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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Joy and Fear: Matthew 28.1–10

2019.4.21 joyDelivered at Ames UCC
on Easter Sunday, April 21, 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.

WHAT I WANT
All I want you to feel today is joy.

Joy at the children, joy at the flowers, joy at the traditions. Joy from being with family, joy from being with friends who have become family. Joy at the gorgeous weather and the promise that snow is now a ways off. Joy from our tale of resilient life.

But our scripture is fighting me. Our scripture is wagging its finger at my preference, reminding me that though we may want joy and though we may feel joy, other sensations may insist on being present too.

For the Marys did not experience only great joy, they left the tomb with fear, as well.

FEAR
That fear makes sense.

At least three Marys were present for the gruesome work of the days before: Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James and John, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph. By the morning we mark today, we are down to Mary the Magdelene and “the other Mary,” so one of those two moms.

These are traumatized women.

The Magdalene and the other Mary had given up their regular lives to put their physical, financial, and spiritual resources behind Jesus. Such sacrifice was worthwhile because of the thrill of watching untold others experience the same learning, and feasting, and salvation as in a healing salve, that had originally drawn them to Jesus.

As I said at our Good Friday service, consider how moved we are by Jesus’s portrait of God’s kin-dom even from this great a distance. What must it have been like at a distance of just the length of an arm, or less?

And then the Marys and the rest of the disciples saw firsthand, at the length of an arm or less, the movement tear itself apart: Judas’s betrayal, Peter’s denial, the male disciples’ abandonment. The Marys and the other women were left alone at the foot of a device of torture where the one on whom they had staked their lives was himself staked and torn apart.

Fear must have gripped the Magdalene and the other Mary for hours before the one we occupy now.

JOY
Maybe it had gripped them long enough that they were almost inured to it, because even though they experience an earthquake and the appearance of a messenger of God, it is the tomb guards who became so frightened that they are “like dead men,” not the Marys.

Fully present in the midst of divine manifestation the Magdalene and the other Mary are the first to receive what we call the good news: The cross could not kill; the tomb could not hold the holiness that made Jesus possible—and the Christ is present still.

Now that is good news of great joy, that is joy made complete. All that they had given is redeemed, all that they lived for yet lives on. Joy!

But the story says they left with great joy and fear. The earthquake and the messenger did not scare them off. So what could have set them scared again?

Knowing what they would encounter when they left.

BACK TO REALITY
The messenger instructs Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to return to their community with the good news. They have the honor of being the apostles to the other apostles.

But surely they know what their reception will be like: Crazy women. These must be crazy women. This story is just the the overemotional delusions of mere women. You know how women are, the male disciples will say. Besides, why would mere women be the recipients of a revelation? In the Gospel of Mary Magdalene Peter says, “Did Jesus really speak privately with a woman and not openly to us? Are we to turn about and all listen to her?”
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A Big Hoax? Matthew 25.31–46

2019.4.19 mary braveDelivered at Ames UCC
on April 19, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Here are portions of our 2019 Good Friday service as well as my homily.

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

GOSPEL: Matthew 27.27–61

LITANY
One:    Mary,
Many: is this your healer and teacher Jesus hanging on the cross?

One:    Mary,
Many: does your soul not break apart again?

One:    Mary,
Many: was all of that kingdom-talk a lie?

One:    Mary,
Many: where are the mustard seed, the bridesmaid, the generous vineyard owner now?

One:    Mary,
Many: were all of those parables tricks and lies rather than wisdom?

One:    Mary,
Many: does it all seem pointless now?

One:    Mary,
Many: do you feel angry and used now?

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

One:    Mary,
Many: your rabbi, your magi, your mandarin, your guru, your friend is dead.

HOMILY—DUPED
Have we all been duped?

Have we been fools for Christ, not out of love, but out of sheer stupidity?

Is all of this—these stories of love and upending—are all of them lies that we have been gullible enough, desperate enough to believe?

Last year on this bad night we considered Mary, the Mother of Jesus. We grieved with her, aware of all that his life cost her, promising to remain faithful to her precious son.

Some of us here have lost children, and that has been wrenching. And the grief has been lasting. Few of us can really fathom, though,the depth of the pain Mother Mary would have felt as she watched the fruit of her womb publicly bleed, thirst, and starve to death. It had to have been something more than grief, beyond pain.

So on this bad night, we turn our attention to another Mary, Mary of Magdala. As fellow disciples and seekers, we can come closer to understanding how Mary the Magdalene may have felt. Including, quite possibly, the feeling that she had been duped.

MAGDALENE
Mary of Magdala is the second most referenced woman in the gospelsafter Mother Mary. Magdala was a region know for fish processing, so as those of us who prepared for Holy Week with Dr. Amy-Jill Levine’s course learned, maybe she crossed paths with the fisherman disciples Andrew and Simon Peter.

We will never know that for sure, but we do have a story about how she was healed by Jesus. He cast seven demons out of her, making Mary perfectly healed, according to ancient Jewish numerology.We learn that Mary Magdalene then traveled with Jesus and we can imagine that she provided logistical support, perhaps even funding, as well as serving as a devoted listener and learner for his new Way. We also find her at the cross, the burial, and the tomb.

Mary Magdalene is in so many ways a model disciple: a woman who left her home to travel with men she was not related to, to devote her resources to and risk her reputation for Jesus. How compelling he must have been, how thrilling the walk by his side.

As much as Jesus’s descriptions of the kin-dom of God stir us today, at this great a distance, imagine how they felt to her, at no more a distance than the length of her arm.

2019.4.19 still hereDEAD
And then it all collapses. And then one of her fellow travelers hands Jesus over to the authorities. The elation of the previous days and weeks is in ruins as she watches—from a distance no greater than her arms—it all collapse under the weight of betrayal as well as the new threat to her person.

But Mary of Magdala does not hide. She does not abandon her friend and her teacher. She stays by his side through the worst. Why? Maybe this Mary believed Jesus would escape. Maybe she assumed God would reverse the terrible course.

But as the minutes and hours pass by, did not doubt creep in? Maybe even anger at the man who showed himself to be just a man? Did she feel betrayed by Jesus and by God alike, and wonder if it was all a big hoax?

FOOLS
This, I think, is where we can relate.

As Christian religious and cultural hegemony collapse themselves, we are forced to ask hard questions about our faith claims and ourselves. Like, “What are we still doing here?”

What are we still doing here in an institution that, over millennia, has instigated and perpetuated so much abuse and corruption? What are we still doing here in a faith that claims radical equality before God yet seems powerless to ensure that equality between each other?

On bad nights like this when humanity has done its ordinary worst, does not doubt in an extraordinary best creep in, even anger, at a claim of some extraordinary better? Have we been betrayed by story and storytellers and our own grasping hearts?

I offer you no answers.

Though we are together as the Marys were, we are each alone in our search for what is trustworthy in the tales of Jesus’s life and what is true in the promises our forebears say he made.

I ask only that we be as brave as these women, as fearless in the face of contradiction and collapse. May we be as willing as they were to return to what appears to be a tomb like a dead end, in case it proves to be a resurgence of abundant life once more.

AMEN

Wade in with Me: Matthew 25.31–46

Delivered at Ames UCC on April 7, 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.

2019.4.7 more to learnGO TO HELL
In other words, sheep go to heaven, goats go to hell.

Today’s passage from the gospel of Matthew is commonly referred to as The Final Judgment. In it, we are told that the Son of Humanity will come to Earth as a king, dividing the good and the bad according to their treatment of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the sick, and the imprisoned. On the right hand are sheep, who have done well. On the left are goats, who have not. Sheep get to go to heaven and goats are shuffled off to hell.

I am not a believer in a unique day of judgment, a singular returning of Christ that will result in a cataclysmic change, despite what this scripture says. Such a prediction does not resonate with my experience of God or my study of the whole canon of scripture.

Birth, death, and resurrection are cyclical, not linear as a final day of judgement would imply. The Christ is always being born, always being denied and made dead, always persisting, nevertheless.

YEATS
Having said that, there is an extra-Biblical description of a second coming that feels wildly accurate to me. It is a poem by William Butler Yeats. It reads, in part:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Now, that is an apocalypse I can believe in.

In Matthew’s vision, there is no room for humanity as we are and as we always have been. Which is to say both fallible and occupied, body and soul, by God’s own self. The blanket condemnation in Matthew does not align with a God ever-present and well aware.

Yeats’ poem, though, feels painfully familiar. Right now things are falling apart, from sodden soils to norms for public behavior. Anarchy is loosed upon the entire word. I don’t need God to send anyone to hell; we are doing a perfectly good job of going there together ourselves.

Despite the number of times and myriad ways we as individuals and as a congregation, as with so many other individuals and organizations, have cared for the hungry, thirsty, foreign, sick, and imprisoned, it feels like things are falling apart at a greater and greater rate. The original goodness of creation feels all but lost.

GOOD
Because remember that in the beginning, everything was good.
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I Don’t Know What Forgiveness Is: Matthew 18.15–22

Delivered at Ames UCC on March 10, 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.

2019.3.10 metanoiaFORGIVENESS
As many of you know, I’m enrolled in a two-year program of spiritual formation called Prairie Fire. When it is over I will do a third year to become a certified spiritual director. In my small group a couple of months ago, our leader read a piece about forgiveness. My response was something like, “I don’t buy this. I don’t know what forgiveness is, but I don’t buy it.”

I don’t know what forgiveness is, but I don’t buy it. A contradiction, of course, because how can I refuse to buy something if I say I don’t know what it is. What I think I meant is that I do not know what forgiveness is but I do not buy what the church universal tends to sell as forgiveness: the justification for Jesus’s death on a cross.

ATONEMENT
What to do with Jesus’s death on the cross has been a problem since that death. How could someone infused with, or someone of divinity be killed? Why would God “allow” that? And what if God not only allowed it, but wanted it? What do our answers say about God and what do they say God thinks of us?

There have been many answers, and still are. The orthodox position, orthodox meaning “right belief,” has been that humanity is so horrid that God needed a blood sacrifice to atone for our horridness. God needed the death of one who was welcoming, loving, and gracious in order to forgive us for our failure to be all of those things.

Such theology makes humanity inherently deficient and God universally bloodthirsty. I reject both.

I know that we can be rotten, but not thoroughly depraved. And, as we read in Psalm 51 at both Ash Wednesday services last week, God has “no delight in sacrifice” (verse 16). God’s intervention at Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac affirms the Psalmist: God is over sacrificial atonement, if God even was into it in the first place. So the forgiveness that I do not buy is the one that most Christian churches claim to have exclusive control of through their interpretation of these old stories.

But speaking of old stories, in today’s passage it isn’t divine forgiveness of human deficiency through capital punishment that Jesus teaches.

JESUS
As with so many in Matthew, this is a private teaching just for the disciples. After many parables and the work needed to glimpse their many potential meanings, Jesus offers this straightforward lesson in community life:

If someone in your community harms you, go talk to them in private. If they apologize, you are all good. If not, go back to them with a witness or two. If that does not work, if you are still not heard, then tell the whole community. If still there is no admittance of injury and effort at reparation, your work is done.

But this recipe for returning to right relationship is not enough for Simon Peter. He asks Jesus, “If I am hurt, how often should I forgive? Seven times?” Nope, Jesus replies, “77 times.” Much has been made of these particular numbers, but let’s today simply hear it as an intensification. There is no limit to the number of times we are to forgive one who harms us.
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Ashes and Feast

Each Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Easter dawn, my church and two others worship together.

This year I was scheduled to preach at the host church, Ames First United Methodist, with First Christian Church hosting at the table.

The scripture, picked years ago by the organizers of the Narrative Lectionary, was Matthew 18:1–9, in which Jesus says not to place stumbling blocks before one another.

It is a great message, but one that seemed suddenly quite pointed because, the week before, the governing body of the international United Methodist Church had voted to be more strict in its position regarding queer marriage and clergy.

So how should I, a gay married priest, respond in the pulpit?

Watch the video to see.

We Are All Going to Die: Matthew 7.1–14 and 24–29

Delivered at Ames UCC on February 10, 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.

2019.2.10 sweetDEATH
We are all going to die.

You didn’t need to get out of bed of a Sunday morning to hear that. You know it. I know it. We all know it. But perhaps you come here, in part, to figure out how to live until death, to maybe even get some insight into what death will be like.

I do not know what death will be like, the part after we are dead, that is. I know that biologically we will return to our basic physical and chemical elements. Our flesh will fall away, our bones become grist for soil. We will take our place alongside all other humans and all mammals and all invertebrates and all plants in releasing our component parts back to the biome which birthed and sustained us. That I know for sure.

I feel equally certain that no part of us, and no part of anyone else, will go to a hell.

Beyond that, I cannot speak with as much certainty.

Our religious tradition has offered many images of a heavenly life after death. Peter at pearly gates, streets paved with gold, reunion with all the people we have loved. My preference is a metaphor offered by one of my seminary professors: We experience one stream of the life eternal now, another later. My genetic material, and yours, is as old as humanity itself. My biological material, and yours, will be part of the planet, as long as she exists.

Eternal life is not later but already.

And that is about as definitive as I can get and maintain my theological integrity, except to add that because we are here together, we do not have to make that transition to the next stream alone. I will be with you, if at all possible. The souls of this place will sing to you as you step into those waters.

Which leaves me with the first motivation I mentioned for coming here: Whatever happens after life, how do we live until death?

In today’s passage, Jesus answers with a long list of To Dos.

TO-DOS
This is the final portion of the Sermon on the Mount that we will study this year. It is, all told, 107 verses long, a tome in Biblical standards. Over those eight dozen verses, though we know Jesus has a small audience of the first few disciples, he does not interact with anyone. There is no dialogue, and Jesus does not tell any stories, any parables. It doesn’t even read as a sermon so much as a collection of sayings and instructions, one after the other, as with today: Do not judge, don’t throw pearls before swine, search and you will find, do to others as you would have them do to you, enter through the narrow gate.

Bam, bam, bam: Do, don’t, do, do, don’t do. No sugar coating and no coaxing, Jesus reiterates to the disciples, and to us, God’s Torah instructions and his feelings about those who do not follow them:

…everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish person who built their house on sand.

The Sermon on the Mount is a little intimidating to read in that regard. After all, by Jesus’s account, we are walking around with logs in our eyes trying to judge the specks in others’. If we do not even notice something as cumbersome and stabby as a log tangled up in our lashes, how can we ever hope to do to others as we would have them do to us?

We are doomed to fall short of all of these instructions at one time or another, if not most of the time. So we are probably doomed altogether then, too, right? We don’t have to worry about what heaven might be because we won’t ever get into it, right?

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Public Works and Private Workings: Matthew 6.1–15

Delivered at Ames UCC on February 3, 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.

VIOLATION
 Did anyone else notice, in hearing this passage, that every week we violate the instructions Jesus gives?

Beware of practicing your piety before others
whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door

whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet

do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,

so that your alms may be done in secret

Every week we pray together in unison, silently, and with individual petitions. And then we make public offerings to the life and work of the church. There aren’t trumpets but the choir does usually sing. This style of worship and the elements within are quite old and well considered. They have been practiced across many ages and locations, with some modifications for context and need.

Is it time, though, for a new reformation to correct our wayward worship ways?

TEACHING
2019.2.3 covenant At this point in the gospel Jesus is still on the mountain with Simon Peter, Andrew, John, and James. He is continuing the sermon that began with the Beatitudes, which we studied last week.

In between the Beatitudes and this discourse on prayer and giving, Jesus emphasizes that he absolutely is not working to upend the Torah and the Nevi’im, the teachings and the prophets that constitute the bulk of what we now know as the Hebrew Bible. Jesus says that “not one stroke of a letter” from what God has already offered can be changed (5.18), and then explores the Decalogue, including murder, cheating, judging, and swearing false oaths. This small group of disciples has had a master class in covenant living, in the manna that God offers and the mercy we must practice.

Including Jesus’s exhortation to keep the practices of prayer and giving private.

Jesus is clearly responding, in part, to people in their community who do “practice piety before others in order to be seen by them,” people whom he describes as “hypocrites in the streets” and non-Jewish people who “heap up empty phrases.” These showily religious offer a negative lesson in religiosity. They also offer Jesus the opportunity to make a theological statement, an argument about God.

When making gifts, he says, do so anonymously because “your Creator…sees in (that) secret.” Pray alone in your room “to your Creator who is in secret” and pray simply because “your God knows what you need before you ask.” This isn’t Jesus just instructing the disciples about how to pray and give. He is teaching them about God’s response, God’s involvement in both. God is in secret, not in the devious or confidential sense of the word, but in the sense of being in all places, including the private. We do not need to seek God in public, we do not need public displays of faith to get God’s attention. God is in our soul’s innermost, secret, private chambers; best to seek God, to commune with God there. The point of faith is not public works but our private working.

The point of faith is not public works but our private working.

2019.2.3 museRESISTANCE
How many of you are feeling a little internal resistance to that notion?

I know that the public work of the national UCC and our own is, in part, why many of you are here. It matters to you that we successfully sued North Carolina for gay marriage on the basis of religious freedom and that we coined the term “environmental racism.” It matters to you, too, that our next Theologian in Residence will focus on what churches can do in practical terms to respond to the needs of immigrants. Theologically we already know: “you shall love the alien as yourself” (Leviticus 19.34). Not like yourself but as yourself because they are us.

I would be hard-pressed to be part of a church community that did not engage in public works of faith. That would feel too much like a private club, like a self-help system, rather than a living covenant with God and neighbor.

And Jesus did so many public works, himself. Why else was he such a threat to the Herods and Rome?

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Hang On to What Is Possible: Matthew 4.1–11

Delivered at Ames UCC on January 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.

IMPOSSIBLE
This story seems to set up an impossible standard for us as disciples, for us as human beings.2019.1.20 apart

As I described last week, Matthew, or that Matthean community, went to great pains in the first chapter of this gospel to demonstrate Jesus’s humanity. His ancestors, though they may be hallowed, are also fallible and frequently function outside systems that are social and acceptable.

The context of Jesus’s own life is no less human: His family is part of the nameless mass of humanity with no control over who governs them or how, suffering the effects of bad temper and bad policy, as they flee to Egypt and then migrate to Nazareth. They are refugees, they are without a state.

Yes, there are superhuman, supernatural elements to the story of Jesus up to this point: the angels who visit Joseph, the star that guides the astronomers, the theophany at Jesus’s baptism, the voice as from heaven saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

But still. The character on offer to us is a man, not an angel, not gifted, in any way we have been shown, with supernatural powers or abilities.

Or is he?

TEMPTATION
Immediately after his baptism in the wilderness and the river Jordan, chapter four shows Jesus following the call of the Holy Spirit even deeper into the wilderness and unknown, further away from city and civilization. While there, he is tempted by the devil.

Now, not The Devil, not pointed tail and pitch fork.

Based on the Greek word used in manuscripts, and the Jewish audience for which Matthew’s gospel was intended, this is a character like the Accuser in Job, a diabolical force that is part of creation rather than a discrete being in opposition to it. I like to use the term forces of nonbeing when I encounter this voice in scripture, just to keep my imagination from getting lazy.

So the forces of nonbeing offer to turn desert stone into bread. Jesus declines. The forces of nonbeing take Jesus way up high to give Jesus a chance to see if God would really save him from falling. Jesus declines.

On a mountaintop the forces of nonbeing offer Jesus all of the power and glory of earthly realms. Jesus declines.

Those are not temptations a human could resist.

By the time Jesus and the forces of nonbeing collide, he has been fasting for forty days and nights and the scripture says he is famished. A famished, a starving, person takes food; base animal instinct demands as much.

Furthermore, a person with any smidgen of doubt about God—which is all people—grabs opportunities to be reassured.

And all of the power and glory of the earthly realms is compelling to both the egomaniacal tyrant and to one who would use that power to establish peace; and most likely everyone in between.

Jesus, then, is not like us. He is stronger than any one of us. He has more than the average share of God’s ruach, God’s breath, in him. Whatever the ancestry and setting Matthew so insists upon, in this instance we know that Jesus is of a different kind.

So I guess we can write this story off as all about Jesus, and not at all about us.

Except.

Except for this business of praying and fasting for forty days and nights.

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