Apocalypse Already: Acts 2.1–21

2017.6.4 pentecostDelivered at Ames UCC
on June 4, 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
(except in July–
see the church website for details).

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.
Continue reading

Faithful Evangelism: Acts 8.26–39

Delivered at Ames UCC on May 7, 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.

JOKE SET-UP
2017.5.7 xian hegemonySomebody in our church—who shall remain nameless—told me that today’s reading sounds like the set up for a joke: An evangelist and a eunuch meet on a road…It’s not a funny story in that sense, but it is one both odd and joyous. Odd because of Philip’s whisking away by the Holy Spirit, joyous because, unlike with Stephen last week, no one dies because of witnessing for Jesus.

THE EVANGELIST
It begins with Philip. This is not the Philip you may be thinking of, one of Jesus’ disciples who had a particularly prominent role in John’s gospel. The Philip in this book, the Acts of the Apostles, is new. Biblical scholars refer to him as Philip the Evangelist to distinguish between the two. He is, as Stephen was last week, ordained to be a table servant, a caretaker of the widows and growing Jesus Way movement community.

But after Stephen’s lynching, there is a general assault to crack down on all movement followers. Some go to jail, some flee Jerusalem, including Philip the Evangelist. We find that, while he is on the road, Philip the Evangelist has the power to heal, just as Jesus did. He converts all of Samaria, we are told, to the new Jesus Way. You might remember from other references to the Samaritans that they and the Israelites were generally hostile to each other and practiced competing versions of Judaism.

So Philip the Evangelist seems to be a powerful and important figure in the early months after resurrection day.
Continue reading

Learning and Hospitality: Luke 24.13–35

2017.4.23 easter chrisitansDelivered at Ames UCC
on April 23, 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.

ANXIOUS CHURCH DEATH
I am pretty picky about what articles and books I read about Christianity and church life. Some of that is theological. I am not, obviously, going to read anything based on Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians to keep women quiet. Or the work of Christians who ignore the gospels in order to lean on the handful of words in Leviticus’ temple rules to decry queer people. Not everything preserved in scripture is right or holy. I hope you feel entitled to make the same distinction.

But I also tend to ignore articles about The Death of The Church. I think you probably know what I mean because these pieces have been ringing our death knell for at least 20 years, if not 40. Oh! The church is dying! Oh! The good news of life in radical generosity and relationship is no longer meaningful! Oh! Get a smoke machine and a praise band!

The anxiety level among pastors of “mainline” Protestant churches like ours, and that of the membership, can easily surpass any joy. Maybe that’s why I saw an uptick in articles during Holy Week about “how to behave on Easter.”

The notion that my colleagues in Christian ministry felt compelled to write pieces about anything other than the last supper and the garden and the cross during Holy Week, was so curious to me that I had to read a couple. Basically, they were about how regular attendees can be sure not to blow it with less regular attendees or newcomers on our highest of holy days.

The suggestions included not saying “You know, we are here every week,” scooting into the middle of the pew so that anyone who might be feeling shy doesn’t have to clamber over you, not kicking anyone out of “your” spot, and talking to each other. Basically, be thoughtful and polite.

So rather than teaching seekers how they might think, or more importantly pray, about Easter, these posts read to me as testimonies to church death anxiety. It was as if Easter hasn’t taught us about how holiness begets new life in spite of death.

EMMAUS
Look at what we hear today. Today’s verses follow immediately from last week’s. From last week’s climax at the tomb with the Marys and Joanne and Peter, we are moved immediately to a road between Jerusalem and Emmaus. The very same day that the disciples have found the tomb empty, the word has spread far enough that Cleopas (who is not a disciple) and someone else (also not a disciple) know all of the details.

When Cleopas and his friend meet a stranger—the rising Jesus did not look as he once did—all of that has already happened. They must have really evoked their disappointment that Jesus didn’t redeem Israel from yet another occupation, because the rising Jesus reminds them, more brusquely than the angels did the Marys and Joanne, that all of this was according to plan. To reassure them, the rising Jesus teaches them to interpret scripture, the Torah, prophets, and writings of the Hebrew Bible.
Continue reading

God’s Power: Luke 24.1–12

2017.4.16 lifeDelivered at Ames UCC
on April 16, 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.

GOD’S POWER
What is the power of God?

In our scripture last week, and throughout his public ministry, Jesus rejected the understanding of God’s power that he saw most people practicing.

He goes into the temple: Stop selling doves, stop killing, he screams. God does not want your sacrifices. Did we not learn from our many, long years in the wilderness with Moses that using intermediaries between us and God just drives us further east of Eden, not closer to it? Did God not bring Abraham back from the brink of infanticide with the hopes of, once and for all, getting us to hear that sacrifices are never pleasing?

God is not greedy for gifts! Holiness is not an exchange commodity.

But then Jesus dies. He dies as so many men and women have died: at the hands of a state that just needs someone to point a finger at in order to justify their show of force. It is the state that loves a sacrifice. It is the state—which is just a group of humans—that lusts for gifts, especially those that will devastate other humans into submission. Humans, not God, want a sacrifice.

ORTHODOXY AND ACCESS
I know that is contrary to the most recent thousand years of Christian orthodoxy. But in the first thousand years, the notion that God needed Jesus to die as a sacrifice was not so prevalent as it is now. There is no evidence, in a Christian church before the tenth century, of Jesus on a cross.

What mattered in the earliest days—and what continued to get followers of Jesus in trouble with the state—were the practices of feeding and tending to each other without regard for social hierarchies. Just as in the time before his death, in the decades immediately after, the good news continued to be about egalitarianism and God’s love for everybody and every body, not just priests or kings who claimed special access.

Everything in Jesus’ life was about total access: Children, you have access; women, you have access; the sick and disabled, you have access; foreigners, you have access. Access to God is in the radical generosity of feeding and the radical relationality of healing.

But then what do we do with Holy Week? If Jesus had such great access to God through his walking, talking, eating, feeding, resting, and resisting but still died, what is the power of God? Couldn’t the later theologians have simply heard God still speaking, as we profess happens, and figured out that, while God may not have wanted the sacrifices of birds and cows, God somehow wanted one of Jesus?
Continue reading

Evil is Tiny: Luke 19.29–44

2017.4.9 lamassusDelivered at Ames UCC
on April 9, 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.

ORIENTAL INSTITUTE
There is a museum at the University of Chicago called the Oriental Institute. Have any of you been there? It was founded in 1919 as a research facility for understanding the evolution of humanity and human culture from the ancient Near East. Much of the collection was “acquired” in the 1920s–1940s.

It has some pretty spectacular holdings, like multistory statues of man–beasts from Sargon II’s palace in Iraq and a King Tut from Egypt. As 21st century citizens, we are accustomed to human-made objects that scrape the sky, but in the millennia before Christ, when the average building would have been closer to human height, these artifacts of royalty and state power could only have been awe- and fear-inspiring. A throne room the size of a football field and flanked by those statues, called Lamassus, might explain why Jonah, for example, rejected the role of prophet to Ninevah.

The museum also has records from the kingdoms of Sargon and Sennacharib and the Hittites and ordinary, civilian objects: jewelry, cosmetic containers, scarabs, ivories, hair pieces, and glass all-seeing eye beads kind of like the ones I have in my own home.

Then there are religious objects: temple souvenir plaques from 2000–1600 BCE, smaller statues for home worship and piety, and “incantation bowls.” These are clay bowls, like the one Greg made for our baptismal font, with incantations or prayers written inside. They are generally about protection from evil and illness and were used by all manner of religious traditions, including Judaism and Christianity.

One on display at the Oriental Institute shows an evil spirit tied down at the center of the bowl. It is inscribed with Zechariah 3.2:

But [the angel of] the Lord said to the Accuser, ‘The Lord rebukes you, O Accuser; may the Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! For this is a brand plucked from fire.’

Which gets me to today’s scripture: Jesus’ ride on a donkey with his disciples rejoicing at his side—what we call the triumphal entry—makes explicit reference to scripture: 2 Kings, the Psalms, the prophet Habbakuk, and twice to the prophet Zechariah.
Continue reading

Repetitive Messages: Luke 16.19–31

Delivered at Ames UCC  on March 26, 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.

PAPERCLIPS
Our Communion table has been decorated by Linda Shenk. She couldn’t be here to help share her vision, but has given me permission to quote her. As Linda studied today’s scripture, she said she was aware of how strongly it emphasizes our need to listen in “the places that seem lowly, even despicable.” So Linda decided to find a lowly object, something so familiar we might not even really see it, as a reminder to listen: paper clips. Linda wrote to me that a paper clip, “looks like an ear, and it could be a nice reminder as we go about our work and our seemingly mundane routines to listen for the divine.”

So let’s listen for God in this story of mundane meanness.

RICH MAN AND LAZARUS
A rich man who partied every day cruelly allows an enfeebled and dying man named Lazarus to lay outside his home, without offering any assistance. They both die. On dying, the rich man finds himself in hell but with a view of Lazarus in a better place in the company of Abraham, patriarch of the nation, of the people. The rich man asks Abraham to ask Lazarus to bring him water, something he never seemed willing to do for Lazarus.

Abraham reminds the rich man of the disparities between him and Lazarus in life, disparities that are now made permanent through a fixed chasm in the afterlife. Well, the rich man says, please send Lazarus to warn my brothers. No, Abraham replies. They have already been given all the warning they need through our religious tradition. Having Lazarus go to them won’t make a difference.

This story comes on the heels of several similar stories. In Luke 14.12b–13a, Jesus says,

When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.

Then there’s the abundant generosity of the prodigal son’s father, which we heard last week. And immediately before Lazarus’ story there is a parable about a dishonest land manager that ends with “You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Luke 16.13b).

Despite the efforts of some Christians to make all of Jesus’ statements about cash money into statements about spiritual wealth, the weight of evidence is on the former: Jesus, in line with his own Jewish tradition, condemns rich people who do nothing with their riches to help others. This message of sharing wealth is so important that Jesus tells it at least three times in a row.

EASY SELL
Caring for Lazarus by giving away money is not a hard sell at Ames UCC.

Last year we gave away $152,186. Special offerings, like today’s for One Great Hour of Sharing and regular budgeted gifts to organizations like the Emergency Residence Project account for about $50,000. The other $100,000 was from the 150th Capital Campaign. This church is committed, when raising money for itself, to give away 20% of the total. Not only that, but to give that money away first, before spending on ourselves, thereby putting the needs of the community ahead of our own.

Continue reading

Mutuality: Luke 15.1–32

Delivered at Ames UCC  on March 19, 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.

RING OF TRUTH
I have a friend who, when her kids were young, convinced them that she could tell if they were lying or telling the truth because of the “ring of truth.” They sincerely believed that grown-ups could hear a little bell ding when people spoke truth and a silent void at lies.

When I was a young child hearing the story of the starving son come home, I did not hear a ring of truth. I felt bored and I felt annoyed. Yeah, yeah, yeah: The guy realized what a mess he’d made of his life, apologized, and asked his dad for a job. And that older brother, who had done all of the work all along, shouldn’t have been angry with him because Big Daddy God is generous and loves us stinkers and do-gooders alike. And so we should try to be the same.

It felt so obvious. A sledge-hammer of a message without any subtlety. So any ring of truth, for me as a young person, was drowned out by my intellectual snobbery, defensiveness, and snoring.

Which is why I am so glad we read it here along with the stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin.

LENT
I’m also glad we are reading these during Lent. These forty days are a nod to the forty days of Noah’s time on the ocean, the Egyptian slaves’ forty years wandering in the desert, and Jesus’ post-baptism forty days of faith formation in the wilderness. The idea of this season, which was instituted by our imperial Roman forbears in the early 300s, is to really prepare for Holy Week and Easter.

Because if there is any one story whose truth is suspect, it is resurrection.

Continue reading

Impatience and Love: Luke 13.1–9 and 31–35

2017.3.12 fig treeDelivered at Ames UCC
on March 12, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to beheard rather than read.
Please join us for worship
at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays.

SAME CONCLUSION
For the last two weeks we’ve had guest preachers, Tim Wolfe on Seminary Sunday and Harry Cook as our Theologian in Residence. Tim and Harry came to us from very different branches of the Christian family tree: Tim was, for most of his life, Pentecostal and for years directed very large African American gospel choirs. Harry is a long-retired Episcopal priest and newspaperman.

Tim preached on the transfiguration story. This is the one where a few of the disciples wake up and see Jesus with Moses and Elijah, prophets from the far distant past. Harry had the story of the Samaritan who helped a naked, bleeding man in a ditch when neither a priest nor a deacon would do so.

Tim’s message was “Get woke and stay woke.” Harry’s was “Go and do it.”

Despite their divergent religious traditions, Tim and Harry came to the same conclusion: God wants us to be awake to the world and responsive to what we see.

That was neither planned nor is it a coincidence: The Jesus in the gospel of Luke is insistently oriented to the needs of the world and to action.

HARSH STORY
He is also impatient, as in our reading today.

Do you think you are special? Do you think anyone is more favored by God? Jesus asks his listeners. Not really the best tactic for building a movement. But Jesus doesn’t care. He goes on to tell a story about an orchard owner and his farmer and a fig tree. One way to hear it is with God as the orchard owner and all of us as the gardener and our faith as the fig tree.

For years, such an interpretation goes, God has been looking for us to nurture some productivity from our faith, only to be met with disappointment. We are a waste of space and resources if we do not fertilize, till, and weed our souls so that they are actually of use. So that we may provide sustenance and succor. If our fig tree does not actually produce something, best to yank it out and move on, Jesus says.

It’s a harsh story. It is harsh because Jesus, like all of the Biblical prophets before him, knows what is on the line: lives. Not life in the sky by-and-by, but lives chucked into ditches like trash.

The reason we have so many healing stories about Jesus isn’t just because people are sick. It is also because he is impatient for us to know that God cares about actual bodies and so we should, too. When bodies and the communities in which they exist are sick, there is no time to waste.

Continue reading

Indecent Love Will Make Us Strong: Luke 7.36–50

2017.2.19 sister christaDelivered at Ames UCC
on February 19, 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.

ALL CHANGED
One of my spiritual practices is to write in a journal at bedtime. Not that I’m always writing about God, but I’m trying to make sure that I am a reflective person rather than a reactive one. God does know that we have enough reactive people in the world.

So several nights ago I found myself writing, “I’m doing my work and living my life as if the world hasn’t completely changed.” As I sorted through my frustrations and fatigues and worries, I found that one of the problems contributing to all of them is that I have not found a new way in this new world.

Not the new world that we call Easter morning, but the new world of this hot planet. We should not be eager to get outside on February 19. We should be bundled up and crabby about it.

And our personal temperatures are being tested daily, with threats to the Endangered Species Act, ban-breaking weapons testing by a nation with whom we do not have the best relationship, and the corruption of our teachers’ ability to teach us what they need to do their very hard jobs.

That last one feels among the most personal to me. In this room alone, that touches Emily, Sunny, LeAnne, Genya, Laurie, and Susan. Do you know how many hours they work? And with any student that might come through their door? Why sabotage their success?

Any one of these issues would be sufficient to create anxiety and redirection in our community efforts, but we are getting new ones each and every day.

I know some of us survive this by checking out: Just keep the regular schedule and turn off all media. Or we self-soothe by telling ourselves it can’t be that bad, it can’t get much worse.

But based on our conversations, I would say the majority of us are more engaged that ever, more attentive to the headlines than ever, and making more phone calls and protest signs than ever before in our lives.

We do not live in the same world any more. How will we endure?

Both of the people Jesus interacts with today give us examples of how to live our faith. But only one shows us how to do so when the world is falling apart.
Continue reading

Faith is a Public Act: Luke 7.18–35

2017.2.12 mary christDelivered at Ames UCC
on February 12, 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.

JOHN AND JESUS
Take a look at the image on the cover of your bulletin today. It’s depicting the moment, in the gospel of Luke, in which Elizabeth and her cousin Mary meet. They are both pregnant, with John and Jesus. John moves in such a way that Elizabeth is able to acknowledge the blessing Mary will birth.

Given that moment, it may seem a little odd to have today’s back and forth between the adult Jesus and John, through John’s intermediaries. Why is John having his people ask Jesus if he is really “the one”? Didn’t he know from birth? What is the function of this dialogue?

BEING DEFINED
To answer the first, John may be having his disciples ask these questions, because John himself may be in jail. That’s where he is by this point in the story according to Matthew: caught up in Herod and Herodias’ sick power plays (Matthew 11.2–9). But not even prison will keep John from his role of heralding Jesus.

Jesus has an interesting response to his cousin’s questions. In the gospel of John (the disciple, not the Baptist), Jesus is very quick to say who he is and his role in Creation. But in the rest of the canonical gospels he is more opaque. Jesus doesn’t just say, “Yes, I am the one.”

Instead, he reveals his identity by confirming John’s. He does so through quoting the prophet Malachi 3.1a: “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me.” Jesus only describes who he is by naming who John is, the one who prepares the way. John is the one who prepares the way, therefore I am the one for whom the way is prepared.

Jesus is very careful in how he allows himself to be defined. Whatever the people have to say about Jesus, Jesus defines himself through the context of God’s unfolding story and in relation to God’s people, which we will eventually learn means all people.

This begs the question of how we define ourselves.

Certainly relationally. I am the daughter of, sister of, wife of, friend of, graduate of, pastor with. You have similar lists. But how do we define ourselves as people of faith, as a collective looking to God through Jesus Christ? I am the daughter of Kristine and Neil through no choice of my own, but who do I say that I am when I enter Ames UCC?
Continue reading