Sing a New Song: Hymn Sing Sunday


Delivered at Ames UCC on September 3, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
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Our church spent this Sunday almost entirely in song, and old classics at that: “This is My Father’s World,” “Spirit, Spirit of Gentleness,” “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” “When Peace, Like a River (It is Well with My Soul),” “This Little Light of Mine,” “Lift High the Cross,” “I Love To Tell The Story,” “How Great Thou Art,” and “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” It was an opportunity to remember who we have been and see who we are still becoming.

MY SCHOOL
Some of you know that I grew up in two churches. There was my family’s Lutheran church plus the church that was the Episcopal school I attended from 3rd through 12th grade.

At that school, I attended chapel services once a week. The chapel is a beautiful space, one of those 60s-built blonde wood designs with loads of light and space. I remember not being impressed when the chapel’s congregation—because there was one separate from the school—installed stations of the cross on the wall. I thought it was too cluttered. There is an altar, rather than a Communion table, so when we received Communion we did so at a railing, on our knees. The same was true at my home church.

In that chapel we celebrated the start of school and the end of school. We had a rowdy Christmas tradition of singing the twelve days with each grade doing their corresponding verse. Seniors partnered with first graders to help them be loud. We also mourned there when several of our classmates and a teacher died in an accident. But mostly I think that we fidgeted there. We would flip through the books of worship and giggle as we read the marriage vows to each other.

I also remember a period of time when we had a music instructor, John Hoffacker, who is now a choral director in Minnesota.

LIFT HIGH THE CROSS
Mr. Hoffacker had us meet in the chapel for several weeks, at least, to learn the hymn we just sang, “Lift High the Cross.” I don’t remember the occasion—maybe a bishop visit?

But I do remember how he taught us the hymn: First, we just sang it in classic mainline white Protestant teenager style. Commonly known as monotone: “lifthighthecrosstheloveofchristproclaim.” Then he hollered at us for sounding like a bunch of White mainline Protestant teenagers, telling us to belt it out. So, compliantly, we screamed it: “LIFT HIGH THE CROSS, THE LOVE OF CHRIST PROCLAIM.” We all thought we were hilarious.

But in the end, after practicing and studying the words, were able to sing it with meaning. And any time that memory surfaces, I am filled with love for my school and love for the God who inspires such resounding joy.
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God is Other: Revelation 1.17–20, 4.1–7, 5.1–8, 6.1–8

2017.8.13 lambDelivered at Ames UCC
on August 13, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be
heard rather than read.
Please join us Sundays
at 10:30 a.m. All are welcome.

MONSTERS
Our scripture is full of fantastic beasts, cataclysmic events, and magical/miraculous imagery: A talking snake in Genesis’ Eden. A talking donkey in the book of Numbers. A whale that can swallow Jonah whole and then still spit him out. A flood that destroys the world. Ten plagues that free the slaves. An angel that balances Jesus atop the temple. Water becoming wine.

But the beasts and cataclysms and magic and miracles of the book of Revelation are so concentrated, they can sound so extreme, that today I’m mixing up the order of worship a bit by integrating Dan’s reading of the scripture with my teaching/preaching on it. And thank you to Ben and Barbara for the sung preview.

But before we get to Revelation, let’s get to its author: John of Patmos.

JOHN OF PATMOS
John of Patmos was a Jewish man from Jerusalem who at the time of his vision-writing, about 90 CE, was living on an island—Patmos—off the coasts of Turkey and Greece. As a Jew from Jerusalem writing in the year 90, this John may well have witnessed the final destruction of the Jewish temple in the year 70.

Remember that, for Jewish people during the temple period, the temple was the home of God on Earth, the nexus between this world and another. It was literally and materially an intersection between the sacred and the profane. And the Romans crushed it. The Romans closed the door.

In doing so, the Romans didn’t just insult the Jewish people, they attacked God. Their destruction of the temple was not only aggressive warfare, but the height of sacrilege and blasphemy, too.

Imagine how we would feel if a foreign nation burned this house of God to the ground. Though we understand God to be everywhere, we still come to a particular place to practice that relationship. How bitter, how angry, how venomous might we feel toward those who took it from us?

John of Patmos leaves Jerusalem, possibly in exile, possibly as a refugee. But he cannot escape the violence of Rome. When John is on the mainland of Turkey, he is constantly confronted by celebrations of Rome’s violence. He even has to look at a statue of the man who took the temple down.

Kind of like how Black and Native Americans have to look at statues of genocidal generals and Presidents throughout the US.

John also has to contend with a culture that has come to revere the Roman emperors as divinities. Wasn’t it enough for God to be taken away, now they have to put themselves in God’s place? John is surrounded by insults to God and the hubris of rulers. He is a body under threat, a soul under attack.

And then he has a revelation.
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Add More to Church: Ephesians 6.10–20

2017.8.6 dispensaryDelivered at Ames UCC
on August 6, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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GET RID OF IT
Let’s get rid of all of this. Let’s get rid of the pews and the hymnals and the organ and the windows and the bricks. Let’s get rid of our logo and our slogan and any future inside jokes about being Congregational versus being Evangelical and Reform. Let’s just get rid of all of this because Jesus didn’t risk everything just so that we can get all attached to and bent out of shape about our personal preferences and historic traditions.

I am, of course, paraphrasing the opening of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Or, as those of you were here for the first two weeks of this letter will remember, Pseudo-Paul’s not-letter to the not-Ephesians.

Once we are on the Way of Jesus, he teaches (whoever he was), we are a new people unbound by suspicion or hate, living beyond society’s walls and delineations.

Except that we are not, of course. Except that over time, since the time of the Pauls, the Christian church became one of the most conservative, entrenched, boundary-setting institutions in human existence. Which has backfired, of course. Which has been our downfall. The numbers of Americans who identify as Christian continues to decline.

These days, adults who grew up in homes without a religious affiliation of any kind are more likely to stay religiously unaffiliated than those who grew up in a religious home. Meaning, being a-religious is more meaningful over time than being religious, for younger Americans.

In my most pessimistic moments, I say, “Who cares?” God is not religion. The church is not God. And if the church has failed to make this Way of engaging with God compelling, if the church has failed to be faithful to the God it claims to worship and serve, then so be it. We reap what we sow.

God will God onward, with or without me or you or the New Century Hymnal.

HOLY COMMUNION AND THE ARMOR OF GOD
But last week, for about an hour, we did manage to be faithful to pseudo-Paul’s vision of the church, maybe even to God. Members of our church, First Christian, and First Baptist came together at Brookside Park. We got outside of our individual sanctuaries, these tyrannies of preference and tradition, to gather at Christ’s open table, in prayer, in song, and in body. There were 167 of us, a new record.

Afterward, I was visiting with a member of our community, one of those younger adults raised without religion from all the studies. (I did get permission to tell this story.) This woman, who is bucking the statistical trend, asks me what Communion is. She’d just taken part in it for the first time.
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Year ‘Round Faith: Ephesians 2.11–22

2017.7.23 no hostilityDelivered at First Christian Church
on July 23, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read. During July we worship at 9:30 a.m. at either Ames UCC, First Christian, or Brookside Park. Please see the website for details so that you may join us.

DIVISIONS
What are the top ten most intractable divisions between people that you can think of this morning? What tools have leaders used to try to bridge those divides, or eliminate them? And how much hope do you have that in your lifetime those opposing sides will come together for once and for all, and be able to work together with respect for each other’s voices and well-being?

AFTER FAITH
Last week, I responded to the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (or not-Paul’s sermon to churches in Asia Minor), about the partnering of theology and prayer. Theology is only a fun game without the prayerful dialogue with God to make it real. It is when the two come together that faith may take root and grow.

So what? To what end? To what end faith? Is faith an end in and of itself? Some traditions say yes. For some traditions it is the leap of faith that is the goal. But in our two traditions faith is often a stepping stone to action.

We have good reason to believe that faith naturally does and should lead to action. Our ancestors in the Hebrew Bible tell us to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. Every prophet’s indictment is for failing to do so. For Jesus, faithful action took the form of food (as in the miracles of the 3,000 and 5,000 and the last supper), healing (of lepers, of possession, of mental illness), and listening (to women, to children, to God).

For the Paul of this letter, an additional task follows from faith: bringing together different types of Christians.
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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
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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?
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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
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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.
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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.
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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.

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