This Holy Ground: Exodus 1.8-14, 3.1-15

Delivered at Ames UCC on September 29, 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.

SHOES

If it is easy for you, and you don’t mind, would you please join me in taking off our shoes?

Press your feet down. Wiggle your toes. Feel the wood or the carpet on your soles, the ball of your foot, not quite to your arches.

You are touching holy ground.

Or at least you are suspended above it.

Just below this floor is soil. Dirt that we, and a century of predecessors, have brought into this space, and has built up as it has shifted down through the slats. In some places the soil comes almost to the floor, in others there’s still enough room for someone to crawl. Scattered throughout are the piers that hold the floor up. They are buried to different depths, moldering to different degrees from the water and moisture present down there, too. The piers are both in and returning to holy ground.

Like Moses in today’s story.

MOSES

We have made a huge leap from Jacob Israel’s story in Genesis last week to Moses’s at beginning of Exodus today.

In between, the descendants of the itinerant Jacob Israel have become settled Israelites in Egypt. Those descendants “grew exceedingly strong” such that “the land (of Egypt) was filled with them,” the new Pharaoh wants them put down. So Pharaoh enslaves the Israelites. Pharaoh tries to have all of their babies killed. And then Pharaoh’s daughter up and adopts one: Moses.

Despite growing up in Pharaoh’s house, Moses knows that he is an Israelite. When he is an adult and he sees a fellow Israelite being beaten by an overseer, Moses kills the overseer, buries him in sand, and flees to nearby Midian. Moses marries Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, a Midianite priest. And that should have been that for Moses.

God is not interested in “that should have been that.”

In one of the most compelling testimonies to God’s preference for, God’s special place for the outsider and the imperfect, God does not set a bush afire for a suffering slave in Egypt but for a migrant murderer in Midian.

God compels one who grew up in privilege, and then had the privilege of being able to run away, to go back and be part of freedom.

God demands that Moses recognize the holy ground on which he stands and the holy ground being debased by slavery, one of the most despicable forces of non-being, in his homeland.

God demands the same of us today, though it is something far more pernicious and slippery than slavery we must confront. The force of non-being that we must reject and upend is our collective failure to protect our planet for sustainable life.

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Could This Be Easier?: 1 Peter

Delivered at Ames UCC on August 25, 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.

COULD BE EASIER

Sometimes I wonder if this thing we do, this faith, would be easier if we didn’t have Jesus.

Think about it: Isn’t the concept of God enough to try to wrap our heads and lives around without adding on this story of a man who maybe wasn’t entirely a man who, some far away sources say, came back to life and is yet around?

That is a lot to take on, a lot to take in, which is evidenced by the lack of agreement Christians—as in Christ-ians—have on what really happened to Jesus and what the stories about his death and resurrection mean.

Though a lot of thoughtful, devoted Christians have tried.

RANSOM

Take, for example, the early African theologian Origen.

Origen, was born in around 184 in Alexandria and died in what we now know as Libya around 253. This puts his birth within 150 years of Jesus’ death.

Origen is one of the most important, if not the most important, of the so-called “Church Fathers,” in part because of the volume of his writings on God, Christ, and Bible, and because of his theology of Jesus.

In what is known as the “ransom theory of atonement,” Origen posited that Jesus had to die because Adam and Eve, in eating of the tree of knowledge, sold us to the devil and God needed repayment. In other words, Jesus’ death was the repayment of a debt all humans were born into. The ransom theory of atonement dominated in Christian communities for about 800 years. So, for 800 years, and still to this day, Christians understood themselves to be born deficient and bound to devilishness, in need of Christ’s ransom for their souls.

Consider how that paints a person’s worldview: All humans are horrid and God accepts blood payments.

It also seems to make irrelevant, or just confusing, everything that Jesus did before dying. What point was the healings and feedings if death was the goal? Do we just ignore them now?

Fast forward many hundreds of years and James Cone would say no.

BLACK LIBERATION THEOLOGY

Cone, an African American, was born in Arkansas in 1936, so deep into the Jim Crow era, a time of lynching regular and unpunished. He came of age before Black Americans had civil rights. When he died last year, Cone was a professor of systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary.

In his foundational work, A Black Theology of Liberation, a continuation of the liberation theology developed by Peruvian Dominican priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, Cone writes that in order to know who Jesus Christ is now, we have to know who we was way back then.

2019.8.25 whitenessFor Cone, that was someone whose one and only role was to heal and liberate the oppressed (p. 112-113).  Cone’s evidence is Jesus’ birth into a humiliated and abused class, which Jesus then claimed proudly in his baptism with sinners in a river beyond the city (p. 115). Jesus signaled that, “The kingdom of God is for the helpless, because they have no security in this world” (p. 117). But they do have freedom.

In Jesus’ resurrection, Cone writes, God frees the oppressed to say no to all who oppress them, even if death looms, because God says yes to them. God’s yes to the oppressed is an act of liberation (p. 118).

So with this understanding of the historical Jesus, and theology of the resurrection, Jesus Christ today is black. Black as the color of skin, yes, and black also as the signifier of oppression, as the adjective that describes where healing and liberation in this nation is still needed.

By naming the resurrected Christ black, Cone makes Jesus concrete, present, and a reminder that black people may, through God’s yes, do whatever they need to “affirm their humanity” (p. 124). This also means that the kingdom work of God in this era is not here, not in this white church, but within the black community (p. 125). Cone doesn’t mean we can’t be part of the contemporary Christ, it just means we are not part of the contemporary Christ if we sit only here in isolated whiteness.

Which Catherine Keller affirms, with slightly different language.

X AS PROCESS

Keller is a white American woman who was born in 1953, so she was born into the right to vote but not to have her own credit card or the ability to prosecute marital assault. She is currently a professor of constructive theology at Drew University.

In her work On the Mystery, Keller describes Jesus as a parable. Jesus himself is like all of those open-ended stories that teach us about what matters, about “how to discern our priorities” (p. 140, emphasis hers). She describes Jesus as caring not about souls in abstraction, like Origen, but souls embodied, like Cone, souls embodied in relation to all other souls embodied. In that way, the meaning of our lives is in relation to the most poor and despised, just as it was for Jesus (p. 144).

Jesus as parable, she continues, is a joyous and urgent lure to make possible what the world would call impossible—the reconciliation that proceed liberation for us and for our planet. The Christic lure to that work is everywhere, but the work itself is in places of cruelty and neglect.

WRESTLE THE STONE

So that’s how three people have wrestled with the questions Jesus’ ministry, murder, and mystery evoke. Three of, oh, millions. Billions, even, because each of us here, though we are not paid theologians, come to different conclusions, different implications over our lifetimes.

I don’t know if our faith really would be easier, as I suggested at the beginning, without Jesus. God isn’t such a breeze to understand alone. So maybe that is the gift of the Christ: a human implicated in holiness, a bridge between God and us. Or, in Peter’s words in today’s passage, a living cornerstone, a place solid and yet responsive to the day.

2019.8.25 faithBecause despite the resurrection story we are still living in a devilish, oppressive, and depraved reality. We have not yet through our theological formulations found a final application of faith that will eliminate the human will to sell each other, negate another’s humanity, to be lured into selfishness rather than selflessness.

If we continue to take seriously the questions Jesus Christ evokes, we may someday come to take seriously the questions we evoke. Like the question of climate change, the question of white nationalism, the question of the legacy of chattel slavery, which we will commemorate at 2 p.m. at our bell tower today.

Maybe it isn’t a leap of faith we need to make, a leap across a chasm of theological uncertainties, but a small step onto a living stone. A stone where the holy and human might intersect. We do this by accepting Peter’s invitation to rid ourselves of “all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander,” all of our un-neighborly ways. For in such a life as that, whatever the truth of God and Christ Jesus, we will never be ashamed.

AMEN

Serving God In the Story: Joshua 21.1–15

Delivered at Ames UCC on October 14, 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.

2018.10.14 hurricaneSTORMS
It is good to be here together this morning. It is good to be able to leave our homes without having to negotiate any downed power lines or collapsed roofs, unlike so many of our fellow Americans in Florida. Do any of you know anyone affected by Hurricane Michael? The community where Carla and I honeymooned is gone.

How about Harvey in Texas? Maria in Puerto Rico? Sandy in the Northeast? Katrina in the Gulf Coast?

Do any of you know anyone affected by flooding here in Iowa? And the tornado in Marshalltown and Pella? Last week I spent some time in my basement because of a tornado warning—anyone else?

It feels like weather disasters are coming more and more often, with greater and greater intensity. It feels like that because they are. The warmer the oceans, and they are hotter than ever, the greater the storms. The warmer the planet overall, the more intense the rainfall overall. And the collision between warm, humid air, causes tornados when it encounters cold, dry air.

Our bodies can feel the change, can feel the strange. The recent days of high heat with fewer hours of daylight and turning leaves felt fundamentally wrong. Long, dark mornings should come with cold air and gloves, not bug spray and sweat.

It is like we are living in a different place. We did not move, but it is as though we are living in a different land than forty, or even four, years ago. We may not be climate refugees like the people of the Mariana and the Marshall Islands, but we are now exiles from an era when we did not have to talk about family emergency plans, bug out bags, and the tipping point for human survival. So this speech from the book of Joshua can speak as much to us now as it did for its original audience.
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Already and Always a Blessing: Genesis 12.1–9


2018.9.13 spark
Delivered at Ames UCC
on September 16, 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.

NOT MUCH
Well, there’s not really enough in this passage for me to work with, is there? The action is pretty limited: God tells Abram to go, he does, God promises Abram some land, Abram builds an altar.

There isn’t much language or symbolism for me to unpack, either. Bethel can mean “house of God” and if Bethel, the house of God or the garden of Eden, is to the west of where Abram built an altar, we could hear that to the east of Eden Abram still found cause to thank God. To echo last week’s story, despite how far humanity had come from the garden, Abram as everyman constructs a reminder that God is present no matter where we go.

In a different context, I might speak to the issue of God offering up another peoples’ land to Abram, but I think that would be a negative lesson, and we have enough negative lessons these days.

So, again, not really enough to work with for a sermon. I wonder if Abram felt the same way about himself when God called him out.

CALLED
We don’t know anything about Abram at this point beyond his age of 75, that he is a descendent of Noah, and that his wife Sarai is infertile.

We do not know anything of Abram’s character or why God would choose him. There are no tales of his chivalry or wisdom or might or piety. Noah, his great-to-the-eight grandfather, is described as a blameless and righteous man, but not Abram.

Abram is just an old guy, by ancient Mesopotamian standards, who lives with his wife and nephew, and one day is told by God “You shall be a blessing and all the earth shall be blessed through you.”

Woah! Where did that come from, God? I wonder if Abram felt confused and overwhelmed, and like maybe he didn’t have enough for God to work with, not enough for blessing the whole earth. Perhaps you don’t believe you have enough to be a blessing either.
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