Love: Ruth 3

Delivered at Ames UCC on August 5, 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.

2018.8.6 LoveLOVE
Sometimes I get into conversations with people who aren’t religious who want me to offer proof of God or with people who are religious who want me to defend my concept of God. Often, I’ll talk about love. When I do, sometimes I get eye-rolls or accusations of making God weak. Why do we need a religion to practice love? Doesn’t calling God love deny God’s true power over us?

I don’t understand either response.

I don’t understand because nothing takes more focused, collective preparation than living into the love of God. And nothing, not any of the Biblical tantrums or pouts attributed to God, asks more from of us than God’s love.

Just look at the book of Ruth.

HESED
The book of Ruth offers a depiction of love which, in our tradition, is paralleled only by that of Jesus. It is a kind of divine love known as hesed. That’s the Hebrew writing on the cover of your bulletin. Hesed is hard to define, but you will see some attempts listed there, too: loving-kindness, so a love that takes a kindly form. Long-acting love, a love with long-term repercussions. Steadfast love, a love unmoved by time. Devotion: a love with a worshipful quality. Covenantal devotion: Love that is worshipful and relational at the same time. A love the will not let you go, no matter how hard you try. Hesed is a love shown in “loyalty and commitment (to other people) that go beyond the bounds of law or duty.”1Hesed is to manifest God in the world between people.

The moment on the threshing floor that we just saw in light and shadow is considered the ultimate expression of hesed, of divine commitment, humanly expressed.

How is that possible? How is this story of sexual trickery a story of divine love?
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No Christian Nationalism

Published July 23, 2018 in the Ames Tribune

By Eileen Gebbie

Christian nationalists bear false witness to God.

Now let me dissect that sentence.

A Christian is a person who devotes themselves to the revelations about God found in the person of Jesus and the ongoing presence of the Christ with the strength of the Holy Spirit. That revelation is most clearly stated in what is called the mandatum novum, or new commandment, found in what we call the Good News of Jesus Christ according to John, chapter 13, verses 34 to 35: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’”

It’s not really such a new commandment as love, respect and neighborliness are already enshrined in the Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments/Teachings in the Hebrew Bible’s book of Exodus.

In that portion of our story, after working with God to free themselves from an oppressive state, the Hebrew people received lessons on how to survive as a community. These lessons included not killing or stealing or lying or being greedy for what’s on the other side of your neighbor’s fence. The tools for survival were entirely relational, rather than personal or national.

But over time, our stories tell us, the descendants of the escaped slaves got antsy for a king, someone who could get them into the international market, make them a real player in the region. A prophet of the God of freedom, in a book called Samuel, warns them a king will make their children into tools for war and profit and indulgence, a king will take their personal resources for his personal gain, laughing all the way to the bank. (I added that last part.) And then all of that happens to the people.

Both the Hebrew and Christian testaments to God are about that cycle of freedom, blowing it and working on freedom again. So a Christian is, by definition, a public lover and freedom-worker unconcerned with bolstering state identity because states ultimately only care for themselves.

A nationalist, on the other hand, has loyalty to the state — one, and only one, state. Nationalism is the promoting of that one and only state over and above all others, even over and above all other people in the state. It is not to God — which if there is such a force, must transcend not only state but planet — it is to a temporal, human-made, human-corrupted, human-destroying state that nationalists pledge their allegiance.

So when an organization like Project Blitz (the people trying to slap In God We Trust all over public spaces, reverse United States v. Windsor, and allow doctors to refuse to treat people who happen to be female or queer) describes itself as Christian nationalist, it is betraying the God of Moses and Jesus, both.

It is making itself into a Pharaoh by attempting to enslave a nation by making its theology law and it is refusing to heal the sick as Jesus did, preferring to nail bodies again and again and again onto the very cross Jesus put to shame.

In this nation, we may choose to trust God, under any name, or not. We may choose to accept the teachings of science, or not. But we may not, as a matter of faith or matter of law, continue to create second-class citizens through cultural or legal violence.

Christians are to be known by the love that we show for all people. Christian nationalists only show love for people like themselves. As someone who continues to stake her life on these stories (truly, given the types of shootings that now happen daily), I gladly profess my devotion to God over nation, and to all of God’s people, which are absolutely all people. And from that place of risk and joy I say again, Christian nationalists bear false witness to God.

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

Listen for Redemption: 1 John 4.1–6

2018.7.8 right nowDelivered at First Christian Church
on July 8, 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 things change up, so please check the calendar here).

FAKE NEWS
The temptation to preach about fake news, in response to this scripture, is real.

Twenty years ago, I was at the University of Illinois teaching students about online sources and how to vet them for reliability and accuracy. Surely, I thought, people would understand that just because anyone can publish online does not mean that they should or that their content could be trusted. You know how that has gone.

But I’m pretty sick of the Internet and fake news. I want to give my attention to God. I want to understand how we can vet the voices that say they speak for God.

1 JOHN
For our authors of 1 John, the test is clear: If a spirit, or a person speaking for Spirit, will affirm the relationship between God and Christ, and that Jesus was fully divine and fully human, then the spirit or the speaker is trustworthy.

Yet authenticity of spirits and speakers is not their only concern. It is the timing of the spirits and speakers, good or bad, that is also an issue:

…every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world.

It seems this community has been warned that spirits that are anti-Christ are coming and may in fact have already arrived. Which means that Jesus will be back soon, too.

For this Johannine community, which existed about 80 years after Jesus’s death and Easter mystery, the return of the Christ is imminent. They are experiencing the intense pressure of a very short time frame to get ready and show themselves worthy for a total and final encounter between the power of God and the powers of nonbeing. As chapter two reads, “Children, it is the last hour” (2.18).

The stakes, for assessing whether a spirit or speaker is of God or not, are quite high, then: If at any moment, quite soon, Christ will be revealed again they cannot not risk having been lead astray for a single moment.

PENTECOST
In my experience of the United Church of Christ, we don’t talk that much about spirits or the Spirit. Some strains of the UCC and some congregations do, just not the churches I have been a member of or served, probably because they have been majority white and come out of our Congregationalist stream.

The regular exception is Pentecost.
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Servants Between Ashes and Dust: 1 John 1.5–2.2

Delivered at First Christian Church on July 1, 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 things change up, so please check the calendar here).

UNIQUE RELATIONSHIP
Grace and peace to you, First Christian Church, and isn’t it great to be back in this sanctuary together, Ames UCC?

In addition to being a joy, these July services we share are also unique.

There are six different churches downtown—our two, First United Methodist, Grace Lutheran, Body of Christ, and Holy Transfiguration Orthodox—six churches all professing devotion to God in Christ Jesus with this same scripture as our teacher, yet we continue to maintain our own buildings and pastors and services and ministries. We are so insistent on practicing that love of God in Christ Jesus with distinct music, art, liturgy, and theology, that we mostly remain out of touch and independent.

But here we are, every July, as well as at the beginning and end of Lent, together. During the highest of holy days and the most ordinary of times, for over fifty years, we have come together to give God our united thanks and praise.

Thank you.

NO ATONEMENT SACRIFICE
Because of the unique and long-standing nature of this relationship, the amount of flexibility 2018.7.1 no atonementand openness to difference it demonstrates, and the trust I hope that I’ve personally earned, I’m going to risk being completely transparent with you about my theology of the cross.

Namely, that I completely disagree with this reading. Not all of it, and not all of 1 John, but its interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’s death.

Which puts me in good company, if not in terms of theology, then in the fact of disagreement. This essay, 1 John, is part of an early schism about whether Jesus’s body matters or not. One side said it does not, that it is only a mask. The side represented in 1 John said it does, that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human, so his body is essential to the teachings and the gift. Which I do agree with.

But I cannot accept the authors’ theology that God intentionally had Jesus die as a blood sacrifice to atone for the sins of the world.Instead of an individual bull or goat or dove, the traditional sacrifices for individual sins, they argue that Jesus was a universal lamb to compensate for a whole a universe of sin. Which makes God a murderer and the “structural, civic violence”1 of an empire necessary and holy.

That’s the theology and the God that I grew up with and that is most commonly professed. 2018.7.1 lifeIt is not, though, the theology I can stake my life on or the God that I can love.

Am I saying Jesus didn’t die? No. Am I saying Jesus’s death is inconsequential? No. Am I saying we don’t sin? No way.

I’m saying that it isn’t Jesus’s death, but his life and his resurrection, that are the mechanisms which might redeem us from sin. It is what he did before and after that ordinary, brutal day that may give us means to stop deceiving ourselves and have fellowship with God and each other.

Might and may are probably the most important words there. Jesus’s life and his resurrection might redeem us, if we remember to allow them to.
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What We are Witnessing: 1 John 1.1–4

2018.6.24 herodDelivered at Ames UCC
on June 24, 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 things change up, so please check the calendar here).

1 JOHN
What is the most powerful act you have witnessed or experience you have had because of your faith or life in a community of faith? Have you ever used that experience to justify your faith or life in a community of faith? Today’s passage is all about witnessing and using the fact of being an eyewitness to bolster an argument. An argument about Jesus.

Here are the two sides: Early Christians who believed Jesus was fully divine, called Docetists, versus those including the followers of the disciple John who authored this essay, who believed he was divine and human.

For the Docetists, divinity could not suffer pain, as on the cross, so the physical appearance of Jesus was a mask, his carnality unimportant. For our authors, having witnessed Christ’s life and death with their own eyes, they were convinced that Jesus was fully divine and fully human. They give this witness statement that their joy might be complete.

Which reminds me of another set of witnesses from the beginning of Jesus’s life, a group of people from whom we have no letter or essay describing and interpreting what they saw: the magi.
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Resilience in the Ordinary Times of Hate

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Recently, within an hour of each other, I received two text messages:

Roof repair + scotus + immigration madness = I just want to cry

The tent camp situation is making me physically ill. 108 degrees in Arizona. What in the name of God can we do? What do we do??

Then I was sent a link to this tweet by comedian Solomon Georgio:

We are living through a time of enormous every day and existential threats. For some of us, this is new. For others, it has been their reality for generations.

I offer this list of practices for maintaining emotional, physical, and spiritual resilience, particularly for those of us who, due to our race or education or employment or religion or nation of origin or sexuality or gender, have been shielded from having to do so before.

Pr. Eileen Gebbie

Pray

I do not suggest prayer as a technique to lure God into solving our problems. I suggest prayer because it grounds us in the source of all being, in the generative power of creation. Because it allows our souls to soar above the debris and damage to gain the vantage point of justice and grace.

Walk, Eat, and Sleep

Nothing is more important than your own good health. It’s the putting on of your oxygen mask so that you can live to help others do the same.
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Get in the Long Line: Exodus 20.12–17

2018.6.10 trustDelivered at Ames UCC
on June 10, 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 things change up, so please check the calendar here).

UNEASY
Since it is June and we are six months away from it, I think that I can say, without ruining anyone’s holiday, that Christmas makes me uneasy.

As you may be picking up, I’m using these first weeks of Ordinary Time to go a little more deeply into the other holidays and seasons of our tradition and how they create a bridge between us and our ancestors and our successors and God. So last week we had Advent; today we have Christmas.

And Christmas makes me uneasy.

Christmas makes me uneasy because it has become so divorced from church. Christmas’s disconnect from worship and communities of practice, its embedding in the marketplace, into product development and advertising’s manufacture of desire, makes me uneasy because I fear that there is no way to bring it back home to us.

Home has become part of the problem, too.

In the Christmas story, a king sends a pregnant woman on a journey. Now, marketing tells us that if we do not journey in December, if we do not have a family to reunite with in some idyllic home, we are not really part of the story at all.

Christmas makes me uneasy because, having become so untethered and coopted, complex theologies, weak theologies, and theologies that bear false witness to God are promoted and promulgated without thought to their consequences or resources for their understanding or debunking.

How many people have had their depression deepen in December because they cannot afford to participate in the holiday, in financial or familial terms? How many people have lost the opportunity to understand the hope of Christmas because they have no ground for interpreting virgin births and guiding stars and blaring angels?

Christmas makes me uneasy because the marketing and the pressure and the shallowness so distort its ancient truths and eternally relevant gifts.

BONHOEFFER
Over the last eighteen months, since just before Christmas 2016, I’ve been doing a few things to draw more deeply on our tradition’s ancient truths and eternally relevant gifts: intensifying my prayer practices; returning to the faith leaders of oppressed people through black liberation theology, womanist theology, and liberation theology; and to the faith leaders of oppressed people who have not only metaphorically staked their lives on these stories, but those who have done so quite literally, too. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
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Covenant Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love: Exodus 20.1–11

2018.6.3 earth needsDelivered at Ames UCC on June 3, 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 things change up, so please check the calendar here).

DEALMAKING
Look at God, working the deals.

Last week God asked Moses, who is now in the desert wilderness with the freed Hebrew slaves, to say to the people, “You saw what I did back there. Now, if you will just bind yourself with devotion to me, you will be my most special people for all time.” I helped you, now you serve me. God wants a little something for God’s trouble, it seems.

But we are not Moses and Moses’s people. We have witnessed no plagues, no walls of water providing safe passage. What have we “gotten” from God? What has God done for us lately, that God can make demands of us still?

To use Advent as an answer: hope, peace, joy, and love.

ADVENT
Last week I handed out copies of the church’s schedule of seasons and holidays along with their traditional colors. I invited you to put those into your own personal calendars as a means to remember that our finite lives are within the infinity that is God.

Today I’d like to continue the practice of putting our everyday into the context of our faith, this time by bringing Advent into Ordinary Time. Not only is the time of faith cyclical, as exemplified by the perpetual calendar of the church, the time of faith is all seasons at one time. We are no less in Advent today than we will be in December.

But as a refresher, Advent is over the four weeks before Christmas. I wish I didn’t have to put it that way because then it sounds like Advent is the Christmas prep season, the Christmas pre-season. It isn’t. Advent is the first season of the Christian year and it is followed by the twelve days of Christmastide. So Advent stands on its own.

Advent stands on its own because it is not just pointing toward the birth of Jesus but to his execution and mystery, too. We spend that month preparing not for one night, but for another year of studying and praying the full story of God in Jesus Christ. Advent’s means for doing so are the weekly themes of hope, peace, joy, and love. In Advent we are preparing for the story of a holiness in whom, through whom, and with whom, we can receive hope, peace, joy, and love.

But that didn’t start with Jesus. What God has to give didn’t begin just two thousand years ago. Let’s look at today’s passage.
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Ground Your Time in God: Exodus 19.1–6

Delivered at Ames UCC on May 27, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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APOCRYPHON OF JOHN

The One is illimitable, since there is nothing before it to limit it,
unfathomable, since there is nothing before it to fathom it,
immeasurable, since there was nothing before it to measure it,
invisible, since nothing has seen it,
eternal, since it exists eternally,
unutterable, since nothing could comprehend it to utter it,
unnamable, since there is nothing before it to give it a name.

This is a description of God from The Apocryphon, or Secret Book, of John, which both of our Bible studies read this spring. The premise of this second-century manuscript is that the risen Jesus, post-Easter, has brought secret teachings to the disciple John, son of Zebedee. This is a common theme in the noncanonical, or unofficial, gospels, that only a few are really ready for what God has to offer. And what this secret book offers is a portrait of God before creation.

The Hebrew Bible, our Bible, begins with God inviting the deep to cocreate without any discussion of what God is then or before. Where was God before then? What is there before then? Our Bible has so humanized God, especially in Jesus, that this apocryphon is a strong reminder that God is and must be so much more:

The One is not among the things that exist, but it is much greater…it is in itself, it is not a part of the eternal realms or of time.

Our time, on the other hand, is quite finite.

LIMITED RESOURCE
Management guru Peter Drucker’s writes, in his classic book The Effective Executive, that time is our only nonrenewable resource. We “cannot rent, hire, buy, or otherwise obtain more time.1

The time we have to breathe and learn and love and drive and work and rant and laugh and to laze about is finite. We do not have, in these bodies, endless time. And we have no control over how much time we will get in these bodies. Will we make it to 80? Will we make it to the end of today? On this Memorial Day weekend as we remember the dead of war, we also remember that every second is dear.

So how do we want to live each and every one?
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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

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heard rather than read.
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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.