On Mass Shootings—Again

Published August 16, 2019 in the Ames Tribune

By Eileen Gebbie

I was near a shooting once.

On Jan. 4, 1996, my best friend and I went to see a movie at a theater in an office building in Portland, Oregon. We walked in to the large, airy atrium and rode the wide-open escalator up several floors. It paralleled a set of stairs. On reaching the theater level, we heard a bang of some kind. We, and a handful of others, looked over a railing and saw people running up a different set of stairs. A woman dropped a bottle of orange juice and didn’t look back. Somebody yelled, “He has a gun!” My friend and I then ran down the stairs next to the escalator, out the doors we had entered, and back to his car. He used a mobile phone to call police and then we waited. We were jittery and confused and wanted to see what would happen next. Then we realized that the gunman could leave the building and we didn’t want to be anywhere nearby if that happened.

Later we learned that the shooter was angry with someone in the Charles Schwab office on the ground floor. He wounded two people and took two others hostage but eventually surrendered to police.

For years this was a story we told — a wild tale of an unlikely event, an aberration in the social order that we happened to be in the proximity of.

I could not have imagined that 23 years later I would be a pastor of a church regularly imagining who in my congregation would not be able to escape the sanctuary quickly enough should someone start shooting; deciding how to best teach our nursery staff to shelter in place with our babies and toddlers; wondering how to pastor to people who no longer feel safe worshipping with us because of a hate crime earlier this summer; calling the regional FBI office to see if my church is on a white supremacist hit list, such as the one the garlic festival gunman followed; or learning that one of our seniors just last week asked to see the contents of a suspicious-looking backpack that someone brought in.

We are a house of prayer for all people, but now we fear one of those people will enter with an activity very different than prayer in mind.

My mom once told me that she didn’t think she would become a one-issue public health administrator. She went from clinical nursing to nursing administration as the director of a state health department. Then HIV/AIDS hit. Her work in response to that public health crisis segued in her leading a federal government office entirely focused on preventing and combating the virus’s spread. Mom had had one image of her career path but the virus took her on another.

I have come to feel the same way about mass shootings. I did expect to preach on and offer leadership in response to any number of social ills, like bad housing, insufficient food, and the sins of racism and homophobia. But the bullets keep redirecting me.

And yet, bullets and viruses do not compare. The vector of HIV is part of a natural process, part of the chaotic life force on Earth. The paths that bullets keep taking through flesh are not. They are entirely human-made destroyers, and ones that make some people a great deal of money. There is profit for some in protecting your right, and mine, to own and to arm weapons designed for war.

At this point I would normally interject a theological perspective or lift up scripture to condemn our bloody state of affairs. But as anyone who has ever picked up a Bible knows, it can be used to support or to deny almost any position. It is not a coherent tome, but an intensely contradictory one. Which, for me, is the point. The divine, and our relationship with it, cannot be contained or fully described by human stories and language. The same is true of American scripture: our Constitution and our laws. They are open to whatever interpretation someone wants to find; whatever interpretation best fits an individual position.

But here’s the thing about mass shootings: They are not individual affairs. The gunman in Portland may have been directing his violence toward one business, but a whole host of people were affected by his actions. The same is true now. The ability to go to a fair or to a Walmart or to worship without looking behind our backs and keeping our ears pricked for tell-tale pops is shared by us all. We are all now in the business of thinking about, stressing about, and trying to prevent carnage, whether that was ever our plan or not.

So what should we plan to do next?

Eileen Gebbie is the senior minister at Ames United Church of Christ

Eighteen Hundred and Thirty-Two: 1 Timothy 6.6–19

Delivered at Ames UCC
on August 11, 20192019.8.11 x everywhere
©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.

 

pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness . . . be rich in good works, generous . . . and (be) ready to share . . . take hold of the life that really is life

In this letter to his co-missionary Timothy, Paul directs members of this new Jesus Way to

pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness . . . be rich in good works, generous . . . and (be) ready to share . . . take hold of the life that really is life

As the oldest preserved theologian of our faith—Paul’s letters being older than the written version of the gospels—Paul lays out what God needs of us and what we need of each other. For example, don’t make gaining wealth your priority. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with money, but when we love money, we get into trouble. The love of money distracts from the love of God and each other. Instead, again,

pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness . . . be rich in good works, generous . . . and (be) ready to share . . . take hold of the life that really is life

Likely dictated to a scribe on one day and carried by courier an unknown number of miles and additional days, Timothy was lucky to have ever received this letter.

I wish I could say the same about this letter:

[I unfurl down our sanctuary’s center aisle and beyond over 144 feet of taped-together pages.]
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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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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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The Gospel isn’t Always in the Bible: John 11.1–44

2018.2.19 trifledDelivered at Ames UCC on February 18, 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.

VIDEO AND IMAGE
How many of you watched the cell-phone footage from the high school students in Parkland, FL, last week? Here’s what one of the teens who recorded them said:

I recorded those videos because I didn’t know if I was going to survive…But I knew that if those videos survived, they would echo on and tell the story. And that story would be one that would change things, I hoped. And that would be my legacy.1

Did any of you see the photo of the woman at the scene with an Ash Wednesday cross on her forehead?

It was actually a photo of two women and the caption said they were parents waiting outside Parkland’s Douglas High School. One woman is blonde, the other red-headed. The red-head is in the arms of the blonde, her mouth open and her eyes closed, her face pressed against her friend’s chest. The mouth of the blonde woman is pulled tight in a grimace, her eyes barely open. It is her forehead that is marked with an ashen cross.

Her forehead is marked with the same ashen cross so many of us received on Wednesday, too. Earlier on the same day that her child died or was at risk of death, she received the cross of Christ mixed with the oil of Psalm 23, and heard the words “ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.”

Unlike the teenager with the cell phone video—whose comments are such an indictment of the world we have allowed him to grow up in—we do not know the mom’s motivation for receiving the cross of ash that day. Nor do we know how it is speaking to her now.

I wish we did. I wish I could know how her faith is serving her today. How did it feel when she saw that cross in a mirror later in the day? Has that ritual provided comfort? Has it become a hollow lie? What function does a ritual reminder of mortality serve when every day gives us opportunity to witness actual mortality? And sometimes really gruesome and preventable mortality?
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Our Systems Are Not Working: Job 3.1–10, 4.1–9, 7.11–21

banquetDelivered at First Christian Church
on July 10, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read. On Sundays during July we worship with First Christian Church at 9:30 a.m., alternating between FCC and Ames UCC.
Please come join us!

REMEMBER, WE LIVE IN THE ASHES
I mentioned last week that I was worried about preaching on Job off and on all summer, that I thought I needed to find a way to sell this sorry story so that it didn’t become a summer off. I wish the news of the last week hadn’t reminded me that we are already living the sorry story. I wish our world did not require us to learn the language of Job’s ash heap over and over again.

RECAP AND UPDATE
To review: Job was a very rich man and a religious man. An adversarial force came into God’s presence. God bragged to it about Job’s faith. The adversarial force suggested that faith was built on God’s protection and special treatment of Job, that Job’s faith had no integrity. Of course it is easy to be faithful when you get everything you want!

God told the Adversary to take away all of his riches and see—Job would never forsake God. So Job loses his whole family to invaders and natural disasters. And God is right: Job does not forsake God. Then the Adversary, with God’s permission, destroys Job’s skin. Job literally throws himself away, scraping at his sores while sitting in and on the garbage dump.

Job is alone until he is approached by three friends, who sit silently with Job for seven days and seven nights, “for they saw that (his) pain was very great” (2.13).
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God is using YOU: 2 Corinthians 5.11–21

godsparkDelivered at Ames UCC
on June 19, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
Please join us for worship
at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays
(except in July, when we worship with
First Christian Church at 9:30 a.m.).

RECONCILIATION
At the heart of today’s passage from Paul’s second letter to his church at Corinth is the notion of reconciliation. The version we hear today, from
The Message translation, gives a clear definition:

God uses us to persuade men and women to drop their differences and enter into God’s work of making things right between them.

Reconciliation is the holy work of bridging divides, breaking down walls—whatever metaphor means the most to you to describe eliminating the divisions between people and holiness.

For Paul, the impetus to do this is Jesus Christ. He understands the execution and Easter mystery as God using Jesus as a scapegoat, in the most traditional sense of the word: Put all sins on Jesus then drive him out of existence.

And, for Paul, reconciliation is essential because Jesus will be back very, very soon. He’s less than 20 years out from Easter and certain to his bones that they need to be in the business of preparing for a massive, world-wide, collective, and final experience of God.

In the two millennia since Paul was building churches and creating this first Christian theology, as we have built churches and lived with that theology, we have developed other, equally valid, understandings.

You may remember that, last summer, I did a survey of our church and found we range from classic Pauline theology to “Jesus was a good, regular man to whom a bad thing was done and from whom we can learn to do better.” And we are not a church that places such an emphasis on a second coming of Christ. We name the constant risings of Christ in our midst rather than the cataclysm that Paul imagined.

I think there are at least two reasons for that. First, all predictions of the second coming have proved false. God’s time is clearly not our time. Second, we have plenty of cataclysms of our own that need to be reconciled. We don’t need to worry about one from on high.
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Gathering in Response to Orlando

On Monday, June 13, 2016, I hosted a gathering at my church in response to the mass shooting in a gay bar in Orlando, FL. The order of service and my comments folllow.

GREETING
13391604_1189965757703748_893419545035532880_oIn 2012 I gathered with my church to mourn the slaughter of children at Sandy Hook Elementary. Last August, I gathered with my church to lament the slaughter of the Mother Emanuel Nine and Freddie Gray and Tamir Rice and so many other African Americans.

Today, we gather again as a church and as a city and a county in rage and shock at the slaughter of 49 predominantly Latina and Latino members of the queer community.

The Young, black, brown, and queer: all targets of profound violence and cruel death.

In my religious tradition, we talk about how God cares most for “the least of these,” and how we are to literally care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. But our nation, or at least some of our neighbors, seek out the least for death, not protection.

In 2012, I greeted my congregation with the following:

Welcome to this space of prayer. May you find it a place of comfort this night, and safety. May you find hope in the space between us. May we grown more whole as our time together unfolds.

How tepid that now sounds. How insufficient for the gore that has followed. And yet true. This is a space of prayer, this is a place for comfort and hope. But we dare not skip to those without confronting our grief and anger, or we will never find wholeness in ourselves or among each other.

Please join me in the invocation printed in your program. Continue reading

Shootings and the Table: Deuteronomy 5.1–21, 6.4–9

shootings and the tableDelivered at Ames UCC on October 11, 2015
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
Please join us for worship at 10:45 a.m. on Sundays.

TORAH
Today we end our quick trek through the Torah. The Torah consists of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. In Greek it is known as the Pentateuch.

In Genesis, God recognized the human need for relationship. We then sat with Abraham’s and Sarah’s longing for children. That longing was fulfilled and two generations later, their grandson Jacob made bargains with God and was given the new name of Israel, God Rules.

In Exodus, though, we found that Pharaoh was ruling. The ancient Hebrews had become enslaved and God promised them a new land. Moses saw and heard this promise through a burning bush and recognized that he was standing on holy ground. Our youth shared their own experiences of holy ground and God’s presence in their lives last week.
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