I AM: Exodus 2.23–25, 3.10–15

2017.10.1 redeemDelivered at Ames UCC
on October 1, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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INCONSISTENT
Our church has seen pretty substantial growth over the last year. Really even in the last six months. I’m thrilled. I’m thrilled that this 152-year-old place and this 2,000-year-old religion still have so much life and relevance.

But I’m also surprised. I don’t think I’m supposed to say that, but it is true.

In my experience and in my studies, it is the churches that offer a lot more clarity and control than we do that grow. Most mega-churches are those that offer specific rules for who is inside God’s grace and who is out, as well as specific steps one must take—and specific phrases one must say—in order to get special protection or closeness to God.

We don’t, either in this local UCC church or at the national level.

What we offer is conversation.

What we offer is a framework for hearing Biblical interpretations—worship—then opportunities to seek your own through service and fellowship. We place a high value on taking personal responsibility for unpacking the assumptions about God in Christ each of us has, and constructing and re-constructing theologies and lives based on what new light breaks forth from God’s holy word and our lives.

That is hard.

That is hard because it means we cannot outsource our spiritual journey to a creed or church constitution. It is hard because it means we have to be in community, listening to many voices and perspectives. It is hard because it is unending.

So, in an average year it would surprise me to see such a steep rise in interest in a place that does not provide the comfort of rules. In a year where I have witnessed such groaning for a little stability, so many cries for a break from surprises and uncertainties, I am even more so.

But when I return to today’s encounter between God and Moses, maybe I shouldn’t be. Maybe what we are seeing at this church is the presence of the God of Moses—and an eagerness to be in service to that God like Moses.
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Death is Not the Goal: Acts 6.1–7.2a, 44–60

2017.4.30 libertyDelivered at Ames UCC
on April 30, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be
heard rather than read.
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at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays.

JARRING AND SHOCKING
I find today’s reading jarring and shocking. Just two weeks out from Easter and the Biblical world feels unfamiliar and dangerous. No more Jesus, Marys, Peter, or temple. Now we have someone named Nicanor and complaining Hellenists and a synagogue of the Freedman. No more of Jesus’ teachings on feeding and healing. Instead we have a story that seems to be saying that death is the model of post-resurrection faithfulness.

How did we get here?

Healing and feeding aren’t gone altogether. In the chapters before Stephen is killed, we hear about the massive growth in the Jesus movement as well as its organization: Participants had to give up all they had to the group and live in community. The named disciples quickly became overloaded with trying to host at God’s table and spread the good news. Wisely, the disciples laid hands on a new group to serve as deacons—the managers of feeding and tending to the poor.

One of the new table servants is Stephen. Interestingly, Stephen does not restrict himself to that role. He, too, left the table to teach in public. That is what gets him in trouble. To a group of rabbis, Stephen reiterates the core stories of the Hebrew Bible, specifically Exodus: how God has worked through Moses, Abraham, and Joseph.

Stephen concludes with a condemnation of those rabbis and teachers for not really understanding what God has meant and meant to do. Angels have spoken to you, he says, and yet you practice our religion only in the most surface of ways. Stephen stands in the company of all Hebrew prophets in this way. They have always been critics of empty faith. But, unlike the prophets, Stephen is then lynched.

What is so jarring or shocking about all of that, you might ask? Jesus was killed and the Christian tradition is full of martyrs. Death hardly seems avoidable, based on precedent. Why would resurrection day change any of that?

ON ITS OWN
It’s not that. I live in this world so I know that resurrection did not stop human violence. What shocks me is what happens as Stephen is being lynched: He prays for the forgiveness of his killers, just as Jesus did. The parallel and message are clear: Closeness to Christ is in the willingness to be murdered for the Word.

Instead of preserving a story of abundant living in the light of resurrection morning, the Acts of the Apostles seem to want to perpetuate the lethality of Good Friday night. Taken on its own, Stephen’s story teaches us that aggressive critique of religious establishments to the point of being killed is the point of resurrection day.

The key phrase there is “taken on its own.” Not only does Stephen’s story seem to leave behind all of Jesus’ lived teachings, but the Christian contribution to Biblical tradition leaves behind one of that tradition’s most important qualities: multi-vocality.
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Repetitive Messages: Luke 16.19–31

Delivered at Ames UCC  on March 26, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
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PAPERCLIPS
Our Communion table has been decorated by Linda Shenk. She couldn’t be here to help share her vision, but has given me permission to quote her. As Linda studied today’s scripture, she said she was aware of how strongly it emphasizes our need to listen in “the places that seem lowly, even despicable.” So Linda decided to find a lowly object, something so familiar we might not even really see it, as a reminder to listen: paper clips. Linda wrote to me that a paper clip, “looks like an ear, and it could be a nice reminder as we go about our work and our seemingly mundane routines to listen for the divine.”

So let’s listen for God in this story of mundane meanness.

RICH MAN AND LAZARUS
A rich man who partied every day cruelly allows an enfeebled and dying man named Lazarus to lay outside his home, without offering any assistance. They both die. On dying, the rich man finds himself in hell but with a view of Lazarus in a better place in the company of Abraham, patriarch of the nation, of the people. The rich man asks Abraham to ask Lazarus to bring him water, something he never seemed willing to do for Lazarus.

Abraham reminds the rich man of the disparities between him and Lazarus in life, disparities that are now made permanent through a fixed chasm in the afterlife. Well, the rich man says, please send Lazarus to warn my brothers. No, Abraham replies. They have already been given all the warning they need through our religious tradition. Having Lazarus go to them won’t make a difference.

This story comes on the heels of several similar stories. In Luke 14.12b–13a, Jesus says,

When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.

Then there’s the abundant generosity of the prodigal son’s father, which we heard last week. And immediately before Lazarus’ story there is a parable about a dishonest land manager that ends with “You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Luke 16.13b).

Despite the efforts of some Christians to make all of Jesus’ statements about cash money into statements about spiritual wealth, the weight of evidence is on the former: Jesus, in line with his own Jewish tradition, condemns rich people who do nothing with their riches to help others. This message of sharing wealth is so important that Jesus tells it at least three times in a row.

EASY SELL
Caring for Lazarus by giving away money is not a hard sell at Ames UCC.

Last year we gave away $152,186. Special offerings, like today’s for One Great Hour of Sharing and regular budgeted gifts to organizations like the Emergency Residence Project account for about $50,000. The other $100,000 was from the 150th Capital Campaign. This church is committed, when raising money for itself, to give away 20% of the total. Not only that, but to give that money away first, before spending on ourselves, thereby putting the needs of the community ahead of our own.

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No Fear, No Desperation: Exodus 32.1–14

husharborDelivered at Ames UCC
on October 9, 2016

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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heard rather than read.

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LEADERSHIP TEAMS
When Genya C. preached on the story of Abraham and Sarah a few weeks ago, she shared how it wasn’t until she helped to launch the Godly Play curriculum for grade schoolers here that she came to know about our church leadership teams. Coming for worship with her family, she hadn’t realized all that happens behind the scenes. Genya is now the head of our Christian Ed team. But it’s the Financial Stewardship team I’ve been highlighting of late. They are charged with just that: the management and solicitation of financial gifts to God through Ames UCC.

Earlier this summer the Financial Stewardship team and I were working on the timeline and strategy for 2017. We looked at October for a good Sunday to set for the pledge deadline. When I glanced at the scripture schedule and saw today’s was about the golden calf, I said, “Oh, it has to be October 9.” Because what better story is there for talking about money and God than one of creating false idols? The preaching possibilities seemed to be many: Don’t make money your idol, money isn’t God, faith isn’t a shiny object.

Actually preparing such a sermon, though, feels bad. The result can only be pastor as finger-wagging nag or holier-than-thou know-it-all. Even if I confessed all of my personal financial mistakes and failures to give generously to church, the physical dynamics of this room would still put me in a position to sound like a real scold.

And it wouldn’t be an accurate depiction of the text.

FLIGHT
Look at what has happened: The people got ready to flee, marked their homes and themselves as loyal to God and then they fled. Their passage out of slavery was terrifying: An army bore down on them; a body of water blocked their way. But they got out. Just as God has done so many times for the subjugated, a way showed up out of no way. The sea of reeds revealed a path and to safety they went.

Or a semblance of safety. Moses and his people didn’t have a destination other than not-Egypt. And they did not have much food. They took on faith that God would guide them to a place where they could live without fear and with sufficient manna.

Once in the wilderness the people found God too loud and shocking, so they asked Moses to do all of the talking. Moses said yes and continued to embody the holy presence that they needed to stay strong. But sometimes Moses went away. Sometimes Moses was called to be in a different kind of communion with the divine, out of their eye sight and ear shot.

He had been gone from the Hebrews for upwards of 40 days by the time they turn to Aaron for help.

I can imagine that might have been stressful. Despite all of the evidence the Hebrew people have that they will be okay, it is still scary to be out of a house, with no permanent kitchen. And they believed that God had abandoned them once before. After all, it felt like God had allowed them to go from power in Pharaoh’s house then down into slavery. So if Moses is their link to God and Moses is gone, a bit of anxiety is understandable.
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Just in Case: Exodus 12.1–13 and 13.1–8

uncertainwildernessDelivered at Ames UCC
on October 2, 2016

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be
heard rather than read.

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at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays.

INTERESTING
I’m going to start with the interesting, and then go to the urgent and the uncertain.

Last week we met Joseph, descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob/Israel. He rose to great power in Egypt. But over time God’s promise of many generations to Joseph’s family became intolerable to the rulers of Egypt. Over time, the pharaohs felt the need to control these alien people as they would enemies, as they would property.

By Moses’ generation, the Hebrew people are enslaved. Moses was born at a time of pogrom so his mother found a way for him to be adopted into Pharaoh’s home. He grew up with a princess for a mom, but had to flee that life of privilege after murdering an overseer who was brutalizing Hebrews.

But God lured him back. God convinced Moses that if he would yes, together they would set Moses’ original people free.

When we catch up with Moses today, God has given Pharaoh the chance to do the right thing. But each time Pharaoh refuses, a plague besets the Egyptian people. After nine refusals and plagues, God promises a tenth and final plague: a virus that will wipe out first born males just as Pharaoh had done so many times himself.

Before taking that final step, though, God needed more people than just Moses, to say yes to liberation.

And so on this night before the great escape it was important for the people to mark themselves and their homes. Like Moses, they needed to formally and publicly declare themselves as ones allegiant to the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob/Israel, and Moses. Thus the shared meal and blood on the lintel.

But that’s not the only way the Hebrews distinguish themselves from others. In this passage we also hear about the establishment of a new Hebrew calendar, a new first month of a new year. It is a new way of tracking time for a new life.

And then they flee, leaving behind God’s destruction.

Here the interesting bit: The ritual meals of unleavened bread and meat likely already existed before any flight from captivity.
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