Beloved All: 1 John 3.1a, 2a, 18-21a

Delivered at Ames UCC on September 1, 2019
©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.

OUR IMAGINATIONS

How much bigger than us will we allow God to be? In our imaginations, how much mystery will we allow for in our concept of the divine? What is our tolerance level for contradiction In how we conceive of the workings of a holiness apart and incarnate? Does our notion of God let everyone be a child of God no matter their behavior?

Let’s start our search for answers with two Biblical characters.

JEPHTHAH

In the book of Judges we learn about a man called Jephthah, described as a Gildeadite son of a prostitute. Jephthah was a warrior who got kicked out of his homeland because of his maternity but was then brought back when his people were in danger. Jephthah then makes a vow to God that if he wins a coming battle he will sacrifice as a burnt offering the first person he meets on coming home.

Now, who is the first person you meet when you come home? Roommate, cat, dog, spouse, kid, parent? Do you know who first walked out of Jephthah’s door after winning the war? His daughter, his one and only child. Jephthah’s daughter comes out of their home singing and dancing only to be sentenced to the pyre. And, after a brief wilderness sojourn with other women, that is where she goes.

There are several possible lessons in the story, like don’t take vows lightly. That’s an extension of the teaching not to take God’s name in vain. Oaths made in God’s name must be kept so don’t toss them out there. It could also be about not assuming God is on your side: We have no indication that God acted in any way on Jephthah’s behalf at all or in response to this promised offering. And the storytellers could have easily added that comment over time and iterations. Lastly, it may also be a story to explain a preexisting cultural practice, a just-so story. Not human sacrifice, but the women’s wilderness retreat that Jephthah’s daughter took before her death.

Regardless of those interpretations, we are left with a man who kills his child. A beloved child of God. How can Jephthah still be in God’s circle of love when he made such a wanton, idiotic, thoughtless promise? Surely some people cease through their actions to be beloved of God.

Like Judas.

JUDAS

In the Gospel of Mark, Judas is presented as one of the chosen male disciples. He is gifted by Jesus with the power to spread the good news of God’s present kin-dom and to cast out demons. Then, as all of the gospels describe, Judas betrays Jesus.

At first we don’t know why. In Mark’s gospel, the oldest of the four, Judas just turns Jesus in with no explanation. But with each successive gospel, we are given reasons. But in Matthew, he does it for financial reward. In Luke, Judas betrays Jesus for the money and because he is possessed by a ha-satan. In John, Judas is likewise possessed and has been stealing from the disciples’ common purse. The outcome for Judas is death by suicide in Matthew and bodily explosion in Luke.

Does Judas remain a child of God?

A lot of ink and air has been spent answering that one. The Gospel of Judas, for example, asserts that he is the most hallowed of all the disciples because he did God’s dirty deed. In other assessments, Judas did something so very wrong that God abandoned him for all time. And in others still, Judas did something very wrong and God stayed with him, both loving and mourning.

So that’s scripture, now let’s look at Texas.

ODESSA & MIDLAND

Is the newest in our obscenely long list of gunmen in mass shootings, this time in Odessa and Midland, a beloved child of God? When he turned a traffic stop into a mobile rampage, did he move himself beyond God’s care?

2019.9.1 demonsOur answer to that questions, as well as the question of Jephthah and Judas, likely reveals more about us than God. When we are confronted with base acts, these utterly human grotesqueries, how we locate bad actors and God in the midst usually demonstrates how hard we work to keep God near but put distance between us and those we want to believe are utterly unlike us.

Because when we keep Judas and gunmen demonic, we can ignore the demons we all wrestle with. We can also keep God exclusively on our side. Just like Jephthah. And that worked out for him, right?

1 JOHN

See what love the Creator has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. Beloved, we are God’s children…

When our unknown author wrote these words, it was likely during a fight about the nature of Jesus’ body and the reason for his death. If you read the whole letter you will see that the author has no qualms about saying who is outside of God’s love.

But taken out of context, I think the author is making a jarring and genuine argument about a God for which there are no outsides. As much as our human religion and our own minds tell us those people out there are scum but we are saints, I pray that God is better and bigger than our squabbles and schisms and semi-automatics. I pray that the most evil-acting among us remain beloved children of God.

2019.9.1 fine peopleNow, don’t mistake me, I am NOT saying that there are fine people on both sides. A person can be a child of God and still be a violent perpetrator, a promoter of hate, a living nightmare. But if we are all—including Jephthah and Judas and gunmen—if we are all God’s children, all of the time, there is no one we can write off as evil apart. It is being siblings in God that informs our obligation to creation and our accountability to each other.

2019.9.1 disquietingIn our faith story we hear that we bear some of the likeness of God, not the other way around. Thank God. Because it is faith in that greater than, that more than, that immeasurably different-ness, that not-possible-to-discern-ness, that we can set aside a religion of self-soothing staleness and find the disquieting force for creative change that we need today.

The passage says, “God is greater than our hearts.” God is greater than our hearts angry, hearts numb, hearts dumb, and hearts broken. And that is why, on yet another bloody Sunday, I can still say thanks be to God.

AMEN

Paul’s Master Class: Philemon

Delivered at Ames UCC on August 18, 2019
©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.

THAT DARN PAUL

You know how I always want to fight with Paul because his exclusivist and at times super sexist theology makes me nuts and flies in the face of Jesus’ own Way?

Well, this letter is a big exception.

As I sat with the whole of Paul’s letter to Philemon, which does not usually appear in preaching schedules even in part, I realized that what we have here is master class in discipleship as relationship.

Let’s start with the basic content of the letter.

CONTENT

Paul is in prison, which happened a few times: two years in Ceseara, and then two multi-years stints in Rome, all as a result of his religious fervor. From prison, Paul writes to Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and their house church. He begins with greetings and prayers and thanksgiving for the way Philemon and friends have refreshed Paul’s heart. Then Paul asks Philemon to somehow change the nature of his relationship with a person named Onesimus.

Onesimus is a slave of Philemon’s who, for reasons we don’t know, has been with Paul in prison. Did he run away from Philemon to Paul, seeking help? Or did Philemon send Onesimus to Paul for Paul’s care, as is recorded with another slave in the letter to the Philippians?

Also unclear is what exactly Paul wants to change.

Scholars suggest it could be for Philemon to take Onesimus back with forgiveness for whatever may have transpired (Paul refers to debts) or maybe Paul wants Philemon to keep Onesimus with Paul long-term or maybe Paul wants Philemon to set Onesimus free and receive him as an equal in the house church.

We just don’t know for sure, which is why this letter has been so useful for both anti- and pro-slavery forces over the years.

Paul goes on to ask that Philemon and the church be ready to receive Paul as a guest. And, finally, Paul offers greetings from other disciples.

So that’s the content. Now let’s look at the form, because there lies Paul’s true gift.

FORM

First, though Paul’s big ask is of Philemon, he addresses the letter to the whole of the congregation. This could, of course, look like shaming. Calling someone out in front of others can be very unkind. Or, it could indicate that there are community-wide stakes in our personal choices and community-wide support. Though Philemon has the power in the relationship with Onesimus, that relationship does not exist in isolation, but within a web of connections. The body of Christ includes all bodies.

Second, Paul writes

though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love

Paul has substantial moral authority within this ecclesia. He is their evangelist, he is their teacher, he is the one who invited them to wade in the waters with the Christ. So this could have been a very short note saying, “Phil, let O go. Thanks, P.” Instead, Paul details how Onesimus has become part of the flock, has become a true sibling. Then Paul asks Philemon to make the choice as an act of faith, rather than obedience,

in order that (his) good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.

Paul is preserving Philemon’s personal agency while inviting him to be a person of greater integrity at the same time.

Third, and final, there is the issue of Philemon’s and Onesimus’ names. Philemon can mean “good one” or “loving” or “he who shows kindness.” Onesimus’ name can mean “handy” or “useful” or “beneficial.” Now, I haven’t found any academic arguments or research on this, and have no reason to believe these were not their actual names, but it feels like there is something to Paul writing a letter to Kind One asking him to understand his relationship with Handy differently.

If a mentor of mine wrote, “Dear Good Heart, I write on behalf of Valuable,” I might listen more closely, for my mentor would be calling on and teaching me about my inherent decency and the inherent worth of the other.

So Paul, who does not pull any punches in his work to spread his understanding of the gospel, throughout this letter uses a gentle hand to encourage a fellow disciple to grow in his faith through his relationship with another.

And isn’t that the call to us all?

DISCIPLESHIP IS RELATIONSHIP

Pr. Hannah once said to me, and I have her permission to share this, that it would be so much easier to go to a much larger church. You can walk in, get your Jesus jolt, and walk out without having to know anyone or be known by anyone. There is no obligation in anonymity, no risk.

But, she continued, she is here because being known and knowing is part of the point.

Being in real relationship with fellow seekers over Sundays and years, is what makes for a faith that transforms.

It isn’t easy, of course. If we don’t have to know each other we don’t risk falling in love with each other or becoming implicated in each other’s living and dying. Losing Pauletti and Charlie within a month of each other has been painful.

But then who will give us “much joy and encouragement” when we are imprisoned, literally or by disease or by antipathy? And whose hearts, or in the Biblical Greek, splachna—which literally means guts, the ancient site of all emotions—whose splachna will we lose the opportunity to refresh when they are likewise bound?2019.8.18 relationship

From Adam and Eve to Abram and Sarai; from Ruth and Naomi to Mary and Joseph; from Martha and Mary to Jesus and Judas; from Paul and Philemon and Onesimus, we are taught that discipleship, devotion to God requires relationship.

BLESSING

We live in a vast world where we are encouraged, even pressured, to constantly wear masks of success and even perfection, where rhetorical and actual violence are the primary means of dialogue. In the midst of that we can forget that the damage we do to each other, and to ourselves, is damage to the whole.

But God continues to open spaces where we can be ourselves just as we are, ourselves as we are still becoming, in nurturance and accountability. It will mean wrestling with frustrating theologies and having uncomfortable public conversations, but it will certainly also include tender care and camaraderie, guides for the way and a fellowship that renders meaningless all human barriers.

Paul’s final gift to us is his letter’s conclusion:

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

This is described by scholars as “a blessing on the recipient’s inmost being.”[i]

May you feel your inmost being blessed for having come here together today.

AMEN

[i] Levine, Amy-Jill and Marc Zvi Brettler, editors. The Jewish Annotated New Testament (2nd Edition). (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). Page 459.

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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Attend to One Another: Luke 6.1–16

2017.1.29 resist findDelivered at Ames UCC
on January 29, 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.

HEARING
A news story came across my e-mail recently with the title “The greatest challenge your pastor will face in 2017.” Can you guess what the challenge was? The author said that it is all of you.

He described how, on any given Sunday, the preacher may say one thing but congregants hear another. That’s a given in this style of teaching. We have a lot of teachers here, so I know you can relate. But the author predicted the phenomenon would be more pronounced in light of the presidential election.

So let me ask you this: How many of you here today want me to address the week’s news about refugees and walls and women’s bodies? And how many of you would be very frustrated if I did?

Group dynamics are always tricky, but even more so in a time of conflict and even in a space of faith. Just look at today’s story.

ANTI-SEMITISM
The first conflict is in the temples, which prompts a reminder before I get into the meat of my sermon. Beware our human tendency to conflate a few with all.

The greatest sin of Christianity has been to take the reported behavior of a few people who were Jewish, many years ago, as representative of people who are Jewish, for all time. The shock of those in today’s scripture, and their reprimand of Jesus, does not characterize all people who are now, or were then, Jewish. I know that you know this, but given the persistence of hate groups and speech against people who are Jewish by people who claim to be Christian, it bears repeating.

Now, let’s talk about Judas, the focus of our greatest conflict as Christians.
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God’s Unending Story: 2 Kings 22.1–10, 23.1–3

open ended storyDelivered at Ames UCC on November 29, 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.

ADVENT
Advent: A new year has begun. Advent: a season of anticipation and preparation. Advent: a reckoning with revelation. Advent: a searching look beyond Easter’s tomb.

Despite what marketers and even our own wishes would tell us, Advent is not a preparation for Christmas. Advent is a preparation for Christ’s coming after the birth, after the baptism, after the miracles, after the revolt, after the execution, and after the resurrection. In Advent we lay the groundwork so that each of our discrete scriptural encounters with Jesus between Christmas and Easter remain within the cosmic context of God’s presence and love.

In Advent, we are reminded of the open-endedness of God’s story.

Which I think it somewhat hard for us. I don’t think human beings do so well with open-endedness, particularly as it relates to something we cannot easily see or feel against our skin, as with God.

JOSIAH
Let’s take Josiah for example. Josiah was another king of the southern nation of Judah. They had, fortunately, survived the Assyrians that Hosea and Isaiah worried about so much in our previous weeks’ readings.
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