Take a Sabbath from Hate: Genesis 1.1–2.4a

Delivered at Ames UCC on September 10, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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GENESIS
In the beginning there was substance, the deep, the tehom. God blew on the tehom, just as God would across every living thing, to invite a cooperative life.

First, there was day and night. And it was good. Then sky, and it was good. Next land and plants. Ever so good. Stars, sun, and moon were given their places and schedules. And it was good. Swarms of fish and sharks, pterodactyls and sparrows began their generations. They were all good. Cattle and worms took up their places above and below ground. And it was good.

Lastly God made a human creature. Then God divided that human creature into different shapes, a sacred variety all reflecting God. God told humanity to take good care of this holy creation. And it was very good.

Genesis is not, of course, a scientific account of creation. It does not presume to contradict or supplant the big bang theory or astrophysics in general. We preserve it as a theological account of the planet and our place on it. Genesis 1 is a story to remind us that everything God touches is good. Everything God wills is good. Everything of God, is God, and is good.

It also clearly argues that though we are not number one on God’s list, our place at number six comes with responsibility for all who came before us.

MARY AND JULIAN
I’ve been doing a lot of study the last couple of weeks, about some of those who came before us, our faith ancestors. I’m preparing for our Wednesday morning and evening study of gospels that did not make it into the Bible, like that of Mary Magdalene. I’m also looking ahead to our Lenten study of Julian of Norwich, a 14th century mystic, who was the first woman to compose a book in English.1

In the beginning of the fragment of Mary’s gospel that remains, she quotes Jesus as saying, “Every nature…every creature, exists in and with each other.”2 She goes on to share further revelations from Christ resurrected that oppose church and gender hierarchies. All that matters is the soul that transcends the body and resisting any assertions of power over people. I think we know why she didn’t survive the Biblical vetting process.

For Julian, her thirty years of meditation on visions of God in Christ made strong her belief that God is in us and we are in God and there can be no evil or pain or judgment from God to us. Her most famous theological statement is “All will be well and all will be well and every kind of thing shall be well.” Julian isn’t saying that life will be easy—how could she after witnessing two rounds of the plague—but that suffering is never God’s will.

Both of these women are reiterating, in their own way, that same sense of God’s goodness from Genesis 1. Even a thousand years apart, even with an empire and a church working to silence them, the goodness of God found voice.

So what keeps going wrong?
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Give Thanks that We are Not Complicit: Revelation 21.1–6, 22.1–5

2017.8.27 dragon Delivered at Ames UCC
on August 27, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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RESENTFUL
I am so tired of being jerked around. I am so tired of having my days and my nights hijacked by headlines. I am sick of the incivility in the public square and nauseous from the increasingly punitive nature of public policy.  And I resent, I resent to my core, the energy I must expend to reclaim my time from those who would distract me from sharing and working for the good news that there is enough for all.

In other words, I get, to a small extent, where John of Patmos is coming from.

John of Patmos, was a Jewish follower of Jesus living as a refugee under the violent rule of the Roman Empire in 90 CE. John of Patmos was in shock from seeing his homeland of Jerusalem conquered—again—and the house of God on earth, the temple, destroyed—again. He was baffled by the willingness of others who claimed to follow Jesus to compromise with that Empire, to go along to get along. As he eventually writes, this is an empire that makes statues more important than people!

John of Patmos is also terrified that the world is coming to an end.

So, he takes all of that emotion—his rage, his sorrow, his questions—to God. Where are you, God? Why have you let this happen, God? What are we to do, God?

He takes it all to God in meditative prayer and this scripture that we now call Revelation is how he heard God answer.
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God is Other: Revelation 1.17–20, 4.1–7, 5.1–8, 6.1–8

2017.8.13 lambDelivered at Ames UCC
on August 13, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be
heard rather than read.
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MONSTERS
Our scripture is full of fantastic beasts, cataclysmic events, and magical/miraculous imagery: A talking snake in Genesis’ Eden. A talking donkey in the book of Numbers. A whale that can swallow Jonah whole and then still spit him out. A flood that destroys the world. Ten plagues that free the slaves. An angel that balances Jesus atop the temple. Water becoming wine.

But the beasts and cataclysms and magic and miracles of the book of Revelation are so concentrated, they can sound so extreme, that today I’m mixing up the order of worship a bit by integrating Dan’s reading of the scripture with my teaching/preaching on it. And thank you to Ben and Barbara for the sung preview.

But before we get to Revelation, let’s get to its author: John of Patmos.

JOHN OF PATMOS
John of Patmos was a Jewish man from Jerusalem who at the time of his vision-writing, about 90 CE, was living on an island—Patmos—off the coasts of Turkey and Greece. As a Jew from Jerusalem writing in the year 90, this John may well have witnessed the final destruction of the Jewish temple in the year 70.

Remember that, for Jewish people during the temple period, the temple was the home of God on Earth, the nexus between this world and another. It was literally and materially an intersection between the sacred and the profane. And the Romans crushed it. The Romans closed the door.

In doing so, the Romans didn’t just insult the Jewish people, they attacked God. Their destruction of the temple was not only aggressive warfare, but the height of sacrilege and blasphemy, too.

Imagine how we would feel if a foreign nation burned this house of God to the ground. Though we understand God to be everywhere, we still come to a particular place to practice that relationship. How bitter, how angry, how venomous might we feel toward those who took it from us?

John of Patmos leaves Jerusalem, possibly in exile, possibly as a refugee. But he cannot escape the violence of Rome. When John is on the mainland of Turkey, he is constantly confronted by celebrations of Rome’s violence. He even has to look at a statue of the man who took the temple down.

Kind of like how Black and Native Americans have to look at statues of genocidal generals and Presidents throughout the US.

John also has to contend with a culture that has come to revere the Roman emperors as divinities. Wasn’t it enough for God to be taken away, now they have to put themselves in God’s place? John is surrounded by insults to God and the hubris of rulers. He is a body under threat, a soul under attack.

And then he has a revelation.
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Add More to Church: Ephesians 6.10–20

2017.8.6 dispensaryDelivered at Ames UCC
on August 6, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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GET RID OF IT
Let’s get rid of all of this. Let’s get rid of the pews and the hymnals and the organ and the windows and the bricks. Let’s get rid of our logo and our slogan and any future inside jokes about being Congregational versus being Evangelical and Reform. Let’s just get rid of all of this because Jesus didn’t risk everything just so that we can get all attached to and bent out of shape about our personal preferences and historic traditions.

I am, of course, paraphrasing the opening of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Or, as those of you were here for the first two weeks of this letter will remember, Pseudo-Paul’s not-letter to the not-Ephesians.

Once we are on the Way of Jesus, he teaches (whoever he was), we are a new people unbound by suspicion or hate, living beyond society’s walls and delineations.

Except that we are not, of course. Except that over time, since the time of the Pauls, the Christian church became one of the most conservative, entrenched, boundary-setting institutions in human existence. Which has backfired, of course. Which has been our downfall. The numbers of Americans who identify as Christian continues to decline.

These days, adults who grew up in homes without a religious affiliation of any kind are more likely to stay religiously unaffiliated than those who grew up in a religious home. Meaning, being a-religious is more meaningful over time than being religious, for younger Americans.

In my most pessimistic moments, I say, “Who cares?” God is not religion. The church is not God. And if the church has failed to make this Way of engaging with God compelling, if the church has failed to be faithful to the God it claims to worship and serve, then so be it. We reap what we sow.

God will God onward, with or without me or you or the New Century Hymnal.

HOLY COMMUNION AND THE ARMOR OF GOD
But last week, for about an hour, we did manage to be faithful to pseudo-Paul’s vision of the church, maybe even to God. Members of our church, First Christian, and First Baptist came together at Brookside Park. We got outside of our individual sanctuaries, these tyrannies of preference and tradition, to gather at Christ’s open table, in prayer, in song, and in body. There were 167 of us, a new record.

Afterward, I was visiting with a member of our community, one of those younger adults raised without religion from all the studies. (I did get permission to tell this story.) This woman, who is bucking the statistical trend, asks me what Communion is. She’d just taken part in it for the first time.
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Year ‘Round Faith: Ephesians 2.11–22

2017.7.23 no hostilityDelivered at First Christian Church
on July 23, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read. During July we worship at 9:30 a.m. at either Ames UCC, First Christian, or Brookside Park. Please see the website for details so that you may join us.

DIVISIONS
What are the top ten most intractable divisions between people that you can think of this morning? What tools have leaders used to try to bridge those divides, or eliminate them? And how much hope do you have that in your lifetime those opposing sides will come together for once and for all, and be able to work together with respect for each other’s voices and well-being?

AFTER FAITH
Last week, I responded to the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (or not-Paul’s sermon to churches in Asia Minor), about the partnering of theology and prayer. Theology is only a fun game without the prayerful dialogue with God to make it real. It is when the two come together that faith may take root and grow.

So what? To what end? To what end faith? Is faith an end in and of itself? Some traditions say yes. For some traditions it is the leap of faith that is the goal. But in our two traditions faith is often a stepping stone to action.

We have good reason to believe that faith naturally does and should lead to action. Our ancestors in the Hebrew Bible tell us to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. Every prophet’s indictment is for failing to do so. For Jesus, faithful action took the form of food (as in the miracles of the 3,000 and 5,000 and the last supper), healing (of lepers, of possession, of mental illness), and listening (to women, to children, to God).

For the Paul of this letter, an additional task follows from faith: bringing together different types of Christians.
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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

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
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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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