Take a Sabbath from Hate: Genesis 1.1–2.4a

Delivered at Ames UCC on September 10, 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.

GENESIS
In the beginning there was substance, the deep, the tehom. God blew on the tehom, just as God would across every living thing, to invite a cooperative life.

First, there was day and night. And it was good. Then sky, and it was good. Next land and plants. Ever so good. Stars, sun, and moon were given their places and schedules. And it was good. Swarms of fish and sharks, pterodactyls and sparrows began their generations. They were all good. Cattle and worms took up their places above and below ground. And it was good.

Lastly God made a human creature. Then God divided that human creature into different shapes, a sacred variety all reflecting God. God told humanity to take good care of this holy creation. And it was very good.

Genesis is not, of course, a scientific account of creation. It does not presume to contradict or supplant the big bang theory or astrophysics in general. We preserve it as a theological account of the planet and our place on it. Genesis 1 is a story to remind us that everything God touches is good. Everything God wills is good. Everything of God, is God, and is good.

It also clearly argues that though we are not number one on God’s list, our place at number six comes with responsibility for all who came before us.

MARY AND JULIAN
I’ve been doing a lot of study the last couple of weeks, about some of those who came before us, our faith ancestors. I’m preparing for our Wednesday morning and evening study of gospels that did not make it into the Bible, like that of Mary Magdalene. I’m also looking ahead to our Lenten study of Julian of Norwich, a 14th century mystic, who was the first woman to compose a book in English.1

In the beginning of the fragment of Mary’s gospel that remains, she quotes Jesus as saying, “Every nature…every creature, exists in and with each other.”2 She goes on to share further revelations from Christ resurrected that oppose church and gender hierarchies. All that matters is the soul that transcends the body and resisting any assertions of power over people. I think we know why she didn’t survive the Biblical vetting process.

For Julian, her thirty years of meditation on visions of God in Christ made strong her belief that God is in us and we are in God and there can be no evil or pain or judgment from God to us. Her most famous theological statement is “All will be well and all will be well and every kind of thing shall be well.” Julian isn’t saying that life will be easy—how could she after witnessing two rounds of the plague—but that suffering is never God’s will.

Both of these women are reiterating, in their own way, that same sense of God’s goodness from Genesis 1. Even a thousand years apart, even with an empire and a church working to silence them, the goodness of God found voice.

So what keeps going wrong?
Continue reading

Give Thanks that We are Not Complicit: Revelation 21.1–6, 22.1–5

2017.8.27 dragon Delivered at Ames UCC
on August 27, 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.

RESENTFUL
I am so tired of being jerked around. I am so tired of having my days and my nights hijacked by headlines. I am sick of the incivility in the public square and nauseous from the increasingly punitive nature of public policy.  And I resent, I resent to my core, the energy I must expend to reclaim my time from those who would distract me from sharing and working for the good news that there is enough for all.

In other words, I get, to a small extent, where John of Patmos is coming from.

John of Patmos, was a Jewish follower of Jesus living as a refugee under the violent rule of the Roman Empire in 90 CE. John of Patmos was in shock from seeing his homeland of Jerusalem conquered—again—and the house of God on earth, the temple, destroyed—again. He was baffled by the willingness of others who claimed to follow Jesus to compromise with that Empire, to go along to get along. As he eventually writes, this is an empire that makes statues more important than people!

John of Patmos is also terrified that the world is coming to an end.

So, he takes all of that emotion—his rage, his sorrow, his questions—to God. Where are you, God? Why have you let this happen, God? What are we to do, God?

He takes it all to God in meditative prayer and this scripture that we now call Revelation is how he heard God answer.
Continue reading

God is Other: Revelation 1.17–20, 4.1–7, 5.1–8, 6.1–8

2017.8.13 lambDelivered at Ames UCC
on August 13, 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.

MONSTERS
Our scripture is full of fantastic beasts, cataclysmic events, and magical/miraculous imagery: A talking snake in Genesis’ Eden. A talking donkey in the book of Numbers. A whale that can swallow Jonah whole and then still spit him out. A flood that destroys the world. Ten plagues that free the slaves. An angel that balances Jesus atop the temple. Water becoming wine.

But the beasts and cataclysms and magic and miracles of the book of Revelation are so concentrated, they can sound so extreme, that today I’m mixing up the order of worship a bit by integrating Dan’s reading of the scripture with my teaching/preaching on it. And thank you to Ben and Barbara for the sung preview.

But before we get to Revelation, let’s get to its author: John of Patmos.

JOHN OF PATMOS
John of Patmos was a Jewish man from Jerusalem who at the time of his vision-writing, about 90 CE, was living on an island—Patmos—off the coasts of Turkey and Greece. As a Jew from Jerusalem writing in the year 90, this John may well have witnessed the final destruction of the Jewish temple in the year 70.

Remember that, for Jewish people during the temple period, the temple was the home of God on Earth, the nexus between this world and another. It was literally and materially an intersection between the sacred and the profane. And the Romans crushed it. The Romans closed the door.

In doing so, the Romans didn’t just insult the Jewish people, they attacked God. Their destruction of the temple was not only aggressive warfare, but the height of sacrilege and blasphemy, too.

Imagine how we would feel if a foreign nation burned this house of God to the ground. Though we understand God to be everywhere, we still come to a particular place to practice that relationship. How bitter, how angry, how venomous might we feel toward those who took it from us?

John of Patmos leaves Jerusalem, possibly in exile, possibly as a refugee. But he cannot escape the violence of Rome. When John is on the mainland of Turkey, he is constantly confronted by celebrations of Rome’s violence. He even has to look at a statue of the man who took the temple down.

Kind of like how Black and Native Americans have to look at statues of genocidal generals and Presidents throughout the US.

John also has to contend with a culture that has come to revere the Roman emperors as divinities. Wasn’t it enough for God to be taken away, now they have to put themselves in God’s place? John is surrounded by insults to God and the hubris of rulers. He is a body under threat, a soul under attack.

And then he has a revelation.
Continue reading

Your Imagination

Published July 17, 2017 in the Ames Tribune

By Eileen Gebbie

I begin each Sunday morning at 5 a.m. with coffee and final sermon preparation.

In my tradition, a sermon is a talk (10–20 minutes) about the day’s Bible story. It might be a description of the passage’s historical context or language, to illuminate the authoring community’s cultural reality and assumptions;  a critical analysis of the story using the tools of post-colonial, womanist, feminist, liberation or other theologies; a “what in the world does this have to do with the world now” reflection; or a combination of these.

The result is that one week I might say, “God is like X” and another “God is like Y.” The Bible is, itself, inconsistent and self-critical. Successive stories are in dialogue with those that came before, and with different outcomes. So one of the cornerstones of my tradition’s faith is an understanding that faith is an issue of dialogue rather than dogma, asking questions rather than asserting answers.

So, what is the point? What is the point in my offering a sermon if there is so much room for interpretation and even disagreement? If going to church does not provide clear instruction and consequences for disobeying those instructions, why bother? Who needs to go to a special building to be reminded that life is uncertain and we can’t all just get along? And on top of that, why deal with being asked to sing potentially annoying songs and shake hands with strangers?

Continue reading

Apocalypse Already: Acts 2.1–21

2017.6.4 pentecostDelivered at Ames UCC
on June 4, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be
heard rather than read.
Please join us for worship
at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays
(except in July–
see the church website for details).

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.
Continue reading

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.
Continue reading

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

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

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.
Continue reading

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?
Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Mutuality: Luke 15.1–32

Delivered at Ames UCC  on March 19, 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.

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.

Continue reading