Your Imperfections and Control: Genesis 32.9-13, 22-30

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.


Tell me of your imperfections. Tell me all of the ways you believe fall short.

Imperfect house. Imperfect clothing.
Imperfect job. Imperfect marriage.
Imperfect body. Imperfect hair.
Imperfect parents. Imperfect parenting.
Imperfect speech. Imperfect care.
Imperfect habits. Imperfect addictions.
Imperfect coping. Imperfect prayer.

Now tell me of your effort to control those imperfections.

To control your house.
Control your appearance.
Control your emotions.
Control your mind.
Control your partner.
Control your family.
Control your soul.

Tell me of your imperfections and how you have tried to control them and I will tell you about Jacob.


Jacob is born to Isaac and Rachel, the son and daughter in law of Sarah and Moses. Jacob is a twin, his brother named Esau.

As they are being born, the legend goes, as Rachel pushes and pushes, Jacob tries to get out first. Jacob tries to shove his way first from Rachel’s birth canal—canal being a misnomer if birthing people have ever heard one. Jacob fails, but the evidence of his effort is in his grasp on Esau’s heel: the foot of the first in in the hand of the second.

The imperfect second, the one already desperate to control.

When they grow up and Father Isaac grows old, Mother Rachel schemes with Jacob to get him to the front of that line once and for all. Together they trick Isaac and Esau, both, in order to secure the family inheritance for Jacob and Jacob alone.

The imperfect second, triumphant in his new control.

Until he isn’t.


Esau comes after Jacob.

On the run, his plan out of control, Jacob’s efforts as spouse and parent and householder in ruins, he must send his family away and pray that he can best his brother once more. “God of my ancestors,” he prays, “I am not worthy of your love. My family is divided and my brother may yet kill us all. You say you will stand by me. Pray, do.”

In that long night of the soul the follows, a man comes upon Jacob and wrestles with him. For hours they toss and tussle, sweating and swearing, breaking away to pant and regroup, then pouncing again in an effort to win.

No one wins.

The man realizes the fight, Jacob’s fight to be first, will never end. So the man strikes a lasting blow to Jacob’s hip as he asks to be released from the choke hold for once and for all.

Jacob, no longer grappling but now hobbled, demands a blessing from the man.

Your blessing shall be, as your grandparents before you, a new name, the man replies. No longer Jacob, you are Israel.


Jacob Israel, hobbled, reunites with his family.

 Esau, still in pursuit of the twin who so wronged him, gains on them all. But he does not attack. Esau runs to his broken and lost brother Jacob Israel, falling on his neck, hugging him, kissing him, and then weeping with him, together.

This is a pillar of our faith.

Not Esau so wronged and so generous. But Jacob Israel the liar, the cheat, the thief, and the unsteady. A pillar of our faith is an imperfect person with a drive to control that always lets him down.


We here are a church of imperfect people who, by virtue of being in a church together, have let go control.

Here we greet people we adore and those who drive us nuts. Here we sing songs we love and or silently endure those that grate. Here we admire arches soaring and strong while seated on benches on a floor supported by piers that are moldering. Here we sometimes forget to turn the A/C back down after an event but remember that what really matters is showing up for events, as Paul reminded us in his testimonial.

And here we nurture a faith that is not a practice of perfection; that is not a tool for control.

Instead, we learn that faith is the relinquishing of a false sense of self and the adoption of freedom from fruitless striving. Faith is the recognition that for all of our pursuit of beauty and projection of success, God purses the real us in our real lives.

God pursues us in the depth of our needs and the breadth of our grasping.

God pursues us to show us who we really are, just flesh and bone easily broken, alone but for God and the people who love us.

And love us they will, love us with a ferocity if we are willing to stop and be seen, to stop and to see them.

Tell me of your imperfections and your struggle to control them, and I will tell you about Jacob Israel.

I will tell you about a God and a people of God who want only to fall on your neck, to hug you, to kiss you, and to weep together with you for all of life’s pain and God’s joy.


No Christian Nationalism

Published July 23, 2018 in the Ames Tribune

By Eileen Gebbie

Christian nationalists bear false witness to God.

Now let me dissect that sentence.

A Christian is a person who devotes themselves to the revelations about God found in the person of Jesus and the ongoing presence of the Christ with the strength of the Holy Spirit. That revelation is most clearly stated in what is called the mandatum novum, or new commandment, found in what we call the Good News of Jesus Christ according to John, chapter 13, verses 34 to 35: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.’”

It’s not really such a new commandment as love, respect and neighborliness are already enshrined in the Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments/Teachings in the Hebrew Bible’s book of Exodus.

In that portion of our story, after working with God to free themselves from an oppressive state, the Hebrew people received lessons on how to survive as a community. These lessons included not killing or stealing or lying or being greedy for what’s on the other side of your neighbor’s fence. The tools for survival were entirely relational, rather than personal or national.

But over time, our stories tell us, the descendants of the escaped slaves got antsy for a king, someone who could get them into the international market, make them a real player in the region. A prophet of the God of freedom, in a book called Samuel, warns them a king will make their children into tools for war and profit and indulgence, a king will take their personal resources for his personal gain, laughing all the way to the bank. (I added that last part.) And then all of that happens to the people.

Both the Hebrew and Christian testaments to God are about that cycle of freedom, blowing it and working on freedom again. So a Christian is, by definition, a public lover and freedom-worker unconcerned with bolstering state identity because states ultimately only care for themselves.

A nationalist, on the other hand, has loyalty to the state — one, and only one, state. Nationalism is the promoting of that one and only state over and above all others, even over and above all other people in the state. It is not to God — which if there is such a force, must transcend not only state but planet — it is to a temporal, human-made, human-corrupted, human-destroying state that nationalists pledge their allegiance.

So when an organization like Project Blitz (the people trying to slap In God We Trust all over public spaces, reverse United States v. Windsor, and allow doctors to refuse to treat people who happen to be female or queer) describes itself as Christian nationalist, it is betraying the God of Moses and Jesus, both.

It is making itself into a Pharaoh by attempting to enslave a nation by making its theology law and it is refusing to heal the sick as Jesus did, preferring to nail bodies again and again and again onto the very cross Jesus put to shame.

In this nation, we may choose to trust God, under any name, or not. We may choose to accept the teachings of science, or not. But we may not, as a matter of faith or matter of law, continue to create second-class citizens through cultural or legal violence.

Christians are to be known by the love that we show for all people. Christian nationalists only show love for people like themselves. As someone who continues to stake her life on these stories (truly, given the types of shootings that now happen daily), I gladly profess my devotion to God over nation, and to all of God’s people, which are absolutely all people. And from that place of risk and joy I say again, Christian nationalists bear false witness to God.

Eileen Gebbie is the senior minister at Ames United Church of Christ.

Our Public Square

Published October 27, 2017 in the Ames Tribune

By Eileen Gebbie

On Thursday night I sat down with my wife in a church basement for pie. We were attending a fundraiser for an area humane society. Everyone was friendly and smiling, thanking us for coming. I had spice cake, one of my favorites. It was the best hour of my day. Not just because of the frosting or the cause, but because nobody was calling me a heretic, witch, Satanist, pedophile, or abomination; no one was blaming me and my church for AIDS, the high suicide rate among people who are transgender, or the end of the world.

Let me go back a few days: On Monday night, my church came together with two non-profits and nine other churches (the Ames cluster of AMOS, A Mid-Iowa Organizing Strategy) to take responsibility for building an Ames that works for all families. Nearly 150 of us committed to identifying an actionable solution to the massive gaps in mental health care in Story County. We then asked for commitments from the candidates for Ames’s mayor, City Council, and hospital board. All Council and mayoral candidates agreed to continue to support the Story County Housing Trust Fund, which we identified and launched through an earlier AMOS effort, and to meet with us within six months of taking office, if elected. The hospital candidates all agreed to put us on the Board’s agenda—rather than just the open comment period—within three months so that we can formally bring our proposal regarding mental health services forward.

It was a fantastic night. For over an hour and fifteen minutes we listened, clapped, cheered, and reminded ourselves that the public square is ours. And it is ours to maintain as a place of civility and respect and tangible outcomes that benefit our common good.

Tuesday was pretty quiet. I spent my time preparing for the two different Bible studies I lead on Wednesdays, as well as a Halloween party our youth and their parents had been planning for LGBTQIA teens and friends on Wednesday night. We were still sorting out who was bringing the soda (not caffeinated!) and how many pizzas I had to order. Normal party prep.

Early Wednesday morning I woke up to a text from my church’s office administrator, which in itself is very unusual. Her message, from the night before, read, “We’re getting brigaded on Facebook. A conservative blogger is pretty upset about our party and is sending her followers after us.” I logged on, saw what she meant, and sent an email to the congregation. I asked them not to engage with online bullies, because that is both unproductive and antithetical to the embodied, real-time faith we are called to practice.

I also reminded them that, “On the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, this moment is a reminder that there has never been one kind of Christianity. Not in the days and months after the ministry, murder, and mystery of Jesus Christ, nor in the centuries since. At Ames United Church of Christ, we stand confidently in our conviction that the diversity of human gender and sexuality is just one example of the outcome of God’s invitation to the tehom, to create life, a truth with basis not only in love but in biology.”
Continue reading

With Heart and Soul: 1 Samuel 1.9–11, 19–20 and 2.1–10

magnificatDelivered at Ames UCC
on October 16, 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.

Your head may be spinning because we have jumped so far forward in time, Biblically-speaking.

The goal of our reading schedule, the Narrative Lectionary, is two-fold: First, take into account the full breadth and depth of our relationship with God, because it didn’t begin with Jesus. Second, help us understand the many allusions and direct citations of the Hebrew Bible within the Christian Testament, because Jesus did not live in a vacuum. But we go pretty hard and fast. Last week the escaped Hebrew slaves’ 40 years in the wilderness had just begun and now we are already well established in the promised land.

Here’s what we missed: Leviticus’ detailed instructions on religious practices and community norms to prepare the people for settlement. Numbers’ also very detailed descriptions of the priestly role. A restatement of the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, in Deuteronomy, along with three major speeches by Moses to prepare his people for arrival.

Deuteronomy is the last of the books of Moses, the ending of the Torah or the Pentateuch. What comes next, though, depends on if you are Jewish or Christian. The difference reflects our divergent understanding of the end-goal of scripture. The Jewish arrangement goes from Torah to Prophets to Writings. The Christians have Torah, History, Wisdom, and Prophets because the church fathers needed to prove that the Hebrew Bible predicts Jesus as the final messiah. So in the Jewish organization of the canon, Joshua and Judges are next. In the Christian, it is Joshua, Judges, and Ruth.

Regardless, between Torah and today, we have Joshua’s warring gore and Judges’ effort to make sense of how the promised land can hold so much conflict. We Christians then have Ruth’s story that affirms love over nationalist.

The books of Samuel, which were originally one, are in broad terms about the change in ancient Israel’s governance from judges to monarchs. Samuel is a judge and a prophet who anoints the first two kings of Israel: Saul and David. The books are full of contradictions and twice-told tales of imperfect men. But it starts with this woman, Hannah.
Continue reading

Rebuild the World: Acts 18.1–4 and 1 Corinthians 1.10–18

public action and serviceDelivered at Ames UCC
on April 24, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be
heard rather than read.

Please join us for worship
at 10:45 a.m. on Sundays

(We move to 10:30 a.m. starting Sunday, May 15, 2016).

I keep running into Jesse Jackson. It started happening years ago. I would be flying from Portland to New York, with a layover at Chicago’s O’Hare. And there he would be, either walking though the airport or getting onto my flight. He’s very tall, with a commanding presence, even when just talking to the other men in his entourage. Who also seemed very tall.

As a younger person, I didn’t know who Jackson was other than a famous black preacher. I was probably in my 30s when I first realized he was standing next to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when he was murdered.

Then I started to run into Jackson at my seminary, where he earned a Master of Divinity. He spoke at a couple of events during my time there and last year at a conference in honor of the 50th anniversary of the march on Selma. Continue reading

Immaculate Heart School, Thank You!

IHSbulletinboardThank you to Ms. Maria Pollia of Los Angeles’ Immaculate Heart School for sharing this image. It’s a bulletin board at the school featuring a few of my #SaintsOnSundays images. I have to give credit to Robert Ellsberg, whose “Blessed Among All Women: Women Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time” was the source of most of the quotes by those great women of faith.


The Crop Will Thrive: Isaiah 5.1–7, 11.1–5

Copy of the wildDelivered on Sunday, November 22, 2015 at Ames UCC.
© The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
Please join us any Sunday at 10:45 a.m. for worship.

Today we are celebrating the end of Ordinary Time with this extraordinary feast. For those of you who didn’t come from a tradition that made use of church seasons, Ordinary Time covers the days after Pentecost in the spring and before Advent in the fall.

It has multiple purposes: Scripturally we look more deeply at the church in light of the Easter mystery. What does it mean to be followers of Jesus Christ on this side of the tomb? And then, as we have done since September, we reacquaint ourselves with the Hebrew Bible, the scripture and religion that Jesus was born into and grew up with. That includes the prophets of the last two weeks and today: Elijah who brought proof of God, Hosea who gave voice to God, and today Isaiah who describes the human condition from God’s perspective.
Continue reading