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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Joy and Fear: Matthew 28.1–10

2019.4.21 joyDelivered at Ames UCC
on Easter Sunday, April 21, 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.

WHAT I WANT
All I want you to feel today is joy.

Joy at the children, joy at the flowers, joy at the traditions. Joy from being with family, joy from being with friends who have become family. Joy at the gorgeous weather and the promise that snow is now a ways off. Joy from our tale of resilient life.

But our scripture is fighting me. Our scripture is wagging its finger at my preference, reminding me that though we may want joy and though we may feel joy, other sensations may insist on being present too.

For the Marys did not experience only great joy, they left the tomb with fear, as well.

FEAR
That fear makes sense.

At least three Marys were present for the gruesome work of the days before: Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James and John, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph. By the morning we mark today, we are down to Mary the Magdelene and “the other Mary,” so one of those two moms.

These are traumatized women.

The Magdalene and the other Mary had given up their regular lives to put their physical, financial, and spiritual resources behind Jesus. Such sacrifice was worthwhile because of the thrill of watching untold others experience the same learning, and feasting, and salvation as in a healing salve, that had originally drawn them to Jesus.

As I said at our Good Friday service, consider how moved we are by Jesus’s portrait of God’s kin-dom even from this great a distance. What must it have been like at a distance of just the length of an arm, or less?

And then the Marys and the rest of the disciples saw firsthand, at the length of an arm or less, the movement tear itself apart: Judas’s betrayal, Peter’s denial, the male disciples’ abandonment. The Marys and the other women were left alone at the foot of a device of torture where the one on whom they had staked their lives was himself staked and torn apart.

Fear must have gripped the Magdalene and the other Mary for hours before the one we occupy now.

JOY
Maybe it had gripped them long enough that they were almost inured to it, because even though they experience an earthquake and the appearance of a messenger of God, it is the tomb guards who became so frightened that they are “like dead men,” not the Marys.

Fully present in the midst of divine manifestation the Magdalene and the other Mary are the first to receive what we call the good news: The cross could not kill; the tomb could not hold the holiness that made Jesus possible—and the Christ is present still.

Now that is good news of great joy, that is joy made complete. All that they had given is redeemed, all that they lived for yet lives on. Joy!

But the story says they left with great joy and fear. The earthquake and the messenger did not scare them off. So what could have set them scared again?

Knowing what they would encounter when they left.

BACK TO REALITY
The messenger instructs Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to return to their community with the good news. They have the honor of being the apostles to the other apostles.

But surely they know what their reception will be like: Crazy women. These must be crazy women. This story is just the the overemotional delusions of mere women. You know how women are, the male disciples will say. Besides, why would mere women be the recipients of a revelation? In the Gospel of Mary Magdalene Peter says, “Did Jesus really speak privately with a woman and not openly to us? Are we to turn about and all listen to her?”
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A Big Hoax? Matthew 25.31–46

2019.4.19 mary braveDelivered at Ames UCC
on April 19, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Here are portions of our 2019 Good Friday service as well as my homily.

LITANY
One:    Judas, slave of jealousy, where are you?
Many: I am here.

One:    Peter, slave of fear, where are you?
Many: I am here.

One:    Pilate, slave of Empire, where are you?
Many: I am here.

One:    The story of the execution of Jesus is the story of our own weakness and shortcomings, as people who have missed the mark on justice and so have alienated ourselves from God and neighbor. So tonight, as we sit at the foot of the cross, we seek the ones who remained, who did not falter in devotion or love.

One:    Mary of Magdala, where are you?
Many: I am here.

GOSPEL: Matthew 27.27–61

LITANY
One:    Mary,
Many: is this your healer and teacher Jesus hanging on the cross?

One:    Mary,
Many: does your soul not break apart again?

One:    Mary,
Many: was all of that kingdom-talk a lie?

One:    Mary,
Many: where are the mustard seed, the bridesmaid, the generous vineyard owner now?

One:    Mary,
Many: were all of those parables tricks and lies rather than wisdom?

One:    Mary,
Many: does it all seem pointless now?

One:    Mary,
Many: do you feel angry and used now?

One:    Mary,
Many: tonight the powerful are still comfortable and laughing while you and the rest of the weak are tear-soaked and frightened.

One:    Mary,
Many: your rabbi, your magi, your mandarin, your guru, your friend is dead.

HOMILY—DUPED
Have we all been duped?

Have we been fools for Christ, not out of love, but out of sheer stupidity?

Is all of this—these stories of love and upending—are all of them lies that we have been gullible enough, desperate enough to believe?

Last year on this bad night we considered Mary, the Mother of Jesus. We grieved with her, aware of all that his life cost her, promising to remain faithful to her precious son.

Some of us here have lost children, and that has been wrenching. And the grief has been lasting. Few of us can really fathom, though,the depth of the pain Mother Mary would have felt as she watched the fruit of her womb publicly bleed, thirst, and starve to death. It had to have been something more than grief, beyond pain.

So on this bad night, we turn our attention to another Mary, Mary of Magdala. As fellow disciples and seekers, we can come closer to understanding how Mary the Magdalene may have felt. Including, quite possibly, the feeling that she had been duped.

MAGDALENE
Mary of Magdala is the second most referenced woman in the gospelsafter Mother Mary. Magdala was a region know for fish processing, so as those of us who prepared for Holy Week with Dr. Amy-Jill Levine’s course learned, maybe she crossed paths with the fisherman disciples Andrew and Simon Peter.

We will never know that for sure, but we do have a story about how she was healed by Jesus. He cast seven demons out of her, making Mary perfectly healed, according to ancient Jewish numerology.We learn that Mary Magdalene then traveled with Jesus and we can imagine that she provided logistical support, perhaps even funding, as well as serving as a devoted listener and learner for his new Way. We also find her at the cross, the burial, and the tomb.

Mary Magdalene is in so many ways a model disciple: a woman who left her home to travel with men she was not related to, to devote her resources to and risk her reputation for Jesus. How compelling he must have been, how thrilling the walk by his side.

As much as Jesus’s descriptions of the kin-dom of God stir us today, at this great a distance, imagine how they felt to her, at no more a distance than the length of her arm.

2019.4.19 still hereDEAD
And then it all collapses. And then one of her fellow travelers hands Jesus over to the authorities. The elation of the previous days and weeks is in ruins as she watches—from a distance no greater than her arms—it all collapse under the weight of betrayal as well as the new threat to her person.

But Mary of Magdala does not hide. She does not abandon her friend and her teacher. She stays by his side through the worst. Why? Maybe this Mary believed Jesus would escape. Maybe she assumed God would reverse the terrible course.

But as the minutes and hours pass by, did not doubt creep in? Maybe even anger at the man who showed himself to be just a man? Did she feel betrayed by Jesus and by God alike, and wonder if it was all a big hoax?

FOOLS
This, I think, is where we can relate.

As Christian religious and cultural hegemony collapse themselves, we are forced to ask hard questions about our faith claims and ourselves. Like, “What are we still doing here?”

What are we still doing here in an institution that, over millennia, has instigated and perpetuated so much abuse and corruption? What are we still doing here in a faith that claims radical equality before God yet seems powerless to ensure that equality between each other?

On bad nights like this when humanity has done its ordinary worst, does not doubt in an extraordinary best creep in, even anger, at a claim of some extraordinary better? Have we been betrayed by story and storytellers and our own grasping hearts?

I offer you no answers.

Though we are together as the Marys were, we are each alone in our search for what is trustworthy in the tales of Jesus’s life and what is true in the promises our forebears say he made.

I ask only that we be as brave as these women, as fearless in the face of contradiction and collapse. May we be as willing as they were to return to what appears to be a tomb like a dead end, in case it proves to be a resurgence of abundant life once more.

AMEN

Do Burning Churches Matter?

Published April 17, 2019 in the Ames Tribune

By Eileen Gebbie

On Palm Sunday 1989, my mom and I walked into Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris for worship. Unfortunately, we did not know that, overnight, the whole city had shifted to daylight savings time, so we were an hour late. Also, neither of us spoke French.

Despite all of that, the story of Jesus’s procession on a donkey through the back door of Jerusalem’s wall, a counterpoint and protest to the Roman governor’s victory parade on a steed through the front, transcends all of the different languages and time zones of Christendom.

After the service concluded, we walked through the gothic marvel alongside tourists from all over the world.

None of that will happen again for a very long time. The fire that started just after Palm Sunday 2019 will close off the space to worship and wonder for possibly decades to come. I cried looking at photos of the damage, and my heart went out to the congregation and their priests, my counterparts.

Where will they gather in this, what we call Holy Week, to mark Jesus’s final meal, his murder and the Easter mystery? And what of the weeks after that and after that? A generation’s worth of worship and service will be lost during the repairs.

Which may have some of you thinking, “So what?” or “Why can’t they just go somewhere else?” Those are valid questions. One of the most salient critiques of Christianity has been we idolize buildings over beloved community.

In the four official accounts of the life of Jesus, he never once spoke of building a new religion, let alone enormous and enormously costly buildings. Jesus did not need a nave, a sacristy or a pulpit to care for the widow, the orphan and the foreigner, and neither do we.

Except that we do, or at least we do so far.

Consider what caring for “the least of these” requires: time, money, collaboration, education and transformation. Speaking only for affluent and middle-class white Americans, few of us know without being taught that all of humanity, all of creation, are our siblings.

To love our neighbors as ourselves is to recognize that our neighbors are us. So we need spaces that will confront our biases and willful blindness, rooms of people that will hold us accountable to our sacred story. These can keep us from gorging ourselves on the lethal lies of meritocracy and individualism.

And for some Christian Americans, church sanctuaries are truly that: sanctuaries. Black churches have long offered safe harbor from the vagaries and violence of white supremacist America. Which is why white supremacist America keeps burning them down.

As Notre Dame smokes in her rubble, so do three black churches in Louisiana’s St. Landry Parish. In 10 days, one white man set them on fire. His motivation appeared to be, in part, a critique of Christianity, but it is telling that he did not burn down any white Christian churches and he was recently charged with hate crimes in addition to arson.

Also torched, at the end of March, was Tennessee’s Highland Education and Research Center. While not a church, it has long served as a sanctuary for ministers and lay leaders — including The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks — to learn the art of organizing for justice.

Sadly, but unsurprisingly, it took the fire at Notre Dame for the St. Landry churches to gain any meaningful national attention or financial support.

As I write this, I am preparing for my church’s own Holy Week services. Our current sanctuary has never burned, to my knowledge, though its foundation and walls were compromised when the city lowered Sixth Street by several feet and we lost the support of all that soil.

Our leadership works on an ongoing basis to assess whether and how we can afford to maintain the old brick building at Sixth Street and Kellogg Avenue. More importantly, we also wonder if we are doing so only out of our pride at being, like Notre Dame, the oldest church in town.

Or, are we maintaining it as a place of reformation for the privileged and sanctuary for the oppressed?

Are we propping up the sagging walls because it gives us room to equip spiritual and practical leaders in the way of Jesus, a man so problematic that the only way to stop the fires he started seemed to be death?

My goal as a Christian pastor is to have so firmly bent the arc of justice that we no longer need retraining facilities for whites and hush arbors for people of color.

In the meantime, I am grateful for the presence of buildings and storefronts that bear physical witness to beauty, transcendence, collaboration, and the holy insistence that rises up from every tomb and ash heap, telling us that we must do better by each other and this planet.

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