First, Rest in God: John 2.13–25


2018.2.21 new
Delivered at Ames UCC
on January 21, 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.

LOVE
Part of me really loves this story.

It’s the part of me that grew up watching Jesus Christ Superstar and its temple scene with women, guns, and sunglasses up for sale. It’s the part of me that loves the liberation inherent in our tradition’s theology: freed slaves, women prophets, direct confrontation with those who are complicit in or mimic the power structures of occupation.

It’s this kind of story that allows me to continue to seek God through Jesus Christ. I could not walk a path that does not eliminate false, human-made barriers to God; I need a path that strips me of my blinders to corruption and self-centered comfort.

FIGHTING
This story sounds different today, though. I’m not sure I can even hear this story today over all of the rest of the fighting in our world.

I thought about putting together a list of the kinds of back-and-forth juvenilia and nastiness from our elected officials on Twitter or some of the commentary over the recent controversy regarding vulgarity in the White House, our house. But I couldn’t bring myself to read them and saw no value in inflicting them on you afresh. You already know.
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Servants of Love Incarnate: John 2.1–11


2018.1.14 non being
Delivered at Ames UCC
on January 14, 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.

JOHN IS DIFFERENT
If John’s gospel were the only one we knew, if we studied it and dedicated our lives to it, then read Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we would be shocked. It’s all lies, we would think! That’s not the truth about Jesus! Likewise, if we had only ever studied the synoptic gospels, synoptic meaning same, we would be baffled by John. It is that different.

John’s gospel does have Jesus traveling and teaching, he does endure trial, death, and resurrection. But John’s chronology is different than in the other three. There is no Eucharist, no Last Supper, in John. Jesus shows no concern for the Kingdom of God in John, only for his own special identity. Jesus talks more in John’s gospel than in the synoptic gospels, with great long dialogues, but never in all of that does he share any parables, those stories of mustard seeds and buried treasure.

And John is the most anti-Semitic of all the gospels. Maybe not universally so, maybe not condemning of all of Judaism, only of specific strains or communities of Judaism at the time. But I am guessing that not many 21st century Christians are all that familiar with the differences between contemporary streams in Judaism, let alone those of the ancient near east, so reading the subtleties of critique in John can be dangerously misleading.

I decided, as a result of that, and this era’s resurgence of overt hatred of and aggression toward people who are Jewish, to modify our readings of John to avoid easy misunderstandings and make clear where we are as a church. Rather than “the Jews” it will read as “the authorities” or whatever the appropriate target of Jesus’ concern may be.

But the difference I really want to focus on today is an omission in John at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and the inclusion of the story today.
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God Pitched a Tent: John 1.35–51


Delivered at Ames UCC on January 7, 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.

NERD
Something terribly exciting has happened, if you are a church nerd like me: There’s a new translation of the Christian Testament. Eastern Orthodox scholar David Bentley Hart has published a version of the gospels and letters that he believes is more reflective of the original Greek, but without any tweaking to make it sound smoother in English.

Here’s a comparison, using the Gospel of John.

First, the New Revised Standard Version, first published in 1989:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.

Now Hart’s:

In the origin there was the Logos, and the Logos was present with God, and the Logos was god; This one was present with God in the origin…

Again, NRSV:

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him;

And Hart:

It was the true light, which illuminates everyone, that was coming into the cosmos. He was in the cosmos, and through him the cosmos came to be.

Do you hear the differences? Logos instead of Word, origin instead of beginning, cosmos instead of world. Whereas Matthew begins with a human genealogy of Jesus, Mark with the story of John the Baptist, and Luke with King Herod and the barren Elizabeth, John begins with the origin of the cosmos.

I love it! It is poetic and it is a bit intimidating. The dusty man of prayer and irritation whose hem we can grab and whose hand anoints us with oil is pure energy, is life itself.

And then there’s line that I want to tie into today’s passage, John 1.14.

The NRSV reads

And the Word became flesh and lived among us

But Hart’s says

…the Logos became flesh and pitched a tent among us

The ancient community of John is telling us that the origin of cosmos—stardust and supernova, varied nebula and nuclei—took on the trouble of skin and set up house among us. The very idea gives me shivers on my own skin.

JESUS AND BAPTISM
But what kind of house, or tent, what kind of skin? Presumably stardust could occupy the world in any which way it so chooses, so how did it choose?
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Removal, Resistance, Return: Ezekiel 37.1–14


2017.12.3 resist risk
Delivered at Ames UCC
on December 3, 2017

©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.

BONES
When we are born, our bones are small, like us. They are weak, like us. Over time, they grow as we do, in whatever way we do. Some of us get quite tall, some of us stay small. The strength of our adult bones varies according to our genetics and our habits. Weight training helps. If our bones break, they can often be repaired through surgery, pins, casting, traction, implants, and time.

Our bones keep aging along with our skin and our hair and our organs. They say now that the image of an older person falling then breaking a hip is wrong: it is actually that the hip breaks and then the fall happens as a result.

Then we die.

Different things can happen to our bones on death. Some of us here will be embalmed. Our bones will be laid to rest with flesh for company, in a box in the ground. Some of us will be cremated, and our bones become like the dust with which we are anointed on Ash Wednesday.

Some cremated bones are buried in a small box in the ground. Some are set free into air and soil. I have an urn in my office with the residue of many loved ones that I have had the honor to release back to our mother.

So whose bones are filling a valley, whose neglected bones are we looking upon today?

NARRATIVE ARC
You’ll remember that three weeks ago we heard God speaking through the prophet and priest Jeremiah, before, during, and after Jerusalem’s fall to Babylon. Jeremiah’s audience in the aftermath was the elite who had been forcibly displaced into exile. Just because the elite had lost their nation, they had not lost God.

God told the people newly in exile that they should settle in, plant a garden, have kids. They were not home so they needed to make space for survival until they could find their way back.

It was a story of removal.

Then Last week Brett preached about three of those exiles—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—and their response to the pressure of religious assimilation by Babylonian culture and authorities. They chose a furnace over one more compromise, and lived to tell the tale.

It was a story of resistance.

Today, Ezekiel gives the exiled a vision of return. A return as powerful as the resurrection of the dead.
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All Times Alleluia: Jeremiah 29.1, 4–14


2017.11.19 alleluia
Delivered at Ames UCC
on November 19, 2017

©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.

ALLELUIAS
Holding hands and having small group conversations in worship, spontaneous baptisms: I know the last few weeks at church have been a little different, but seeing Easter banners up in November may feel like the last straw. When will the liturgical heterodoxy end??

Today is the last Sunday of Ordinary Time.  It is known as Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. The idea is that before we begin the four weeks of preparation for Jesus’ birth and resurrection—Advent—we remind ourselves of the outcome of that birth and resurrection: the eternal presence of Jesus Christ in our lives and this world. The good news that justice and righteousness cannot be killed is always cause to ring out alleluias and proclaim “He Is Risen” as loudly as on Easter morn.

But our scripture today has no mention of Jesus. Instead, it is all about God and Jeremiah.

JEREMIAH
Jeremiah was a prophet of God in the Hebrew kingdom of Judah through the fall of that nation and God’s temple, to the Babylonians, about 600 years before Christ.

For forty years Jeremiah warned his people that their failure to live in covenant, that their ingratitude to God and their material greed, would be their downfall. Because they did not bind themselves to each other in mutual love, they would be torn apart by colonial power.

Jeremiah’s is a long book. It is hard to read because of graphic violence and consuming anger. It is hard to read because God does not prevent the downfall of God’s own people, but leaves those people to suffer the consequences of empty rituals, shallow prayers, and passive faith.

The powerful and affluent of the nation are deported to further reaches of the empire. The poor and the powerless are left in place, under the control of the empire. The End.

In Jeremiah there is no redemption, there is no reunion. The promised land is lost, along with a great deal of life.

STEADY ON
God does not cut off relations, though.

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Amos 1.1–2; 5.14–15, 21–24: River’s Source


2017.11.12 rivers
Delivered at Ames UCC
on November 12, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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

JUSTICE
Amos, like all good prophets, does not mince words. Moved by the will and vision of God, he states clearly that the trappings of religion are traps. Religious practices that remain in the sanctuary, that do not translate into faithful lives in our streets, are a trap. We must break out of the traps we set in the name of God in order to free ourselves and each other in response to the will of God. We must let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

For many of my colleagues, this is the one day a year where they can “safely” preach about justice. By which Amos, and all of the prophets, means a balancing of the scales between the haves and have-nots in the world that we live in right now. This is, obviously, not a worry for me. We are a congregation that readily acknowledges the imbalances of the world and gives generously of our time, talent, and treasure to even them out. So what more is there to say? Should I just invite us to do high fives and move on to the next hymn? We could be to the coffee and cookies in 15 minutes!

OUR STREAMS
As I prayed this scripture, and about our church—as I considered our consistent willingness to jump into justice and righteousness—I found myself wondering about the stream’s source and its structure.

Because water takes a toll. Whether it is sitting or trickling or raging, water changes everything it touches. Water grows plants but water also rots wood. Flood water can ruin a home but clean water can revive it.

And God would have justice roll like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Justice and righteousness, those are rivers that come with a lot of debris, sudden rapids, and toxic spills, as well as seemingly eternal doldrums, unmoving.

If we are to create the conditions so that justice and righteousness are as strong as the Niagra and as wide as the Mississippi, then we had better make sure the riverbeds are deep and the banks strong. We had better keep our eyes as much on the source of justice and righteousness as those destinations, or we may find ourselves overwhelmed by waves or so tired of rowing our oars that we jump ship for dry land, just like Amos’ original audience.

So today I want to look at the waters of creation and those of baptism.

CREATION
The Bible is not, of course, a biological textbook. It is a metaphysical one, it is a theological assertion about the nature of life. And it asserts that life began in the moment holiness invited deep water to do a new thing. And it asserts that it is good.

Over and over again in Genesis as the divine brings forth from water and not-yet-substance the elements of life that are familiar to us, and those that are strange, God says, “It is good.” Creation is good and God has faith that we have the capacity to tend to that goodness.

We fail, of course, out of our hubris, but we do not destroy the goodness. Every river, including those of justice and righteousness, continues to flow out from Eden, keeping us connected to our source, to the goodness we need and the goodness to which we can return.

Which is what Jesus then invites us to do, when he steps into water to make a new thing.
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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.
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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

Des Moines Register Op-Ed

On Saturday, October 28, 2017, the Des Moines Register published this Op-Ed piece, Ames church deserves kudos, not hate Campaign, for inclusive Halloween party for teens by Rekha Basu, in support of my church, the Ames United Church of Christ, after it suffered online attacks from a blogger and her followers. Thanks to the Des Moines Register for spreading the good news about our work.

Love Wins

22218394_1674120785954907_6048896865063890605_oOn the evening of Tuesday, October 24, a Christian blogger posted about a planned Halloween party at my church. The party was explcitly for LGBTQIA+ kids and their friends. When I got up on Wednesday, October 25, the day of the party, I was met by the now all-too-common violence that the Internet facilitates so well.

Below is an email I sent to the congregation in response to this. I also posted it on our Facebook page. As of this writing, my message has been seen by over 63,000 people—and we have gained nearly 200 new followers on our Facebook page. God’s good news of radical welcome will always find a way!

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

The United Church of Christ has, as a national denomination, long been on the forefront of not only prophetic witness but prophetic action. We have heard God’s call not to be a stiff-necked people or to make false idols. Therefore, we resist the temptation to deny scientific knowledge or worship the Bible as if it is God rather than precious stories about God. Ours is a faith found in the intersection of our sacred scripture, prayer, and life lived in Christian community.

Recently, fellow seekers of God from different branches of the Christian family tree have been critical of our Open and Affirming (ONA) position and a Halloween event that specifically welcomes LGBTQIA+ youth and their friends. The result has been a barrage of online messages and Facebook posts, some simply curious and others clearly bullying.

On the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, this moment is a reminder that there has never been one kind of Christianity. Not in the days and months after the ministry, murder, and mystery of Jesus Christ, nor in the centuries since. At Ames United Church of Christ, we stand confidently in our conviction that the diversity of human gender and sexual expression is just one more example of the gorgeous outcome of God’s invitation to create with the tehom, a truth with basis not only in love but in biology.

My request to those who stand in solidarity with our church’s expression of faith is to not engage with online posters, bullies, or trolls. I know the temptation, but in cyberspace there is no potential for conversation, not the kind Jesus calls us to have face-to-face and heart-to-heart.

If you are so moved, you are welcome to give the church a high rating on our Facebook page, make an independent post on our “wall,” and to be with us in worship on Sunday, October 29 at 10:30 a.m. The topic is why building temples to God is a way to avoid a spiritual journey with God. Perhaps that is where some of this distress is rooted: Ames United Church of Christ is choosing God over the temples of tradition, fear, and ignorance.

Yours along The Way,

The Rev. Eileen Gebbie, MA, MDiv
Senior Minister