A Big Hoax? Matthew 25.31–46

2019.4.19 mary braveDelivered at Ames UCC
on April 19, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Here are portions of our 2019 Good Friday service as well as my homily.

LITANY
One:    Judas, slave of jealousy, where are you?
Many: I am here.

One:    Peter, slave of fear, where are you?
Many: I am here.

One:    Pilate, slave of Empire, where are you?
Many: I am here.

One:    The story of the execution of Jesus is the story of our own weakness and shortcomings, as people who have missed the mark on justice and so have alienated ourselves from God and neighbor. So tonight, as we sit at the foot of the cross, we seek the ones who remained, who did not falter in devotion or love.

One:    Mary of Magdala, where are you?
Many: I am here.

GOSPEL: Matthew 27.27–61

LITANY
One:    Mary,
Many: is this your healer and teacher Jesus hanging on the cross?

One:    Mary,
Many: does your soul not break apart again?

One:    Mary,
Many: was all of that kingdom-talk a lie?

One:    Mary,
Many: where are the mustard seed, the bridesmaid, the generous vineyard owner now?

One:    Mary,
Many: were all of those parables tricks and lies rather than wisdom?

One:    Mary,
Many: does it all seem pointless now?

One:    Mary,
Many: do you feel angry and used now?

One:    Mary,
Many: tonight the powerful are still comfortable and laughing while you and the rest of the weak are tear-soaked and frightened.

One:    Mary,
Many: your rabbi, your magi, your mandarin, your guru, your friend is dead.

HOMILY—DUPED
Have we all been duped?

Have we been fools for Christ, not out of love, but out of sheer stupidity?

Is all of this—these stories of love and upending—are all of them lies that we have been gullible enough, desperate enough to believe?

Last year on this bad night we considered Mary, the Mother of Jesus. We grieved with her, aware of all that his life cost her, promising to remain faithful to her precious son.

Some of us here have lost children, and that has been wrenching. And the grief has been lasting. Few of us can really fathom, though,the depth of the pain Mother Mary would have felt as she watched the fruit of her womb publicly bleed, thirst, and starve to death. It had to have been something more than grief, beyond pain.

So on this bad night, we turn our attention to another Mary, Mary of Magdala. As fellow disciples and seekers, we can come closer to understanding how Mary the Magdalene may have felt. Including, quite possibly, the feeling that she had been duped.

MAGDALENE
Mary of Magdala is the second most referenced woman in the gospelsafter Mother Mary. Magdala was a region know for fish processing, so as those of us who prepared for Holy Week with Dr. Amy-Jill Levine’s course learned, maybe she crossed paths with the fisherman disciples Andrew and Simon Peter.

We will never know that for sure, but we do have a story about how she was healed by Jesus. He cast seven demons out of her, making Mary perfectly healed, according to ancient Jewish numerology.We learn that Mary Magdalene then traveled with Jesus and we can imagine that she provided logistical support, perhaps even funding, as well as serving as a devoted listener and learner for his new Way. We also find her at the cross, the burial, and the tomb.

Mary Magdalene is in so many ways a model disciple: a woman who left her home to travel with men she was not related to, to devote her resources to and risk her reputation for Jesus. How compelling he must have been, how thrilling the walk by his side.

As much as Jesus’s descriptions of the kin-dom of God stir us today, at this great a distance, imagine how they felt to her, at no more a distance than the length of her arm.

2019.4.19 still hereDEAD
And then it all collapses. And then one of her fellow travelers hands Jesus over to the authorities. The elation of the previous days and weeks is in ruins as she watches—from a distance no greater than her arms—it all collapse under the weight of betrayal as well as the new threat to her person.

But Mary of Magdala does not hide. She does not abandon her friend and her teacher. She stays by his side through the worst. Why? Maybe this Mary believed Jesus would escape. Maybe she assumed God would reverse the terrible course.

But as the minutes and hours pass by, did not doubt creep in? Maybe even anger at the man who showed himself to be just a man? Did she feel betrayed by Jesus and by God alike, and wonder if it was all a big hoax?

FOOLS
This, I think, is where we can relate.

As Christian religious and cultural hegemony collapse themselves, we are forced to ask hard questions about our faith claims and ourselves. Like, “What are we still doing here?”

What are we still doing here in an institution that, over millennia, has instigated and perpetuated so much abuse and corruption? What are we still doing here in a faith that claims radical equality before God yet seems powerless to ensure that equality between each other?

On bad nights like this when humanity has done its ordinary worst, does not doubt in an extraordinary best creep in, even anger, at a claim of some extraordinary better? Have we been betrayed by story and storytellers and our own grasping hearts?

I offer you no answers.

Though we are together as the Marys were, we are each alone in our search for what is trustworthy in the tales of Jesus’s life and what is true in the promises our forebears say he made.

I ask only that we be as brave as these women, as fearless in the face of contradiction and collapse. May we be as willing as they were to return to what appears to be a tomb like a dead end, in case it proves to be a resurgence of abundant life once more.

AMEN

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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Be Present with Mary: Luke 1.46–55 and John 19.16–30

2018 Good FridayPartial order of worship and full homily for Good Friday,
March 30, 2018
at Ames United Church of Christ.

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

LITANY
One:    Judas, slave of jealousy, where are you?
Many: I am here.

One:    Peter, slave of fear, where are you?
Many: I am here.

One:    Pilate, slave of Empire, where are you?
Many: I am here.

One:    The story of the execution of Jesus is the story of our own weakness and shortcomings, as people who have missed the mark on justice and so have alienated ourselves from God and neighbor. So tonight as we sit at the foot of the cross, we seek the ones who remained, who did not falter in devotion or love.

One:    Mary, mother of Jesus, where are you?
Many: I am here.

GOSPEL: Luke 1.46–55: The Magnificat

GOSPEL: John 19.16–30: The Crucifixion

LITANY
One:    Mary,
Many: is this your son Jesus hanging on the cross?

One:    Mary,
Many: does your soul still magnify the Lord?

One:    Mary,
Many: does your spirit yet rejoice in God?

One:    Mary,
Many: where is God’s favor now?

One:    Mary,
Many: how can we call you blessed when surely you are deserted?

One:    Mary,
Many: is God’s mercy gone?

One:    Mary,
Many: tonight the powerful are comfortable and laughing while the weak are tear-soaked and frightened.

One:    Mary,
Many: tonight your child is dead.

HOMILY: Be Present with Mary

No Gospel
I wish we had a Gospel of Mary. There’s a Gospel of Mary Magdalene, which several of us studied last fall. In it, Mary Magdalene continues to be the apostle to all other apostles. Just as she is the first to receive the good news of the empty tomb, she is the first to receive ongoing, secret teachings from the resurrected Jesus. He tells her not to listen to anyone but him, do not trust those men who would make new rules about him, and be fearless.

But we hear nothing from Mary, the Mother of Jesus, after his death. In fact, this account of her standing at Jesus’s cross is the only mention of her in John’s gospel at all, and you may have noticed that she doesn’t even get a name. Mother Mary doesn’t fare much better in the others, either: She is merely mentioned in Mark as one woman among many. In Matthew, Mary is a problem that Joseph has to solve.

It is only Luke that privileges Mary, yet even then she is not a whole person unto herself. If you remember the birth narrative, we hear all about how Mary’s cousin Elizabeth has been married for years and has begged God to get pregnant. Mary, not married at all, gets pregnant without even knowing it. Mary may be a willing participant in that miracle, but she didn’t petition to be one.

Mary is an enigma often sidelined and, when not, she is a vessel without agency.

Surely that vessel broke at the sight we hear described tonight.
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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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at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays.

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

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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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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10:45 a.m. on Sundays.

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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