Apocalypse Already: Acts 2.1–21

2017.6.4 pentecostDelivered at Ames UCC
on June 4, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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THANKS, BUT NO THANKS
Sometimes this passage feels like a bait and switch. It lures us in with this marvelous moment of human unity and a prediction of even more, only to tell us it won’t really happen until after an apocalyptic encounter between the realms of Earth and those of heaven. I want a direct experience of God, for sure. But who would want the great and glorious day of the Lord if it must be preceded by blood, fire, smoky mist, a blacked sun, and a red moon?

Why does Peter interpret this joyous symphony of speech as a sign of some frightening end of time? Why does God’s presence require apocalypse?

The Bible is quite self-referential. Books of the Bible quote each other constantly, either to retell stories in slightly different ways or to prove a point. The Gospels in the Christian Testament, for example, draw heavily on the prophets of the Hebrew Bible to credential Jesus. So when we hear Peter respond to this theophany, it is not his original speech. He is quoting the prophet Joel.

JOEL AND PETER
Joel’s prophecy is in a book of his name, in a section of the Hebrew Bible known as the Nevi’im, or the Prophets. Like Lamentations, which I referenced last week, Joel’s book is about destruction and loss. But unlike Lamentations, Joel makes a case for God’s coming redemption from suffering in the form of equality among all people. However, that can only happen, Joel says, after an apocalypse.
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Stay in Sorrow: Galatians 3.1–9, 23–29

2017.5.28 foolsDelivered at Ames UCC
on May 28, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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WHO DID IT?
Who has bewitched you? You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you??

I feel like screaming this to the young man who died to kill others in Manchester last week; to the young man who murdered Bible students in Charleston; to the young man who gunned downed dancers at a nightclub; to the young man who did the same at a youth camp in Norway; to the older man who killed at a women’s health clinic; to the University of Maryland college student who lynched a Bowie State University student; to the young man who has made bomb threats against synagogues in three countries; to the man and woman who abandoned their child in order to destroy social service workers in San Bernardino.

Christians, Muslims, and Jews, who so bewitched you that you thought the violent deaths of strangers was your right and the most faithful response to God and care of country?

You foolish people, who has bewitched you??

Then I look at Paul’s letter today and have part of the answer.

GALATIANS
As a progressive Christian church, one of our all-time favorite lines comes from this letter from Paul, the Roman Jew turned apostle to Jesus Christ, to the emerging Christian community of Jews and Gentiles in Galatia, which is contemporary Turkey.

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

This is how my own leadership has been justified to fellow Christians who prefer women to be quiet and gay people to go through “conversion therapy.”

But as with all scripture, this magnificent piece of sacred truth exists within a larger context. Paul’s letter to the Galatians is not, really, a universal testimony advocating total human liberation and equality. It is a letter for a specific people addressing a specific problem at a specific time a long time ago.

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Ritual is Just the Beginning: Acts 15.1–18

2017.5.14 our courseDelivered at Ames UCC
on May 14, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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AVOIDANCE
Since resurrection day I’ve focused on a succession of new characters in our passages from Acts of the Apostles: Cleopas, Stephen, Philip the Evangelist, and the Ethiopian. Today we have two more, Paul (though we saw him briefly, earlier, under the name Saul) and Barnabas. But there have been two recurring characters or elements that I have avoided until today: male genital modification and the Holy Spirit.

PENISES AND SPIRIT
The Ethiopian is a eunuch. He is a man who has been castrated. This week we have Jewish followers of Jesus stating that the Gentile followers of Jesus must be circumcised as they had been. We have also had talk of metaphoric, or spiritual circumcision. Stephen decries his co-religionists:

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. (Acts 6.51)

Stephen is saying they have failed to cut away what prevents them from hearing and loving God, from being led by the Holy Spirit.

Paul is also concerned with the work of the Holy Spirit. When he pushes back on the Jewish followers of Jesus, it is through Spirit:

 And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as God did to us; (Acts 15.8)

Throughout the Acts of the Apostles there are moments when the Holy Spirit comes upon people, sometimes at baptism, sometimes later. Sometimes the Holy Spirit “falls upon” a whole group at once, sometimes on individuals who have been physically touched by those who have already received the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is, by this account, wholly unpredictable.

PREDICTABILITY
Predictability may be one of our biggest problems as humans, at least for we humans who want to rise above our humanity, even just a little bit. The Bible is, in its entirety, a testament to our predictable shortcomings. We want so badly to do better, and yet…

Remember how Abram and Sarai went out into the wilderness to show their faith in God? For decades they wandered. And for decades God promised them a child. But they became impatient. Abram and Sarai let their impatience over take their faith, so they forced the slave Hagar to bear their next generation. As a result, their wanderings extended.

When God made the promise of a child again, it came with two markers: a change in their names to Abraham and Sarah plus circumcision for Abraham and all the men in his household for all time forward.

It is as if our Biblical forebears are saying we need to have some literal skin in the game or we will be lost and aimless forever.
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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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Impatience and Love: Luke 13.1–9 and 31–35

2017.3.12 fig treeDelivered at Ames UCC
on March 12, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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SAME CONCLUSION
For the last two weeks we’ve had guest preachers, Tim Wolfe on Seminary Sunday and Harry Cook as our Theologian in Residence. Tim and Harry came to us from very different branches of the Christian family tree: Tim was, for most of his life, Pentecostal and for years directed very large African American gospel choirs. Harry is a long-retired Episcopal priest and newspaperman.

Tim preached on the transfiguration story. This is the one where a few of the disciples wake up and see Jesus with Moses and Elijah, prophets from the far distant past. Harry had the story of the Samaritan who helped a naked, bleeding man in a ditch when neither a priest nor a deacon would do so.

Tim’s message was “Get woke and stay woke.” Harry’s was “Go and do it.”

Despite their divergent religious traditions, Tim and Harry came to the same conclusion: God wants us to be awake to the world and responsive to what we see.

That was neither planned nor is it a coincidence: The Jesus in the gospel of Luke is insistently oriented to the needs of the world and to action.

HARSH STORY
He is also impatient, as in our reading today.

Do you think you are special? Do you think anyone is more favored by God? Jesus asks his listeners. Not really the best tactic for building a movement. But Jesus doesn’t care. He goes on to tell a story about an orchard owner and his farmer and a fig tree. One way to hear it is with God as the orchard owner and all of us as the gardener and our faith as the fig tree.

For years, such an interpretation goes, God has been looking for us to nurture some productivity from our faith, only to be met with disappointment. We are a waste of space and resources if we do not fertilize, till, and weed our souls so that they are actually of use. So that we may provide sustenance and succor. If our fig tree does not actually produce something, best to yank it out and move on, Jesus says.

It’s a harsh story. It is harsh because Jesus, like all of the Biblical prophets before him, knows what is on the line: lives. Not life in the sky by-and-by, but lives chucked into ditches like trash.

The reason we have so many healing stories about Jesus isn’t just because people are sick. It is also because he is impatient for us to know that God cares about actual bodies and so we should, too. When bodies and the communities in which they exist are sick, there is no time to waste.

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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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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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Why Leave Home to Come Here? Christmas Eve 2016

2016-12-24-godnessDelivered at Ames UCC
on December 24, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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What brought you here tonight?
Why have you come to this place instead of staying home?

Our Christmas story has answers for all of its characters. Mary and Joseph have to get back to Bethlehem for a census. The shepherds have angels send them on their way. The astronomers need to see this unprecedented star, the first one they had ever known to hold still. And Jesus, well, he is just doing what babies do, without any regard for his surroundings.

The community of the disciple Luke gives everyone a reason to be away from home on the night Jesus is born, except for us.

NARRATIVES
You may have seen my editorial in the paper yesterday, where I wrote about narratives. All of us have a narrative, a story, of our own lives, our family lives, our state and national lives. So do institutions, like this church.

The narrative of Ames UCC usually starts like this:  We were the first church in town, beating out the Methodists across the street by one year. We shut down taverns in our early days, but are no longer so temperate. More recently we took a stand for peace over war, symbolized by the weekly ringing of our bell. We are open to and affirming of all people, most explicitly members of the LGBTQIA community, those of us who have been so maligned by other Christian churches. We also tell our national church’s narrative of abolition and suffrage.

We tell these stories to remind ourselves and others of who we are and what we should be working on now, such as affordable housing and refugee asylum. But we didn’t come up with these stories and work on our own. Our church narrative goes back to the Biblical one, to this night’s story of shelter and awe and gift-giving.

WE AS A CHURCH
We, as a church, are willing to constantly interrogate how we are acting like an emperor, to look for who is now struggling on an open road, and wonder whether we are really ready to receive gifts from those of different languages and religions because of tonight’s story.

We, as a church, are motivated to set this open table and bring gifts to Food at First and the Emergency Residence Project because of this baby in a barn.

Now, generosity and justice are by no means exclusive to those of us who follow the Way of Christ. The magi themselves tell us so.

But that baby-turned-man-turned-mystery is our collective star in the darkness and at the dawn. The theophany that so startled the shepherds and held still for the magi endures, for us as a church, through Jesus Christ.

So that is the narrative of this church, the story of why this church is here. But what about you?
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God is Everywhere: The Book of Jonah

jonahlovejusticeDelivered at Ames UCC
on November 13, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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ASSUMPTIONS AND FEAR
I don’t generally like to assume how people are feeling or what they are thinking. It isn’t fair and it can be dangerous. Plus, my personality and my training tell me to do otherwise. I like to assume the best about people and so I want to understand who they are and why they are and how they got there.

I doesn’t mean I respect where everyone ends up. I have no patience or respect for those who publicly pronounce their hatred of others, for those who organize whole institutions around the destruction of those who are not Christian, or of people of color, women, or queer.

Neither does Ames UCC. This is a church that has always stood on the side of people who have been hated for those reasons. We do not all do so from the same political party, but we agree nonetheless.

So I will take the risk in assuming that if you are here today, if you have chosen to a come to a place like this, you have experienced some kind of grief, if not actual fear, since Tuesday night.

Fear of the voters who chanted “Jew S. A.! Jew S. A.!,” fear of the voters who laughed at or dismissed a man who treats women’s bodies as objects for his own pleasure, fear of the voters whose children approached other Black kids in Ames to ask if they knew they would be slaves again soon, fear of the voters in Boone who keyed “die fag #trump” into the cars of two women, fear that those voters’ voices will not only grow stronger and more emboldened, but also translate into law that will reduce protection and rights.

In other words, even though I know we are not homogenous in our formal party affiliations at Ames UCC, I know that we are united in our condemnation of such behavior.
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With Raven’s Help: 1 Kings 17

watchingweirdDelivered at Ames UCC
on November 6, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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A NATION
A nation was born. Its people had been unwelcome in their previous home land. They escaped persecution and poverty. They came to a new land, not an open or unoccupied land, but a new one.

They warred, they built a government, and lifted up leaders. They had a formal statement of values which, in theory, guided their actions.

But over time, things fell apart. Or, at least, the nation did not live up to its potential. The people who should have been protected by the founding rules were not. Corruption didn’t just occur, it was broadcast. Unity was impossible. Factions broke away and denied, rejected, any relationship with the others.

Sound familiar? Sound like America on the brink of this presidential election? As Qohelet wrote in Ecclesiastes (1.9), “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is the context for today’s passage in the first book of Kings.

The Hebrew people, freed from slavery, made a home through conquer and colonialism. The Ten Commandments, a testimony to respect and relationship, should have guided them to create a community of care and wisdom. Instead the people cried out for a king so that they could be recognized in international politics.

The kings acted as kings do, selfishly. Over time the nation broke in two, with Israel to the north and Judah to the south. Now Ahab is the king of Israel in the north. Ahab “did more to vex the Lord, the God of Israel, than all the kinds of Israel who preceded him” (1 Kings 16.33).

ELECTION
I cannot speak for God, but I feel pretty vexed right now. This election season has brought out the worst in us, us as Americans and as individuals. The violence has crossed all party lines. There seem to be no more social consequences for writing off people of a certain race or religion or geographic origin. Threats of violence no longer need be anonymous—you can tweet them right under your own name. It feels as if any awareness of shared humanity, even if not shared experiences, has been tweeted and talking head-ed out of existence. The concept of what constitutes a fact is now unstable.
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Just in Case: Exodus 12.1–13 and 13.1–8

uncertainwildernessDelivered at Ames UCC
on October 2, 2016

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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INTERESTING
I’m going to start with the interesting, and then go to the urgent and the uncertain.

Last week we met Joseph, descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob/Israel. He rose to great power in Egypt. But over time God’s promise of many generations to Joseph’s family became intolerable to the rulers of Egypt. Over time, the pharaohs felt the need to control these alien people as they would enemies, as they would property.

By Moses’ generation, the Hebrew people are enslaved. Moses was born at a time of pogrom so his mother found a way for him to be adopted into Pharaoh’s home. He grew up with a princess for a mom, but had to flee that life of privilege after murdering an overseer who was brutalizing Hebrews.

But God lured him back. God convinced Moses that if he would yes, together they would set Moses’ original people free.

When we catch up with Moses today, God has given Pharaoh the chance to do the right thing. But each time Pharaoh refuses, a plague besets the Egyptian people. After nine refusals and plagues, God promises a tenth and final plague: a virus that will wipe out first born males just as Pharaoh had done so many times himself.

Before taking that final step, though, God needed more people than just Moses, to say yes to liberation.

And so on this night before the great escape it was important for the people to mark themselves and their homes. Like Moses, they needed to formally and publicly declare themselves as ones allegiant to the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob/Israel, and Moses. Thus the shared meal and blood on the lintel.

But that’s not the only way the Hebrews distinguish themselves from others. In this passage we also hear about the establishment of a new Hebrew calendar, a new first month of a new year. It is a new way of tracking time for a new life.

And then they flee, leaving behind God’s destruction.

Here the interesting bit: The ritual meals of unleavened bread and meat likely already existed before any flight from captivity.
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