Nothing to Sell: Romans 1.7–17


Delivered at Ames UCC on Easter Sunday, May 19, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

2019.5.19 sunday morningNOTHING TO SELL
Recently a UCC-er told me that their child left the UCC as an adult because we have nothing to sell. Someone who had been raised in our tradition walked away from it for another mainline Protestant church because we appeared not to offer anything worth buying.

And maybe they are right.

Two weeks ago as I drove east on Highway 30 to preach at the Newton UCC church, I saw a huge line of cars queued up to turn north and onto the campuses of two mega-churches. Those churches hold thousands of worshipers at a time, and I understand they do so regularly.

There were fewer than 30 people with me in Newton; we range from 120 to 180 here in Ames. Going on the numbers alone, maybe that former UCC-er was right. Maybe we don’t have anything to sell, anything worth buying with the precious hours of a Sunday morning.

Which makes our turn today to Paul, the super-evangelist and church planter, feel that much more meaningful.

PAUL AND ROME
You’ll remember Paul from last week when he and Barnabas tried to convert a crowd to the new Way of Jesus only to have them worship Zeus instead. That isn’t the first time we meet Paul in scripture, though. In the Acts of the Apostles he is introduced as Saul, a Jewish man and citizen of the Roman Empire. Scholars suggest that Saul would have begun his study of Torah, the first five books of what we now call the Bible, as young as age five, and may even have been sent to Jerusalem for more education as a teenager.1 Whatever his upbringing and education, Saul reacts to the Jesus Way movement violently, serving as a persecutor of Jesus’s disciples.

Then, on his way to extradite followers of the Way from Damascus to Jerusalem, Saul is visited by the risen Christ. Saul is struck blind, healed by another man faithful to Jesus, is baptized, and has a little to eat. He then permanently Romanizes his name to Paul and commits the rest of his life to sharing the story of Jesus.

Paul travels constantly and far, about 10,000 miles by one estimate, yet manages to stays in touch with the new communities he helped to form, called “churches.” This includes one in Rome, the recipients of the letter we are studying but a small portion of today.

The Roman church is a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish followers of Jesus. It is restless over the question of whether being a follower of Jesus means following all of the Jewish religious practices as Jesus himself did, or if the non-Jewish, or Gentile, followers get a pass. That’s a question, though, for people already on board with the holiness evinced by Jesus Christ. Disagreements over how to follow Jesus requires choosing to do so in the first place.

So how did Paul do that? What did Paul have to sell that these diverse Romans bought?
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God’s Credit: Acts of the Apostles 13.1–3, 14.8–18


Delivered at Ames UCC on May 12, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

2019.5.12 heartCREDIT
What do you credit God for in your life?

I am not talking about when things went well and then to assign God the credit. You know how sometimes when things go poorly for others we say “there but for the grace of God go I”? That makes me very uncomfortable because it implies that God has denied grace to others.

Instead, have there been times in your life when you knew peace, breath-taking love, or unexpected strength? It likely lasted only moments and you may not yet have the words to explain it.

Or maybe nothing comes to mind.

Maybe your experience of God is at enough of a distance, or comes with enough skepticism, that giving credit to a holy other feels uncomfortable or even wrong. After all, I’m the one always saying God isn’t a master puppeteer so how could God be behind or within the minutia of our daily lives?

I will assume, though, that because you are here today, you have felt something. You have had an awareness of a something that does not fit into any other category and you are open to calling it God.

But which God?

WHICH GOD?
Out-of-town apostles, Paul (formerly known as Saul) and Barnabas, eager evangelists for their new understanding of God, come to Lystra, part of modern-day Turkey. There they encounter an unnamed local who cannot walk. Paul speaks to the paralyzed man, softly enough that his words are not recorded. Then Paul gives the Lystran an assessing gaze, and now with a voice now loud enough for all in the crowd to hear, Paul tells the Lystran to stand. The man who had never walked, now stands steadily on his feet and moves about.

While that miracle is shiny and dramatic, it is nothing new.

Remember that Jesus also healed a paralytic, in the gospel of Matthew, also in front of a crowd. In that case, the local leaders who were present reacted with shock and suspicion, but the rest of the crowd was moved to glorify God. The Lystrans are different in that there is no skepticism recorded, but they are otherwise the same in their response: Look at what the gods have done! Get the priest, get garments of honor and an animal to sacrifice, let us praise our gods! When the people of Lystra see the same power in Paul that those of Israel had seen in Jesus, they likewise identify that power as divine and want to show proper thanks and obeisance.

The problem that emerges for Paul and Barnabas, is that rather than the God of Moses and Ruth, the god of Eden and Exodus, the Lystrans see the miracle as coming from the god of Olympus, Zeus, and Zeus’ divine herald, Hermes. In both Israel and Lystra, witnesses are quick to identify that something greater than themselves is at work, it’s just that their framework for how to describe the greater-than diverges.

FREAK OUT
Which freaks Paul and Barnabas out.

They were simply doing as they had been commissioned, spreading what we call good news about God in Jesus Christ. They seem unprepared for their audience to not understand who or what they represent. Apparently shocked that the Lystrans, people of a different land and culture than either of them, would fall back on their own divine classifications, would give credit to their own understanding of divinity, the apostles begin running around and rending their clothes. They try to explain that, no, they are not Zeus and Hermes, the reversal of paralysis was not the work of the Olympians. What the Lystrans witnessed was the living God at work, the author of creation and giver of sustenance.

In their panic, it seems for Paul and Barnabas that if the God of Israel does not get credit for this healing, all is lost.

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Calling All Angels: Acts of the Apostles 10:1–6, 9–17, 34–41, 44–48

Delivered at Congregational UCC on Sunday, May 5, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

 

FLEXIBILITY
Grace and peace to you from the people of Ames United Church of Christ!2019.5.5 angels

It is a genuine pleasure to be back here at Newton Congregational UCC (I preached at an Association meeting here a while back) and to be part of an effort to fulfill the United Church of Christ’s mission to be united and uniting.

It is easy, given our structure and polity, to opt out of being in relationship with other congregations. And you likely know the joke about the UCC: If you’ve been to one UCC church, you’ve been to one UCC church. We can be so very different because of geography, ongoing racial segregation, which stream of the merger our church came from (or if our church formed afterward), and our understanding about the leadership of women and the humanity of queer people.

So even though the six churches participating in this pulpit swap are within the same denomination, our willingness to participate represents a kind of boundary crossing and flexibility that is unusual between churches.

It is also a kind of boundary crossing and flexibility that is on its way to extinction in the world beyond our churches. Collaboration has become a dirty word and reflection, rather than reaction, a skill of the past.

But without both, how will our present and our future be anything but divisive and dividing?

Our story today offers some insight.

CORNELIUS AND PETER
We have, in our scripture and our church season, shifted from the time of Jesus the prophet to the reign of the living Christ. It is a shift, as we begin to see in today’s story, that makes for a massive crisis of leadership and the emergence of new doctrine.

Without Jesus, the man, present, who is in charge? How does the reaching, teaching, feasting, healing, praying, and protesting of Jesus before Easter align with the mystery of the Christ after? What does it all mean?

That is the context for the visitation by an angel of God to Cornelius, a Roman soldier, not a Jewish man of Israel. That angel sends Cornelius to Peter. Peter, at the same time, is visited by a vision of lizards and sheets.

When Cornelius, a lover of God yet stranger to Peter’s faith, arrives at the home where Peter is staying, that arrival gives Peter the key to interpreting his vision and the meaning the crucified Jesus and the ever-rising Christ.

Without getting into the story’s weeds about circumcision and food rules, Peter basically says that the message from God is to expand the boundaries of the movement to include people who are not Jewish, like Cornelius. This is significant.

At a time when we could reasonably expect the disciples to retrench, to become suspicious of newcomers and hoard their spiritual knowledge for their own people, Peter does not. Why? Is Peter just a bigger person than most? He certainly wasn’t when Jesus was condemned: This is the same Peter that denied knowing Jesus. What is it that allowed Peter to overcome his previous fears and to resist the human tendency toward tribalism?

Maybe it has to do with that angel.

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Joy and Fear: Matthew 28.1–10

2019.4.21 joyDelivered at Ames UCC
on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

WHAT I WANT
All I want you to feel today is joy.

Joy at the children, joy at the flowers, joy at the traditions. Joy from being with family, joy from being with friends who have become family. Joy at the gorgeous weather and the promise that snow is now a ways off. Joy from our tale of resilient life.

But our scripture is fighting me. Our scripture is wagging its finger at my preference, reminding me that though we may want joy and though we may feel joy, other sensations may insist on being present too.

For the Marys did not experience only great joy, they left the tomb with fear, as well.

FEAR
That fear makes sense.

At least three Marys were present for the gruesome work of the days before: Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James and John, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph. By the morning we mark today, we are down to Mary the Magdelene and “the other Mary,” so one of those two moms.

These are traumatized women.

The Magdalene and the other Mary had given up their regular lives to put their physical, financial, and spiritual resources behind Jesus. Such sacrifice was worthwhile because of the thrill of watching untold others experience the same learning, and feasting, and salvation as in a healing salve, that had originally drawn them to Jesus.

As I said at our Good Friday service, consider how moved we are by Jesus’s portrait of God’s kin-dom even from this great a distance. What must it have been like at a distance of just the length of an arm, or less?

And then the Marys and the rest of the disciples saw firsthand, at the length of an arm or less, the movement tear itself apart: Judas’s betrayal, Peter’s denial, the male disciples’ abandonment. The Marys and the other women were left alone at the foot of a device of torture where the one on whom they had staked their lives was himself staked and torn apart.

Fear must have gripped the Magdalene and the other Mary for hours before the one we occupy now.

JOY
Maybe it had gripped them long enough that they were almost inured to it, because even though they experience an earthquake and the appearance of a messenger of God, it is the tomb guards who became so frightened that they are “like dead men,” not the Marys.

Fully present in the midst of divine manifestation the Magdalene and the other Mary are the first to receive what we call the good news: The cross could not kill; the tomb could not hold the holiness that made Jesus possible—and the Christ is present still.

Now that is good news of great joy, that is joy made complete. All that they had given is redeemed, all that they lived for yet lives on. Joy!

But the story says they left with great joy and fear. The earthquake and the messenger did not scare them off. So what could have set them scared again?

Knowing what they would encounter when they left.

BACK TO REALITY
The messenger instructs Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to return to their community with the good news. They have the honor of being the apostles to the other apostles.

But surely they know what their reception will be like: Crazy women. These must be crazy women. This story is just the the overemotional delusions of mere women. You know how women are, the male disciples will say. Besides, why would mere women be the recipients of a revelation? In the Gospel of Mary Magdalene Peter says, “Did Jesus really speak privately with a woman and not openly to us? Are we to turn about and all listen to her?”
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White Women: Matthew 20.1–16

Delivered at Ames UCC on March 17, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

MAGNIFICENCE
2019.3.17 metanoia Ours is a God of magnificent generosity—and so is that of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin.

Ours is a God of magnificent generosity—and so it that of Mother Emanuel AME.

Ours is a God of magnificent generosity—and so is that of Tree of Life Synagogue.

Ours is a God of magnificent generosity—and so is that of Al Noor Mosque.

Ours is a God of magnificent generosity—and so it that of Linwood Mosque.

But white people are so narrowly focused on making sure we get what is ours, or protecting what we perceive should only be ours, that we lose sight of that magnificent generosity and take up arms and blow away bodies.

The emotion behind that decision is as old as today’s story.

LANDOWNER
Jesus tells the story of a landowner.

This landowner hires day laborers. Off and on throughout the day, he hires more people. At the end of the day, the landowner pays everyone the same amount of money, both the people who started early in the morning and the people who did not start until the early evening.

The daylong workers grumble. They assumed they would get more money because they had worked more hours. The landowner replies to the daylong workers that they are getting paid exactly what was promised and that the paying of the same amount to others does not take away from what they have earned. The people who started to work in the morning got what they contracted for, so what is their problem?

Yeah, what is their problem? Why would the daylong workers begrudge the landowner the use of his own money if the landowner has treated them exactly as they expected?

Now, I know the answer: It isn’t fair.  Why work all day when you can saunter in at the end and still afford to put food on the table? Why are those people getting something for nothing? It just isn’t fair.

On another Sunday I might have taken a bit of time to affirm that sense of unfairness. But those Sundays are past.

We white Christians cannot afford to give any room or any sympathy to pouting cries of 2019.3.17 lost nothingunfairness by people who have lost nothing just because others have gained a little something. We can no longer afford to perceive the gain of others as a loss for us, even for a moment in response to an old, old, tale.

Those days are gone. Those days are as shredded by white supremacists and Christian nationalists as the bodies of elders, adults, teens, children, and infants on the floors of houses of prayers across this continent and the world.

BORDER TERRIERS
So what are we to do? There are two recognized white supremacist hate groups in Iowa. We could go after them. But the problem is far more pervasive than the proud boys and alt-right leaders who formally organize.

On Friday, as I read about the attack on Al Noor and Linwood, I shared a post to the church Facebook page from the president of Chicago Theological Seminary. Dr. Stephen Ray had written that

The evil of white nationalism is writing its graffiti in blood across the walls of the sacred places of us all.

Moments later I received notice that someone had commented on the post. The comment didn’t readily make sense—was it supportive or nasty?—so I followed the link to the profile of the person who had made the comment.
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I Don’t Know What Forgiveness Is: Matthew 18.15–22

Delivered at Ames UCC on March 10, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

2019.3.10 metanoiaFORGIVENESS
As many of you know, I’m enrolled in a two-year program of spiritual formation called Prairie Fire. When it is over I will do a third year to become a certified spiritual director. In my small group a couple of months ago, our leader read a piece about forgiveness. My response was something like, “I don’t buy this. I don’t know what forgiveness is, but I don’t buy it.”

I don’t know what forgiveness is, but I don’t buy it. A contradiction, of course, because how can I refuse to buy something if I say I don’t know what it is. What I think I meant is that I do not know what forgiveness is but I do not buy what the church universal tends to sell as forgiveness: the justification for Jesus’s death on a cross.

ATONEMENT
What to do with Jesus’s death on the cross has been a problem since that death. How could someone infused with, or someone of divinity be killed? Why would God “allow” that? And what if God not only allowed it, but wanted it? What do our answers say about God and what do they say God thinks of us?

There have been many answers, and still are. The orthodox position, orthodox meaning “right belief,” has been that humanity is so horrid that God needed a blood sacrifice to atone for our horridness. God needed the death of one who was welcoming, loving, and gracious in order to forgive us for our failure to be all of those things.

Such theology makes humanity inherently deficient and God universally bloodthirsty. I reject both.

I know that we can be rotten, but not thoroughly depraved. And, as we read in Psalm 51 at both Ash Wednesday services last week, God has “no delight in sacrifice” (verse 16). God’s intervention at Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac affirms the Psalmist: God is over sacrificial atonement, if God even was into it in the first place. So the forgiveness that I do not buy is the one that most Christian churches claim to have exclusive control of through their interpretation of these old stories.

But speaking of old stories, in today’s passage it isn’t divine forgiveness of human deficiency through capital punishment that Jesus teaches.

JESUS
As with so many in Matthew, this is a private teaching just for the disciples. After many parables and the work needed to glimpse their many potential meanings, Jesus offers this straightforward lesson in community life:

If someone in your community harms you, go talk to them in private. If they apologize, you are all good. If not, go back to them with a witness or two. If that does not work, if you are still not heard, then tell the whole community. If still there is no admittance of injury and effort at reparation, your work is done.

But this recipe for returning to right relationship is not enough for Simon Peter. He asks Jesus, “If I am hurt, how often should I forgive? Seven times?” Nope, Jesus replies, “77 times.” Much has been made of these particular numbers, but let’s today simply hear it as an intensification. There is no limit to the number of times we are to forgive one who harms us.
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Ashes and Feast

Each Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Easter dawn, my church and two others worship together.

This year I was scheduled to preach at the host church, Ames First United Methodist, with First Christian Church hosting at the table.

The scripture, picked years ago by the organizers of the Narrative Lectionary, was Matthew 18:1–9, in which Jesus says not to place stumbling blocks before one another.

It is a great message, but one that seemed suddenly quite pointed because, the week before, the governing body of the international United Methodist Church had voted to be more strict in its position regarding queer marriage and clergy.

So how should I, a gay married priest, respond in the pulpit?

Watch the video to see.

Hang On to What Is Possible: Matthew 4.1–11

Delivered at Ames UCC on January 20, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

IMPOSSIBLE
This story seems to set up an impossible standard for us as disciples, for us as human beings.2019.1.20 apart

As I described last week, Matthew, or that Matthean community, went to great pains in the first chapter of this gospel to demonstrate Jesus’s humanity. His ancestors, though they may be hallowed, are also fallible and frequently function outside systems that are social and acceptable.

The context of Jesus’s own life is no less human: His family is part of the nameless mass of humanity with no control over who governs them or how, suffering the effects of bad temper and bad policy, as they flee to Egypt and then migrate to Nazareth. They are refugees, they are without a state.

Yes, there are superhuman, supernatural elements to the story of Jesus up to this point: the angels who visit Joseph, the star that guides the astronomers, the theophany at Jesus’s baptism, the voice as from heaven saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

But still. The character on offer to us is a man, not an angel, not gifted, in any way we have been shown, with supernatural powers or abilities.

Or is he?

TEMPTATION
Immediately after his baptism in the wilderness and the river Jordan, chapter four shows Jesus following the call of the Holy Spirit even deeper into the wilderness and unknown, further away from city and civilization. While there, he is tempted by the devil.

Now, not The Devil, not pointed tail and pitch fork.

Based on the Greek word used in manuscripts, and the Jewish audience for which Matthew’s gospel was intended, this is a character like the Accuser in Job, a diabolical force that is part of creation rather than a discrete being in opposition to it. I like to use the term forces of nonbeing when I encounter this voice in scripture, just to keep my imagination from getting lazy.

So the forces of nonbeing offer to turn desert stone into bread. Jesus declines. The forces of nonbeing take Jesus way up high to give Jesus a chance to see if God would really save him from falling. Jesus declines.

On a mountaintop the forces of nonbeing offer Jesus all of the power and glory of earthly realms. Jesus declines.

Those are not temptations a human could resist.

By the time Jesus and the forces of nonbeing collide, he has been fasting for forty days and nights and the scripture says he is famished. A famished, a starving, person takes food; base animal instinct demands as much.

Furthermore, a person with any smidgen of doubt about God—which is all people—grabs opportunities to be reassured.

And all of the power and glory of the earthly realms is compelling to both the egomaniacal tyrant and to one who would use that power to establish peace; and most likely everyone in between.

Jesus, then, is not like us. He is stronger than any one of us. He has more than the average share of God’s ruach, God’s breath, in him. Whatever the ancestry and setting Matthew so insists upon, in this instance we know that Jesus is of a different kind.

So I guess we can write this story off as all about Jesus, and not at all about us.

Except.

Except for this business of praying and fasting for forty days and nights.

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“I Was Baptized, Too”: Matthew 3.1–17

Delivered at Ames UCC on October 18, 2015
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

2019.1.13 baptismBAPTIZED, TOO
About twenty years ago, when I was still rightfully very angry at the church for its homophobia, sexism, racism, and failure to live the gospels—for its humanity—I found an interesting group working to change some of that. It was affiliated with a tradition other than the UCC, one that at that time had not acknowledged the full humanity of queer people and so did not allow us queer people to serve as priests or to wed. But this group was working to educate the church, to do the tedious and emotionally taxing education required to help fellow children of God understand that we are not a birth defect, an aberration, nor an abomination. One of their slogans was “I was baptized, too.”

At the time it took the wind out of me. Yeah! I was baptized, too! On December 23, 1973 at Bethany Lutheran Church in Webster Groves, Missouri, my sister, grandfather, mother, father, and godparents presented me to the church. They made promises on my behalf and for themselves. An ordained pastor three times put water on my head, reciting the phrase of centuries: I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He wiped off my brow with this cloth.

I was baptized, too. Whatever the haters and lawmakers, be they canonical or civil, said about me, I had been in the same river as Jesus, witnessed and washed. To point this out to other Christians was to call them out on the partiality and prejudice they were practicing, in direct contrast to God. In direct contrast to God at Jesus’s own baptism.

At the end of today’s passage, we heard:

“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

This single sentence is among the Bible’s most powerful testimonies to God’s radical love of all people and God’s expectation that we practice the same.

GENEAOLOGY
Why is that?

Of course, God is pleased with Jesus. He’s Jesus. There’s nothing radical there. There’s no lesson about bigotry in God’s public declaration of love for Jesus at his baptism.

Yes, there is.

Two weeks ago, on the Sunday after Christmas, the scripture was Matthew’s opening chapter. That chapter consists of 24 verses of ancestors, from Abraham to King David to Joseph, whom Matthew’s gospel attends to more than Mary.

But Mary is there, too. Mary, the unmarried young woman, a socially suspect figure. So are several other kinds of shady characters: In addition to Abraham, who tried to do an end run on God’s promise by abusing a slave to get a child, and King David, who had a man killed in order to fulfill his lust for that man’s wife, there is Jacob, Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth.

Jacob stole his brother’s birth right through a disguise and lies.

Tamar posed as a prostitute to trick her father-in-law into sex so that she could force him into fulfilling his obligations to her as a widow of his sons.

Rahab was a prostitute, a sex worker not of the ancient Israelite faith, who nonetheless protected Israelite spies from harm.

And Ruth, of course, seduced a drunk man so that he would honor his obligations as a kinsman-redeemer to her mother-in-law Naomi.

In other words, Jesus’s lineage is not pure. It includes the honored patriarchs, sure, but not even they are squeaky clean. And as if to reinforce the point, the book of Matthew includes desperate women made desperate who used their minds and their bodies to secure a future for themselves and their families. And, if there is any factual truth to the stories, it is the future of Jesus.

Jesus’s story does not become any less human as it continues. After the genealogy of Jesus and his birth, Matthew tells us that Joseph is instructed by an angel to flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s infanticidal response to the journey of the magi. After Herod is dead, and Joseph has two more dreams, the family settles in Nazareth. It is decades later, then, that John the Baptizer appears at the Jordan, as we heard today.

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Wishes and God: 2 Kings 5.1–15a

2018.11.4 god is thereDelivered at Ames UCC on November 4, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

WISH
I wish this story was true. I wish that with seven sincere baths in a sacred river, terrible ailments could be healed. I wish that I could walk with each of you who are living with cancer and depression and arthritis and heart failure to a place that keeps its own rules of germs and degeneration and neurology.

I wish that the dead, the loved ones that we will name here in worship and then see in photos in our parlor after worship, could have received such treatment so that they would be with us, bodily, right now.

Can you imagine that? Can you imagine the tears of joy and relief? As much water as would flow from of our eyes as in the river.

And I wish that Joyce Feinberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax, and Irving Younger, could have been taken from the blood-drenched floors of the Tree of Life Synagogue, not to a mortuary but to a life-filled tree fed by the river Jordan. I wish that that there the gunman’s bullets would have been washed away, their sinews reknit, and their lives restored.

I wish that illness could be no more and sorrow a curious aberration from the past.

But those are not wishes destined for fulfillment.

UNFULFILLED
All of our bodies will fail of their own accord if we are not first killed by an accident or another person. There is no river or stream or spring with magical properties that can make them do otherwise.

And it is an abuse of God’s name, and each others’ souls, to say that sufficient faith will bring bodily healing. God is not so egotistical or fickle as to respond to an abracadabra of prayers.

Disease and damage and death are part of creation and creation is part of God, so even the worst of pains and poisonous acts are part of God, too.

I believe the ancients knew this. I believe that the communities that authored our scripture, understood that God’s relationship with us is not capricious or mechanistic.

Yes, they have given us many stories that describe a quid pro quo of giving obedience and receiving blessing, but I think they had just as much capacity for subtlety and metaphor as us. They were not ignorant of inevitable bodily outcomes, they just were just more willing to live into mystery, into the imaginal realm, than we are. So even though some of us may have been taught that stories like this reflect “an age when miracles still happened,” it does not.

This story of Namaan and Elisha, and those like it, is about the miracle of holy presence within the wholly ordinary. Let’s look at the story.

ELISHA’S MIRACLES
Elisha is a disciple of Elijah.

Elijah was a powerful and, toward the end of his career, a horribly bloodthirsty prophet. You may remember him from his retreat to the desert where he was fed by ravens. Later he helped a starving widow and her son with jars of flour and oil that perpetually refilled. He even brought that son back to life.

Elisha proves to be a powerful prophet in his own right.

For example, immediately before today’s story, Elisha also helps a widow secure enough food for her family. He invites her to borrow her neighbor’s empty oil jars and then pour what little oil she has left into each one. She finds that her meager supply can fill all the jars in the neighborhood.

Later, the child of another woman dies. When Elisha arrives, he presses his mouth to that of the boy, his eyes to those of the boy, his hands to those of the boy, an offering of warmth and humanity, which brings the child back to life.

Elisha even feeds a multitude of people with only a few loaves of bread.

Then today he relieves Naaman of a skin ailment by directing him to bathe in the river Jordan.

Notice how these miracles occur: through common earthenware, gentle and well-intentioned human touch, bread, and river water. No thunder, or potions, or shazam.

Notice what these miracles achieve: some relief from hunger, some relief from grief, some relief from discomfort. None of these miracles grant power or prestige. None of them grant a permanent lease on life.

Our miracle stories are not about extra faith granting the extra ordinary. In the commonplaceness of their means, and the impossibility of their ends, these miracles do not suggest a 1-2-3 formula for healing.

Our faith ancestors knew how poverty, illness, and grief distract and consume, so they used these radical reversals to startle and inspire us to recognize the simple, ubiquitous, and reassuring presence of God.

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