Who We Want in Charge: Exodus 19.3–7 and 20.1–17

Delivered at Ames UCC on October 7, 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,
except in July and August when times vary.
Check the calendar for details.

IN CHARGE
Just who is in charge here? Who has the authority to determine how we will live together? What are the mechanisms for accountability? What are the consequences for violations?

If the story of Potiphar’s wife and Joseph from two weeks ago—the story of one person trying to wield their power and privilege to demand sex from another—was timely, today’s story of the freed Hebrew slaves receiving the Decalogue is equally so.

MAGISTRATE
When last we saw them, the slaves had safely made it to the other side of the Sea of Reeds. Freedom, at last! And there was much rejoicing. Then what?

The slaves have all of their family members and all of their stuff. But for generations they have been under the direction and control of their Egyptian overlords and owners. They have been, unwillingly yet totally dependent on the rules and customs of the Pharaoh they left behind. How will they organize themselves in freedom? The Hebrews did not flee with fully formed, coequal branches of government. In addition to being homeless, then, they are also lawless and unorganized.

Naturally, they keep turning to Moses. It was all Moses’s plan to leave, he’s the one who got them all stirred up, made them think the unknown would be better than the stewpots and graves of Egypt. Plus, Moses has the ear of God. So Chapter 18 (v. 13), just before our reading today, says “Moses sat as magistrate among the people…from morning to evening.”

Which Jethro objects to, strongly.

JETHRO
Jethro is Moses’s father-in-law, a priest from Midian, a people distinct from the Egyptians and the Hebrews. On his arrival at the Hebrew encampment, Jethro is horrified by Moses’s failure to delegate, and so his abrogation of his special role as prophet of God. The man who has the ear of God should not be determining meal plans, tent configurations, or whose camel pooped on whose sandals.

“The thing you are doing is not right,” Jethro says, and tells Moses to divide magisterial duties by groups of ten, fifty, one hundred, and one thousand. Create a chain of command and accountability, Moses. “Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you,” Jethro says (v. 22b).

Moses does, and so ends the chapter. And so begins God’s own instructions.

DECALOGUE
The Hebrew people may now be organized and have sufficient judges to attend to daily concerns but what are the terms under which they judge? Maybe they were following Egyptian legal precedents or had adopted the laws of Midian, Jethro’s land. We do not know.

We do know that right after the description of implementing Jethro’s system for governance, God offers the people substance for that system.

To restate them in the terms I used when we studied the Decalogue earlier this year:

  1. Don’t bail on the power of freedom.
  2. Don’t make up a holiness to accommodate your preferences.
  3. Don’t use holiness to unholy ends.
  4. Don’t work all day every day.
  5. Don’t ignore the wisdom of your elders.
  6. Don’t lie.
  7. Don’t kill.
  8. Don’t steal.
  9. Don’t spread false rumors about others.
  10. Don’t lust after the people and resources you see on the other side of the fence.

These are not easy laws to keep. They restrict some of our most basic drives and common habits.

They restrict our appetites, like the hunger to consume objects and bodies. They restrict our tools of avarice, like rumormongering and deceit. They restrict our tendency to avoid grace, like working on weekends and vacations and insisting on learning everything the hard way.

These laws want to teach us that it is better to sacrifice striving to prayer, hubris to integrity, and craving to neighborliness. God wants to teach us that within a society, there is no room for striving, hubris, and craving, not if you want it to stay organized.

OUR SOCIETY
Our society is in a crisis of striving, hubris, and cravings. At the local level we seem to be doing okay, but I’m not so sure about the national. No matter the place on the political spectrum, no one is happy, and everybody is yelling:

You stole the election!
You stole our jobs!
You are just voting that way to stay in power!
You are just trying to get more voters so you can get power!
You demean the “unborn”!
You demean women!
You are a liar!
No, YOU are a liar!

And now the judiciary, the magistrates on whom we depend to interpret the laws of this land with thoughtfulness and rigor, without partisanship or rancor, is being torn apart apart. Fifty senators confirm a judge whom over 2,400 law professors would not.

Just who is in charge here? Who has the authority to determine how we will live together? What are the mechanisms for accountability? What are the consequences for violations?

According to this story, the consequences are suffering for generations.

GENERATIONS
This is the element of the Decalogue that I didn’t address last spring but will now: it’s that threat from God about punishment.

God says that if we make false idols and worship them, we will be punished, as will our children, and their children, and their children. But those who take on the ethic of true neighborliness that is in the remaining teachings? Thousands of generations after them shall know kindness.

Maybe that’s really what is at issue in our national rending: not partisanship, but shortsightedness. So narrow a focus on the next election cycle that we refuse the hear the solid advice of people from another party, like Jethro. That leads to the elevation of shiny idols on altars that quickly rot.

We don’t get to blame God for the suffering that will come when it all collapses.

We have to ask ourselves if in our choices today will someday lead our grandchildren to look us in the eye and say, “The thing you did was not right.”

Our goal is for our grandchildren’s grandchildren to say our names with thanksgiving because before our days were done we intentionally shared the burdens of giving up striving, hubris, and craving, so that by their day this scorching desert will have been left far behind.

Whether it is the midterms or the midweek, we do not expect one person to solve all of our problems. We look for leaders of tens, fifties, hundreds, thousands, and millions. Then we ask if they are working as hard as we are to hold themselves to the standards that we hear from God but that really transcend all religions:

  1. Only use power for freedom.
  2. Let holiness, or wholeness, set our tastes.
  3. Let wholeness determine our means.
  4. Take long breaks from the talking heads and give our minds a rest.
  5. Talk to the survivors of the fights for rights.
  6. Be honest even if it costs us.
  7. Question, rather than threaten, those we disagree with.
  8. Fix the systems that are broken, but without putting in a fix.
  9. Choose the sound over the salacious.
  10. Curb our appetites so that they do not consume us or those around us.

Or, as we will sing in a moment, ask to be each others’ servants.

AMEN Continue reading

God Loves Queers: First Annual Ecumenical Pridefest Worship

Delivered at the First Annual Ecumenical Pridefest Worship,
held at Collegiate United Methodist Church
on September 30, 20182018.9.30 fierce

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read, particularly in this case. For a video version, go here.

BESOTTED
This will be less a sermon, and more a love letter.

Because God, my fellow queers, is besotted with love for us.

Be we genderqueer, God is besotted with love for us.

Be we androgynous, God is besotted with love for us.

Be we bigendered, God is besotted with love for us.

Be we two-spirit, God is besotted with love for us.

Be we trans, God is besotted with love for us.

Be we intersex, God is besotted with love for us.

Be we men who have sex with men, God is besotted with love for us.

Be we women who have sex with women, God is besotted with love for us.

Be we asexual, God is besotted with love for us.

Be we questioning, God is besotted with love for us.

Be we gay, God is besotted with love for us.

Be we bi, God is besotted with love for us.

Be we lesbians, God is besotted with love for us.

Leather daddies, God is besotted with love for us.

Old-school butches, God is besotted with love for us.

Faggots, God is besotted with love for us.

And boring middle-aged dykes like me, God is besotted with love for us.

God has loved us since we were first knit in our mother’s womb, just as we have been, just as we are today, and howsoever we shall become in our truth tomorrow, God is besotted with love for us.

And God needs us to use that love to heal our broken world.

HEAL
What? How can we heal the world? How are we who do not have full civil rights and who are every day being beaten and raped and killed for how we are born, especially if we are not white, how are we supposed to heal the world?

Because there is no group of children of God better positioned to bridge everything that divides. Not only positioned, but already there.

Because the thing about us queer people is that we are already Republican, Democrat, Green, Libertarian and Independent.

We are already rich, poor, working poor, and struggling middle class. We are already homeless, and housed.

We are already urban, suburban, and rural. We are already west coast, midwestern, and east coast.

We are already teachers, police, cooks, janitors, entrepreneurs, academics, engineers, designers, sales clerks, politicians, therapists, and nurses.

We are already atheist, agnostic, humanist, spiritual, animist, Jewish, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Muslim, Zoroastrian, Santeria, and Christian.

We are already neurotypical and on the spectrum. We are already able to walk and on crutches and in wheelchairs.

We are already African, Caribbean, First Nations, indigenous, Asian Pacific Islander, South Asian, Latinx, Hispanic, Chican@, mestizo, and white.

We are, as queers, already, and have always been, exactly where all of the wounds of the world happen. Wherever there is tenderness, wherever there is division, we are already there. And even though, in our minority, we may feel isolation and pain, in our diversity—in the unity of our diversity—there are no beloved children of God better suited to tend to those wounds, to close them up, and to heal this world.

Just look at where we are today.

CHRISTIANS
We are today in a Christian church participating in a Christian worship basically in celebration of us. If there is any institution or group of people who have done or continue to do us more harm than Christians and Christianity, I can’t think of it.

Yet in our insistence on our existence, our resistance of every effort to make us more palatable or less visible, we have managed to bring even Christians to the side of God’s love. We did that.

So, I’m going to extend an invitation to our straight, heteronormative, gender-normative friends and family of faith, who are here today. In a moment, I’m going to invite you to stand. I want to invite you to stand as a witness to your embrace of God’s rainbow people and all of the hard work of reconciliation and liberation that rainbow demands.

Members of Ames United Church of Christ, please stand.

Members of Unity Church of Ames, please stand.

Members of First Christian Church, please stand.

Members of First Baptist Church, please stand.

Members of this generous host congregation, Collegiate United Methodist Church and Wesley Foundation, would you please stand?

And anyone else, religious or not, who is willing to put your straight lives on the line for our queer ones, please stand up. Thank you. We are going to hold you accountable to this.

MY PEOPLE
I want to bring this love letter to a conclusion by saying again to my people that no matter what you have been told for your 10, your 30, or your 75 years or more of life, in this moment you have seen, and I hope you have felt, that God’s love is coursing within and through us to the world.

Let us never doubt our beauty.

Let us never doubt the gift of our presence.

Let us never doubt our right to be alive.

Standing here today as we stand always in the power of the eternal divine, let us know in our bodies—however they are today and however they may be tomorrow—that we are fiercely and wonderfully made.

Happy Pride, everyone!

AMEN.

Let God Be with You: Genesis 39.1–23

Delivered at Ames UCC on September 23, 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, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

2018.9.23 let godMANDATE
After worship last week Jeremy, who had read the scripture, asked me if there is ever going to be a time when I can just preach, “Good job, Christians, we’re all done.” Basically, will there ever be a Sunday when I am not either having to agitate or to soothe?

I shared that in my understanding of preaching, I am to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. It is a phrase originally spoken in relation to the role of a free press, but is also a very accurate description of the life of Jesus and his disciples: Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

As I’ve gotten older, though, the boundary between the afflicted and the comfortable has become much less clear to me.

The same is not true of our scripture today.

JOSEPH
In this encounter between Joseph and the wife of Potiphar, there is no question who is on which end of the spectrum: Joseph is afflicted and Potiphar’s wife is comfortable.

Joseph was once comfortable, very much so.

When we first meet him, Joseph is described as the favorite son of Jacob, one of the best scoundrels in Biblical literature, and his cousin-wife Rachel. Jacob does not hide his preference for Joseph from all of the other kids, and he had a lot of them between his four wives.

As a sign of his preferential love, Jacob gives Joseph a gorgeous coat, which in contemporary imagination is described as amazingly technicolor. Constantly confronted by that rainbow of partiality, Joseph’s brothers decide to do away with him: They sell him to slave traders and cover the coat with animal blood, which they take to their dad Jacob, tricking that old trickster into believing that Joseph is dead.

Joseph’s comforts are now gone.

As we heard today, Joseph is sold into the house of Potiphar, an Egyptian court officer. Potiphar does give Joseph a great deal of responsibility, but he is not a free man, he is not a citizen.

That bondage is worsened by Potiphar’s wife. She wants to have sex with Joseph. Her offer, or command, puts Joseph into a no-win situation: If he says yes, he will be betraying his owner. If he says no, he will anger his owner’s wife. He does say no, and she is angry. To punish Joseph for his refusals, Potiphar’s wife takes advantage of a piece of clothing she’d grabbed off of him to frame him for rape.

Potiphar does not doubt his wife’s claim, though it is a no-win situation for him, too. If Joseph did perpetrate the crime, then Potiphar’s judgment has been betrayed. If Potiphar’s wife had simply cheated on him, then regretted it, Potiphar has been cuckolded and has to save face.

So either way, there is only one place for that Hebrew slave to go: jail.

REDEMPTION?
Several chapters later, Joseph is redeemed, to a point. He rises to the most powerful position in the house of Pharaoh, and is able to save his duplicitous brothers and mourning parents and sisters from hunger. But Joseph is never a truly free man again. Having been made into outsider-property, by the action of members of his own family, Joseph can never escape the knowledge of the tenuousness of freedom.

In his life, Joseph knows comfort, then terrible affliction, then a tempered kind of comfort.

That could describe any one of us.
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