“I Was Baptized, Too”: Matthew 3.1–17

Delivered at Ames UCC on October 18, 2015
©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.

2019.1.13 baptismBAPTIZED, TOO
About twenty years ago, when I was still rightfully very angry at the church for its homophobia, sexism, racism, and failure to live the gospels—for its humanity—I found an interesting group working to change some of that. It was affiliated with a tradition other than the UCC, one that at that time had not acknowledged the full humanity of queer people and so did not allow us queer people to serve as priests or to wed. But this group was working to educate the church, to do the tedious and emotionally taxing education required to help fellow children of God understand that we are not a birth defect, an aberration, nor an abomination. One of their slogans was “I was baptized, too.”

At the time it took the wind out of me. Yeah! I was baptized, too! On December 23, 1973 at Bethany Lutheran Church in Webster Groves, Missouri, my sister, grandfather, mother, father, and godparents presented me to the church. They made promises on my behalf and for themselves. An ordained pastor three times put water on my head, reciting the phrase of centuries: I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He wiped off my brow with this cloth.

I was baptized, too. Whatever the haters and lawmakers, be they canonical or civil, said about me, I had been in the same river as Jesus, witnessed and washed. To point this out to other Christians was to call them out on the partiality and prejudice they were practicing, in direct contrast to God. In direct contrast to God at Jesus’s own baptism.

At the end of today’s passage, we heard:

“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

This single sentence is among the Bible’s most powerful testimonies to God’s radical love of all people and God’s expectation that we practice the same.

GENEAOLOGY
Why is that?

Of course, God is pleased with Jesus. He’s Jesus. There’s nothing radical there. There’s no lesson about bigotry in God’s public declaration of love for Jesus at his baptism.

Yes, there is.

Two weeks ago, on the Sunday after Christmas, the scripture was Matthew’s opening chapter. That chapter consists of 24 verses of ancestors, from Abraham to King David to Joseph, whom Matthew’s gospel attends to more than Mary.

But Mary is there, too. Mary, the unmarried young woman, a socially suspect figure. So are several other kinds of shady characters: In addition to Abraham, who tried to do an end run on God’s promise by abusing a slave to get a child, and King David, who had a man killed in order to fulfill his lust for that man’s wife, there is Jacob, Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth.

Jacob stole his brother’s birth right through a disguise and lies.

Tamar posed as a prostitute to trick her father-in-law into sex so that she could force him into fulfilling his obligations to her as a widow of his sons.

Rahab was a prostitute, a sex worker not of the ancient Israelite faith, who nonetheless protected Israelite spies from harm.

And Ruth, of course, seduced a drunk man so that he would honor his obligations as a kinsman-redeemer to her mother-in-law Naomi.

In other words, Jesus’s lineage is not pure. It includes the honored patriarchs, sure, but not even they are squeaky clean. And as if to reinforce the point, the book of Matthew includes desperate women made desperate who used their minds and their bodies to secure a future for themselves and their families. And, if there is any factual truth to the stories, it is the future of Jesus.

Jesus’s story does not become any less human as it continues. After the genealogy of Jesus and his birth, Matthew tells us that Joseph is instructed by an angel to flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s infanticidal response to the journey of the magi. After Herod is dead, and Joseph has two more dreams, the family settles in Nazareth. It is decades later, then, that John the Baptizer appears at the Jordan, as we heard today.

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Christmas Day 2018: Masterful Mary

2018 Xmas dayDelivered at Ames UCC

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

PONDERED
Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

Very little about Christmas, now, is about pondering. We make spaces look like treasures with lights and ornaments and wrapping. But that does not mean we gild the story through contemplation in our hearts.

Yet we hear that Mary does—the person closest to the Christmas mystery, does.

Mary’s body is sore, her bed far away, her visitors strange—she retreats from the tumult and excitement into her heart. She does not demand special treatment for all that she has done. Instead, she wordlessly and privately takes herself to the space of God.

SPACE OF GOD
Each of us has a space of God.

I sometimes call it heart, sometime call it soul. I feel it in my chest, but you might feel it differently.

It is a place in our body-lives much bombarded by noise and news, as well as our own minds. Around the space of God races hymn lyrics, conversations from the day, conversations we anticipate, to-do lists, anxiety, doubt, anger.

It is easily forgotten in the blur of hours. Yet it is still there. All we need to do to access it is to sit, to settle, and to consent to the presence of the divine.

Far easier said than done.

But Mary must have been a master of it. Mary must have been a master of accessing her space of God. Maybe in her prayer, in a meditative and otherwise wordless silence, she flicked away those racers with a phrase like “no, no” or “breathe” or “just this.”

Just this, as in just this space, just this time. Not a thing more matters or needs doing.

How else could she have kept from collapsing into tears and fears?

CONSIDER
Consider what she went through:

  • Mary, you are pregnant and unmarried.
  • Mary, I am going to have to set you aside. No, wait, I will do the right thing.
  • Mary, we have to travel. The governor does not care about your pregnancy.
  • Mary, this barn will have to be your bed and your birthing suite.
  • Mary, angels came to us in the field and said your child is an anointed one.

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Christmas Eve 2018: Original Blessing

2018 xmas no sinDelivered at Ames UCC

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

YOU
Although I am supposed to speak about Jesus tonight, what I really want to do is speak about you.

Not because the story of the birth of Jesus is unimportant, but because the story is also about how you are important.

This story of census and unplanned pregnancy and doing the right thing and giving birth and angels and herdsmen is an offer of faith from long ago to you this night, an offering about holiness for you.

An offering about the little bit of holiness within you.

ORIGINAL SIN
This may feel surprising to some of you, even uncomfortable, the notion that you—we—are not only observers of the story, caretakers of its sacred heart, but a small revelation of that heart, too.

That’s probably because most of us here have a pretty poor assessment of humanity. There is no shortage of evidence that we humans are bad. Bad at our care of ourselves, each other, creation. And if we didn’t feel that already, the public square is full of messages about our badness: too fat, too poor, to black, too foreign. Bad.

And then some of us came up in churches that taught about our badness. Some churches teach that humans are born into sin, and “original sin” that has been bequeathed to every single person born in the world by ancestors ancient and fallible.

But there is another perspective. There is another view from which we may assess ourselves, each other, and creation, a way ancient and faithful to our God of humble births. It is the Celtic Christian notion of “original blessing.”

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Wombs of Women: Ruth 4

Delivered at Ames UCC on August 12, 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, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

THE TRICK
2018.8.12 wombs Remember how Ruth used sex to trap Boaz into marrying her and redeeming Naomi’s land? The next day we see Boaz trick a kinsman, referred to either jokingly or pejoratively as So-and-So, into giving up his claim to the role of redeemer-kinsman.

Recall that being a kinsman-redeemer is an opportunity to demonstrate God’s preferences for manna and mercy over money and might. There is no profit in buying Naomi’s land because Naomi will continue to work it for her own benefit and buy it back one day. Yet the opportunity to honor covenant living is powerful enough that it will take a little doing to get it away from Mr. So-and-So.

So Boaz tells a lie: If you serve as redeemer you also have to marry Ruth.

No, he doesn’t.

The only marital law regarding widows is, as I described last week, between brothers. Mr. So-and-So is not a son of Naomi or a brother-in-law to Ruth. Nonetheless, Mr. So-and-So is duped (or possibly glad to be shut of the kinsman-redeemer burden).

And so, after a little sandal removal, the honor of being a kinsman redeemer is Boaz’s. And the sacrifice of being husband to Ruth is, as well. For when Boaz and Ruth have a son, it will count as son to her late husband.

THE WOMEN
No wonder the townspeople then begin to celebrate: Look at the good and godly choice Boaz has made. They cry out,

May the Lord make Ruth like Rachel and Leah,
may your house be like that of Tamar!

Wait, what? What kinds of blessings are these? Who would want to live like Rachel and Leah and Tamar? Are they actually offering a curse?
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Listen for Redemption: 1 John 4.1–6

2018.7.8 right nowDelivered at First Christian Church
on July 8, 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 (except in July and August when things change up, so please check the calendar here).

FAKE NEWS
The temptation to preach about fake news, in response to this scripture, is real.

Twenty years ago, I was at the University of Illinois teaching students about online sources and how to vet them for reliability and accuracy. Surely, I thought, people would understand that just because anyone can publish online does not mean that they should or that their content could be trusted. You know how that has gone.

But I’m pretty sick of the Internet and fake news. I want to give my attention to God. I want to understand how we can vet the voices that say they speak for God.

1 JOHN
For our authors of 1 John, the test is clear: If a spirit, or a person speaking for Spirit, will affirm the relationship between God and Christ, and that Jesus was fully divine and fully human, then the spirit or the speaker is trustworthy.

Yet authenticity of spirits and speakers is not their only concern. It is the timing of the spirits and speakers, good or bad, that is also an issue:

…every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world.

It seems this community has been warned that spirits that are anti-Christ are coming and may in fact have already arrived. Which means that Jesus will be back soon, too.

For this Johannine community, which existed about 80 years after Jesus’s death and Easter mystery, the return of the Christ is imminent. They are experiencing the intense pressure of a very short time frame to get ready and show themselves worthy for a total and final encounter between the power of God and the powers of nonbeing. As chapter two reads, “Children, it is the last hour” (2.18).

The stakes, for assessing whether a spirit or speaker is of God or not, are quite high, then: If at any moment, quite soon, Christ will be revealed again they cannot not risk having been lead astray for a single moment.

PENTECOST
In my experience of the United Church of Christ, we don’t talk that much about spirits or the Spirit. Some strains of the UCC and some congregations do, just not the churches I have been a member of or served, probably because they have been majority white and come out of our Congregationalist stream.

The regular exception is Pentecost.
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Get in the Long Line: Exodus 20.12–17

2018.6.10 trustDelivered at Ames UCC
on June 10, 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 (except in July and August when things change up, so please check the calendar here).

UNEASY
Since it is June and we are six months away from it, I think that I can say, without ruining anyone’s holiday, that Christmas makes me uneasy.

As you may be picking up, I’m using these first weeks of Ordinary Time to go a little more deeply into the other holidays and seasons of our tradition and how they create a bridge between us and our ancestors and our successors and God. So last week we had Advent; today we have Christmas.

And Christmas makes me uneasy.

Christmas makes me uneasy because it has become so divorced from church. Christmas’s disconnect from worship and communities of practice, its embedding in the marketplace, into product development and advertising’s manufacture of desire, makes me uneasy because I fear that there is no way to bring it back home to us.

Home has become part of the problem, too.

In the Christmas story, a king sends a pregnant woman on a journey. Now, marketing tells us that if we do not journey in December, if we do not have a family to reunite with in some idyllic home, we are not really part of the story at all.

Christmas makes me uneasy because, having become so untethered and coopted, complex theologies, weak theologies, and theologies that bear false witness to God are promoted and promulgated without thought to their consequences or resources for their understanding or debunking.

How many people have had their depression deepen in December because they cannot afford to participate in the holiday, in financial or familial terms? How many people have lost the opportunity to understand the hope of Christmas because they have no ground for interpreting virgin births and guiding stars and blaring angels?

Christmas makes me uneasy because the marketing and the pressure and the shallowness so distort its ancient truths and eternally relevant gifts.

BONHOEFFER
Over the last eighteen months, since just before Christmas 2016, I’ve been doing a few things to draw more deeply on our tradition’s ancient truths and eternally relevant gifts: intensifying my prayer practices; returning to the faith leaders of oppressed people through black liberation theology, womanist theology, and liberation theology; and to the faith leaders of oppressed people who have not only metaphorically staked their lives on these stories, but those who have done so quite literally, too. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
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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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The Gospel isn’t Always in the Bible: John 11.1–44

2018.2.19 trifledDelivered at Ames UCC on February 18, 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.

VIDEO AND IMAGE
How many of you watched the cell-phone footage from the high school students in Parkland, FL, last week? Here’s what one of the teens who recorded them said:

I recorded those videos because I didn’t know if I was going to survive…But I knew that if those videos survived, they would echo on and tell the story. And that story would be one that would change things, I hoped. And that would be my legacy.1

Did any of you see the photo of the woman at the scene with an Ash Wednesday cross on her forehead?

It was actually a photo of two women and the caption said they were parents waiting outside Parkland’s Douglas High School. One woman is blonde, the other red-headed. The red-head is in the arms of the blonde, her mouth open and her eyes closed, her face pressed against her friend’s chest. The mouth of the blonde woman is pulled tight in a grimace, her eyes barely open. It is her forehead that is marked with an ashen cross.

Her forehead is marked with the same ashen cross so many of us received on Wednesday, too. Earlier on the same day that her child died or was at risk of death, she received the cross of Christ mixed with the oil of Psalm 23, and heard the words “ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.”

Unlike the teenager with the cell phone video—whose comments are such an indictment of the world we have allowed him to grow up in—we do not know the mom’s motivation for receiving the cross of ash that day. Nor do we know how it is speaking to her now.

I wish we did. I wish I could know how her faith is serving her today. How did it feel when she saw that cross in a mirror later in the day? Has that ritual provided comfort? Has it become a hollow lie? What function does a ritual reminder of mortality serve when every day gives us opportunity to witness actual mortality? And sometimes really gruesome and preventable mortality?
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Powerful Teachers: John 4.1–425

2018.2.4 wellDelivered at Ames UCC
on February 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.

PARCHED PEOPLE
How thirsty are you? How thirsty are you this morning? How dry do the tongue of your hearth and lips of your soul get?

I meet with a lot of parched people each week. I see faces dried out by illness and hold hands rough with wear and cold. I hear voices that rasp and squeak as though the struggle to be heard in a world such as ours has made vocal chords rough as sandpaper. I see shoulders held high, as taught with stress as the dried gut of a stringed instrument.

Maybe you would put yourself among them.

Parched for a decent meal, parched for 30 minutes of quiet, parched for a thank you from a boss, parched for a day without a commute, parched for a parent’s or spouse’s health to stabilize, parched for a good prognosis for yourself, parched for a teenager to stop yelling, parched from being a teenager who needs to be heard, parched for just one moment of real hope and certain love.

Some of those thirsts can be quenched, to an extent.  But most are chronic thirsts born of the necessities of earning a wage, the risk of loving people, and the inevitabilities of hormones and aging.

Dehydration is a symptom of human life.

Our tradition does not shy from that truth. Discipleship to God in Christ does not include false promises about what our daily lives or eventual deaths will be like.
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Servants of Love Incarnate: John 2.1–11


2018.1.14 non being
Delivered at Ames UCC
on January 14, 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.

JOHN IS DIFFERENT
If John’s gospel were the only one we knew, if we studied it and dedicated our lives to it, then read Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we would be shocked. It’s all lies, we would think! That’s not the truth about Jesus! Likewise, if we had only ever studied the synoptic gospels, synoptic meaning same, we would be baffled by John. It is that different.

John’s gospel does have Jesus traveling and teaching, he does endure trial, death, and resurrection. But John’s chronology is different than in the other three. There is no Eucharist, no Last Supper, in John. Jesus shows no concern for the Kingdom of God in John, only for his own special identity. Jesus talks more in John’s gospel than in the synoptic gospels, with great long dialogues, but never in all of that does he share any parables, those stories of mustard seeds and buried treasure.

And John is the most anti-Semitic of all the gospels. Maybe not universally so, maybe not condemning of all of Judaism, only of specific strains or communities of Judaism at the time. But I am guessing that not many 21st century Christians are all that familiar with the differences between contemporary streams in Judaism, let alone those of the ancient near east, so reading the subtleties of critique in John can be dangerously misleading.

I decided, as a result of that, and this era’s resurgence of overt hatred of and aggression toward people who are Jewish, to modify our readings of John to avoid easy misunderstandings and make clear where we are as a church. Rather than “the Jews” it will read as “the authorities” or whatever the appropriate target of Jesus’ concern may be.

But the difference I really want to focus on today is an omission in John at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and the inclusion of the story today.
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