Theory, Prayer, Faith: Ephesians 1.1–14

Delivered at First Christian Church on July 16, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read. During July we worship at 9:30 a.m. at either Ames UCC, First Christian, or Brookside Park. Please see the website for details so that you may join us.

SABBATICAL
This is the last Sunday that First Christian Church will be without their pastor, Mary Jane Button-Harrison. She’s been on a three-month sabbatical, or process of clergy renewal, after about a dozen years of ministry in this church (and about 10 before that). When she left, she went straight to Plum Village in France, the home of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peacemaker Thich Nhat Hahn. From there she went to a series of other spiritual homes to focus on the concepts of boundaries and belonging. Over the last week she has started to write about what she’s learned, on her website and Facebook page.

Ames UCC’s own Minister for Families and Children, Pr. Hannah Hannover, is also on sabbatical, after ten years at our church. She’s using the time to renew her faith and understand whether she is called to ordination into the national church in addition to being licensed to our local church.

And I’ve just had a month off from preaching thanks to vacation and these joint services.

All of this has given me room and reason to think about the dynamic of pastor and congregation. What is a church without her pastor? What is a pastor without her church? How does faith happen in the mix?

EPHESIANS
Today we have a kind of blog post, a letter from Paul to the church in Ephesus, to help in our wonderings.

I should clear up, though, that Paul did not write it and it was not for the Ephesians. There is plenty of evidence that someone other than the Paul of the Acts of the Apostles wrote this letter and that originally it had no specific recipient.
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Ritual is Just the Beginning: Acts 15.1–18

2017.5.14 our courseDelivered at Ames UCC
on May 14, 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.

AVOIDANCE
Since resurrection day I’ve focused on a succession of new characters in our passages from Acts of the Apostles: Cleopas, Stephen, Philip the Evangelist, and the Ethiopian. Today we have two more, Paul (though we saw him briefly, earlier, under the name Saul) and Barnabas. But there have been two recurring characters or elements that I have avoided until today: male genital modification and the Holy Spirit.

PENISES AND SPIRIT
The Ethiopian is a eunuch. He is a man who has been castrated. This week we have Jewish followers of Jesus stating that the Gentile followers of Jesus must be circumcised as they had been. We have also had talk of metaphoric, or spiritual circumcision. Stephen decries his co-religionists:

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. (Acts 6.51)

Stephen is saying they have failed to cut away what prevents them from hearing and loving God, from being led by the Holy Spirit.

Paul is also concerned with the work of the Holy Spirit. When he pushes back on the Jewish followers of Jesus, it is through Spirit:

 And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as God did to us; (Acts 15.8)

Throughout the Acts of the Apostles there are moments when the Holy Spirit comes upon people, sometimes at baptism, sometimes later. Sometimes the Holy Spirit “falls upon” a whole group at once, sometimes on individuals who have been physically touched by those who have already received the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is, by this account, wholly unpredictable.

PREDICTABILITY
Predictability may be one of our biggest problems as humans, at least for we humans who want to rise above our humanity, even just a little bit. The Bible is, in its entirety, a testament to our predictable shortcomings. We want so badly to do better, and yet…

Remember how Abram and Sarai went out into the wilderness to show their faith in God? For decades they wandered. And for decades God promised them a child. But they became impatient. Abram and Sarai let their impatience over take their faith, so they forced the slave Hagar to bear their next generation. As a result, their wanderings extended.

When God made the promise of a child again, it came with two markers: a change in their names to Abraham and Sarah plus circumcision for Abraham and all the men in his household for all time forward.

It is as if our Biblical forebears are saying we need to have some literal skin in the game or we will be lost and aimless forever.
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Learning and Hospitality: Luke 24.13–35

2017.4.23 easter chrisitansDelivered at Ames UCC
on April 23, 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.

ANXIOUS CHURCH DEATH
I am pretty picky about what articles and books I read about Christianity and church life. Some of that is theological. I am not, obviously, going to read anything based on Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians to keep women quiet. Or the work of Christians who ignore the gospels in order to lean on the handful of words in Leviticus’ temple rules to decry queer people. Not everything preserved in scripture is right or holy. I hope you feel entitled to make the same distinction.

But I also tend to ignore articles about The Death of The Church. I think you probably know what I mean because these pieces have been ringing our death knell for at least 20 years, if not 40. Oh! The church is dying! Oh! The good news of life in radical generosity and relationship is no longer meaningful! Oh! Get a smoke machine and a praise band!

The anxiety level among pastors of “mainline” Protestant churches like ours, and that of the membership, can easily surpass any joy. Maybe that’s why I saw an uptick in articles during Holy Week about “how to behave on Easter.”

The notion that my colleagues in Christian ministry felt compelled to write pieces about anything other than the last supper and the garden and the cross during Holy Week, was so curious to me that I had to read a couple. Basically, they were about how regular attendees can be sure not to blow it with less regular attendees or newcomers on our highest of holy days.

The suggestions included not saying “You know, we are here every week,” scooting into the middle of the pew so that anyone who might be feeling shy doesn’t have to clamber over you, not kicking anyone out of “your” spot, and talking to each other. Basically, be thoughtful and polite.

So rather than teaching seekers how they might think, or more importantly pray, about Easter, these posts read to me as testimonies to church death anxiety. It was as if Easter hasn’t taught us about how holiness begets new life in spite of death.

EMMAUS
Look at what we hear today. Today’s verses follow immediately from last week’s. From last week’s climax at the tomb with the Marys and Joanne and Peter, we are moved immediately to a road between Jerusalem and Emmaus. The very same day that the disciples have found the tomb empty, the word has spread far enough that Cleopas (who is not a disciple) and someone else (also not a disciple) know all of the details.

When Cleopas and his friend meet a stranger—the rising Jesus did not look as he once did—all of that has already happened. They must have really evoked their disappointment that Jesus didn’t redeem Israel from yet another occupation, because the rising Jesus reminds them, more brusquely than the angels did the Marys and Joanne, that all of this was according to plan. To reassure them, the rising Jesus teaches them to interpret scripture, the Torah, prophets, and writings of the Hebrew Bible.
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God is using YOU: 2 Corinthians 5.11–21

godsparkDelivered at Ames UCC
on June 19, 2016
©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, when we worship with
First Christian Church at 9:30 a.m.).

RECONCILIATION
At the heart of today’s passage from Paul’s second letter to his church at Corinth is the notion of reconciliation. The version we hear today, from
The Message translation, gives a clear definition:

God uses us to persuade men and women to drop their differences and enter into God’s work of making things right between them.

Reconciliation is the holy work of bridging divides, breaking down walls—whatever metaphor means the most to you to describe eliminating the divisions between people and holiness.

For Paul, the impetus to do this is Jesus Christ. He understands the execution and Easter mystery as God using Jesus as a scapegoat, in the most traditional sense of the word: Put all sins on Jesus then drive him out of existence.

And, for Paul, reconciliation is essential because Jesus will be back very, very soon. He’s less than 20 years out from Easter and certain to his bones that they need to be in the business of preparing for a massive, world-wide, collective, and final experience of God.

In the two millennia since Paul was building churches and creating this first Christian theology, as we have built churches and lived with that theology, we have developed other, equally valid, understandings.

You may remember that, last summer, I did a survey of our church and found we range from classic Pauline theology to “Jesus was a good, regular man to whom a bad thing was done and from whom we can learn to do better.” And we are not a church that places such an emphasis on a second coming of Christ. We name the constant risings of Christ in our midst rather than the cataclysm that Paul imagined.

I think there are at least two reasons for that. First, all predictions of the second coming have proved false. God’s time is clearly not our time. Second, we have plenty of cataclysms of our own that need to be reconciled. We don’t need to worry about one from on high.
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Forgiveness Begins in Holy Community: 2 Corinthians 2.1–10

forgivenessDelivered at Ames UCC
on May 29, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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FORGIVENESS STORIES
When Adam and Eve were in God’s garden, they broke God’s one rule. God could not forgive them and so they were banished. Later, Adam’s and Eve’s sons presented offerings to God. God preferred that of Abel over that of Cain. Cain could not forgive the slight, but rather than rejecting God, he killed Abel.

After studying the Bible with pastors and congregants of Mother Emanuel AME in Charleston, SC, a young man murdered nine of them in an effort to start a race war. On his first appearance in court, the daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance said

I forgive you…You took something very precious from me. I will never talk to her again. I will never, ever hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.

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God’s Compassion and Comfort: 2 Corinthians 1.1–11

compassionofgodDelivered at Ames UCC
on May 22, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be
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GO TO SEMINARY
There’s a pastor in Harlem named Michael Walrond. I first met him in seminary when he did a fireside chat about his church. Rev. Walrond had served as chaplain at Duke Divinity School, I think, but was called to bring First Corinthian Baptist Church back to life.

And he has. They have gone from a couple of hundred parishioners rattling around in a huge multi-floored sanctuary to multiple Sunday services with lines literally around the block.

I went into seminary with the death knoll of mainstream Protestantism ringing in my head, so I was eager to learn how Rev. Walrond had transformed that bell into peals of joy.

His message was simple: Take your people to seminary.
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Live Your Easter: Romans 5.1–11

Delivered at Claremont UCC on May 10, 2015
© The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Now that we have been put right with God through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. He has brought us by faith into this experience of God’s grace, in which we now live. And so we boast of the hope we have of sharing God’s glory! We also boast of our troubles, because we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance brings God’s approval, and God’s approval creates hope. This hope does not disappoint us, for God has poured out love into our hearts by means of the Holy Spirit, who is God’s gift to us.

For when we were still helpless, Christ died for the wicked at the time that God chose. It is a difficult thing for someone to die for a righteous person. It may even be that someone might dare to die for a good person. But God has shown us how much God loves us—it was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us! By his blood we are now put right with God; how much more, then, will we be saved by him from God’s anger! We were God’s enemies, but God made us friends through the death of his Son. Now that we are God’s friends, how much more will we be saved by Christ’s life! But that is not all; we rejoice because of what God has done through our Lord Jesus Christ, who has now made us God’s friends.

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Letter to Claremont: Romans 1.1–17

letter to claremontFirst published May 3, 2015
© The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

CHURCH AND CHURCH PASTOR
I think a lot about how to do church and be a church pastor. And I read a lot. Here is a selection of recent titles:

Not a very sunny list, is it? Continue reading