Who We Want in Charge: Exodus 19.3–7 and 20.1–17

Delivered at Ames UCC on October 7, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.

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except in July and August when times vary.
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IN CHARGE
Just who is in charge here? Who has the authority to determine how we will live together? What are the mechanisms for accountability? What are the consequences for violations?

If the story of Potiphar’s wife and Joseph from two weeks ago—the story of one person trying to wield their power and privilege to demand sex from another—was timely, today’s story of the freed Hebrew slaves receiving the Decalogue is equally so.

MAGISTRATE
When last we saw them, the slaves had safely made it to the other side of the Sea of Reeds. Freedom, at last! And there was much rejoicing. Then what?

The slaves have all of their family members and all of their stuff. But for generations they have been under the direction and control of their Egyptian overlords and owners. They have been, unwillingly yet totally dependent on the rules and customs of the Pharaoh they left behind. How will they organize themselves in freedom? The Hebrews did not flee with fully formed, coequal branches of government. In addition to being homeless, then, they are also lawless and unorganized.

Naturally, they keep turning to Moses. It was all Moses’s plan to leave, he’s the one who got them all stirred up, made them think the unknown would be better than the stewpots and graves of Egypt. Plus, Moses has the ear of God. So Chapter 18 (v. 13), just before our reading today, says “Moses sat as magistrate among the people…from morning to evening.”

Which Jethro objects to, strongly.

JETHRO
Jethro is Moses’s father-in-law, a priest from Midian, a people distinct from the Egyptians and the Hebrews. On his arrival at the Hebrew encampment, Jethro is horrified by Moses’s failure to delegate, and so his abrogation of his special role as prophet of God. The man who has the ear of God should not be determining meal plans, tent configurations, or whose camel pooped on whose sandals.

“The thing you are doing is not right,” Jethro says, and tells Moses to divide magisterial duties by groups of ten, fifty, one hundred, and one thousand. Create a chain of command and accountability, Moses. “Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you,” Jethro says (v. 22b).

Moses does, and so ends the chapter. And so begins God’s own instructions.

DECALOGUE
The Hebrew people may now be organized and have sufficient judges to attend to daily concerns but what are the terms under which they judge? Maybe they were following Egyptian legal precedents or had adopted the laws of Midian, Jethro’s land. We do not know.

We do know that right after the description of implementing Jethro’s system for governance, God offers the people substance for that system.

To restate them in the terms I used when we studied the Decalogue earlier this year:

  1. Don’t bail on the power of freedom.
  2. Don’t make up a holiness to accommodate your preferences.
  3. Don’t use holiness to unholy ends.
  4. Don’t work all day every day.
  5. Don’t ignore the wisdom of your elders.
  6. Don’t lie.
  7. Don’t kill.
  8. Don’t steal.
  9. Don’t spread false rumors about others.
  10. Don’t lust after the people and resources you see on the other side of the fence.

These are not easy laws to keep. They restrict some of our most basic drives and common habits.

They restrict our appetites, like the hunger to consume objects and bodies. They restrict our tools of avarice, like rumormongering and deceit. They restrict our tendency to avoid grace, like working on weekends and vacations and insisting on learning everything the hard way.

These laws want to teach us that it is better to sacrifice striving to prayer, hubris to integrity, and craving to neighborliness. God wants to teach us that within a society, there is no room for striving, hubris, and craving, not if you want it to stay organized.

OUR SOCIETY
Our society is in a crisis of striving, hubris, and cravings. At the local level we seem to be doing okay, but I’m not so sure about the national. No matter the place on the political spectrum, no one is happy, and everybody is yelling:

You stole the election!
You stole our jobs!
You are just voting that way to stay in power!
You are just trying to get more voters so you can get power!
You demean the “unborn”!
You demean women!
You are a liar!
No, YOU are a liar!

And now the judiciary, the magistrates on whom we depend to interpret the laws of this land with thoughtfulness and rigor, without partisanship or rancor, is being torn apart apart. Fifty senators confirm a judge whom over 2,400 law professors would not.

Just who is in charge here? Who has the authority to determine how we will live together? What are the mechanisms for accountability? What are the consequences for violations?

According to this story, the consequences are suffering for generations.

GENERATIONS
This is the element of the Decalogue that I didn’t address last spring but will now: it’s that threat from God about punishment.

God says that if we make false idols and worship them, we will be punished, as will our children, and their children, and their children. But those who take on the ethic of true neighborliness that is in the remaining teachings? Thousands of generations after them shall know kindness.

Maybe that’s really what is at issue in our national rending: not partisanship, but shortsightedness. So narrow a focus on the next election cycle that we refuse the hear the solid advice of people from another party, like Jethro. That leads to the elevation of shiny idols on altars that quickly rot.

We don’t get to blame God for the suffering that will come when it all collapses.

We have to ask ourselves if in our choices today will someday lead our grandchildren to look us in the eye and say, “The thing you did was not right.”

Our goal is for our grandchildren’s grandchildren to say our names with thanksgiving because before our days were done we intentionally shared the burdens of giving up striving, hubris, and craving, so that by their day this scorching desert will have been left far behind.

Whether it is the midterms or the midweek, we do not expect one person to solve all of our problems. We look for leaders of tens, fifties, hundreds, thousands, and millions. Then we ask if they are working as hard as we are to hold themselves to the standards that we hear from God but that really transcend all religions:

  1. Only use power for freedom.
  2. Let holiness, or wholeness, set our tastes.
  3. Let wholeness determine our means.
  4. Take long breaks from the talking heads and give our minds a rest.
  5. Talk to the survivors of the fights for rights.
  6. Be honest even if it costs us.
  7. Question, rather than threaten, those we disagree with.
  8. Fix the systems that are broken, but without putting in a fix.
  9. Choose the sound over the salacious.
  10. Curb our appetites so that they do not consume us or those around us.

Or, as we will sing in a moment, ask to be each others’ servants.

AMEN Continue reading

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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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.
Please join us at 10:30 a.m.
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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Death is Not the Goal: Acts 6.1–7.2a, 44–60

2017.4.30 libertyDelivered at Ames UCC
on April 30, 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.

JARRING AND SHOCKING
I find today’s reading jarring and shocking. Just two weeks out from Easter and the Biblical world feels unfamiliar and dangerous. No more Jesus, Marys, Peter, or temple. Now we have someone named Nicanor and complaining Hellenists and a synagogue of the Freedman. No more of Jesus’ teachings on feeding and healing. Instead we have a story that seems to be saying that death is the model of post-resurrection faithfulness.

How did we get here?

Healing and feeding aren’t gone altogether. In the chapters before Stephen is killed, we hear about the massive growth in the Jesus movement as well as its organization: Participants had to give up all they had to the group and live in community. The named disciples quickly became overloaded with trying to host at God’s table and spread the good news. Wisely, the disciples laid hands on a new group to serve as deacons—the managers of feeding and tending to the poor.

One of the new table servants is Stephen. Interestingly, Stephen does not restrict himself to that role. He, too, left the table to teach in public. That is what gets him in trouble. To a group of rabbis, Stephen reiterates the core stories of the Hebrew Bible, specifically Exodus: how God has worked through Moses, Abraham, and Joseph.

Stephen concludes with a condemnation of those rabbis and teachers for not really understanding what God has meant and meant to do. Angels have spoken to you, he says, and yet you practice our religion only in the most surface of ways. Stephen stands in the company of all Hebrew prophets in this way. They have always been critics of empty faith. But, unlike the prophets, Stephen is then lynched.

What is so jarring or shocking about all of that, you might ask? Jesus was killed and the Christian tradition is full of martyrs. Death hardly seems avoidable, based on precedent. Why would resurrection day change any of that?

ON ITS OWN
It’s not that. I live in this world so I know that resurrection did not stop human violence. What shocks me is what happens as Stephen is being lynched: He prays for the forgiveness of his killers, just as Jesus did. The parallel and message are clear: Closeness to Christ is in the willingness to be murdered for the Word.

Instead of preserving a story of abundant living in the light of resurrection morning, the Acts of the Apostles seem to want to perpetuate the lethality of Good Friday night. Taken on its own, Stephen’s story teaches us that aggressive critique of religious establishments to the point of being killed is the point of resurrection day.

The key phrase there is “taken on its own.” Not only does Stephen’s story seem to leave behind all of Jesus’ lived teachings, but the Christian contribution to Biblical tradition leaves behind one of that tradition’s most important qualities: multi-vocality.
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We Are Family: Christmas Day 2016

Delivered at Ames UCC on December 25, 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.

JOSEPH’S FAMILY
There’s something about the Christmas story that has been bothering me this year.

As we hear in the Luke version of Jesus’ story, the Roman emperor tells everyone to go to their home towns to be registered. So we learn that Joseph is from Bethlehem but living in Galilee. That’s a 70 mile separation, a long way by foot and by mule.

But what is bothering me is why Joseph left his family, why he wasn’t already in Bethlehem at the time of the census. Why did he leave his family, his clan, his tribe in the first place? Did work take him away or war? Was he a refugee or merely an émigré? The story doesn’t say.

We know that it was important for the early Jesus storytellers to link Jesus to Bethlehem, to prove that he was the anointed one predicted in the older Hebrew prophecies. But they could have just said he was there at his birth, they didn’t need this elaborate story of hardship.

FAMILY HARDSHIP
As you all know, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s can themselves be a hardship for some us because of our families of origin.

With the juggernaut of family-themed advertising, those of us whose families are broken or cruel or broke or without a home, can be left feeling lonely, angry, or even like failures by this morning. After seeing ad after ad, we might want to scream, “Why can’t I come to a well-lit house on Christmas Eve to be surrounded by exclamations of joy and shiny gifts?”

Why? Because family is complex.

Maybe that is why our faith ancestors in the community of Luke included Joseph’s distance from his family, when none of the others did. Maybe the followers of Luke heard a holy call to tell a story as complex as real life, a story to remind us that God is in the complexity of real life. Including the complexity of family. Including the family we enter into through God.
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Pledge to Bring God’s Vision to Life: Genesis 37.3–8, 17b–22, 26–34, 50.15–21

bustedupfamilyDelivered at Ames UCC
on September 25, 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.

JOSEPH’S STORY
Our schedule of scripture this fall is taking us on an interesting walk through the formation, the dissolution, and legacies of families.

It began with the first human, split then into two. The first two humans betray God. But they live to make a family. One of those children betrays God, parents, and a brother through murder. But the generations persist.

Last week we met Abraham and Sarah. Abraham and Sarah were old and infertile and without home. They were cynical but they were also kind. And eventually Abraham and Sarah had a child together. That child, Isaac, came with the promise of many more generations to come.

Isaac and his wife Rebekah have two children, children are Jacob and Esau. Jacob acts up a lot. He steals his brother Esau’s rights as first born son. Jacob dreams of heaven and he wrestles with an angel, Jacob becomes Israel. Israel has four wives and many children. But with Rachel he has Joseph.

As much of Joseph’s story that we heard today, we skipped a lot. Once enslaved in Egypt, Joseph is able to outsmart a false assault charge and rise to the ranks of highest power in Pharaoh’s court. Thanks to going through these terrible trials, Joseph is in the position to influence power when he has dreams of famine and the need to be prepared. Joseph saves his master and even his own cruel brothers from starving to death.

Joseph ultimately forgives those brothers, is reunited with his father Jacob/Israel, and is able to mourn him when he dies. Joseph, the youngest brother, then becomes the patriarch of the clan and lives to see many generations after himself.

Between the international and court politics, and the jealousy, and the forgiveness it is a truly rich story. But I want to start today with dreams that provide for the future. I want to talk about stewardship.
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