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.
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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.
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Faith is Not So Tidy: Luke 3.1–22

2017.1.8 best caseDelivered at Ames UCC
on January 8, 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.

NEAT AND TIDY
Luke tells a good story, he’s a good story teller. The Gospel of Luke and its sister book the Acts of the Apostle are beautifully crafted cases for Christ. Rather than a collection of Jesus stories with no segues or explanation, each element within Luke’s gospel is connected, and is a stepping stone to the predicted end.

In the second chapter, for instance, a barren woman is able to get pregnant, a classic Biblical sign of God at work in the world. That woman, Elizabeth, now pregnant with John, visits her cousin Mary, now pregnant with Jesus. John gives Elizabeth’s bladder a good kick, and Elizabeth proclaims Mary blessed among women.

This is a foreshadowing of today’s story: John, now born and grown and working as a religious leader, kicks back against those who think he is the anointed one. No, he says, not I. But, the one I have preceded all my life.

In the Gospel of Luke, the structure of the story leaves no room to doubt that Jesus is the Son of God. The structure of Luke’s story of faith is neat and tidy.

But, man oh man, the contents are not. Look, for example, at the company Jesus keeps, right from the very start.

2017.1.8 not just ritualJESUS’ BAPTISM
Although the Christmas story tells us that Jesus is going to be someone special, the audience for that is pretty small, once you exclude the sky full of heavenly host. Jesus’ baptism, then, is considered his debut act of ministry, the moment at which Jesus declares his commitment to God and God blesses that commitment.

The version most commonly represented in art and story is from the Gospel of Mark. In it, John is in rough clothing and eating bugs. John cites the prophecy from Isaiah and predicts Jesus. Jesus is then clearly baptized by John and just as he comes out of the water, the heavens open right in front of everyone, in direct response to John moving Jesus through the water.

Not so in Luke. In Luke, we just hear that sometime after everyone was baptized, including Jesus, Jesus was praying, but where and for how long and with whom, we don’t know. Only then does God speak.

That crucial moment almost reads as an addendum to what came before: seventeen verses of John preaching and chastising and getting arrested, then only two about Jesus and his baptism. In Luke, it is the lead up to the baptism and holy blessing that get the attention, that have the weight. And it is not tidy. The lead up to baptism and blessing are messy.

John has rejected his birthright. This one who could have been—should have been?—a temple priest like his father is instead a hollering, river-wading name caller. People, he says, there is one coming who will straighten everything out. But you are a brood of vipers! You think you can rest on who you are related to and do no work of your own. Bah!

Then things get messier, because it turns out that the people who were drawn to John, at least the ones who warrant naming, are tax collectors and soldiers. This first group consists of fellow Israelites who make their living off of taxing their own neighbors on behalf of an occupier, while taking a cut for themselves. The second are the agents of occupation who keep the rule of foreign law, including suppression of resistance, through violence, extortion, and pinning crimes on innocent people. John tells them to clean up their acts and be prepared to be judged by fire.

These are the people chosen by Jesus to be his first witnesses. These are the very first members of what we now call the body of Christ.
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We Have Already Won: 2 Samuel 7.1–17

already-wonDelivered at Ames UCC
on October 23, 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.

NATHAN
Last week was Hannah, this week is Nathan. Pr. Hannah’s family has Biblical proportions!

Nathan isn’t a prophet that we talk about a lot, not as we do Amos or Isaiah. But he’s an important character in the story of David.

Remember that prophets are those people who have a singular focus on God with no regard for social niceties. However, not all prophets are created equal. Nathan is a prophet in the king’s court. He is employed by the king. We might question whether he is able to sustain a singular focus in such an arrangement.

When we first meet Nathan today, King David has just wondered aloud how it is that he himself lives in opulence, but the artifacts of God are still in a tent, as they have been since the Exodus. David decides to build a temple. Nathan encourages David to do so—Go for it! Build a temple! God is with you! That same night, though, through Nathan himself, God says not to build a temple.

Later, when David has become an adulterous villain, it is Nathan who calls David out on his abuses. Nathan keeps David in check when he threatens to reverse himself on promises of royal succession. Nathan also assures David of God’s forgiveness after a genuine period of repentance.

So, the speech of prophets is not always prophetic. But Nathan did do the work of one who upholds the heart of the Ten Commandments: reminding others to honor relationships.

LOST IN TRANSLATION
But the focus of today’s portion isn’t Nathan and his prophetic qualities. It’s this issue of whether or not, and when, David should build a temple for God.
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Priesthood of All Believers

priesthood of allPublished March 9, 2015
© The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Some of the most powerful theological thinking in my church happens at our League of Youth (LOY).

Middle schooler:  “I don’t think Jesus is the king in the parable of the wedding banquet. I think Jesus is the stranger who wasn’t wearing a wedding outfit and got kicked out. It was before Easter so they didn’t recognize him yet.”

Last night I joined our middle and high school kids (and a handful adults) for dinner and a conversation about worship. Our youth have a fair amount of involvement in worship: Once each month they are greeters and ushers and once a month they read the prayers and scripture.

But for this gathering I wanted to talk about how worship is where we practice being Christians, specifically practice being table followers and baptized seekers.

Our conversation about Holy Communion centered on Maundy Thursday and Jesus’ welcome of all, including his betrayer, Judas.

Teenagers know a lot about betrayal: a sense of betrayal by their bodies, by their parents and guardians, by their peers, by their nation. Continue reading