Faith is not Formulaic: Acts 16.16–34

2018.4.22 salvationDelivered at Ames UCC on
Sunday, April 22, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard, rather than read. Please join us for worship on Sunday mornings
at 10:30 a.m.

HOW
How is all of this supposed to work? This coming into the sanctuary of a Sunday, the going to Bible study, the attending regional youth events? (Several of our youth are at Urbandale UCC today to meet other kids who will be going to the July youth event.) What are the faith outcomes that these religious mechanics generate?

From Christmas until Easter we watched the Jesus movement begin, Jesus himself with his teachings and talents and the blessings and backlash which followed both.  Now we are in the season of Eastertide. During Eastertide we watch the emergence of the early churches, the very earliest churches, the Communion and Baptism communities that followers of the Jesus movement planted as far from Jerusalem’s grave as Macedonia’s Philippi. That’s almost 1,400 miles and would take over 400 hours to walk. That’s commitment.

But, again, to what end and through which means?  Today Paul’s answer to his jailer is

Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.

FORMULAE
Believe and be saved. It’s the classic Christian formula.

Throughout my high school years, when I would drive myself and my brother and dog north on I-5 either from the home of our aunts in Portland or our dad in Vancouver to our mom’s place in Olympia, there was a billboard that read “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ,” in full, giant Gothic print.

I remember being both offended and confused by it. Offended for having my public space taken up by Christian evangelism (I was a classic teen) and confused by the use of “on” instead of “in.” Don’t we have faith in Jesus Christ, not on him?

Regardless, I understood it then, as I do now, to suggest that if we commit ourselves exclusively to Jesus Christ we will be rescued from certain pain and suffering. It’s a tidy formula. It’s a formula that leaves no room for interpretation. And it’s a formula that no doubt has leveraged the anxiety inherent in its absolutism to gain adherents.

But I don’t think it is exactly right, and I’m a long way from that raw rejection of youth.

Speaking only for myself, but also from experience with so many other people in my life, my relationship with God through Christ has not saved me from anything. It has not saved me from sexual assault, homophobic discrimination, mental illness, or in any complete sense, from my own shortcomings.

Maybe my faith will play into whatever happens to me when I am dead, but asking me to structure the life I know around the unknowns of my death doesn’t really sound like the work of the God of Genesis or Jesus of Nazareth. Especially when our scripture offers fuller, I don’t want to say proof, but a pattern more in alignment with the full picture of God in the world.
Continue reading

Be Present with Mary: Luke 1.46–55 and John 19.16–30

2018 Good FridayPartial order of worship and full homily for Good Friday,
March 30, 2018
at Ames United Church of Christ.

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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, mother of Jesus, where are you?
Many: I am here.

GOSPEL: Luke 1.46–55: The Magnificat

GOSPEL: John 19.16–30: The Crucifixion

LITANY
One:    Mary,
Many: is this your son Jesus hanging on the cross?

One:    Mary,
Many: does your soul still magnify the Lord?

One:    Mary,
Many: does your spirit yet rejoice in God?

One:    Mary,
Many: where is God’s favor now?

One:    Mary,
Many: how can we call you blessed when surely you are deserted?

One:    Mary,
Many: is God’s mercy gone?

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

One:    Mary,
Many: tonight your child is dead.

HOMILY: Be Present with Mary

No Gospel
I wish we had a Gospel of Mary. There’s a Gospel of Mary Magdalene, which several of us studied last fall. In it, Mary Magdalene continues to be the apostle to all other apostles. Just as she is the first to receive the good news of the empty tomb, she is the first to receive ongoing, secret teachings from the resurrected Jesus. He tells her not to listen to anyone but him, do not trust those men who would make new rules about him, and be fearless.

But we hear nothing from Mary, the Mother of Jesus, after his death. In fact, this account of her standing at Jesus’s cross is the only mention of her in John’s gospel at all, and you may have noticed that she doesn’t even get a name. Mother Mary doesn’t fare much better in the others, either: She is merely mentioned in Mark as one woman among many. In Matthew, Mary is a problem that Joseph has to solve.

It is only Luke that privileges Mary, yet even then she is not a whole person unto herself. If you remember the birth narrative, we hear all about how Mary’s cousin Elizabeth has been married for years and has begged God to get pregnant. Mary, not married at all, gets pregnant without even knowing it. Mary may be a willing participant in that miracle, but she didn’t petition to be one.

Mary is an enigma often sidelined and, when not, she is a vessel without agency.

Surely that vessel broke at the sight we hear described tonight.
Continue reading

Listen, Even When You Don’t Like What You Hear: John 13.1–33

2018 Maundy ThursdayDelivered at First United Methodist as part of the annual ecumenical Holy Week services, shared by First United Methodist, First Christian Church, and Ames UCC.

Maundy Thursday, March 29, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

DETAILS
The details of this story do not make sense.

It starts out coherently enough with Jesus washing everyone’s feet, then explaining that no one is better than anyone else and that they must be servant leaders.

Then Jesus becomes vague in his teaching.

Jesus tells the disciples that the person who takes bread from him will betray him. This is a reference to Psalm 41.9:

Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted,
who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me.

The disciples are confused because they don’t know who that will be. Fair enough. Jesus makes a startling statement that someone will do an unspeakable act yet withholds the most vital piece of information: who.

So, Simon Peter asks the beloved disciple to ask Jesus who it will be. Maybe we should take this as a sign of just how rattled Peter is that he does not ask for himself.

The beloved disciple says, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus then gives the bread to Judas and tells Judas “Do quickly what you are going to do.”

Here’s where the details don’t add up: The scripture says no one understood what Jesus meant by that. Was he telling Judas to go do some shopping? How is it that no one understood what Jesus meant when, having said he would be betrayed by the person who took bread, he then gave bread to Judas and told him to go do it?

Were they not listening?
Continue reading

Look at the Floor: John 12.12–27

2018.3.25 Holy CommunionDelivered at Ames UCC on March 25, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard, rather than read.
Please join us for worship on Sunday mornings at 10:30 a.m.

LOOK AT THE FLOOR
Look at the floor, if you would.

Compare the floor under your feet with the floor under the pew in front of you. What do you see? The first is worn out, blonde from our soles and our weight. The second is still dark, still shiny. It has been protected from us for decades. It is untrod and clear.

Every Sunday I think about this. Where I sit in the front pew used to be the second pew. I understand that my immediate predecessor, your interim pastor Terry Hamilton-Poore, took the original front row out because it was just too crowded during Holy Communion. So every Sunday, from where I sit, I see clearly the evidence of paths loved down to a nub.

It’s the path of the Palm Sunday parade.

PALM SUNDAY
Technically the path of the Palm Sunday parade was the road that came into Jerusalem from the back side.

The whole thing is a superb example of political theater: “Nobody” Jesus comes through the back gate on an ass with regular people waving foliage, while Governor Pilate comes through the front gate on a steed and with a full complement of Roman soldiers and regalia. No wonder it made the local authorities so upset!

Based on the story in John, though, I don’t think most of the participants knew they were taking part in a direct action. John says that people had come to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover and heard Jesus would be there, too, so they went out to join him. It’s not that they went to Jerusalem because of Jesus.

Some of those people had seen and known Jesus earlier, when he brought his friend Lazarus back from the dead. They spread that story among the Passover pilgrims and residents, which brought even more people out, people of many religious traditions. So, the crowd is a mix of devoted disciples and followers, those already on their own pilgrimage, and curiosity seekers, lookee-loos, and skeptics.

This is one of those weeks when the original story feels almost less important than the over 2,000 years of retelling that story. It sounds like it would have been pretty easy to take part or get caught up in the first Palm Sunday parade. It did not require much beyond curiosity, happenstance, and proximity.

The original participants also didn’t know what would follow: betrayal, death, mystery; 300 years of religious oppression; 1,200 years of religious imperialism; 400 years of Protestant protests and factionalism; and now a solid 100 years of decline in relevance!

But we do. We know all of that. We know how hard the story is going to get and all that will be asked of us. We know how badly we will fail. And still we come. Why?
Continue reading

I Don’t Believe in God: John 19.1–16a

2018.3.18 God remainsDelivered at Ames UCC on March 18, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard, rather than read. Please join us for worship on Sunday mornings
at 10:30 a.m.

BELIEF
Part of how I’ve been able to have a faith, and be part of the Christian religion, has been by rejecting belief. I’ve rejected the notion that I must believe in God, believe in the Trinity, believe in resurrection. I don’t reject God, Trinity, and resurrection, I reject that requirement of belief. Because, for me, the word belief is about intellect and conceptual understanding, none of which can encompass an encounter with divinity.

I believe, for example, in thermodynamics and diabetes and global climate change. I have received data on all of those, data gathered through rigorous, intentional testing by those who have undergone rigorous, relevant training. Maybe over time they will be proven wrong or modified in terms of biochemical or geologic mechanisms, but I believe energy is a physical phenomenon, as is insulin, and the rising waters resulting in environmental refugees.

Belief, I am trying to argue, is the outcome of a formal and predictable process.

Until now. Now it seems that belief as a function of the human brain and so a major factor in human society, is no longer tied to process.

I just finished a book by an Episcopal bishop on parish ministry. In it, he references a Duke University researcher who has studied how an audience holds on to both positive and negative misinformation as it relates to politicians. Basically, we conform facts to our experience up until the moment we receive the information, and we are remarkably unwilling to budge on our beliefs even when given reliable data that countermands our beliefs.

That research was in 2013. At this point it feels like anyone can believe anything, be it about politics or medicine or the planet, without any need for logic or data or relevant credentials, merely a suspicion of all three.

So talking about belief in God doesn’t make sense to me because the concept of God cannot be tested scientifically and belief itself is now so loaded a term as to be toxic.

Instead, I have faith. Instead of belief in God, I have faith in God.
Continue reading

Listen to Lady Wisdom: John 18.12–27

2018.3.4 Lady WisdomDelivered at Ames UCC
on March 4, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard, rather than read.
Please join us for worship
on Sunday mornings at 10:30 a.m.

ORDER
Women are Biblical gatekeepers.

Women are, in at least three significant moments in the Bible, at gateways to understanding and revelation deemed essential for a life of faith.

But before I get to that, I want to spend a moment on the order of our readings this Lenten season. Look at the cover of your bulletin, if you would: you will see an image representing each of the different stories. We started with the resurrection of Lazarus, one of John’s most beautifully crafted Easter foreshadows, to Jesus washing the disciples’ feet at Passover, to today’s combination of the preliminary trial of Jesus and denial by Peter.

For the next two weeks we will watch Jesus engage with Pilate, the governor of the occupying Roman force. Then we will double back in time to the Palm Sunday protest that triggered that arrest and confrontation in the first place, before entering into Holy Week proper.

We are giving much more time than we often do to the crisis that resulted in the mystery at the core of our faith tradition. This year we are lingering in raw conversations—that had devastating conclusions—because we want to learn from them rather than pretend we will never have such trials and tribulations in our own lives.

WISDOM
The Hebrew Bible book of Proverbs wants to help up in that learning.

Proverbs is a “daily righteousness guide,” my rabbi taught, in the form of advice from a father to a son. But the foundation for this masculine instruction is a woman at a gate:

Wisdom cries aloud in the streets,
Raises her voice in the squares.
At the head of the busy streets she calls;
At the entrance of the gates, in the city she speaks out…(1.20–21, JPS)

And what does she say?
Continue reading

Powerful Teachers: John 4.1–425

2018.2.4 wellDelivered at Ames UCC
on February 4, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard, rather than read.
Please join us for worship on Sunday mornings
at 10:30 a.m.

PARCHED PEOPLE
How thirsty are you? How thirsty are you this morning? How dry do the tongue of your hearth and lips of your soul get?

I meet with a lot of parched people each week. I see faces dried out by illness and hold hands rough with wear and cold. I hear voices that rasp and squeak as though the struggle to be heard in a world such as ours has made vocal chords rough as sandpaper. I see shoulders held high, as taught with stress as the dried gut of a stringed instrument.

Maybe you would put yourself among them.

Parched for a decent meal, parched for 30 minutes of quiet, parched for a thank you from a boss, parched for a day without a commute, parched for a parent’s or spouse’s health to stabilize, parched for a good prognosis for yourself, parched for a teenager to stop yelling, parched from being a teenager who needs to be heard, parched for just one moment of real hope and certain love.

Some of those thirsts can be quenched, to an extent.  But most are chronic thirsts born of the necessities of earning a wage, the risk of loving people, and the inevitabilities of hormones and aging.

Dehydration is a symptom of human life.

Our tradition does not shy from that truth. Discipleship to God in Christ does not include false promises about what our daily lives or eventual deaths will be like.
Continue reading

First, Rest in God: John 2.13–25


2018.2.21 new
Delivered at Ames UCC
on January 21, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard, rather than read.
Please join us for worship on
Sunday mornings at 10:30 a.m.

LOVE
Part of me really loves this story.

It’s the part of me that grew up watching Jesus Christ Superstar and its temple scene with women, guns, and sunglasses up for sale. It’s the part of me that loves the liberation inherent in our tradition’s theology: freed slaves, women prophets, direct confrontation with those who are complicit in or mimic the power structures of occupation.

It’s this kind of story that allows me to continue to seek God through Jesus Christ. I could not walk a path that does not eliminate false, human-made barriers to God; I need a path that strips me of my blinders to corruption and self-centered comfort.

FIGHTING
This story sounds different today, though. I’m not sure I can even hear this story today over all of the rest of the fighting in our world.

I thought about putting together a list of the kinds of back-and-forth juvenilia and nastiness from our elected officials on Twitter or some of the commentary over the recent controversy regarding vulgarity in the White House, our house. But I couldn’t bring myself to read them and saw no value in inflicting them on you afresh. You already know.
Continue reading

God Pitched a Tent: John 1.35–51


Delivered at Ames UCC on January 7, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard, rather than read. Please join us for worship on Sunday mornings at 10:30 a.m.

NERD
Something terribly exciting has happened, if you are a church nerd like me: There’s a new translation of the Christian Testament. Eastern Orthodox scholar David Bentley Hart has published a version of the gospels and letters that he believes is more reflective of the original Greek, but without any tweaking to make it sound smoother in English.

Here’s a comparison, using the Gospel of John.

First, the New Revised Standard Version, first published in 1989:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.

Now Hart’s:

In the origin there was the Logos, and the Logos was present with God, and the Logos was god; This one was present with God in the origin…

Again, NRSV:

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him;

And Hart:

It was the true light, which illuminates everyone, that was coming into the cosmos. He was in the cosmos, and through him the cosmos came to be.

Do you hear the differences? Logos instead of Word, origin instead of beginning, cosmos instead of world. Whereas Matthew begins with a human genealogy of Jesus, Mark with the story of John the Baptist, and Luke with King Herod and the barren Elizabeth, John begins with the origin of the cosmos.

I love it! It is poetic and it is a bit intimidating. The dusty man of prayer and irritation whose hem we can grab and whose hand anoints us with oil is pure energy, is life itself.

And then there’s line that I want to tie into today’s passage, John 1.14.

The NRSV reads

And the Word became flesh and lived among us

But Hart’s says

…the Logos became flesh and pitched a tent among us

The ancient community of John is telling us that the origin of cosmos—stardust and supernova, varied nebula and nuclei—took on the trouble of skin and set up house among us. The very idea gives me shivers on my own skin.

JESUS AND BAPTISM
But what kind of house, or tent, what kind of skin? Presumably stardust could occupy the world in any which way it so chooses, so how did it choose?
Continue reading

Swimming to Shore Under a Nuclear Threat

Published January 3, 2018 in the Ames Tribune

By Eileen Gebbie

I had a bad cold on New Year’s Eve so I headed to bed around 8:30 p.m. As I did, my phone flashed an alert (why I don’t have the Do Not Disturb function start earlier is something I need to think about).

It was a newspaper app, letting me know of the North Korean leader’s assertion of his nuclear power, the button of mass destruction on his desk.

Happy New Year, everyone, I thought.

While I was in seminary my ethics professor, The Rev. JoAnne Marie Terrell, spent an entire unit with us on nuclear war. As a child of the 1970s, with still-vivid memories of 1983′s “The Day After,” I had no problem being convinced by her of the threat of nuclear war to creation — the same creation that all faith traditions believe God has asked us to protect and steward (or at least not actively destroy).

During that time I watched another movie, from 1959, called “On the Beach.” It’s a star-studded movie, with performances by Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, Anthony Perkins and Fred Astaire. Like “The Day After,” it is a story about the world in the aftermath of nuclear war.

But unlike it, “On the Beach” is very quiet and has no special effects. It merely tracks the movements of the final humans on Earth as nuclear wind reaches and annihilates them and how some of the humans choose to respond to that inevitability.

One family, a couple with a young baby, is unsure whether to kill their baby and then let the wind take them or just all take pills together. They choose the latter. Fred Astaire’s character was a race car driver who decides to kill himself by way of car fumes in a closed garage. Those moments read as a testament to a desire, even though the outcome will be the same, to leave this world on one’s own terms, not those of whatever human beings unleashed such indecent and irrational power.

There is also a series of religious rallies. In the first, a large crowd gathers to sing songs, pray and hear a preacher, on a public square.

Over the course of the film, the rallies grow smaller and smaller. You can feel the despondency and the lack of answer for what the point of all the God talk has been if such talk will not stop the breath of the nuclear reaper.

But the scene I’ve come back to time and again, having only seen the film once, nearly 10 years ago, was of a man swimming from a submarine to San Francisco harbor.
Continue reading