Listen, Even When You Don’t Like What You Hear: John 13.1–33

2018 Maundy ThursdayDelivered at First United Methodist as part of the annual ecumenical Holy Week services, shared by First United Methodist, First Christian Church, and Ames UCC.

Maundy Thursday, March 29, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

DETAILS
The details of this story do not make sense.

It starts out coherently enough with Jesus washing everyone’s feet, then explaining that no one is better than anyone else and that they must be servant leaders.

Then Jesus becomes vague in his teaching.

Jesus tells the disciples that the person who takes bread from him will betray him. This is a reference to Psalm 41.9:

Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted,
who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me.

The disciples are confused because they don’t know who that will be. Fair enough. Jesus makes a startling statement that someone will do an unspeakable act yet withholds the most vital piece of information: who.

So, Simon Peter asks the beloved disciple to ask Jesus who it will be. Maybe we should take this as a sign of just how rattled Peter is that he does not ask for himself.

The beloved disciple says, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus then gives the bread to Judas and tells Judas “Do quickly what you are going to do.”

Here’s where the details don’t add up: The scripture says no one understood what Jesus meant by that. Was he telling Judas to go do some shopping? How is it that no one understood what Jesus meant when, having said he would be betrayed by the person who took bread, he then gave bread to Judas and told him to go do it?

Were they not listening?
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Look at the Floor: John 12.12–27

2018.3.25 Holy CommunionDelivered at Ames UCC on March 25, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard, rather than read.
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LOOK AT THE FLOOR
Look at the floor, if you would.

Compare the floor under your feet with the floor under the pew in front of you. What do you see? The first is worn out, blonde from our soles and our weight. The second is still dark, still shiny. It has been protected from us for decades. It is untrod and clear.

Every Sunday I think about this. Where I sit in the front pew used to be the second pew. I understand that my immediate predecessor, your interim pastor Terry Hamilton-Poore, took the original front row out because it was just too crowded during Holy Communion. So every Sunday, from where I sit, I see clearly the evidence of paths loved down to a nub.

It’s the path of the Palm Sunday parade.

PALM SUNDAY
Technically the path of the Palm Sunday parade was the road that came into Jerusalem from the back side.

The whole thing is a superb example of political theater: “Nobody” Jesus comes through the back gate on an ass with regular people waving foliage, while Governor Pilate comes through the front gate on a steed and with a full complement of Roman soldiers and regalia. No wonder it made the local authorities so upset!

Based on the story in John, though, I don’t think most of the participants knew they were taking part in a direct action. John says that people had come to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover and heard Jesus would be there, too, so they went out to join him. It’s not that they went to Jerusalem because of Jesus.

Some of those people had seen and known Jesus earlier, when he brought his friend Lazarus back from the dead. They spread that story among the Passover pilgrims and residents, which brought even more people out, people of many religious traditions. So, the crowd is a mix of devoted disciples and followers, those already on their own pilgrimage, and curiosity seekers, lookee-loos, and skeptics.

This is one of those weeks when the original story feels almost less important than the over 2,000 years of retelling that story. It sounds like it would have been pretty easy to take part or get caught up in the first Palm Sunday parade. It did not require much beyond curiosity, happenstance, and proximity.

The original participants also didn’t know what would follow: betrayal, death, mystery; 300 years of religious oppression; 1,200 years of religious imperialism; 400 years of Protestant protests and factionalism; and now a solid 100 years of decline in relevance!

But we do. We know all of that. We know how hard the story is going to get and all that will be asked of us. We know how badly we will fail. And still we come. Why?
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I Don’t Believe in God: John 19.1–16a

2018.3.18 God remainsDelivered at Ames UCC on March 18, 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.

BELIEF
Part of how I’ve been able to have a faith, and be part of the Christian religion, has been by rejecting belief. I’ve rejected the notion that I must believe in God, believe in the Trinity, believe in resurrection. I don’t reject God, Trinity, and resurrection, I reject that requirement of belief. Because, for me, the word belief is about intellect and conceptual understanding, none of which can encompass an encounter with divinity.

I believe, for example, in thermodynamics and diabetes and global climate change. I have received data on all of those, data gathered through rigorous, intentional testing by those who have undergone rigorous, relevant training. Maybe over time they will be proven wrong or modified in terms of biochemical or geologic mechanisms, but I believe energy is a physical phenomenon, as is insulin, and the rising waters resulting in environmental refugees.

Belief, I am trying to argue, is the outcome of a formal and predictable process.

Until now. Now it seems that belief as a function of the human brain and so a major factor in human society, is no longer tied to process.

I just finished a book by an Episcopal bishop on parish ministry. In it, he references a Duke University researcher who has studied how an audience holds on to both positive and negative misinformation as it relates to politicians. Basically, we conform facts to our experience up until the moment we receive the information, and we are remarkably unwilling to budge on our beliefs even when given reliable data that countermands our beliefs.

That research was in 2013. At this point it feels like anyone can believe anything, be it about politics or medicine or the planet, without any need for logic or data or relevant credentials, merely a suspicion of all three.

So talking about belief in God doesn’t make sense to me because the concept of God cannot be tested scientifically and belief itself is now so loaded a term as to be toxic.

Instead, I have faith. Instead of belief in God, I have faith in God.
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What is Truth?: John 18.28–40

2018.3.11 thurman tooDelivered at Ames UCC
on March 11, 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.

 FAQs
Today I’m going to frame my time as six frequently asked questions about this portion of Jesus’s story, concluding with a seventh, a Sabbath of reflection.

One: Why was Jesus arrested? Because of his growing movement, which became particularly visible on what we now call Palm Sunday.

Two: Why would local Jewish authorities want to squelch a movement that offers hope to their own nation under foreign occupation? Maybe because they are afraid. Maybe because what Jesus did felt heretical in some way. Maybe because they don’t want to lose the little bit of power and material comfort they have achieved under than occupation.

Three: Why have so many of us been taught that it was all Jewish people in Jerusalem who wanted Jesus dead, when John makes it clear it was just a small group of authorities? Because of the gospel of Matthew. In Matthew, the common people call for execution and it is the priests who try to protect Jesus; this is the opposite of John.

Four: Why do the local Jewish authorities bring the regional Roman authority into the mess? Because under Roman rule the local Jewish authorities could not impose the death sentence themselves.1

KINGDOM
Five: What is all the king talk about?
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Listen to Lady Wisdom: John 18.12–27

2018.3.4 Lady WisdomDelivered at Ames UCC
on March 4, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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ORDER
Women are Biblical gatekeepers.

Women are, in at least three significant moments in the Bible, at gateways to understanding and revelation deemed essential for a life of faith.

But before I get to that, I want to spend a moment on the order of our readings this Lenten season. Look at the cover of your bulletin, if you would: you will see an image representing each of the different stories. We started with the resurrection of Lazarus, one of John’s most beautifully crafted Easter foreshadows, to Jesus washing the disciples’ feet at Passover, to today’s combination of the preliminary trial of Jesus and denial by Peter.

For the next two weeks we will watch Jesus engage with Pilate, the governor of the occupying Roman force. Then we will double back in time to the Palm Sunday protest that triggered that arrest and confrontation in the first place, before entering into Holy Week proper.

We are giving much more time than we often do to the crisis that resulted in the mystery at the core of our faith tradition. This year we are lingering in raw conversations—that had devastating conclusions—because we want to learn from them rather than pretend we will never have such trials and tribulations in our own lives.

WISDOM
The Hebrew Bible book of Proverbs wants to help up in that learning.

Proverbs is a “daily righteousness guide,” my rabbi taught, in the form of advice from a father to a son. But the foundation for this masculine instruction is a woman at a gate:

Wisdom cries aloud in the streets,
Raises her voice in the squares.
At the head of the busy streets she calls;
At the entrance of the gates, in the city she speaks out…(1.20–21, JPS)

And what does she say?
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The Gospel isn’t Always in the Bible: John 11.1–44

2018.2.19 trifledDelivered at Ames UCC on February 18, 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.

VIDEO AND IMAGE
How many of you watched the cell-phone footage from the high school students in Parkland, FL, last week? Here’s what one of the teens who recorded them said:

I recorded those videos because I didn’t know if I was going to survive…But I knew that if those videos survived, they would echo on and tell the story. And that story would be one that would change things, I hoped. And that would be my legacy.1

Did any of you see the photo of the woman at the scene with an Ash Wednesday cross on her forehead?

It was actually a photo of two women and the caption said they were parents waiting outside Parkland’s Douglas High School. One woman is blonde, the other red-headed. The red-head is in the arms of the blonde, her mouth open and her eyes closed, her face pressed against her friend’s chest. The mouth of the blonde woman is pulled tight in a grimace, her eyes barely open. It is her forehead that is marked with an ashen cross.

Her forehead is marked with the same ashen cross so many of us received on Wednesday, too. Earlier on the same day that her child died or was at risk of death, she received the cross of Christ mixed with the oil of Psalm 23, and heard the words “ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.”

Unlike the teenager with the cell phone video—whose comments are such an indictment of the world we have allowed him to grow up in—we do not know the mom’s motivation for receiving the cross of ash that day. Nor do we know how it is speaking to her now.

I wish we did. I wish I could know how her faith is serving her today. How did it feel when she saw that cross in a mirror later in the day? Has that ritual provided comfort? Has it become a hollow lie? What function does a ritual reminder of mortality serve when every day gives us opportunity to witness actual mortality? And sometimes really gruesome and preventable mortality?
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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

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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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