Bitterness Turned to Joy: Genesis 18.1-15, 21.1-7

Bitterness Turned to Joy: Genesis 18.1-15, 21.1-7
Delivered at Ames UCC on September 15, 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. Lastly, this sermon is somewhat shorter as we also had a powerful testimony from a congregant offered during worship.

CHILDREN

We are blessed, and I don’t use that word casually, blessed by the presence of many infants, toddlers, children, and youth at Ames UCC. Zillions it seems, some days.

This is a place that their parents, grandparents, and guardians have identified as safe, nurturing, and accepting. A place where their little and ever-growing ones will find their own voices. Where they can build friendships that will withstand the schoolyard struggles of cliques and apps, the home side worries of money, divorce, even death.

This abundance has been no accident. We have created such a place, such a church together, through intentional choices. It has taken thoughtfulness and the commitment of money and time, like the pledges we are invited to make by the end of September, to build essential ministries and retain exceptional staff.

It has also taken a particular posture toward children and youth. We have as a body, as part of Christ’s body, heeded his example of embracing all children not only as our own, but as people with their own insights and knowledge. They are not dumb clay for the forming, like the adam in last week’s story, but spiritual beings with lessons of their own to teach.2019.9.17 trust

Our blessed abundance is an interesting contrast to so many of our stories. So many of our stories involve couples who are desperate to have just one child, let alone zillions, but cannot. Like Sarah and Abraham.

SARAH & ABRAHAM

By the time we catch up with them today, Sarah and Abraham are well past their childbearing years. They have been on the road for a long time, having been sent out by God with the promise of birthing a great people. Over the decades they have had run-ins with Pharaoh, tried an end run on God’s promise through a steward and a slave, and had their names changed. Still, no child of their own, let alone a dynasty.

So here we find them encamped, paused in their itinerancy, and visited by other travelers, to whom they offer abundant hospitality. The strangers ask after Sarah and announce that she will bear a child. Sarah rolls her eyes and laughs but, fast forwarding a few chapters, there she is in her 90s having baby Isaac.

Now, as with last week, this story is not intended to be a biological account of a parturient nonagenarian. It is a metaphor. It is a metaphor that can work for us even if we have never been physically infertile, or even wanted to have kids. Many of us can relate to painful frustration and deep hopelessness.

Think about the areas in our shared world where despair and death, a lack of fertility, seem the only or the inevitable outcome. Yemen, Israel, Palestine; Honduras, Brazil, the US-Mexico border; our water, our air; our relationship with guns, our addiction to drugs; our system of government and civil society itself.

On hearing the strange men say she would have a baby, Sarah laughed bitterly to herself, bemoaning her post-menopausal body and impotent husband and lack of sexual pleasure. If someone told us we could birth a solution to all of those problems, or even one, we would probably sputter out a guffaw of our own, thinking, “After we have gone this far, after our troubles have become so aged, after our partners in problem solving so intransigent, shall we yet know relief?” Pffft!

YES

“Yes,” God says, “yes. Maybe not in your lifetime. Maybe at an age beyond your oldest possible age. But hear me say that fertility, which is new life and new possibilities, is not bound by the limited bodies and limited time of humans. I asked Abraham and Sarah to walk so far and for so long not only to test their faith, though surely it did, but to send you all a message. The stream of the life eternal begun at creation has carried the redemption of life in its waves and its wake since before you were born and will carry it on well after you. Trust me.”

As so we do, or try, because coming to church is an act of trust. It isn’t like movie or a club. Corporate faith practices are not consumer products that we select only because they make us feel good, or make us feel like we are on the side of right, and everyone else wrong.

In2019.9.15 worshipstead, this life with worship is tent-setting. It is trusting an open-ended and ancient path of promise, with companions unpredictable. It is a trusting a future not only beyond our control but beyond our view.

Except maybe through our kids.

In the face of our grown-up and aged death-dealing the blessing of these children and youth is their embodiment of God’s persistent life-giving.

So in spite of the bitterness of our world, our laughter can be one one of joy, too.

For Sarah, it was joy at the fulfillment of God’s promise but also the fulfillment of the promise when it had become impossible for her and Abraham to do so alone. Joy born of the outcome and the means: a holiness with capacities far greater than our own.

We laugh with joy along with our kids here, not only because they are talented and smart and funny and not of their potential for continuing the traditions we so love after us. We laugh with them for joy because, despite our inevitable deaths, they remind us there has always been and will always be a greater holy life.

AMEN

Dive in Here: Genesis 2.4b-13

Dive in Here: Genesis 2.4b-13

Delivered at Ames UCC on September 8, 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. Lastly, this sermon is somewhat shorter as we also had a powerful testimony from a congregant offered during worship.

NO HELL

You may have picked up, over these last four years, that I’m not a heaven and hell preacher. The notion of realms of absolute joy and absolute pain don’t rightly flow from the more complicated picture of God we have received from our ancestors. What makes more sense to me is the phrase you’ve heard me pray so many Sundays: streams of the life eternal. The same streams that are part of today’s creation story.

CREATION

This is actually the second of our two creation stories.

T2019.9.8 streamhe first version describes how “the earth…was welter and waste” with darkness all around, and God’s breath hovered over waters and God invited light. Through six days God invited more creation to come forth, pausing after each cycle and seeing that “it was good.” On the sixth day our ancestors invite us to picture God as saying, “Let us make a human in our image.” That divine multiplicity, the holy Our, makes a human in its own images, makes multiple humans in their image. And then there was rest.

God in this first account is gentle, rhythmic, flowing like those original waters, soaring like the fowl over the earth, holding the power to ordain an entire day as hallowed.

Quickly, though, in the second account, our view is taken down from the sky and up from the sea, right onto Earth. In our Wednesday evening Bible study last week, Leah suggested the second account isn’t so much a different story of creation but a zooming in on the details skipped in the broad strokes of the first.

So focused, we see God handling, manipulating, fashioning first human. There’s a Hebraic pun at work here in the originals that does not translate well into English: Soil is ‘adamah and a generic human is ‘adam. So from ‘adamah God fashions ‘adam. It would be like saying from soil God created “so” or from putty God created “put.”

In this first human there is no sexual differentiation. It is yet neutral, neutered. God gives that human the same breath, the ruach, that had hovered, that had fluttered, over the deep in the first creation account.

God places then places that original potentiality into a beautiful garden, one including with the tree of life itself as well as one of “weal and woe,” good and evil. From that garden, from the first human home and the refuge of God’s greatest treasure, flows a river and then flows streams: Pishon, Gihon, as we heard read, and if we’d kept going, the Tigris and Euphrates. Life begins and then life flows.

Neither version is a scientific account, nor do they claim to be. They are theological speculations on the presence of holiness in the actual chaos of creation and evolution. They are theological instructions on how to live with God in this world.

Which is also a description of church.

CHURCH

In this place, we thoughtfully, and often joyfully, consider where God is in the midst and the mess. We look to these gorgeous, and often perplexing, myths and poems and prose as well as the ongoing revelation of God in our lives, to make choices about how to best, how to most creatively, as in creation-ly, move through the world.

Our church confronts the realities of good and evil while being serenaded by the contemporary tributaries of that original life-giving river. We call those tributaries Holy Baptism and Holy Communion; Godly Play and Youth Group; Learning Center and Unscripted; fellowship groups and Bible study; AMOS, CROP Walk, Emergency Residence Shelter, Good Neighbor Emergency Assistance, and Pridefest; Caring Network, cards of care, Matthew 25 Ministers, and this our communal prayer and praise.

LIFE ETERNAL

I don’t believe we go into an eternal life at death because has been eternal since before our births. Billions of years ago it began and billions of years it will continue.

The forms have changed and will continue to do so, but carbon, water, light, they collide and recreate and illuminate in cycles of newness and endings eternal. And we are in the midst, the water and carbon that came together to make us someday falling away again the light of our souls reforming.

The question the stream of life eternal asks is not that which St. Peter would ask at a singular encounter at some pearly gates, but an ongoing query about which tributaries we will walk along, which we will avoid, and which we will dive into wholly.

2019.9.8 lapisThe land of the river Pishon had gold, bdellium, and lapis lazuli—or currency, a useful resin, and beautiful ornaments. The land of the river Ames UCC has integrity, accountability, and love, the currency, useful tool, and ornamentation needed for this day.

On this day of beginnings, in scripture and in our church’s ministry year, I invite you to dive in here. Over the days, weeks, months, and years to come, make this your place of immersion, your garden rooted.

Seek here, together, the breath-taking gifts of learning from generations before. Seek here, together, renewal of God’s gift of breath to all.

AMEN

Beloved All: 1 John 3.1a, 2a, 18-21a

Delivered at Ames UCC on September 1, 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.

OUR IMAGINATIONS

How much bigger than us will we allow God to be? In our imaginations, how much mystery will we allow for in our concept of the divine? What is our tolerance level for contradiction In how we conceive of the workings of a holiness apart and incarnate? Does our notion of God let everyone be a child of God no matter their behavior?

Let’s start our search for answers with two Biblical characters.

JEPHTHAH

In the book of Judges we learn about a man called Jephthah, described as a Gildeadite son of a prostitute. Jephthah was a warrior who got kicked out of his homeland because of his maternity but was then brought back when his people were in danger. Jephthah then makes a vow to God that if he wins a coming battle he will sacrifice as a burnt offering the first person he meets on coming home.

Now, who is the first person you meet when you come home? Roommate, cat, dog, spouse, kid, parent? Do you know who first walked out of Jephthah’s door after winning the war? His daughter, his one and only child. Jephthah’s daughter comes out of their home singing and dancing only to be sentenced to the pyre. And, after a brief wilderness sojourn with other women, that is where she goes.

There are several possible lessons in the story, like don’t take vows lightly. That’s an extension of the teaching not to take God’s name in vain. Oaths made in God’s name must be kept so don’t toss them out there. It could also be about not assuming God is on your side: We have no indication that God acted in any way on Jephthah’s behalf at all or in response to this promised offering. And the storytellers could have easily added that comment over time and iterations. Lastly, it may also be a story to explain a preexisting cultural practice, a just-so story. Not human sacrifice, but the women’s wilderness retreat that Jephthah’s daughter took before her death.

Regardless of those interpretations, we are left with a man who kills his child. A beloved child of God. How can Jephthah still be in God’s circle of love when he made such a wanton, idiotic, thoughtless promise? Surely some people cease through their actions to be beloved of God.

Like Judas.

JUDAS

In the Gospel of Mark, Judas is presented as one of the chosen male disciples. He is gifted by Jesus with the power to spread the good news of God’s present kin-dom and to cast out demons. Then, as all of the gospels describe, Judas betrays Jesus.

At first we don’t know why. In Mark’s gospel, the oldest of the four, Judas just turns Jesus in with no explanation. But with each successive gospel, we are given reasons. But in Matthew, he does it for financial reward. In Luke, Judas betrays Jesus for the money and because he is possessed by a ha-satan. In John, Judas is likewise possessed and has been stealing from the disciples’ common purse. The outcome for Judas is death by suicide in Matthew and bodily explosion in Luke.

Does Judas remain a child of God?

A lot of ink and air has been spent answering that one. The Gospel of Judas, for example, asserts that he is the most hallowed of all the disciples because he did God’s dirty deed. In other assessments, Judas did something so very wrong that God abandoned him for all time. And in others still, Judas did something very wrong and God stayed with him, both loving and mourning.

So that’s scripture, now let’s look at Texas.

ODESSA & MIDLAND

Is the newest in our obscenely long list of gunmen in mass shootings, this time in Odessa and Midland, a beloved child of God? When he turned a traffic stop into a mobile rampage, did he move himself beyond God’s care?

2019.9.1 demonsOur answer to that questions, as well as the question of Jephthah and Judas, likely reveals more about us than God. When we are confronted with base acts, these utterly human grotesqueries, how we locate bad actors and God in the midst usually demonstrates how hard we work to keep God near but put distance between us and those we want to believe are utterly unlike us.

Because when we keep Judas and gunmen demonic, we can ignore the demons we all wrestle with. We can also keep God exclusively on our side. Just like Jephthah. And that worked out for him, right?

1 JOHN

See what love the Creator has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. Beloved, we are God’s children…

When our unknown author wrote these words, it was likely during a fight about the nature of Jesus’ body and the reason for his death. If you read the whole letter you will see that the author has no qualms about saying who is outside of God’s love.

But taken out of context, I think the author is making a jarring and genuine argument about a God for which there are no outsides. As much as our human religion and our own minds tell us those people out there are scum but we are saints, I pray that God is better and bigger than our squabbles and schisms and semi-automatics. I pray that the most evil-acting among us remain beloved children of God.

2019.9.1 fine peopleNow, don’t mistake me, I am NOT saying that there are fine people on both sides. A person can be a child of God and still be a violent perpetrator, a promoter of hate, a living nightmare. But if we are all—including Jephthah and Judas and gunmen—if we are all God’s children, all of the time, there is no one we can write off as evil apart. It is being siblings in God that informs our obligation to creation and our accountability to each other.

2019.9.1 disquietingIn our faith story we hear that we bear some of the likeness of God, not the other way around. Thank God. Because it is faith in that greater than, that more than, that immeasurably different-ness, that not-possible-to-discern-ness, that we can set aside a religion of self-soothing staleness and find the disquieting force for creative change that we need today.

The passage says, “God is greater than our hearts.” God is greater than our hearts angry, hearts numb, hearts dumb, and hearts broken. And that is why, on yet another bloody Sunday, I can still say thanks be to God.

AMEN

Could This Be Easier?: 1 Peter

Delivered at Ames UCC on August 25, 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.

COULD BE EASIER

Sometimes I wonder if this thing we do, this faith, would be easier if we didn’t have Jesus.

Think about it: Isn’t the concept of God enough to try to wrap our heads and lives around without adding on this story of a man who maybe wasn’t entirely a man who, some far away sources say, came back to life and is yet around?

That is a lot to take on, a lot to take in, which is evidenced by the lack of agreement Christians—as in Christ-ians—have on what really happened to Jesus and what the stories about his death and resurrection mean.

Though a lot of thoughtful, devoted Christians have tried.

RANSOM

Take, for example, the early African theologian Origen.

Origen, was born in around 184 in Alexandria and died in what we now know as Libya around 253. This puts his birth within 150 years of Jesus’ death.

Origen is one of the most important, if not the most important, of the so-called “Church Fathers,” in part because of the volume of his writings on God, Christ, and Bible, and because of his theology of Jesus.

In what is known as the “ransom theory of atonement,” Origen posited that Jesus had to die because Adam and Eve, in eating of the tree of knowledge, sold us to the devil and God needed repayment. In other words, Jesus’ death was the repayment of a debt all humans were born into. The ransom theory of atonement dominated in Christian communities for about 800 years. So, for 800 years, and still to this day, Christians understood themselves to be born deficient and bound to devilishness, in need of Christ’s ransom for their souls.

Consider how that paints a person’s worldview: All humans are horrid and God accepts blood payments.

It also seems to make irrelevant, or just confusing, everything that Jesus did before dying. What point was the healings and feedings if death was the goal? Do we just ignore them now?

Fast forward many hundreds of years and James Cone would say no.

BLACK LIBERATION THEOLOGY

Cone, an African American, was born in Arkansas in 1936, so deep into the Jim Crow era, a time of lynching regular and unpunished. He came of age before Black Americans had civil rights. When he died last year, Cone was a professor of systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary.

In his foundational work, A Black Theology of Liberation, a continuation of the liberation theology developed by Peruvian Dominican priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, Cone writes that in order to know who Jesus Christ is now, we have to know who we was way back then.

2019.8.25 whitenessFor Cone, that was someone whose one and only role was to heal and liberate the oppressed (p. 112-113).  Cone’s evidence is Jesus’ birth into a humiliated and abused class, which Jesus then claimed proudly in his baptism with sinners in a river beyond the city (p. 115). Jesus signaled that, “The kingdom of God is for the helpless, because they have no security in this world” (p. 117). But they do have freedom.

In Jesus’ resurrection, Cone writes, God frees the oppressed to say no to all who oppress them, even if death looms, because God says yes to them. God’s yes to the oppressed is an act of liberation (p. 118).

So with this understanding of the historical Jesus, and theology of the resurrection, Jesus Christ today is black. Black as the color of skin, yes, and black also as the signifier of oppression, as the adjective that describes where healing and liberation in this nation is still needed.

By naming the resurrected Christ black, Cone makes Jesus concrete, present, and a reminder that black people may, through God’s yes, do whatever they need to “affirm their humanity” (p. 124). This also means that the kingdom work of God in this era is not here, not in this white church, but within the black community (p. 125). Cone doesn’t mean we can’t be part of the contemporary Christ, it just means we are not part of the contemporary Christ if we sit only here in isolated whiteness.

Which Catherine Keller affirms, with slightly different language.

X AS PROCESS

Keller is a white American woman who was born in 1953, so she was born into the right to vote but not to have her own credit card or the ability to prosecute marital assault. She is currently a professor of constructive theology at Drew University.

In her work On the Mystery, Keller describes Jesus as a parable. Jesus himself is like all of those open-ended stories that teach us about what matters, about “how to discern our priorities” (p. 140, emphasis hers). She describes Jesus as caring not about souls in abstraction, like Origen, but souls embodied, like Cone, souls embodied in relation to all other souls embodied. In that way, the meaning of our lives is in relation to the most poor and despised, just as it was for Jesus (p. 144).

Jesus as parable, she continues, is a joyous and urgent lure to make possible what the world would call impossible—the reconciliation that proceed liberation for us and for our planet. The Christic lure to that work is everywhere, but the work itself is in places of cruelty and neglect.

WRESTLE THE STONE

So that’s how three people have wrestled with the questions Jesus’ ministry, murder, and mystery evoke. Three of, oh, millions. Billions, even, because each of us here, though we are not paid theologians, come to different conclusions, different implications over our lifetimes.

I don’t know if our faith really would be easier, as I suggested at the beginning, without Jesus. God isn’t such a breeze to understand alone. So maybe that is the gift of the Christ: a human implicated in holiness, a bridge between God and us. Or, in Peter’s words in today’s passage, a living cornerstone, a place solid and yet responsive to the day.

2019.8.25 faithBecause despite the resurrection story we are still living in a devilish, oppressive, and depraved reality. We have not yet through our theological formulations found a final application of faith that will eliminate the human will to sell each other, negate another’s humanity, to be lured into selfishness rather than selflessness.

If we continue to take seriously the questions Jesus Christ evokes, we may someday come to take seriously the questions we evoke. Like the question of climate change, the question of white nationalism, the question of the legacy of chattel slavery, which we will commemorate at 2 p.m. at our bell tower today.

Maybe it isn’t a leap of faith we need to make, a leap across a chasm of theological uncertainties, but a small step onto a living stone. A stone where the holy and human might intersect. We do this by accepting Peter’s invitation to rid ourselves of “all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander,” all of our un-neighborly ways. For in such a life as that, whatever the truth of God and Christ Jesus, we will never be ashamed.

AMEN

Are We Ready? Matthew 5.1–20

Delivered at Ames UCC on January 27, 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.

2019.1.27 blessingNOT THE AUDIENCE
We are not the intended audience for this teaching.

Known as the Sermon on the Mount and The Beatitudes, it is one of the most reproduced portions of scripture but it was not originally intended for us, or for any but a very few.

I mentioned last week that the gospel of Matthew is clearly intended for a Jewish audience. Christianity was not fully independent of Judaism until a few centuries after Jesus’s ministry, murder, and mystery. So this gospel is speaking to fellow Jewish people that Matthew and the Matthean community wanted to bring along to their new understanding of Way. We 21st-century Christians have to keep that in mind throughout our study of this gospel.

But the audience for the Sermon on the Mount, the original oral one, was even smaller.

After his baptism and after his wilderness vision quest, Jesus calls Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John as disciples. Together, they travel all over Syria and Judea, with Jesus sharing the good news of God’s present kin-dom, and healing the sick. He becomes very popular and draws great crowds.

When Jesus sees the crowds, chapter 5 begins, he retreats to a mountain, alone. He is later joined by the disciples. Not all 12 of them: not even the Matthew for whom this gospel is named is a disciple yet. So what we hear and read today is a written account of a private teaching between Jesus and a handful of specific people that he had drawn to himself. Why?

WHY?
Why does Jesus keep this to only a few? It is a fantastic sermon.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit…

“Blessed are those who mourn…

“Blessed are the meek…

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…

“Blessed are the merciful…

“Blessed are the pure in heart…

“Blessed are the peacemakers…

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…

“Blessed are you when people revile you…

That’s revival-level preaching, a real barn-burning, show-stopper. So why did Jesus keep it just to the first few disciples?

Well, secret or semiprivate teachings like this are not so unusual in our tradition. In the gospel of John, for example, after Mary Magdalene has found the empty tomb, it says that

Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. (20.30)

That used to make me nuts. Why didn’t someone write them down? Argh!

It isn’t until recently that I’ve come to appreciate the answer to my question: because maybe not everyone is ready. Because there is a stream of Christianity, perhaps better illustrated outside of the primary, canonical gospels, that stresses preparedness for Christ’s deeper truths.

Let’s take, for instance, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.

GOSPEL OF MARY MAGDALENE
In the canonical gospels, we learn that Mary was healed by Jesus of seven demons, a number that indicates she is perfectly healed. She then supported him on his travels. She was at his cross and his burial and then at the empty tomb. She then became the disciple to the disciples, sharing with them the good news of Easter morning. Mary Magdalene is the second most-referenced woman in the gospels after Mary the mother of Jesus.

Mary Magdalene’s gospel was written down in the second century, though it likely circulated from the time of Christ until the early 300s. It is unclear whether the Magdalene’s gospel was then suppressed or simply fell out of popularity and no one taught or copied it any longer. In the era when Mary’s gospel was active, written accounts of Christ were only supplements to the real space of learning: the dialogue between teacher and student. That relationship was paramount, essential because of the intimacy involved and the active participation it required.

In Mary’s gospel follows that model, with the risen Christ appearing to only Mary and the male disciples. When he leaves, the male disciples panic because they are afraid that if they follow Jesus’s teaching, they will get killed like he did. Mary reassures them by sharing a private encounter she alone had with the risen Christ. It begins with the Christ saying

Blessed are you that you did not waver at the sight of Me. (7.9)

There is a pattern, then, within both the canonical and the extra-Biblical accounts of Jesus Christ passing on teachings to only a few or even one. The implication is that not everyone can stand, unwavering, in their encounter with holiness. Not everyone is read for the lessons that holiness has to teach.

UNWAVERING
Are we? Are we ready to hear that the poor and the meek and the peacemakers are a blessing?

Remember the definition of blessings that I offered last September: conduits of holiness that can open the receiver of the blessing to the hope and help of God.1 That’s from United Methodist pastor Jan Richardson. Author, philosopher, and former priest John O’Donohue adds that we get the word blessing from an older word that means “to sanctify with blood.” Blessings, the seemingly abstract, he writes, are really as earthy as the blood that pumps through our hearts.2

Taken together, blessings are embodied vessels to God.

What does it mean that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are embodied vessels to God? What does it mean that the persecuted and reviled are embodied vessels to God?

I am not sure how to answer those questions without sounding completely self-serving or self-righteous, in equal measures. Either I am calling someone who is mourning a special gift from God, which makes that person and their suffering an object for my own transformation, or I’m saying my desire for justice makes me a special gift from God, and I think we know the problem and risk there. What seems so simple, so beautiful at first pass proves to be complicated, puzzling at the second.

But Jesus thought the first four disciples were ready to receive it, unwavering. In abandoning their professions to follow Jesus, in their witness of his healings and teachings, Jesus found them ready for what the crowds were not.

And because we are reading it today, they must have disagreed with him. They and those who followed must have decided the Beatitudes were worth sharing even with the unprepared, even with the wavering.

BECOME THE AUDIENCE
I thank God for that decision.

As recent years have shown, we can be pretty poor storytellers on our own. On our own we can tell a pretty bad story about the poor, the meek, the peacemaker. So even if we understand the Sermon on the Mount’s meaning but through a glass dimly, it tells a far more hopeful and redeeming story about our life together than we can on our own.

And so we will keep studying it. We will keep making ourselves the audience.

As the membership anniversaries we just celebrated, and the new membership promises we will give and receive in a few minutes show, we want to follow the examples of Mary Magdalene and the male disciples. We want to seek out the divine, to sit at the feet of holiness, sometimes alone, and sometimes with the growing crowd of this dear church.

Even if we are not ourselves merciful or pure in heart, we want to be.

In a world riven by destructive humanity, our steadfast, unwavering attention to this teaching may allow us to become a blessing, to become embodied vessels for our creative God.

AMEN

1Richardson, Jan. 2015. Circle of grace. Orlando, FL: Wanton Gospeller Press, pp. xiv–xv.
2O’Donohue, John. 2008. Bless the space between us. New York, NY: Doubleday, p 119.

Favorite Words: Isaiah 36.1–3, 13–20; 37.1–7; then 2.1–4

Delivered at Ames UCC on November 18, 2018

©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.

WORDY
Human beings are a wordy kind of creature. Maybe other mammals and molecules are, too, I don’t know. But we certainly are. We love to use words, to talk, to communicate. We are hungry to have our words heard, read, understood. That’s a chunk of the appeal of social media, right? Having an audience and people to read our words is a thrill.

So let me ask you this: What is your favorite word? What is your absolute favorite word? Is it a funny word, like supercalifragalisticexpialidotious, or a word unique to your profession like praxis or bouillabaisse, or a word that makes your heart strings thrum like love? What is your favorite word?

Now, what is your favorite word from the Bible? I can’t get my list down to one, so here are four of mine: hineni, hesed, surely, and shall.

2018.11.8 worthyHINENI
Hineni means “here I am.” Not “here I am washing dishes” or “here I am, on vacation.” It is the “here I am” Abraham gives to God.

Abraham wandered with his family for decades. For decades they had no permanent home and he and his wife Sarah had no legacy, for they were infertile. After an arduous old age, though, Abraham saw his way through the veil that he kept between himself and God. So when God calls to him after he has a home, after he has two children, Abraham can reply, “hineni,” here I am.

God, of course, knows where Abraham is, so what Abraham is really saying is, “Here I am in all that I am, fully available to you, fully aware that I cannot know all that you are, yet here I am without reservation for your will.” Hineni is a responsive presence, it is a posture of devotion. If it wouldn’t be so out of character for worship in our church, I would invite you to stand, to feel in your legs, arms, torso, and head that kind of receptivity.

Hineni: one word that expresses the outcome of a lifetime spent walking toward God.

HESED
Hesed is also the result of walking toward God, but this time in relationship to other people.

You’ll remember that just over the summer we spent three weeks on the book of Ruth, with a shadow puppet version thanks to the Petefish-Schrag family and friends.

God never appeared in the puppet version or in the book of Ruth. But Ruth and Naomi and Boaz, in the choices that they make to care for each other, despite desperate and tricky social circumstances, exude and enact hesed, the lovingkindness of God. Hesed is a love shown in “loyalty and commitment that go beyond the bounds of law or duty”1 it is to manifest God in the world between people. In hesed, we choose others, their physical safety and their good health, over and above what our communities may provide or our laws even allow.

Hesed: one word that expresses our innate, though often inert, capacity to be the good neighbors God invites us to be.

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God in Disasters: Genesis 6.5–22, 8.6–12, and 9.8–17

Delivered at Ames UCC
on September 9, 2018.
©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 and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

DISASTER
How do you tell the stories of the disasters in your life?2018.9.9 failings

When I talk about being hospitalized for a mental health crisis in high school, I always express gratitude for the adults outside of my family of origin who helped to make that happen. When my wife talks about her childhood home burning down in the middle of the night, she always mentions how Tinkerbell, the family fox terrier, alerted everyone and saved their lives.

Maybe your disaster is about a lay-off from work; a suicide; a car accident; a heart attack; an assault; a stroke; a fall. From the Italian for “ill-starred event,” disasters befall us all. How we tell the story of each reveals something about us. It reveals something about what we notice, what we value, and why we live as we do in the aftermath.

This is especially true when in the telling of our disasters we invoke the presence of God, like in Noah’s.

NOT SUITABLE FOR KIDS
I have said it before and I will say it again, I do not know why we teach this story to children, how so many happy, cartoon depictions of this story ever proliferated. Look at the broad strokes: Humanity becomes so naughty that God not only kills almost all the humans, but the animals and the birds, too, with a flood. How can a story like that instill in a child anything but fear of failure and God alike?

It’s not that I completely disagree. Humans are bad and so there are floods.

Humans are bad at thinking globally or in terms of natural systems. We are also bad at accepting the consequences of our actions. The climate change behind rising sea water and unprecedented storm seasons is on us. So is the engineering and city planning that leaves whole populations of humans, animals, and birds at ongoing risk.

The bad thinking and actions of humans does lead to flood. However, that’s very different than saying a specific group of humans are bad and so God inflicts the disaster of a flood.

Lots of Christians say just that, blaming Katrina and the death toll in New Orleans on the gays, as just one example. But doing so feels an awful lot like a repeat of the conversation between God and Adam in the garden: Why did you eat that pomegranate, Adam? Uh, she made me!

Blaming God by way of queer people is a way to avoid taking responsibility rather than a faithful characterization of God.
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Wombs of Women: Ruth 4

Delivered at Ames UCC on August 12, 2018
©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 and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

THE TRICK
2018.8.12 wombs Remember how Ruth used sex to trap Boaz into marrying her and redeeming Naomi’s land? The next day we see Boaz trick a kinsman, referred to either jokingly or pejoratively as So-and-So, into giving up his claim to the role of redeemer-kinsman.

Recall that being a kinsman-redeemer is an opportunity to demonstrate God’s preferences for manna and mercy over money and might. There is no profit in buying Naomi’s land because Naomi will continue to work it for her own benefit and buy it back one day. Yet the opportunity to honor covenant living is powerful enough that it will take a little doing to get it away from Mr. So-and-So.

So Boaz tells a lie: If you serve as redeemer you also have to marry Ruth.

No, he doesn’t.

The only marital law regarding widows is, as I described last week, between brothers. Mr. So-and-So is not a son of Naomi or a brother-in-law to Ruth. Nonetheless, Mr. So-and-So is duped (or possibly glad to be shut of the kinsman-redeemer burden).

And so, after a little sandal removal, the honor of being a kinsman redeemer is Boaz’s. And the sacrifice of being husband to Ruth is, as well. For when Boaz and Ruth have a son, it will count as son to her late husband.

THE WOMEN
No wonder the townspeople then begin to celebrate: Look at the good and godly choice Boaz has made. They cry out,

May the Lord make Ruth like Rachel and Leah,
may your house be like that of Tamar!

Wait, what? What kinds of blessings are these? Who would want to live like Rachel and Leah and Tamar? Are they actually offering a curse?
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Get in the Long Line: Exodus 20.12–17

2018.6.10 trustDelivered at Ames UCC
on June 10, 2018
©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 and August when things change up, so please check the calendar here).

UNEASY
Since it is June and we are six months away from it, I think that I can say, without ruining anyone’s holiday, that Christmas makes me uneasy.

As you may be picking up, I’m using these first weeks of Ordinary Time to go a little more deeply into the other holidays and seasons of our tradition and how they create a bridge between us and our ancestors and our successors and God. So last week we had Advent; today we have Christmas.

And Christmas makes me uneasy.

Christmas makes me uneasy because it has become so divorced from church. Christmas’s disconnect from worship and communities of practice, its embedding in the marketplace, into product development and advertising’s manufacture of desire, makes me uneasy because I fear that there is no way to bring it back home to us.

Home has become part of the problem, too.

In the Christmas story, a king sends a pregnant woman on a journey. Now, marketing tells us that if we do not journey in December, if we do not have a family to reunite with in some idyllic home, we are not really part of the story at all.

Christmas makes me uneasy because, having become so untethered and coopted, complex theologies, weak theologies, and theologies that bear false witness to God are promoted and promulgated without thought to their consequences or resources for their understanding or debunking.

How many people have had their depression deepen in December because they cannot afford to participate in the holiday, in financial or familial terms? How many people have lost the opportunity to understand the hope of Christmas because they have no ground for interpreting virgin births and guiding stars and blaring angels?

Christmas makes me uneasy because the marketing and the pressure and the shallowness so distort its ancient truths and eternally relevant gifts.

BONHOEFFER
Over the last eighteen months, since just before Christmas 2016, I’ve been doing a few things to draw more deeply on our tradition’s ancient truths and eternally relevant gifts: intensifying my prayer practices; returning to the faith leaders of oppressed people through black liberation theology, womanist theology, and liberation theology; and to the faith leaders of oppressed people who have not only metaphorically staked their lives on these stories, but those who have done so quite literally, too. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
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The Words of Our Faith: Philippians 2.1–13

2018.5.13 no wayDelivered at Ames UCC
on May 13, 2018

©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.

OMAR IBN SAID
In the very early 1800s there was a man named Omar ibn Said. He was educated, he tithed, and he taught his Muslim faith to the children of his community in Senegal. Then, at age 37, married and with a family, Omar was kidnapped during a raid, and put to sea on one of the last ships to participate in the Atlantic slave trade before it was banned. Despite being a small and delicate man, Omar survived the middle passage, those six weeks below deck of filth, starvation, stench, and fear. In the autobiography he wrote years later, Omar said that on his arrival at the slave auctions in Charleston, South Carolina, “In a Christian language they sold me.”

However, Omar escaped from the man who would own him. He walked 200 miles, but even though he was under threat for every inch of those miles, he did not give up his practice of praying five times each day. Unfortunately, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Omar ibn Said was captured and jailed.

Then Omar did something remarkable, at least to the white people of Fayetteville.

As the account of Omar I’m basing this on notes, white people were used to being around black people and African people, and they were used to believing that black people and African people were all ignorant subhuman animals, who would do no more than toil and birth more property. Imagine their reaction when Omar ibn Said covered the walls of his jail cell with Arabic. In Arabic, Omar scratched out verses from the Koran that presumably already had and would continue to sustain him in his life before and certainly during captivity.

The white people were agog.

In our reading today, Paul is scratching out a Christian hymn that presumably already had and would continue to sustain him in his own life before and during captivity.

2018.5.13 witnessCHRIST HYMN
Because in addition to walking and preaching and teaching over thousands of miles all for the love of God and God’s love of all people, Paul also repeatedly went to jail for that very work. That’s where he is as he writes this letter to the emerging church in Philippi.

While jailed, Paul was visited by Epaphroditus, who delivered gifts from the Philippians. This letter serves as a thank you note for that support, and offers furthers guidance for persevering in their faith, even when there are struggles and struggles in their church. That guidance, that guide, is the vision of God in Christ expressed in verses 5–11, which you see offset in your bulletin today.

Known as the Christ Hymn, the words are not Paul’s, but most likely by another, otherwise unknown author and were probably sung by Paul and the Philippians in worship, maybe as part of the rite of baptism.1 The hymn teaches the singers to share in the mind of Christ: Be humble, take risks, give thanks to God.

What a comfort that must have been to Paul. What a comfort, even as a newcomer to a brand-new expression of faith, to have those lines to present in his mind. Not only memorized, but tattooed on his heart, just like those Koranic verses were for Omar ibn Said, so that their meaning could be useful in a time of trial.

OUR HEARTS
What do you think you have tattooed on your hearts?

What holy, weathered, and well-loved words would sustain us should we find ourselves suddenly captive, like Omar, or predictably jailed, like Paul?

I imagine many of us know the Lord’s Prayer by heart. And the more I pray it, the more layers and life I find within each word, as it moves from giving praise, to naming the goal, to asking for sustenance, to confessing brokenness, to requesting protection, and to a conclusion of joyous surrender.

I know

Love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might and your neighbor as yourself.

and

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.

and snippets from psalms Mary’s Magnificat and the Beatitudes and Genesis.

I have a lot of refrains from hymns to draw on; I’ll spare you those recitations.

But what if I prayed fives times each day, no matter what, like Omar ibn Said did two hundred years ago and billions of Muslims do to this day?

In 2018 I’ve taken on the discipline of praying the divine hours, also known as the divine office. It’s a Christian practice of fixed 2018.5.13 lords prayerhour prayers that go from the time of rising through bedtime: lauds, midday, vespers, and compline. Each hour’s prayer can take as little as five minutes, but the inertia of habits and the easy distractions of measurable outcomes and laundry can be a struggle to overcome.

JUST DO IT
Then I learn about Omar ibn Said and I hear Paul’s continued instruction from prison:

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for (God’s) good pleasure.

Yes, Philippians, yes, Amesians, faith work is hard and faith community is hard, but do the work of faith anyway. Don’t make excuses or be seduced by false comforts. Learn to pray, be in worship, commit to community.

Do the work of faith for you do not do so alone or only for yourself. There is no solitary prayer, or baptism, or communion.

The moment we open our mouths or our hands, we are not speaking or working only for or with ourselves but with the voice of the whirlwind, the hands that carried babies out of slavery, the centuries of disciples whose witness has proven just how weak the forces of nonbeing really are.

Even though on the run, the words of his faith allowed Omar to rest within the holy collective. Even while in jail, the the words of his faith allowed Paul to step into divine freedom.

That’s what I want for all of us.

That’s what God offers all of us: the way out of no way, the language that names the vision that offers the tools that opens the plantation gates and the jail doors and the shackles of violence, division, and distrust that both bind and divide us at this very moment.

2918.5.13 whirlwindBE READY
In our racist society it is unlikely that many of us here today will be trapped in a jail cell simply for the color of our skin though we could easily be because of how the content of our scripture compels us to fight that racism.

So like Omar ibn Said and Paul, if you haven’t already, find the words of faith that most stir and comfort and energize you. Don’t just memorize them but study them, interrogate them, ask yourself and God why they move you so. Know your own witness. And if you have done all those things already, teach us how and what you have gained from doing so.

Let each of us have the words of our faith at the ready so that even when we are fleeing, we remain grounded, and even when our language cannot be understood, our very ability to use it renders our captors agog.2918.5.13 sell out

And let us never again use our Christian language, the language of Christ, to sell or to sell out other people, but to ever and only bear witness to freedom, peace, righteousness and God’s love for all people.

AMEN

1Coogan, Michael, ed. 2001. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.