Christmas Eve 2017: Hubris, Humility, and a Dare

2107.12.24 even right nowDelivered at Ames UCC.

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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

HUBRIS AND HUMILITY
Christmas is a story of hubris and humility. It is also the beginning of a dare.

The hubris is Rome’s. The Emperor, it says, wants a census of the whole world. Rome does not control the whole world, but clearly Augustus understands his holdings to be the entirety of the relevant world. This story describes how, by his desire and decree, Augustus inconveniences whole populations, regardless of circumstances.

It his hubris, that pride and out-of-proportion sense of self-worth, that put the lives of the vulnerable, including the pregnant, at risk.

But, humbly, a very pregnant Mary complies. Maybe also fearfully and resentfully, but humbly she and her husband Joseph do as they have been told.

And it is a mess. The baby comes before they can reach safe harbor. Rooms are filled. The pains are hard. A barn of some kind must do.

What must Mary have thought? When her pregnancy outside of marriage was announced by an angel, she sang for joy. She’s married now, but in the straw and dark, did she think the angel’s visit a lie, a trick by something other than the divine?

Once Jesus is delivered, Mary is quiet. She will receive unexpected guests who will confirm everything about her son that the angel had described, but she will not sing again. A woman given every cause to brag will instead simply “ponder…in her heart” (Luke 2.19b) all that has happened.

The contrast between Augustus and Mary is enough to feed a lifetime’s ponderings.

The man who thinks he controls the world and would boss everyone in it around on one hand. And on the other a woman, whose openness to holiness means that not even the world’s proprieties can control her. Just one more human who thinks he is entitled to more than other humans. And one rare human who is grateful to be asked to give and remains without boast when she delivers beauty. Augustus, who has made himself into a god, and Mary, who gives her every fiber over to God.

The contrast between hubris and humility never ceases to edify.

But there’s something more emerging in tonight’s story, something that takes breath and bawls with Jesus: the beginning of a dare.
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Removal, Resistance, Return: Ezekiel 37.1–14


2017.12.3 resist risk
Delivered at Ames UCC
on December 3, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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

BONES
When we are born, our bones are small, like us. They are weak, like us. Over time, they grow as we do, in whatever way we do. Some of us get quite tall, some of us stay small. The strength of our adult bones varies according to our genetics and our habits. Weight training helps. If our bones break, they can often be repaired through surgery, pins, casting, traction, implants, and time.

Our bones keep aging along with our skin and our hair and our organs. They say now that the image of an older person falling then breaking a hip is wrong: it is actually that the hip breaks and then the fall happens as a result.

Then we die.

Different things can happen to our bones on death. Some of us here will be embalmed. Our bones will be laid to rest with flesh for company, in a box in the ground. Some of us will be cremated, and our bones become like the dust with which we are anointed on Ash Wednesday.

Some cremated bones are buried in a small box in the ground. Some are set free into air and soil. I have an urn in my office with the residue of many loved ones that I have had the honor to release back to our mother.

So whose bones are filling a valley, whose neglected bones are we looking upon today?

NARRATIVE ARC
You’ll remember that three weeks ago we heard God speaking through the prophet and priest Jeremiah, before, during, and after Jerusalem’s fall to Babylon. Jeremiah’s audience in the aftermath was the elite who had been forcibly displaced into exile. Just because the elite had lost their nation, they had not lost God.

God told the people newly in exile that they should settle in, plant a garden, have kids. They were not home so they needed to make space for survival until they could find their way back.

It was a story of removal.

Then Last week Brett preached about three of those exiles—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—and their response to the pressure of religious assimilation by Babylonian culture and authorities. They chose a furnace over one more compromise, and lived to tell the tale.

It was a story of resistance.

Today, Ezekiel gives the exiled a vision of return. A return as powerful as the resurrection of the dead.
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All Times Alleluia: Jeremiah 29.1, 4–14


2017.11.19 alleluia
Delivered at Ames UCC
on November 19, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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

ALLELUIAS
Holding hands and having small group conversations in worship, spontaneous baptisms: I know the last few weeks at church have been a little different, but seeing Easter banners up in November may feel like the last straw. When will the liturgical heterodoxy end??

Today is the last Sunday of Ordinary Time.  It is known as Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. The idea is that before we begin the four weeks of preparation for Jesus’ birth and resurrection—Advent—we remind ourselves of the outcome of that birth and resurrection: the eternal presence of Jesus Christ in our lives and this world. The good news that justice and righteousness cannot be killed is always cause to ring out alleluias and proclaim “He Is Risen” as loudly as on Easter morn.

But our scripture today has no mention of Jesus. Instead, it is all about God and Jeremiah.

JEREMIAH
Jeremiah was a prophet of God in the Hebrew kingdom of Judah through the fall of that nation and God’s temple, to the Babylonians, about 600 years before Christ.

For forty years Jeremiah warned his people that their failure to live in covenant, that their ingratitude to God and their material greed, would be their downfall. Because they did not bind themselves to each other in mutual love, they would be torn apart by colonial power.

Jeremiah’s is a long book. It is hard to read because of graphic violence and consuming anger. It is hard to read because God does not prevent the downfall of God’s own people, but leaves those people to suffer the consequences of empty rituals, shallow prayers, and passive faith.

The powerful and affluent of the nation are deported to further reaches of the empire. The poor and the powerless are left in place, under the control of the empire. The End.

In Jeremiah there is no redemption, there is no reunion. The promised land is lost, along with a great deal of life.

STEADY ON
God does not cut off relations, though.

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Honest Broker: Kings 19.4–9

2017.11.5 wearyDelivered at Ames UCC
on November 5, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

LIKE JONAH?
Why is this story in the Bible? Why have we preserved a story of a prophet who asks to die rather than continue to work for God?

For those of you who have studied the story of Jonah, or remember me mentioning him at the AMOS action two weeks ago, there might be something familiar about Elijah’s behavior today. Jonah, having successfully called the nation of Nineveh to repent, retreats to a tree. There he asks God to kill him dead.

It makes no sense: Jonah is successful. Why isn’t he walking around, chest out, grinning, waving his arms at the people? Why isn’t he accepting lauds and honor? Why isn’t he tweeting about how great he is?

Because Jonah knows he is not great. Jonah knows how hard he worked to dodge God’s call. He is ashamed by the contrast between his reticence and the quick and total willingness of this faithless foreign nation to give obedience and praise to God. His request to die is petulant and fueled by shame.

Elijah, on the other hand, is just plain tired.

ELIJAH’S STORY
Elijah suddenly appears in the 17th chapter of 1 Kings with no backstory, no lineage, no character development.

He tells King Ahab, who has married outside of their faith and allowed other religions to be practiced, that such religious promiscuity has condemned Israel to a drought.

Elijah then retreats to the wilderness.

God assures Elijah that he will be safe because God has charged ravens to bring Elijah both meat and bread, both morning and evening. Carrion birds will bring him nourishment in the form that is most natural to them—animals—but also in the form that is so natural to God—bread.

Then Elijah’s water source dries up—whether by God’s doing or not, we do not know—so he has to move on. He comes upon a starving widow and her child who are preparing a final meal before death. When she agrees to include Elijah in that meal, the widow’s supplies of flour and oil remain steady.

Elijah lives like this for some time, even bringing the widow’s son back to life, before returning to King Ahab’s court. When he does, it is not in triumph. Elijah returns to his nation in order to do battle with those other religions. It is a battle of that literally includes fire and brimstone, blood and gore, much of it at Elijah’s own hands.

I haven’t yet found a way to reconcile the actions of those who say they love God so much that they will break the commandment not to kill in order to prove that love. This is particularly confusing to me because of how often people who are not followers of God’s covenant prove to be agents of the divine: The widow was a Phoenician, not an Israelite; ravens have no nationality.

Our scripture does not paint a consistent picture of God, or perhaps it reflects our inconsistent understanding of God.
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Treasuring God: 1 Kings 5.1–5, 8.1–13


divine love
Delivered at Ames UCC
on October 29, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

This service of worship was unusual, for several reasons. First, I broke with my rigid adherence to liturgical tradition in order to wear an Easter white stole that celebrates the rainbow of God’s people. Second, during the sermon I invited the congregation to have conversations in small groups. Third, much of my preaching went off-script in response to those conversations. And, fourth and finally, we ended the service by standing in a circle to sing “Blessed be the Ties that Bind.” In moments of crisis, I am both grateful for and awed by the gifts our tradition provides, the tools we have ready-made to help us understand our world and to remain faithful to God. —Pr. Eileen Gebbie

THE ARK OF THE COVENANT
The Ark of the Covenant makes its first appearance in Exodus 25. The freed Hebrew slaves are in the desert. God gives Moses instruction for how to build a tabernacle—that word in Hebrew is abode—that the people could carry with them on their journey. As part of that portable worship space, God describes the construction of the Ark, including the cherubim from today’s reading but also a lot of gold:

11You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside you shall overlay it, and you shall make a moulding of gold upon it all round. 12You shall cast four rings of gold for it and put them on its four feet, two rings on one side of it, and two rings on the other side. 13You shall make poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold. 17Then you shall make a mercy-seat of pure gold; two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its width. 18You shall make two cherubim of gold; you shall make them of hammered work, at the two ends of the mercy-seat. 21You shall put the mercy-seat on the top of the ark; and in the ark you shall put the covenant that I shall give you.

Gorgeous-sounding, no?

When everything is complete, the story goes, the Ark is then hidden behind a curtain and a cloud comes over everything, with God’s glory filling the tabernacle. From then on, the people only continue their travels when the cloud clears; they stay put when it does not. Although we have reason to chuckle at the freed Hebrews taking 40 years to make an 11-day walk, it seems that God played a part in their pace.

Later on, once the people had found the promised land (or colonized it, depending on your perspective) the Israelites try to use the ark for their own purposes. In 1 Samuel we learn that the Israelites are at war against the Philistines. It isn’t going well so the leaders bring out the ark, hoping it will save them.

It doesn’t. The Philistines win and the Ark is taken as a prize.

But the Ark isn’t totally inert or powerless: Once placed in a temple with the god of the Philistines, it begins to wreak havoc. First, the statue of the Philistine god falls apart and the people become infested with tumors, hemorrhoids, or the bubonic plague, depending on which translation you read. The Philistines return it with offerings of gold shaped as tumors, hemorrhoids, or buboes.

ABOMINATIONS AND APOSTATES
You may now be thinking to yourself, “Well now, that is all very interesting, but what about the hate mail?” Let’s talk about that now.

As most of you likely know by now, a blogger who describes herself as Christian and uses a punching fist as her logo sicced her hundreds of thousands of online followers on our church.

Why? Because of our Halloween party. Continue reading

Love of Neighbor: Hebrews 13.1–3


1875002116
Delivered at Congregational UCC in Newton, IA during the Central Association of the Iowa Conference of the United Church of Christ
Fall 2017 Meeting

October 28, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.

SEEMINGLY INNOCENT
Ames UCC celebrates its 152nd anniversary in a few weeks. We are the oldest congregation in Ames but we are not the biggest nor the richest. We have an old-fashioned Congregational-style church downtown. It has a leaky roof and exceptionally narrow pews.

We have 202 members. I’m the only full time staff person. We are overwhelmingly white and straight. We are school teachers and medical techs; professors and corporate engineers. We are small business owners and retired farmers; food service workers and stay-at-home moms. We have a great mix of generations.

Basically what I’m saying is that if you walked in tomorrow for worship, you would not think, “Ah, this is a hotbed of heretical radicals.”

There might be a few cues that ours is a house of God that has not been frozen in the amber of time: sometimes we have a rainbow God is Still Speaking banner up. We always have one up about supporting Muslims and refugees. And I’m the third gay pastor. We also do a fair amount of public work around affordable housing, food, and refugees, and soon we will begin on accessibility of mental health care.

But, again, I don’t think many people would see us as a threat to God and civilization. Or, I didn’t think that until Wednesday morning.

ABOMINATIONS AND APOSTATES
On Wednesday morning, I learned that we are apostates, Satanists, a “pedophile filthfest.” We are the church from Revelation that portends the end of the world. We are not Biblical.

And it is all my fault. Well, partly.

It is the church’s fault for letting a woman be a pastor in the first place, given how easily we are swayed by Satan. And I clearly must be under the sway of evil: a woman who dares teach men, who has tattoos, who is married to another woman in the eyes of the nation, and God, thanks to Community UCC in Champaign, IL.

There are legions of prayer warriors now praying for my soul—both its damnation and its salvation—so that I do not corrupt any more innocent and apparently simple-minded people like those in Ames.
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Love Wins

22218394_1674120785954907_6048896865063890605_oOn the evening of Tuesday, October 24, a Christian blogger posted about a planned Halloween party at my church. The party was explcitly for LGBTQIA+ kids and their friends. When I got up on Wednesday, October 25, the day of the party, I was met by the now all-too-common violence that the Internet facilitates so well.

Below is an email I sent to the congregation in response to this. I also posted it on our Facebook page. As of this writing, my message has been seen by over 63,000 people—and we have gained nearly 200 new followers on our Facebook page. God’s good news of radical welcome will always find a way!

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

The United Church of Christ has, as a national denomination, long been on the forefront of not only prophetic witness but prophetic action. We have heard God’s call not to be a stiff-necked people or to make false idols. Therefore, we resist the temptation to deny scientific knowledge or worship the Bible as if it is God rather than precious stories about God. Ours is a faith found in the intersection of our sacred scripture, prayer, and life lived in Christian community.

Recently, fellow seekers of God from different branches of the Christian family tree have been critical of our Open and Affirming (ONA) position and a Halloween event that specifically welcomes LGBTQIA+ youth and their friends. The result has been a barrage of online messages and Facebook posts, some simply curious and others clearly bullying.

On the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, this moment is a reminder that there has never been one kind of Christianity. Not in the days and months after the ministry, murder, and mystery of Jesus Christ, nor in the centuries since. At Ames United Church of Christ, we stand confidently in our conviction that the diversity of human gender and sexual expression is just one more example of the gorgeous outcome of God’s invitation to create with the tehom, a truth with basis not only in love but in biology.

My request to those who stand in solidarity with our church’s expression of faith is to not engage with online posters, bullies, or trolls. I know the temptation, but in cyberspace there is no potential for conversation, not the kind Jesus calls us to have face-to-face and heart-to-heart.

If you are so moved, you are welcome to give the church a high rating on our Facebook page, make an independent post on our “wall,” and to be with us in worship on Sunday, October 29 at 10:30 a.m. The topic is why building temples to God is a way to avoid a spiritual journey with God. Perhaps that is where some of this distress is rooted: Ames United Church of Christ is choosing God over the temples of tradition, fear, and ignorance.

Yours along The Way,

The Rev. Eileen Gebbie, MA, MDiv
Senior Minister

I AM: Exodus 2.23–25, 3.10–15

2017.10.1 redeemDelivered at Ames UCC
on October 1, 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.

INCONSISTENT
Our church has seen pretty substantial growth over the last year. Really even in the last six months. I’m thrilled. I’m thrilled that this 152-year-old place and this 2,000-year-old religion still have so much life and relevance.

But I’m also surprised. I don’t think I’m supposed to say that, but it is true.

In my experience and in my studies, it is the churches that offer a lot more clarity and control than we do that grow. Most mega-churches are those that offer specific rules for who is inside God’s grace and who is out, as well as specific steps one must take—and specific phrases one must say—in order to get special protection or closeness to God.

We don’t, either in this local UCC church or at the national level.

What we offer is conversation.

What we offer is a framework for hearing Biblical interpretations—worship—then opportunities to seek your own through service and fellowship. We place a high value on taking personal responsibility for unpacking the assumptions about God in Christ each of us has, and constructing and re-constructing theologies and lives based on what new light breaks forth from God’s holy word and our lives.

That is hard.

That is hard because it means we cannot outsource our spiritual journey to a creed or church constitution. It is hard because it means we have to be in community, listening to many voices and perspectives. It is hard because it is unending.

So, in an average year it would surprise me to see such a steep rise in interest in a place that does not provide the comfort of rules. In a year where I have witnessed such groaning for a little stability, so many cries for a break from surprises and uncertainties, I am even more so.

But when I return to today’s encounter between God and Moses, maybe I shouldn’t be. Maybe what we are seeing at this church is the presence of the God of Moses—and an eagerness to be in service to that God like Moses.
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HERE I AM: Genesis 27:1–4, 15–23; 28:10–17

2017.9.24 torporDelivered at Ames UCC on September 24, 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.

JACOB
Jacob is a scoundrel.

Jacob is the grandson of Abraham and son of Isaac. You’ll remember from last week that Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac on an altar at God’s command, but an angel of God rescued them. That’s how far God had to go, after over a hundred years of trying, to get Abraham’s lasting attention.

And that’s how loyal Isaac was to his dad: Even though he was a grown adult and could have escaped the knife, overpowered his father, he did just as he was told. But Isaac’s capacity for loyalty did not guarantee the same in his own children.

Isaac’s wife Rebekah bears twin sons. Esau is the firstborn. This means he is slated to inherit all of his father’s wealth and power. His twin brother, Jacob, is born second born and jealous. As they come out of their mother’s body, the story goes, Jacob pulls on Esau’s heel, trying to hold Esau back so that he, Jacob, might be first. That didn’t work out, so once they are men, Jacob bribes Esau to relinquish his birthright. Then, to seal the deal, he tricks his father Isaac into doing the same.

Jacob is born needy, born grasping for more. He does not care about honor or respect or the well-being of anyone other than himself. Jacob is the complete opposite of the humanity God hoped for back in Genesis 1 and 2.

HERE I AM
But we aren’t letting go of that Genesis hope. We are keeping it right in front of us.

Our chancel visuals this fall are by Christy Oxendine. She read through the stories for these weeks and saw how each story builds on the other. Here is creation. On top of creation she added Abraham’s “Here I am” from last week and for this.

In Genesis 22 God cries out to Abraham, and Abraham answers, “Here I am.”1 Isaac cries out to Abraham, and Abraham answers, “Here I am.” The messenger of the Lord cries out to Abraham, and Abraham answers, “Here I am.”

Now, when Isaac is an old man, he cries out to Esau. And Esau answers, “Here I am.” Then, while Esau is gone to get food for Isaac, Jacob sneaks in with his identity masked. Jacob cries out, “Father.” And Isaac answers, “Here I am.”

In this portion of the Hebrew Bible the phrase “here I am” is hineni in Hebrew. It has no good English equivalent. The editors of the Jewish Study Bible say that we need to read into the phrase a sense of “readiness, alertness, attentiveness, receptivity, and responsiveness to instruction.”

In each of the moments I’ve cited, we need to hear “here I am” as not just “present” but “fully present and ready to act on your next speech.” It is the ideal posture to take in relation to God and each other.

We are not to passively exist. We are to look, listen, reach out to, and anticipate each other and God. It is an active mode of being in God’s world. “Here I am,”/hineni is the corporeal faith that Jesus lived during his ministry and still teaches in the Easter mystery.

But then today’s story seems to contradict all of the “here I am”s.
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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.
Please join us Sundays at 10:30 a.m.
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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