Authority and Worth: Mark 10.17–31

2018.8.26 churchDelivered at Ames UCC
on August 26, 2018
©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 and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

TWO QUESTIONS
There are two questions we have to answer for ourselves when confronted by this scripture. Because it is a confrontation between us and Jesus, just as it is between Jesus and the rich man.

One, what authority do we give Jesus in our lives? And, two, what does that authority require us to do with our money?

AUTHORITY
When we come into a building labeled United Church of Christ, as ours is in such large letters on the east, it is a safe assumption that Jesus is the highest authority in this place; that the in-house ritual worker—me—will describe Jesus’s teachings, and teachings about Jesus, as paramount; and that Jesus will be named as a conclusive expression of the Godhead.

But that does not mean any one of you will accept all or even most of what the church promotes or I have to say. That is not required in our particular branch of the Christian family tree. We do not have a creed or tests of faith. Instead, we have lifelong learning and prayer and discernment about the person, place, and passion of Jesus Christ.

So where are you on that today?

Consider, for a moment, where you are in your conversation with God regarding Jesus.

Maybe you understand him to have been a real, historical man or perhaps a composite of many Jewish zealots and movements. Maybe you believe he physically healed the sick but did not raise the dead. You may accept his death on a cross but reject the idea that God wanted him to die that way.

The longest conversation we have with God is usually about Easter and whether Jesus literally came back from the dead or metaphorically did or did in a way we do not have language for.

Your position on each of those key elements of our story, your own Christology, to use the theological term, will determine in part how you respond to Jesus when he tells you to sell all that you have and give it to the poor.

DODGE
One answer may be to dodge the question. Because who here is really rich, like the man in the passage?

One percent of our population now owns forty percent of the national wealth. Twenty percent owns ninety percent of the wealth. I don’t know that any of us are in that category. I do know that twenty two percent of the Ames population is working and above the poverty line but not really able to afford living here.

The majority of us who come to this place, though, are affording to live here, have sufficient health care coverage, can do some saving, and can even afford the occasional vacation or new car. Though we may not be dripping with gold and Gucci, we do have more than our daily bread.

So Jesus is addressing us, too.

And if we give him any authority in our lives, we do have to decide how to faithfully use our financial resources.
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Light in You: Matthew 9.19–34

Delivered at Ames UCC on August 19, 2018
©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 and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

2018.8.19 lampSTEWARDSHIP
I suspect that more than a handful of you, on seeing the cover of our bulletin today, thought, “Oh, she’s going to preach about giving money to the church. But isn’t it too early for the pledge drive?”

Yes, it is. It will be another four weeks before you receive a letter and pledge card along with a proposed budget that would fund the dreams of our church leadership teams. And though this is the first of three sermons on stewardship, I’m not going to speak to your time, talent, and treasure today.

Instead, I want to speak to your spark. Actually, I’m going to invite you to let Jesus speak to it.

MATTHEW 6
My preaching professor once said that sometimes we need to let scripture speak for itself, let the passage do all of the work. This passage does both well, as Jesus’s meaning here is not hard to find, particularly once returned to its larger context. In this case: a very long speech by Jesus.
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Wombs of Women: Ruth 4

Delivered at Ames UCC on August 12, 2018
©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 and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

THE TRICK
2018.8.12 wombs Remember how Ruth used sex to trap Boaz into marrying her and redeeming Naomi’s land? The next day we see Boaz trick a kinsman, referred to either jokingly or pejoratively as So-and-So, into giving up his claim to the role of redeemer-kinsman.

Recall that being a kinsman-redeemer is an opportunity to demonstrate God’s preferences for manna and mercy over money and might. There is no profit in buying Naomi’s land because Naomi will continue to work it for her own benefit and buy it back one day. Yet the opportunity to honor covenant living is powerful enough that it will take a little doing to get it away from Mr. So-and-So.

So Boaz tells a lie: If you serve as redeemer you also have to marry Ruth.

No, he doesn’t.

The only marital law regarding widows is, as I described last week, between brothers. Mr. So-and-So is not a son of Naomi or a brother-in-law to Ruth. Nonetheless, Mr. So-and-So is duped (or possibly glad to be shut of the kinsman-redeemer burden).

And so, after a little sandal removal, the honor of being a kinsman redeemer is Boaz’s. And the sacrifice of being husband to Ruth is, as well. For when Boaz and Ruth have a son, it will count as son to her late husband.

THE WOMEN
No wonder the townspeople then begin to celebrate: Look at the good and godly choice Boaz has made. They cry out,

May the Lord make Ruth like Rachel and Leah,
may your house be like that of Tamar!

Wait, what? What kinds of blessings are these? Who would want to live like Rachel and Leah and Tamar? Are they actually offering a curse?
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Love: Ruth 3

Delivered at Ames UCC on August 5, 2018
©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 and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

2018.8.6 LoveLOVE
Sometimes I get into conversations with people who aren’t religious who want me to offer proof of God or with people who are religious who want me to defend my concept of God. Often, I’ll talk about love. When I do, sometimes I get eye-rolls or accusations of making God weak. Why do we need a religion to practice love? Doesn’t calling God love deny God’s true power over us?

I don’t understand either response.

I don’t understand because nothing takes more focused, collective preparation than living into the love of God. And nothing, not any of the Biblical tantrums or pouts attributed to God, asks more from of us than God’s love.

Just look at the book of Ruth.

HESED
The book of Ruth offers a depiction of love which, in our tradition, is paralleled only by that of Jesus. It is a kind of divine love known as hesed. That’s the Hebrew writing on the cover of your bulletin. Hesed is hard to define, but you will see some attempts listed there, too: loving-kindness, so a love that takes a kindly form. Long-acting love, a love with long-term repercussions. Steadfast love, a love unmoved by time. Devotion: a love with a worshipful quality. Covenantal devotion: Love that is worshipful and relational at the same time. A love the will not let you go, no matter how hard you try. Hesed is a love shown in “loyalty and commitment (to other people) that go beyond the bounds of law or duty.”1Hesed is to manifest God in the world between people.

The moment on the threshing floor that we just saw in light and shadow is considered the ultimate expression of hesed, of divine commitment, humanly expressed.

How is that possible? How is this story of sexual trickery a story of divine love?
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Listen for Redemption: 1 John 4.1–6

2018.7.8 right nowDelivered at First Christian Church
on July 8, 2018

©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 and August when things change up, so please check the calendar here).

FAKE NEWS
The temptation to preach about fake news, in response to this scripture, is real.

Twenty years ago, I was at the University of Illinois teaching students about online sources and how to vet them for reliability and accuracy. Surely, I thought, people would understand that just because anyone can publish online does not mean that they should or that their content could be trusted. You know how that has gone.

But I’m pretty sick of the Internet and fake news. I want to give my attention to God. I want to understand how we can vet the voices that say they speak for God.

1 JOHN
For our authors of 1 John, the test is clear: If a spirit, or a person speaking for Spirit, will affirm the relationship between God and Christ, and that Jesus was fully divine and fully human, then the spirit or the speaker is trustworthy.

Yet authenticity of spirits and speakers is not their only concern. It is the timing of the spirits and speakers, good or bad, that is also an issue:

…every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world.

It seems this community has been warned that spirits that are anti-Christ are coming and may in fact have already arrived. Which means that Jesus will be back soon, too.

For this Johannine community, which existed about 80 years after Jesus’s death and Easter mystery, the return of the Christ is imminent. They are experiencing the intense pressure of a very short time frame to get ready and show themselves worthy for a total and final encounter between the power of God and the powers of nonbeing. As chapter two reads, “Children, it is the last hour” (2.18).

The stakes, for assessing whether a spirit or speaker is of God or not, are quite high, then: If at any moment, quite soon, Christ will be revealed again they cannot not risk having been lead astray for a single moment.

PENTECOST
In my experience of the United Church of Christ, we don’t talk that much about spirits or the Spirit. Some strains of the UCC and some congregations do, just not the churches I have been a member of or served, probably because they have been majority white and come out of our Congregationalist stream.

The regular exception is Pentecost.
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Servants Between Ashes and Dust: 1 John 1.5–2.2

Delivered at First Christian Church on July 1, 2018

©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 and August when things change up, so please check the calendar here).

UNIQUE RELATIONSHIP
Grace and peace to you, First Christian Church, and isn’t it great to be back in this sanctuary together, Ames UCC?

In addition to being a joy, these July services we share are also unique.

There are six different churches downtown—our two, First United Methodist, Grace Lutheran, Body of Christ, and Holy Transfiguration Orthodox—six churches all professing devotion to God in Christ Jesus with this same scripture as our teacher, yet we continue to maintain our own buildings and pastors and services and ministries. We are so insistent on practicing that love of God in Christ Jesus with distinct music, art, liturgy, and theology, that we mostly remain out of touch and independent.

But here we are, every July, as well as at the beginning and end of Lent, together. During the highest of holy days and the most ordinary of times, for over fifty years, we have come together to give God our united thanks and praise.

Thank you.

NO ATONEMENT SACRIFICE
Because of the unique and long-standing nature of this relationship, the amount of flexibility 2018.7.1 no atonementand openness to difference it demonstrates, and the trust I hope that I’ve personally earned, I’m going to risk being completely transparent with you about my theology of the cross.

Namely, that I completely disagree with this reading. Not all of it, and not all of 1 John, but its interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’s death.

Which puts me in good company, if not in terms of theology, then in the fact of disagreement. This essay, 1 John, is part of an early schism about whether Jesus’s body matters or not. One side said it does not, that it is only a mask. The side represented in 1 John said it does, that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human, so his body is essential to the teachings and the gift. Which I do agree with.

But I cannot accept the authors’ theology that God intentionally had Jesus die as a blood sacrifice to atone for the sins of the world.Instead of an individual bull or goat or dove, the traditional sacrifices for individual sins, they argue that Jesus was a universal lamb to compensate for a whole a universe of sin. Which makes God a murderer and the “structural, civic violence”1 of an empire necessary and holy.

That’s the theology and the God that I grew up with and that is most commonly professed. 2018.7.1 lifeIt is not, though, the theology I can stake my life on or the God that I can love.

Am I saying Jesus didn’t die? No. Am I saying Jesus’s death is inconsequential? No. Am I saying we don’t sin? No way.

I’m saying that it isn’t Jesus’s death, but his life and his resurrection, that are the mechanisms which might redeem us from sin. It is what he did before and after that ordinary, brutal day that may give us means to stop deceiving ourselves and have fellowship with God and each other.

Might and may are probably the most important words there. Jesus’s life and his resurrection might redeem us, if we remember to allow them to.
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What We are Witnessing: 1 John 1.1–4

2018.6.24 herodDelivered at Ames UCC
on June 24, 2018

©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 and August when things change up, so please check the calendar here).

1 JOHN
What is the most powerful act you have witnessed or experience you have had because of your faith or life in a community of faith? Have you ever used that experience to justify your faith or life in a community of faith? Today’s passage is all about witnessing and using the fact of being an eyewitness to bolster an argument. An argument about Jesus.

Here are the two sides: Early Christians who believed Jesus was fully divine, called Docetists, versus those including the followers of the disciple John who authored this essay, who believed he was divine and human.

For the Docetists, divinity could not suffer pain, as on the cross, so the physical appearance of Jesus was a mask, his carnality unimportant. For our authors, having witnessed Christ’s life and death with their own eyes, they were convinced that Jesus was fully divine and fully human. They give this witness statement that their joy might be complete.

Which reminds me of another set of witnesses from the beginning of Jesus’s life, a group of people from whom we have no letter or essay describing and interpreting what they saw: the magi.
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What is the Next Right Thing?: Philippians 1.1–18a

2018.5.6 indecentDelivered at Urbandale UCC
on May 6, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

GREETINGS
Grace to you, Urbandale UCC, and peace from God our Creator and your siblings in faith and in wonder at Ames UCC. I am Eileen Gebbie, the senior minister at Ames UCC, where I have the honor of serving with Pr. Hannah Hannover, the minister for families with kids (and the rest of us).

We are the oldest church in Ames, having beat out the United Methodists across the street by one year, and worship in a classic brick sanctuary. But on the exterior of our traditional space are testimonies to our contemporary faith: a God is Still Speaking rainbow banner and another proclaiming our love of our Muslim neighbors and all refugees.

We have been a Just Peace church since 1986, and a devoted team rings our memorial bell every Wednesday as a reminder. And we have been Open and Affirming for 18 years. I understand that next week you are celebrating the 25th anniversary of your own vote to become Open and Affirming. That would have been in 1993, if my math is right.

BALLOT MEASURE 9
In 1993 I was in my home town of Portland, Oregon. In the fall of 1992, I and my fellow Oregonians voted on the first anti-gay ballot measure in the United States. I should clarify, it was the first anti-gay and anti-pedophile ballot measure in the U.S. because the authors assumed they were one and the same.

In the year leading up to that vote, the measure’s supporters threw every homophobic and ignorant argument at us that you can imagine and that I cannot repeat in a house of God. But, of course, they did it in the name of God. In the name of God they conflated love with abuse, mutuality with violence. It was ugly. The late Donna Red Wing was on the forefront of our defense and received death threats as thanks.

I wish I could say the results offered redemption, but they didn’t really: We defeated the measure by only 56%. Not 90%, not 80%, not even 70%. Not a number that would demonstrate that ignorance and religious bigotry were minority positions to rebut and a minor problem to solve. It left me shaky. And it landed me, with many others, firmly and far beyond the walls of any Christian church.

I know that Iowa has been on the forefront of gay rights, and that gay marriage became legal here in 2009, but I can imagine that in 1993 there were plenty of Christian people in Iowa who would have agreed with the Christian people in Oregon who favored legal bigotry.

That’s the environment in which this Christian church offered a different witness to God in Christ. That’s the culture in which this Christian community stood in solidarity with their—our— queer siblings in Christ.

The same queer solidarity that got Jesus killed and kept his movement alive.

SOLIDARITY
Look at the company Jesus kept: At any given moment he may have been with women householders like Martha, compromised tax collectors like Zacchaeus, bereft Roman soldiers like the one with the sick servant, bereft fathers who begged for the life of their daughters when so many other Biblical dads let them die or worse, hungry people who needed food and rich people who eventually paid for his grave.

The company Jesus kept was indecent, it was improper, and it went against all that was socially right. The disciples and apostles, like Paul, kept it up after the Easter mystery.

PAUL
Paul, the Jewish Roman citizen and persecutor of followers of the Way, had an epiphanic encounter with his God through Christ, and became a most fervent teacher, preacher, and traveler on behalf of that same Way he once scorned. Paul traveled thousands of miles over hundreds of hours to nurture the growth of countercultural holy feasts and practical care.

It was hard.

There’s evidence in the letters to the Corinthians and to the Galatians that Paul and other preachers did not agree. The Acts of the Apostles reveal tense negotiations between Paul, who never met Jesus the man, and the disciples who had.

And Paul can be as hard on us as any contemporary oppressor, like all of that business about silent women and obedient slaves. That’s not gospel, that’s not good news; that’s cultural violence.

But Paul did follow Jesus’s radical relationality by bring together people who were Jewish and those who were not. And he did leave us with a model of passionate service and public love, as in the opening of this letter to the Philippians:

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.

That’s how I feel being in a space that has for 25 years offered a living, Christ-like solidarity, one that has wrestled with the baggage of our religious tradition to bear witness to the truth of our faith. You have practiced passionate service and public love. And I thank God for knowing of you. Because of you, I have joy to pray. And, as Paul shows, such joy and thanks leads to hope.

NEXT?

And this is my prayer, Paul continues, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best

Paul hopes that the Philippians’ faithfulness to the queer company of Christ will lead to more knowledge and insight so that they will always do what is best.

2018.5.6 white churchesI share this hope and this prayer for the entire United Church of Christ. As far as the UCC has come in welcoming people who are LGBTQIA, we are still only 30% officially Open and Affirming.

And despite our significant accomplishments for racial justice, we remain a highly racially segregated branch of the Christian family tree.

As of 2016, 86% of UCC churches are overwhelmingly or exclusively white. Only 5% of our churches identify as multiracial. In their statistical reporting, the national church notes that in 2006 the number of white churches was at 90% and multiracial at 1%, so there has been some movement toward the middle, but not much.

Why have we been more successful in the ONA movement than movements for other marginalized, demonized, and falsely characterized people?

Is there anything each of our churches might do or stop doing to be more genuinely welcoming and safe for people of color? Not for our sake, not so that we white people can feel good about ourselves, but for the sake of the body of Christ.

Who have we left outside the church walls now?

How will we continue to be counter-cultural feast-makers and practical caregivers?

How might the passionate service and public love we celebrate today overflow into more knowledge and insight to help us know what to do next?

FINAL THANKS
I am glad for the opportunity the Central Association of the Iowa Conference of the UCC provided to remind us that the church is bigger than our individual congregations.

It means that the body of Christ, that queer configuration of grace, repentance, feasting, prayer, humility, boldness, justice and every variety of human expression imaginable is even bigger still.

I thank God when I remember this.

And, again, I thank you.

I do not know if the vote 25 years ago was easy or it was hard, but either way, I know that it put you firmly on that old and dusty Way.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

AMEN

Faith is not Formulaic: Acts 16.16–34

2018.4.22 salvationDelivered at Ames UCC on
Sunday, April 22, 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.

HOW
How is all of this supposed to work? This coming into the sanctuary of a Sunday, the going to Bible study, the attending regional youth events? (Several of our youth are at Urbandale UCC today to meet other kids who will be going to the July youth event.) What are the faith outcomes that these religious mechanics generate?

From Christmas until Easter we watched the Jesus movement begin, Jesus himself with his teachings and talents and the blessings and backlash which followed both.  Now we are in the season of Eastertide. During Eastertide we watch the emergence of the early churches, the very earliest churches, the Communion and Baptism communities that followers of the Jesus movement planted as far from Jerusalem’s grave as Macedonia’s Philippi. That’s almost 1,400 miles and would take over 400 hours to walk. That’s commitment.

But, again, to what end and through which means?  Today Paul’s answer to his jailer is

Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.

FORMULAE
Believe and be saved. It’s the classic Christian formula.

Throughout my high school years, when I would drive myself and my brother and dog north on I-5 either from the home of our aunts in Portland or our dad in Vancouver to our mom’s place in Olympia, there was a billboard that read “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ,” in full, giant Gothic print.

I remember being both offended and confused by it. Offended for having my public space taken up by Christian evangelism (I was a classic teen) and confused by the use of “on” instead of “in.” Don’t we have faith in Jesus Christ, not on him?

Regardless, I understood it then, as I do now, to suggest that if we commit ourselves exclusively to Jesus Christ we will be rescued from certain pain and suffering. It’s a tidy formula. It’s a formula that leaves no room for interpretation. And it’s a formula that no doubt has leveraged the anxiety inherent in its absolutism to gain adherents.

But I don’t think it is exactly right, and I’m a long way from that raw rejection of youth.

Speaking only for myself, but also from experience with so many other people in my life, my relationship with God through Christ has not saved me from anything. It has not saved me from sexual assault, homophobic discrimination, mental illness, or in any complete sense, from my own shortcomings.

Maybe my faith will play into whatever happens to me when I am dead, but asking me to structure the life I know around the unknowns of my death doesn’t really sound like the work of the God of Genesis or Jesus of Nazareth. Especially when our scripture offers fuller, I don’t want to say proof, but a pattern more in alignment with the full picture of God in the world.
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Bury the Cross: John 20.1–18

2018.4.1 JulianDelivered at Ames UCC on
Easter Sunday, April 1, 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.

ICONOGRAPHY
This year, to celebrate the ever-rising Christ, we have buried his cross.

In the earliest days of the Christian movement, death was a real possibility for followers of the Way because they refused to participate in the religion of the state. So, in order to find each other, and reduce the risk of being caught they communicated through code: symbols for bread, fish, and butterflies.

The bread and the fish stood for Jesus’s miracles of feeding and for the feeding of each other that was such an important element in the early days.

The butterfly was, of course, for the resurrection. It’s a perfect symbol for the story it tells: Butterflies undergo a profound transformation in their chrysalis phase. When it is done, they are no longer bound by the same rules that governed their bodies before.

The cross didn’t come into common use until much later, until the persecuting state adopted the religion but needed a theology to justify the pain they continued to inflict. See how your God suffered? You should, too.

There are examples, though, even in those thousand years when a crucifix was the only symbol in use, of the faithful experiencing the feeding and the freedom found on either side of its splinters and pain.

JULIAN OF NORWICH1
During Wednesdays this Lent we studied the work of a woman called Julian of Norwich. We don’t know her actual name because when she had last rites and was sealed into a small cell attached to St. Julian’s church in Norwich, England, in the 14th century, she gave up her worldly identity.
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