Apocalypse Already: Acts 2.1–21

2017.6.4 pentecostDelivered at Ames UCC
on June 4, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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THANKS, BUT NO THANKS
Sometimes this passage feels like a bait and switch. It lures us in with this marvelous moment of human unity and a prediction of even more, only to tell us it won’t really happen until after an apocalyptic encounter between the realms of Earth and those of heaven. I want a direct experience of God, for sure. But who would want the great and glorious day of the Lord if it must be preceded by blood, fire, smoky mist, a blacked sun, and a red moon?

Why does Peter interpret this joyous symphony of speech as a sign of some frightening end of time? Why does God’s presence require apocalypse?

The Bible is quite self-referential. Books of the Bible quote each other constantly, either to retell stories in slightly different ways or to prove a point. The Gospels in the Christian Testament, for example, draw heavily on the prophets of the Hebrew Bible to credential Jesus. So when we hear Peter respond to this theophany, it is not his original speech. He is quoting the prophet Joel.

JOEL AND PETER
Joel’s prophecy is in a book of his name, in a section of the Hebrew Bible known as the Nevi’im, or the Prophets. Like Lamentations, which I referenced last week, Joel’s book is about destruction and loss. But unlike Lamentations, Joel makes a case for God’s coming redemption from suffering in the form of equality among all people. However, that can only happen, Joel says, after an apocalypse.
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Real Religious Freedom

Published May 5, 2017 in the Ames Tribune

By Eileen Gebbie

Over the last few days I have been watching a friend’s Facebook feed as she tours a plantation-turned-national-historic-place in South Carolina. My friend and the tourist site share the same name because that is where her people were once owned. My friend has been walking freely on the ground where her great-grands once walked while being shackled, bloodied, and denied their humanity. And she reports that such denigration endures: The slave quarters were moved to build a restaurant and a hotel now sits on top of the un-excavated slave cemetery. The experience of the “founding father,” who signed the Declaration of Independence and who lived there, has been restored. But that of the captive humans who made his success possible has been re-written or ignored in favor of commerce and convenience.

I have been reading all of this while watching the U.S. President sign a declaration of religious independence and talk about how rarely enforced tax codes have oppressed people of faith and houses of worship.

The photos of people behind the President as he signed the “Religious Freedom” executive order suggest that the order has diverse, multi-faith support. I cannot speak to the Jewish or Sikh Americans shown on the White House lawn; that is not my place. But to my fellow Christians standing there grinning while wearing vestments and habits and crosses, I say for shame. No American Christian has any right or reason to ever claim persecution or oppression on the basis of religion.
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Death is Not the Goal: Acts 6.1–7.2a, 44–60

2017.4.30 libertyDelivered at Ames UCC
on April 30, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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JARRING AND SHOCKING
I find today’s reading jarring and shocking. Just two weeks out from Easter and the Biblical world feels unfamiliar and dangerous. No more Jesus, Marys, Peter, or temple. Now we have someone named Nicanor and complaining Hellenists and a synagogue of the Freedman. No more of Jesus’ teachings on feeding and healing. Instead we have a story that seems to be saying that death is the model of post-resurrection faithfulness.

How did we get here?

Healing and feeding aren’t gone altogether. In the chapters before Stephen is killed, we hear about the massive growth in the Jesus movement as well as its organization: Participants had to give up all they had to the group and live in community. The named disciples quickly became overloaded with trying to host at God’s table and spread the good news. Wisely, the disciples laid hands on a new group to serve as deacons—the managers of feeding and tending to the poor.

One of the new table servants is Stephen. Interestingly, Stephen does not restrict himself to that role. He, too, left the table to teach in public. That is what gets him in trouble. To a group of rabbis, Stephen reiterates the core stories of the Hebrew Bible, specifically Exodus: how God has worked through Moses, Abraham, and Joseph.

Stephen concludes with a condemnation of those rabbis and teachers for not really understanding what God has meant and meant to do. Angels have spoken to you, he says, and yet you practice our religion only in the most surface of ways. Stephen stands in the company of all Hebrew prophets in this way. They have always been critics of empty faith. But, unlike the prophets, Stephen is then lynched.

What is so jarring or shocking about all of that, you might ask? Jesus was killed and the Christian tradition is full of martyrs. Death hardly seems avoidable, based on precedent. Why would resurrection day change any of that?

ON ITS OWN
It’s not that. I live in this world so I know that resurrection did not stop human violence. What shocks me is what happens as Stephen is being lynched: He prays for the forgiveness of his killers, just as Jesus did. The parallel and message are clear: Closeness to Christ is in the willingness to be murdered for the Word.

Instead of preserving a story of abundant living in the light of resurrection morning, the Acts of the Apostles seem to want to perpetuate the lethality of Good Friday night. Taken on its own, Stephen’s story teaches us that aggressive critique of religious establishments to the point of being killed is the point of resurrection day.

The key phrase there is “taken on its own.” Not only does Stephen’s story seem to leave behind all of Jesus’ lived teachings, but the Christian contribution to Biblical tradition leaves behind one of that tradition’s most important qualities: multi-vocality.
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Make America…

Published March 25, 2017 in the Ames Tribune

by Eileen Gebbie

I used to teach introductory sociology. Sociology is the study of humans in society, in groups. Sociologists, through observation and experiment, develop theories for why we act the way we do. At the time of my schooling, the emphasis within my department’s teaching program was on three major types of theory: social control, structural functionalism, and symbolic interactionism. Each seeks to address how and why societies have the institutions that they do: family, marriage, schools, health care, media, courts, police, unions, and the like.

In social control theories, institutions serve to control the majority of the population for the benefit of a minority. When I taught this to undergrads, I liked to draw a pyramid on the chalkboard (it was olden times), mark off a small triangle at the top, then label it “The Man v. The Rest of Us.” For example, denying people of color and LGBTQIA people full civil rights controls their ability to influence representation and policy as well as maintain the integrity of their families. In those cases, straight, white people, to their own benefit as they see it, control the life chances of others.

Structural functional theories consider the overt and covert functions of institutions. Elementary schools have the overt function of educating kids. The covert functions are/can be training in society’s norm and mores, health care, and nutritional support.

It took me a little time to come up with a good example for the final category, one that would resonate with students at a Midwestern university with a large Greek system and majority white student body. Symbolic interactionist theories suggest that our societies are a product not of large scale forces but every day interactions. So, I would ask them, let’s say the stereotype of white women in sororities is that they are dumb. The room would chuckle. Now, I would continue, imagine I believed that stereotype. Might that change, even without my realizing it, how I interact with white women wearing Greek letters in my classroom? And might my different treatment affect their academic performance? The room always went silent at that point. It became a lot easier to talk about racism after that lecture.

As I watch the unravelling of our national laws and policies put into place to feed the hungry, tend to the sick, protect soil and water, and promote peace rather than war, I ask myself the following questions: Who benefits the most from these changes? What are the functions that are named and those that will occur without being named? And what happened to the supporters in their individual lives to make them think this is the best way to be, as a nation?
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Local Priest Urges Community to Practice Hope rather than Hate

First published in the Ames Tribune’s April 2017 FACETS: The Magazine for Women

by Eileen Gebbie

My mother texted a few weeks ago to ask if I wanted the family Christmas tree skirt. If you are unfamiliar with the term, it’s a decorative collar for the base of a Christmas tree.

When Mom retired to southern Australia several years ago, she substantially downsized her belongings, asking the three of us kids to select now what we might otherwise have taken when she dies. My sister asked for some jewelry, my brother some serving ware, and I took the rocker Mom used to sit in when we were infants (with little chew marks on the legs from our old dog). But Christmas decorations were never an option.

So why now? Because when you celebrate Christmas in southern Australia, you are doing so in the summer and it turns out that northern, winter-themed items (including trees) feel a little out of place.

Christianity became a global religion long ago, with its universal truths of love for each other and care for those in need, combined with its spread (often through violence) by the Roman Empire, and then by the empires of England and the United States. And even though the stories, poems, and songs preserved in the Bible are quite arid due to their Middle Eastern and North African origins, there are no particular seasons or nations tied to their truths.

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Mutuality: Luke 15.1–32

Delivered at Ames UCC  on March 19, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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RING OF TRUTH
I have a friend who, when her kids were young, convinced them that she could tell if they were lying or telling the truth because of the “ring of truth.” They sincerely believed that grown-ups could hear a little bell ding when people spoke truth and a silent void at lies.

When I was a young child hearing the story of the starving son come home, I did not hear a ring of truth. I felt bored and I felt annoyed. Yeah, yeah, yeah: The guy realized what a mess he’d made of his life, apologized, and asked his dad for a job. And that older brother, who had done all of the work all along, shouldn’t have been angry with him because Big Daddy God is generous and loves us stinkers and do-gooders alike. And so we should try to be the same.

It felt so obvious. A sledge-hammer of a message without any subtlety. So any ring of truth, for me as a young person, was drowned out by my intellectual snobbery, defensiveness, and snoring.

Which is why I am so glad we read it here along with the stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin.

LENT
I’m also glad we are reading these during Lent. These forty days are a nod to the forty days of Noah’s time on the ocean, the Egyptian slaves’ forty years wandering in the desert, and Jesus’ post-baptism forty days of faith formation in the wilderness. The idea of this season, which was instituted by our imperial Roman forbears in the early 300s, is to really prepare for Holy Week and Easter.

Because if there is any one story whose truth is suspect, it is resurrection.

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Neighbor to Neighbor

Published March 1, 2017 in the Ames Tribune

By Eileen Gebbie

I have just added U.S. Attorney General Jeff Session’s Department of Justice comments line (202-353-1555) to my phone contacts. I called him (after calling Senators Ernst and Grassley and Congressman Steve King) regarding the barring of cameras and national press from the latest White House press briefing. My message to them was the same: This action by the Trump administration is a violation of the First Amendment and one step further away from democracy and toward totalitarianism. It was satisfying but I am still scared.

I do not know how effective my calls are. Surely, despite the rise of wealthy PACs, our elected officials still care a bit about how those who might or might not vote for them feel. And, surely, if enough of us express our opinions one way or another, that will have the power to sway their actions.

But we can do better than hope power is accumulating on the side of Lady Liberty. As she stands among the broken shackles of slavery to welcome all who would bring their talents and dreams and sweat to the American experiment, shining a beacon of hope for all who are being crushed by bigotry and greed, we have to do more than hope our power is growing. We have to make it grow.

Growing power takes time. The Civil Rights Movement did not succeed because Rosa Parks sat down one day and Martin Luther King, Jr. was a compelling orator. It succeeded because of the hundreds of people who talked to thousands of other people about the conditions of their lives and what they would be willing to risk to make a change. The Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted 381 days. That was 381 days—more than one year—of walking to and from work, as well as errands, in all kinds of weather, no matter how far or how tired those boycotters might have been.
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Indecent Love Will Make Us Strong: Luke 7.36–50

2017.2.19 sister christaDelivered at Ames UCC
on February 19, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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ALL CHANGED
One of my spiritual practices is to write in a journal at bedtime. Not that I’m always writing about God, but I’m trying to make sure that I am a reflective person rather than a reactive one. God does know that we have enough reactive people in the world.

So several nights ago I found myself writing, “I’m doing my work and living my life as if the world hasn’t completely changed.” As I sorted through my frustrations and fatigues and worries, I found that one of the problems contributing to all of them is that I have not found a new way in this new world.

Not the new world that we call Easter morning, but the new world of this hot planet. We should not be eager to get outside on February 19. We should be bundled up and crabby about it.

And our personal temperatures are being tested daily, with threats to the Endangered Species Act, ban-breaking weapons testing by a nation with whom we do not have the best relationship, and the corruption of our teachers’ ability to teach us what they need to do their very hard jobs.

That last one feels among the most personal to me. In this room alone, that touches Emily, Sunny, LeAnne, Genya, Laurie, and Susan. Do you know how many hours they work? And with any student that might come through their door? Why sabotage their success?

Any one of these issues would be sufficient to create anxiety and redirection in our community efforts, but we are getting new ones each and every day.

I know some of us survive this by checking out: Just keep the regular schedule and turn off all media. Or we self-soothe by telling ourselves it can’t be that bad, it can’t get much worse.

But based on our conversations, I would say the majority of us are more engaged that ever, more attentive to the headlines than ever, and making more phone calls and protest signs than ever before in our lives.

We do not live in the same world any more. How will we endure?

Both of the people Jesus interacts with today give us examples of how to live our faith. But only one shows us how to do so when the world is falling apart.
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Attend to One Another: Luke 6.1–16

2017.1.29 resist findDelivered at Ames UCC
on January 29, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be
heard rather than read.
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HEARING
A news story came across my e-mail recently with the title “The greatest challenge your pastor will face in 2017.” Can you guess what the challenge was? The author said that it is all of you.

He described how, on any given Sunday, the preacher may say one thing but congregants hear another. That’s a given in this style of teaching. We have a lot of teachers here, so I know you can relate. But the author predicted the phenomenon would be more pronounced in light of the presidential election.

So let me ask you this: How many of you here today want me to address the week’s news about refugees and walls and women’s bodies? And how many of you would be very frustrated if I did?

Group dynamics are always tricky, but even more so in a time of conflict and even in a space of faith. Just look at today’s story.

ANTI-SEMITISM
The first conflict is in the temples, which prompts a reminder before I get into the meat of my sermon. Beware our human tendency to conflate a few with all.

The greatest sin of Christianity has been to take the reported behavior of a few people who were Jewish, many years ago, as representative of people who are Jewish, for all time. The shock of those in today’s scripture, and their reprimand of Jesus, does not characterize all people who are now, or were then, Jewish. I know that you know this, but given the persistence of hate groups and speech against people who are Jewish by people who claim to be Christian, it bears repeating.

Now, let’s talk about Judas, the focus of our greatest conflict as Christians.
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Public Servants

January 21, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

My grandfather was a soldier.
My grandmother was a public servant at the federal level.
My mother was a public servant at the state and federal levels.
My aunties–biological and chosen–were public servants at the federal level.
My uncle was a public servant at the federal level.
My stepfather was a public servant at the state level.
My father-in-law was a soldier.
My brother is a public servant at the state level.
My sister works in a public school.
My sister-in-law teaches in a public school.
My cousin teaches in a public school.
My brother-in-law teaches at a public university.
My wife taught in public schools and at a public university.

Each worked hard to receive training and do their jobs well with and for fellow Americans, regardless of race, class, sex, economic background, sexual orientation, abilities, nation of origin, or religion. Each entered public service for common good and not to personally enrich themselves (and at times even at the risk of their own lives).

Which, in addition to their positions, is why I am appalled by so many of the nominees for our nation’s cabinet and the new president’s top advisors. Their careers have been marked by self-interest and their training is in no way related to the concerns they would now have to tend. Or, even worse, their careers or training to date have been directly opposed to those concerns. By refusing to remove conflicts of interest that will be personally enriching while making decisions for all of us, they serve only themselves, and not us at all.

As a Christian priest, I do not engage in partisan politics. Instead, I work within my church and my local IAF alliance to build power and then address specific issues we are struggling with. This allows me to be in relationship and solidarity with people with whom I might not share a party platform but do share pressures around housing, jobs, and mental illness, for example.

In that work, I am a public servant. And you can be, too.

My family taught me that public service is a privilege, but one open to all people. If you have not already, please seek out the alliances in your community that transcend name-calling and take no pleasure in the suffering of others. Because this new cohort of leaders will betray that role and all of us because of our race, class, sex, sexual orientation, economic background, abilities, nation of origin, and religion.