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

Paul’s Master Class: Philemon

Delivered at Ames UCC on August 18, 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.

THAT DARN PAUL

You know how I always want to fight with Paul because his exclusivist and at times super sexist theology makes me nuts and flies in the face of Jesus’ own Way?

Well, this letter is a big exception.

As I sat with the whole of Paul’s letter to Philemon, which does not usually appear in preaching schedules even in part, I realized that what we have here is master class in discipleship as relationship.

Let’s start with the basic content of the letter.

CONTENT

Paul is in prison, which happened a few times: two years in Ceseara, and then two multi-years stints in Rome, all as a result of his religious fervor. From prison, Paul writes to Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and their house church. He begins with greetings and prayers and thanksgiving for the way Philemon and friends have refreshed Paul’s heart. Then Paul asks Philemon to somehow change the nature of his relationship with a person named Onesimus.

Onesimus is a slave of Philemon’s who, for reasons we don’t know, has been with Paul in prison. Did he run away from Philemon to Paul, seeking help? Or did Philemon send Onesimus to Paul for Paul’s care, as is recorded with another slave in the letter to the Philippians?

Also unclear is what exactly Paul wants to change.

Scholars suggest it could be for Philemon to take Onesimus back with forgiveness for whatever may have transpired (Paul refers to debts) or maybe Paul wants Philemon to keep Onesimus with Paul long-term or maybe Paul wants Philemon to set Onesimus free and receive him as an equal in the house church.

We just don’t know for sure, which is why this letter has been so useful for both anti- and pro-slavery forces over the years.

Paul goes on to ask that Philemon and the church be ready to receive Paul as a guest. And, finally, Paul offers greetings from other disciples.

So that’s the content. Now let’s look at the form, because there lies Paul’s true gift.

FORM

First, though Paul’s big ask is of Philemon, he addresses the letter to the whole of the congregation. This could, of course, look like shaming. Calling someone out in front of others can be very unkind. Or, it could indicate that there are community-wide stakes in our personal choices and community-wide support. Though Philemon has the power in the relationship with Onesimus, that relationship does not exist in isolation, but within a web of connections. The body of Christ includes all bodies.

Second, Paul writes

though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love

Paul has substantial moral authority within this ecclesia. He is their evangelist, he is their teacher, he is the one who invited them to wade in the waters with the Christ. So this could have been a very short note saying, “Phil, let O go. Thanks, P.” Instead, Paul details how Onesimus has become part of the flock, has become a true sibling. Then Paul asks Philemon to make the choice as an act of faith, rather than obedience,

in order that (his) good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.

Paul is preserving Philemon’s personal agency while inviting him to be a person of greater integrity at the same time.

Third, and final, there is the issue of Philemon’s and Onesimus’ names. Philemon can mean “good one” or “loving” or “he who shows kindness.” Onesimus’ name can mean “handy” or “useful” or “beneficial.” Now, I haven’t found any academic arguments or research on this, and have no reason to believe these were not their actual names, but it feels like there is something to Paul writing a letter to Kind One asking him to understand his relationship with Handy differently.

If a mentor of mine wrote, “Dear Good Heart, I write on behalf of Valuable,” I might listen more closely, for my mentor would be calling on and teaching me about my inherent decency and the inherent worth of the other.

So Paul, who does not pull any punches in his work to spread his understanding of the gospel, throughout this letter uses a gentle hand to encourage a fellow disciple to grow in his faith through his relationship with another.

And isn’t that the call to us all?

DISCIPLESHIP IS RELATIONSHIP

Pr. Hannah once said to me, and I have her permission to share this, that it would be so much easier to go to a much larger church. You can walk in, get your Jesus jolt, and walk out without having to know anyone or be known by anyone. There is no obligation in anonymity, no risk.

But, she continued, she is here because being known and knowing is part of the point.

Being in real relationship with fellow seekers over Sundays and years, is what makes for a faith that transforms.

It isn’t easy, of course. If we don’t have to know each other we don’t risk falling in love with each other or becoming implicated in each other’s living and dying. Losing Pauletti and Charlie within a month of each other has been painful.

But then who will give us “much joy and encouragement” when we are imprisoned, literally or by disease or by antipathy? And whose hearts, or in the Biblical Greek, splachna—which literally means guts, the ancient site of all emotions—whose splachna will we lose the opportunity to refresh when they are likewise bound?2019.8.18 relationship

From Adam and Eve to Abram and Sarai; from Ruth and Naomi to Mary and Joseph; from Martha and Mary to Jesus and Judas; from Paul and Philemon and Onesimus, we are taught that discipleship, devotion to God requires relationship.

BLESSING

We live in a vast world where we are encouraged, even pressured, to constantly wear masks of success and even perfection, where rhetorical and actual violence are the primary means of dialogue. In the midst of that we can forget that the damage we do to each other, and to ourselves, is damage to the whole.

But God continues to open spaces where we can be ourselves just as we are, ourselves as we are still becoming, in nurturance and accountability. It will mean wrestling with frustrating theologies and having uncomfortable public conversations, but it will certainly also include tender care and camaraderie, guides for the way and a fellowship that renders meaningless all human barriers.

Paul’s final gift to us is his letter’s conclusion:

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

This is described by scholars as “a blessing on the recipient’s inmost being.”[i]

May you feel your inmost being blessed for having come here together today.

AMEN

[i] Levine, Amy-Jill and Marc Zvi Brettler, editors. The Jewish Annotated New Testament (2nd Edition). (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). Page 459.

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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Equality before God: Acts 17.16–31

2918.4.19 fallDelivered at Ames UCC  on April 29, 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.

WARNING
A word of caution before I fully begin: Today I’m going to touch on violence against women.

If that is too raw a topic for you, too personal a pain, feel free to step outside into the beautiful air for ten minutes or go get some coffee in the Fellowship Hall. Do so knowing that you have done nothing to deserve the pain you have suffered, absolutely nothing. But I do hope you will come back for our song and prayer, for the good news of this community of peace, healing, and love.

Let’s all stand for a moment to stretch so that if anyone feels like leaving, she may do so unselfconsciously. Thank you.

ATHENS
Today Paul is in Athens, having left Philippi to continue his work of nurturing holy feast communities. That’s a 410-mile, or 118-hour, hike. Added to last week’s total, that’s at least 1,800 miles and 500 hours he’s gone for the love of God and God’s love of all people.

Athenians were known for their intellectual curiosity, so it is no surprise that outside of the Areopagus (the main administrative building) Paul finds people to engage with, in debate and conversation. The passage says that in addition to everyday Joes, Paul encounters followers of different philosophical schools.1

Paul calls attention to a local altar with an inscription that reads “To an unknown God.”

But God is known, Paul says. Look to Genesis he says. That is the God known and knowable by virtue of our existence here today. We may think we are searching for God, but God is always near. And God hopes we will return our attention to God. God hopes that we will finally return to the potential with which we are all gifted.

Humanity clearly has a very hard time with seeing each other as equally gifted of God, equally beloved of God.

TORONTO
As you know, in the week since we were last together, ten people were murdered and 15 injured by a man driving a van; he just plowed into them.

In some ways this event is unremarkable. Motor vehicles as weapons are becoming increasingly common. And the death toll was also not nearly as severe as in other terroristic events over this last year.

But this particular crime, this particular criminal, returned to light a vicious ideology promulgated online. In it, straight men who have not been sexually active rail against men who have been and the women who have “denied” them. Members of this “community” have encouraged each other to castrate sexually active men and to rape all women, among other things. In this online space, the Toronto van driver has been praised as a saint.

At the core of this ideology is entitlement: entitlement to the bodies of women. The men—and it is only men who promulgate this position—are angry because they have not gotten what they feel is rightly theirs. Which is not new: Entitlement to female bodies has been around as long as there have been females.

What is different with Toronto is the weaponization of the hate and the application of that weapon at a larger and random scale. This isn’t a stalker obsessed with one woman. This isn’t an ex-husband who goes on to kill an ex-wife. These are straight men who have become so obsessed with their lack of sex, and so unwilling to look to their own part in that reality, that they have made what they call “involuntary celibacy” the fault of all women, and so the death of any women will do.

Our own ideology, our religion, is not free from such violent misogyny. Just open the Bible. When the townspeople want to attack your houseguests? Send out your daughters to be raped instead. That’s the story of Sodom. Want a baby? Rape your slave. That’s Abraham and Hagar. And, really from the start, women are nothing but trouble for men. Just look at Eve tricking Adam into eating the forbidden fruit.

No. Let’s not. Let’s not give any more credence to that old lie. But do let’s go to Eden. Do let’s go to the God of Genesis as Paul suggests.

2018.4.29 adamEDEN
Please recall that Genesis is a theological exploration of the relationship between the world and divinity, not a biology textbook, so please hear the following as metaphor.

In Eden, in the garden, God makes a rather queer being, the adam. The adam is queer in the sense that it was, as yet, unusual and unique in its nature. It was also queer in the sense that it contained all manner and potential of human gender, and biological, and sexual expression.

Into the adam God breathes life. Then God invites the adam to split, to serve as the original chromosomal pair, and so we have male and female. And we can say now that was just the first division. Biology is not so binary.

Things go well for awhile in Eden. Then they don’t.

A being of God’s own creating, a snake, a fellow God-born garden-dweller approaches the female and the male. It invites the female to eat a pomegranate. She does. She invites the male to do the same. He does.

The two feel ashamed as they hear God coming toward them through the garden. God learns what has happened and is upset. The humans are banished. In their banishment, the male and female have children, two boys. One of those boys grows up to kill the other.

It’s a mess. Our story about the relationship between holiness and humanity is of initial unity with God quickly destroyed by forces we could not resist, immaturity we could not conquer, and emotions we could not contain.

2018.4.29 internetForces we cannot resist, immaturity we cannot conquer, and emotions we cannot contain: sounds just like the Internet, doesn’t it?

DOESN’T HAVE TO
But it doesn’t have to.

That’s the story of Genesis: This world doesn’t have to sound, feel, and act like Eve, Adam, Cain, and Abel. It does not have to include male supremacism, nor any of the other hierarchies of hate.

Adam blames Eve for his choice. He does not take responsibility for his own actions. He could have. He could have been honest about what he had done without pointing a finger at her.

Cain is jealous of his brother Abel God says to Cain,

Why are you angry…sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you but you must master it. (Genesis 4.6–7)

Cain could have kept that creature at the door and spared his brother’s life its rage.

And before all of that, Eve and Adam could have remembered that they were never alone in the garden.

The story says that only after eating the apple do Eve and Adam hear God walking toward them. This makes God sound more like a superhuman being rather than a literally universal life force.

Since that is not possible, it must be that in the time it took for the snake to get their attention, the humans forgot about God. For a brief moment their senses became so narrow that they lost their awareness of God’s constant presence. That same constant presence Paul preached on at the Areopagus. That same God that is known and knowable, ever ready for the return of our attention.

START WALKING
Genesis is an exceptional book because of the accuracy, not of its geology and biology, but of its depiction of the human condition: We blame, we get jealous, we kill. Look at Toronto.

But it grounds that depiction in a unity with each other, the queer adam from whence we all come and whose legacy of divine breath we all yet breathe. Whatever else is in the Bible, whatever else we need to banish from being promoted as religious truth, in the beginning we were equal, we were one.

2018.4.29 snakeGod is still calling us to return to that potential with which we are all gifted. So we must teach our children that the only body they may claim is their own and never believe anyone who tells them differently.

And we need to do both in the name of the God of Genesis with as much fervor and intensity as all of the people online combined. If Paul could spread God’s good news by walking for thousands of miles without the benefit of real shoes, imagine how far we can go.

Let me end by saying that if you, any of you, of any sex, of any gender, have ever been assaulted and need to speak of the violence you’ve endured, you can tell me or Pr. Hannah. And if you are currently being hurt in your home or elsewhere, do tell me or Pr. Hannah. Together, be assured, we will get you free.

As for the rest of us, let us not be distracted by the snakes of misogyny. Let us join with the real saints in light in the public square, at city hall, in our schools, at our workplaces, to share the good news of our equality and our unity in God. That is our human story, that is our human song.

AMEN

1 Levine, Amy-Jill, ed. 2011. Jewish Annotated New Testament Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Forgiveness Begins in Holy Community: 2 Corinthians 2.1–10

forgivenessDelivered at Ames UCC
on May 29, 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.

FORGIVENESS STORIES
When Adam and Eve were in God’s garden, they broke God’s one rule. God could not forgive them and so they were banished. Later, Adam’s and Eve’s sons presented offerings to God. God preferred that of Abel over that of Cain. Cain could not forgive the slight, but rather than rejecting God, he killed Abel.

After studying the Bible with pastors and congregants of Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston, SC, a young man murdered nine of them in an effort to start a race war. On his first appearance in court, the daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance said

I forgive you…You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.

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