Ashes and Feast

Each Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Easter dawn, my church and two others worship together.

This year I was scheduled to preach at the host church, Ames First United Methodist, with First Christian Church hosting at the table.

The scripture, picked years ago by the organizers of the Narrative Lectionary, was Matthew 18:1–9, in which Jesus says not to place stumbling blocks before one another.

It is a great message, but one that seemed suddenly quite pointed because, the week before, the governing body of the international United Methodist Church had voted to be more strict in its position regarding queer marriage and clergy.

So how should I, a gay married priest, respond in the pulpit?

Watch the video to see.

We Are All Going to Die: Matthew 7.1–14 and 24–29

Delivered at Ames UCC on February 10, 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.

2019.2.10 sweetDEATH
We are all going to die.

You didn’t need to get out of bed of a Sunday morning to hear that. You know it. I know it. We all know it. But perhaps you come here, in part, to figure out how to live until death, to maybe even get some insight into what death will be like.

I do not know what death will be like, the part after we are dead, that is. I know that biologically we will return to our basic physical and chemical elements. Our flesh will fall away, our bones become grist for soil. We will take our place alongside all other humans and all mammals and all invertebrates and all plants in releasing our component parts back to the biome which birthed and sustained us. That I know for sure.

I feel equally certain that no part of us, and no part of anyone else, will go to a hell.

Beyond that, I cannot speak with as much certainty.

Our religious tradition has offered many images of a heavenly life after death. Peter at pearly gates, streets paved with gold, reunion with all the people we have loved. My preference is a metaphor offered by one of my seminary professors: We experience one stream of the life eternal now, another later. My genetic material, and yours, is as old as humanity itself. My biological material, and yours, will be part of the planet, as long as she exists.

Eternal life is not later but already.

And that is about as definitive as I can get and maintain my theological integrity, except to add that because we are here together, we do not have to make that transition to the next stream alone. I will be with you, if at all possible. The souls of this place will sing to you as you step into those waters.

Which leaves me with the first motivation I mentioned for coming here: Whatever happens after life, how do we live until death?

In today’s passage, Jesus answers with a long list of To Dos.

TO-DOS
This is the final portion of the Sermon on the Mount that we will study this year. It is, all told, 107 verses long, a tome in Biblical standards. Over those eight dozen verses, though we know Jesus has a small audience of the first few disciples, he does not interact with anyone. There is no dialogue, and Jesus does not tell any stories, any parables. It doesn’t even read as a sermon so much as a collection of sayings and instructions, one after the other, as with today: Do not judge, don’t throw pearls before swine, search and you will find, do to others as you would have them do to you, enter through the narrow gate.

Bam, bam, bam: Do, don’t, do, do, don’t do. No sugar coating and no coaxing, Jesus reiterates to the disciples, and to us, God’s Torah instructions and his feelings about those who do not follow them:

…everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish person who built their house on sand.

The Sermon on the Mount is a little intimidating to read in that regard. After all, by Jesus’s account, we are walking around with logs in our eyes trying to judge the specks in others’. If we do not even notice something as cumbersome and stabby as a log tangled up in our lashes, how can we ever hope to do to others as we would have them do to us?

We are doomed to fall short of all of these instructions at one time or another, if not most of the time. So we are probably doomed altogether then, too, right? We don’t have to worry about what heaven might be because we won’t ever get into it, right?

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Wishes and God: 2 Kings 5.1–15a

2018.11.4 god is thereDelivered at Ames UCC on November 4, 2018

©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.

WISH
I wish this story was true. I wish that with seven sincere baths in a sacred river, terrible ailments could be healed. I wish that I could walk with each of you who are living with cancer and depression and arthritis and heart failure to a place that keeps its own rules of germs and degeneration and neurology.

I wish that the dead, the loved ones that we will name here in worship and then see in photos in our parlor after worship, could have received such treatment so that they would be with us, bodily, right now.

Can you imagine that? Can you imagine the tears of joy and relief? As much water as would flow from of our eyes as in the river.

And I wish that Joyce Feinberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, and Irving Younger, could have been taken from the blood-drenched floors of the Tree of Life Synagogue, not to a mortuary but to a life-filled tree fed by the river Jordan. I wish that that there the gunman’s bullets would have been washed away, their sinews reknit, and their lives restored.

I wish that illness could be no more and sorrow a curious aberration from the past.

But those are not wishes destined for fulfillment.

UNFULFILLED
All of our bodies will fail of their own accord if we are not first killed by an accident or another person. There is no river or stream or spring with magical properties that can make them do otherwise.

And it is an abuse of God’s name, and each others’ souls, to say that sufficient faith will bring bodily healing. God is not so egotistical or fickle as to respond to an abracadabra of prayers.

Disease and damage and death are part of creation and creation is part of God, so even the worst of pains and poisonous acts are part of God, too.

I believe the ancients knew this. I believe that the communities that authored our scripture, understood that God’s relationship with us is not capricious or mechanistic.

Yes, they have given us many stories that describe a quid pro quo of giving obedience and receiving blessing, but I think they had just as much capacity for subtlety and metaphor as us. They were not ignorant of inevitable bodily outcomes, they just were just more willing to live into mystery, into the imaginal realm, than we are. So even though some of us may have been taught that stories like this reflect “an age when miracles still happened,” it does not.

This story of Namaan and Elisha, and those like it, is about the miracle of holy presence within the wholly ordinary. Let’s look at the story.

ELISHA’S MIRACLES
Elisha is a disciple of Elijah.

Elijah was a powerful and, toward the end of his career, a horribly bloodthirsty prophet. You may remember him from his retreat to the desert where he was fed by ravens. Later he helped a starving widow and her son with jars of flour and oil that perpetually refilled. He even brought that son back to life.

Elisha proves to be a powerful prophet in his own right.

For example, immediately before today’s story, Elisha also helps a widow secure enough food for her family. He invites her to borrow her neighbor’s empty oil jars and then pour what little oil she has left into each one. She finds that her meager supply can fill all the jars in the neighborhood.

Later, the child of another woman dies. When Elisha arrives, he presses his mouth to that of the boy, his eyes to those of the boy, his hands to those of the boy, an offering of warmth and humanity, which brings the child back to life.

Elisha even feeds a multitude of people with only a few loaves of bread.

Then today he relieves Naaman of a skin ailment by directing him to bathe in the river Jordan.

Notice how these miracles occur: through common earthenware, gentle and well-intentioned human touch, bread, and river water. No thunder, or potions, or shazam.

Notice what these miracles achieve: some relief from hunger, some relief from grief, some relief from discomfort. None of these miracles grant power or prestige. None of them grant a permanent lease on life.

Our miracle stories are not about extra faith granting the extra ordinary. In the commonplaceness of their means, and the impossibility of their ends, these miracles do not suggest a 1-2-3 formula for healing.

Our faith ancestors knew how poverty, illness, and grief distract and consume, so they used these radical reversals to startle and inspire us to recognize the simple, ubiquitous, and reassuring presence of God.

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Servants Between Ashes and Dust: 1 John 1.5–2.2

Delivered at First Christian Church on July 1, 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 things change up, so please check the calendar here).

UNIQUE RELATIONSHIP
Grace and peace to you, First Christian Church, and isn’t it great to be back in this sanctuary together, Ames UCC?

In addition to being a joy, these July services we share are also unique.

There are six different churches downtown—our two, First United Methodist, Grace Lutheran, Body of Christ, and Holy Transfiguration Orthodox—six churches all professing devotion to God in Christ Jesus with this same scripture as our teacher, yet we continue to maintain our own buildings and pastors and services and ministries. We are so insistent on practicing that love of God in Christ Jesus with distinct music, art, liturgy, and theology, that we mostly remain out of touch and independent.

But here we are, every July, as well as at the beginning and end of Lent, together. During the highest of holy days and the most ordinary of times, for over fifty years, we have come together to give God our united thanks and praise.

Thank you.

NO ATONEMENT SACRIFICE
Because of the unique and long-standing nature of this relationship, the amount of flexibility 2018.7.1 no atonementand openness to difference it demonstrates, and the trust I hope that I’ve personally earned, I’m going to risk being completely transparent with you about my theology of the cross.

Namely, that I completely disagree with this reading. Not all of it, and not all of 1 John, but its interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’s death.

Which puts me in good company, if not in terms of theology, then in the fact of disagreement. This essay, 1 John, is part of an early schism about whether Jesus’s body matters or not. One side said it does not, that it is only a mask. The side represented in 1 John said it does, that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human, so his body is essential to the teachings and the gift. Which I do agree with.

But I cannot accept the authors’ theology that God intentionally had Jesus die as a blood sacrifice to atone for the sins of the world.Instead of an individual bull or goat or dove, the traditional sacrifices for individual sins, they argue that Jesus was a universal lamb to compensate for a whole a universe of sin. Which makes God a murderer and the “structural, civic violence”1 of an empire necessary and holy.

That’s the theology and the God that I grew up with and that is most commonly professed. 2018.7.1 lifeIt is not, though, the theology I can stake my life on or the God that I can love.

Am I saying Jesus didn’t die? No. Am I saying Jesus’s death is inconsequential? No. Am I saying we don’t sin? No way.

I’m saying that it isn’t Jesus’s death, but his life and his resurrection, that are the mechanisms which might redeem us from sin. It is what he did before and after that ordinary, brutal day that may give us means to stop deceiving ourselves and have fellowship with God and each other.

Might and may are probably the most important words there. Jesus’s life and his resurrection might redeem us, if we remember to allow them to.
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Faith is not Formulaic: Acts 16.16–34

2018.4.22 salvationDelivered at Ames UCC on
Sunday, April 22, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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

HOW
How is all of this supposed to work? This coming into the sanctuary of a Sunday, the going to Bible study, the attending regional youth events? (Several of our youth are at Urbandale UCC today to meet other kids who will be going to the July youth event.) What are the faith outcomes that these religious mechanics generate?

From Christmas until Easter we watched the Jesus movement begin, Jesus himself with his teachings and talents and the blessings and backlash which followed both.  Now we are in the season of Eastertide. During Eastertide we watch the emergence of the early churches, the very earliest churches, the Communion and Baptism communities that followers of the Jesus movement planted as far from Jerusalem’s grave as Macedonia’s Philippi. That’s almost 1,400 miles and would take over 400 hours to walk. That’s commitment.

But, again, to what end and through which means?  Today Paul’s answer to his jailer is

Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.

FORMULAE
Believe and be saved. It’s the classic Christian formula.

Throughout my high school years, when I would drive myself and my brother and dog north on I-5 either from the home of our aunts in Portland or our dad in Vancouver to our mom’s place in Olympia, there was a billboard that read “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ,” in full, giant Gothic print.

I remember being both offended and confused by it. Offended for having my public space taken up by Christian evangelism (I was a classic teen) and confused by the use of “on” instead of “in.” Don’t we have faith in Jesus Christ, not on him?

Regardless, I understood it then, as I do now, to suggest that if we commit ourselves exclusively to Jesus Christ we will be rescued from certain pain and suffering. It’s a tidy formula. It’s a formula that leaves no room for interpretation. And it’s a formula that no doubt has leveraged the anxiety inherent in its absolutism to gain adherents.

But I don’t think it is exactly right, and I’m a long way from that raw rejection of youth.

Speaking only for myself, but also from experience with so many other people in my life, my relationship with God through Christ has not saved me from anything. It has not saved me from sexual assault, homophobic discrimination, mental illness, or in any complete sense, from my own shortcomings.

Maybe my faith will play into whatever happens to me when I am dead, but asking me to structure the life I know around the unknowns of my death doesn’t really sound like the work of the God of Genesis or Jesus of Nazareth. Especially when our scripture offers fuller, I don’t want to say proof, but a pattern more in alignment with the full picture of God in the world.
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Why, Oh Why?

Published Sep 23, 2016 in the Ames Tribune

By Eileen Gebbie

I haven’t written a piece for this paper in some time. I scheduled myself for every month, and was succeeding, until members of my church began to experience an unprecedented wave of death, cancer and division. Not the kinds I usually write about, not the large scale losses and diseases of racism and poverty, but intimate and very present lives in ruins.

This means I have been spending more time than ever asking the biggest theological question of them all: “Why?” Not just why did a loved one die, why does someone have to have cancer, why doesn’t a relationship work, but why did God allow this to happen and why isn’t God fixing it all?

This makes sense to me. In crises we generally know who, what, when, where and how. Those are the sources of the pain. But the “why,” even when the concrete answers are bad cells or bad communication, seems to remain hidden behind a curtain. It is the same curtain that also seems to hide the divine.
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A Eulogy

life-is-uncontrollable-wildnessOn Saturday, September 3, 2016 my church gathered to celebrate the life of a gentleman who just two weeks before had been a vibrant, healthy father and academic. Then he was stung by a wasp.

Services for those who die suddenly or “too soon” have a different rhythm and tone than those for someone in their nineties or who has had a long illness.

In this case, the family had asked for four speakers, so it was important that I address the theological issue of the day (“Why?!”) succinctly, then allow the rest to tell his story.

Our last reading today, the familiar passage in Ecclesiastes, says that there is a time for everything in life, the good and the bad. But I think I speak for the family and all of us gathered here when I say this was not Chet’s time to die. This was not somehow his cosmic turn, one ordained in the stars, or dictated by the divine. Chet is gone too soon, well before his time.

Over the course of this summer our church has been studying the book of Job. Job’s story of wholescale loss, his argument with well-meaning friends, and his poetic dialogue with God, give voice to our own confusion and pain and anger on a day like today.

And although later editors tried to explain away Job’s suffering, the ancient poem ultimately says that “Why?” is not the question in senseless death. Instead, the question holiness actually answers is “What is?” What is life?

Life is uncontrollable wildness, a tapestry of biology and chance, infused with the sacred and partnered with death. Chet’s biology could not withstand its chance encounter with wildness. And so death came.

And in each moment that he drew breath and the one in which he stopped, Chet was in the presence of God.

At the end of Job, a community of family and friends who are family, help to rebuild the daily life Job had lost. They could not replace those who had died, but they could ensure that he was not alone in grieving and the necessary taking of steps and breathing of breaths. It is our sorrow and our privilege to do that today for Chet’s loving family.

What is life? It is loving, even though we know we will lose what we love, it is living richly and bravely within God’s wild tapestry.

Job 42.1–7: Let God be God and Care for the Needful

wombofgodDelivered at Ames UCC
on August 28, 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.

RIGHT/WRONG TIME
I was a little worried about starting a series on Job in the summer. Summer is a happy, sunny time and Job is such a bummer. His is a winter tale, not a lure to come to church when you could be out on a kayak or hike.

But over the last few weeks our church has experienced a surge in suffering: cancer diagnoses, cancer treatments, emergency surgeries, housing loss, relational loss, imminent death, and death itself through disease or depression.

I have never believed life is or should be easy, but the particulars and the volume combined have shaken me at times. And more than one of you now have either asked, “Does this make me Job?” or otherwise referenced this sad and serious story.

There is no right time to study Job because the trauma the poem describes will always come at what feels like the wrong time.
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Loving Job: Job 1.1–22

releasegodDelivered at First Christian Church
on July 3, 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 (except in July, when we worship with First Christian Church at 9:30 a.m., alternating between FCC and Ames UCC).

LOVE–HATE
Show of hands: Who loves the story of Job? Who really dislikes it? I was wary of it for a long time because it sounded so mean: God letting someone lose their whole family to prove a point. It seemed to reinforce notions of God wanting suffering and suffering somehow being redemptive—what I consider the worst of our tradition’s contribution to understanding the holy.

And I think I felt like having faith in God would require me to accept that ugliness, that somehow becoming a Christian meant accepting and professing a characterization of God that I found grotesque.

Now Job is one of my favorites. Job gives us glimpses into other times and cultures; it reminds us that our religion is a hybrid. Job asks the fundamental questions of this life, without the Christian distraction of afterlife.

And, as I hope you will see, in the end the story of Job offers a portrait of God that denies all of our efforts to humanize the divine. In Job, holiness is at a scale that truly inspires awe and justifies our faith, hope, and love.

God in Job is not grotesque, but glorious.

So, as our Bible itself does, let’s begin at the beginning, with the context and main characters.
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