Death is Not the Goal: Acts 6.1–7.2a, 44–60

2017.4.30 libertyDelivered at Ames UCC
on April 30, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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JARRING AND SHOCKING
I find today’s reading jarring and shocking. Just two weeks out from Easter and the Biblical world feels unfamiliar and dangerous. No more Jesus, Marys, Peter, or temple. Now we have someone named Nicanor and complaining Hellenists and a synagogue of the Freedman. No more of Jesus’ teachings on feeding and healing. Instead we have a story that seems to be saying that death is the model of post-resurrection faithfulness.

How did we get here?

Healing and feeding aren’t gone altogether. In the chapters before Stephen is killed, we hear about the massive growth in the Jesus movement as well as its organization: Participants had to give up all they had to the group and live in community. The named disciples quickly became overloaded with trying to host at God’s table and spread the good news. Wisely, the disciples laid hands on a new group to serve as deacons—the managers of feeding and tending to the poor.

One of the new table servants is Stephen. Interestingly, Stephen does not restrict himself to that role. He, too, left the table to teach in public. That is what gets him in trouble. To a group of rabbis, Stephen reiterates the core stories of the Hebrew Bible, specifically Exodus: how God has worked through Moses, Abraham, and Joseph.

Stephen concludes with a condemnation of those rabbis and teachers for not really understanding what God has meant and meant to do. Angels have spoken to you, he says, and yet you practice our religion only in the most surface of ways. Stephen stands in the company of all Hebrew prophets in this way. They have always been critics of empty faith. But, unlike the prophets, Stephen is then lynched.

What is so jarring or shocking about all of that, you might ask? Jesus was killed and the Christian tradition is full of martyrs. Death hardly seems avoidable, based on precedent. Why would resurrection day change any of that?

ON ITS OWN
It’s not that. I live in this world so I know that resurrection did not stop human violence. What shocks me is what happens as Stephen is being lynched: He prays for the forgiveness of his killers, just as Jesus did. The parallel and message are clear: Closeness to Christ is in the willingness to be murdered for the Word.

Instead of preserving a story of abundant living in the light of resurrection morning, the Acts of the Apostles seem to want to perpetuate the lethality of Good Friday night. Taken on its own, Stephen’s story teaches us that aggressive critique of religious establishments to the point of being killed is the point of resurrection day.

The key phrase there is “taken on its own.” Not only does Stephen’s story seem to leave behind all of Jesus’ lived teachings, but the Christian contribution to Biblical tradition leaves behind one of that tradition’s most important qualities: multi-vocality.
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Learning and Hospitality: Luke 24.13–35

2017.4.23 easter chrisitansDelivered at Ames UCC
on April 23, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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ANXIOUS CHURCH DEATH
I am pretty picky about what articles and books I read about Christianity and church life. Some of that is theological. I am not, obviously, going to read anything based on Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians to keep women quiet. Or the work of Christians who ignore the gospels in order to lean on the handful of words in Leviticus’ temple rules to decry queer people. Not everything preserved in scripture is right or holy. I hope you feel entitled to make the same distinction.

But I also tend to ignore articles about The Death of The Church. I think you probably know what I mean because these pieces have been ringing our death knell for at least 20 years, if not 40. Oh! The church is dying! Oh! The good news of life in radical generosity and relationship is no longer meaningful! Oh! Get a smoke machine and a praise band!

The anxiety level among pastors of “mainline” Protestant churches like ours, and that of the membership, can easily surpass any joy. Maybe that’s why I saw an uptick in articles during Holy Week about “how to behave on Easter.”

The notion that my colleagues in Christian ministry felt compelled to write pieces about anything other than the last supper and the garden and the cross during Holy Week, was so curious to me that I had to read a couple. Basically, they were about how regular attendees can be sure not to blow it with less regular attendees or newcomers on our highest of holy days.

The suggestions included not saying “You know, we are here every week,” scooting into the middle of the pew so that anyone who might be feeling shy doesn’t have to clamber over you, not kicking anyone out of “your” spot, and talking to each other. Basically, be thoughtful and polite.

So rather than teaching seekers how they might think, or more importantly pray, about Easter, these posts read to me as testimonies to church death anxiety. It was as if Easter hasn’t taught us about how holiness begets new life in spite of death.

EMMAUS
Look at what we hear today. Today’s verses follow immediately from last week’s. From last week’s climax at the tomb with the Marys and Joanne and Peter, we are moved immediately to a road between Jerusalem and Emmaus. The very same day that the disciples have found the tomb empty, the word has spread far enough that Cleopas (who is not a disciple) and someone else (also not a disciple) know all of the details.

When Cleopas and his friend meet a stranger—the rising Jesus did not look as he once did—all of that has already happened. They must have really evoked their disappointment that Jesus didn’t redeem Israel from yet another occupation, because the rising Jesus reminds them, more brusquely than the angels did the Marys and Joanne, that all of this was according to plan. To reassure them, the rising Jesus teaches them to interpret scripture, the Torah, prophets, and writings of the Hebrew Bible.
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God’s Power: Luke 24.1–12

2017.4.16 lifeDelivered at Ames UCC
on April 16, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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GOD’S POWER
What is the power of God?

In our scripture last week, and throughout his public ministry, Jesus rejected the understanding of God’s power that he saw most people practicing.

He goes into the temple: Stop selling doves, stop killing, he screams. God does not want your sacrifices. Did we not learn from our many, long years in the wilderness with Moses that using intermediaries between us and God just drives us further east of Eden, not closer to it? Did God not bring Abraham back from the brink of infanticide with the hopes of, once and for all, getting us to hear that sacrifices are never pleasing?

God is not greedy for gifts! Holiness is not an exchange commodity.

But then Jesus dies. He dies as so many men and women have died: at the hands of a state that just needs someone to point a finger at in order to justify their show of force. It is the state that loves a sacrifice. It is the state—which is just a group of humans—that lusts for gifts, especially those that will devastate other humans into submission. Humans, not God, want a sacrifice.

ORTHODOXY AND ACCESS
I know that is contrary to the most recent thousand years of Christian orthodoxy. But in the first thousand years, the notion that God needed Jesus to die as a sacrifice was not so prevalent as it is now. There is no evidence, in a Christian church before the tenth century, of Jesus on a cross.

What mattered in the earliest days—and what continued to get followers of Jesus in trouble with the state—were the practices of feeding and tending to each other without regard for social hierarchies. Just as in the time before his death, in the decades immediately after, the good news continued to be about egalitarianism and God’s love for everybody and every body, not just priests or kings who claimed special access.

Everything in Jesus’ life was about total access: Children, you have access; women, you have access; the sick and disabled, you have access; foreigners, you have access. Access to God is in the radical generosity of feeding and the radical relationality of healing.

But then what do we do with Holy Week? If Jesus had such great access to God through his walking, talking, eating, feeding, resting, and resisting but still died, what is the power of God? Couldn’t the later theologians have simply heard God still speaking, as we profess happens, and figured out that, while God may not have wanted the sacrifices of birds and cows, God somehow wanted one of Jesus?
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Mutuality: Luke 15.1–32

Delivered at Ames UCC  on March 19, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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RING OF TRUTH
I have a friend who, when her kids were young, convinced them that she could tell if they were lying or telling the truth because of the “ring of truth.” They sincerely believed that grown-ups could hear a little bell ding when people spoke truth and a silent void at lies.

When I was a young child hearing the story of the starving son come home, I did not hear a ring of truth. I felt bored and I felt annoyed. Yeah, yeah, yeah: The guy realized what a mess he’d made of his life, apologized, and asked his dad for a job. And that older brother, who had done all of the work all along, shouldn’t have been angry with him because Big Daddy God is generous and loves us stinkers and do-gooders alike. And so we should try to be the same.

It felt so obvious. A sledge-hammer of a message without any subtlety. So any ring of truth, for me as a young person, was drowned out by my intellectual snobbery, defensiveness, and snoring.

Which is why I am so glad we read it here along with the stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin.

LENT
I’m also glad we are reading these during Lent. These forty days are a nod to the forty days of Noah’s time on the ocean, the Egyptian slaves’ forty years wandering in the desert, and Jesus’ post-baptism forty days of faith formation in the wilderness. The idea of this season, which was instituted by our imperial Roman forbears in the early 300s, is to really prepare for Holy Week and Easter.

Because if there is any one story whose truth is suspect, it is resurrection.

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God is using YOU: 2 Corinthians 5.11–21

godsparkDelivered at Ames UCC
on June 19, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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RECONCILIATION
At the heart of today’s passage from Paul’s second letter to his church at Corinth is the notion of reconciliation. The version we hear today, from
The Message translation, gives a clear definition:

God uses us to persuade men and women to drop their differences and enter into God’s work of making things right between them.

Reconciliation is the holy work of bridging divides, breaking down walls—whatever metaphor means the most to you to describe eliminating the divisions between people and holiness.

For Paul, the impetus to do this is Jesus Christ. He understands the execution and Easter mystery as God using Jesus as a scapegoat, in the most traditional sense of the word: Put all sins on Jesus then drive him out of existence.

And, for Paul, reconciliation is essential because Jesus will be back very, very soon. He’s less than 20 years out from Easter and certain to his bones that they need to be in the business of preparing for a massive, world-wide, collective, and final experience of God.

In the two millennia since Paul was building churches and creating this first Christian theology, as we have built churches and lived with that theology, we have developed other, equally valid, understandings.

You may remember that, last summer, I did a survey of our church and found we range from classic Pauline theology to “Jesus was a good, regular man to whom a bad thing was done and from whom we can learn to do better.” And we are not a church that places such an emphasis on a second coming of Christ. We name the constant risings of Christ in our midst rather than the cataclysm that Paul imagined.

I think there are at least two reasons for that. First, all predictions of the second coming have proved false. God’s time is clearly not our time. Second, we have plenty of cataclysms of our own that need to be reconciled. We don’t need to worry about one from on high.
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Easter Proof: Mark 16.1–8

unstoppableDelivered at Ames UCC
on March 27, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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NO JOY
Fear seems a pretty appropriate response to a grave that has been opened and is now occupied by a stranger. A stranger who lets you know that your most dearest one has walked off.

These women have been through so much already. They were the only ones who waited with Jesus. They were the only ones who tended his body and laid it to rest. When all of the other followers and the named disciples ran away, they continued to ally themselves with this loving, ornery, and seemingly god-forsaken man.

Then they returned to their community. They returned to the traditional Passover festival. If nothing else helps in the midst of grief, familiarity and habit can be soothing balms. But they could not stay away. Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of the disciple James the younger, and Salome the mother of the other James and his brother John know that Jesus’ body yet needs care.
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Stay Faithful: Mark 11.1–11

PalmSunday2016Delivered at Ames UCC
on March 20, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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IT BEGINS
Holy Week begins today, outside of Jerusalem. Jesus is with the disciples. He reaches the Mount of Olives. This place has been an important place in the history of Judea: It is where King David went to weep (2 Samuel 15.30) and it is where Zechariah said God would bring the end and then take control as king of all (Zechariah 14.9).1

Jesus continues on. He rides a donkey the disciples “procured” at his request. The last time we saw a donkey was when Mary rode one, pregnant with Jesus. The donkey is also a reminder of Zechariah’s prophesy (9.9b):

See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

It’s enough to give you the shivers. But that’s not my goal, at least not entirely. Each gospel was written down decades after the facts. They rely on both human memory and the human will to make a case for Jesus as Christ. It is up to us to discern which is at play in any given section and, either way, which parts of those stories resonate most with our personal encounters with the divine.

It is a lot of work. So, for today at least, I am not going to join with Mark in trying to convince you of something about Jesus. I will try, instead, to simply to give some of the context, as best scripture and scholarship can currently show, for Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday.Without Maundy Thursday and Good Friday

I do so in the hope that each of you will participate fully in our services this week. Without Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, Easter is just a chocolate bunny. Delicious, but hollow.
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Bearers of Easter Hope: Mark 13.1–8, 24–37

GoodFridaycrossDelivered at Ames UCC
on March 13, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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THE END IS NEAR
This temple will crumble. False prophets will betray you. War is inevitable. The Earth will shake and people will starve. These are the signs predicted by Isaiah (13.10, 34.4), Ezekiel (32.7–8),
and Joel (2.10, 31; 3.15).

You will see them very soon. So stay awake! Do not disappoint your God! Be ready!

As Jesus prepares to end his life, he predicts the end of everyone else’s, too.

Why? Because he was the anointed one and knew something others did not? Possibly. But also because Jesus, at least in Mark, was an apocalyptic leader by nature.

And because it had happened before.

APOCALYPSE
Apocalypse comes from the Greek apokalyptein, which means to uncover or reveal. Within an apocalyptic mindset, there is truth to be uncovered or revealed through a being not of this world.  Apocalypse assumes that there can no redemption for humanity without a radical intervention. And, in fact, that intervention is coming. The outcome will be judgment and destruction of the wicked, followed by resurrection, and afterlife.
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Lenten Repentance: Mark 10.32–52

transcendedDelivered at Ames UCC
on February 21, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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GOD TALK
Was Jesus divine? Was he human? Was he half and half? Did he transition from one to the other over his lifetime or only at the resurrection? This was the topic last week at God-Talk, our month theology free-for-all.

In classic UCC fashion, we had no one answer. Some felt that Jesus was not divine but clearly gifted and blessed. Others expressed certainty that he was divine, and not just because scripture says so, but from their own life experience.

We also touched a bit on how our understanding of Jesus reflects on our concepts of God. If we deny God any role in Jesus’ conception or birth, for example, are we denying God the capacity to do miraculous, counter-natural acts? What is God’s power if not to do things we cannot do?
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Tidal Faith and Discipleship’s Road: Matthew 28.16–20

Tidal Faith Discipleship RoadDelivered at Claremont UCC on April 12, 2015
© The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

TIDAL FAITH
In traditional liturgical language, we are in a new season called Eastertide. Eastertide marks the days between Easter Sunday and Pentecost Sunday. Our call to worship this morning played with that name and the notion of faith as tidal:
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