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.

Authority and Worth: Mark 10.17–31

2018.8.26 churchDelivered at Ames UCC
on August 26, 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.

TWO QUESTIONS
There are two questions we have to answer for ourselves when confronted by this scripture. Because it is a confrontation between us and Jesus, just as it is between Jesus and the rich man.

One, what authority do we give Jesus in our lives? And, two, what does that authority require us to do with our money?

AUTHORITY
When we come into a building labeled United Church of Christ, as ours is in such large letters on the east, it is a safe assumption that Jesus is the highest authority in this place; that the in-house ritual worker—me—will describe Jesus’s teachings, and teachings about Jesus, as paramount; and that Jesus will be named as a conclusive expression of the Godhead.

But that does not mean any one of you will accept all or even most of what the church promotes or I have to say. That is not required in our particular branch of the Christian family tree. We do not have a creed or tests of faith. Instead, we have lifelong learning and prayer and discernment about the person, place, and passion of Jesus Christ.

So where are you on that today?

Consider, for a moment, where you are in your conversation with God regarding Jesus.

Maybe you understand him to have been a real, historical man or perhaps a composite of many Jewish zealots and movements. Maybe you believe he physically healed the sick but did not raise the dead. You may accept his death on a cross but reject the idea that God wanted him to die that way.

The longest conversation we have with God is usually about Easter and whether Jesus literally came back from the dead or metaphorically did or did in a way we do not have language for.

Your position on each of those key elements of our story, your own Christology, to use the theological term, will determine in part how you respond to Jesus when he tells you to sell all that you have and give it to the poor.

DODGE
One answer may be to dodge the question. Because who here is really rich, like the man in the passage?

One percent of our population now owns forty percent of the national wealth. Twenty percent owns ninety percent of the wealth. I don’t know that any of us are in that category. I do know that twenty two percent of the Ames population is working and above the poverty line but not really able to afford living here.

The majority of us who come to this place, though, are affording to live here, have sufficient health care coverage, can do some saving, and can even afford the occasional vacation or new car. Though we may not be dripping with gold and Gucci, we do have more than our daily bread.

So Jesus is addressing us, too.

And if we give him any authority in our lives, we do have to decide how to faithfully use our financial resources.
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Add More to Church: Ephesians 6.10–20

2017.8.6 dispensaryDelivered at Ames UCC
on August 6, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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heard rather than read.
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GET RID OF IT
Let’s get rid of all of this. Let’s get rid of the pews and the hymnals and the organ and the windows and the bricks. Let’s get rid of our logo and our slogan and any future inside jokes about being Congregational versus being Evangelical and Reform. Let’s just get rid of all of this because Jesus didn’t risk everything just so that we can get all attached to and bent out of shape about our personal preferences and historic traditions.

I am, of course, paraphrasing the opening of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Or, as those of you were here for the first two weeks of this letter will remember, Pseudo-Paul’s not-letter to the not-Ephesians.

Once we are on the Way of Jesus, he teaches (whoever he was), we are a new people unbound by suspicion or hate, living beyond society’s walls and delineations.

Except that we are not, of course. Except that over time, since the time of the Pauls, the Christian church became one of the most conservative, entrenched, boundary-setting institutions in human existence. Which has backfired, of course. Which has been our downfall. The numbers of Americans who identify as Christian continues to decline.

These days, adults who grew up in homes without a religious affiliation of any kind are more likely to stay religiously unaffiliated than those who grew up in a religious home. Meaning, being a-religious is more meaningful over time than being religious, for younger Americans.

In my most pessimistic moments, I say, “Who cares?” God is not religion. The church is not God. And if the church has failed to make this Way of engaging with God compelling, if the church has failed to be faithful to the God it claims to worship and serve, then so be it. We reap what we sow.

God will God onward, with or without me or you or the New Century Hymnal.

HOLY COMMUNION AND THE ARMOR OF GOD
But last week, for about an hour, we did manage to be faithful to pseudo-Paul’s vision of the church, maybe even to God. Members of our church, First Christian, and First Baptist came together at Brookside Park. We got outside of our individual sanctuaries, these tyrannies of preference and tradition, to gather at Christ’s open table, in prayer, in song, and in body. There were 167 of us, a new record.

Afterward, I was visiting with a member of our community, one of those younger adults raised without religion from all the studies. (I did get permission to tell this story.) This woman, who is bucking the statistical trend, asks me what Communion is. She’d just taken part in it for the first time.
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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

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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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Forgiveness Begins in Holy Community: 2 Corinthians 2.1–10

forgivenessDelivered at Ames UCC
on May 29, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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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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The Iowa Caucus

Published Feb. 28, 2016 in the Ames Tribune.

When I told people in southern California that I was moving to Iowa, the overwhelming response was, “Won’t it be too cold?!” Having lived on the windy plains of central Illinois and through the Chicago blizzard of 2011 (“Snowpocalypse,” “Chizzard”), I could respond that, yes, it will at times be too cold but then there will be spring. I love the seasons of the Midwest.

One response, though, stood out. It was from a woman who was very active in her county’s politics. She said Iowa would be great because of all the time I would get with presidential candidates. California barely warrants one visit, let alone the dozens each caucus season, she explained.

I grew up in a somewhat political household. My mother’s position was through gubernatorial appointment and she once worked in President Bill Clinton’s administration. But I mark the beginning of my own political participation in the 1992 election season in Portland, Oregon.
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Sick and Unseen: Mark 5.21–43

healingrelationshipDelivered at Ames UCC on
January 24, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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(Listen to this one here.)
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THEOLOGIAN IN RESIDENCE
Next week we have our big, annual Theologian in Residence weekend. Our speaker, and preacher, will be The Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. He will give a series of talks, participate in a discussion panel, and preach on Sunday. The scheduled topics are:

“A Primer on the History of Church and State: It Started in the Schools”
“When Political Candidates Step in IT*” (*the issue of church and state)
“And They Will Be Led By a Child: Predictions for the Future”
“Proof Texting with Passion: How the Bible Lends Itself to Political Manipulation”

The following day we will all go caucus for the presidential primary. It will be a very political weekend. So, to prepare us, today I will preach a political sermon.

Let’s start with ancient Israel and what we learned from The Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins last week.

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Building without Worry

Building without worryBUILDING WITHOUT WORRY

The litany below is based on the charge that The Rev. Theodore Jennings gave to the Chicago Theological Seminary 2012 graduating class. I have since modified it, both in content and format. You are most welcome to use it in your own settings. –The Rev. Eileen Gebbie, Ames UCC

Voice 1:
Our Good News comes to us through old languages translated across many tongues and cultures. It can be confusing, contradictory, and even painful. Our scripture has been used to justify all manner of atrocities and ignorance. Need we worry?
Respondent:
Do not worry: the Word is stronger than the contempt shown it. If we clothe ourselves in its poetry and anoint our lives with its tales, we will radiate the light and truth of God’s holy word.
Voice 2:
Our world, nation, towns, and even our own churches, harbor cruel edges of racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy. Need we worry?
Respondent:
Do not worry: the God that freed the Israelites, the God that cared for Hagar the slave, the God that empowered the Canaanite woman to challenge even Jesus gives us strength to name such violences and the certainty that they will end.

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Christ is Defined by Change: Hebrews 1.1–4

sf_ntBooks_Hebrews01Delivered at Ames UCC on August 9, 2015
© The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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BUILD
Last week I went to a training hosted by AMOS with Linda Hanson and Michael Johnson. AMOS, which stands for A Mid-Iowa Organizing Strategy, is an alliance of churches and social service agencies that work together to create social change. For example, AMOS was instrumental in helping to make more affordable housing available in Ames through our city’s recent negotiations with the Breckenridge developers.

I have a lot to share from the training, but today I want to focus on one comment made by one of the organizers, Bishop Douglas Miles of Koinonia Baptist Church in Baltimore, MD. Bishop Miles has been in ministry for over 40 years. He’s been active with BUILD, AMOS’ sister alliance in Baltimore, for almost as long.
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How do We Grow the Church?: Psalm 23 and John 10.11–18

psalm 23Delivered at Ames UCC on April 26, 2015
© The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

HASHEM
How many times do you think you have heard the 23rd Psalm? Ten times? A thousand? It is used at funerals and memorial services more often than any other piece of scripture. Perhaps you’ve already decided to have it at your own. Perhaps we have all heard it so many times that the words flow together into that still water, losing a little of their meaning.

That’s why I chose the Jewish Publication Society translation. Instead of “the Lord,” “the Lord is my shepherd,” we heard HaShem, meaning “the name” in Hebrew. The Name sets a table with our enemies; the Name leads us to green pastures.
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