcomes that these religious mechanics generate?

From Christmas until Easter we watched the Jesus movement begin, Jesus himself with his teachings and talents and the blessings and backlash which followed both.  Now we are in the season of Eastertide. During Eastertide we watch the emergence of the early churches, the very earliest churches, the Communion and Baptism communities that followers of the Jesus movement planted as far from Jerusalem’s grave as Macedonia’s Philippi. That’s almost 1,400 miles and would take over 400 hours to walk. That’s commitment.

But, again, to what end and through which means?  Today Paul’s answer to his jailer is

Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.

FORMULAE
Believe and be saved. It’s the classic Christian formula.

Throughout my high school years, when I would drive myself and my brother and dog north on I-5 either from the home of our aunts in Portland or our dad in Vancouver to our mom’s place in Olympia, there was a billboard that read “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ,” in full, giant Gothic print.

I remember being both offended and confused by it. Offended for having my public space taken up by Christian evangelism (I was a classic teen) and confused by the use of “on” instead of “in.” Don’t we have faith in Jesus Christ, not on him?

Regardless, I understood it then, as I do now, to suggest that if we commit ourselves exclusively to Jesus Christ we will be rescued from certain pain and suffering. It’s a tidy formula. It’s a formula that leaves no room for interpretation. And it’s a formula that no doubt has leveraged the anxiety inherent in its absolutism to gain adherents.

But I don’t think it is exactly right, and I’m a long way from that raw rejection of youth.

Speaking only for myself, but also from experience with so many other people in my life, my relationship with God through Christ has not saved me from anything. It has not saved me from sexual assault, homophobic discrimination, mental illness, or in any complete sense, from my own shortcomings.

Maybe my faith will play into whatever happens to me when I am dead, but asking me to structure the life I know around the unknowns of my death doesn’t really sound like the work of the God of Genesis or Jesus of Nazareth. Especially when our scripture offers fuller, I don’t want to say proof, but a pattern more in alignment with the full picture of God in the world.
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