Joy and Fear: Matthew 28.1–10

2019.4.21 joyDelivered at Ames UCC
on Easter Sunday, April 21, 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.

WHAT I WANT
All I want you to feel today is joy.

Joy at the children, joy at the flowers, joy at the traditions. Joy from being with family, joy from being with friends who have become family. Joy at the gorgeous weather and the promise that snow is now a ways off. Joy from our tale of resilient life.

But our scripture is fighting me. Our scripture is wagging its finger at my preference, reminding me that though we may want joy and though we may feel joy, other sensations may insist on being present too.

For the Marys did not experience only great joy, they left the tomb with fear, as well.

FEAR
That fear makes sense.

At least three Marys were present for the gruesome work of the days before: Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James and John, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph. By the morning we mark today, we are down to Mary the Magdelene and “the other Mary,” so one of those two moms.

These are traumatized women.

The Magdalene and the other Mary had given up their regular lives to put their physical, financial, and spiritual resources behind Jesus. Such sacrifice was worthwhile because of the thrill of watching untold others experience the same learning, and feasting, and salvation as in a healing salve, that had originally drawn them to Jesus.

As I said at our Good Friday service, consider how moved we are by Jesus’s portrait of God’s kin-dom even from this great a distance. What must it have been like at a distance of just the length of an arm, or less?

And then the Marys and the rest of the disciples saw firsthand, at the length of an arm or less, the movement tear itself apart: Judas’s betrayal, Peter’s denial, the male disciples’ abandonment. The Marys and the other women were left alone at the foot of a device of torture where the one on whom they had staked their lives was himself staked and torn apart.

Fear must have gripped the Magdalene and the other Mary for hours before the one we occupy now.

JOY
Maybe it had gripped them long enough that they were almost inured to it, because even though they experience an earthquake and the appearance of a messenger of God, it is the tomb guards who became so frightened that they are “like dead men,” not the Marys.

Fully present in the midst of divine manifestation the Magdalene and the other Mary are the first to receive what we call the good news: The cross could not kill; the tomb could not hold the holiness that made Jesus possible—and the Christ is present still.

Now that is good news of great joy, that is joy made complete. All that they had given is redeemed, all that they lived for yet lives on. Joy!

But the story says they left with great joy and fear. The earthquake and the messenger did not scare them off. So what could have set them scared again?

Knowing what they would encounter when they left.

BACK TO REALITY
The messenger instructs Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to return to their community with the good news. They have the honor of being the apostles to the other apostles.

But surely they know what their reception will be like: Crazy women. These must be crazy women. This story is just the the overemotional delusions of mere women. You know how women are, the male disciples will say. Besides, why would mere women be the recipients of a revelation? In the Gospel of Mary Magdalene Peter says, “Did Jesus really speak privately with a woman and not openly to us? Are we to turn about and all listen to her?”
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A Big Hoax? Matthew 25.31–46

2019.4.19 mary braveDelivered at Ames UCC
on April 19, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Here are portions of our 2019 Good Friday service as well as my homily.

LITANY
One:    Judas, slave of jealousy, where are you?
Many: I am here.

One:    Peter, slave of fear, where are you?
Many: I am here.

One:    Pilate, slave of Empire, where are you?
Many: I am here.

One:    The story of the execution of Jesus is the story of our own weakness and shortcomings, as people who have missed the mark on justice and so have alienated ourselves from God and neighbor. So tonight, as we sit at the foot of the cross, we seek the ones who remained, who did not falter in devotion or love.

One:    Mary of Magdala, where are you?
Many: I am here.

GOSPEL: Matthew 27.27–61

LITANY
One:    Mary,
Many: is this your healer and teacher Jesus hanging on the cross?

One:    Mary,
Many: does your soul not break apart again?

One:    Mary,
Many: was all of that kingdom-talk a lie?

One:    Mary,
Many: where are the mustard seed, the bridesmaid, the generous vineyard owner now?

One:    Mary,
Many: were all of those parables tricks and lies rather than wisdom?

One:    Mary,
Many: does it all seem pointless now?

One:    Mary,
Many: do you feel angry and used now?

One:    Mary,
Many: tonight the powerful are still comfortable and laughing while you and the rest of the weak are tear-soaked and frightened.

One:    Mary,
Many: your rabbi, your magi, your mandarin, your guru, your friend is dead.

HOMILY—DUPED
Have we all been duped?

Have we been fools for Christ, not out of love, but out of sheer stupidity?

Is all of this—these stories of love and upending—are all of them lies that we have been gullible enough, desperate enough to believe?

Last year on this bad night we considered Mary, the Mother of Jesus. We grieved with her, aware of all that his life cost her, promising to remain faithful to her precious son.

Some of us here have lost children, and that has been wrenching. And the grief has been lasting. Few of us can really fathom, though,the depth of the pain Mother Mary would have felt as she watched the fruit of her womb publicly bleed, thirst, and starve to death. It had to have been something more than grief, beyond pain.

So on this bad night, we turn our attention to another Mary, Mary of Magdala. As fellow disciples and seekers, we can come closer to understanding how Mary the Magdalene may have felt. Including, quite possibly, the feeling that she had been duped.

MAGDALENE
Mary of Magdala is the second most referenced woman in the gospelsafter Mother Mary. Magdala was a region know for fish processing, so as those of us who prepared for Holy Week with Dr. Amy-Jill Levine’s course learned, maybe she crossed paths with the fisherman disciples Andrew and Simon Peter.

We will never know that for sure, but we do have a story about how she was healed by Jesus. He cast seven demons out of her, making Mary perfectly healed, according to ancient Jewish numerology.We learn that Mary Magdalene then traveled with Jesus and we can imagine that she provided logistical support, perhaps even funding, as well as serving as a devoted listener and learner for his new Way. We also find her at the cross, the burial, and the tomb.

Mary Magdalene is in so many ways a model disciple: a woman who left her home to travel with men she was not related to, to devote her resources to and risk her reputation for Jesus. How compelling he must have been, how thrilling the walk by his side.

As much as Jesus’s descriptions of the kin-dom of God stir us today, at this great a distance, imagine how they felt to her, at no more a distance than the length of her arm.

2019.4.19 still hereDEAD
And then it all collapses. And then one of her fellow travelers hands Jesus over to the authorities. The elation of the previous days and weeks is in ruins as she watches—from a distance no greater than her arms—it all collapse under the weight of betrayal as well as the new threat to her person.

But Mary of Magdala does not hide. She does not abandon her friend and her teacher. She stays by his side through the worst. Why? Maybe this Mary believed Jesus would escape. Maybe she assumed God would reverse the terrible course.

But as the minutes and hours pass by, did not doubt creep in? Maybe even anger at the man who showed himself to be just a man? Did she feel betrayed by Jesus and by God alike, and wonder if it was all a big hoax?

FOOLS
This, I think, is where we can relate.

As Christian religious and cultural hegemony collapse themselves, we are forced to ask hard questions about our faith claims and ourselves. Like, “What are we still doing here?”

What are we still doing here in an institution that, over millennia, has instigated and perpetuated so much abuse and corruption? What are we still doing here in a faith that claims radical equality before God yet seems powerless to ensure that equality between each other?

On bad nights like this when humanity has done its ordinary worst, does not doubt in an extraordinary best creep in, even anger, at a claim of some extraordinary better? Have we been betrayed by story and storytellers and our own grasping hearts?

I offer you no answers.

Though we are together as the Marys were, we are each alone in our search for what is trustworthy in the tales of Jesus’s life and what is true in the promises our forebears say he made.

I ask only that we be as brave as these women, as fearless in the face of contradiction and collapse. May we be as willing as they were to return to what appears to be a tomb like a dead end, in case it proves to be a resurgence of abundant life once more.

AMEN

Do Burning Churches Matter?

Published April 17, 2019 in the Ames Tribune

By Eileen Gebbie

On Palm Sunday 1989, my mom and I walked into Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris for worship. Unfortunately, we did not know that, overnight, the whole city had shifted to daylight savings time, so we were an hour late. Also, neither of us spoke French.

Despite all of that, the story of Jesus’s procession on a donkey through the back door of Jerusalem’s wall, a counterpoint and protest to the Roman governor’s victory parade on a steed through the front, transcends all of the different languages and time zones of Christendom.

After the service concluded, we walked through the gothic marvel alongside tourists from all over the world.

None of that will happen again for a very long time. The fire that started just after Palm Sunday 2019 will close off the space to worship and wonder for possibly decades to come. I cried looking at photos of the damage, and my heart went out to the congregation and their priests, my counterparts.

Where will they gather in this, what we call Holy Week, to mark Jesus’s final meal, his murder and the Easter mystery? And what of the weeks after that and after that? A generation’s worth of worship and service will be lost during the repairs.

Which may have some of you thinking, “So what?” or “Why can’t they just go somewhere else?” Those are valid questions. One of the most salient critiques of Christianity has been we idolize buildings over beloved community.

In the four official accounts of the life of Jesus, he never once spoke of building a new religion, let alone enormous and enormously costly buildings. Jesus did not need a nave, a sacristy or a pulpit to care for the widow, the orphan and the foreigner, and neither do we.

Except that we do, or at least we do so far.

Consider what caring for “the least of these” requires: time, money, collaboration, education and transformation. Speaking only for affluent and middle-class white Americans, few of us know without being taught that all of humanity, all of creation, are our siblings.

To love our neighbors as ourselves is to recognize that our neighbors are us. So we need spaces that will confront our biases and willful blindness, rooms of people that will hold us accountable to our sacred story. These can keep us from gorging ourselves on the lethal lies of meritocracy and individualism.

And for some Christian Americans, church sanctuaries are truly that: sanctuaries. Black churches have long offered safe harbor from the vagaries and violence of white supremacist America. Which is why white supremacist America keeps burning them down.

As Notre Dame smokes in her rubble, so do three black churches in Louisiana’s St. Landry Parish. In 10 days, one white man set them on fire. His motivation appeared to be, in part, a critique of Christianity, but it is telling that he did not burn down any white Christian churches and he was recently charged with hate crimes in addition to arson.

Also torched, at the end of March, was Tennessee’s Highland Education and Research Center. While not a church, it has long served as a sanctuary for ministers and lay leaders — including The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks — to learn the art of organizing for justice.

Sadly, but unsurprisingly, it took the fire at Notre Dame for the St. Landry churches to gain any meaningful national attention or financial support.

As I write this, I am preparing for my church’s own Holy Week services. Our current sanctuary has never burned, to my knowledge, though its foundation and walls were compromised when the city lowered Sixth Street by several feet and we lost the support of all that soil.

Our leadership works on an ongoing basis to assess whether and how we can afford to maintain the old brick building at Sixth Street and Kellogg Avenue. More importantly, we also wonder if we are doing so only out of our pride at being, like Notre Dame, the oldest church in town.

Or, are we maintaining it as a place of reformation for the privileged and sanctuary for the oppressed?

Are we propping up the sagging walls because it gives us room to equip spiritual and practical leaders in the way of Jesus, a man so problematic that the only way to stop the fires he started seemed to be death?

My goal as a Christian pastor is to have so firmly bent the arc of justice that we no longer need retraining facilities for whites and hush arbors for people of color.

In the meantime, I am grateful for the presence of buildings and storefronts that bear physical witness to beauty, transcendence, collaboration, and the holy insistence that rises up from every tomb and ash heap, telling us that we must do better by each other and this planet.

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

Collude to Endure, Together

Published April 9, 2019 in the Ames Tribune

By Eileen Gebbie

There have been some pretty catchy campaign phrases over the short life of our republic: Herbert Hoover’s “A Chicken in Every Pot and a Car in Every Garage,” Dwight Eisenhower’s “I Like Ike!,” and Shirley Chisholm’s “Unbought, Unbossed.”

In the 1884 presidential election, the candidates had pretty funny attack slogans: Grover Cleveland’s “Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, The Continental Liar from the State of Maine” and James Blaine’s “Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa, Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha.”

Clearly, Americans were not so invested in the ability to make acronyms, such as MAGA, in the 19th century.

Over the next 18 months, though, it looks like the phrase we might hear the most, as Americans and particularly as Iowans, is one we have been listening to for two years: “No collusion!”

This is, of course, in response to concerns President Trump’s election campaign worked with a foreign state to manipulate the outcome of the 2016 election in his favor. It continues to be a refrain in light of the Mueller Report, which, while it did not result in an indictment against the president, also did not exonerate him, according to Attorney General William Barr.

Now, whether you believe an American citizen committed treason to win the presidency, or you believe such an accusation is a product of an out-of-control liberal media, or something in between, the issue, and the phrase, are actually an indictment of us.

If such a partnership and outcome were possible, or simply so believed to be possible there was a federal investigation, both of these are our fault. They are the result of our failure to rigorously participate in civic life and to rigorously interrogate what we encounter in online life.

To say there was no collusion is, in regard to us as the electorate, simply false.

Consider the rise of white Christian nationalism. The premise of those who marched and killed in Charlottesville, for example, is the United States should only be a nation of people of European descent who practice an exclusivist brand of Christianity.

This means that all who are not white and not their version of Christian are not entitled to civil rights like equal access to education, health care, governance, and public facilities. This is collusion. This is collusion with hatred.

But getting to the state we are in today took more than extremists. It took a majority of us colluding with fear, colluding with impatience, colluding with absolutism. We have also colluded with apathy, with name calling and with straw-man attacks. We have colluded with disengagement and with segregation.

We the people of the United States have not formed a more perfect union, but a perfect scission through our collusion with all that destroys the body politic and flesh. So whatever “No collusion!” shouted by politicians means for each of us, it is a call for each of us to be truthful and to honestly assess what we have and what we might yet collude with.

In my religious tradition, we have stories about an ancient nation that is under the control of a foreign empire, Rome. Under the rule of empire, the citizens of the occupied state must pay taxes. Our primary storyteller and prophet, the person to whom we look to for the intersection of the sacred and profane — Jesus — is asked whether the citizens should continue to pay those taxes. Jesus famously replies, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

One interpretation, of many, is to pay taxes to those who tax, but pay the rest of your life to holiness.

Participate in the existing system, but do not let the system define you.

Cooperate with government, so long as the government does not prevent you from cooperating with your neighbors and this earth.

We need to pay taxes if we want roads and fire departments and sewer systems. We also need to make sure the people we elect to manage taxation are using our hard-earned monies to further the common good, be it public education, clean drinking water, or childhood vaccinations.

We are only as healthy and successful individually as our towns and counties in their entirety.

So what must we render unto our current presidential campaign in order to tend to, or at least not rend more, this union? And what must we collude with in our larger, yet personal, lives in order to do so? Maybe we could each adopt a slogan of our own to guide us through this campaign.

Here are some possibilities:

Colluding with discernment!

Colluding with listening!

Colluding with learning!

Colluding with dialogue!

Colluding with respect!

Colluding with civility!

Politicians will always pay clever people to develop clever slogans then hire volunteers and organizers and bots to promulgate them. Some may speak directly to what we want, some may incite the last thing that we need. It is up to us to know — before we read a Tweet or attend a rally and especially before we go to caucus and vote — what our values are throughout and beyond each election cycle.

Empires and democracies rise and fall. It is up to us to collude with what will allow us to endure, together.

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

Wade in with Me: Matthew 25.31–46

Delivered at Ames UCC on April 7, 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.

2019.4.7 more to learnGO TO HELL
In other words, sheep go to heaven, goats go to hell.

Today’s passage from the gospel of Matthew is commonly referred to as The Final Judgment. In it, we are told that the Son of Humanity will come to Earth as a king, dividing the good and the bad according to their treatment of the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the sick, and the imprisoned. On the right hand are sheep, who have done well. On the left are goats, who have not. Sheep get to go to heaven and goats are shuffled off to hell.

I am not a believer in a unique day of judgment, a singular returning of Christ that will result in a cataclysmic change, despite what this scripture says. Such a prediction does not resonate with my experience of God or my study of the whole canon of scripture.

Birth, death, and resurrection are cyclical, not linear as a final day of judgement would imply. The Christ is always being born, always being denied and made dead, always persisting, nevertheless.

YEATS
Having said that, there is an extra-Biblical description of a second coming that feels wildly accurate to me. It is a poem by William Butler Yeats. It reads, in part:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Now, that is an apocalypse I can believe in.

In Matthew’s vision, there is no room for humanity as we are and as we always have been. Which is to say both fallible and occupied, body and soul, by God’s own self. The blanket condemnation in Matthew does not align with a God ever-present and well aware.

Yeats’ poem, though, feels painfully familiar. Right now things are falling apart, from sodden soils to norms for public behavior. Anarchy is loosed upon the entire word. I don’t need God to send anyone to hell; we are doing a perfectly good job of going there together ourselves.

Despite the number of times and myriad ways we as individuals and as a congregation, as with so many other individuals and organizations, have cared for the hungry, thirsty, foreign, sick, and imprisoned, it feels like things are falling apart at a greater and greater rate. The original goodness of creation feels all but lost.

GOOD
Because remember that in the beginning, everything was good.
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White Women: Matthew 20.1–16

Delivered at Ames UCC on March 17, 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.

MAGNIFICENCE
2019.3.17 metanoia Ours is a God of magnificent generosity—and so is that of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin.

Ours is a God of magnificent generosity—and so it that of Mother Emanuel AME.

Ours is a God of magnificent generosity—and so is that of Tree of Life Synagogue.

Ours is a God of magnificent generosity—and so is that of Al Noor Mosque.

Ours is a God of magnificent generosity—and so it that of Linwood Mosque.

But white people are so narrowly focused on making sure we get what is ours, or protecting what we perceive should only be ours, that we lose sight of that magnificent generosity and take up arms and blow away bodies.

The emotion behind that decision is as old as today’s story.

LANDOWNER
Jesus tells the story of a landowner.

This landowner hires day laborers. Off and on throughout the day, he hires more people. At the end of the day, the landowner pays everyone the same amount of money, both the people who started early in the morning and the people who did not start until the early evening.

The daylong workers grumble. They assumed they would get more money because they had worked more hours. The landowner replies to the daylong workers that they are getting paid exactly what was promised and that the paying of the same amount to others does not take away from what they have earned. The people who started to work in the morning got what they contracted for, so what is their problem?

Yeah, what is their problem? Why would the daylong workers begrudge the landowner the use of his own money if the landowner has treated them exactly as they expected?

Now, I know the answer: It isn’t fair.  Why work all day when you can saunter in at the end and still afford to put food on the table? Why are those people getting something for nothing? It just isn’t fair.

On another Sunday I might have taken a bit of time to affirm that sense of unfairness. But those Sundays are past.

We white Christians cannot afford to give any room or any sympathy to pouting cries of 2019.3.17 lost nothingunfairness by people who have lost nothing just because others have gained a little something. We can no longer afford to perceive the gain of others as a loss for us, even for a moment in response to an old, old, tale.

Those days are gone. Those days are as shredded by white supremacists and Christian nationalists as the bodies of elders, adults, teens, children, and infants on the floors of houses of prayers across this continent and the world.

BORDER TERRIERS
So what are we to do? There are two recognized white supremacist hate groups in Iowa. We could go after them. But the problem is far more pervasive than the proud boys and alt-right leaders who formally organize.

On Friday, as I read about the attack on Al Noor and Linwood, I shared a post to the church Facebook page from the president of Chicago Theological Seminary. Dr. Stephen Ray had written that

The evil of white nationalism is writing its graffiti in blood across the walls of the sacred places of us all.

Moments later I received notice that someone had commented on the post. The comment didn’t readily make sense—was it supportive or nasty?—so I followed the link to the profile of the person who had made the comment.
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I Don’t Know What Forgiveness Is: Matthew 18.15–22

Delivered at Ames UCC on March 10, 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.

2019.3.10 metanoiaFORGIVENESS
As many of you know, I’m enrolled in a two-year program of spiritual formation called Prairie Fire. When it is over I will do a third year to become a certified spiritual director. In my small group a couple of months ago, our leader read a piece about forgiveness. My response was something like, “I don’t buy this. I don’t know what forgiveness is, but I don’t buy it.”

I don’t know what forgiveness is, but I don’t buy it. A contradiction, of course, because how can I refuse to buy something if I say I don’t know what it is. What I think I meant is that I do not know what forgiveness is but I do not buy what the church universal tends to sell as forgiveness: the justification for Jesus’s death on a cross.

ATONEMENT
What to do with Jesus’s death on the cross has been a problem since that death. How could someone infused with, or someone of divinity be killed? Why would God “allow” that? And what if God not only allowed it, but wanted it? What do our answers say about God and what do they say God thinks of us?

There have been many answers, and still are. The orthodox position, orthodox meaning “right belief,” has been that humanity is so horrid that God needed a blood sacrifice to atone for our horridness. God needed the death of one who was welcoming, loving, and gracious in order to forgive us for our failure to be all of those things.

Such theology makes humanity inherently deficient and God universally bloodthirsty. I reject both.

I know that we can be rotten, but not thoroughly depraved. And, as we read in Psalm 51 at both Ash Wednesday services last week, God has “no delight in sacrifice” (verse 16). God’s intervention at Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac affirms the Psalmist: God is over sacrificial atonement, if God even was into it in the first place. So the forgiveness that I do not buy is the one that most Christian churches claim to have exclusive control of through their interpretation of these old stories.

But speaking of old stories, in today’s passage it isn’t divine forgiveness of human deficiency through capital punishment that Jesus teaches.

JESUS
As with so many in Matthew, this is a private teaching just for the disciples. After many parables and the work needed to glimpse their many potential meanings, Jesus offers this straightforward lesson in community life:

If someone in your community harms you, go talk to them in private. If they apologize, you are all good. If not, go back to them with a witness or two. If that does not work, if you are still not heard, then tell the whole community. If still there is no admittance of injury and effort at reparation, your work is done.

But this recipe for returning to right relationship is not enough for Simon Peter. He asks Jesus, “If I am hurt, how often should I forgive? Seven times?” Nope, Jesus replies, “77 times.” Much has been made of these particular numbers, but let’s today simply hear it as an intensification. There is no limit to the number of times we are to forgive one who harms us.
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Ashes and Feast

Each Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Easter dawn, my church and two others worship together.

This year I was scheduled to preach at the host church, Ames First United Methodist, with First Christian Church hosting at the table.

The scripture, picked years ago by the organizers of the Narrative Lectionary, was Matthew 18:1–9, in which Jesus says not to place stumbling blocks before one another.

It is a great message, but one that seemed suddenly quite pointed because, the week before, the governing body of the international United Methodist Church had voted to be more strict in its position regarding queer marriage and clergy.

So how should I, a gay married priest, respond in the pulpit?

Watch the video to see.

We Are All Going to Die: Matthew 7.1–14 and 24–29

Delivered at Ames UCC on February 10, 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.

2019.2.10 sweetDEATH
We are all going to die.

You didn’t need to get out of bed of a Sunday morning to hear that. You know it. I know it. We all know it. But perhaps you come here, in part, to figure out how to live until death, to maybe even get some insight into what death will be like.

I do not know what death will be like, the part after we are dead, that is. I know that biologically we will return to our basic physical and chemical elements. Our flesh will fall away, our bones become grist for soil. We will take our place alongside all other humans and all mammals and all invertebrates and all plants in releasing our component parts back to the biome which birthed and sustained us. That I know for sure.

I feel equally certain that no part of us, and no part of anyone else, will go to a hell.

Beyond that, I cannot speak with as much certainty.

Our religious tradition has offered many images of a heavenly life after death. Peter at pearly gates, streets paved with gold, reunion with all the people we have loved. My preference is a metaphor offered by one of my seminary professors: We experience one stream of the life eternal now, another later. My genetic material, and yours, is as old as humanity itself. My biological material, and yours, will be part of the planet, as long as she exists.

Eternal life is not later but already.

And that is about as definitive as I can get and maintain my theological integrity, except to add that because we are here together, we do not have to make that transition to the next stream alone. I will be with you, if at all possible. The souls of this place will sing to you as you step into those waters.

Which leaves me with the first motivation I mentioned for coming here: Whatever happens after life, how do we live until death?

In today’s passage, Jesus answers with a long list of To Dos.

TO-DOS
This is the final portion of the Sermon on the Mount that we will study this year. It is, all told, 107 verses long, a tome in Biblical standards. Over those eight dozen verses, though we know Jesus has a small audience of the first few disciples, he does not interact with anyone. There is no dialogue, and Jesus does not tell any stories, any parables. It doesn’t even read as a sermon so much as a collection of sayings and instructions, one after the other, as with today: Do not judge, don’t throw pearls before swine, search and you will find, do to others as you would have them do to you, enter through the narrow gate.

Bam, bam, bam: Do, don’t, do, do, don’t do. No sugar coating and no coaxing, Jesus reiterates to the disciples, and to us, God’s Torah instructions and his feelings about those who do not follow them:

…everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish person who built their house on sand.

The Sermon on the Mount is a little intimidating to read in that regard. After all, by Jesus’s account, we are walking around with logs in our eyes trying to judge the specks in others’. If we do not even notice something as cumbersome and stabby as a log tangled up in our lashes, how can we ever hope to do to others as we would have them do to us?

We are doomed to fall short of all of these instructions at one time or another, if not most of the time. So we are probably doomed altogether then, too, right? We don’t have to worry about what heaven might be because we won’t ever get into it, right?

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Public Works and Private Workings: Matthew 6.1–15

Delivered at Ames UCC on February 3, 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.

VIOLATION
 Did anyone else notice, in hearing this passage, that every week we violate the instructions Jesus gives?

Beware of practicing your piety before others
whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door

whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet

do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,

so that your alms may be done in secret

Every week we pray together in unison, silently, and with individual petitions. And then we make public offerings to the life and work of the church. There aren’t trumpets but the choir does usually sing. This style of worship and the elements within are quite old and well considered. They have been practiced across many ages and locations, with some modifications for context and need.

Is it time, though, for a new reformation to correct our wayward worship ways?

TEACHING
2019.2.3 covenant At this point in the gospel Jesus is still on the mountain with Simon Peter, Andrew, John, and James. He is continuing the sermon that began with the Beatitudes, which we studied last week.

In between the Beatitudes and this discourse on prayer and giving, Jesus emphasizes that he absolutely is not working to upend the Torah and the Nevi’im, the teachings and the prophets that constitute the bulk of what we now know as the Hebrew Bible. Jesus says that “not one stroke of a letter” from what God has already offered can be changed (5.18), and then explores the Decalogue, including murder, cheating, judging, and swearing false oaths. This small group of disciples has had a master class in covenant living, in the manna that God offers and the mercy we must practice.

Including Jesus’s exhortation to keep the practices of prayer and giving private.

Jesus is clearly responding, in part, to people in their community who do “practice piety before others in order to be seen by them,” people whom he describes as “hypocrites in the streets” and non-Jewish people who “heap up empty phrases.” These showily religious offer a negative lesson in religiosity. They also offer Jesus the opportunity to make a theological statement, an argument about God.

When making gifts, he says, do so anonymously because “your Creator…sees in (that) secret.” Pray alone in your room “to your Creator who is in secret” and pray simply because “your God knows what you need before you ask.” This isn’t Jesus just instructing the disciples about how to pray and give. He is teaching them about God’s response, God’s involvement in both. God is in secret, not in the devious or confidential sense of the word, but in the sense of being in all places, including the private. We do not need to seek God in public, we do not need public displays of faith to get God’s attention. God is in our soul’s innermost, secret, private chambers; best to seek God, to commune with God there. The point of faith is not public works but our private working.

The point of faith is not public works but our private working.

2019.2.3 museRESISTANCE
How many of you are feeling a little internal resistance to that notion?

I know that the public work of the national UCC and our own is, in part, why many of you are here. It matters to you that we successfully sued North Carolina for gay marriage on the basis of religious freedom and that we coined the term “environmental racism.” It matters to you, too, that our next Theologian in Residence will focus on what churches can do in practical terms to respond to the needs of immigrants. Theologically we already know: “you shall love the alien as yourself” (Leviticus 19.34). Not like yourself but as yourself because they are us.

I would be hard-pressed to be part of a church community that did not engage in public works of faith. That would feel too much like a private club, like a self-help system, rather than a living covenant with God and neighbor.

And Jesus did so many public works, himself. Why else was he such a threat to the Herods and Rome?

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