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.

Authority and Worth: Mark 10.17–31

2018.8.26 churchDelivered at Ames UCC
on August 26, 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 times vary. Check the calendar for details.

TWO QUESTIONS
There are two questions we have to answer for ourselves when confronted by this scripture. Because it is a confrontation between us and Jesus, just as it is between Jesus and the rich man.

One, what authority do we give Jesus in our lives? And, two, what does that authority require us to do with our money?

AUTHORITY
When we come into a building labeled United Church of Christ, as ours is in such large letters on the east, it is a safe assumption that Jesus is the highest authority in this place; that the in-house ritual worker—me—will describe Jesus’s teachings, and teachings about Jesus, as paramount; and that Jesus will be named as a conclusive expression of the Godhead.

But that does not mean any one of you will accept all or even most of what the church promotes or I have to say. That is not required in our particular branch of the Christian family tree. We do not have a creed or tests of faith. Instead, we have lifelong learning and prayer and discernment about the person, place, and passion of Jesus Christ.

So where are you on that today?

Consider, for a moment, where you are in your conversation with God regarding Jesus.

Maybe you understand him to have been a real, historical man or perhaps a composite of many Jewish zealots and movements. Maybe you believe he physically healed the sick but did not raise the dead. You may accept his death on a cross but reject the idea that God wanted him to die that way.

The longest conversation we have with God is usually about Easter and whether Jesus literally came back from the dead or metaphorically did or did in a way we do not have language for.

Your position on each of those key elements of our story, your own Christology, to use the theological term, will determine in part how you respond to Jesus when he tells you to sell all that you have and give it to the poor.

DODGE
One answer may be to dodge the question. Because who here is really rich, like the man in the passage?

One percent of our population now owns forty percent of the national wealth. Twenty percent owns ninety percent of the wealth. I don’t know that any of us are in that category. I do know that twenty two percent of the Ames population is working and above the poverty line but not really able to afford living here.

The majority of us who come to this place, though, are affording to live here, have sufficient health care coverage, can do some saving, and can even afford the occasional vacation or new car. Though we may not be dripping with gold and Gucci, we do have more than our daily bread.

So Jesus is addressing us, too.

And if we give him any authority in our lives, we do have to decide how to faithfully use our financial resources.
Continue reading

Public Servants

January 21, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

My grandfather was a soldier.
My grandmother was a public servant at the federal level.
My mother was a public servant at the state and federal levels.
My aunties–biological and chosen–were public servants at the federal level.
My uncle was a public servant at the federal level.
My stepfather was a public servant at the state level.
My father-in-law was a soldier.
My brother is a public servant at the state level.
My sister works in a public school.
My sister-in-law teaches in a public school.
My cousin teaches in a public school.
My brother-in-law teaches at a public university.
My wife taught in public schools and at a public university.

Each worked hard to receive training and do their jobs well with and for fellow Americans, regardless of race, class, sex, economic background, sexual orientation, abilities, nation of origin, or religion. Each entered public service for common good and not to personally enrich themselves (and at times even at the risk of their own lives).

Which, in addition to their positions, is why I am appalled by so many of the nominees for our nation’s cabinet and the new president’s top advisors. Their careers have been marked by self-interest and their training is in no way related to the concerns they would now have to tend. Or, even worse, their careers or training to date have been directly opposed to those concerns. By refusing to remove conflicts of interest that will be personally enriching while making decisions for all of us, they serve only themselves, and not us at all.

As a Christian priest, I do not engage in partisan politics. Instead, I work within my church and my local IAF alliance to build power and then address specific issues we are struggling with. This allows me to be in relationship and solidarity with people with whom I might not share a party platform but do share pressures around housing, jobs, and mental illness, for example.

In that work, I am a public servant. And you can be, too.

My family taught me that public service is a privilege, but one open to all people. If you have not already, please seek out the alliances in your community that transcend name-calling and take no pleasure in the suffering of others. Because this new cohort of leaders will betray that role and all of us because of our race, class, sex, sexual orientation, economic background, abilities, nation of origin, and religion.