Learning and Hospitality: Luke 24.13–35

2017.4.23 easter chrisitansDelivered at Ames UCC
on April 23, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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ANXIOUS CHURCH DEATH
I am pretty picky about what articles and books I read about Christianity and church life. Some of that is theological. I am not, obviously, going to read anything based on Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians to keep women quiet. Or the work of Christians who ignore the gospels in order to lean on the handful of words in Leviticus’ temple rules to decry queer people. Not everything preserved in scripture is right or holy. I hope you feel entitled to make the same distinction.

But I also tend to ignore articles about The Death of The Church. I think you probably know what I mean because these pieces have been ringing our death knell for at least 20 years, if not 40. Oh! The church is dying! Oh! The good news of life in radical generosity and relationship is no longer meaningful! Oh! Get a smoke machine and a praise band!

The anxiety level among pastors of “mainline” Protestant churches like ours, and that of the membership, can easily surpass any joy. Maybe that’s why I saw an uptick in articles during Holy Week about “how to behave on Easter.”

The notion that my colleagues in Christian ministry felt compelled to write pieces about anything other than the last supper and the garden and the cross during Holy Week, was so curious to me that I had to read a couple. Basically, they were about how regular attendees can be sure not to blow it with less regular attendees or newcomers on our highest of holy days.

The suggestions included not saying “You know, we are here every week,” scooting into the middle of the pew so that anyone who might be feeling shy doesn’t have to clamber over you, not kicking anyone out of “your” spot, and talking to each other. Basically, be thoughtful and polite.

So rather than teaching seekers how they might think, or more importantly pray, about Easter, these posts read to me as testimonies to church death anxiety. It was as if Easter hasn’t taught us about how holiness begets new life in spite of death.

EMMAUS
Look at what we hear today. Today’s verses follow immediately from last week’s. From last week’s climax at the tomb with the Marys and Joanne and Peter, we are moved immediately to a road between Jerusalem and Emmaus. The very same day that the disciples have found the tomb empty, the word has spread far enough that Cleopas (who is not a disciple) and someone else (also not a disciple) know all of the details.

When Cleopas and his friend meet a stranger—the rising Jesus did not look as he once did—all of that has already happened. They must have really evoked their disappointment that Jesus didn’t redeem Israel from yet another occupation, because the rising Jesus reminds them, more brusquely than the angels did the Marys and Joanne, that all of this was according to plan. To reassure them, the rising Jesus teaches them to interpret scripture, the Torah, prophets, and writings of the Hebrew Bible.
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Truth: Luke 4.14–30

2017.1.15 jubilant loveDelivered at Ames UCC
on January 15, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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A long time ago, it seems now, I taught a course on rhetoric and argumentation. Throughout the semester we went over different types of arguments and logical fallacies: how to make a parallel case, how to avoid a straw man, for example. The project for the term was to take a racial or ethnic conflict—and I came up with 72 different ones ranging from reparations in the United States to Greece’s treatment of the Cypriots—and lay out the arguments on both sides, then make a case for one side.

This required research. And, as the Internet was just starting to be widely accessible, it required teaching the students how to assess if an online source was valid because we were learning that anyone could and would post anything. The criteria were authority, purpose, format and publisher, relevance, date, and documentation.

If only the Internet came with those criteria posted every time we turn on a browser. If only we had to accept those terms with each and every click and scroll. Because twenty years later, the validity of online information is a moot point. Truth has taken such a hit over the last year that the Oxford Dictionaries word of the year for 2016 was “post-truth”:

..relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.1

But here’s something that has been eating at me even more than the collapse of credibility: Post-truth sounds a lot like my theology and that of our branch of the Christian family tree.

For example, one of the stories we did not hear in this year’s cycle with Jesus is his trial in the wilderness. According to the story, Jesus is alone for forty days, beset by ha-satans, the forces of non-being. They have a powerful conversation in which Jesus only responds with scripture, demonstrating a fierce loyalty to God. We know because we have a word-for-word account of their dialogue, as if Luke secured a transcript of this solitary experience forty years after Easter.

This is not possible.
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Faith is Not So Tidy: Luke 3.1–22

2017.1.8 best caseDelivered at Ames UCC
on January 8, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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NEAT AND TIDY
Luke tells a good story, he’s a good story teller. The Gospel of Luke and its sister book the Acts of the Apostle are beautifully crafted cases for Christ. Rather than a collection of Jesus stories with no segues or explanation, each element within Luke’s gospel is connected, and is a stepping stone to the predicted end.

In the second chapter, for instance, a barren woman is able to get pregnant, a classic Biblical sign of God at work in the world. That woman, Elizabeth, now pregnant with John, visits her cousin Mary, now pregnant with Jesus. John gives Elizabeth’s bladder a good kick, and Elizabeth proclaims Mary blessed among women.

This is a foreshadowing of today’s story: John, now born and grown and working as a religious leader, kicks back against those who think he is the anointed one. No, he says, not I. But, the one I have preceded all my life.

In the Gospel of Luke, the structure of the story leaves no room to doubt that Jesus is the Son of God. The structure of Luke’s story of faith is neat and tidy.

But, man oh man, the contents are not. Look, for example, at the company Jesus keeps, right from the very start.

2017.1.8 not just ritualJESUS’ BAPTISM
Although the Christmas story tells us that Jesus is going to be someone special, the audience for that is pretty small, once you exclude the sky full of heavenly host. Jesus’ baptism, then, is considered his debut act of ministry, the moment at which Jesus declares his commitment to God and God blesses that commitment.

The version most commonly represented in art and story is from the Gospel of Mark. In it, John is in rough clothing and eating bugs. John cites the prophecy from Isaiah and predicts Jesus. Jesus is then clearly baptized by John and just as he comes out of the water, the heavens open right in front of everyone, in direct response to John moving Jesus through the water.

Not so in Luke. In Luke, we just hear that sometime after everyone was baptized, including Jesus, Jesus was praying, but where and for how long and with whom, we don’t know. Only then does God speak.

That crucial moment almost reads as an addendum to what came before: seventeen verses of John preaching and chastising and getting arrested, then only two about Jesus and his baptism. In Luke, it is the lead up to the baptism and holy blessing that get the attention, that have the weight. And it is not tidy. The lead up to baptism and blessing are messy.

John has rejected his birthright. This one who could have been—should have been?—a temple priest like his father is instead a hollering, river-wading name caller. People, he says, there is one coming who will straighten everything out. But you are a brood of vipers! You think you can rest on who you are related to and do no work of your own. Bah!

Then things get messier, because it turns out that the people who were drawn to John, at least the ones who warrant naming, are tax collectors and soldiers. This first group consists of fellow Israelites who make their living off of taxing their own neighbors on behalf of an occupier, while taking a cut for themselves. The second are the agents of occupation who keep the rule of foreign law, including suppression of resistance, through violence, extortion, and pinning crimes on innocent people. John tells them to clean up their acts and be prepared to be judged by fire.

These are the people chosen by Jesus to be his first witnesses. These are the very first members of what we now call the body of Christ.
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No Right Answers: Luke 2.21–38

2017-1-1-not-rightDelivered at Ames UCC
on January 1, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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POETRY
I was a literature major in college. That meant I got read a whole lot of books that I loved. But I also had to take a class on poetry. I remember the day we talked about Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for death.” It felt like we spent an hour on the first stanza:

Because I could not stop for Death–
He kindly stopped for me–
The Carriage held but just Ourselves–
And Immortality.

Our professor kept asking what it meant. We kept saying, “She didn’t want to die. But death came anyway.” Which it does. But she kept at us: “What else? What else?” She seemed, to me, disproportionately excited to look for more meaning within those 20 words.

I know I passed the class, but I remember feeling dense and dimwitted throughout. Poetry confused me and I felt like I was never “getting it” or getting it “right.”

Twenty years later, I can say the experience of being Christian can feel the same. As people who are seeking the divine, in part through Christian scripture, we can also feel dense and wonder if we will ever get it “right” or know what our scripture “really means.”

TEMPLE PRESENTATION
Look at today’s portion from the gospel community of Luke, for example. It begins with Jesus being presented as an eight-day-old newborn to the temple in Jerusalem.

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

The passage implies that this presentation is a required religious purification ritual for the whole family. But it wasn’t. Ancient Judaism did not have any such requirement. Luke makes this false connection by pairing it with a quotation from God’s instruction to Moses in the wilderness in Exodus 13. Yes, God asked for first born sons to be dedicated to service to God, but that was never implemented as a formal religious purification ritual rule.1

Women did a forty day period between delivery and a ritual, which is detailed in Leviticus 12, but Mary is only a week out of the barn. And there was no requirement for the fathers of newborns.

Saying that it was time for “their” time for purification, meaning the whole family’s, is not historically accurate.

So what does that mean? What does the story mean as told and what does the discrepancy between story and history mean?
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We Are Family: Christmas Day 2016

Delivered at Ames UCC on December 25, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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JOSEPH’S FAMILY
There’s something about the Christmas story that has been bothering me this year.

As we hear in the Luke version of Jesus’ story, the Roman emperor tells everyone to go to their home towns to be registered. So we learn that Joseph is from Bethlehem but living in Galilee. That’s a 70 mile separation, a long way by foot and by mule.

But what is bothering me is why Joseph left his family, why he wasn’t already in Bethlehem at the time of the census. Why did he leave his family, his clan, his tribe in the first place? Did work take him away or war? Was he a refugee or merely an émigré? The story doesn’t say.

We know that it was important for the early Jesus storytellers to link Jesus to Bethlehem, to prove that he was the anointed one predicted in the older Hebrew prophecies. But they could have just said he was there at his birth, they didn’t need this elaborate story of hardship.

FAMILY HARDSHIP
As you all know, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s can themselves be a hardship for some us because of our families of origin.

With the juggernaut of family-themed advertising, those of us whose families are broken or cruel or broke or without a home, can be left feeling lonely, angry, or even like failures by this morning. After seeing ad after ad, we might want to scream, “Why can’t I come to a well-lit house on Christmas Eve to be surrounded by exclamations of joy and shiny gifts?”

Why? Because family is complex.

Maybe that is why our faith ancestors in the community of Luke included Joseph’s distance from his family, when none of the others did. Maybe the followers of Luke heard a holy call to tell a story as complex as real life, a story to remind us that God is in the complexity of real life. Including the complexity of family. Including the family we enter into through God.
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Peace Hangs on One Word: Joel 2.12–13 and 28–29

2016-12-4-yesDelivered at Ames UCC
on December 4, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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A WORD
A few years ago a poet named Christian Wiman wrote a book called My Bright Abyss. It’s his story of living with cancer, knowing the divine, and rediscovering Christian community, which just happens to have been through a United Church of Christ congregation.

As a poet, it is not surprising that Wiman reflects on the language and kinds of storytelling we encounter in Christian scripture. He states that, “Christ speaks in stories as a way of preparing his followers to stake their lives on a story.” (p. 90) In other words, Wiman believes that the use of stories to talk about life is a way of training us to stake our lives on those stories themselves.

He’s right, of course, that when we choose a religious tradition, we are saying that we would like the stories and ritual and even architecture of that tradition to inform us and our lives. But are we really saying we will stake our lives on them? Are we saying that we will risk our lives as the stories often directly ask?

Take last week’s story about Daniel, for example. Daniel stayed true to his faith regardless of a law that was enacted to scare and entrap him. His integrity revealed how willing people are, in a grab for power, to criminalize others, to make other people out to be a threat.

It was a risk, though. Daniel literally risked his life for the God of the exodus, the God of freedom. Will we? Will we let these stories do more than just inform our lives but be what we stake our lives upon? For me, some days, the answer can rely on just one word.
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Genesis 2.4b–7, 15–17 and 3.1–8: The Problem of Creation

applestoryDelivered at Ames UCC
on September 11, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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IN THE BEGINING
In the beginning two female girls were born. There was land, but no one knows how long it was there or where it came from. The girls were born underground, in darkness, and so they took a long time to grow and only knew each other through touch. As adults a spirit came and fed them and they learned to think for themselves. The spirit also explained that when they were ready, the women would get to go into the light.

Much time passed and the women learned their language. They also found baskets filled with seeds and images of animals. The spirit said they were gifts of their father that they would take into the light by planting four seeds and climbing the trees out of darkness.

The spirit taught the women prayers and after a very long time out they climbed. The sisters were named Life and More. After praying and singing the creation song they asked the spirit why they were made. “Your father made the world but was not yet satisfied. So you he made in his own image and gave these baskets to bring more life.”

Initially scared by the dusk, Life and More understood that above ground had cycles of days and nights. They learned how to plant and watch food grow. They learned to cook corn and eat it and now they were dependent on food to live. They created animals and food for the animals, mountains and the trees that cover mountains.

Life and More were competitive. They became selfish. Through the spirit, their father told them not to even think about having kids, that other humans would be born at the right time. But a snake told More if she had a child of her own she would be happy. The snake sent her to a rainbow and she became pregnant and had two boys.

Her sister, Life, asked why More had disobeyed the father. “For your sin, he is taking me away. You are alone now.”1
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Job 42.1–7: Let God be God and Care for the Needful

wombofgodDelivered at Ames UCC
on August 28, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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RIGHT/WRONG TIME
I was a little worried about starting a series on Job in the summer. Summer is a happy, sunny time and Job is such a bummer. His is a winter tale, not a lure to come to church when you could be out on a kayak or hike.

But over the last few weeks our church has experienced a surge in suffering: cancer diagnoses, cancer treatments, emergency surgeries, housing loss, relational loss, imminent death, and death itself through disease or depression.

I have never believed life is or should be easy, but the particulars and the volume combined have shaken me at times. And more than one of you now have either asked, “Does this make me Job?” or otherwise referenced this sad and serious story.

There is no right time to study Job because the trauma the poem describes will always come at what feels like the wrong time.
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Hope in Poetry: Job 14.7–15; 19.23–27; 31.35–37

hopestillatworkDelivered at Ames UCC
on July 31, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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THE MADNESS OF JOB?
Has Job gone mad? I ask this not in a lighthearted way, not in a way demeaning of mental illness and trauma. But, really, has Job disconnected from reality?

He has lost everything in his life. He is grieving the death of all of his children and children’s children. His wife has left him. He has no money and no capital. His body is decaying. His friends stood by him for a time, but bailed when Job refused to accept any blame. And so he sits in the trash heap, yearning for death:

Would that You hid me in Sheol,
concealed me till Your anger passed,
set me a limit and recalled me.

I think we can all understand that. I think we can sympathize with his desire to be done, to ask God to limit the pain he must endure. But then here’s where Job seems to go beyond the rational: he expresses hope.
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Loving Job: Job 1.1–22

releasegodDelivered at First Christian Church
on July 3, 2016
©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, when we worship with First Christian Church at 9:30 a.m., alternating between FCC and Ames UCC).

LOVE–HATE
Show of hands: Who loves the story of Job? Who really dislikes it? I was wary of it for a long time because it sounded so mean: God letting someone lose their whole family to prove a point. It seemed to reinforce notions of God wanting suffering and suffering somehow being redemptive—what I consider the worst of our tradition’s contribution to understanding the holy.

And I think I felt like having faith in God would require me to accept that ugliness, that somehow becoming a Christian meant accepting and professing a characterization of God that I found grotesque.

Now Job is one of my favorites. Job gives us glimpses into other times and cultures; it reminds us that our religion is a hybrid. Job asks the fundamental questions of this life, without the Christian distraction of afterlife.

And, as I hope you will see, in the end the story of Job offers a portrait of God that denies all of our efforts to humanize the divine. In Job, holiness is at a scale that truly inspires awe and justifies our faith, hope, and love.

God in Job is not grotesque, but glorious.

So, as our Bible itself does, let’s begin at the beginning, with the context and main characters.
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