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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God’s Unending Story: 2 Kings 22.1–10, 23.1–3

open ended storyDelivered at Ames UCC on November 29, 2015
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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ADVENT
Advent: A new year has begun. Advent: a season of anticipation and preparation. Advent: a reckoning with revelation. Advent: a searching look beyond Easter’s tomb.

Despite what marketers and even our own wishes would tell us, Advent is not a preparation for Christmas. Advent is a preparation for Christ’s coming after the birth, after the baptism, after the miracles, after the revolt, after the execution, and after the resurrection. In Advent we lay the groundwork so that each of our discrete scriptural encounters with Jesus between Christmas and Easter remain within the cosmic context of God’s presence and love.

In Advent, we are reminded of the open-endedness of God’s story.

Which I think it somewhat hard for us. I don’t think human beings do so well with open-endedness, particularly as it relates to something we cannot easily see or feel against our skin, as with God.

JOSIAH
Let’s take Josiah for example. Josiah was another king of the southern nation of Judah. They had, fortunately, survived the Assyrians that Hosea and Isaiah worried about so much in our previous weeks’ readings.
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Infertility and Righteous Women: Genesis 18.1–15, 21.1–7

Infertility & the Company of Righteous WomenDelivered at Ames UCC on September 20, 2015
© The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
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VERY HARD
Sarah’s story can be among the very hardest for women who are struggling with fertility.

Pregnancy, for the majority of women, comes without much effort. Have sex with a fertile man at the right time of the month and, nine months later, you have a baby. But it is not that easy for all women. Not all women’s bodies are able to carry every pregnancy to term.

Current data from the National Institutes of Medicine show that 15–20% of women who know they are pregnant will lose that pregnancy. That’s a pretty large percentage, and one that begs the question of why the church has not yet developed good rituals for such losses.
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