Powerful Teachers: John 4.1–425

2018.2.4 wellDelivered at Ames UCC
on February 4, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard, rather than read.
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at 10:30 a.m.

PARCHED PEOPLE
How thirsty are you? How thirsty are you this morning? How dry do the tongue of your hearth and lips of your soul get?

I meet with a lot of parched people each week. I see faces dried out by illness and hold hands rough with wear and cold. I hear voices that rasp and squeak as though the struggle to be heard in a world such as ours has made vocal chords rough as sandpaper. I see shoulders held high, as taught with stress as the dried gut of a stringed instrument.

Maybe you would put yourself among them.

Parched for a decent meal, parched for 30 minutes of quiet, parched for a thank you from a boss, parched for a day without a commute, parched for a parent’s or spouse’s health to stabilize, parched for a good prognosis for yourself, parched for a teenager to stop yelling, parched from being a teenager who needs to be heard, parched for just one moment of real hope and certain love.

Some of those thirsts can be quenched, to an extent.  But most are chronic thirsts born of the necessities of earning a wage, the risk of loving people, and the inevitabilities of hormones and aging.

Dehydration is a symptom of human life.

Our tradition does not shy from that truth. Discipleship to God in Christ does not include false promises about what our daily lives or eventual deaths will be like.
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First, Rest in God: John 2.13–25


2018.2.21 new
Delivered at Ames UCC
on January 21, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard, rather than read.
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LOVE
Part of me really loves this story.

It’s the part of me that grew up watching Jesus Christ Superstar and its temple scene with women, guns, and sunglasses up for sale. It’s the part of me that loves the liberation inherent in our tradition’s theology: freed slaves, women prophets, direct confrontation with those who are complicit in or mimic the power structures of occupation.

It’s this kind of story that allows me to continue to seek God through Jesus Christ. I could not walk a path that does not eliminate false, human-made barriers to God; I need a path that strips me of my blinders to corruption and self-centered comfort.

FIGHTING
This story sounds different today, though. I’m not sure I can even hear this story today over all of the rest of the fighting in our world.

I thought about putting together a list of the kinds of back-and-forth juvenilia and nastiness from our elected officials on Twitter or some of the commentary over the recent controversy regarding vulgarity in the White House, our house. But I couldn’t bring myself to read them and saw no value in inflicting them on you afresh. You already know.
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Servants of Love Incarnate: John 2.1–11


2018.1.14 non being
Delivered at Ames UCC
on January 14, 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.

JOHN IS DIFFERENT
If John’s gospel were the only one we knew, if we studied it and dedicated our lives to it, then read Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we would be shocked. It’s all lies, we would think! That’s not the truth about Jesus! Likewise, if we had only ever studied the synoptic gospels, synoptic meaning same, we would be baffled by John. It is that different.

John’s gospel does have Jesus traveling and teaching, he does endure trial, death, and resurrection. But John’s chronology is different than in the other three. There is no Eucharist, no Last Supper, in John. Jesus shows no concern for the Kingdom of God in John, only for his own special identity. Jesus talks more in John’s gospel than in the synoptic gospels, with great long dialogues, but never in all of that does he share any parables, those stories of mustard seeds and buried treasure.

And John is the most anti-Semitic of all the gospels. Maybe not universally so, maybe not condemning of all of Judaism, only of specific strains or communities of Judaism at the time. But I am guessing that not many 21st century Christians are all that familiar with the differences between contemporary streams in Judaism, let alone those of the ancient near east, so reading the subtleties of critique in John can be dangerously misleading.

I decided, as a result of that, and this era’s resurgence of overt hatred of and aggression toward people who are Jewish, to modify our readings of John to avoid easy misunderstandings and make clear where we are as a church. Rather than “the Jews” it will read as “the authorities” or whatever the appropriate target of Jesus’ concern may be.

But the difference I really want to focus on today is an omission in John at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and the inclusion of the story today.
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God Pitched a Tent: John 1.35–51


Delivered at Ames UCC on January 7, 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.

NERD
Something terribly exciting has happened, if you are a church nerd like me: There’s a new translation of the Christian Testament. Eastern Orthodox scholar David Bentley Hart has published a version of the gospels and letters that he believes is more reflective of the original Greek, but without any tweaking to make it sound smoother in English.

Here’s a comparison, using the Gospel of John.

First, the New Revised Standard Version, first published in 1989:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.

Now Hart’s:

In the origin there was the Logos, and the Logos was present with God, and the Logos was god; This one was present with God in the origin…

Again, NRSV:

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him;

And Hart:

It was the true light, which illuminates everyone, that was coming into the cosmos. He was in the cosmos, and through him the cosmos came to be.

Do you hear the differences? Logos instead of Word, origin instead of beginning, cosmos instead of world. Whereas Matthew begins with a human genealogy of Jesus, Mark with the story of John the Baptist, and Luke with King Herod and the barren Elizabeth, John begins with the origin of the cosmos.

I love it! It is poetic and it is a bit intimidating. The dusty man of prayer and irritation whose hem we can grab and whose hand anoints us with oil is pure energy, is life itself.

And then there’s line that I want to tie into today’s passage, John 1.14.

The NRSV reads

And the Word became flesh and lived among us

But Hart’s says

…the Logos became flesh and pitched a tent among us

The ancient community of John is telling us that the origin of cosmos—stardust and supernova, varied nebula and nuclei—took on the trouble of skin and set up house among us. The very idea gives me shivers on my own skin.

JESUS AND BAPTISM
But what kind of house, or tent, what kind of skin? Presumably stardust could occupy the world in any which way it so chooses, so how did it choose?
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Christmas Eve 2017: Hubris, Humility, and a Dare

2107.12.24 even right nowDelivered at Ames UCC.

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be
heard, rather than read.
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on Sundays.

HUBRIS AND HUMILITY
Christmas is a story of hubris and humility. It is also the beginning of a dare.

The hubris is Rome’s. The Emperor, it says, wants a census of the whole world. Rome does not control the whole world, but clearly Augustus understands his holdings to be the entirety of the relevant world. This story describes how, by his desire and decree, Augustus inconveniences whole populations, regardless of circumstances.

It his hubris, that pride and out-of-proportion sense of self-worth, that put the lives of the vulnerable, including the pregnant, at risk.

But, humbly, a very pregnant Mary complies. Maybe also fearfully and resentfully, but humbly she and her husband Joseph do as they have been told.

And it is a mess. The baby comes before they can reach safe harbor. Rooms are filled. The pains are hard. A barn of some kind must do.

What must Mary have thought? When her pregnancy outside of marriage was announced by an angel, she sang for joy. She’s married now, but in the straw and dark, did she think the angel’s visit a lie, a trick by something other than the divine?

Once Jesus is delivered, Mary is quiet. She will receive unexpected guests who will confirm everything about her son that the angel had described, but she will not sing again. A woman given every cause to brag will instead simply “ponder…in her heart” (Luke 2.19b) all that has happened.

The contrast between Augustus and Mary is enough to feed a lifetime’s ponderings.

The man who thinks he controls the world and would boss everyone in it around on one hand. And on the other a woman, whose openness to holiness means that not even the world’s proprieties can control her. Just one more human who thinks he is entitled to more than other humans. And one rare human who is grateful to be asked to give and remains without boast when she delivers beauty. Augustus, who has made himself into a god, and Mary, who gives her every fiber over to God.

The contrast between hubris and humility never ceases to edify.

But there’s something more emerging in tonight’s story, something that takes breath and bawls with Jesus: the beginning of a dare.
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Removal, Resistance, Return: Ezekiel 37.1–14


2017.12.3 resist risk
Delivered at Ames UCC
on December 3, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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Sunday mornings at 10:30 a.m.

BONES
When we are born, our bones are small, like us. They are weak, like us. Over time, they grow as we do, in whatever way we do. Some of us get quite tall, some of us stay small. The strength of our adult bones varies according to our genetics and our habits. Weight training helps. If our bones break, they can often be repaired through surgery, pins, casting, traction, implants, and time.

Our bones keep aging along with our skin and our hair and our organs. They say now that the image of an older person falling then breaking a hip is wrong: it is actually that the hip breaks and then the fall happens as a result.

Then we die.

Different things can happen to our bones on death. Some of us here will be embalmed. Our bones will be laid to rest with flesh for company, in a box in the ground. Some of us will be cremated, and our bones become like the dust with which we are anointed on Ash Wednesday.

Some cremated bones are buried in a small box in the ground. Some are set free into air and soil. I have an urn in my office with the residue of many loved ones that I have had the honor to release back to our mother.

So whose bones are filling a valley, whose neglected bones are we looking upon today?

NARRATIVE ARC
You’ll remember that three weeks ago we heard God speaking through the prophet and priest Jeremiah, before, during, and after Jerusalem’s fall to Babylon. Jeremiah’s audience in the aftermath was the elite who had been forcibly displaced into exile. Just because the elite had lost their nation, they had not lost God.

God told the people newly in exile that they should settle in, plant a garden, have kids. They were not home so they needed to make space for survival until they could find their way back.

It was a story of removal.

Then Last week Brett preached about three of those exiles—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—and their response to the pressure of religious assimilation by Babylonian culture and authorities. They chose a furnace over one more compromise, and lived to tell the tale.

It was a story of resistance.

Today, Ezekiel gives the exiled a vision of return. A return as powerful as the resurrection of the dead.
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Amos 1.1–2; 5.14–15, 21–24: River’s Source


2017.11.12 rivers
Delivered at Ames UCC
on November 12, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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

JUSTICE
Amos, like all good prophets, does not mince words. Moved by the will and vision of God, he states clearly that the trappings of religion are traps. Religious practices that remain in the sanctuary, that do not translate into faithful lives in our streets, are a trap. We must break out of the traps we set in the name of God in order to free ourselves and each other in response to the will of God. We must let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

For many of my colleagues, this is the one day a year where they can “safely” preach about justice. By which Amos, and all of the prophets, means a balancing of the scales between the haves and have-nots in the world that we live in right now. This is, obviously, not a worry for me. We are a congregation that readily acknowledges the imbalances of the world and gives generously of our time, talent, and treasure to even them out. So what more is there to say? Should I just invite us to do high fives and move on to the next hymn? We could be to the coffee and cookies in 15 minutes!

OUR STREAMS
As I prayed this scripture, and about our church—as I considered our consistent willingness to jump into justice and righteousness—I found myself wondering about the stream’s source and its structure.

Because water takes a toll. Whether it is sitting or trickling or raging, water changes everything it touches. Water grows plants but water also rots wood. Flood water can ruin a home but clean water can revive it.

And God would have justice roll like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Justice and righteousness, those are rivers that come with a lot of debris, sudden rapids, and toxic spills, as well as seemingly eternal doldrums, unmoving.

If we are to create the conditions so that justice and righteousness are as strong as the Niagra and as wide as the Mississippi, then we had better make sure the riverbeds are deep and the banks strong. We had better keep our eyes as much on the source of justice and righteousness as those destinations, or we may find ourselves overwhelmed by waves or so tired of rowing our oars that we jump ship for dry land, just like Amos’ original audience.

So today I want to look at the waters of creation and those of baptism.

CREATION
The Bible is not, of course, a biological textbook. It is a metaphysical one, it is a theological assertion about the nature of life. And it asserts that life began in the moment holiness invited deep water to do a new thing. And it asserts that it is good.

Over and over again in Genesis as the divine brings forth from water and not-yet-substance the elements of life that are familiar to us, and those that are strange, God says, “It is good.” Creation is good and God has faith that we have the capacity to tend to that goodness.

We fail, of course, out of our hubris, but we do not destroy the goodness. Every river, including those of justice and righteousness, continues to flow out from Eden, keeping us connected to our source, to the goodness we need and the goodness to which we can return.

Which is what Jesus then invites us to do, when he steps into water to make a new thing.
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Honest Broker: Kings 19.4–9

2017.11.5 wearyDelivered at Ames UCC
on November 5, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

LIKE JONAH?
Why is this story in the Bible? Why have we preserved a story of a prophet who asks to die rather than continue to work for God?

For those of you who have studied the story of Jonah, or remember me mentioning him at the AMOS action two weeks ago, there might be something familiar about Elijah’s behavior today. Jonah, having successfully called the nation of Nineveh to repent, retreats to a tree. There he asks God to kill him dead.

It makes no sense: Jonah is successful. Why isn’t he walking around, chest out, grinning, waving his arms at the people? Why isn’t he accepting lauds and honor? Why isn’t he tweeting about how great he is?

Because Jonah knows he is not great. Jonah knows how hard he worked to dodge God’s call. He is ashamed by the contrast between his reticence and the quick and total willingness of this faithless foreign nation to give obedience and praise to God. His request to die is petulant and fueled by shame.

Elijah, on the other hand, is just plain tired.

ELIJAH’S STORY
Elijah suddenly appears in the 17th chapter of 1 Kings with no backstory, no lineage, no character development.

He tells King Ahab, who has married outside of their faith and allowed other religions to be practiced, that such religious promiscuity has condemned Israel to a drought.

Elijah then retreats to the wilderness.

God assures Elijah that he will be safe because God has charged ravens to bring Elijah both meat and bread, both morning and evening. Carrion birds will bring him nourishment in the form that is most natural to them—animals—but also in the form that is so natural to God—bread.

Then Elijah’s water source dries up—whether by God’s doing or not, we do not know—so he has to move on. He comes upon a starving widow and her child who are preparing a final meal before death. When she agrees to include Elijah in that meal, the widow’s supplies of flour and oil remain steady.

Elijah lives like this for some time, even bringing the widow’s son back to life, before returning to King Ahab’s court. When he does, it is not in triumph. Elijah returns to his nation in order to do battle with those other religions. It is a battle of that literally includes fire and brimstone, blood and gore, much of it at Elijah’s own hands.

I haven’t yet found a way to reconcile the actions of those who say they love God so much that they will break the commandment not to kill in order to prove that love. This is particularly confusing to me because of how often people who are not followers of God’s covenant prove to be agents of the divine: The widow was a Phoenician, not an Israelite; ravens have no nationality.

Our scripture does not paint a consistent picture of God, or perhaps it reflects our inconsistent understanding of God.
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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.
Please join us Sundays at 10:30 a.m.
All are welcome.

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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