What is the Next Right Thing?: Philippians 1.1–18a

2018.5.6 indecentDelivered at Urbandale UCC
on May 6, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

GREETINGS
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.

SOLIDARITY
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
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.

NEXT?

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.

2018.5.6 white churchesI share this hope and this prayer for the entire United Church of Christ. As far as the UCC has come in welcoming people who are LGBTQIA, we are still only 30% officially Open and Affirming.

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?

FINAL THANKS
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.

AMEN

Treasuring God: 1 Kings 5.1–5, 8.1–13


divine love
Delivered at Ames UCC
on October 29, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

This service of worship was unusual, for several reasons. First, I broke with my rigid adherence to liturgical tradition in order to wear an Easter white stole that celebrates the rainbow of God’s people. Second, during the sermon I invited the congregation to have conversations in small groups. Third, much of my preaching went off-script in response to those conversations. And, fourth and finally, we ended the service by standing in a circle to sing “Blessed be the Ties that Bind.” In moments of crisis, I am both grateful for and awed by the gifts our tradition provides, the tools we have ready-made to help us understand our world and to remain faithful to God. —Pr. Eileen Gebbie

THE ARK OF THE COVENANT
The Ark of the Covenant makes its first appearance in Exodus 25. The freed Hebrew slaves are in the desert. God gives Moses instruction for how to build a tabernacle—that word in Hebrew is abode—that the people could carry with them on their journey. As part of that portable worship space, God describes the construction of the Ark, including the cherubim from today’s reading but also a lot of gold:

11You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside you shall overlay it, and you shall make a moulding of gold upon it all round. 12You shall cast four rings of gold for it and put them on its four feet, two rings on one side of it, and two rings on the other side. 13You shall make poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold. 17Then you shall make a mercy-seat of pure gold; two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its width. 18You shall make two cherubim of gold; you shall make them of hammered work, at the two ends of the mercy-seat. 21You shall put the mercy-seat on the top of the ark; and in the ark you shall put the covenant that I shall give you.

Gorgeous-sounding, no?

When everything is complete, the story goes, the Ark is then hidden behind a curtain and a cloud comes over everything, with God’s glory filling the tabernacle. From then on, the people only continue their travels when the cloud clears; they stay put when it does not. Although we have reason to chuckle at the freed Hebrews taking 40 years to make an 11-day walk, it seems that God played a part in their pace.

Later on, once the people had found the promised land (or colonized it, depending on your perspective) the Israelites try to use the ark for their own purposes. In 1 Samuel we learn that the Israelites are at war against the Philistines. It isn’t going well so the leaders bring out the ark, hoping it will save them.

It doesn’t. The Philistines win and the Ark is taken as a prize.

But the Ark isn’t totally inert or powerless: Once placed in a temple with the god of the Philistines, it begins to wreak havoc. First, the statue of the Philistine god falls apart and the people become infested with tumors, hemorrhoids, or the bubonic plague, depending on which translation you read. The Philistines return it with offerings of gold shaped as tumors, hemorrhoids, or buboes.

ABOMINATIONS AND APOSTATES
You may now be thinking to yourself, “Well now, that is all very interesting, but what about the hate mail?” Let’s talk about that now.

As most of you likely know by now, a blogger who describes herself as Christian and uses a punching fist as her logo sicced her hundreds of thousands of online followers on our church.

Why? Because of our Halloween party. Continue reading

Faith is Not So Tidy: Luke 3.1–22

2017.1.8 best caseDelivered at Ames UCC
on January 8, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be
heard rather than read.
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NEAT AND TIDY
Luke tells a good story, he’s a good story teller. The Gospel of Luke and its sister book the Acts of the Apostle are beautifully crafted cases for Christ. Rather than a collection of Jesus stories with no segues or explanation, each element within Luke’s gospel is connected, and is a stepping stone to the predicted end.

In the second chapter, for instance, a barren woman is able to get pregnant, a classic Biblical sign of God at work in the world. That woman, Elizabeth, now pregnant with John, visits her cousin Mary, now pregnant with Jesus. John gives Elizabeth’s bladder a good kick, and Elizabeth proclaims Mary blessed among women.

This is a foreshadowing of today’s story: John, now born and grown and working as a religious leader, kicks back against those who think he is the anointed one. No, he says, not I. But, the one I have preceded all my life.

In the Gospel of Luke, the structure of the story leaves no room to doubt that Jesus is the Son of God. The structure of Luke’s story of faith is neat and tidy.

But, man oh man, the contents are not. Look, for example, at the company Jesus keeps, right from the very start.

2017.1.8 not just ritualJESUS’ BAPTISM
Although the Christmas story tells us that Jesus is going to be someone special, the audience for that is pretty small, once you exclude the sky full of heavenly host. Jesus’ baptism, then, is considered his debut act of ministry, the moment at which Jesus declares his commitment to God and God blesses that commitment.

The version most commonly represented in art and story is from the Gospel of Mark. In it, John is in rough clothing and eating bugs. John cites the prophecy from Isaiah and predicts Jesus. Jesus is then clearly baptized by John and just as he comes out of the water, the heavens open right in front of everyone, in direct response to John moving Jesus through the water.

Not so in Luke. In Luke, we just hear that sometime after everyone was baptized, including Jesus, Jesus was praying, but where and for how long and with whom, we don’t know. Only then does God speak.

That crucial moment almost reads as an addendum to what came before: seventeen verses of John preaching and chastising and getting arrested, then only two about Jesus and his baptism. In Luke, it is the lead up to the baptism and holy blessing that get the attention, that have the weight. And it is not tidy. The lead up to baptism and blessing are messy.

John has rejected his birthright. This one who could have been—should have been?—a temple priest like his father is instead a hollering, river-wading name caller. People, he says, there is one coming who will straighten everything out. But you are a brood of vipers! You think you can rest on who you are related to and do no work of your own. Bah!

Then things get messier, because it turns out that the people who were drawn to John, at least the ones who warrant naming, are tax collectors and soldiers. This first group consists of fellow Israelites who make their living off of taxing their own neighbors on behalf of an occupier, while taking a cut for themselves. The second are the agents of occupation who keep the rule of foreign law, including suppression of resistance, through violence, extortion, and pinning crimes on innocent people. John tells them to clean up their acts and be prepared to be judged by fire.

These are the people chosen by Jesus to be his first witnesses. These are the very first members of what we now call the body of Christ.
Continue reading