Look at the Floor: John 12.12–27

2018.3.25 Holy CommunionDelivered at Ames UCC on March 25, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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

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

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

It’s the path of the Palm Sunday parade.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we do. We know all of that. We know how hard the story is going to get and all that will be asked of us. We know how badly we will fail. And still we come. Why?
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I Don’t Believe in God: John 19.1–16a

2018.3.18 God remainsDelivered at Ames UCC on March 18, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead, I have faith. Instead of belief in God, I have faith in God.
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Listen to Lady Wisdom: John 18.12–27

2018.3.4 Lady WisdomDelivered at Ames UCC
on March 4, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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on Sunday mornings at 10:30 a.m.

ORDER
Women are Biblical gatekeepers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what does she say?
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Powerful Teachers: John 4.1–425

2018.2.4 wellDelivered at Ames UCC
on February 4, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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

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

Maybe you would put yourself among them.

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

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

Dehydration is a symptom of human life.

Our tradition does not shy from that truth. Discipleship to God in Christ does not include false promises about what our daily lives or eventual deaths will be like.
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First, Rest in God: John 2.13–25


2018.2.21 new
Delivered at Ames UCC
on January 21, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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LOVE
Part of me really loves this story.

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

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

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

I thought about putting together a list of the kinds of back-and-forth juvenilia and nastiness from our elected officials on Twitter or some of the commentary over the recent controversy regarding vulgarity in the White House, our house. But I couldn’t bring myself to read them and saw no value in inflicting them on you afresh. You already know.
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God Pitched a Tent: John 1.35–51


Delivered at Ames UCC on January 7, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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

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

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

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

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

Now Hart’s:

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

Again, NRSV:

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

And Hart:

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

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

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

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

The NRSV reads

And the Word became flesh and lived among us

But Hart’s says

…the Logos became flesh and pitched a tent among us

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

JESUS AND BAPTISM
But what kind of house, or tent, what kind of skin? Presumably stardust could occupy the world in any which way it so chooses, so how did it choose?
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Swimming to Shore Under a Nuclear Threat

Published January 3, 2018 in the Ames Tribune

By Eileen Gebbie

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

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

Happy New Year, everyone, I thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the scene I’ve come back to time and again, having only seen the film once, nearly 10 years ago, was of a man swimming from a submarine to San Francisco harbor.
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Christmas Eve 2017: Hubris, Humility, and a Dare

2107.12.24 even right nowDelivered at Ames UCC.

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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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.
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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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