Who We Want in Charge: Exodus 19.3–7 and 20.1–17

Delivered at Ames UCC on October 7, 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.

IN CHARGE
Just who is in charge here? Who has the authority to determine how we will live together? What are the mechanisms for accountability? What are the consequences for violations?

If the story of Potiphar’s wife and Joseph from two weeks ago—the story of one person trying to wield their power and privilege to demand sex from another—was timely, today’s story of the freed Hebrew slaves receiving the Decalogue is equally so.

MAGISTRATE
When last we saw them, the slaves had safely made it to the other side of the Sea of Reeds. Freedom, at last! And there was much rejoicing. Then what?

The slaves have all of their family members and all of their stuff. But for generations they have been under the direction and control of their Egyptian overlords and owners. They have been, unwillingly yet totally dependent on the rules and customs of the Pharaoh they left behind. How will they organize themselves in freedom? The Hebrews did not flee with fully formed, coequal branches of government. In addition to being homeless, then, they are also lawless and unorganized.

Naturally, they keep turning to Moses. It was all Moses’s plan to leave, he’s the one who got them all stirred up, made them think the unknown would be better than the stewpots and graves of Egypt. Plus, Moses has the ear of God. So Chapter 18 (v. 13), just before our reading today, says “Moses sat as magistrate among the people…from morning to evening.”

Which Jethro objects to, strongly.

JETHRO
Jethro is Moses’s father-in-law, a priest from Midian, a people distinct from the Egyptians and the Hebrews. On his arrival at the Hebrew encampment, Jethro is horrified by Moses’s failure to delegate, and so his abrogation of his special role as prophet of God. The man who has the ear of God should not be determining meal plans, tent configurations, or whose camel pooped on whose sandals.

“The thing you are doing is not right,” Jethro says, and tells Moses to divide magisterial duties by groups of ten, fifty, one hundred, and one thousand. Create a chain of command and accountability, Moses. “Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you,” Jethro says (v. 22b).

Moses does, and so ends the chapter. And so begins God’s own instructions.

DECALOGUE
The Hebrew people may now be organized and have sufficient judges to attend to daily concerns but what are the terms under which they judge? Maybe they were following Egyptian legal precedents or had adopted the laws of Midian, Jethro’s land. We do not know.

We do know that right after the description of implementing Jethro’s system for governance, God offers the people substance for that system.

To restate them in the terms I used when we studied the Decalogue earlier this year:

  1. Don’t bail on the power of freedom.
  2. Don’t make up a holiness to accommodate your preferences.
  3. Don’t use holiness to unholy ends.
  4. Don’t work all day every day.
  5. Don’t ignore the wisdom of your elders.
  6. Don’t lie.
  7. Don’t kill.
  8. Don’t steal.
  9. Don’t spread false rumors about others.
  10. Don’t lust after the people and resources you see on the other side of the fence.

These are not easy laws to keep. They restrict some of our most basic drives and common habits.

They restrict our appetites, like the hunger to consume objects and bodies. They restrict our tools of avarice, like rumormongering and deceit. They restrict our tendency to avoid grace, like working on weekends and vacations and insisting on learning everything the hard way.

These laws want to teach us that it is better to sacrifice striving to prayer, hubris to integrity, and craving to neighborliness. God wants to teach us that within a society, there is no room for striving, hubris, and craving, not if you want it to stay organized.

OUR SOCIETY
Our society is in a crisis of striving, hubris, and cravings. At the local level we seem to be doing okay, but I’m not so sure about the national. No matter the place on the political spectrum, no one is happy, and everybody is yelling:

You stole the election!
You stole our jobs!
You are just voting that way to stay in power!
You are just trying to get more voters so you can get power!
You demean the “unborn”!
You demean women!
You are a liar!
No, YOU are a liar!

And now the judiciary, the magistrates on whom we depend to interpret the laws of this land with thoughtfulness and rigor, without partisanship or rancor, is being torn apart apart. Fifty senators confirm a judge whom over 2,400 law professors would not.

Just who is in charge here? Who has the authority to determine how we will live together? What are the mechanisms for accountability? What are the consequences for violations?

According to this story, the consequences are suffering for generations.

GENERATIONS
This is the element of the Decalogue that I didn’t address last spring but will now: it’s that threat from God about punishment.

God says that if we make false idols and worship them, we will be punished, as will our children, and their children, and their children. But those who take on the ethic of true neighborliness that is in the remaining teachings? Thousands of generations after them shall know kindness.

Maybe that’s really what is at issue in our national rending: not partisanship, but shortsightedness. So narrow a focus on the next election cycle that we refuse the hear the solid advice of people from another party, like Jethro. That leads to the elevation of shiny idols on altars that quickly rot.

We don’t get to blame God for the suffering that will come when it all collapses.

We have to ask ourselves if in our choices today will someday lead our grandchildren to look us in the eye and say, “The thing you did was not right.”

Our goal is for our grandchildren’s grandchildren to say our names with thanksgiving because before our days were done we intentionally shared the burdens of giving up striving, hubris, and craving, so that by their day this scorching desert will have been left far behind.

Whether it is the midterms or the midweek, we do not expect one person to solve all of our problems. We look for leaders of tens, fifties, hundreds, thousands, and millions. Then we ask if they are working as hard as we are to hold themselves to the standards that we hear from God but that really transcend all religions:

  1. Only use power for freedom.
  2. Let holiness, or wholeness, set our tastes.
  3. Let wholeness determine our means.
  4. Take long breaks from the talking heads and give our minds a rest.
  5. Talk to the survivors of the fights for rights.
  6. Be honest even if it costs us.
  7. Question, rather than threaten, those we disagree with.
  8. Fix the systems that are broken, but without putting in a fix.
  9. Choose the sound over the salacious.
  10. Curb our appetites so that they do not consume us or those around us.

Or, as we will sing in a moment, ask to be each others’ servants.

AMEN Continue reading

Covenant Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love: Exodus 20.1–11

2018.6.3 earth needsDelivered at Ames UCC on June 3, 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).

DEALMAKING
Look at God, working the deals.

Last week God asked Moses, who is now in the desert wilderness with the freed Hebrew slaves, to say to the people, “You saw what I did back there. Now, if you will just bind yourself with devotion to me, you will be my most special people for all time.” I helped you, now you serve me. God wants a little something for God’s trouble, it seems.

But we are not Moses and Moses’s people. We have witnessed no plagues, no walls of water providing safe passage. What have we “gotten” from God? What has God done for us lately, that God can make demands of us still?

To use Advent as an answer: hope, peace, joy, and love.

ADVENT
Last week I handed out copies of the church’s schedule of seasons and holidays along with their traditional colors. I invited you to put those into your own personal calendars as a means to remember that our finite lives are within the infinity that is God.

Today I’d like to continue the practice of putting our everyday into the context of our faith, this time by bringing Advent into Ordinary Time. Not only is the time of faith cyclical, as exemplified by the perpetual calendar of the church, the time of faith is all seasons at one time. We are no less in Advent today than we will be in December.

But as a refresher, Advent is over the four weeks before Christmas. I wish I didn’t have to put it that way because then it sounds like Advent is the Christmas prep season, the Christmas pre-season. It isn’t. Advent is the first season of the Christian year and it is followed by the twelve days of Christmastide. So Advent stands on its own.

Advent stands on its own because it is not just pointing toward the birth of Jesus but to his execution and mystery, too. We spend that month preparing not for one night, but for another year of studying and praying the full story of God in Jesus Christ. Advent’s means for doing so are the weekly themes of hope, peace, joy, and love. In Advent we are preparing for the story of a holiness in whom, through whom, and with whom, we can receive hope, peace, joy, and love.

But that didn’t start with Jesus. What God has to give didn’t begin just two thousand years ago. Let’s look at today’s passage.
Continue reading

Honest Broker: Kings 19.4–9

2017.11.5 wearyDelivered at Ames UCC
on November 5, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

LIKE JONAH?
Why is this story in the Bible? Why have we preserved a story of a prophet who asks to die rather than continue to work for God?

For those of you who have studied the story of Jonah, or remember me mentioning him at the AMOS action two weeks ago, there might be something familiar about Elijah’s behavior today. Jonah, having successfully called the nation of Nineveh to repent, retreats to a tree. There he asks God to kill him dead.

It makes no sense: Jonah is successful. Why isn’t he walking around, chest out, grinning, waving his arms at the people? Why isn’t he accepting lauds and honor? Why isn’t he tweeting about how great he is?

Because Jonah knows he is not great. Jonah knows how hard he worked to dodge God’s call. He is ashamed by the contrast between his reticence and the quick and total willingness of this faithless foreign nation to give obedience and praise to God. His request to die is petulant and fueled by shame.

Elijah, on the other hand, is just plain tired.

ELIJAH’S STORY
Elijah suddenly appears in the 17th chapter of 1 Kings with no backstory, no lineage, no character development.

He tells King Ahab, who has married outside of their faith and allowed other religions to be practiced, that such religious promiscuity has condemned Israel to a drought.

Elijah then retreats to the wilderness.

God assures Elijah that he will be safe because God has charged ravens to bring Elijah both meat and bread, both morning and evening. Carrion birds will bring him nourishment in the form that is most natural to them—animals—but also in the form that is so natural to God—bread.

Then Elijah’s water source dries up—whether by God’s doing or not, we do not know—so he has to move on. He comes upon a starving widow and her child who are preparing a final meal before death. When she agrees to include Elijah in that meal, the widow’s supplies of flour and oil remain steady.

Elijah lives like this for some time, even bringing the widow’s son back to life, before returning to King Ahab’s court. When he does, it is not in triumph. Elijah returns to his nation in order to do battle with those other religions. It is a battle of that literally includes fire and brimstone, blood and gore, much of it at Elijah’s own hands.

I haven’t yet found a way to reconcile the actions of those who say they love God so much that they will break the commandment not to kill in order to prove that love. This is particularly confusing to me because of how often people who are not followers of God’s covenant prove to be agents of the divine: The widow was a Phoenician, not an Israelite; ravens have no nationality.

Our scripture does not paint a consistent picture of God, or perhaps it reflects our inconsistent understanding of God.
Continue reading

Treasuring God: 1 Kings 5.1–5, 8.1–13


divine love
Delivered at Ames UCC
on October 29, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

This service of worship was unusual, for several reasons. First, I broke with my rigid adherence to liturgical tradition in order to wear an Easter white stole that celebrates the rainbow of God’s people. Second, during the sermon I invited the congregation to have conversations in small groups. Third, much of my preaching went off-script in response to those conversations. And, fourth and finally, we ended the service by standing in a circle to sing “Blessed be the Ties that Bind.” In moments of crisis, I am both grateful for and awed by the gifts our tradition provides, the tools we have ready-made to help us understand our world and to remain faithful to God. —Pr. Eileen Gebbie

THE ARK OF THE COVENANT
The Ark of the Covenant makes its first appearance in Exodus 25. The freed Hebrew slaves are in the desert. God gives Moses instruction for how to build a tabernacle—that word in Hebrew is abode—that the people could carry with them on their journey. As part of that portable worship space, God describes the construction of the Ark, including the cherubim from today’s reading but also a lot of gold:

11You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside you shall overlay it, and you shall make a moulding of gold upon it all round. 12You shall cast four rings of gold for it and put them on its four feet, two rings on one side of it, and two rings on the other side. 13You shall make poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold. 17Then you shall make a mercy-seat of pure gold; two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its width. 18You shall make two cherubim of gold; you shall make them of hammered work, at the two ends of the mercy-seat. 21You shall put the mercy-seat on the top of the ark; and in the ark you shall put the covenant that I shall give you.

Gorgeous-sounding, no?

When everything is complete, the story goes, the Ark is then hidden behind a curtain and a cloud comes over everything, with God’s glory filling the tabernacle. From then on, the people only continue their travels when the cloud clears; they stay put when it does not. Although we have reason to chuckle at the freed Hebrews taking 40 years to make an 11-day walk, it seems that God played a part in their pace.

Later on, once the people had found the promised land (or colonized it, depending on your perspective) the Israelites try to use the ark for their own purposes. In 1 Samuel we learn that the Israelites are at war against the Philistines. It isn’t going well so the leaders bring out the ark, hoping it will save them.

It doesn’t. The Philistines win and the Ark is taken as a prize.

But the Ark isn’t totally inert or powerless: Once placed in a temple with the god of the Philistines, it begins to wreak havoc. First, the statue of the Philistine god falls apart and the people become infested with tumors, hemorrhoids, or the bubonic plague, depending on which translation you read. The Philistines return it with offerings of gold shaped as tumors, hemorrhoids, or buboes.

ABOMINATIONS AND APOSTATES
You may now be thinking to yourself, “Well now, that is all very interesting, but what about the hate mail?” Let’s talk about that now.

As most of you likely know by now, a blogger who describes herself as Christian and uses a punching fist as her logo sicced her hundreds of thousands of online followers on our church.

Why? Because of our Halloween party. Continue reading

Shootings and the Table: Deuteronomy 5.1–21, 6.4–9

shootings and the tableDelivered at Ames UCC on October 11, 2015
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
Please join us for worship at 10:45 a.m. on Sundays.

TORAH
Today we end our quick trek through the Torah. The Torah consists of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. In Greek it is known as the Pentateuch.

In Genesis, God recognized the human need for relationship. We then sat with Abraham’s and Sarah’s longing for children. That longing was fulfilled and two generations later, their grandson Jacob made bargains with God and was given the new name of Israel, God Rules.

In Exodus, though, we found that Pharaoh was ruling. The ancient Hebrews had become enslaved and God promised them a new land. Moses saw and heard this promise through a burning bush and recognized that he was standing on holy ground. Our youth shared their own experiences of holy ground and God’s presence in their lives last week.
Continue reading