Amos 1.1–2; 5.14–15, 21–24: River’s Source


2017.11.12 rivers
Delivered at Ames UCC
on November 12, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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

JUSTICE
Amos, like all good prophets, does not mince words. Moved by the will and vision of God, he states clearly that the trappings of religion are traps. Religious practices that remain in the sanctuary, that do not translate into faithful lives in our streets, are a trap. We must break out of the traps we set in the name of God in order to free ourselves and each other in response to the will of God. We must let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

For many of my colleagues, this is the one day a year where they can “safely” preach about justice. By which Amos, and all of the prophets, means a balancing of the scales between the haves and have-nots in the world that we live in right now. This is, obviously, not a worry for me. We are a congregation that readily acknowledges the imbalances of the world and gives generously of our time, talent, and treasure to even them out. So what more is there to say? Should I just invite us to do high fives and move on to the next hymn? We could be to the coffee and cookies in 15 minutes!

OUR STREAMS
As I prayed this scripture, and about our church—as I considered our consistent willingness to jump into justice and righteousness—I found myself wondering about the stream’s source and its structure.

Because water takes a toll. Whether it is sitting or trickling or raging, water changes everything it touches. Water grows plants but water also rots wood. Flood water can ruin a home but clean water can revive it.

And God would have justice roll like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Justice and righteousness, those are rivers that come with a lot of debris, sudden rapids, and toxic spills, as well as seemingly eternal doldrums, unmoving.

If we are to create the conditions so that justice and righteousness are as strong as the Niagra and as wide as the Mississippi, then we had better make sure the riverbeds are deep and the banks strong. We had better keep our eyes as much on the source of justice and righteousness as those destinations, or we may find ourselves overwhelmed by waves or so tired of rowing our oars that we jump ship for dry land, just like Amos’ original audience.

So today I want to look at the waters of creation and those of baptism.

CREATION
The Bible is not, of course, a biological textbook. It is a metaphysical one, it is a theological assertion about the nature of life. And it asserts that life began in the moment holiness invited deep water to do a new thing. And it asserts that it is good.

Over and over again in Genesis as the divine brings forth from water and not-yet-substance the elements of life that are familiar to us, and those that are strange, God says, “It is good.” Creation is good and God has faith that we have the capacity to tend to that goodness.

We fail, of course, out of our hubris, but we do not destroy the goodness. Every river, including those of justice and righteousness, continues to flow out from Eden, keeping us connected to our source, to the goodness we need and the goodness to which we can return.

Which is what Jesus then invites us to do, when he steps into water to make a new thing.
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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.”
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We Are No Jonah

Here is the summary statement and call to action that I delivered at an action on October 23, 2017, which my church participated in through our membership in AMOS.

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Tonight we received public commitments from those who hope to represent us and our families in the city of Ames:

  • All of the mayoral and city council candidates said that they would vote to continue funding the Story County Housing Trust Fund.
  • They also all agreed to meet with us regarding new issues within six months of taking office, should they be elected.
  • All of the candidates for the city hospital’s board of trustees said they would work with us on mental health care availability, including putting us on the agenda at a board meeting within three months.

It feels good to have the people who want to be elected to governmental power recognize our own civic power. But I think there is more at stake here than these commitments and that recognition.

I’m a Christian priest, so my lens for understanding the world is a combination of the Hebrew Bible, the Christian testaments, and my life in Christian community. One of my inheritances from that tradition is the story of Jonah.

2017.10.23 AMOSThe story says that God asked Jonah to go to a big city and call on its rulers and people to repent of greed and self-righteousness.

Jonah’s response? He runs away.
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Apocalypse Already: Acts 2.1–21

2017.6.4 pentecostDelivered at Ames UCC
on June 4, 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
(except in July–
see the church website for details).

THANKS, BUT NO THANKS
Sometimes this passage feels like a bait and switch. It lures us in with this marvelous moment of human unity and a prediction of even more, only to tell us it won’t really happen until after an apocalyptic encounter between the realms of Earth and those of heaven. I want a direct experience of God, for sure. But who would want the great and glorious day of the Lord if it must be preceded by blood, fire, smoky mist, a blacked sun, and a red moon?

Why does Peter interpret this joyous symphony of speech as a sign of some frightening end of time? Why does God’s presence require apocalypse?

The Bible is quite self-referential. Books of the Bible quote each other constantly, either to retell stories in slightly different ways or to prove a point. The Gospels in the Christian Testament, for example, draw heavily on the prophets of the Hebrew Bible to credential Jesus. So when we hear Peter respond to this theophany, it is not his original speech. He is quoting the prophet Joel.

JOEL AND PETER
Joel’s prophecy is in a book of his name, in a section of the Hebrew Bible known as the Nevi’im, or the Prophets. Like Lamentations, which I referenced last week, Joel’s book is about destruction and loss. But unlike Lamentations, Joel makes a case for God’s coming redemption from suffering in the form of equality among all people. However, that can only happen, Joel says, after an apocalypse.
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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.
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Neighbor to Neighbor

Published March 1, 2017 in the Ames Tribune

By Eileen Gebbie

I have just added U.S. Attorney General Jeff Session’s Department of Justice comments line (202-353-1555) to my phone contacts. I called him (after calling Senators Ernst and Grassley and Congressman Steve King) regarding the barring of cameras and national press from the latest White House press briefing. My message to them was the same: This action by the Trump administration is a violation of the First Amendment and one step further away from democracy and toward totalitarianism. It was satisfying but I am still scared.

I do not know how effective my calls are. Surely, despite the rise of wealthy PACs, our elected officials still care a bit about how those who might or might not vote for them feel. And, surely, if enough of us express our opinions one way or another, that will have the power to sway their actions.

But we can do better than hope power is accumulating on the side of Lady Liberty. As she stands among the broken shackles of slavery to welcome all who would bring their talents and dreams and sweat to the American experiment, shining a beacon of hope for all who are being crushed by bigotry and greed, we have to do more than hope our power is growing. We have to make it grow.

Growing power takes time. The Civil Rights Movement did not succeed because Rosa Parks sat down one day and Martin Luther King, Jr. was a compelling orator. It succeeded because of the hundreds of people who talked to thousands of other people about the conditions of their lives and what they would be willing to risk to make a change. The Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted 381 days. That was 381 days—more than one year—of walking to and from work, as well as errands, in all kinds of weather, no matter how far or how tired those boycotters might have been.
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Attend to One Another: Luke 6.1–16

2017.1.29 resist findDelivered at Ames UCC
on January 29, 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.

HEARING
A news story came across my e-mail recently with the title “The greatest challenge your pastor will face in 2017.” Can you guess what the challenge was? The author said that it is all of you.

He described how, on any given Sunday, the preacher may say one thing but congregants hear another. That’s a given in this style of teaching. We have a lot of teachers here, so I know you can relate. But the author predicted the phenomenon would be more pronounced in light of the presidential election.

So let me ask you this: How many of you here today want me to address the week’s news about refugees and walls and women’s bodies? And how many of you would be very frustrated if I did?

Group dynamics are always tricky, but even more so in a time of conflict and even in a space of faith. Just look at today’s story.

ANTI-SEMITISM
The first conflict is in the temples, which prompts a reminder before I get into the meat of my sermon. Beware our human tendency to conflate a few with all.

The greatest sin of Christianity has been to take the reported behavior of a few people who were Jewish, many years ago, as representative of people who are Jewish, for all time. The shock of those in today’s scripture, and their reprimand of Jesus, does not characterize all people who are now, or were then, Jewish. I know that you know this, but given the persistence of hate groups and speech against people who are Jewish by people who claim to be Christian, it bears repeating.

Now, let’s talk about Judas, the focus of our greatest conflict as Christians.
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Public Servants

January 21, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

My grandfather was a soldier.
My grandmother was a public servant at the federal level.
My mother was a public servant at the state and federal levels.
My aunties–biological and chosen–were public servants at the federal level.
My uncle was a public servant at the federal level.
My stepfather was a public servant at the state level.
My father-in-law was a soldier.
My brother is a public servant at the state level.
My sister works in a public school.
My sister-in-law teaches in a public school.
My cousin teaches in a public school.
My brother-in-law teaches at a public university.
My wife taught in public schools and at a public university.

Each worked hard to receive training and do their jobs well with and for fellow Americans, regardless of race, class, sex, economic background, sexual orientation, abilities, nation of origin, or religion. Each entered public service for common good and not to personally enrich themselves (and at times even at the risk of their own lives).

Which, in addition to their positions, is why I am appalled by so many of the nominees for our nation’s cabinet and the new president’s top advisors. Their careers have been marked by self-interest and their training is in no way related to the concerns they would now have to tend. Or, even worse, their careers or training to date have been directly opposed to those concerns. By refusing to remove conflicts of interest that will be personally enriching while making decisions for all of us, they serve only themselves, and not us at all.

As a Christian priest, I do not engage in partisan politics. Instead, I work within my church and my local IAF alliance to build power and then address specific issues we are struggling with. This allows me to be in relationship and solidarity with people with whom I might not share a party platform but do share pressures around housing, jobs, and mental illness, for example.

In that work, I am a public servant. And you can be, too.

My family taught me that public service is a privilege, but one open to all people. If you have not already, please seek out the alliances in your community that transcend name-calling and take no pleasure in the suffering of others. Because this new cohort of leaders will betray that role and all of us because of our race, class, sex, sexual orientation, economic background, abilities, nation of origin, and religion.

Yet More Goodness and Light

Published Jul. 30, 2016 in the Ames Tribune.

By Eileen Gebbie

My God, people are in so much pain. Nerves are frayed, souls are bleeding.

This is not news. To you or to me. There is a vibration of fear and distrust in the land, which none of us can escape.

As a pastor, it is not actually my place to try to escape. An important part of my work is being with people in their pain. I’ve had formal training and years of experience in “pastoral care.” It’s a kind of caring distinct from what mental health care professionals do, in that I do not diagnose or offer solutions. I listen and I pray.

I ask the (often considered annoying) question, “Where is God for you in this?” So receiving and witnessing pain comes with my job.

But something shifted in the last month, at least for me in my ministry. I’ve preached about and been public in my response to all of the recent shootings and public violence, even before Orlando and Dallas.

But it has felt like humanity — or at least the people of Ames and Story County — recently crossed into no-mans’ land, or broke through a dam — whatever metaphor for unfamiliar territory and feeling overwhelmed works for you.
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Our Systems Are Not Working: Job 3.1–10, 4.1–9, 7.11–21

banquetDelivered at First Christian Church
on July 10, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read. On Sundays during July we worship with First Christian Church at 9:30 a.m., alternating between FCC and Ames UCC.
Please come join us!

REMEMBER, WE LIVE IN THE ASHES
I mentioned last week that I was worried about preaching on Job off and on all summer, that I thought I needed to find a way to sell this sorry story so that it didn’t become a summer off. I wish the news of the last week hadn’t reminded me that we are already living the sorry story. I wish our world did not require us to learn the language of Job’s ash heap over and over again.

RECAP AND UPDATE
To review: Job was a very rich man and a religious man. An adversarial force came into God’s presence. God bragged to it about Job’s faith. The adversarial force suggested that faith was built on God’s protection and special treatment of Job, that Job’s faith had no integrity. Of course it is easy to be faithful when you get everything you want!

God told the Adversary to take away all of his riches and see—Job would never forsake God. So Job loses his whole family to invaders and natural disasters. And God is right: Job does not forsake God. Then the Adversary, with God’s permission, destroys Job’s skin. Job literally throws himself away, scraping at his sores while sitting in and on the garbage dump.

Job is alone until he is approached by three friends, who sit silently with Job for seven days and seven nights, “for they saw that (his) pain was very great” (2.13).
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