HERE I AM: Genesis 27:1–4, 15–23; 28:10–17

2017.9.24 torporDelivered at Ames UCC on September 24, 2017

©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.

JACOB
Jacob is a scoundrel.

Jacob is the grandson of Abraham and son of Isaac. You’ll remember from last week that Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac on an altar at God’s command, but an angel of God rescued them. That’s how far God had to go, after over a hundred years of trying, to get Abraham’s lasting attention.

And that’s how loyal Isaac was to his dad: Even though he was a grown adult and could have escaped the knife, overpowered his father, he did just as he was told. But Isaac’s capacity for loyalty did not guarantee the same in his own children.

Isaac’s wife Rebekah bears twin sons. Esau is the firstborn. This means he is slated to inherit all of his father’s wealth and power. His twin brother, Jacob, is born second born and jealous. As they come out of their mother’s body, the story goes, Jacob pulls on Esau’s heel, trying to hold Esau back so that he, Jacob, might be first. That didn’t work out, so once they are men, Jacob bribes Esau to relinquish his birthright. Then, to seal the deal, he tricks his father Isaac into doing the same.

Jacob is born needy, born grasping for more. He does not care about honor or respect or the well-being of anyone other than himself. Jacob is the complete opposite of the humanity God hoped for back in Genesis 1 and 2.

HERE I AM
But we aren’t letting go of that Genesis hope. We are keeping it right in front of us.

Our chancel visuals this fall are by Christy Oxendine. She read through the stories for these weeks and saw how each story builds on the other. Here is creation. On top of creation she added Abraham’s “Here I am” from last week and for this.

In Genesis 22 God cries out to Abraham, and Abraham answers, “Here I am.”1 Isaac cries out to Abraham, and Abraham answers, “Here I am.” The messenger of the Lord cries out to Abraham, and Abraham answers, “Here I am.”

Now, when Isaac is an old man, he cries out to Esau. And Esau answers, “Here I am.” Then, while Esau is gone to get food for Isaac, Jacob sneaks in with his identity masked. Jacob cries out, “Father.” And Isaac answers, “Here I am.”

In this portion of the Hebrew Bible the phrase “here I am” is hineni in Hebrew. It has no good English equivalent. The editors of the Jewish Study Bible say that we need to read into the phrase a sense of “readiness, alertness, attentiveness, receptivity, and responsiveness to instruction.”

In each of the moments I’ve cited, we need to hear “here I am” as not just “present” but “fully present and ready to act on your next speech.” It is the ideal posture to take in relation to God and each other.

We are not to passively exist. We are to look, listen, reach out to, and anticipate each other and God. It is an active mode of being in God’s world. “Here I am,”/hineni is the corporeal faith that Jesus lived during his ministry and still teaches in the Easter mystery.

But then today’s story seems to contradict all of the “here I am”s.
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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

Sermons are written to be
heard rather than read.
Please join us for worship
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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