A Eulogy

life-is-uncontrollable-wildnessOn Saturday, September 3, 2016 my church gathered to celebrate the life of a gentleman who just two weeks before had been a vibrant, healthy father and academic. Then he was stung by a wasp.

Services for those who die suddenly or “too soon” have a different rhythm and tone than those for someone in their nineties or who has had a long illness.

In this case, the family had asked for four speakers, so it was important that I address the theological issue of the day (“Why?!”) succinctly, then allow the rest to tell his story.

Our last reading today, the familiar passage in Ecclesiastes, says that there is a time for everything in life, the good and the bad. But I think I speak for the family and all of us gathered here when I say this was not Chet’s time to die. This was not somehow his cosmic turn, one ordained in the stars, or dictated by the divine. Chet is gone too soon, well before his time.

Over the course of this summer our church has been studying the book of Job. Job’s story of wholescale loss, his argument with well-meaning friends, and his poetic dialogue with God, give voice to our own confusion and pain and anger on a day like today.

And although later editors tried to explain away Job’s suffering, the ancient poem ultimately says that “Why?” is not the question in senseless death. Instead, the question holiness actually answers is “What is?” What is life?

Life is uncontrollable wildness, a tapestry of biology and chance, infused with the sacred and partnered with death. Chet’s biology could not withstand its chance encounter with wildness. And so death came.

And in each moment that he drew breath and the one in which he stopped, Chet was in the presence of God.

At the end of Job, a community of family and friends who are family, help to rebuild the daily life Job had lost. They could not replace those who had died, but they could ensure that he was not alone in grieving and the necessary taking of steps and breathing of breaths. It is our sorrow and our privilege to do that today for Chet’s loving family.

What is life? It is loving, even though we know we will lose what we love, it is living richly and bravely within God’s wild tapestry.

Job 42.1–7: Let God be God and Care for the Needful

wombofgodDelivered at Ames UCC
on August 28, 2016
©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.

RIGHT/WRONG TIME
I was a little worried about starting a series on Job in the summer. Summer is a happy, sunny time and Job is such a bummer. His is a winter tale, not a lure to come to church when you could be out on a kayak or hike.

But over the last few weeks our church has experienced a surge in suffering: cancer diagnoses, cancer treatments, emergency surgeries, housing loss, relational loss, imminent death, and death itself through disease or depression.

I have never believed life is or should be easy, but the particulars and the volume combined have shaken me at times. And more than one of you now have either asked, “Does this make me Job?” or otherwise referenced this sad and serious story.

There is no right time to study Job because the trauma the poem describes will always come at what feels like the wrong time.
Continue reading

We Are Leviathan: Job 38.1–11 and 25–27, 40.25–32, 41.1–8

scarymonsterDelivered at Ames UCC
on August 7, 2016
©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.

HOW CAN WE KNOW?
How do we know what God wants? How can we possibly know from the written word? Hear the different ways just a portion of today’s poem can be read:

Angrily: Who is this who darkens counsel/in words without knowledge?
With care: Who is this who darkens counsel/in words without knowledge?
With curiosity: Who is this who darkens counsel/in words without knowledge?

We know that it takes hubris to make any claim of certainty about the divine. By definition we cannot know the mind of God.

This is clearly expressed in today’s selection about creation and Leviathan. The poet reminds us that God has been, is, and will be at work in ways and realms that we cannot access. Only God can frolic with a monster, command its loyalty and love. So who are we to presume to know what such a power thinks?
Continue reading

Hope in Poetry: Job 14.7–15; 19.23–27; 31.35–37

hopestillatworkDelivered at Ames UCC
on July 31, 2016
©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.

THE MADNESS OF JOB?
Has Job gone mad? I ask this not in a lighthearted way, not in a way demeaning of mental illness and trauma. But, really, has Job disconnected from reality?

He has lost everything in his life. He is grieving the death of all of his children and children’s children. His wife has left him. He has no money and no capital. His body is decaying. His friends stood by him for a time, but bailed when Job refused to accept any blame. And so he sits in the trash heap, yearning for death:

Would that You hid me in Sheol,
concealed me till Your anger passed,
set me a limit and recalled me.

I think we can all understand that. I think we can sympathize with his desire to be done, to ask God to limit the pain he must endure. But then here’s where Job seems to go beyond the rational: he expresses hope.
Continue reading

Our Systems Are Not Working: Job 3.1–10, 4.1–9, 7.11–21

banquetDelivered at First Christian Church
on July 10, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read. On Sundays during July we worship with First Christian Church at 9:30 a.m., alternating between FCC and Ames UCC.
Please come join us!

REMEMBER, WE LIVE IN THE ASHES
I mentioned last week that I was worried about preaching on Job off and on all summer, that I thought I needed to find a way to sell this sorry story so that it didn’t become a summer off. I wish the news of the last week hadn’t reminded me that we are already living the sorry story. I wish our world did not require us to learn the language of Job’s ash heap over and over again.

RECAP AND UPDATE
To review: Job was a very rich man and a religious man. An adversarial force came into God’s presence. God bragged to it about Job’s faith. The adversarial force suggested that faith was built on God’s protection and special treatment of Job, that Job’s faith had no integrity. Of course it is easy to be faithful when you get everything you want!

God told the Adversary to take away all of his riches and see—Job would never forsake God. So Job loses his whole family to invaders and natural disasters. And God is right: Job does not forsake God. Then the Adversary, with God’s permission, destroys Job’s skin. Job literally throws himself away, scraping at his sores while sitting in and on the garbage dump.

Job is alone until he is approached by three friends, who sit silently with Job for seven days and seven nights, “for they saw that (his) pain was very great” (2.13).
Continue reading

Loving Job: Job 1.1–22

releasegodDelivered at First Christian Church
on July 3, 2016
©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, when we worship with First Christian Church at 9:30 a.m., alternating between FCC and Ames UCC).

LOVE–HATE
Show of hands: Who loves the story of Job? Who really dislikes it? I was wary of it for a long time because it sounded so mean: God letting someone lose their whole family to prove a point. It seemed to reinforce notions of God wanting suffering and suffering somehow being redemptive—what I consider the worst of our tradition’s contribution to understanding the holy.

And I think I felt like having faith in God would require me to accept that ugliness, that somehow becoming a Christian meant accepting and professing a characterization of God that I found grotesque.

Now Job is one of my favorites. Job gives us glimpses into other times and cultures; it reminds us that our religion is a hybrid. Job asks the fundamental questions of this life, without the Christian distraction of afterlife.

And, as I hope you will see, in the end the story of Job offers a portrait of God that denies all of our efforts to humanize the divine. In Job, holiness is at a scale that truly inspires awe and justifies our faith, hope, and love.

God in Job is not grotesque, but glorious.

So, as our Bible itself does, let’s begin at the beginning, with the context and main characters.
Continue reading

Infertility and Righteous Women: Genesis 18.1–15, 21.1–7

Infertility & the Company of Righteous WomenDelivered at Ames UCC on September 20, 2015
© The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
Please join us for worship at 10:45 a.m. on Sundays.

VERY HARD
Sarah’s story can be among the very hardest for women who are struggling with fertility.

Pregnancy, for the majority of women, comes without much effort. Have sex with a fertile man at the right time of the month and, nine months later, you have a baby. But it is not that easy for all women. Not all women’s bodies are able to carry every pregnancy to term.

Current data from the National Institutes of Medicine show that 15–20% of women who know they are pregnant will lose that pregnancy. That’s a pretty large percentage, and one that begs the question of why the church has not yet developed good rituals for such losses.
Continue reading