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.]
Continue reading

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?
Continue reading

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.
Continue reading