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

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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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Christmas Eve 2017: Hubris, Humility, and a Dare

2107.12.24 even right nowDelivered at Ames UCC.

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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HUBRIS AND HUMILITY
Christmas is a story of hubris and humility. It is also the beginning of a dare.

The hubris is Rome’s. The Emperor, it says, wants a census of the whole world. Rome does not control the whole world, but clearly Augustus understands his holdings to be the entirety of the relevant world. This story describes how, by his desire and decree, Augustus inconveniences whole populations, regardless of circumstances.

It his hubris, that pride and out-of-proportion sense of self-worth, that put the lives of the vulnerable, including the pregnant, at risk.

But, humbly, a very pregnant Mary complies. Maybe also fearfully and resentfully, but humbly she and her husband Joseph do as they have been told.

And it is a mess. The baby comes before they can reach safe harbor. Rooms are filled. The pains are hard. A barn of some kind must do.

What must Mary have thought? When her pregnancy outside of marriage was announced by an angel, she sang for joy. She’s married now, but in the straw and dark, did she think the angel’s visit a lie, a trick by something other than the divine?

Once Jesus is delivered, Mary is quiet. She will receive unexpected guests who will confirm everything about her son that the angel had described, but she will not sing again. A woman given every cause to brag will instead simply “ponder…in her heart” (Luke 2.19b) all that has happened.

The contrast between Augustus and Mary is enough to feed a lifetime’s ponderings.

The man who thinks he controls the world and would boss everyone in it around on one hand. And on the other a woman, whose openness to holiness means that not even the world’s proprieties can control her. Just one more human who thinks he is entitled to more than other humans. And one rare human who is grateful to be asked to give and remains without boast when she delivers beauty. Augustus, who has made himself into a god, and Mary, who gives her every fiber over to God.

The contrast between hubris and humility never ceases to edify.

But there’s something more emerging in tonight’s story, something that takes breath and bawls with Jesus: the beginning of a dare.
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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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Faith is a Public Act: Luke 7.18–35

2017.2.12 mary christDelivered at Ames UCC
on February 12, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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JOHN AND JESUS
Take a look at the image on the cover of your bulletin today. It’s depicting the moment, in the gospel of Luke, in which Elizabeth and her cousin Mary meet. They are both pregnant, with John and Jesus. John moves in such a way that Elizabeth is able to acknowledge the blessing Mary will birth.

Given that moment, it may seem a little odd to have today’s back and forth between the adult Jesus and John, through John’s intermediaries. Why is John having his people ask Jesus if he is really “the one”? Didn’t he know from birth? What is the function of this dialogue?

BEING DEFINED
To answer the first, John may be having his disciples ask these questions, because John himself may be in jail. That’s where he is by this point in the story according to Matthew: caught up in Herod and Herodias’ sick power plays (Matthew 11.2–9). But not even prison will keep John from his role of heralding Jesus.

Jesus has an interesting response to his cousin’s questions. In the gospel of John (the disciple, not the Baptist), Jesus is very quick to say who he is and his role in Creation. But in the rest of the canonical gospels he is more opaque. Jesus doesn’t just say, “Yes, I am the one.”

Instead, he reveals his identity by confirming John’s. He does so through quoting the prophet Malachi 3.1a: “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me.” Jesus only describes who he is by naming who John is, the one who prepares the way. John is the one who prepares the way, therefore I am the one for whom the way is prepared.

Jesus is very careful in how he allows himself to be defined. Whatever the people have to say about Jesus, Jesus defines himself through the context of God’s unfolding story and in relation to God’s people, which we will eventually learn means all people.

This begs the question of how we define ourselves.

Certainly relationally. I am the daughter of, sister of, wife of, friend of, graduate of, pastor with. You have similar lists. But how do we define ourselves as people of faith, as a collective looking to God through Jesus Christ? I am the daughter of Kristine and Neil through no choice of my own, but who do I say that I am when I enter Ames UCC?
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No Right Answers: Luke 2.21–38

2017-1-1-not-rightDelivered at Ames UCC
on January 1, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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POETRY
I was a literature major in college. That meant I got read a whole lot of books that I loved. But I also had to take a class on poetry. I remember the day we talked about Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for death.” It felt like we spent an hour on the first stanza:

Because I could not stop for Death–
He kindly stopped for me–
The Carriage held but just Ourselves–
And Immortality.

Our professor kept asking what it meant. We kept saying, “She didn’t want to die. But death came anyway.” Which it does. But she kept at us: “What else? What else?” She seemed, to me, disproportionately excited to look for more meaning within those 20 words.

I know I passed the class, but I remember feeling dense and dimwitted throughout. Poetry confused me and I felt like I was never “getting it” or getting it “right.”

Twenty years later, I can say the experience of being Christian can feel the same. As people who are seeking the divine, in part through Christian scripture, we can also feel dense and wonder if we will ever get it “right” or know what our scripture “really means.”

TEMPLE PRESENTATION
Look at today’s portion from the gospel community of Luke, for example. It begins with Jesus being presented as an eight-day-old newborn to the temple in Jerusalem.

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

The passage implies that this presentation is a required religious purification ritual for the whole family. But it wasn’t. Ancient Judaism did not have any such requirement. Luke makes this false connection by pairing it with a quotation from God’s instruction to Moses in the wilderness in Exodus 13. Yes, God asked for first born sons to be dedicated to service to God, but that was never implemented as a formal religious purification ritual rule.1

Women did a forty day period between delivery and a ritual, which is detailed in Leviticus 12, but Mary is only a week out of the barn. And there was no requirement for the fathers of newborns.

Saying that it was time for “their” time for purification, meaning the whole family’s, is not historically accurate.

So what does that mean? What does the story mean as told and what does the discrepancy between story and history mean?
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Peace Hangs on One Word: Joel 2.12–13 and 28–29

2016-12-4-yesDelivered at Ames UCC
on December 4, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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A WORD
A few years ago a poet named Christian Wiman wrote a book called My Bright Abyss. It’s his story of living with cancer, knowing the divine, and rediscovering Christian community, which just happens to have been through a United Church of Christ congregation.

As a poet, it is not surprising that Wiman reflects on the language and kinds of storytelling we encounter in Christian scripture. He states that, “Christ speaks in stories as a way of preparing his followers to stake their lives on a story.” (p. 90) In other words, Wiman believes that the use of stories to talk about life is a way of training us to stake our lives on those stories themselves.

He’s right, of course, that when we choose a religious tradition, we are saying that we would like the stories and ritual and even architecture of that tradition to inform us and our lives. But are we really saying we will stake our lives on them? Are we saying that we will risk our lives as the stories often directly ask?

Take last week’s story about Daniel, for example. Daniel stayed true to his faith regardless of a law that was enacted to scare and entrap him. His integrity revealed how willing people are, in a grab for power, to criminalize others, to make other people out to be a threat.

It was a risk, though. Daniel literally risked his life for the God of the exodus, the God of freedom. Will we? Will we let these stories do more than just inform our lives but be what we stake our lives upon? For me, some days, the answer can rely on just one word.
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Easter Proof: Mark 16.1–8

unstoppableDelivered at Ames UCC
on March 27, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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NO JOY
Fear seems a pretty appropriate response to a grave that has been opened and is now occupied by a stranger. A stranger who lets you know that your most dearest one has walked off.

These women have been through so much already. They were the only ones who waited with Jesus. They were the only ones who tended his body and laid it to rest. When all of the other followers and the named disciples ran away, they continued to ally themselves with this loving, ornery, and seemingly god-forsaken man.

Then they returned to their community. They returned to the traditional Passover festival. If nothing else helps in the midst of grief, familiarity and habit can be soothing balms. But they could not stay away. Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of the disciple James the younger, and Salome the mother of the other James and his brother John know that Jesus’ body yet needs care.
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