Delivered at Urbandale UCC
on May 6, 2018
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Grace to you, Urbandale UCC, and peace from God our Creator and your siblings in faith and in wonder at Ames UCC. I am Eileen Gebbie, the senior minister at Ames UCC, where I have the honor of serving with Pr. Hannah Hannover, the minister for families with kids (and the rest of us).
We are the oldest church in Ames, having beat out the United Methodists across the street by one year, and worship in a classic brick sanctuary. But on the exterior of our traditional space are testimonies to our contemporary faith: a God is Still Speaking rainbow banner and another proclaiming our love of our Muslim neighbors and all refugees.
We have been a Just Peace church since 1986, and a devoted team rings our memorial bell every Wednesday as a reminder. And we have been Open and Affirming for 18 years. I understand that next week you are celebrating the 25th anniversary of your own vote to become Open and Affirming. That would have been in 1993, if my math is right.
BALLOT MEASURE 9
In 1993 I was in my home town of Portland, Oregon. In the fall of 1992, I and my fellow Oregonians voted on the first anti-gay ballot measure in the United States. I should clarify, it was the first anti-gay and anti-pedophile ballot measure in the U.S. because the authors assumed they were one and the same.
In the year leading up to that vote, the measure’s supporters threw every homophobic and ignorant argument at us that you can imagine and that I cannot repeat in a house of God. But, of course, they did it in the name of God. In the name of God they conflated love with abuse, mutuality with violence. It was ugly. The late Donna Red Wing was on the forefront of our defense and received death threats as thanks.
I wish I could say the results offered redemption, but they didn’t really: We defeated the measure by only 56%. Not 90%, not 80%, not even 70%. Not a number that would demonstrate that ignorance and religious bigotry were minority positions to rebut and a minor problem to solve. It left me shaky. And it landed me, with many others, firmly and far beyond the walls of any Christian church.
I know that Iowa has been on the forefront of gay rights, and that gay marriage became legal here in 2009, but I can imagine that in 1993 there were plenty of Christian people in Iowa who would have agreed with the Christian people in Oregon who favored legal bigotry.
That’s the environment in which this Christian church offered a different witness to God in Christ. That’s the culture in which this Christian community stood in solidarity with their—our— queer siblings in Christ.
The same queer solidarity that got Jesus killed and kept his movement alive.
Look at the company Jesus kept: At any given moment he may have been with women householders like Martha, compromised tax collectors like Zacchaeus, bereft Roman soldiers like the one with the sick servant, bereft fathers who begged for the life of their daughters when so many other Biblical dads let them die or worse, hungry people who needed food and rich people who eventually paid for his grave.
The company Jesus kept was indecent, it was improper, and it went against all that was socially right. The disciples and apostles, like Paul, kept it up after the Easter mystery.
Paul, the Jewish Roman citizen and persecutor of followers of the Way, had an epiphanic encounter with his God through Christ, and became a most fervent teacher, preacher, and traveler on behalf of that same Way he once scorned. Paul traveled thousands of miles over hundreds of hours to nurture the growth of countercultural holy feasts and practical care.
It was hard.
There’s evidence in the letters to the Corinthians and to the Galatians that Paul and other preachers did not agree. The Acts of the Apostles reveal tense negotiations between Paul, who never met Jesus the man, and the disciples who had.
And Paul can be as hard on us as any contemporary oppressor, like all of that business about silent women and obedient slaves. That’s not gospel, that’s not good news; that’s cultural violence.
But Paul did follow Jesus’s radical relationality by bring together people who were Jewish and those who were not. And he did leave us with a model of passionate service and public love, as in the opening of this letter to the Philippians:
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.
That’s how I feel being in a space that has for 25 years offered a living, Christ-like solidarity, one that has wrestled with the baggage of our religious tradition to bear witness to the truth of our faith. You have practiced passionate service and public love. And I thank God for knowing of you. Because of you, I have joy to pray. And, as Paul shows, such joy and thanks leads to hope.
And this is my prayer, Paul continues, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best
Paul hopes that the Philippians’ faithfulness to the queer company of Christ will lead to more knowledge and insight so that they will always do what is best.
And despite our significant accomplishments for racial justice, we remain a highly racially segregated branch of the Christian family tree.
As of 2016, 86% of UCC churches are overwhelmingly or exclusively white. Only 5% of our churches identify as multiracial. In their statistical reporting, the national church notes that in 2006 the number of white churches was at 90% and multiracial at 1%, so there has been some movement toward the middle, but not much.
Why have we been more successful in the ONA movement than movements for other marginalized, demonized, and falsely characterized people?
Is there anything each of our churches might do or stop doing to be more genuinely welcoming and safe for people of color? Not for our sake, not so that we white people can feel good about ourselves, but for the sake of the body of Christ.
Who have we left outside the church walls now?
How will we continue to be counter-cultural feast-makers and practical caregivers?
How might the passionate service and public love we celebrate today overflow into more knowledge and insight to help us know what to do next?
I am glad for the opportunity the Central Association of the Iowa Conference of the UCC provided to remind us that the church is bigger than our individual congregations.
It means that the body of Christ, that queer configuration of grace, repentance, feasting, prayer, humility, boldness, justice and every variety of human expression imaginable is even bigger still.
I thank God when I remember this.
And, again, I thank you.
I do not know if the vote 25 years ago was easy or it was hard, but either way, I know that it put you firmly on that old and dusty Way.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.