Ritual is Just the Beginning: Acts 15.1–18

2017.5.14 our courseDelivered at Ames UCC
on May 14, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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

AVOIDANCE
Since resurrection day I’ve focused on a succession of new characters in our passages from Acts of the Apostles: Cleopas, Stephen, Philip the Evangelist, and the Ethiopian. Today we have two more, Paul (though we saw him briefly, earlier, under the name Saul) and Barnabas. But there have been two recurring characters or elements that I have avoided until today: male genital modification and the Holy Spirit.

PENISES AND SPIRIT
The Ethiopian is a eunuch. He is a man who has been castrated. This week we have Jewish followers of Jesus stating that the Gentile followers of Jesus must be circumcised as they had been. We have also had talk of metaphoric, or spiritual circumcision. Stephen decries his co-religionists:

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. (Acts 6.51)

Stephen is saying they have failed to cut away what prevents them from hearing and loving God, from being led by the Holy Spirit.

Paul is also concerned with the work of the Holy Spirit. When he pushes back on the Jewish followers of Jesus, it is through Spirit:

 And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as God did to us; (Acts 15.8)

Throughout the Acts of the Apostles there are moments when the Holy Spirit comes upon people, sometimes at baptism, sometimes later. Sometimes the Holy Spirit “falls upon” a whole group at once, sometimes on individuals who have been physically touched by those who have already received the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is, by this account, wholly unpredictable.

PREDICTABILITY
Predictability may be one of our biggest problems as humans, at least for we humans who want to rise above our humanity, even just a little bit. The Bible is, in its entirety, a testament to our predictable shortcomings. We want so badly to do better, and yet…

Remember how Abram and Sarai went out into the wilderness to show their faith in God? For decades they wandered. And for decades God promised them a child. But they became impatient. Abram and Sarai let their impatience over take their faith, so they forced the slave Hagar to bear their next generation. As a result, their wanderings extended.

When God made the promise of a child again, it came with two markers: a change in their names to Abraham and Sarah plus circumcision for Abraham and all the men in his household for all time forward.

It is as if our Biblical forebears are saying we need to have some literal skin in the game or we will be lost and aimless forever.
Continue reading

Death is Not the Goal: Acts 6.1–7.2a, 44–60

2017.4.30 libertyDelivered at Ames UCC
on April 30, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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

JARRING AND SHOCKING
I find today’s reading jarring and shocking. Just two weeks out from Easter and the Biblical world feels unfamiliar and dangerous. No more Jesus, Marys, Peter, or temple. Now we have someone named Nicanor and complaining Hellenists and a synagogue of the Freedman. No more of Jesus’ teachings on feeding and healing. Instead we have a story that seems to be saying that death is the model of post-resurrection faithfulness.

How did we get here?

Healing and feeding aren’t gone altogether. In the chapters before Stephen is killed, we hear about the massive growth in the Jesus movement as well as its organization: Participants had to give up all they had to the group and live in community. The named disciples quickly became overloaded with trying to host at God’s table and spread the good news. Wisely, the disciples laid hands on a new group to serve as deacons—the managers of feeding and tending to the poor.

One of the new table servants is Stephen. Interestingly, Stephen does not restrict himself to that role. He, too, left the table to teach in public. That is what gets him in trouble. To a group of rabbis, Stephen reiterates the core stories of the Hebrew Bible, specifically Exodus: how God has worked through Moses, Abraham, and Joseph.

Stephen concludes with a condemnation of those rabbis and teachers for not really understanding what God has meant and meant to do. Angels have spoken to you, he says, and yet you practice our religion only in the most surface of ways. Stephen stands in the company of all Hebrew prophets in this way. They have always been critics of empty faith. But, unlike the prophets, Stephen is then lynched.

What is so jarring or shocking about all of that, you might ask? Jesus was killed and the Christian tradition is full of martyrs. Death hardly seems avoidable, based on precedent. Why would resurrection day change any of that?

ON ITS OWN
It’s not that. I live in this world so I know that resurrection did not stop human violence. What shocks me is what happens as Stephen is being lynched: He prays for the forgiveness of his killers, just as Jesus did. The parallel and message are clear: Closeness to Christ is in the willingness to be murdered for the Word.

Instead of preserving a story of abundant living in the light of resurrection morning, the Acts of the Apostles seem to want to perpetuate the lethality of Good Friday night. Taken on its own, Stephen’s story teaches us that aggressive critique of religious establishments to the point of being killed is the point of resurrection day.

The key phrase there is “taken on its own.” Not only does Stephen’s story seem to leave behind all of Jesus’ lived teachings, but the Christian contribution to Biblical tradition leaves behind one of that tradition’s most important qualities: multi-vocality.
Continue reading

Repetitive Messages: Luke 16.19–31

Delivered at Ames UCC  on March 26, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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

PAPERCLIPS
Our Communion table has been decorated by Linda Shenk. She couldn’t be here to help share her vision, but has given me permission to quote her. As Linda studied today’s scripture, she said she was aware of how strongly it emphasizes our need to listen in “the places that seem lowly, even despicable.” So Linda decided to find a lowly object, something so familiar we might not even really see it, as a reminder to listen: paper clips. Linda wrote to me that a paper clip, “looks like an ear, and it could be a nice reminder as we go about our work and our seemingly mundane routines to listen for the divine.”

So let’s listen for God in this story of mundane meanness.

RICH MAN AND LAZARUS
A rich man who partied every day cruelly allows an enfeebled and dying man named Lazarus to lay outside his home, without offering any assistance. They both die. On dying, the rich man finds himself in hell but with a view of Lazarus in a better place in the company of Abraham, patriarch of the nation, of the people. The rich man asks Abraham to ask Lazarus to bring him water, something he never seemed willing to do for Lazarus.

Abraham reminds the rich man of the disparities between him and Lazarus in life, disparities that are now made permanent through a fixed chasm in the afterlife. Well, the rich man says, please send Lazarus to warn my brothers. No, Abraham replies. They have already been given all the warning they need through our religious tradition. Having Lazarus go to them won’t make a difference.

This story comes on the heels of several similar stories. In Luke 14.12b–13a, Jesus says,

When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.

Then there’s the abundant generosity of the prodigal son’s father, which we heard last week. And immediately before Lazarus’ story there is a parable about a dishonest land manager that ends with “You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Luke 16.13b).

Despite the efforts of some Christians to make all of Jesus’ statements about cash money into statements about spiritual wealth, the weight of evidence is on the former: Jesus, in line with his own Jewish tradition, condemns rich people who do nothing with their riches to help others. This message of sharing wealth is so important that Jesus tells it at least three times in a row.

EASY SELL
Caring for Lazarus by giving away money is not a hard sell at Ames UCC.

Last year we gave away $152,186. Special offerings, like today’s for One Great Hour of Sharing and regular budgeted gifts to organizations like the Emergency Residence Project account for about $50,000. The other $100,000 was from the 150th Capital Campaign. This church is committed, when raising money for itself, to give away 20% of the total. Not only that, but to give that money away first, before spending on ourselves, thereby putting the needs of the community ahead of our own.

Continue reading

Pledge to Bring God’s Vision to Life: Genesis 37.3–8, 17b–22, 26–34, 50.15–21

bustedupfamilyDelivered at Ames UCC
on September 25, 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.

JOSEPH’S STORY
Our schedule of scripture this fall is taking us on an interesting walk through the formation, the dissolution, and legacies of families.

It began with the first human, split then into two. The first two humans betray God. But they live to make a family. One of those children betrays God, parents, and a brother through murder. But the generations persist.

Last week we met Abraham and Sarah. Abraham and Sarah were old and infertile and without home. They were cynical but they were also kind. And eventually Abraham and Sarah had a child together. That child, Isaac, came with the promise of many more generations to come.

Isaac and his wife Rebekah have two children, children are Jacob and Esau. Jacob acts up a lot. He steals his brother Esau’s rights as first born son. Jacob dreams of heaven and he wrestles with an angel, Jacob becomes Israel. Israel has four wives and many children. But with Rachel he has Joseph.

As much of Joseph’s story that we heard today, we skipped a lot. Once enslaved in Egypt, Joseph is able to outsmart a false assault charge and rise to the ranks of highest power in Pharaoh’s court. Thanks to going through these terrible trials, Joseph is in the position to influence power when he has dreams of famine and the need to be prepared. Joseph saves his master and even his own cruel brothers from starving to death.

Joseph ultimately forgives those brothers, is reunited with his father Jacob/Israel, and is able to mourn him when he dies. Joseph, the youngest brother, then becomes the patriarch of the clan and lives to see many generations after himself.

Between the international and court politics, and the jealousy, and the forgiveness it is a truly rich story. But I want to start today with dreams that provide for the future. I want to talk about stewardship.
Continue reading

Join the Cloud of Witnesses: Hebrews 11.1–16, 12.1–2

communionofsaintsDelivered at Ames UCC on September 6, 2015
© The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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

SUMMER IS OVER
I know it doesn’t feel like it today with the heat, but summer is about over. The kids are back to school. Football is underway. I’d wager many of us are even deep into negotiating Thanksgiving and Christmas plans.

Next week we will kick off our church year with a breakfast potluck at 9:30 a.m. and worship at 10:45 a.m. Everyone is invited to wear superhero costumes and we will receive new members in worship. Our scripture will be from Genesis. We go back to the beginning.
Continue reading