Do Burning Churches Matter?

Published April 17, 2019 in the Ames Tribune

By Eileen Gebbie

On Palm Sunday 1989, my mom and I walked into Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris for worship. Unfortunately, we did not know that, overnight, the whole city had shifted to daylight savings time, so we were an hour late. Also, neither of us spoke French.

Despite all of that, the story of Jesus’s procession on a donkey through the back door of Jerusalem’s wall, a counterpoint and protest to the Roman governor’s victory parade on a steed through the front, transcends all of the different languages and time zones of Christendom.

After the service concluded, we walked through the gothic marvel alongside tourists from all over the world.

None of that will happen again for a very long time. The fire that started just after Palm Sunday 2019 will close off the space to worship and wonder for possibly decades to come. I cried looking at photos of the damage, and my heart went out to the congregation and their priests, my counterparts.

Where will they gather in this, what we call Holy Week, to mark Jesus’s final meal, his murder and the Easter mystery? And what of the weeks after that and after that? A generation’s worth of worship and service will be lost during the repairs.

Which may have some of you thinking, “So what?” or “Why can’t they just go somewhere else?” Those are valid questions. One of the most salient critiques of Christianity has been we idolize buildings over beloved community.

In the four official accounts of the life of Jesus, he never once spoke of building a new religion, let alone enormous and enormously costly buildings. Jesus did not need a nave, a sacristy or a pulpit to care for the widow, the orphan and the foreigner, and neither do we.

Except that we do, or at least we do so far.

Consider what caring for “the least of these” requires: time, money, collaboration, education and transformation. Speaking only for affluent and middle-class white Americans, few of us know without being taught that all of humanity, all of creation, are our siblings.

To love our neighbors as ourselves is to recognize that our neighbors are us. So we need spaces that will confront our biases and willful blindness, rooms of people that will hold us accountable to our sacred story. These can keep us from gorging ourselves on the lethal lies of meritocracy and individualism.

And for some Christian Americans, church sanctuaries are truly that: sanctuaries. Black churches have long offered safe harbor from the vagaries and violence of white supremacist America. Which is why white supremacist America keeps burning them down.

As Notre Dame smokes in her rubble, so do three black churches in Louisiana’s St. Landry Parish. In 10 days, one white man set them on fire. His motivation appeared to be, in part, a critique of Christianity, but it is telling that he did not burn down any white Christian churches and he was recently charged with hate crimes in addition to arson.

Also torched, at the end of March, was Tennessee’s Highland Education and Research Center. While not a church, it has long served as a sanctuary for ministers and lay leaders — including The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks — to learn the art of organizing for justice.

Sadly, but unsurprisingly, it took the fire at Notre Dame for the St. Landry churches to gain any meaningful national attention or financial support.

As I write this, I am preparing for my church’s own Holy Week services. Our current sanctuary has never burned, to my knowledge, though its foundation and walls were compromised when the city lowered Sixth Street by several feet and we lost the support of all that soil.

Our leadership works on an ongoing basis to assess whether and how we can afford to maintain the old brick building at Sixth Street and Kellogg Avenue. More importantly, we also wonder if we are doing so only out of our pride at being, like Notre Dame, the oldest church in town.

Or, are we maintaining it as a place of reformation for the privileged and sanctuary for the oppressed?

Are we propping up the sagging walls because it gives us room to equip spiritual and practical leaders in the way of Jesus, a man so problematic that the only way to stop the fires he started seemed to be death?

My goal as a Christian pastor is to have so firmly bent the arc of justice that we no longer need retraining facilities for whites and hush arbors for people of color.

In the meantime, I am grateful for the presence of buildings and storefronts that bear physical witness to beauty, transcendence, collaboration, and the holy insistence that rises up from every tomb and ash heap, telling us that we must do better by each other and this planet.

Eileen Gebbie is the senior minister at Ames United Church of Christ in Ames.

Look at the Floor: John 12.12–27

2018.3.25 Holy CommunionDelivered at Ames UCC on March 25, 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.

LOOK AT THE FLOOR
Look at the floor, if you would.

Compare the floor under your feet with the floor under the pew in front of you. What do you see? The first is worn out, blonde from our soles and our weight. The second is still dark, still shiny. It has been protected from us for decades. It is untrod and clear.

Every Sunday I think about this. Where I sit in the front pew used to be the second pew. I understand that my immediate predecessor, your interim pastor Terry Hamilton-Poore, took the original front row out because it was just too crowded during Holy Communion. So every Sunday, from where I sit, I see clearly the evidence of paths loved down to a nub.

It’s the path of the Palm Sunday parade.

PALM SUNDAY
Technically the path of the Palm Sunday parade was the road that came into Jerusalem from the back side.

The whole thing is a superb example of political theater: “Nobody” Jesus comes through the back gate on an ass with regular people waving foliage, while Governor Pilate comes through the front gate on a steed and with a full complement of Roman soldiers and regalia. No wonder it made the local authorities so upset!

Based on the story in John, though, I don’t think most of the participants knew they were taking part in a direct action. John says that people had come to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover and heard Jesus would be there, too, so they went out to join him. It’s not that they went to Jerusalem because of Jesus.

Some of those people had seen and known Jesus earlier, when he brought his friend Lazarus back from the dead. They spread that story among the Passover pilgrims and residents, which brought even more people out, people of many religious traditions. So, the crowd is a mix of devoted disciples and followers, those already on their own pilgrimage, and curiosity seekers, lookee-loos, and skeptics.

This is one of those weeks when the original story feels almost less important than the over 2,000 years of retelling that story. It sounds like it would have been pretty easy to take part or get caught up in the first Palm Sunday parade. It did not require much beyond curiosity, happenstance, and proximity.

The original participants also didn’t know what would follow: betrayal, death, mystery; 300 years of religious oppression; 1,200 years of religious imperialism; 400 years of Protestant protests and factionalism; and now a solid 100 years of decline in relevance!

But we do. We know all of that. We know how hard the story is going to get and all that will be asked of us. We know how badly we will fail. And still we come. Why?
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Evil is Tiny: Luke 19.29–44

2017.4.9 lamassusDelivered at Ames UCC
on April 9, 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.

ORIENTAL INSTITUTE
There is a museum at the University of Chicago called the Oriental Institute. Have any of you been there? It was founded in 1919 as a research facility for understanding the evolution of humanity and human culture from the ancient Near East. Much of the collection was “acquired” in the 1920s–1940s.

It has some pretty spectacular holdings, like multistory statues of man–beasts from Sargon II’s palace in Iraq and a King Tut from Egypt. As 21st century citizens, we are accustomed to human-made objects that scrape the sky, but in the millennia before Christ, when the average building would have been closer to human height, these artifacts of royalty and state power could only have been awe- and fear-inspiring. A throne room the size of a football field and flanked by those statues, called Lamassus, might explain why Jonah, for example, rejected the role of prophet to Ninevah.

The museum also has records from the kingdoms of Sargon and Sennacharib and the Hittites and ordinary, civilian objects: jewelry, cosmetic containers, scarabs, ivories, hair pieces, and glass all-seeing eye beads kind of like the ones I have in my own home.

Then there are religious objects: temple souvenir plaques from 2000–1600 BCE, smaller statues for home worship and piety, and “incantation bowls.” These are clay bowls, like the one Greg made for our baptismal font, with incantations or prayers written inside. They are generally about protection from evil and illness and were used by all manner of religious traditions, including Judaism and Christianity.

One on display at the Oriental Institute shows an evil spirit tied down at the center of the bowl. It is inscribed with Zechariah 3.2:

But [the angel of] the Lord said to the Accuser, ‘The Lord rebukes you, O Accuser; may the Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! For this is a brand plucked from fire.’

Which gets me to today’s scripture: Jesus’ ride on a donkey with his disciples rejoicing at his side—what we call the triumphal entry—makes explicit reference to scripture: 2 Kings, the Psalms, the prophet Habbakuk, and twice to the prophet Zechariah.
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Stay Faithful: Mark 11.1–11

PalmSunday2016Delivered at Ames UCC
on March 20, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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Please join us for worship
at 10:45 a.m. on Sundays.

IT BEGINS
Holy Week begins today, outside of Jerusalem. Jesus is with the disciples. He reaches the Mount of Olives. This place has been an important place in the history of Judea: It is where King David went to weep (2 Samuel 15.30) and it is where Zechariah said God would bring the end and then take control as king of all (Zechariah 14.9).1

Jesus continues on. He rides a donkey the disciples “procured” at his request. The last time we saw a donkey was when Mary rode one, pregnant with Jesus. The donkey is also a reminder of Zechariah’s prophesy (9.9b):

See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

It’s enough to give you the shivers. But that’s not my goal, at least not entirely. Each gospel was written down decades after the facts. They rely on both human memory and the human will to make a case for Jesus as Christ. It is up to us to discern which is at play in any given section and, either way, which parts of those stories resonate most with our personal encounters with the divine.

It is a lot of work. So, for today at least, I am not going to join with Mark in trying to convince you of something about Jesus. I will try, instead, to simply to give some of the context, as best scripture and scholarship can currently show, for Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday.Without Maundy Thursday and Good Friday

I do so in the hope that each of you will participate fully in our services this week. Without Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, Easter is just a chocolate bunny. Delicious, but hollow.
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Prejudice and Parades: Esther 1.1–17

Delivered at Claremont UCC on December 7, 2014
© The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

ANTI-SEMITISM
I have a friend who was raised Jewish in Chicago in the 1950s. This means that her family had living memory of the most recent European genocide of Jews as well as the long American tradition of Jewish quotas in schools and employment.

When she went to college in the 1970s, one of the first things her Christian roommate asked was how old she was when she had her horns and tail removed. This was no joke. My friend’s roommate sincerely believed, had been raised to believe by her Christian community, that Jewish people were essentially a different species.

Thirty years later I was with my friend at a church where we heard a pastor preach about the Jews and their strange, backward customs. This was a man with authority by virtue of his position teaching total lies to an audience that relied on him as a religious expert. We both froze and were careful not to look at each other.
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