On Mass Shootings—Again

Published August 16, 2019 in the Ames Tribune

By Eileen Gebbie

I was near a shooting once.

On Jan. 4, 1996, my best friend and I went to see a movie at a theater in an office building in Portland, Oregon. We walked in to the large, airy atrium and rode the wide-open escalator up several floors. It paralleled a set of stairs. On reaching the theater level, we heard a bang of some kind. We, and a handful of others, looked over a railing and saw people running up a different set of stairs. A woman dropped a bottle of orange juice and didn’t look back. Somebody yelled, “He has a gun!” My friend and I then ran down the stairs next to the escalator, out the doors we had entered, and back to his car. He used a mobile phone to call police and then we waited. We were jittery and confused and wanted to see what would happen next. Then we realized that the gunman could leave the building and we didn’t want to be anywhere nearby if that happened.

Later we learned that the shooter was angry with someone in the Charles Schwab office on the ground floor. He wounded two people and took two others hostage but eventually surrendered to police.

For years this was a story we told — a wild tale of an unlikely event, an aberration in the social order that we happened to be in the proximity of.

I could not have imagined that 23 years later I would be a pastor of a church regularly imagining who in my congregation would not be able to escape the sanctuary quickly enough should someone start shooting; deciding how to best teach our nursery staff to shelter in place with our babies and toddlers; wondering how to pastor to people who no longer feel safe worshipping with us because of a hate crime earlier this summer; calling the regional FBI office to see if my church is on a white supremacist hit list, such as the one the garlic festival gunman followed; or learning that one of our seniors just last week asked to see the contents of a suspicious-looking backpack that someone brought in.

We are a house of prayer for all people, but now we fear one of those people will enter with an activity very different than prayer in mind.

My mom once told me that she didn’t think she would become a one-issue public health administrator. She went from clinical nursing to nursing administration as the director of a state health department. Then HIV/AIDS hit. Her work in response to that public health crisis segued in her leading a federal government office entirely focused on preventing and combating the virus’s spread. Mom had had one image of her career path but the virus took her on another.

I have come to feel the same way about mass shootings. I did expect to preach on and offer leadership in response to any number of social ills, like bad housing, insufficient food, and the sins of racism and homophobia. But the bullets keep redirecting me.

And yet, bullets and viruses do not compare. The vector of HIV is part of a natural process, part of the chaotic life force on Earth. The paths that bullets keep taking through flesh are not. They are entirely human-made destroyers, and ones that make some people a great deal of money. There is profit for some in protecting your right, and mine, to own and to arm weapons designed for war.

At this point I would normally interject a theological perspective or lift up scripture to condemn our bloody state of affairs. But as anyone who has ever picked up a Bible knows, it can be used to support or to deny almost any position. It is not a coherent tome, but an intensely contradictory one. Which, for me, is the point. The divine, and our relationship with it, cannot be contained or fully described by human stories and language. The same is true of American scripture: our Constitution and our laws. They are open to whatever interpretation someone wants to find; whatever interpretation best fits an individual position.

But here’s the thing about mass shootings: They are not individual affairs. The gunman in Portland may have been directing his violence toward one business, but a whole host of people were affected by his actions. The same is true now. The ability to go to a fair or to a Walmart or to worship without looking behind our backs and keeping our ears pricked for tell-tale pops is shared by us all. We are all now in the business of thinking about, stressing about, and trying to prevent carnage, whether that was ever our plan or not.

So what should we plan to do next?

Eileen Gebbie is the senior minister at Ames United Church of Christ

Eighteen Hundred and Thirty-Two: 1 Timothy 6.6–19

Delivered at Ames UCC
on August 11, 20192019.8.11 x everywhere
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

 

pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness . . . be rich in good works, generous . . . and (be) ready to share . . . take hold of the life that really is life

In this letter to his co-missionary Timothy, Paul directs members of this new Jesus Way to

pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness . . . be rich in good works, generous . . . and (be) ready to share . . . take hold of the life that really is life

As the oldest preserved theologian of our faith—Paul’s letters being older than the written version of the gospels—Paul lays out what God needs of us and what we need of each other. For example, don’t make gaining wealth your priority. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with money, but when we love money, we get into trouble. The love of money distracts from the love of God and each other. Instead, again,

pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness . . . be rich in good works, generous . . . and (be) ready to share . . . take hold of the life that really is life

Likely dictated to a scribe on one day and carried by courier an unknown number of miles and additional days, Timothy was lucky to have ever received this letter.

I wish I could say the same about this letter:

[I unfurl down our sanctuary’s center aisle and beyond over 144 feet of taped-together pages.]
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Do We Really Want to Welcome? The UCC’s Vision, Mission, and Purpose Statements

Delivered at First Christian Church on July 14, 2019

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
During July we worship at both Ames UCC and First Christian Church.
Please see the website for details so that you may join us.

REALLY WANT?
Is all of that really what we want? Yes, I know that we want a just world, but do we really want all of the rest?

Sometimes I think that what I might really want more than to love God with all of my heart, 2019.7.14 god lovesis to know that God loves me even more than my heart is capable of. And welcoming all, loving all—those sound really good, really admirable, positions to aspire to, until I think of who and what it really means.

I’ll start with an example from the national gathering of the United Church of Christ, which happened just a couple of weeks ago. Maybe it will speak to our Disciples hosts today as they prepare for their upcoming national gathering this coming week.

BOOTH
Let me start by saying I was not at this event, so my account comes from reports made by the UCC and by colleagues of mine.

The story is that a group of youth representing one of the regional bodies of the UCC proposed a resolution that would ban a UCC interest group, for lack of a better term, from having a booth in the General Synod marketplace. The marketplace is just what it sounds like: an enormous space with booths that include national ministries and seminaries as well as fabric artists and booksellers. Anything remotely connected to the UCC or of possible interest to UCC-ers is there.

The group under fire is called Faithful and Welcoming Churches (of the UCC). The Faithful and Welcoming Churches organization describes itself as a space that encourages “churches, pastors and members who consider themselves evangelical, conservative, orthodox or traditional in their views to stay in the denomination.” Now, I can place myself into most those categories, so this group could be for me and for many of you here.

For example, I consider myself evangelical in that I give witness to my faith outside of church; I am orthodox in centering my faith on scripture; and if you’ve been in our worship down the street, you know I have a strong streak of the traditional. I’m not conservative in any way I can think of, but I’m still at three out of four. So why would pastors, churches, and members of the UCC like me not want to stay in the denomination?

Their answer is in the fine print: The tenth item in an eleven-item list says that “Faithful and Welcoming Churches advocate for an historic understanding of sexuality and marriage.”

The snark in me responds to that with something like, “Oh, they must be interested in returning women to the status of property and advocating for the polygamy and sexual violence of the Bible.” But of course, that is not the sexuality and marital arrangements they are talking about: it is the gays in our great rainbow of variations.

The Faithful and Welcoming Churches want not only to hold onto but to promote pre-Stonewall, pre-DSM IV, pre-United States v. Windsor readings of scripture and practices of liturgy. In their materials for the discussion around this resolution, the group states that they support queer civil rights and have “no objection” to historically underrepresented groups having a voice throughout the UCC, they just want to make sure that what they feel is their own “under-represented voice” is not silenced.

So what do you think? Should the Faithful and Welcoming Churches of the UCC be allowed to have a booth at the national gathering’s marketplace? Why or why not? What do our vision, mission, and purpose require of us?
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God IS Good: Lamentations 1.1–6, 3.19–26

Delivered at Ames UCC on Sunday, June 30, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times and locations may vary. Check the calendar for details.

PHOTO
I’m going to reference some photos that include children that are pretty graphic, so parents 2019.6.30 greatand guardians, if you feel like your little ones aren’t ready to hear about that, feel free to move into the parlor.

I think you know one of the photos I will describe. In it, there is a man face down in a river. Strapped to his back with a cloth is a child, maybe a toddler, also face down. The child’s left hand sticks out of the carrier as if it had been wrapped around the man’s neck.

On first seeing the photo all I could think was, “Yank them up! Someone yank them up! They can’t survive with their faces in the water!” But it was too late. Nothing could be done to save them. They are dead. They are drowned dead from their effort to flee a hell of a homeland and to ask this great nation, this wealthy and vast nation, for asylum.

Instead, they received lungs filled with water and final moments filled with terror. The ruach, the breath of God that flows in all of us right now, of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and Valeria, has been washed away.

Take the grief, shock, anger, horror, and even numbness that you experienced in first seeing that photo, and in remembering it now, and multiply it by many thousands. That is the beginning of understanding the tenor and content of the book of Lamentations.
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Bodies and Desire: Song of Songs 2.8–13

Delivered at Ames UCC on Sunday, June 16, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

2019.6.16 song of songsENOUGH?
So we have gone from online harassment and threats by a thousand people hiding behind their computers to an in-person physical assault by one person who doesn’t even hide from the press.

Is it too much?

Maybe with our participation in Ames Pridefest, listing preferred pronouns in our public material, and our now-burned pride banner, we have gone too far. Maybe it is time to tone down our affirmation of queer people a bit, press pause on our witness, now that the virtual has become the actual.

None of us wants to be the next Pulse Nightclub.

Believe me, I am tired of thinking through how to respond to someone standing up in one of these pews during worship and taking aim.

But when we are tired, when we feel anxious, and when we need answers, we do not stop at our anxiety or our fatigue.

We have learned through our lives of seeking, doubting, and even having faith, that we are better, and better together, when we allow ourselves to be guided by prayer, scripture, and the kind of understanding that can only occur in a gathered body of Christ.

Here we are gathered and here we have already prayed a bit, so now is the time to look to scripture.
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Circumcise Your Heart: Romans 6.1–14

Delivered at Ames UCC on Sunday, June 2, 2019

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

2019.6.2 heartIMPOSSIBLE
We have a near-impossible task.

As Christians, and those considering Christianity as a path of holiness, we have the near-impossible task of explaining to the world what cannot be explained.

Jesus, a good man by the ancient accounts of those who adored him, so transformed those peoples’ lives that they thought he was a child of God. And not like we—all humans, all mammals, all basalt rocks—are children of God, but the Son of God in the sense of being substantially made of divinity. Then instead of solving all of the world’s problems he died a most painful and ignominious death.

That should have been the end of the story. Jesus’s death should have turned the true believers into total skeptics. Instead, they became even more convicted.

Reports began to circulate that Jesus had been resurrected, that God had given a new kind of life to Jesus’s dead body, thus confirming that he was, and remains, the Christ, the anointed one of God.

Surely that was pure fantasy. Surely those were the ravings of the bereaved.

But then other people met the Christ.

Other people, like Paul, who had despised the followers of Jesus, met this presence on a road. And others met it in rooms, at the beachside, all over the place. The movement that decried barriers, and broke them, seemed to also collapse the greatest barrier of all—death.

And so the movement continued.

CONTINUED
In its first centuries the Jesus movement continued to suffer persecution, often functioning underground in its efforts to realize earth as a heaven through free meals and burial societies and baptismal preparations that have been compared to training for the Olympics.

The movement became the church when it was adopted by a massive state and so spread even further. That spread only continued as other nations picked up this church and took it with them in their own travels, their own conquering.

And so here we are today. Here we are so far, far away from ancient Israel still studying this man, still experiencing wonder at his mystery.

But still left with a near-impossible task: How can we profess resurrection? How do we justify God letting God’s own self perish so bloodily?

We can look to our forebears, like Paul, for examples:
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Gay All of a Sudden

Published June 15, 2019 in the Ames Tribune

By Eileen Gebbie

In the 1938 classic, “Bringing Up Baby,” Carey Grant has cause to open the front door of a home wearing only a woman’s highly feminine robe. When asked why he was dressed in such a shocking way, he does a little hop and says, “I just went gay all of a sudden.”

I have felt a little bit that way recently.

Now, I have been out to myself as certainly not straight since middle school. I was desperately in love with my best friend. There wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do for her, and when her mom was dying, I helped with almost every aspect of my friend’s life, including letting her copy my homework since caring for her mom took all that she had. So, pretty gay. But I also had a boyfriend. And, by age 19, I had a husband.

I divorced at 23 and came out to my family as gay. In graduate school by then, I went on to become a leader in the campus queer coalition and to help a human sexuality course with an annual speaker panel that I liked to call Gays on Parade. I also passed as a man and so effectively that the gay guys in Chicago’s Boys Town hit on me. Again, pretty gay.

Over time, though, as both I and my career grew, that initial emphasis on out-ness faded, taking a back seat to the work of paying off student loans and wondering what it meant to feel like God wanted me to be a pastor. When I ran a Habitat for Humanity affiliate, I learned to balance my personal integrity with the mission of the organization, a mission that often took me into highly conservative Christian churches.

I never closeted myself or my wife, but I felt no one’s marriage really need be a central issue at work. I brought the affiliate out of millions of dollars of debt, while building a record number of homes with the help of many of those churches, corporate donors and city government.

A memorable home dedication included the local lesbian choir and a men’s group from the most conservative church in our community; they had worked side-by-side to help the family build their home.

Of course, my marriage couldn’t be anything but a major issue when I began my work as a pastor. My childhood denomination rejected me on the grounds of my sexuality. My new-found denomination, United Church of Christ, had (and still has) only limited room for LGBTQIA+ people. Nationally, only 35 percent of our churches are what we call Open and Affirming (ONA), and in Iowa, the number is a disappointing 15 percent.

In my search for a church, I found ome congregations wanted to use me as evidence of their politics, a token of their self-interest. In my first church, which had been ONA for 20 years but had never had a gay pastor or a female lead pastor, I was regularly reminded of how lucky I was it had made an exception for me.
It was all very frustrating. I didn’t want to be the “lady pastor” or “the gay pastor.” I just wanted to be afforded the same deference and given the same space to do God’s work as the legion of straight, white, male pastors that had gone before me.

In the extra work I had to do to get through the door of an institution—the Christian church at large, which not only closed doors against me, but was and remains the primary perpetrator of spiritual and physical violence against queers — I came to mute my own acknowledgment of the genuinely powerful witness of a female-embodied, same-gender-loving preacher.

But I am living into it now.

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Nothing to Sell: Romans 1.7–17


Delivered at Ames UCC on Easter Sunday, May 19, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

2019.5.19 sunday morningNOTHING TO SELL
Recently a UCC-er told me that their child left the UCC as an adult because we have nothing to sell. Someone who had been raised in our tradition walked away from it for another mainline Protestant church because we appeared not to offer anything worth buying.

And maybe they are right.

Two weeks ago as I drove east on Highway 30 to preach at the Newton UCC church, I saw a huge line of cars queued up to turn north and onto the campuses of two mega-churches. Those churches hold thousands of worshipers at a time, and I understand they do so regularly.

There were fewer than 30 people with me in Newton; we range from 120 to 180 here in Ames. Going on the numbers alone, maybe that former UCC-er was right. Maybe we don’t have anything to sell, anything worth buying with the precious hours of a Sunday morning.

Which makes our turn today to Paul, the super-evangelist and church planter, feel that much more meaningful.

PAUL AND ROME
You’ll remember Paul from last week when he and Barnabas tried to convert a crowd to the new Way of Jesus only to have them worship Zeus instead. That isn’t the first time we meet Paul in scripture, though. In the Acts of the Apostles he is introduced as Saul, a Jewish man and citizen of the Roman Empire. Scholars suggest that Saul would have begun his study of Torah, the first five books of what we now call the Bible, as young as age five, and may even have been sent to Jerusalem for more education as a teenager.1 Whatever his upbringing and education, Saul reacts to the Jesus Way movement violently, serving as a persecutor of Jesus’s disciples.

Then, on his way to extradite followers of the Way from Damascus to Jerusalem, Saul is visited by the risen Christ. Saul is struck blind, healed by another man faithful to Jesus, is baptized, and has a little to eat. He then permanently Romanizes his name to Paul and commits the rest of his life to sharing the story of Jesus.

Paul travels constantly and far, about 10,000 miles by one estimate, yet manages to stays in touch with the new communities he helped to form, called “churches.” This includes one in Rome, the recipients of the letter we are studying but a small portion of today.

The Roman church is a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish followers of Jesus. It is restless over the question of whether being a follower of Jesus means following all of the Jewish religious practices as Jesus himself did, or if the non-Jewish, or Gentile, followers get a pass. That’s a question, though, for people already on board with the holiness evinced by Jesus Christ. Disagreements over how to follow Jesus requires choosing to do so in the first place.

So how did Paul do that? What did Paul have to sell that these diverse Romans bought?
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God’s Credit: Acts of the Apostles 13.1–3, 14.8–18


Delivered at Ames UCC on May 12, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

2019.5.12 heartCREDIT
What do you credit God for in your life?

I am not talking about when things went well and then to assign God the credit. You know how sometimes when things go poorly for others we say “there but for the grace of God go I”? That makes me very uncomfortable because it implies that God has denied grace to others.

Instead, have there been times in your life when you knew peace, breath-taking love, or unexpected strength? It likely lasted only moments and you may not yet have the words to explain it.

Or maybe nothing comes to mind.

Maybe your experience of God is at enough of a distance, or comes with enough skepticism, that giving credit to a holy other feels uncomfortable or even wrong. After all, I’m the one always saying God isn’t a master puppeteer so how could God be behind or within the minutia of our daily lives?

I will assume, though, that because you are here today, you have felt something. You have had an awareness of a something that does not fit into any other category and you are open to calling it God.

But which God?

WHICH GOD?
Out-of-town apostles, Paul (formerly known as Saul) and Barnabas, eager evangelists for their new understanding of God, come to Lystra, part of modern-day Turkey. There they encounter an unnamed local who cannot walk. Paul speaks to the paralyzed man, softly enough that his words are not recorded. Then Paul gives the Lystran an assessing gaze, and now with a voice now loud enough for all in the crowd to hear, Paul tells the Lystran to stand. The man who had never walked, now stands steadily on his feet and moves about.

While that miracle is shiny and dramatic, it is nothing new.

Remember that Jesus also healed a paralytic, in the gospel of Matthew, also in front of a crowd. In that case, the local leaders who were present reacted with shock and suspicion, but the rest of the crowd was moved to glorify God. The Lystrans are different in that there is no skepticism recorded, but they are otherwise the same in their response: Look at what the gods have done! Get the priest, get garments of honor and an animal to sacrifice, let us praise our gods! When the people of Lystra see the same power in Paul that those of Israel had seen in Jesus, they likewise identify that power as divine and want to show proper thanks and obeisance.

The problem that emerges for Paul and Barnabas, is that rather than the God of Moses and Ruth, the god of Eden and Exodus, the Lystrans see the miracle as coming from the god of Olympus, Zeus, and Zeus’ divine herald, Hermes. In both Israel and Lystra, witnesses are quick to identify that something greater than themselves is at work, it’s just that their framework for how to describe the greater-than diverges.

FREAK OUT
Which freaks Paul and Barnabas out.

They were simply doing as they had been commissioned, spreading what we call good news about God in Jesus Christ. They seem unprepared for their audience to not understand who or what they represent. Apparently shocked that the Lystrans, people of a different land and culture than either of them, would fall back on their own divine classifications, would give credit to their own understanding of divinity, the apostles begin running around and rending their clothes. They try to explain that, no, they are not Zeus and Hermes, the reversal of paralysis was not the work of the Olympians. What the Lystrans witnessed was the living God at work, the author of creation and giver of sustenance.

In their panic, it seems for Paul and Barnabas that if the God of Israel does not get credit for this healing, all is lost.

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Calling All Angels: Acts of the Apostles 10:1–6, 9–17, 34–41, 44–48

Delivered at Congregational UCC on Sunday, May 5, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

 

FLEXIBILITY
Grace and peace to you from the people of Ames United Church of Christ!2019.5.5 angels

It is a genuine pleasure to be back here at Newton Congregational UCC (I preached at an Association meeting here a while back) and to be part of an effort to fulfill the United Church of Christ’s mission to be united and uniting.

It is easy, given our structure and polity, to opt out of being in relationship with other congregations. And you likely know the joke about the UCC: If you’ve been to one UCC church, you’ve been to one UCC church. We can be so very different because of geography, ongoing racial segregation, which stream of the merger our church came from (or if our church formed afterward), and our understanding about the leadership of women and the humanity of queer people.

So even though the six churches participating in this pulpit swap are within the same denomination, our willingness to participate represents a kind of boundary crossing and flexibility that is unusual between churches.

It is also a kind of boundary crossing and flexibility that is on its way to extinction in the world beyond our churches. Collaboration has become a dirty word and reflection, rather than reaction, a skill of the past.

But without both, how will our present and our future be anything but divisive and dividing?

Our story today offers some insight.

CORNELIUS AND PETER
We have, in our scripture and our church season, shifted from the time of Jesus the prophet to the reign of the living Christ. It is a shift, as we begin to see in today’s story, that makes for a massive crisis of leadership and the emergence of new doctrine.

Without Jesus, the man, present, who is in charge? How does the reaching, teaching, feasting, healing, praying, and protesting of Jesus before Easter align with the mystery of the Christ after? What does it all mean?

That is the context for the visitation by an angel of God to Cornelius, a Roman soldier, not a Jewish man of Israel. That angel sends Cornelius to Peter. Peter, at the same time, is visited by a vision of lizards and sheets.

When Cornelius, a lover of God yet stranger to Peter’s faith, arrives at the home where Peter is staying, that arrival gives Peter the key to interpreting his vision and the meaning the crucified Jesus and the ever-rising Christ.

Without getting into the story’s weeds about circumcision and food rules, Peter basically says that the message from God is to expand the boundaries of the movement to include people who are not Jewish, like Cornelius. This is significant.

At a time when we could reasonably expect the disciples to retrench, to become suspicious of newcomers and hoard their spiritual knowledge for their own people, Peter does not. Why? Is Peter just a bigger person than most? He certainly wasn’t when Jesus was condemned: This is the same Peter that denied knowing Jesus. What is it that allowed Peter to overcome his previous fears and to resist the human tendency toward tribalism?

Maybe it has to do with that angel.

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