Christmas Day 2018: Masterful Mary

2018 Xmas dayDelivered at Ames UCC

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

PONDERED
Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

Very little about Christmas, now, is about pondering. We make spaces look like treasures with lights and ornaments and wrapping. But that does not mean we gild the story through contemplation in our hearts.

Yet we hear that Mary does—the person closest to the Christmas mystery, does.

Mary’s body is sore, her bed far away, her visitors strange—she retreats from the tumult and excitement into her heart. She does not demand special treatment for all that she has done. Instead, she wordlessly and privately takes herself to the space of God.

SPACE OF GOD
Each of us has a space of God.

I sometimes call it heart, sometime call it soul. I feel it in my chest, but you might feel it differently.

It is a place in our body-lives much bombarded by noise and news, as well as our own minds. Around the space of God races hymn lyrics, conversations from the day, conversations we anticipate, to-do lists, anxiety, doubt, anger.

It is easily forgotten in the blur of hours. Yet it is still there. All we need to do to access it is to sit, to settle, and to consent to the presence of the divine.

Far easier said than done.

But Mary must have been a master of it. Mary must have been a master of accessing her space of God. Maybe in her prayer, in a meditative and otherwise wordless silence, she flicked away those racers with a phrase like “no, no” or “breathe” or “just this.”

Just this, as in just this space, just this time. Not a thing more matters or needs doing.

How else could she have kept from collapsing into tears and fears?

CONSIDER
Consider what she went through:

  • Mary, you are pregnant and unmarried.
  • Mary, I am going to have to set you aside. No, wait, I will do the right thing.
  • Mary, we have to travel. The governor does not care about your pregnancy.
  • Mary, this barn will have to be your bed and your birthing suite.
  • Mary, angels came to us in the field and said your child is an anointed one.

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Christmas Eve 2018: Original Blessing

2018 xmas no sinDelivered at Ames UCC

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

YOU
Although I am supposed to speak about Jesus tonight, what I really want to do is speak about you.

Not because the story of the birth of Jesus is unimportant, but because the story is also about how you are important.

This story of census and unplanned pregnancy and doing the right thing and giving birth and angels and herdsmen is an offer of faith from long ago to you this night, an offering about holiness for you.

An offering about the little bit of holiness within you.

ORIGINAL SIN
This may feel surprising to some of you, even uncomfortable, the notion that you—we—are not only observers of the story, caretakers of its sacred heart, but a small revelation of that heart, too.

That’s probably because most of us here have a pretty poor assessment of humanity. There is no shortage of evidence that we humans are bad. Bad at our care of ourselves, each other, creation. And if we didn’t feel that already, the public square is full of messages about our badness: too fat, too poor, to black, too foreign. Bad.

And then some of us came up in churches that taught about our badness. Some churches teach that humans are born into sin, and “original sin” that has been bequeathed to every single person born in the world by ancestors ancient and fallible.

But there is another perspective. There is another view from which we may assess ourselves, each other, and creation, a way ancient and faithful to our God of humble births. It is the Celtic Christian notion of “original blessing.”

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Borderless God: Jeremiah 1:4-10; 7:1-11

2018.11.25 loverDelivered at Ames UCC on November 25, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

REED
Last week Steve read a long series of passages from the book of Isaiah, and quite well, too. But he had to skip over one of the best lines in that section due to time constraints (and because the Bible is hard to aurally track over such lengths):

On whom do you (Judah) now rely, that you have rebelled against me (Assyria)? 6See, you are relying on Egypt, that broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of anyone who leans on it. Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who rely on him. (36.5b–6)

 What a great image: Egypt, the broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of anyone who leans on it. Ouch! You can feel that, right? You can imagine how it feels to rest your hand on something that you think is stable only to find out that it is wobbly and sharp. You stumble as it injures and collapses.

Biblically, we have a long and complicated history with that broken reed, with Egypt. Practically, we continue to have complicated relationships with any number of Egypts.

JOSEPH AND MOSES AND ISAIAH
Egypt is the land where Joseph, son of Jacob, rises to great power and is subsequently able to rescue his family and his people from terrible famine. Generations later, though, the Hebrew descendants of Joseph are slaves. As such, they pose a threat to their Pharaoh master, who orders a mass assassination of Hebrew children.

The mother of one newborn, Moses, seeks to save him through adoption by Pharaoh’s own daughter. Moses rebels against that false identity and unearned advantage. He kills an overseer, flees to Midian, only returning later to set his people free at the behest of God. Then Moses and the freed slaves spend forty years going in circles before finding a home.

Years later, we hear the critique in Isaiah. It is directed at the descendants of the slaves, the inheritors of that homeland, from the emissary of the king of Assyrian: What are you thinking, trying to ally with Egypt against us? Egypt will cut you in the end—come with me instead.

Apparently in the years between fleeing Egypt and founding of a nation of their own, the Hebrews established political relations with Egypt. The former captor is now an ally and for the prophet we are studying today, it will be a refuge as it once was for Joseph’s starving family.

2018.11.25 weakJEREMIAH
Today’s prophet, Jeremiah, follows Isaiah of Jerusalem in historical time and in the Bible. Remember that the book of Isaiah spans nearly a century, with three different Isaiahs speaking. Jeremiah’s book is focused exclusively on him and his forty years as a prophet.

Over the course of those decades, Jeremiah witnesses the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonian empire and the forced exile of many people. It is a grievous experience, made more so by what Jeremiah is required to do by God: chastise his own people.

For example, in chapter 44, God says through Jeremiah, “I beg you not to do this abominable thing which I hate” (v. 4). Today we heard Jeremiah today offering God’s reminder not to oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow. There is a direct correlation between their treatment of the vulnerable and their own vulnerability to conquest.

Which the powers that be don’t want to hear.

Jeremiah is many times arrested for subversion and disloyalty, so, in the end, he flees to Egypt, where neither his own leaders nor Babylon can touch him, but where he is always a stranger.

JESUS
I’ll lift up one more story about Egypt, this time as it relates to Jesus, our primary prophet as Christians.

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Sexual Violence and the “Point Vierge”: 2 Samuel 11.1–5, 26–27; 12:1–9

Delivered at Ames UCC on October 21, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
Please join us for worship at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays,
except in July and August when times vary.
Check the calendar for details.

VIOLENCE AND SEX2018.10.21 sophia
In contemporary terms, King David is a violent sexual predator.

At this point in David’s story, he is king of both Israel and Judah. He has accrued so much power that he no longer directly fights in battle, but sends his loyal soldiers instead, including Bathsheba’s husband Uriah. He can also get away with taking naps all the way to eventide—think of it as a five-hour long siesta—and, on seeing an attractive woman, send a messenger off to get her. David has no shame, no fear of being found out. In the twilight of the day, he publicly demands the wife of another.

You might be thinking, “What about Bathsheba? Why was she flaunting her body on the roof? Maybe she was trying to seduce him.”

I don’t buy that argument.

As we well know, the Bible drips with patriarchy and misogyny. The Biblical authors, from Genesis to Revelation, have no problem with demonizing women. Just think of what comes to mind when I say the name Jezebel. If you read between the lines, she was simply a queen who was devoted to her understanding of God and merely wanted to practice her own faith. But thanks to the Bible, her name invokes the most despicable kind of woman. If the encounter between Bathsheba and David is intended to be a story of a cunning woman and an innocently overwhelmed man, the Bible would say as much, and in plain terms.

So, David is a sexual predator. A man who uses his power, which is undoubted in this case, to satisfy his own lust.

He is also violent. We skipped the section about how Bathsheba’s husband Uriah dies.

Uriah is a Hittite, so not a native Hebrew, but his name means “the Lord is my light,” and he fights faithfully for David’s kingship. After learning that Bathsheba is pregnant, David sends a letter to another commander saying,

Put Uriah in the face of the fiercest battling and draw back, so that he will be struck down and die. (2 Sam 11.15)

Well, the commander knows that will be too obvious so, as Robert Alter, the translator we used today, explains, the commander sends Uriah and many other good soldiers into a doomed battle to complete the dastardly deed. David’s unrestrained lust and power result in the death of many innocents.

King David is a violent sexual predator, but he didn’t have to be. Of all the men in the Bible to act as he did, he was the last one who should have. David did not have to, and should not have, because he was a person most blessed by God.
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Let God Be with You: Genesis 39.1–23

Delivered at Ames UCC on September 23, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read. Please join us for worship at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

2018.9.23 let godMANDATE
After worship last week Jeremy, who had read the scripture, asked me if there is ever going to be a time when I can just preach, “Good job, Christians, we’re all done.” Basically, will there ever be a Sunday when I am not either having to agitate or to soothe?

I shared that in my understanding of preaching, I am to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. It is a phrase originally spoken in relation to the role of a free press, but is also a very accurate description of the life of Jesus and his disciples: Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

As I’ve gotten older, though, the boundary between the afflicted and the comfortable has become much less clear to me.

The same is not true of our scripture today.

JOSEPH
In this encounter between Joseph and the wife of Potiphar, there is no question who is on which end of the spectrum: Joseph is afflicted and Potiphar’s wife is comfortable.

Joseph was once comfortable, very much so.

When we first meet him, Joseph is described as the favorite son of Jacob, one of the best scoundrels in Biblical literature, and his cousin-wife Rachel. Jacob does not hide his preference for Joseph from all of the other kids, and he had a lot of them between his four wives.

As a sign of his preferential love, Jacob gives Joseph a gorgeous coat, which in contemporary imagination is described as amazingly technicolor. Constantly confronted by that rainbow of partiality, Joseph’s brothers decide to do away with him: They sell him to slave traders and cover the coat with animal blood, which they take to their dad Jacob, tricking that old trickster into believing that Joseph is dead.

Joseph’s comforts are now gone.

As we heard today, Joseph is sold into the house of Potiphar, an Egyptian court officer. Potiphar does give Joseph a great deal of responsibility, but he is not a free man, he is not a citizen.

That bondage is worsened by Potiphar’s wife. She wants to have sex with Joseph. Her offer, or command, puts Joseph into a no-win situation: If he says yes, he will be betraying his owner. If he says no, he will anger his owner’s wife. He does say no, and she is angry. To punish Joseph for his refusals, Potiphar’s wife takes advantage of a piece of clothing she’d grabbed off of him to frame him for rape.

Potiphar does not doubt his wife’s claim, though it is a no-win situation for him, too. If Joseph did perpetrate the crime, then Potiphar’s judgment has been betrayed. If Potiphar’s wife had simply cheated on him, then regretted it, Potiphar has been cuckolded and has to save face.

So either way, there is only one place for that Hebrew slave to go: jail.

REDEMPTION?
Several chapters later, Joseph is redeemed, to a point. He rises to the most powerful position in the house of Pharaoh, and is able to save his duplicitous brothers and mourning parents and sisters from hunger. But Joseph is never a truly free man again. Having been made into outsider-property, by the action of members of his own family, Joseph can never escape the knowledge of the tenuousness of freedom.

In his life, Joseph knows comfort, then terrible affliction, then a tempered kind of comfort.

That could describe any one of us.
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Authority and Worth: Mark 10.17–31

2018.8.26 churchDelivered at Ames UCC
on August 26, 2018
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read. Please join us for worship at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

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

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

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

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

So where are you on that today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Jesus is addressing us, too.

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

Delivered at Ames UCC on August 19, 2018
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read. Please join us for worship at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

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

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

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

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

Delivered at Ames UCC on August 12, 2018
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read. Please join us for worship at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

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

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

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

No, he doesn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

Delivered at Ames UCC on August 5, 2018
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read. Please join us for worship at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

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

I don’t understand either response.

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

Just look at the book of Ruth.

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

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

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

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

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read. Please join us for worship at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays (except in July and August when things change up, so please check the calendar here).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The regular exception is Pentecost.
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