Could This Be Easier?: 1 Peter

Delivered at Ames UCC on August 25, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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COULD BE EASIER

Sometimes I wonder if this thing we do, this faith, would be easier if we didn’t have Jesus.

Think about it: Isn’t the concept of God enough to try to wrap our heads and lives around without adding on this story of a man who maybe wasn’t entirely a man who, some far away sources say, came back to life and is yet around?

That is a lot to take on, a lot to take in, which is evidenced by the lack of agreement Christians—as in Christ-ians—have on what really happened to Jesus and what the stories about his death and resurrection mean.

Though a lot of thoughtful, devoted Christians have tried.

RANSOM

Take, for example, the early African theologian Origen.

Origen, was born in around 184 in Alexandria and died in what we now know as Libya around 253. This puts his birth within 150 years of Jesus’ death.

Origen is one of the most important, if not the most important, of the so-called “Church Fathers,” in part because of the volume of his writings on God, Christ, and Bible, and because of his theology of Jesus.

In what is known as the “ransom theory of atonement,” Origen posited that Jesus had to die because Adam and Eve, in eating of the tree of knowledge, sold us to the devil and God needed repayment. In other words, Jesus’ death was the repayment of a debt all humans were born into. The ransom theory of atonement dominated in Christian communities for about 800 years. So, for 800 years, and still to this day, Christians understood themselves to be born deficient and bound to devilishness, in need of Christ’s ransom for their souls.

Consider how that paints a person’s worldview: All humans are horrid and God accepts blood payments.

It also seems to make irrelevant, or just confusing, everything that Jesus did before dying. What point was the healings and feedings if death was the goal? Do we just ignore them now?

Fast forward many hundreds of years and James Cone would say no.

BLACK LIBERATION THEOLOGY

Cone, an African American, was born in Arkansas in 1936, so deep into the Jim Crow era, a time of lynching regular and unpunished. He came of age before Black Americans had civil rights. When he died last year, Cone was a professor of systematic theology at Union Theological Seminary.

In his foundational work, A Black Theology of Liberation, a continuation of the liberation theology developed by Peruvian Dominican priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, Cone writes that in order to know who Jesus Christ is now, we have to know who we was way back then.

2019.8.25 whitenessFor Cone, that was someone whose one and only role was to heal and liberate the oppressed (p. 112-113).  Cone’s evidence is Jesus’ birth into a humiliated and abused class, which Jesus then claimed proudly in his baptism with sinners in a river beyond the city (p. 115). Jesus signaled that, “The kingdom of God is for the helpless, because they have no security in this world” (p. 117). But they do have freedom.

In Jesus’ resurrection, Cone writes, God frees the oppressed to say no to all who oppress them, even if death looms, because God says yes to them. God’s yes to the oppressed is an act of liberation (p. 118).

So with this understanding of the historical Jesus, and theology of the resurrection, Jesus Christ today is black. Black as the color of skin, yes, and black also as the signifier of oppression, as the adjective that describes where healing and liberation in this nation is still needed.

By naming the resurrected Christ black, Cone makes Jesus concrete, present, and a reminder that black people may, through God’s yes, do whatever they need to “affirm their humanity” (p. 124). This also means that the kingdom work of God in this era is not here, not in this white church, but within the black community (p. 125). Cone doesn’t mean we can’t be part of the contemporary Christ, it just means we are not part of the contemporary Christ if we sit only here in isolated whiteness.

Which Catherine Keller affirms, with slightly different language.

X AS PROCESS

Keller is a white American woman who was born in 1953, so she was born into the right to vote but not to have her own credit card or the ability to prosecute marital assault. She is currently a professor of constructive theology at Drew University.

In her work On the Mystery, Keller describes Jesus as a parable. Jesus himself is like all of those open-ended stories that teach us about what matters, about “how to discern our priorities” (p. 140, emphasis hers). She describes Jesus as caring not about souls in abstraction, like Origen, but souls embodied, like Cone, souls embodied in relation to all other souls embodied. In that way, the meaning of our lives is in relation to the most poor and despised, just as it was for Jesus (p. 144).

Jesus as parable, she continues, is a joyous and urgent lure to make possible what the world would call impossible—the reconciliation that proceed liberation for us and for our planet. The Christic lure to that work is everywhere, but the work itself is in places of cruelty and neglect.

WRESTLE THE STONE

So that’s how three people have wrestled with the questions Jesus’ ministry, murder, and mystery evoke. Three of, oh, millions. Billions, even, because each of us here, though we are not paid theologians, come to different conclusions, different implications over our lifetimes.

I don’t know if our faith really would be easier, as I suggested at the beginning, without Jesus. God isn’t such a breeze to understand alone. So maybe that is the gift of the Christ: a human implicated in holiness, a bridge between God and us. Or, in Peter’s words in today’s passage, a living cornerstone, a place solid and yet responsive to the day.

2019.8.25 faithBecause despite the resurrection story we are still living in a devilish, oppressive, and depraved reality. We have not yet through our theological formulations found a final application of faith that will eliminate the human will to sell each other, negate another’s humanity, to be lured into selfishness rather than selflessness.

If we continue to take seriously the questions Jesus Christ evokes, we may someday come to take seriously the questions we evoke. Like the question of climate change, the question of white nationalism, the question of the legacy of chattel slavery, which we will commemorate at 2 p.m. at our bell tower today.

Maybe it isn’t a leap of faith we need to make, a leap across a chasm of theological uncertainties, but a small step onto a living stone. A stone where the holy and human might intersect. We do this by accepting Peter’s invitation to rid ourselves of “all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander,” all of our un-neighborly ways. For in such a life as that, whatever the truth of God and Christ Jesus, we will never be ashamed.

AMEN

First, Rest in God: John 2.13–25


2018.2.21 new
Delivered at Ames UCC
on January 21, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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LOVE
Part of me really loves this story.

It’s the part of me that grew up watching Jesus Christ Superstar and its temple scene with women, guns, and sunglasses up for sale. It’s the part of me that loves the liberation inherent in our tradition’s theology: freed slaves, women prophets, direct confrontation with those who are complicit in or mimic the power structures of occupation.

It’s this kind of story that allows me to continue to seek God through Jesus Christ. I could not walk a path that does not eliminate false, human-made barriers to God; I need a path that strips me of my blinders to corruption and self-centered comfort.

FIGHTING
This story sounds different today, though. I’m not sure I can even hear this story today over all of the rest of the fighting in our world.

I thought about putting together a list of the kinds of back-and-forth juvenilia and nastiness from our elected officials on Twitter or some of the commentary over the recent controversy regarding vulgarity in the White House, our house. But I couldn’t bring myself to read them and saw no value in inflicting them on you afresh. You already know.
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Make America…

Published March 25, 2017 in the Ames Tribune

by Eileen Gebbie

I used to teach introductory sociology. Sociology is the study of humans in society, in groups. Sociologists, through observation and experiment, develop theories for why we act the way we do. At the time of my schooling, the emphasis within my department’s teaching program was on three major types of theory: social control, structural functionalism, and symbolic interactionism. Each seeks to address how and why societies have the institutions that they do: family, marriage, schools, health care, media, courts, police, unions, and the like.

In social control theories, institutions serve to control the majority of the population for the benefit of a minority. When I taught this to undergrads, I liked to draw a pyramid on the chalkboard (it was olden times), mark off a small triangle at the top, then label it “The Man v. The Rest of Us.” For example, denying people of color and LGBTQIA people full civil rights controls their ability to influence representation and policy as well as maintain the integrity of their families. In those cases, straight, white people, to their own benefit as they see it, control the life chances of others.

Structural functional theories consider the overt and covert functions of institutions. Elementary schools have the overt function of educating kids. The covert functions are/can be training in society’s norm and mores, health care, and nutritional support.

It took me a little time to come up with a good example for the final category, one that would resonate with students at a Midwestern university with a large Greek system and majority white student body. Symbolic interactionist theories suggest that our societies are a product not of large scale forces but every day interactions. So, I would ask them, let’s say the stereotype of white women in sororities is that they are dumb. The room would chuckle. Now, I would continue, imagine I believed that stereotype. Might that change, even without my realizing it, how I interact with white women wearing Greek letters in my classroom? And might my different treatment affect their academic performance? The room always went silent at that point. It became a lot easier to talk about racism after that lecture.

As I watch the unravelling of our national laws and policies put into place to feed the hungry, tend to the sick, protect soil and water, and promote peace rather than war, I ask myself the following questions: Who benefits the most from these changes? What are the functions that are named and those that will occur without being named? And what happened to the supporters in their individual lives to make them think this is the best way to be, as a nation?
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Local Priest Urges Community to Practice Hope rather than Hate

First published in the Ames Tribune’s April 2017 FACETS: The Magazine for Women

by Eileen Gebbie

My mother texted a few weeks ago to ask if I wanted the family Christmas tree skirt. If you are unfamiliar with the term, it’s a decorative collar for the base of a Christmas tree.

When Mom retired to southern Australia several years ago, she substantially downsized her belongings, asking the three of us kids to select now what we might otherwise have taken when she dies. My sister asked for some jewelry, my brother some serving ware, and I took the rocker Mom used to sit in when we were infants (with little chew marks on the legs from our old dog). But Christmas decorations were never an option.

So why now? Because when you celebrate Christmas in southern Australia, you are doing so in the summer and it turns out that northern, winter-themed items (including trees) feel a little out of place.

Christianity became a global religion long ago, with its universal truths of love for each other and care for those in need, combined with its spread (often through violence) by the Roman Empire, and then by the empires of England and the United States. And even though the stories, poems, and songs preserved in the Bible are quite arid due to their Middle Eastern and North African origins, there are no particular seasons or nations tied to their truths.

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