God IS Good: Lamentations 1.1–6, 3.19–26

Delivered at Ames UCC on Sunday, June 30, 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 and locations may vary. Check the calendar for details.

PHOTO
I’m going to reference some photos that include children that are pretty graphic, so parents 2019.6.30 greatand guardians, if you feel like your little ones aren’t ready to hear about that, feel free to move into the parlor.

I think you know one of the photos I will describe. In it, there is a man face down in a river. Strapped to his back with a cloth is a child, maybe a toddler, also face down. The child’s left hand sticks out of the carrier as if it had been wrapped around the man’s neck.

On first seeing the photo all I could think was, “Yank them up! Someone yank them up! They can’t survive with their faces in the water!” But it was too late. Nothing could be done to save them. They are dead. They are drowned dead from their effort to flee a hell of a homeland and to ask this great nation, this wealthy and vast nation, for asylum.

Instead, they received lungs filled with water and final moments filled with terror. The ruach, the breath of God that flows in all of us right now, of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and Valeria, has been washed away.

Take the grief, shock, anger, horror, and even numbness that you experienced in first seeing that photo, and in remembering it now, and multiply it by many thousands. That is the beginning of understanding the tenor and content of the book of Lamentations.
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Circumcise Your Heart: Romans 6.1–14

Delivered at Ames UCC on Sunday, June 2, 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.

2019.6.2 heartIMPOSSIBLE
We have a near-impossible task.

As Christians, and those considering Christianity as a path of holiness, we have the near-impossible task of explaining to the world what cannot be explained.

Jesus, a good man by the ancient accounts of those who adored him, so transformed those peoples’ lives that they thought he was a child of God. And not like we—all humans, all mammals, all basalt rocks—are children of God, but the Son of God in the sense of being substantially made of divinity. Then instead of solving all of the world’s problems he died a most painful and ignominious death.

That should have been the end of the story. Jesus’s death should have turned the true believers into total skeptics. Instead, they became even more convicted.

Reports began to circulate that Jesus had been resurrected, that God had given a new kind of life to Jesus’s dead body, thus confirming that he was, and remains, the Christ, the anointed one of God.

Surely that was pure fantasy. Surely those were the ravings of the bereaved.

But then other people met the Christ.

Other people, like Paul, who had despised the followers of Jesus, met this presence on a road. And others met it in rooms, at the beachside, all over the place. The movement that decried barriers, and broke them, seemed to also collapse the greatest barrier of all—death.

And so the movement continued.

CONTINUED
In its first centuries the Jesus movement continued to suffer persecution, often functioning underground in its efforts to realize earth as a heaven through free meals and burial societies and baptismal preparations that have been compared to training for the Olympics.

The movement became the church when it was adopted by a massive state and so spread even further. That spread only continued as other nations picked up this church and took it with them in their own travels, their own conquering.

And so here we are today. Here we are so far, far away from ancient Israel still studying this man, still experiencing wonder at his mystery.

But still left with a near-impossible task: How can we profess resurrection? How do we justify God letting God’s own self perish so bloodily?

We can look to our forebears, like Paul, for examples:
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Nothing to Sell: Romans 1.7–17


Delivered at Ames UCC on Easter Sunday, May 19, 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.

2019.5.19 sunday morningNOTHING TO SELL
Recently a UCC-er told me that their child left the UCC as an adult because we have nothing to sell. Someone who had been raised in our tradition walked away from it for another mainline Protestant church because we appeared not to offer anything worth buying.

And maybe they are right.

Two weeks ago as I drove east on Highway 30 to preach at the Newton UCC church, I saw a huge line of cars queued up to turn north and onto the campuses of two mega-churches. Those churches hold thousands of worshipers at a time, and I understand they do so regularly.

There were fewer than 30 people with me in Newton; we range from 120 to 180 here in Ames. Going on the numbers alone, maybe that former UCC-er was right. Maybe we don’t have anything to sell, anything worth buying with the precious hours of a Sunday morning.

Which makes our turn today to Paul, the super-evangelist and church planter, feel that much more meaningful.

PAUL AND ROME
You’ll remember Paul from last week when he and Barnabas tried to convert a crowd to the new Way of Jesus only to have them worship Zeus instead. That isn’t the first time we meet Paul in scripture, though. In the Acts of the Apostles he is introduced as Saul, a Jewish man and citizen of the Roman Empire. Scholars suggest that Saul would have begun his study of Torah, the first five books of what we now call the Bible, as young as age five, and may even have been sent to Jerusalem for more education as a teenager.1 Whatever his upbringing and education, Saul reacts to the Jesus Way movement violently, serving as a persecutor of Jesus’s disciples.

Then, on his way to extradite followers of the Way from Damascus to Jerusalem, Saul is visited by the risen Christ. Saul is struck blind, healed by another man faithful to Jesus, is baptized, and has a little to eat. He then permanently Romanizes his name to Paul and commits the rest of his life to sharing the story of Jesus.

Paul travels constantly and far, about 10,000 miles by one estimate, yet manages to stays in touch with the new communities he helped to form, called “churches.” This includes one in Rome, the recipients of the letter we are studying but a small portion of today.

The Roman church is a mix of Jewish and non-Jewish followers of Jesus. It is restless over the question of whether being a follower of Jesus means following all of the Jewish religious practices as Jesus himself did, or if the non-Jewish, or Gentile, followers get a pass. That’s a question, though, for people already on board with the holiness evinced by Jesus Christ. Disagreements over how to follow Jesus requires choosing to do so in the first place.

So how did Paul do that? What did Paul have to sell that these diverse Romans bought?
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Joy and Fear: Matthew 28.1–10

2019.4.21 joyDelivered at Ames UCC
on Easter Sunday, April 21, 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.

WHAT I WANT
All I want you to feel today is joy.

Joy at the children, joy at the flowers, joy at the traditions. Joy from being with family, joy from being with friends who have become family. Joy at the gorgeous weather and the promise that snow is now a ways off. Joy from our tale of resilient life.

But our scripture is fighting me. Our scripture is wagging its finger at my preference, reminding me that though we may want joy and though we may feel joy, other sensations may insist on being present too.

For the Marys did not experience only great joy, they left the tomb with fear, as well.

FEAR
That fear makes sense.

At least three Marys were present for the gruesome work of the days before: Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James and John, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph. By the morning we mark today, we are down to Mary the Magdelene and “the other Mary,” so one of those two moms.

These are traumatized women.

The Magdalene and the other Mary had given up their regular lives to put their physical, financial, and spiritual resources behind Jesus. Such sacrifice was worthwhile because of the thrill of watching untold others experience the same learning, and feasting, and salvation as in a healing salve, that had originally drawn them to Jesus.

As I said at our Good Friday service, consider how moved we are by Jesus’s portrait of God’s kin-dom even from this great a distance. What must it have been like at a distance of just the length of an arm, or less?

And then the Marys and the rest of the disciples saw firsthand, at the length of an arm or less, the movement tear itself apart: Judas’s betrayal, Peter’s denial, the male disciples’ abandonment. The Marys and the other women were left alone at the foot of a device of torture where the one on whom they had staked their lives was himself staked and torn apart.

Fear must have gripped the Magdalene and the other Mary for hours before the one we occupy now.

JOY
Maybe it had gripped them long enough that they were almost inured to it, because even though they experience an earthquake and the appearance of a messenger of God, it is the tomb guards who became so frightened that they are “like dead men,” not the Marys.

Fully present in the midst of divine manifestation the Magdalene and the other Mary are the first to receive what we call the good news: The cross could not kill; the tomb could not hold the holiness that made Jesus possible—and the Christ is present still.

Now that is good news of great joy, that is joy made complete. All that they had given is redeemed, all that they lived for yet lives on. Joy!

But the story says they left with great joy and fear. The earthquake and the messenger did not scare them off. So what could have set them scared again?

Knowing what they would encounter when they left.

BACK TO REALITY
The messenger instructs Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to return to their community with the good news. They have the honor of being the apostles to the other apostles.

But surely they know what their reception will be like: Crazy women. These must be crazy women. This story is just the the overemotional delusions of mere women. You know how women are, the male disciples will say. Besides, why would mere women be the recipients of a revelation? In the Gospel of Mary Magdalene Peter says, “Did Jesus really speak privately with a woman and not openly to us? Are we to turn about and all listen to her?”
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White Women: Matthew 20.1–16

Delivered at Ames UCC on March 17, 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.

MAGNIFICENCE
2019.3.17 metanoia Ours is a God of magnificent generosity—and so is that of the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin.

Ours is a God of magnificent generosity—and so it that of Mother Emanuel AME.

Ours is a God of magnificent generosity—and so is that of Tree of Life Synagogue.

Ours is a God of magnificent generosity—and so is that of Al Noor Mosque.

Ours is a God of magnificent generosity—and so it that of Linwood Mosque.

But white people are so narrowly focused on making sure we get what is ours, or protecting what we perceive should only be ours, that we lose sight of that magnificent generosity and take up arms and blow away bodies.

The emotion behind that decision is as old as today’s story.

LANDOWNER
Jesus tells the story of a landowner.

This landowner hires day laborers. Off and on throughout the day, he hires more people. At the end of the day, the landowner pays everyone the same amount of money, both the people who started early in the morning and the people who did not start until the early evening.

The daylong workers grumble. They assumed they would get more money because they had worked more hours. The landowner replies to the daylong workers that they are getting paid exactly what was promised and that the paying of the same amount to others does not take away from what they have earned. The people who started to work in the morning got what they contracted for, so what is their problem?

Yeah, what is their problem? Why would the daylong workers begrudge the landowner the use of his own money if the landowner has treated them exactly as they expected?

Now, I know the answer: It isn’t fair.  Why work all day when you can saunter in at the end and still afford to put food on the table? Why are those people getting something for nothing? It just isn’t fair.

On another Sunday I might have taken a bit of time to affirm that sense of unfairness. But those Sundays are past.

We white Christians cannot afford to give any room or any sympathy to pouting cries of 2019.3.17 lost nothingunfairness by people who have lost nothing just because others have gained a little something. We can no longer afford to perceive the gain of others as a loss for us, even for a moment in response to an old, old, tale.

Those days are gone. Those days are as shredded by white supremacists and Christian nationalists as the bodies of elders, adults, teens, children, and infants on the floors of houses of prayers across this continent and the world.

BORDER TERRIERS
So what are we to do? There are two recognized white supremacist hate groups in Iowa. We could go after them. But the problem is far more pervasive than the proud boys and alt-right leaders who formally organize.

On Friday, as I read about the attack on Al Noor and Linwood, I shared a post to the church Facebook page from the president of Chicago Theological Seminary. Dr. Stephen Ray had written that

The evil of white nationalism is writing its graffiti in blood across the walls of the sacred places of us all.

Moments later I received notice that someone had commented on the post. The comment didn’t readily make sense—was it supportive or nasty?—so I followed the link to the profile of the person who had made the comment.
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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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Ashes and Feast

Each Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Easter dawn, my church and two others worship together.

This year I was scheduled to preach at the host church, Ames First United Methodist, with First Christian Church hosting at the table.

The scripture, picked years ago by the organizers of the Narrative Lectionary, was Matthew 18:1–9, in which Jesus says not to place stumbling blocks before one another.

It is a great message, but one that seemed suddenly quite pointed because, the week before, the governing body of the international United Methodist Church had voted to be more strict in its position regarding queer marriage and clergy.

So how should I, a gay married priest, respond in the pulpit?

Watch the video to see.

We Are All Going to Die: Matthew 7.1–14 and 24–29

Delivered at Ames UCC on February 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.

2019.2.10 sweetDEATH
We are all going to die.

You didn’t need to get out of bed of a Sunday morning to hear that. You know it. I know it. We all know it. But perhaps you come here, in part, to figure out how to live until death, to maybe even get some insight into what death will be like.

I do not know what death will be like, the part after we are dead, that is. I know that biologically we will return to our basic physical and chemical elements. Our flesh will fall away, our bones become grist for soil. We will take our place alongside all other humans and all mammals and all invertebrates and all plants in releasing our component parts back to the biome which birthed and sustained us. That I know for sure.

I feel equally certain that no part of us, and no part of anyone else, will go to a hell.

Beyond that, I cannot speak with as much certainty.

Our religious tradition has offered many images of a heavenly life after death. Peter at pearly gates, streets paved with gold, reunion with all the people we have loved. My preference is a metaphor offered by one of my seminary professors: We experience one stream of the life eternal now, another later. My genetic material, and yours, is as old as humanity itself. My biological material, and yours, will be part of the planet, as long as she exists.

Eternal life is not later but already.

And that is about as definitive as I can get and maintain my theological integrity, except to add that because we are here together, we do not have to make that transition to the next stream alone. I will be with you, if at all possible. The souls of this place will sing to you as you step into those waters.

Which leaves me with the first motivation I mentioned for coming here: Whatever happens after life, how do we live until death?

In today’s passage, Jesus answers with a long list of To Dos.

TO-DOS
This is the final portion of the Sermon on the Mount that we will study this year. It is, all told, 107 verses long, a tome in Biblical standards. Over those eight dozen verses, though we know Jesus has a small audience of the first few disciples, he does not interact with anyone. There is no dialogue, and Jesus does not tell any stories, any parables. It doesn’t even read as a sermon so much as a collection of sayings and instructions, one after the other, as with today: Do not judge, don’t throw pearls before swine, search and you will find, do to others as you would have them do to you, enter through the narrow gate.

Bam, bam, bam: Do, don’t, do, do, don’t do. No sugar coating and no coaxing, Jesus reiterates to the disciples, and to us, God’s Torah instructions and his feelings about those who do not follow them:

…everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish person who built their house on sand.

The Sermon on the Mount is a little intimidating to read in that regard. After all, by Jesus’s account, we are walking around with logs in our eyes trying to judge the specks in others’. If we do not even notice something as cumbersome and stabby as a log tangled up in our lashes, how can we ever hope to do to others as we would have them do to us?

We are doomed to fall short of all of these instructions at one time or another, if not most of the time. So we are probably doomed altogether then, too, right? We don’t have to worry about what heaven might be because we won’t ever get into it, right?

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Public Works and Private Workings: Matthew 6.1–15

Delivered at Ames UCC on February 3, 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.

VIOLATION
 Did anyone else notice, in hearing this passage, that every week we violate the instructions Jesus gives?

Beware of practicing your piety before others
whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door

whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet

do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,

so that your alms may be done in secret

Every week we pray together in unison, silently, and with individual petitions. And then we make public offerings to the life and work of the church. There aren’t trumpets but the choir does usually sing. This style of worship and the elements within are quite old and well considered. They have been practiced across many ages and locations, with some modifications for context and need.

Is it time, though, for a new reformation to correct our wayward worship ways?

TEACHING
2019.2.3 covenant At this point in the gospel Jesus is still on the mountain with Simon Peter, Andrew, John, and James. He is continuing the sermon that began with the Beatitudes, which we studied last week.

In between the Beatitudes and this discourse on prayer and giving, Jesus emphasizes that he absolutely is not working to upend the Torah and the Nevi’im, the teachings and the prophets that constitute the bulk of what we now know as the Hebrew Bible. Jesus says that “not one stroke of a letter” from what God has already offered can be changed (5.18), and then explores the Decalogue, including murder, cheating, judging, and swearing false oaths. This small group of disciples has had a master class in covenant living, in the manna that God offers and the mercy we must practice.

Including Jesus’s exhortation to keep the practices of prayer and giving private.

Jesus is clearly responding, in part, to people in their community who do “practice piety before others in order to be seen by them,” people whom he describes as “hypocrites in the streets” and non-Jewish people who “heap up empty phrases.” These showily religious offer a negative lesson in religiosity. They also offer Jesus the opportunity to make a theological statement, an argument about God.

When making gifts, he says, do so anonymously because “your Creator…sees in (that) secret.” Pray alone in your room “to your Creator who is in secret” and pray simply because “your God knows what you need before you ask.” This isn’t Jesus just instructing the disciples about how to pray and give. He is teaching them about God’s response, God’s involvement in both. God is in secret, not in the devious or confidential sense of the word, but in the sense of being in all places, including the private. We do not need to seek God in public, we do not need public displays of faith to get God’s attention. God is in our soul’s innermost, secret, private chambers; best to seek God, to commune with God there. The point of faith is not public works but our private working.

The point of faith is not public works but our private working.

2019.2.3 museRESISTANCE
How many of you are feeling a little internal resistance to that notion?

I know that the public work of the national UCC and our own is, in part, why many of you are here. It matters to you that we successfully sued North Carolina for gay marriage on the basis of religious freedom and that we coined the term “environmental racism.” It matters to you, too, that our next Theologian in Residence will focus on what churches can do in practical terms to respond to the needs of immigrants. Theologically we already know: “you shall love the alien as yourself” (Leviticus 19.34). Not like yourself but as yourself because they are us.

I would be hard-pressed to be part of a church community that did not engage in public works of faith. That would feel too much like a private club, like a self-help system, rather than a living covenant with God and neighbor.

And Jesus did so many public works, himself. Why else was he such a threat to the Herods and Rome?

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Are We Ready? Matthew 5.1–20

Delivered at Ames UCC on January 27, 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.

2019.1.27 blessingNOT THE AUDIENCE
We are not the intended audience for this teaching.

Known as the Sermon on the Mount and The Beatitudes, it is one of the most reproduced portions of scripture but it was not originally intended for us, or for any but a very few.

I mentioned last week that the gospel of Matthew is clearly intended for a Jewish audience. Christianity was not fully independent of Judaism until a few centuries after Jesus’s ministry, murder, and mystery. So this gospel is speaking to fellow Jewish people that Matthew and the Matthean community wanted to bring along to their new understanding of Way. We 21st-century Christians have to keep that in mind throughout our study of this gospel.

But the audience for the Sermon on the Mount, the original oral one, was even smaller.

After his baptism and after his wilderness vision quest, Jesus calls Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John as disciples. Together, they travel all over Syria and Judea, with Jesus sharing the good news of God’s present kin-dom, and healing the sick. He becomes very popular and draws great crowds.

When Jesus sees the crowds, chapter 5 begins, he retreats to a mountain, alone. He is later joined by the disciples. Not all 12 of them: not even the Matthew for whom this gospel is named is a disciple yet. So what we hear and read today is a written account of a private teaching between Jesus and a handful of specific people that he had drawn to himself. Why?

WHY?
Why does Jesus keep this to only a few? It is a fantastic sermon.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit…

“Blessed are those who mourn…

“Blessed are the meek…

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…

“Blessed are the merciful…

“Blessed are the pure in heart…

“Blessed are the peacemakers…

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…

“Blessed are you when people revile you…

That’s revival-level preaching, a real barn-burning, show-stopper. So why did Jesus keep it just to the first few disciples?

Well, secret or semiprivate teachings like this are not so unusual in our tradition. In the gospel of John, for example, after Mary Magdalene has found the empty tomb, it says that

Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. (20.30)

That used to make me nuts. Why didn’t someone write them down? Argh!

It isn’t until recently that I’ve come to appreciate the answer to my question: because maybe not everyone is ready. Because there is a stream of Christianity, perhaps better illustrated outside of the primary, canonical gospels, that stresses preparedness for Christ’s deeper truths.

Let’s take, for instance, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.

GOSPEL OF MARY MAGDALENE
In the canonical gospels, we learn that Mary was healed by Jesus of seven demons, a number that indicates she is perfectly healed. She then supported him on his travels. She was at his cross and his burial and then at the empty tomb. She then became the disciple to the disciples, sharing with them the good news of Easter morning. Mary Magdalene is the second most-referenced woman in the gospels after Mary the mother of Jesus.

Mary Magdalene’s gospel was written down in the second century, though it likely circulated from the time of Christ until the early 300s. It is unclear whether the Magdalene’s gospel was then suppressed or simply fell out of popularity and no one taught or copied it any longer. In the era when Mary’s gospel was active, written accounts of Christ were only supplements to the real space of learning: the dialogue between teacher and student. That relationship was paramount, essential because of the intimacy involved and the active participation it required.

In Mary’s gospel follows that model, with the risen Christ appearing to only Mary and the male disciples. When he leaves, the male disciples panic because they are afraid that if they follow Jesus’s teaching, they will get killed like he did. Mary reassures them by sharing a private encounter she alone had with the risen Christ. It begins with the Christ saying

Blessed are you that you did not waver at the sight of Me. (7.9)

There is a pattern, then, within both the canonical and the extra-Biblical accounts of Jesus Christ passing on teachings to only a few or even one. The implication is that not everyone can stand, unwavering, in their encounter with holiness. Not everyone is read for the lessons that holiness has to teach.

UNWAVERING
Are we? Are we ready to hear that the poor and the meek and the peacemakers are a blessing?

Remember the definition of blessings that I offered last September: conduits of holiness that can open the receiver of the blessing to the hope and help of God.1 That’s from United Methodist pastor Jan Richardson. Author, philosopher, and former priest John O’Donohue adds that we get the word blessing from an older word that means “to sanctify with blood.” Blessings, the seemingly abstract, he writes, are really as earthy as the blood that pumps through our hearts.2

Taken together, blessings are embodied vessels to God.

What does it mean that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are embodied vessels to God? What does it mean that the persecuted and reviled are embodied vessels to God?

I am not sure how to answer those questions without sounding completely self-serving or self-righteous, in equal measures. Either I am calling someone who is mourning a special gift from God, which makes that person and their suffering an object for my own transformation, or I’m saying my desire for justice makes me a special gift from God, and I think we know the problem and risk there. What seems so simple, so beautiful at first pass proves to be complicated, puzzling at the second.

But Jesus thought the first four disciples were ready to receive it, unwavering. In abandoning their professions to follow Jesus, in their witness of his healings and teachings, Jesus found them ready for what the crowds were not.

And because we are reading it today, they must have disagreed with him. They and those who followed must have decided the Beatitudes were worth sharing even with the unprepared, even with the wavering.

BECOME THE AUDIENCE
I thank God for that decision.

As recent years have shown, we can be pretty poor storytellers on our own. On our own we can tell a pretty bad story about the poor, the meek, the peacemaker. So even if we understand the Sermon on the Mount’s meaning but through a glass dimly, it tells a far more hopeful and redeeming story about our life together than we can on our own.

And so we will keep studying it. We will keep making ourselves the audience.

As the membership anniversaries we just celebrated, and the new membership promises we will give and receive in a few minutes show, we want to follow the examples of Mary Magdalene and the male disciples. We want to seek out the divine, to sit at the feet of holiness, sometimes alone, and sometimes with the growing crowd of this dear church.

Even if we are not ourselves merciful or pure in heart, we want to be.

In a world riven by destructive humanity, our steadfast, unwavering attention to this teaching may allow us to become a blessing, to become embodied vessels for our creative God.

AMEN

1Richardson, Jan. 2015. Circle of grace. Orlando, FL: Wanton Gospeller Press, pp. xiv–xv.
2O’Donohue, John. 2008. Bless the space between us. New York, NY: Doubleday, p 119.