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

2017.4.30 libertyDelivered at Ames UCC
on April 30, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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

How did we get here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

The key phrase there is “taken on its own.” Not only does Stephen’s story seem to leave behind all of Jesus’ lived teachings, but the Christian contribution to Biblical tradition leaves behind one of that tradition’s most important qualities: multi-vocality.
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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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Stay Faithful: Mark 11.1–11

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

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

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

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

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

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

I do so in the hope that each of you will participate fully in our services this week. Without Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, Easter is just a chocolate bunny. Delicious, but hollow.
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Lenten Repentance: Mark 10.32–52

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

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

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

We also touched a bit on how our understanding of Jesus reflects on our concepts of God. If we deny God any role in Jesus’ conception or birth, for example, are we denying God the capacity to do miraculous, counter-natural acts? What is God’s power if not to do things we cannot do?
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Closeness to God: Hebrews 4.14–5.10

b_black_jesusDelivered at Ames UCC on August 23, 2015
© The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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MELCHIZEDEK
Today our unknown author of the letter to the Hebrews goes into a lengthy description about how Jesus is like the high priest Melchizedek. Melchizedek appears in one line in the book of Genesis, ch 14:

And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. He blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!”

This blessing comes after Abram—notice he is not yet Abraham—rescues his nephew Lot from captivity. The two families had been wandering in the desert and had gotten caught up in some regional violence and war. And that’s all we hear of Melchizedek until the book of Hebrews.
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Who, When, What, Why? Hebrews 2.10–18

FOR BULLETIN COVERDelivered at Ames UCC on August 16, 2015
© The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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WHO, WHEN, WHY?
Who, when, and why? Those are my first questions for the book of Hebrews.

Mostly, there are no answers. Nobody knows for sure who wrote the letter. It could have been Paul or a follower of Paul, Apollos or Priscilla. It was probably written anywhere between 60 and 100, since knowledge of Jewish temple practices was required and the temple was destroyed in 70. But the audience was likely mixed, not exclusively Jewish, but Jewish Christians and gentile Christians together.

So that’s who and when. But why? Why did the author write this letter or sermon? Let’s start by looking at what she wrote about.
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