Public Works and Private Workings: Matthew 6.1–15

Delivered at Ames UCC on February 3, 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.

VIOLATION
 Did anyone else notice, in hearing this passage, that every week we violate the instructions Jesus gives?

Beware of practicing your piety before others
whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door

whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet

do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,

so that your alms may be done in secret

Every week we pray together in unison, silently, and with individual petitions. And then we make public offerings to the life and work of the church. There aren’t trumpets but the choir does usually sing. This style of worship and the elements within are quite old and well considered. They have been practiced across many ages and locations, with some modifications for context and need.

Is it time, though, for a new reformation to correct our wayward worship ways?

TEACHING
2019.2.3 covenant At this point in the gospel Jesus is still on the mountain with Simon Peter, Andrew, John, and James. He is continuing the sermon that began with the Beatitudes, which we studied last week.

In between the Beatitudes and this discourse on prayer and giving, Jesus emphasizes that he absolutely is not working to upend the Torah and the Nevi’im, the teachings and the prophets that constitute the bulk of what we now know as the Hebrew Bible. Jesus says that “not one stroke of a letter” from what God has already offered can be changed (5.18), and then explores the Decalogue, including murder, cheating, judging, and swearing false oaths. This small group of disciples has had a master class in covenant living, in the manna that God offers and the mercy we must practice.

Including Jesus’s exhortation to keep the practices of prayer and giving private.

Jesus is clearly responding, in part, to people in their community who do “practice piety before others in order to be seen by them,” people whom he describes as “hypocrites in the streets” and non-Jewish people who “heap up empty phrases.” These showily religious offer a negative lesson in religiosity. They also offer Jesus the opportunity to make a theological statement, an argument about God.

When making gifts, he says, do so anonymously because “your Creator…sees in (that) secret.” Pray alone in your room “to your Creator who is in secret” and pray simply because “your God knows what you need before you ask.” This isn’t Jesus just instructing the disciples about how to pray and give. He is teaching them about God’s response, God’s involvement in both. God is in secret, not in the devious or confidential sense of the word, but in the sense of being in all places, including the private. We do not need to seek God in public, we do not need public displays of faith to get God’s attention. God is in our soul’s innermost, secret, private chambers; best to seek God, to commune with God there. The point of faith is not public works but our private working.

The point of faith is not public works but our private working.

2019.2.3 museRESISTANCE
How many of you are feeling a little internal resistance to that notion?

I know that the public work of the national UCC and our own is, in part, why many of you are here. It matters to you that we successfully sued North Carolina for gay marriage on the basis of religious freedom and that we coined the term “environmental racism.” It matters to you, too, that our next Theologian in Residence will focus on what churches can do in practical terms to respond to the needs of immigrants. Theologically we already know: “you shall love the alien as yourself” (Leviticus 19.34). Not like yourself but as yourself because they are us.

I would be hard-pressed to be part of a church community that did not engage in public works of faith. That would feel too much like a private club, like a self-help system, rather than a living covenant with God and neighbor.

And Jesus did so many public works, himself. Why else was he such a threat to the Herods and Rome?

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The Words of Our Faith: Philippians 2.1–13

2018.5.13 no wayDelivered at Ames UCC
on May 13, 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.

OMAR IBN SAID
In the very early 1800s there was a man named Omar ibn Said. He was educated, he tithed, and he taught his Muslim faith to the children of his community in Senegal. Then, at age 37, married and with a family, Omar was kidnapped during a raid, and put to sea on one of the last ships to participate in the Atlantic slave trade before it was banned. Despite being a small and delicate man, Omar survived the middle passage, those six weeks below deck of filth, starvation, stench, and fear. In the autobiography he wrote years later, Omar said that on his arrival at the slave auctions in Charleston, South Carolina, “In a Christian language they sold me.”

However, Omar escaped from the man who would own him. He walked 200 miles, but even though he was under threat for every inch of those miles, he did not give up his practice of praying five times each day. Unfortunately, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Omar ibn Said was captured and jailed.

Then Omar did something remarkable, at least to the white people of Fayetteville.

As the account of Omar I’m basing this on notes, white people were used to being around black people and African people, and they were used to believing that black people and African people were all ignorant subhuman animals, who would do no more than toil and birth more property. Imagine their reaction when Omar ibn Said covered the walls of his jail cell with Arabic. In Arabic, Omar scratched out verses from the Koran that presumably already had and would continue to sustain him in his life before and certainly during captivity.

The white people were agog.

In our reading today, Paul is scratching out a Christian hymn that presumably already had and would continue to sustain him in his own life before and during captivity.

2018.5.13 witnessCHRIST HYMN
Because in addition to walking and preaching and teaching over thousands of miles all for the love of God and God’s love of all people, Paul also repeatedly went to jail for that very work. That’s where he is as he writes this letter to the emerging church in Philippi.

While jailed, Paul was visited by Epaphroditus, who delivered gifts from the Philippians. This letter serves as a thank you note for that support, and offers furthers guidance for persevering in their faith, even when there are struggles and struggles in their church. That guidance, that guide, is the vision of God in Christ expressed in verses 5–11, which you see offset in your bulletin today.

Known as the Christ Hymn, the words are not Paul’s, but most likely by another, otherwise unknown author and were probably sung by Paul and the Philippians in worship, maybe as part of the rite of baptism.1 The hymn teaches the singers to share in the mind of Christ: Be humble, take risks, give thanks to God.

What a comfort that must have been to Paul. What a comfort, even as a newcomer to a brand-new expression of faith, to have those lines to present in his mind. Not only memorized, but tattooed on his heart, just like those Koranic verses were for Omar ibn Said, so that their meaning could be useful in a time of trial.

OUR HEARTS
What do you think you have tattooed on your hearts?

What holy, weathered, and well-loved words would sustain us should we find ourselves suddenly captive, like Omar, or predictably jailed, like Paul?

I imagine many of us know the Lord’s Prayer by heart. And the more I pray it, the more layers and life I find within each word, as it moves from giving praise, to naming the goal, to asking for sustenance, to confessing brokenness, to requesting protection, and to a conclusion of joyous surrender.

I know

Love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might and your neighbor as yourself.

and

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.

and snippets from psalms Mary’s Magnificat and the Beatitudes and Genesis.

I have a lot of refrains from hymns to draw on; I’ll spare you those recitations.

But what if I prayed fives times each day, no matter what, like Omar ibn Said did two hundred years ago and billions of Muslims do to this day?

In 2018 I’ve taken on the discipline of praying the divine hours, also known as the divine office. It’s a Christian practice of fixed 2018.5.13 lords prayerhour prayers that go from the time of rising through bedtime: lauds, midday, vespers, and compline. Each hour’s prayer can take as little as five minutes, but the inertia of habits and the easy distractions of measurable outcomes and laundry can be a struggle to overcome.

JUST DO IT
Then I learn about Omar ibn Said and I hear Paul’s continued instruction from prison:

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for (God’s) good pleasure.

Yes, Philippians, yes, Amesians, faith work is hard and faith community is hard, but do the work of faith anyway. Don’t make excuses or be seduced by false comforts. Learn to pray, be in worship, commit to community.

Do the work of faith for you do not do so alone or only for yourself. There is no solitary prayer, or baptism, or communion.

The moment we open our mouths or our hands, we are not speaking or working only for or with ourselves but with the voice of the whirlwind, the hands that carried babies out of slavery, the centuries of disciples whose witness has proven just how weak the forces of nonbeing really are.

Even though on the run, the words of his faith allowed Omar to rest within the holy collective. Even while in jail, the the words of his faith allowed Paul to step into divine freedom.

That’s what I want for all of us.

That’s what God offers all of us: the way out of no way, the language that names the vision that offers the tools that opens the plantation gates and the jail doors and the shackles of violence, division, and distrust that both bind and divide us at this very moment.

2918.5.13 whirlwindBE READY
In our racist society it is unlikely that many of us here today will be trapped in a jail cell simply for the color of our skin though we could easily be because of how the content of our scripture compels us to fight that racism.

So like Omar ibn Said and Paul, if you haven’t already, find the words of faith that most stir and comfort and energize you. Don’t just memorize them but study them, interrogate them, ask yourself and God why they move you so. Know your own witness. And if you have done all those things already, teach us how and what you have gained from doing so.

Let each of us have the words of our faith at the ready so that even when we are fleeing, we remain grounded, and even when our language cannot be understood, our very ability to use it renders our captors agog.2918.5.13 sell out

And let us never again use our Christian language, the language of Christ, to sell or to sell out other people, but to ever and only bear witness to freedom, peace, righteousness and God’s love for all people.

AMEN

1Coogan, Michael, ed. 2001. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Luke 11.2–4: Ask God for the Word

lordsprayerDelivered at Ames UCC
on September 4, 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.

WORDS, WORDS, WORDS
A few years ago I was in the art gallery at a retirement community for pastors, missionaries, theological professors, and other religious workers. I came up to a silkscreen in black on an off-white background. It was of a male preacher at a pulpit. His mouth was open, hands holding onto the pulpit, and all around him was “WORDS WORDS WORDS.” Meaning, the word WORDS was scattered all over. I took it to mean there was no substance to his preaching, just blathering, empty words.

I about busted a gut laughing when I saw it because, first of all, preachers really need to not take themselves too seriously. And, second, because I could relate so well. As anyone who has been around me when I’m trying to find my way through a sermon can tell you, on being asked what the topic is, I will often say, “I don’t know! Blah, blah, blah, Jesus, blah!”

In other words, “I cannot find the words to share and explain what this passage seems to be saying about God and us.” I know there is truth in Jesus, but words often fail in expressing that truth.

Yet how often do we Christians find ourselves clinging to specific words? Take the Lord’s Prayer, for example: Is it “forgive us our sins” or “forgive us our debts” or “forgive us our trespasses”? How many of us, when in a space that uses a different version than we are accustomed to, still pray our preferred version?

And which one is the right one? Which one did Jesus really say and mean?

MATTHEW AND LUKE
Well, as often happens in our sacred collection, there are two versions of this prayer in the Bible, one in Matthew and one in Luke.
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Matthew 6.1–13: Our Debts

disinheritedDelivered at Brookside Park in Ames
on August 14, 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.

Each summer the members of Ames UCC, First Christian Church, and First Baptist Church all gather at Brookside Park for a joint worship service. The three pastors choose a piece of scripture then divide it into thirds for preaching. We do not coordinate our messages or theme, but trust that God will guide us. Below is my offering on the last third of the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6.11–13) from Sunday, August 14, 2016.

Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.

I’ve been reading Howard Thurman a lot lately. If you’re not familiar with him, Thurman was a 20th century African American pastor, theologian, preacher, writer, and mystic. His Meditations of the Heart is manna for the starved soul. His Jesus and the Disinherited is strength for the oppressed.

At the beginning of the latter he poses a question, a question put to him by a fellow person of color, who asks how Christianity can be the religion of those with their backs against the wall. How can the religion of the conqueror and the colonialist and the keeper of human chattel be the religion of those who suffered the most under each of those systems? Thurman’s questioner concluded, “…sir, I think you are a traitor to the darker peoples of the earth” (p. 5).
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