Are We Ready? Matthew 5.1–20

Delivered at Ames UCC on January 27, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

2019.1.27 blessingNOT THE AUDIENCE
We are not the intended audience for this teaching.

Known as the Sermon on the Mount and The Beatitudes, it is one of the most reproduced portions of scripture but it was not originally intended for us, or for any but a very few.

I mentioned last week that the gospel of Matthew is clearly intended for a Jewish audience. Christianity was not fully independent of Judaism until a few centuries after Jesus’s ministry, murder, and mystery. So this gospel is speaking to fellow Jewish people that Matthew and the Matthean community wanted to bring along to their new understanding of Way. We 21st-century Christians have to keep that in mind throughout our study of this gospel.

But the audience for the Sermon on the Mount, the original oral one, was even smaller.

After his baptism and after his wilderness vision quest, Jesus calls Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John as disciples. Together, they travel all over Syria and Judea, with Jesus sharing the good news of God’s present kin-dom, and healing the sick. He becomes very popular and draws great crowds.

When Jesus sees the crowds, chapter 5 begins, he retreats to a mountain, alone. He is later joined by the disciples. Not all 12 of them: not even the Matthew for whom this gospel is named is a disciple yet. So what we hear and read today is a written account of a private teaching between Jesus and a handful of specific people that he had drawn to himself. Why?

WHY?
Why does Jesus keep this to only a few? It is a fantastic sermon.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit…

“Blessed are those who mourn…

“Blessed are the meek…

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…

“Blessed are the merciful…

“Blessed are the pure in heart…

“Blessed are the peacemakers…

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…

“Blessed are you when people revile you…

That’s revival-level preaching, a real barn-burning, show-stopper. So why did Jesus keep it just to the first few disciples?

Well, secret or semiprivate teachings like this are not so unusual in our tradition. In the gospel of John, for example, after Mary Magdalene has found the empty tomb, it says that

Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. (20.30)

That used to make me nuts. Why didn’t someone write them down? Argh!

It isn’t until recently that I’ve come to appreciate the answer to my question: because maybe not everyone is ready. Because there is a stream of Christianity, perhaps better illustrated outside of the primary, canonical gospels, that stresses preparedness for Christ’s deeper truths.

Let’s take, for instance, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene.

GOSPEL OF MARY MAGDALENE
In the canonical gospels, we learn that Mary was healed by Jesus of seven demons, a number that indicates she is perfectly healed. She then supported him on his travels. She was at his cross and his burial and then at the empty tomb. She then became the disciple to the disciples, sharing with them the good news of Easter morning. Mary Magdalene is the second most-referenced woman in the gospels after Mary the mother of Jesus.

Mary Magdalene’s gospel was written down in the second century, though it likely circulated from the time of Christ until the early 300s. It is unclear whether the Magdalene’s gospel was then suppressed or simply fell out of popularity and no one taught or copied it any longer. In the era when Mary’s gospel was active, written accounts of Christ were only supplements to the real space of learning: the dialogue between teacher and student. That relationship was paramount, essential because of the intimacy involved and the active participation it required.

In Mary’s gospel follows that model, with the risen Christ appearing to only Mary and the male disciples. When he leaves, the male disciples panic because they are afraid that if they follow Jesus’s teaching, they will get killed like he did. Mary reassures them by sharing a private encounter she alone had with the risen Christ. It begins with the Christ saying

Blessed are you that you did not waver at the sight of Me. (7.9)

There is a pattern, then, within both the canonical and the extra-Biblical accounts of Jesus Christ passing on teachings to only a few or even one. The implication is that not everyone can stand, unwavering, in their encounter with holiness. Not everyone is read for the lessons that holiness has to teach.

UNWAVERING
Are we? Are we ready to hear that the poor and the meek and the peacemakers are a blessing?

Remember the definition of blessings that I offered last September: conduits of holiness that can open the receiver of the blessing to the hope and help of God.1 That’s from United Methodist pastor Jan Richardson. Author, philosopher, and former priest John O’Donohue adds that we get the word blessing from an older word that means “to sanctify with blood.” Blessings, the seemingly abstract, he writes, are really as earthy as the blood that pumps through our hearts.2

Taken together, blessings are embodied vessels to God.

What does it mean that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are embodied vessels to God? What does it mean that the persecuted and reviled are embodied vessels to God?

I am not sure how to answer those questions without sounding completely self-serving or self-righteous, in equal measures. Either I am calling someone who is mourning a special gift from God, which makes that person and their suffering an object for my own transformation, or I’m saying my desire for justice makes me a special gift from God, and I think we know the problem and risk there. What seems so simple, so beautiful at first pass proves to be complicated, puzzling at the second.

But Jesus thought the first four disciples were ready to receive it, unwavering. In abandoning their professions to follow Jesus, in their witness of his healings and teachings, Jesus found them ready for what the crowds were not.

And because we are reading it today, they must have disagreed with him. They and those who followed must have decided the Beatitudes were worth sharing even with the unprepared, even with the wavering.

BECOME THE AUDIENCE
I thank God for that decision.

As recent years have shown, we can be pretty poor storytellers on our own. On our own we can tell a pretty bad story about the poor, the meek, the peacemaker. So even if we understand the Sermon on the Mount’s meaning but through a glass dimly, it tells a far more hopeful and redeeming story about our life together than we can on our own.

And so we will keep studying it. We will keep making ourselves the audience.

As the membership anniversaries we just celebrated, and the new membership promises we will give and receive in a few minutes show, we want to follow the examples of Mary Magdalene and the male disciples. We want to seek out the divine, to sit at the feet of holiness, sometimes alone, and sometimes with the growing crowd of this dear church.

Even if we are not ourselves merciful or pure in heart, we want to be.

In a world riven by destructive humanity, our steadfast, unwavering attention to this teaching may allow us to become a blessing, to become embodied vessels for our creative God.

AMEN

1Richardson, Jan. 2015. Circle of grace. Orlando, FL: Wanton Gospeller Press, pp. xiv–xv.
2O’Donohue, John. 2008. Bless the space between us. New York, NY: Doubleday, p 119.

Covenant Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love: Exodus 20.1–11

2018.6.3 earth needsDelivered at Ames UCC on June 3, 2018
©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 and August when things change up, so please check the calendar here).

DEALMAKING
Look at God, working the deals.

Last week God asked Moses, who is now in the desert wilderness with the freed Hebrew slaves, to say to the people, “You saw what I did back there. Now, if you will just bind yourself with devotion to me, you will be my most special people for all time.” I helped you, now you serve me. God wants a little something for God’s trouble, it seems.

But we are not Moses and Moses’s people. We have witnessed no plagues, no walls of water providing safe passage. What have we “gotten” from God? What has God done for us lately, that God can make demands of us still?

To use Advent as an answer: hope, peace, joy, and love.

ADVENT
Last week I handed out copies of the church’s schedule of seasons and holidays along with their traditional colors. I invited you to put those into your own personal calendars as a means to remember that our finite lives are within the infinity that is God.

Today I’d like to continue the practice of putting our everyday into the context of our faith, this time by bringing Advent into Ordinary Time. Not only is the time of faith cyclical, as exemplified by the perpetual calendar of the church, the time of faith is all seasons at one time. We are no less in Advent today than we will be in December.

But as a refresher, Advent is over the four weeks before Christmas. I wish I didn’t have to put it that way because then it sounds like Advent is the Christmas prep season, the Christmas pre-season. It isn’t. Advent is the first season of the Christian year and it is followed by the twelve days of Christmastide. So Advent stands on its own.

Advent stands on its own because it is not just pointing toward the birth of Jesus but to his execution and mystery, too. We spend that month preparing not for one night, but for another year of studying and praying the full story of God in Jesus Christ. Advent’s means for doing so are the weekly themes of hope, peace, joy, and love. In Advent we are preparing for the story of a holiness in whom, through whom, and with whom, we can receive hope, peace, joy, and love.

But that didn’t start with Jesus. What God has to give didn’t begin just two thousand years ago. Let’s look at today’s passage.
Continue reading

Removal, Resistance, Return: Ezekiel 37.1–14


2017.12.3 resist risk
Delivered at Ames UCC
on December 3, 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.

BONES
When we are born, our bones are small, like us. They are weak, like us. Over time, they grow as we do, in whatever way we do. Some of us get quite tall, some of us stay small. The strength of our adult bones varies according to our genetics and our habits. Weight training helps. If our bones break, they can often be repaired through surgery, pins, casting, traction, implants, and time.

Our bones keep aging along with our skin and our hair and our organs. They say now that the image of an older person falling then breaking a hip is wrong: it is actually that the hip breaks and then the fall happens as a result.

Then we die.

Different things can happen to our bones on death. Some of us here will be embalmed. Our bones will be laid to rest with flesh for company, in a box in the ground. Some of us will be cremated, and our bones become like the dust with which we are anointed on Ash Wednesday.

Some cremated bones are buried in a small box in the ground. Some are set free into air and soil. I have an urn in my office with the residue of many loved ones that I have had the honor to release back to our mother.

So whose bones are filling a valley, whose neglected bones are we looking upon today?

NARRATIVE ARC
You’ll remember that three weeks ago we heard God speaking through the prophet and priest Jeremiah, before, during, and after Jerusalem’s fall to Babylon. Jeremiah’s audience in the aftermath was the elite who had been forcibly displaced into exile. Just because the elite had lost their nation, they had not lost God.

God told the people newly in exile that they should settle in, plant a garden, have kids. They were not home so they needed to make space for survival until they could find their way back.

It was a story of removal.

Then Last week Brett preached about three of those exiles—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—and their response to the pressure of religious assimilation by Babylonian culture and authorities. They chose a furnace over one more compromise, and lived to tell the tale.

It was a story of resistance.

Today, Ezekiel gives the exiled a vision of return. A return as powerful as the resurrection of the dead.
Continue reading

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

Sermons are written to be
heard rather than read.

Please join us for worship
at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays.

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.
Continue reading

What to Bring to The Night: Daniel 6.6–27

2016-11-27-remade-in-loveDelivered at Ames UCC on November 27, 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.

DANIEL AND THE GOLDEN BOOKS
The earliest Near Eastern reference to Daniel that has surfaced to date is of a Ugaritic king in the 14th century BCE. After that time, a whole cycle of Daniel stories spread across the region. In the Bible proper he’s in this book, Daniel, as well as Ezekial. He is also in the extra-Biblical books of Susanna, the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three, Bel and the Dragon, the Dead Sea Scroll called the Prayer of Nabonidus, and the Ugaritic Aqhat Epic.1

The first six chapters of the book of Daniel are a series of self-contained folk tales. Daniel shares qualities with other Biblical folk heroes, like Joseph’s gift of dream interpretation, and success in foreign politics like Mordecai, from the book of Esther.

As collected by our Jewish ancestors, these characters helped the Jewish community with how to live under occupation.

But because of my age and how I came up in Christian churches, I can’t hear “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” without picturing the Golden Books versions, all cartoony and not looking at all ancient near-eastern. Daniel looked, maybe, more like he came from Iowa. And what I can remember from those children’s versions is a really bad king and David as a cherubic tamer of lions. In my memory’s eye, there is a big confrontation between Daniel and the lions before his release by the king.

The moral was always that with enough faith God can save you from all dangers. The flip side of that was that if you were not saved, it was because you did not have enough faith.
Continue reading

Hope, Peace, Love: Christmas Eve 2015

hope, peace, loveDelivered at Ames UCC on December 24, 2015
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read. Please join us for worship at 10:45 a.m. on Sundays.

YOUR NEEDS
For the last few weeks I’ve been asking people what they need to hear tonight. Not just what they want to hear, like the Christmas scripture, but what they need. What you all might need.

Over and over the response was hope, peace, and love.

I wasn’t surprised and I’m sure neither are you. We all know the social, political, and personal pains at hand. So instead of detailing those, let me assure you right away: There is yet hope, peace, and love in this world.

Tonight’s story, and our presence here, tells us so.

THE STORY
Mary and Joseph had a rough start as a married couple. She was pregnant before they were wed and apparently not by her faithful fiancé. Then they are forced to make a trip by an oppressive state that cares not a bit for their well-being or that of their child. Labor pains come on just as housing comes up short. The son, fragile and new, takes his first breath in a stinky barn.
Continue reading

Keeping Hope for Peace Alive: Isaiah 40.1–11

precious childrenDelivered at Ames UCC on December 6, 2015
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
Please join us for worship at 10:45 a.m. on Sundays.

 

 

 

PEACE

Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”

Judah survived the Assyrians only to fall to Babylon in the 580s. The elite, the powerbrokers, are sent into exile but their descendants return in the 530s BCE, about fifty years later. Somehow the exiles and their children maintained their identity as Judahites, as followers of the God of Moses, while in a foreign land. After becoming the widow, the orphan, and the stranger themselves, the ancient Hebrews are reunited with those who were left behind to tend the home fires of faith. Continue reading