Are We Ready? Matthew 5.1–20

Delivered at Ames UCC on January 27, 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.

2019.1.27 blessingNOT THE AUDIENCE
We are not the intended audience for this teaching.

Known as the Sermon on the Mount and The Beatitudes, it is one of the most reproduced portions of scripture but it was not originally intended for us, or for any but a very few.

I mentioned last week that the gospel of Matthew is clearly intended for a Jewish audience. Christianity was not fully independent of Judaism until a few centuries after Jesus’s ministry, murder, and mystery. So this gospel is speaking to fellow Jewish people that Matthew and the Matthean community wanted to bring along to their new understanding of Way. We 21st-century Christians have to keep that in mind throughout our study of this gospel.

But the audience for the Sermon on the Mount, the original oral one, was even smaller.

After his baptism and after his wilderness vision quest, Jesus calls Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John as disciples. Together, they travel all over Syria and Judea, with Jesus sharing the good news of God’s present kin-dom, and healing the sick. He becomes very popular and draws great crowds.

When Jesus sees the crowds, chapter 5 begins, he retreats to a mountain, alone. He is later joined by the disciples. Not all 12 of them: not even the Matthew for whom this gospel is named is a disciple yet. So what we hear and read today is a written account of a private teaching between Jesus and a handful of specific people that he had drawn to himself. Why?

WHY?
Why does Jesus keep this to only a few? It is a fantastic sermon.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit…

“Blessed are those who mourn…

“Blessed are the meek…

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…

“Blessed are the merciful…

“Blessed are the pure in heart…

“Blessed are the peacemakers…

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…

“Blessed are you when people revile you…

That’s revival-level preaching, a real barn-burning, show-stopper. So why did Jesus keep it just to the first few disciples?

Well, secret or semiprivate teachings like this are not so unusual in our tradition. In the gospel of John, for example, after Mary Magdalene has found the empty tomb, it says that

Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. (20.30)

That used to make me nuts. Why didn’t someone write them down? Argh!

It isn’t until recently that I’ve come to appreciate the answer to my question: because maybe not everyone is ready. Because there is a stream of Christianity, perhaps better illustrated outside of the primary, canonical gospels, that stresses preparedness for Christ’s deeper truths.

Let’s take, for instance, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.

GOSPEL OF MARY MAGDALENE
In the canonical gospels, we learn that Mary was healed by Jesus of seven demons, a number that indicates she is perfectly healed. She then supported him on his travels. She was at his cross and his burial and then at the empty tomb. She then became the disciple to the disciples, sharing with them the good news of Easter morning. Mary Magdalene is the second most-referenced woman in the gospels after Mary the mother of Jesus.

Mary Magdalene’s gospel was written down in the second century, though it likely circulated from the time of Christ until the early 300s. It is unclear whether the Magdalene’s gospel was then suppressed or simply fell out of popularity and no one taught or copied it any longer. In the era when Mary’s gospel was active, written accounts of Christ were only supplements to the real space of learning: the dialogue between teacher and student. That relationship was paramount, essential because of the intimacy involved and the active participation it required.

In Mary’s gospel follows that model, with the risen Christ appearing to only Mary and the male disciples. When he leaves, the male disciples panic because they are afraid that if they follow Jesus’s teaching, they will get killed like he did. Mary reassures them by sharing a private encounter she alone had with the risen Christ. It begins with the Christ saying

Blessed are you that you did not waver at the sight of Me. (7.9)

There is a pattern, then, within both the canonical and the extra-Biblical accounts of Jesus Christ passing on teachings to only a few or even one. The implication is that not everyone can stand, unwavering, in their encounter with holiness. Not everyone is read for the lessons that holiness has to teach.

UNWAVERING
Are we? Are we ready to hear that the poor and the meek and the peacemakers are a blessing?

Remember the definition of blessings that I offered last September: conduits of holiness that can open the receiver of the blessing to the hope and help of God.1 That’s from United Methodist pastor Jan Richardson. Author, philosopher, and former priest John O’Donohue adds that we get the word blessing from an older word that means “to sanctify with blood.” Blessings, the seemingly abstract, he writes, are really as earthy as the blood that pumps through our hearts.2

Taken together, blessings are embodied vessels to God.

What does it mean that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are embodied vessels to God? What does it mean that the persecuted and reviled are embodied vessels to God?

I am not sure how to answer those questions without sounding completely self-serving or self-righteous, in equal measures. Either I am calling someone who is mourning a special gift from God, which makes that person and their suffering an object for my own transformation, or I’m saying my desire for justice makes me a special gift from God, and I think we know the problem and risk there. What seems so simple, so beautiful at first pass proves to be complicated, puzzling at the second.

But Jesus thought the first four disciples were ready to receive it, unwavering. In abandoning their professions to follow Jesus, in their witness of his healings and teachings, Jesus found them ready for what the crowds were not.

And because we are reading it today, they must have disagreed with him. They and those who followed must have decided the Beatitudes were worth sharing even with the unprepared, even with the wavering.

BECOME THE AUDIENCE
I thank God for that decision.

As recent years have shown, we can be pretty poor storytellers on our own. On our own we can tell a pretty bad story about the poor, the meek, the peacemaker. So even if we understand the Sermon on the Mount’s meaning but through a glass dimly, it tells a far more hopeful and redeeming story about our life together than we can on our own.

And so we will keep studying it. We will keep making ourselves the audience.

As the membership anniversaries we just celebrated, and the new membership promises we will give and receive in a few minutes show, we want to follow the examples of Mary Magdalene and the male disciples. We want to seek out the divine, to sit at the feet of holiness, sometimes alone, and sometimes with the growing crowd of this dear church.

Even if we are not ourselves merciful or pure in heart, we want to be.

In a world riven by destructive humanity, our steadfast, unwavering attention to this teaching may allow us to become a blessing, to become embodied vessels for our creative God.

AMEN

1Richardson, Jan. 2015. Circle of grace. Orlando, FL: Wanton Gospeller Press, pp. xiv–xv.
2O’Donohue, John. 2008. Bless the space between us. New York, NY: Doubleday, p 119.

Bury the Cross: John 20.1–18

2018.4.1 JulianDelivered at Ames UCC on
Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard, rather than read. Please join us for worship on Sunday mornings
at 10:30 a.m.

ICONOGRAPHY
This year, to celebrate the ever-rising Christ, we have buried his cross.

In the earliest days of the Christian movement, death was a real possibility for followers of the Way because they refused to participate in the religion of the state. So, in order to find each other, and reduce the risk of being caught they communicated through code: symbols for bread, fish, and butterflies.

The bread and the fish stood for Jesus’s miracles of feeding and for the feeding of each other that was such an important element in the early days.

The butterfly was, of course, for the resurrection. It’s a perfect symbol for the story it tells: Butterflies undergo a profound transformation in their chrysalis phase. When it is done, they are no longer bound by the same rules that governed their bodies before.

The cross didn’t come into common use until much later, until the persecuting state adopted the religion but needed a theology to justify the pain they continued to inflict. See how your God suffered? You should, too.

There are examples, though, even in those thousand years when a crucifix was the only symbol in use, of the faithful experiencing the feeding and the freedom found on either side of its splinters and pain.

JULIAN OF NORWICH1
During Wednesdays this Lent we studied the work of a woman called Julian of Norwich. We don’t know her actual name because when she had last rites and was sealed into a small cell attached to St. Julian’s church in Norwich, England, in the 14th century, she gave up her worldly identity.
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Be Present with Mary: Luke 1.46–55 and John 19.16–30

2018 Good FridayPartial order of worship and full homily for Good Friday,
March 30, 2018
at Ames United Church of Christ.

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

LITANY
One:    Judas, slave of jealousy, where are you?
Many: I am here.

One:    Peter, slave of fear, where are you?
Many: I am here.

One:    Pilate, slave of Empire, where are you?
Many: I am here.

One:    The story of the execution of Jesus is the story of our own weakness and shortcomings, as people who have missed the mark on justice and so have alienated ourselves from God and neighbor. So tonight as we sit at the foot of the cross, we seek the ones who remained, who did not falter in devotion or love.

One:    Mary, mother of Jesus, where are you?
Many: I am here.

GOSPEL: Luke 1.46–55: The Magnificat

GOSPEL: John 19.16–30: The Crucifixion

LITANY
One:    Mary,
Many: is this your son Jesus hanging on the cross?

One:    Mary,
Many: does your soul still magnify the Lord?

One:    Mary,
Many: does your spirit yet rejoice in God?

One:    Mary,
Many: where is God’s favor now?

One:    Mary,
Many: how can we call you blessed when surely you are deserted?

One:    Mary,
Many: is God’s mercy gone?

One:    Mary,
Many: tonight the powerful are comfortable and laughing while the weak are tear-soaked and frightened.

One:    Mary,
Many: tonight your child is dead.

HOMILY: Be Present with Mary

No Gospel
I wish we had a Gospel of Mary. There’s a Gospel of Mary Magdalene, which several of us studied last fall. In it, Mary Magdalene continues to be the apostle to all other apostles. Just as she is the first to receive the good news of the empty tomb, she is the first to receive ongoing, secret teachings from the resurrected Jesus. He tells her not to listen to anyone but him, do not trust those men who would make new rules about him, and be fearless.

But we hear nothing from Mary, the Mother of Jesus, after his death. In fact, this account of her standing at Jesus’s cross is the only mention of her in John’s gospel at all, and you may have noticed that she doesn’t even get a name. Mother Mary doesn’t fare much better in the others, either: She is merely mentioned in Mark as one woman among many. In Matthew, Mary is a problem that Joseph has to solve.

It is only Luke that privileges Mary, yet even then she is not a whole person unto herself. If you remember the birth narrative, we hear all about how Mary’s cousin Elizabeth has been married for years and has begged God to get pregnant. Mary, not married at all, gets pregnant without even knowing it. Mary may be a willing participant in that miracle, but she didn’t petition to be one.

Mary is an enigma often sidelined and, when not, she is a vessel without agency.

Surely that vessel broke at the sight we hear described tonight.
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Listen to Lady Wisdom: John 18.12–27

2018.3.4 Lady WisdomDelivered at Ames UCC
on March 4, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard, rather than read.
Please join us for worship
on Sunday mornings at 10:30 a.m.

ORDER
Women are Biblical gatekeepers.

Women are, in at least three significant moments in the Bible, at gateways to understanding and revelation deemed essential for a life of faith.

But before I get to that, I want to spend a moment on the order of our readings this Lenten season. Look at the cover of your bulletin, if you would: you will see an image representing each of the different stories. We started with the resurrection of Lazarus, one of John’s most beautifully crafted Easter foreshadows, to Jesus washing the disciples’ feet at Passover, to today’s combination of the preliminary trial of Jesus and denial by Peter.

For the next two weeks we will watch Jesus engage with Pilate, the governor of the occupying Roman force. Then we will double back in time to the Palm Sunday protest that triggered that arrest and confrontation in the first place, before entering into Holy Week proper.

We are giving much more time than we often do to the crisis that resulted in the mystery at the core of our faith tradition. This year we are lingering in raw conversations—that had devastating conclusions—because we want to learn from them rather than pretend we will never have such trials and tribulations in our own lives.

WISDOM
The Hebrew Bible book of Proverbs wants to help up in that learning.

Proverbs is a “daily righteousness guide,” my rabbi taught, in the form of advice from a father to a son. But the foundation for this masculine instruction is a woman at a gate:

Wisdom cries aloud in the streets,
Raises her voice in the squares.
At the head of the busy streets she calls;
At the entrance of the gates, in the city she speaks out…(1.20–21, JPS)

And what does she say?
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All Times Alleluia: Jeremiah 29.1, 4–14


2017.11.19 alleluia
Delivered at Ames UCC
on November 19, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard, rather than read. Please join us for worship on Sunday mornings
at 10:30 a.m.

ALLELUIAS
Holding hands and having small group conversations in worship, spontaneous baptisms: I know the last few weeks at church have been a little different, but seeing Easter banners up in November may feel like the last straw. When will the liturgical heterodoxy end??

Today is the last Sunday of Ordinary Time.  It is known as Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. The idea is that before we begin the four weeks of preparation for Jesus’ birth and resurrection—Advent—we remind ourselves of the outcome of that birth and resurrection: the eternal presence of Jesus Christ in our lives and this world. The good news that justice and righteousness cannot be killed is always cause to ring out alleluias and proclaim “He Is Risen” as loudly as on Easter morn.

But our scripture today has no mention of Jesus. Instead, it is all about God and Jeremiah.

JEREMIAH
Jeremiah was a prophet of God in the Hebrew kingdom of Judah through the fall of that nation and God’s temple, to the Babylonians, about 600 years before Christ.

For forty years Jeremiah warned his people that their failure to live in covenant, that their ingratitude to God and their material greed, would be their downfall. Because they did not bind themselves to each other in mutual love, they would be torn apart by colonial power.

Jeremiah’s is a long book. It is hard to read because of graphic violence and consuming anger. It is hard to read because God does not prevent the downfall of God’s own people, but leaves those people to suffer the consequences of empty rituals, shallow prayers, and passive faith.

The powerful and affluent of the nation are deported to further reaches of the empire. The poor and the powerless are left in place, under the control of the empire. The End.

In Jeremiah there is no redemption, there is no reunion. The promised land is lost, along with a great deal of life.

STEADY ON
God does not cut off relations, though.

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God’s Power: Luke 24.1–12

2017.4.16 lifeDelivered at Ames UCC
on April 16, 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.

GOD’S POWER
What is the power of God?

In our scripture last week, and throughout his public ministry, Jesus rejected the understanding of God’s power that he saw most people practicing.

He goes into the temple: Stop selling doves, stop killing, he screams. God does not want your sacrifices. Did we not learn from our many, long years in the wilderness with Moses that using intermediaries between us and God just drives us further east of Eden, not closer to it? Did God not bring Abraham back from the brink of infanticide with the hopes of, once and for all, getting us to hear that sacrifices are never pleasing?

God is not greedy for gifts! Holiness is not an exchange commodity.

But then Jesus dies. He dies as so many men and women have died: at the hands of a state that just needs someone to point a finger at in order to justify their show of force. It is the state that loves a sacrifice. It is the state—which is just a group of humans—that lusts for gifts, especially those that will devastate other humans into submission. Humans, not God, want a sacrifice.

ORTHODOXY AND ACCESS
I know that is contrary to the most recent thousand years of Christian orthodoxy. But in the first thousand years, the notion that God needed Jesus to die as a sacrifice was not so prevalent as it is now. There is no evidence, in a Christian church before the tenth century, of Jesus on a cross.

What mattered in the earliest days—and what continued to get followers of Jesus in trouble with the state—were the practices of feeding and tending to each other without regard for social hierarchies. Just as in the time before his death, in the decades immediately after, the good news continued to be about egalitarianism and God’s love for everybody and every body, not just priests or kings who claimed special access.

Everything in Jesus’ life was about total access: Children, you have access; women, you have access; the sick and disabled, you have access; foreigners, you have access. Access to God is in the radical generosity of feeding and the radical relationality of healing.

But then what do we do with Holy Week? If Jesus had such great access to God through his walking, talking, eating, feeding, resting, and resisting but still died, what is the power of God? Couldn’t the later theologians have simply heard God still speaking, as we profess happens, and figured out that, while God may not have wanted the sacrifices of birds and cows, God somehow wanted one of Jesus?
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