Joy for Peace: 2 Samuel 5:1-5; 6:1-5 and Psalm 150

Delivered at Ames UCC on October 20, 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.

WHY SO HAPPY?

Who is this David to be so happy? What does he have to dance and to sing about with all his nation? I know that it reads in our bulletins as though this is a coronation parade, a celebration of David’s ascension to the throne of Israel after Saul’s leadership collapsed, but it isn’t. There are a lot of missing verses, a whole war of them. And there’s all of the war before them.

KINGS

These people, the descendants of the escaped slaves of Exodus, decide they want a king, they want to be able to participate in international commerce, be a power broker in the region, too. God famously warns them that a king will make their children into soldiers and farmers who work only for the king. A king will make their children into servants of the castle and their best fields and vineyards the king will take. All slaves and workhorses will be the king’s to use. And after all of that, a king will also tax them at ten percent. The people refuse God’s counsel, ditch their traditional judges and prophets, of all genders, and elevate Saul.

Then everything God predicted comes true.

Saul goes to war against the Ammonites and the Moabites, cousins to the Israelites through the family tree of Sarah and Abraham. He goes to war against the Philistines, too.

The people get their international politics, all right, they get it in blood.

Then Saul’s monarchy fails, and so spectacularly that not even one of his own children can take the throne. So David, a shepherd and a musician, after a lot of lies and pain between the two of them, comes to take Saul’s place.

But the wars do not stop. David’s kingdom is not peaceable. No kingdom ever can be. Ours isn’t.

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This Holy Ground: Exodus 1.8-14, 3.1-15

Delivered at Ames UCC on September 29, 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. Lastly, this sermon is somewhat shorter as we also had a powerful testimony from a congregant offered during worship.

SHOES

If it is easy for you, and you don’t mind, would you please join me in taking off our shoes?

Press your feet down. Wiggle your toes. Feel the wood or the carpet on your soles, the ball of your foot, not quite to your arches.

You are touching holy ground.

Or at least you are suspended above it.

Just below this floor is soil. Dirt that we, and a century of predecessors, have brought into this space, and has built up as it has shifted down through the slats. In some places the soil comes almost to the floor, in others there’s still enough room for someone to crawl. Scattered throughout are the piers that hold the floor up. They are buried to different depths, moldering to different degrees from the water and moisture present down there, too. The piers are both in and returning to holy ground.

Like Moses in today’s story.

MOSES

We have made a huge leap from Jacob Israel’s story in Genesis last week to Moses’s at beginning of Exodus today.

In between, the descendants of the itinerant Jacob Israel have become settled Israelites in Egypt. Those descendants “grew exceedingly strong” such that “the land (of Egypt) was filled with them,” the new Pharaoh wants them put down. So Pharaoh enslaves the Israelites. Pharaoh tries to have all of their babies killed. And then Pharaoh’s daughter up and adopts one: Moses.

Despite growing up in Pharaoh’s house, Moses knows that he is an Israelite. When he is an adult and he sees a fellow Israelite being beaten by an overseer, Moses kills the overseer, buries him in sand, and flees to nearby Midian. Moses marries Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, a Midianite priest. And that should have been that for Moses.

God is not interested in “that should have been that.”

In one of the most compelling testimonies to God’s preference for, God’s special place for the outsider and the imperfect, God does not set a bush afire for a suffering slave in Egypt but for a migrant murderer in Midian.

God compels one who grew up in privilege, and then had the privilege of being able to run away, to go back and be part of freedom.

God demands that Moses recognize the holy ground on which he stands and the holy ground being debased by slavery, one of the most despicable forces of non-being, in his homeland.

God demands the same of us today, though it is something far more pernicious and slippery than slavery we must confront. The force of non-being that we must reject and upend is our collective failure to protect our planet for sustainable life.

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Bitterness Turned to Joy: Genesis 18.1-15, 21.1-7

Bitterness Turned to Joy: Genesis 18.1-15, 21.1-7
Delivered at Ames UCC on September 15, 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. Lastly, this sermon is somewhat shorter as we also had a powerful testimony from a congregant offered during worship.

CHILDREN

We are blessed, and I don’t use that word casually, blessed by the presence of many infants, toddlers, children, and youth at Ames UCC. Zillions it seems, some days.

This is a place that their parents, grandparents, and guardians have identified as safe, nurturing, and accepting. A place where their little and ever-growing ones will find their own voices. Where they can build friendships that will withstand the schoolyard struggles of cliques and apps, the home side worries of money, divorce, even death.

This abundance has been no accident. We have created such a place, such a church together, through intentional choices. It has taken thoughtfulness and the commitment of money and time, like the pledges we are invited to make by the end of September, to build essential ministries and retain exceptional staff.

It has also taken a particular posture toward children and youth. We have as a body, as part of Christ’s body, heeded his example of embracing all children not only as our own, but as people with their own insights and knowledge. They are not dumb clay for the forming, like the adam in last week’s story, but spiritual beings with lessons of their own to teach.2019.9.17 trust

Our blessed abundance is an interesting contrast to so many of our stories. So many of our stories involve couples who are desperate to have just one child, let alone zillions, but cannot. Like Sarah and Abraham.

SARAH & ABRAHAM

By the time we catch up with them today, Sarah and Abraham are well past their childbearing years. They have been on the road for a long time, having been sent out by God with the promise of birthing a great people. Over the decades they have had run-ins with Pharaoh, tried an end run on God’s promise through a steward and a slave, and had their names changed. Still, no child of their own, let alone a dynasty.

So here we find them encamped, paused in their itinerancy, and visited by other travelers, to whom they offer abundant hospitality. The strangers ask after Sarah and announce that she will bear a child. Sarah rolls her eyes and laughs but, fast forwarding a few chapters, there she is in her 90s having baby Isaac.

Now, as with last week, this story is not intended to be a biological account of a parturient nonagenarian. It is a metaphor. It is a metaphor that can work for us even if we have never been physically infertile, or even wanted to have kids. Many of us can relate to painful frustration and deep hopelessness.

Think about the areas in our shared world where despair and death, a lack of fertility, seem the only or the inevitable outcome. Yemen, Israel, Palestine; Honduras, Brazil, the US-Mexico border; our water, our air; our relationship with guns, our addiction to drugs; our system of government and civil society itself.

On hearing the strange men say she would have a baby, Sarah laughed bitterly to herself, bemoaning her post-menopausal body and impotent husband and lack of sexual pleasure. If someone told us we could birth a solution to all of those problems, or even one, we would probably sputter out a guffaw of our own, thinking, “After we have gone this far, after our troubles have become so aged, after our partners in problem solving so intransigent, shall we yet know relief?” Pffft!

YES

“Yes,” God says, “yes. Maybe not in your lifetime. Maybe at an age beyond your oldest possible age. But hear me say that fertility, which is new life and new possibilities, is not bound by the limited bodies and limited time of humans. I asked Abraham and Sarah to walk so far and for so long not only to test their faith, though surely it did, but to send you all a message. The stream of the life eternal begun at creation has carried the redemption of life in its waves and its wake since before you were born and will carry it on well after you. Trust me.”

As so we do, or try, because coming to church is an act of trust. It isn’t like movie or a club. Corporate faith practices are not consumer products that we select only because they make us feel good, or make us feel like we are on the side of right, and everyone else wrong.

In2019.9.15 worshipstead, this life with worship is tent-setting. It is trusting an open-ended and ancient path of promise, with companions unpredictable. It is a trusting a future not only beyond our control but beyond our view.

Except maybe through our kids.

In the face of our grown-up and aged death-dealing the blessing of these children and youth is their embodiment of God’s persistent life-giving.

So in spite of the bitterness of our world, our laughter can be one one of joy, too.

For Sarah, it was joy at the fulfillment of God’s promise but also the fulfillment of the promise when it had become impossible for her and Abraham to do so alone. Joy born of the outcome and the means: a holiness with capacities far greater than our own.

We laugh with joy along with our kids here, not only because they are talented and smart and funny and not of their potential for continuing the traditions we so love after us. We laugh with them for joy because, despite our inevitable deaths, they remind us there has always been and will always be a greater holy life.

AMEN

Dive in Here: Genesis 2.4b-13

Dive in Here: Genesis 2.4b-13

Delivered at Ames UCC on September 8, 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. Lastly, this sermon is somewhat shorter as we also had a powerful testimony from a congregant offered during worship.

NO HELL

You may have picked up, over these last four years, that I’m not a heaven and hell preacher. The notion of realms of absolute joy and absolute pain don’t rightly flow from the more complicated picture of God we have received from our ancestors. What makes more sense to me is the phrase you’ve heard me pray so many Sundays: streams of the life eternal. The same streams that are part of today’s creation story.

CREATION

This is actually the second of our two creation stories.

T2019.9.8 streamhe first version describes how “the earth…was welter and waste” with darkness all around, and God’s breath hovered over waters and God invited light. Through six days God invited more creation to come forth, pausing after each cycle and seeing that “it was good.” On the sixth day our ancestors invite us to picture God as saying, “Let us make a human in our image.” That divine multiplicity, the holy Our, makes a human in its own images, makes multiple humans in their image. And then there was rest.

God in this first account is gentle, rhythmic, flowing like those original waters, soaring like the fowl over the earth, holding the power to ordain an entire day as hallowed.

Quickly, though, in the second account, our view is taken down from the sky and up from the sea, right onto Earth. In our Wednesday evening Bible study last week, Leah suggested the second account isn’t so much a different story of creation but a zooming in on the details skipped in the broad strokes of the first.

So focused, we see God handling, manipulating, fashioning first human. There’s a Hebraic pun at work here in the originals that does not translate well into English: Soil is ‘adamah and a generic human is ‘adam. So from ‘adamah God fashions ‘adam. It would be like saying from soil God created “so” or from putty God created “put.”

In this first human there is no sexual differentiation. It is yet neutral, neutered. God gives that human the same breath, the ruach, that had hovered, that had fluttered, over the deep in the first creation account.

God places then places that original potentiality into a beautiful garden, one including with the tree of life itself as well as one of “weal and woe,” good and evil. From that garden, from the first human home and the refuge of God’s greatest treasure, flows a river and then flows streams: Pishon, Gihon, as we heard read, and if we’d kept going, the Tigris and Euphrates. Life begins and then life flows.

Neither version is a scientific account, nor do they claim to be. They are theological speculations on the presence of holiness in the actual chaos of creation and evolution. They are theological instructions on how to live with God in this world.

Which is also a description of church.

CHURCH

In this place, we thoughtfully, and often joyfully, consider where God is in the midst and the mess. We look to these gorgeous, and often perplexing, myths and poems and prose as well as the ongoing revelation of God in our lives, to make choices about how to best, how to most creatively, as in creation-ly, move through the world.

Our church confronts the realities of good and evil while being serenaded by the contemporary tributaries of that original life-giving river. We call those tributaries Holy Baptism and Holy Communion; Godly Play and Youth Group; Learning Center and Unscripted; fellowship groups and Bible study; AMOS, CROP Walk, Emergency Residence Shelter, Good Neighbor Emergency Assistance, and Pridefest; Caring Network, cards of care, Matthew 25 Ministers, and this our communal prayer and praise.

LIFE ETERNAL

I don’t believe we go into an eternal life at death because has been eternal since before our births. Billions of years ago it began and billions of years it will continue.

The forms have changed and will continue to do so, but carbon, water, light, they collide and recreate and illuminate in cycles of newness and endings eternal. And we are in the midst, the water and carbon that came together to make us someday falling away again the light of our souls reforming.

The question the stream of life eternal asks is not that which St. Peter would ask at a singular encounter at some pearly gates, but an ongoing query about which tributaries we will walk along, which we will avoid, and which we will dive into wholly.

2019.9.8 lapisThe land of the river Pishon had gold, bdellium, and lapis lazuli—or currency, a useful resin, and beautiful ornaments. The land of the river Ames UCC has integrity, accountability, and love, the currency, useful tool, and ornamentation needed for this day.

On this day of beginnings, in scripture and in our church’s ministry year, I invite you to dive in here. Over the days, weeks, months, and years to come, make this your place of immersion, your garden rooted.

Seek here, together, the breath-taking gifts of learning from generations before. Seek here, together, renewal of God’s gift of breath to all.

AMEN

Beloved All: 1 John 3.1a, 2a, 18-21a

Delivered at Ames UCC on September 1, 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.

OUR IMAGINATIONS

How much bigger than us will we allow God to be? In our imaginations, how much mystery will we allow for in our concept of the divine? What is our tolerance level for contradiction In how we conceive of the workings of a holiness apart and incarnate? Does our notion of God let everyone be a child of God no matter their behavior?

Let’s start our search for answers with two Biblical characters.

JEPHTHAH

In the book of Judges we learn about a man called Jephthah, described as a Gildeadite son of a prostitute. Jephthah was a warrior who got kicked out of his homeland because of his maternity but was then brought back when his people were in danger. Jephthah then makes a vow to God that if he wins a coming battle he will sacrifice as a burnt offering the first person he meets on coming home.

Now, who is the first person you meet when you come home? Roommate, cat, dog, spouse, kid, parent? Do you know who first walked out of Jephthah’s door after winning the war? His daughter, his one and only child. Jephthah’s daughter comes out of their home singing and dancing only to be sentenced to the pyre. And, after a brief wilderness sojourn with other women, that is where she goes.

There are several possible lessons in the story, like don’t take vows lightly. That’s an extension of the teaching not to take God’s name in vain. Oaths made in God’s name must be kept so don’t toss them out there. It could also be about not assuming God is on your side: We have no indication that God acted in any way on Jephthah’s behalf at all or in response to this promised offering. And the storytellers could have easily added that comment over time and iterations. Lastly, it may also be a story to explain a preexisting cultural practice, a just-so story. Not human sacrifice, but the women’s wilderness retreat that Jephthah’s daughter took before her death.

Regardless of those interpretations, we are left with a man who kills his child. A beloved child of God. How can Jephthah still be in God’s circle of love when he made such a wanton, idiotic, thoughtless promise? Surely some people cease through their actions to be beloved of God.

Like Judas.

JUDAS

In the Gospel of Mark, Judas is presented as one of the chosen male disciples. He is gifted by Jesus with the power to spread the good news of God’s present kin-dom and to cast out demons. Then, as all of the gospels describe, Judas betrays Jesus.

At first we don’t know why. In Mark’s gospel, the oldest of the four, Judas just turns Jesus in with no explanation. But with each successive gospel, we are given reasons. But in Matthew, he does it for financial reward. In Luke, Judas betrays Jesus for the money and because he is possessed by a ha-satan. In John, Judas is likewise possessed and has been stealing from the disciples’ common purse. The outcome for Judas is death by suicide in Matthew and bodily explosion in Luke.

Does Judas remain a child of God?

A lot of ink and air has been spent answering that one. The Gospel of Judas, for example, asserts that he is the most hallowed of all the disciples because he did God’s dirty deed. In other assessments, Judas did something so very wrong that God abandoned him for all time. And in others still, Judas did something very wrong and God stayed with him, both loving and mourning.

So that’s scripture, now let’s look at Texas.

ODESSA & MIDLAND

Is the newest in our obscenely long list of gunmen in mass shootings, this time in Odessa and Midland, a beloved child of God? When he turned a traffic stop into a mobile rampage, did he move himself beyond God’s care?

2019.9.1 demonsOur answer to that questions, as well as the question of Jephthah and Judas, likely reveals more about us than God. When we are confronted with base acts, these utterly human grotesqueries, how we locate bad actors and God in the midst usually demonstrates how hard we work to keep God near but put distance between us and those we want to believe are utterly unlike us.

Because when we keep Judas and gunmen demonic, we can ignore the demons we all wrestle with. We can also keep God exclusively on our side. Just like Jephthah. And that worked out for him, right?

1 JOHN

See what love the Creator has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. Beloved, we are God’s children…

When our unknown author wrote these words, it was likely during a fight about the nature of Jesus’ body and the reason for his death. If you read the whole letter you will see that the author has no qualms about saying who is outside of God’s love.

But taken out of context, I think the author is making a jarring and genuine argument about a God for which there are no outsides. As much as our human religion and our own minds tell us those people out there are scum but we are saints, I pray that God is better and bigger than our squabbles and schisms and semi-automatics. I pray that the most evil-acting among us remain beloved children of God.

2019.9.1 fine peopleNow, don’t mistake me, I am NOT saying that there are fine people on both sides. A person can be a child of God and still be a violent perpetrator, a promoter of hate, a living nightmare. But if we are all—including Jephthah and Judas and gunmen—if we are all God’s children, all of the time, there is no one we can write off as evil apart. It is being siblings in God that informs our obligation to creation and our accountability to each other.

2019.9.1 disquietingIn our faith story we hear that we bear some of the likeness of God, not the other way around. Thank God. Because it is faith in that greater than, that more than, that immeasurably different-ness, that not-possible-to-discern-ness, that we can set aside a religion of self-soothing staleness and find the disquieting force for creative change that we need today.

The passage says, “God is greater than our hearts.” God is greater than our hearts angry, hearts numb, hearts dumb, and hearts broken. And that is why, on yet another bloody Sunday, I can still say thanks be to God.

AMEN

Could This Be Easier?: 1 Peter

Delivered at Ames UCC on August 25, 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.

COULD BE EASIER

Sometimes I wonder if this thing we do, this faith, would be easier if we didn’t have Jesus.

Think about it: Isn’t the concept of God enough to try to wrap our heads and lives around without adding on this story of a man who maybe wasn’t entirely a man who, some far away sources say, came back to life and is yet around?

That is a lot to take on, a lot to take in, which is evidenced by the lack of agreement Christians—as in Christ-ians—have on what really happened to Jesus and what the stories about his death and resurrection mean.

Though a lot of thoughtful, devoted Christians have tried.

RANSOM

Take, for example, the early African theologian Origen.

Origen, was born in around 184 in Alexandria and died in what we now know as Libya around 253. This puts his birth within 150 years of Jesus’ death.

Origen is one of the most important, if not the most important, of the so-called “Church Fathers,” in part because of the volume of his writings on God, Christ, and Bible, and because of his theology of Jesus.

In what is known as the “ransom theory of atonement,” Origen posited that Jesus had to die because Adam and Eve, in eating of the tree of knowledge, sold us to the devil and God needed repayment. In other words, Jesus’ death was the repayment of a debt all humans were born into. The ransom theory of atonement dominated in Christian communities for about 800 years. So, for 800 years, and still to this day, Christians understood themselves to be born deficient and bound to devilishness, in need of Christ’s ransom for their souls.

Consider how that paints a person’s worldview: All humans are horrid and God accepts blood payments.

It also seems to make irrelevant, or just confusing, everything that Jesus did before dying. What point was the healings and feedings if death was the goal? Do we just ignore them now?

Fast forward many hundreds of years and James Cone would say no.

BLACK LIBERATION THEOLOGY

Cone, an African American, was born in Arkansas in 1936, so deep into the Jim Crow era, a time of lynching regular and unpunished. He came of age before Black Americans had civil rights. When he died last year, Cone was a professor of systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary.

In his foundational work, A Black Theology of Liberation, a continuation of the liberation theology developed by Peruvian Dominican priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, Cone writes that in order to know who Jesus Christ is now, we have to know who we was way back then.

2019.8.25 whitenessFor Cone, that was someone whose one and only role was to heal and liberate the oppressed (p. 112-113).  Cone’s evidence is Jesus’ birth into a humiliated and abused class, which Jesus then claimed proudly in his baptism with sinners in a river beyond the city (p. 115). Jesus signaled that, “The kingdom of God is for the helpless, because they have no security in this world” (p. 117). But they do have freedom.

In Jesus’ resurrection, Cone writes, God frees the oppressed to say no to all who oppress them, even if death looms, because God says yes to them. God’s yes to the oppressed is an act of liberation (p. 118).

So with this understanding of the historical Jesus, and theology of the resurrection, Jesus Christ today is black. Black as the color of skin, yes, and black also as the signifier of oppression, as the adjective that describes where healing and liberation in this nation is still needed.

By naming the resurrected Christ black, Cone makes Jesus concrete, present, and a reminder that black people may, through God’s yes, do whatever they need to “affirm their humanity” (p. 124). This also means that the kingdom work of God in this era is not here, not in this white church, but within the black community (p. 125). Cone doesn’t mean we can’t be part of the contemporary Christ, it just means we are not part of the contemporary Christ if we sit only here in isolated whiteness.

Which Catherine Keller affirms, with slightly different language.

X AS PROCESS

Keller is a white American woman who was born in 1953, so she was born into the right to vote but not to have her own credit card or the ability to prosecute marital assault. She is currently a professor of constructive theology at Drew University.

In her work On the Mystery, Keller describes Jesus as a parable. Jesus himself is like all of those open-ended stories that teach us about what matters, about “how to discern our priorities” (p. 140, emphasis hers). She describes Jesus as caring not about souls in abstraction, like Origen, but souls embodied, like Cone, souls embodied in relation to all other souls embodied. In that way, the meaning of our lives is in relation to the most poor and despised, just as it was for Jesus (p. 144).

Jesus as parable, she continues, is a joyous and urgent lure to make possible what the world would call impossible—the reconciliation that proceed liberation for us and for our planet. The Christic lure to that work is everywhere, but the work itself is in places of cruelty and neglect.

WRESTLE THE STONE

So that’s how three people have wrestled with the questions Jesus’ ministry, murder, and mystery evoke. Three of, oh, millions. Billions, even, because each of us here, though we are not paid theologians, come to different conclusions, different implications over our lifetimes.

I don’t know if our faith really would be easier, as I suggested at the beginning, without Jesus. God isn’t such a breeze to understand alone. So maybe that is the gift of the Christ: a human implicated in holiness, a bridge between God and us. Or, in Peter’s words in today’s passage, a living cornerstone, a place solid and yet responsive to the day.

2019.8.25 faithBecause despite the resurrection story we are still living in a devilish, oppressive, and depraved reality. We have not yet through our theological formulations found a final application of faith that will eliminate the human will to sell each other, negate another’s humanity, to be lured into selfishness rather than selflessness.

If we continue to take seriously the questions Jesus Christ evokes, we may someday come to take seriously the questions we evoke. Like the question of climate change, the question of white nationalism, the question of the legacy of chattel slavery, which we will commemorate at 2 p.m. at our bell tower today.

Maybe it isn’t a leap of faith we need to make, a leap across a chasm of theological uncertainties, but a small step onto a living stone. A stone where the holy and human might intersect. We do this by accepting Peter’s invitation to rid ourselves of “all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander,” all of our un-neighborly ways. For in such a life as that, whatever the truth of God and Christ Jesus, we will never be ashamed.

AMEN

Paul’s Master Class: Philemon

Delivered at Ames UCC on August 18, 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.

THAT DARN PAUL

You know how I always want to fight with Paul because his exclusivist and at times super sexist theology makes me nuts and flies in the face of Jesus’ own Way?

Well, this letter is a big exception.

As I sat with the whole of Paul’s letter to Philemon, which does not usually appear in preaching schedules even in part, I realized that what we have here is master class in discipleship as relationship.

Let’s start with the basic content of the letter.

CONTENT

Paul is in prison, which happened a few times: two years in Ceseara, and then two multi-years stints in Rome, all as a result of his religious fervor. From prison, Paul writes to Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and their house church. He begins with greetings and prayers and thanksgiving for the way Philemon and friends have refreshed Paul’s heart. Then Paul asks Philemon to somehow change the nature of his relationship with a person named Onesimus.

Onesimus is a slave of Philemon’s who, for reasons we don’t know, has been with Paul in prison. Did he run away from Philemon to Paul, seeking help? Or did Philemon send Onesimus to Paul for Paul’s care, as is recorded with another slave in the letter to the Philippians?

Also unclear is what exactly Paul wants to change.

Scholars suggest it could be for Philemon to take Onesimus back with forgiveness for whatever may have transpired (Paul refers to debts) or maybe Paul wants Philemon to keep Onesimus with Paul long-term or maybe Paul wants Philemon to set Onesimus free and receive him as an equal in the house church.

We just don’t know for sure, which is why this letter has been so useful for both anti- and pro-slavery forces over the years.

Paul goes on to ask that Philemon and the church be ready to receive Paul as a guest. And, finally, Paul offers greetings from other disciples.

So that’s the content. Now let’s look at the form, because there lies Paul’s true gift.

FORM

First, though Paul’s big ask is of Philemon, he addresses the letter to the whole of the congregation. This could, of course, look like shaming. Calling someone out in front of others can be very unkind. Or, it could indicate that there are community-wide stakes in our personal choices and community-wide support. Though Philemon has the power in the relationship with Onesimus, that relationship does not exist in isolation, but within a web of connections. The body of Christ includes all bodies.

Second, Paul writes

though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love

Paul has substantial moral authority within this ecclesia. He is their evangelist, he is their teacher, he is the one who invited them to wade in the waters with the Christ. So this could have been a very short note saying, “Phil, let O go. Thanks, P.” Instead, Paul details how Onesimus has become part of the flock, has become a true sibling. Then Paul asks Philemon to make the choice as an act of faith, rather than obedience,

in order that (his) good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.

Paul is preserving Philemon’s personal agency while inviting him to be a person of greater integrity at the same time.

Third, and final, there is the issue of Philemon’s and Onesimus’ names. Philemon can mean “good one” or “loving” or “he who shows kindness.” Onesimus’ name can mean “handy” or “useful” or “beneficial.” Now, I haven’t found any academic arguments or research on this, and have no reason to believe these were not their actual names, but it feels like there is something to Paul writing a letter to Kind One asking him to understand his relationship with Handy differently.

If a mentor of mine wrote, “Dear Good Heart, I write on behalf of Valuable,” I might listen more closely, for my mentor would be calling on and teaching me about my inherent decency and the inherent worth of the other.

So Paul, who does not pull any punches in his work to spread his understanding of the gospel, throughout this letter uses a gentle hand to encourage a fellow disciple to grow in his faith through his relationship with another.

And isn’t that the call to us all?

DISCIPLESHIP IS RELATIONSHIP

Pr. Hannah once said to me, and I have her permission to share this, that it would be so much easier to go to a much larger church. You can walk in, get your Jesus jolt, and walk out without having to know anyone or be known by anyone. There is no obligation in anonymity, no risk.

But, she continued, she is here because being known and knowing is part of the point.

Being in real relationship with fellow seekers over Sundays and years, is what makes for a faith that transforms.

It isn’t easy, of course. If we don’t have to know each other we don’t risk falling in love with each other or becoming implicated in each other’s living and dying. Losing Pauletti and Charlie within a month of each other has been painful.

But then who will give us “much joy and encouragement” when we are imprisoned, literally or by disease or by antipathy? And whose hearts, or in the Biblical Greek, splachna—which literally means guts, the ancient site of all emotions—whose splachna will we lose the opportunity to refresh when they are likewise bound?2019.8.18 relationship

From Adam and Eve to Abram and Sarai; from Ruth and Naomi to Mary and Joseph; from Martha and Mary to Jesus and Judas; from Paul and Philemon and Onesimus, we are taught that discipleship, devotion to God requires relationship.

BLESSING

We live in a vast world where we are encouraged, even pressured, to constantly wear masks of success and even perfection, where rhetorical and actual violence are the primary means of dialogue. In the midst of that we can forget that the damage we do to each other, and to ourselves, is damage to the whole.

But God continues to open spaces where we can be ourselves just as we are, ourselves as we are still becoming, in nurturance and accountability. It will mean wrestling with frustrating theologies and having uncomfortable public conversations, but it will certainly also include tender care and camaraderie, guides for the way and a fellowship that renders meaningless all human barriers.

Paul’s final gift to us is his letter’s conclusion:

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

This is described by scholars as “a blessing on the recipient’s inmost being.”[i]

May you feel your inmost being blessed for having come here together today.

AMEN

[i] Levine, Amy-Jill and Marc Zvi Brettler, editors. The Jewish Annotated New Testament (2nd Edition). (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). Page 459.

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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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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