Sing a New Song: Hymn Sing Sunday


Delivered at Ames UCC on September 3, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
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All are welcome.

Our church spent this Sunday almost entirely in song, and old classics at that: “This is My Father’s World,” “Spirit, Spirit of Gentleness,” “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” “When Peace, Like a River (It is Well with My Soul),” “This Little Light of Mine,” “Lift High the Cross,” “I Love To Tell The Story,” “How Great Thou Art,” and “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” It was an opportunity to remember who we have been and see who we are still becoming.

MY SCHOOL
Some of you know that I grew up in two churches. There was my family’s Lutheran church plus the church that was the Episcopal school I attended from 3rd through 12th grade.

At that school, I attended chapel services once a week. The chapel is a beautiful space, one of those 60s-built blonde wood designs with loads of light and space. I remember not being impressed when the chapel’s congregation—because there was one separate from the school—installed stations of the cross on the wall. I thought it was too cluttered. There is an altar, rather than a Communion table, so when we received Communion we did so at a railing, on our knees. The same was true at my home church.

In that chapel we celebrated the start of school and the end of school. We had a rowdy Christmas tradition of singing the twelve days with each grade doing their corresponding verse. Seniors partnered with first graders to help them be loud. We also mourned there when several of our classmates and a teacher died in an accident. But mostly I think that we fidgeted there. We would flip through the books of worship and giggle as we read the marriage vows to each other.

I also remember a period of time when we had a music instructor, John Hoffacker, who is now a choral director in Minnesota.

LIFT HIGH THE CROSS
Mr. Hoffacker had us meet in the chapel for several weeks, at least, to learn the hymn we just sang, “Lift High the Cross.” I don’t remember the occasion—maybe a bishop visit?

But I do remember how he taught us the hymn: First, we just sang it in classic mainline white Protestant teenager style. Commonly known as monotone: “lifthighthecrosstheloveofchristproclaim.” Then he hollered at us for sounding like a bunch of White mainline Protestant teenagers, telling us to belt it out. So, compliantly, we screamed it: “LIFT HIGH THE CROSS, THE LOVE OF CHRIST PROCLAIM.” We all thought we were hilarious.

But in the end, after practicing and studying the words, were able to sing it with meaning. And any time that memory surfaces, I am filled with love for my school and love for the God who inspires such resounding joy.
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Add More to Church: Ephesians 6.10–20

2017.8.6 dispensaryDelivered at Ames UCC
on August 6, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be
heard rather than read.
Please join us Sundays
at 10:30 a.m. All are welcome.

GET RID OF IT
Let’s get rid of all of this. Let’s get rid of the pews and the hymnals and the organ and the windows and the bricks. Let’s get rid of our logo and our slogan and any future inside jokes about being Congregational versus being Evangelical and Reform. Let’s just get rid of all of this because Jesus didn’t risk everything just so that we can get all attached to and bent out of shape about our personal preferences and historic traditions.

I am, of course, paraphrasing the opening of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Or, as those of you were here for the first two weeks of this letter will remember, Pseudo-Paul’s not-letter to the not-Ephesians.

Once we are on the Way of Jesus, he teaches (whoever he was), we are a new people unbound by suspicion or hate, living beyond society’s walls and delineations.

Except that we are not, of course. Except that over time, since the time of the Pauls, the Christian church became one of the most conservative, entrenched, boundary-setting institutions in human existence. Which has backfired, of course. Which has been our downfall. The numbers of Americans who identify as Christian continues to decline.

These days, adults who grew up in homes without a religious affiliation of any kind are more likely to stay religiously unaffiliated than those who grew up in a religious home. Meaning, being a-religious is more meaningful over time than being religious, for younger Americans.

In my most pessimistic moments, I say, “Who cares?” God is not religion. The church is not God. And if the church has failed to make this Way of engaging with God compelling, if the church has failed to be faithful to the God it claims to worship and serve, then so be it. We reap what we sow.

God will God onward, with or without me or you or the New Century Hymnal.

HOLY COMMUNION AND THE ARMOR OF GOD
But last week, for about an hour, we did manage to be faithful to pseudo-Paul’s vision of the church, maybe even to God. Members of our church, First Christian, and First Baptist came together at Brookside Park. We got outside of our individual sanctuaries, these tyrannies of preference and tradition, to gather at Christ’s open table, in prayer, in song, and in body. There were 167 of us, a new record.

Afterward, I was visiting with a member of our community, one of those younger adults raised without religion from all the studies. (I did get permission to tell this story.) This woman, who is bucking the statistical trend, asks me what Communion is. She’d just taken part in it for the first time.
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Year ‘Round Faith: Ephesians 2.11–22

2017.7.23 no hostilityDelivered at First Christian Church
on July 23, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read. During July we worship at 9:30 a.m. at either Ames UCC, First Christian, or Brookside Park. Please see the website for details so that you may join us.

DIVISIONS
What are the top ten most intractable divisions between people that you can think of this morning? What tools have leaders used to try to bridge those divides, or eliminate them? And how much hope do you have that in your lifetime those opposing sides will come together for once and for all, and be able to work together with respect for each other’s voices and well-being?

AFTER FAITH
Last week, I responded to the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (or not-Paul’s sermon to churches in Asia Minor), about the partnering of theology and prayer. Theology is only a fun game without the prayerful dialogue with God to make it real. It is when the two come together that faith may take root and grow.

So what? To what end? To what end faith? Is faith an end in and of itself? Some traditions say yes. For some traditions it is the leap of faith that is the goal. But in our two traditions faith is often a stepping stone to action.

We have good reason to believe that faith naturally does and should lead to action. Our ancestors in the Hebrew Bible tell us to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. Every prophet’s indictment is for failing to do so. For Jesus, faithful action took the form of food (as in the miracles of the 3,000 and 5,000 and the last supper), healing (of lepers, of possession, of mental illness), and listening (to women, to children, to God).

For the Paul of this letter, an additional task follows from faith: bringing together different types of Christians.
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Theory, Prayer, Faith: Ephesians 1.1–14

Delivered at First Christian Church on July 16, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read. During July we worship at 9:30 a.m. at either Ames UCC, First Christian, or Brookside Park. Please see the website for details so that you may join us.

SABBATICAL
This is the last Sunday that First Christian Church will be without their pastor, Mary Jane Button-Harrison. She’s been on a three-month sabbatical, or process of clergy renewal, after about a dozen years of ministry in this church (and about 10 before that). When she left, she went straight to Plum Village in France, the home of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peacemaker Thich Nhat Hahn. From there she went to a series of other spiritual homes to focus on the concepts of boundaries and belonging. Over the last week she has started to write about what she’s learned, on her website and Facebook page.

Ames UCC’s own Minister for Families and Children, Pr. Hannah Hannover, is also on sabbatical, after ten years at our church. She’s using the time to renew her faith and understand whether she is called to ordination into the national church in addition to being licensed to our local church.

And I’ve just had a month off from preaching thanks to vacation and these joint services.

All of this has given me room and reason to think about the dynamic of pastor and congregation. What is a church without her pastor? What is a pastor without her church? How does faith happen in the mix?

EPHESIANS
Today we have a kind of blog post, a letter from Paul to the church in Ephesus, to help in our wonderings.

I should clear up, though, that Paul did not write it and it was not for the Ephesians. There is plenty of evidence that someone other than the Paul of the Acts of the Apostles wrote this letter and that originally it had no specific recipient.
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Our Calendar, God’s Calendar: Psalm 100

Delivered at Ames UCC  on June 11, 2017

©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 when we have a different schedule—see our website).

CALENDAR
Who knows what this is? Yes, it is a calendar of the liturgical church year. Liturgy means “work of the people” so this is a calendar of the seasons of our work as people of faith.

Last week was Pentecost, with all its red excitement. Now we go into Ordinary Time, which is a season to reflect broadly on Creation and Church, so it is a cool green. We will stay green until Advent, way off in November.

I love this calendar, for several reasons. First, the design. I just think it is neat. Second, the lack of dates.

While the rest of our calendars are numbered and the years just keep going up, going up into digits that still feel impossibly futuristic to me, this calendar is eternal. This calendar has no concern for what year we are in or even what month we are in, since sometimes Easter (the white square with cross) can be in March or April. This calendar does mark the passage of time but it has no beginning or end, only cycles of preparation, transformation, celebration, and application.

Our scripture is the same: Although time does progress within it, marked by the rise and fall of human nations, it has endured because what it has to teach transcends all such specificity. And so it allows us to transcend our specific time.

IGNATIUS OF LOYOLA
A few weeks ago, I took a retreat to a Jesuit center a couple of hours west of here. The Jesuits are a Roman Catholic order of priests, formally called the Society of Jesus (thus, Jesuit) founded by Ignatius of Loyola in France in the mid-1500s. I’d heard for years about “Ignatian spiritual exercises” but all I knew was that, when done in full, they take 30 days. I don’t have that time, but I do well with structure, so I asked for a four-day version.

I learned many things during those days, about myself and God. But what I want to share with you today is Ignatius’ use of imagination within prayer and with scripture. Ignatius believed our imaginations, our ability to mentally place ourselves someplace we physically are not, is a gift from God.

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Stay in Sorrow: Galatians 3.1–9, 23–29

2017.5.28 foolsDelivered at Ames UCC
on May 28, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be
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WHO DID IT?
Who has bewitched you? You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you??

I feel like screaming this to the young man who died to kill others in Manchester last week; to the young man who murdered Bible students in Charleston; to the young man who gunned downed dancers at a nightclub; to the young man who did the same at a youth camp in Norway; to the older man who killed at a women’s health clinic; to the University of Maryland college student who lynched a Bowie State University student; to the young man who has made bomb threats against synagogues in three countries; to the man and woman who abandoned their child in order to destroy social service workers in San Bernardino.

Christians, Muslims, and Jews, who so bewitched you that you thought the violent deaths of strangers was your right and the most faithful response to God and care of country?

You foolish people, who has bewitched you??

Then I look at Paul’s letter today and have part of the answer.

GALATIANS
As a progressive Christian church, one of our all-time favorite lines comes from this letter from Paul, the Roman Jew turned apostle to Jesus Christ, to the emerging Christian community of Jews and Gentiles in Galatia, which is contemporary Turkey.

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

This is how my own leadership has been justified to fellow Christians who prefer women to be quiet and gay people to go through “conversion therapy.”

But as with all scripture, this magnificent piece of sacred truth exists within a larger context. Paul’s letter to the Galatians is not, really, a universal testimony advocating total human liberation and equality. It is a letter for a specific people addressing a specific problem at a specific time a long time ago.

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Ames High School Baccalaureate

2017.5.24 aweOn Wednesday, May 24, 2017, I participated in an interfaith service of celebration for the Ames High School Class of 2017 at the Ames Middle School. A voluntary event for participants, its goal is to recognize the role of god in our lives and give the school’s visual and performing artists one last chance to share their talent. My fellow speakers were Imam Mahjoob Jaily of Darul Arqum Islamic Center and Father Charles Ahenkorah of St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Catholic Student Center.
My remarks follow:

Thank you, Ames Community School District and Ames High School community for inviting me to participate in this, your 2017 Baccalaureate. I am The Reverend Eileen Gebbie from Ames United Church of Christ. If you don’t know of my church, we bear the distinction of being the oldest one in Ames—by one year—and sharing a parking lot with one of Ames’ most important public institutions, the library.

In the Christian tradition, we practice many different types of prayers, from silent and solitary to corporate and loud. But one writer has described the content of all types of prayers as falling into three categories: help, thanks, and wow.

So, I will offer my remarks tonight, prayerfully, in those categories.

HELP
First, help.

I need your help. I need your help badly.

Ours is a world that is hungry and angry, alienated and frightened. None of those are new: The human experience has never been easy, we have never been particularly fair with or kind to one another. As you already know from your schooling, the history of humanity is defined by tribalism, which requires some people to be seen as acceptable and welcome with others seen as foreign and unwanted. I do not need to name for you all of the violence done because of the boundaries we create through religion, race, sex, and nation of origin.

But I believe that you can help us find a new way through all that old ugliness.

You are of a generation far more experienced with and exposed to the varieties of human existence than ever before. Your generation knows best—from your families of origin to the families that are made up of your friends—that it is not only possible to come together across religious, racial, sexual, and national identities but it is joyous, too.

So, please, help me. Help me and the older generations to know and do better so that you are not the last generation of all.

THANKS
Second, thank you.

Thank you for making it to this day. Thank you for doing your homework and showing up for your teams and clubs and for putting in your hours of rehearsal and for sharing your talents with others.

Some of you may shrug this off with a, “Pfft, no big,” but it is. It is a big deal to get through high school. High school is a test of every facet of your self at the same time that you are trying to define that self. Even if you have a stable home life and parents to help with homework and sufficient money to eat every day and have a cell phone, the relational pressures of this time of your life could have become too much, could have overwhelmed all of your talents and drive.

And if you made it to this day all while being uncertain about clothing or meals or bed, I thank you doubly.

Thank you all for loving yourselves throughout the moments when the world treated you, or you simply felt, unlovable or unloved.

WOW
Lastly, wow.

Wow is an expression of awe. We humans, regardless of age or education, need awe.

Our ability to be of help and to be grateful for the help of others is grounded in our ability to stand in awe before that which gives us the strength for both. You may call it love, you may call it God. Whatever your name for all that is sacred and holy in creation, find a community that will help you develop a deep and lasting connection with that divine power.

Even though your final exams are over, even though you may be going straight to work after graduation or to the military or to more learning, life itself will continue to test you.

A faithful community of awe will not only feed your good works and precious souls, it will also help you when you are sick, mourn with you when you grieve, and celebrate with you when you are blessed. And it will show you the profound honor of doing the same, with and for others.

So, Ames High School Class of 2017, help, thanks, and wow.

Amen and congratulations!

Ritual is Just the Beginning: Acts 15.1–18

2017.5.14 our courseDelivered at Ames UCC
on May 14, 2017

©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.

AVOIDANCE
Since resurrection day I’ve focused on a succession of new characters in our passages from Acts of the Apostles: Cleopas, Stephen, Philip the Evangelist, and the Ethiopian. Today we have two more, Paul (though we saw him briefly, earlier, under the name Saul) and Barnabas. But there have been two recurring characters or elements that I have avoided until today: male genital modification and the Holy Spirit.

PENISES AND SPIRIT
The Ethiopian is a eunuch. He is a man who has been castrated. This week we have Jewish followers of Jesus stating that the Gentile followers of Jesus must be circumcised as they had been. We have also had talk of metaphoric, or spiritual circumcision. Stephen decries his co-religionists:

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. (Acts 6.51)

Stephen is saying they have failed to cut away what prevents them from hearing and loving God, from being led by the Holy Spirit.

Paul is also concerned with the work of the Holy Spirit. When he pushes back on the Jewish followers of Jesus, it is through Spirit:

 And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as God did to us; (Acts 15.8)

Throughout the Acts of the Apostles there are moments when the Holy Spirit comes upon people, sometimes at baptism, sometimes later. Sometimes the Holy Spirit “falls upon” a whole group at once, sometimes on individuals who have been physically touched by those who have already received the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is, by this account, wholly unpredictable.

PREDICTABILITY
Predictability may be one of our biggest problems as humans, at least for we humans who want to rise above our humanity, even just a little bit. The Bible is, in its entirety, a testament to our predictable shortcomings. We want so badly to do better, and yet…

Remember how Abram and Sarai went out into the wilderness to show their faith in God? For decades they wandered. And for decades God promised them a child. But they became impatient. Abram and Sarai let their impatience over take their faith, so they forced the slave Hagar to bear their next generation. As a result, their wanderings extended.

When God made the promise of a child again, it came with two markers: a change in their names to Abraham and Sarah plus circumcision for Abraham and all the men in his household for all time forward.

It is as if our Biblical forebears are saying we need to have some literal skin in the game or we will be lost and aimless forever.
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Faithful Evangelism: Acts 8.26–39

Delivered at Ames UCC on May 7, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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JOKE SET-UP
2017.5.7 xian hegemonySomebody in our church—who shall remain nameless—told me that today’s reading sounds like the set up for a joke: An evangelist and a eunuch meet on a road…It’s not a funny story in that sense, but it is one both odd and joyous. Odd because of Philip’s whisking away by the Holy Spirit, joyous because, unlike with Stephen last week, no one dies because of witnessing for Jesus.

THE EVANGELIST
It begins with Philip. This is not the Philip you may be thinking of, one of Jesus’ disciples who had a particularly prominent role in John’s gospel. The Philip in this book, the Acts of the Apostles, is new. Biblical scholars refer to him as Philip the Evangelist to distinguish between the two. He is, as Stephen was last week, ordained to be a table servant, a caretaker of the widows and growing Jesus Way movement community.

But after Stephen’s lynching, there is a general assault to crack down on all movement followers. Some go to jail, some flee Jerusalem, including Philip the Evangelist. We find that, while he is on the road, Philip the Evangelist has the power to heal, just as Jesus did. He converts all of Samaria, we are told, to the new Jesus Way. You might remember from other references to the Samaritans that they and the Israelites were generally hostile to each other and practiced competing versions of Judaism.

So Philip the Evangelist seems to be a powerful and important figure in the early months after resurrection day.
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God’s Power: Luke 24.1–12

2017.4.16 lifeDelivered at Ames UCC
on April 16, 2017

©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.

GOD’S POWER
What is the power of God?

In our scripture last week, and throughout his public ministry, Jesus rejected the understanding of God’s power that he saw most people practicing.

He goes into the temple: Stop selling doves, stop killing, he screams. God does not want your sacrifices. Did we not learn from our many, long years in the wilderness with Moses that using intermediaries between us and God just drives us further east of Eden, not closer to it? Did God not bring Abraham back from the brink of infanticide with the hopes of, once and for all, getting us to hear that sacrifices are never pleasing?

God is not greedy for gifts! Holiness is not an exchange commodity.

But then Jesus dies. He dies as so many men and women have died: at the hands of a state that just needs someone to point a finger at in order to justify their show of force. It is the state that loves a sacrifice. It is the state—which is just a group of humans—that lusts for gifts, especially those that will devastate other humans into submission. Humans, not God, want a sacrifice.

ORTHODOXY AND ACCESS
I know that is contrary to the most recent thousand years of Christian orthodoxy. But in the first thousand years, the notion that God needed Jesus to die as a sacrifice was not so prevalent as it is now. There is no evidence, in a Christian church before the tenth century, of Jesus on a cross.

What mattered in the earliest days—and what continued to get followers of Jesus in trouble with the state—were the practices of feeding and tending to each other without regard for social hierarchies. Just as in the time before his death, in the decades immediately after, the good news continued to be about egalitarianism and God’s love for everybody and every body, not just priests or kings who claimed special access.

Everything in Jesus’ life was about total access: Children, you have access; women, you have access; the sick and disabled, you have access; foreigners, you have access. Access to God is in the radical generosity of feeding and the radical relationality of healing.

But then what do we do with Holy Week? If Jesus had such great access to God through his walking, talking, eating, feeding, resting, and resisting but still died, what is the power of God? Couldn’t the later theologians have simply heard God still speaking, as we profess happens, and figured out that, while God may not have wanted the sacrifices of birds and cows, God somehow wanted one of Jesus?
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