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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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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Faith is Not So Tidy: Luke 3.1–22

2017.1.8 best caseDelivered at Ames UCC
on January 8, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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NEAT AND TIDY
Luke tells a good story, he’s a good story teller. The Gospel of Luke and its sister book the Acts of the Apostle are beautifully crafted cases for Christ. Rather than a collection of Jesus stories with no segues or explanation, each element within Luke’s gospel is connected, and is a stepping stone to the predicted end.

In the second chapter, for instance, a barren woman is able to get pregnant, a classic Biblical sign of God at work in the world. That woman, Elizabeth, now pregnant with John, visits her cousin Mary, now pregnant with Jesus. John gives Elizabeth’s bladder a good kick, and Elizabeth proclaims Mary blessed among women.

This is a foreshadowing of today’s story: John, now born and grown and working as a religious leader, kicks back against those who think he is the anointed one. No, he says, not I. But, the one I have preceded all my life.

In the Gospel of Luke, the structure of the story leaves no room to doubt that Jesus is the Son of God. The structure of Luke’s story of faith is neat and tidy.

But, man oh man, the contents are not. Look, for example, at the company Jesus keeps, right from the very start.

2017.1.8 not just ritualJESUS’ BAPTISM
Although the Christmas story tells us that Jesus is going to be someone special, the audience for that is pretty small, once you exclude the sky full of heavenly host. Jesus’ baptism, then, is considered his debut act of ministry, the moment at which Jesus declares his commitment to God and God blesses that commitment.

The version most commonly represented in art and story is from the Gospel of Mark. In it, John is in rough clothing and eating bugs. John cites the prophecy from Isaiah and predicts Jesus. Jesus is then clearly baptized by John and just as he comes out of the water, the heavens open right in front of everyone, in direct response to John moving Jesus through the water.

Not so in Luke. In Luke, we just hear that sometime after everyone was baptized, including Jesus, Jesus was praying, but where and for how long and with whom, we don’t know. Only then does God speak.

That crucial moment almost reads as an addendum to what came before: seventeen verses of John preaching and chastising and getting arrested, then only two about Jesus and his baptism. In Luke, it is the lead up to the baptism and holy blessing that get the attention, that have the weight. And it is not tidy. The lead up to baptism and blessing are messy.

John has rejected his birthright. This one who could have been—should have been?—a temple priest like his father is instead a hollering, river-wading name caller. People, he says, there is one coming who will straighten everything out. But you are a brood of vipers! You think you can rest on who you are related to and do no work of your own. Bah!

Then things get messier, because it turns out that the people who were drawn to John, at least the ones who warrant naming, are tax collectors and soldiers. This first group consists of fellow Israelites who make their living off of taxing their own neighbors on behalf of an occupier, while taking a cut for themselves. The second are the agents of occupation who keep the rule of foreign law, including suppression of resistance, through violence, extortion, and pinning crimes on innocent people. John tells them to clean up their acts and be prepared to be judged by fire.

These are the people chosen by Jesus to be his first witnesses. These are the very first members of what we now call the body of Christ.
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No Right Answers: Luke 2.21–38

2017-1-1-not-rightDelivered at Ames UCC
on January 1, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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POETRY
I was a literature major in college. That meant I got read a whole lot of books that I loved. But I also had to take a class on poetry. I remember the day we talked about Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for death.” It felt like we spent an hour on the first stanza:

Because I could not stop for Death–
He kindly stopped for me–
The Carriage held but just Ourselves–
And Immortality.

Our professor kept asking what it meant. We kept saying, “She didn’t want to die. But death came anyway.” Which it does. But she kept at us: “What else? What else?” She seemed, to me, disproportionately excited to look for more meaning within those 20 words.

I know I passed the class, but I remember feeling dense and dimwitted throughout. Poetry confused me and I felt like I was never “getting it” or getting it “right.”

Twenty years later, I can say the experience of being Christian can feel the same. As people who are seeking the divine, in part through Christian scripture, we can also feel dense and wonder if we will ever get it “right” or know what our scripture “really means.”

TEMPLE PRESENTATION
Look at today’s portion from the gospel community of Luke, for example. It begins with Jesus being presented as an eight-day-old newborn to the temple in Jerusalem.

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

The passage implies that this presentation is a required religious purification ritual for the whole family. But it wasn’t. Ancient Judaism did not have any such requirement. Luke makes this false connection by pairing it with a quotation from God’s instruction to Moses in the wilderness in Exodus 13. Yes, God asked for first born sons to be dedicated to service to God, but that was never implemented as a formal religious purification ritual rule.1

Women did a forty day period between delivery and a ritual, which is detailed in Leviticus 12, but Mary is only a week out of the barn. And there was no requirement for the fathers of newborns.

Saying that it was time for “their” time for purification, meaning the whole family’s, is not historically accurate.

So what does that mean? What does the story mean as told and what does the discrepancy between story and history mean?
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God’s Compassion and Comfort: 2 Corinthians 1.1–11

compassionofgodDelivered at Ames UCC
on May 22, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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GO TO SEMINARY
There’s a pastor in Harlem named Michael Walrond. I first met him in seminary when he did a fireside chat about his church. Rev. Walrond had served as chaplain at Duke Divinity School, I think, but was called to bring First Corinthian Baptist Church back to life.

And he has. They have gone from a couple of hundred parishioners rattling around in a huge multi-floored sanctuary to multiple Sunday services with lines literally around the block.

I went into seminary with the death knoll of mainstream Protestantism ringing in my head, so I was eager to learn how Rev. Walrond had transformed that bell into peals of joy.

His message was simple: Take your people to seminary.
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Building without Worry

Building without worryBUILDING WITHOUT WORRY

The litany below is based on the charge that The Rev. Theodore Jennings gave to the Chicago Theological Seminary 2012 graduating class. I have since modified it, both in content and format. You are most welcome to use it in your own settings. –The Rev. Eileen Gebbie, Ames UCC

Voice 1:
Our Good News comes to us through old languages translated across many tongues and cultures. It can be confusing, contradictory, and even painful. Our scripture has been used to justify all manner of atrocities and ignorance. Need we worry?
Respondent:
Do not worry: the Word is stronger than the contempt shown it. If we clothe ourselves in its poetry and anoint our lives with its tales, we will radiate the light and truth of God’s holy word.
Voice 2:
Our world, nation, towns, and even our own churches, harbor cruel edges of racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy. Need we worry?
Respondent:
Do not worry: the God that freed the Israelites, the God that cared for Hagar the slave, the God that empowered the Canaanite woman to challenge even Jesus gives us strength to name such violences and the certainty that they will end.

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