Public Works and Private Workings: Matthew 6.1–15

Delivered at Ames UCC on February 3, 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.

VIOLATION
 Did anyone else notice, in hearing this passage, that every week we violate the instructions Jesus gives?

Beware of practicing your piety before others
whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door

whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet

do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,

so that your alms may be done in secret

Every week we pray together in unison, silently, and with individual petitions. And then we make public offerings to the life and work of the church. There aren’t trumpets but the choir does usually sing. This style of worship and the elements within are quite old and well considered. They have been practiced across many ages and locations, with some modifications for context and need.

Is it time, though, for a new reformation to correct our wayward worship ways?

TEACHING
2019.2.3 covenant At this point in the gospel Jesus is still on the mountain with Simon Peter, Andrew, John, and James. He is continuing the sermon that began with the Beatitudes, which we studied last week.

In between the Beatitudes and this discourse on prayer and giving, Jesus emphasizes that he absolutely is not working to upend the Torah and the Nevi’im, the teachings and the prophets that constitute the bulk of what we now know as the Hebrew Bible. Jesus says that “not one stroke of a letter” from what God has already offered can be changed (5.18), and then explores the Decalogue, including murder, cheating, judging, and swearing false oaths. This small group of disciples has had a master class in covenant living, in the manna that God offers and the mercy we must practice.

Including Jesus’s exhortation to keep the practices of prayer and giving private.

Jesus is clearly responding, in part, to people in their community who do “practice piety before others in order to be seen by them,” people whom he describes as “hypocrites in the streets” and non-Jewish people who “heap up empty phrases.” These showily religious offer a negative lesson in religiosity. They also offer Jesus the opportunity to make a theological statement, an argument about God.

When making gifts, he says, do so anonymously because “your Creator…sees in (that) secret.” Pray alone in your room “to your Creator who is in secret” and pray simply because “your God knows what you need before you ask.” This isn’t Jesus just instructing the disciples about how to pray and give. He is teaching them about God’s response, God’s involvement in both. God is in secret, not in the devious or confidential sense of the word, but in the sense of being in all places, including the private. We do not need to seek God in public, we do not need public displays of faith to get God’s attention. God is in our soul’s innermost, secret, private chambers; best to seek God, to commune with God there. The point of faith is not public works but our private working.

The point of faith is not public works but our private working.

2019.2.3 museRESISTANCE
How many of you are feeling a little internal resistance to that notion?

I know that the public work of the national UCC and our own is, in part, why many of you are here. It matters to you that we successfully sued North Carolina for gay marriage on the basis of religious freedom and that we coined the term “environmental racism.” It matters to you, too, that our next Theologian in Residence will focus on what churches can do in practical terms to respond to the needs of immigrants. Theologically we already know: “you shall love the alien as yourself” (Leviticus 19.34). Not like yourself but as yourself because they are us.

I would be hard-pressed to be part of a church community that did not engage in public works of faith. That would feel too much like a private club, like a self-help system, rather than a living covenant with God and neighbor.

And Jesus did so many public works, himself. Why else was he such a threat to the Herods and Rome?

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Hang On to What Is Possible: Matthew 4.1–11

Delivered at Ames UCC on January 20, 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.

IMPOSSIBLE
This story seems to set up an impossible standard for us as disciples, for us as human beings.2019.1.20 apart

As I described last week, Matthew, or that Matthean community, went to great pains in the first chapter of this gospel to demonstrate Jesus’s humanity. His ancestors, though they may be hallowed, are also fallible and frequently function outside systems that are social and acceptable.

The context of Jesus’s own life is no less human: His family is part of the nameless mass of humanity with no control over who governs them or how, suffering the effects of bad temper and bad policy, as they flee to Egypt and then migrate to Nazareth. They are refugees, they are without a state.

Yes, there are superhuman, supernatural elements to the story of Jesus up to this point: the angels who visit Joseph, the star that guides the astronomers, the theophany at Jesus’s baptism, the voice as from heaven saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

But still. The character on offer to us is a man, not an angel, not gifted, in any way we have been shown, with supernatural powers or abilities.

Or is he?

TEMPTATION
Immediately after his baptism in the wilderness and the river Jordan, chapter four shows Jesus following the call of the Holy Spirit even deeper into the wilderness and unknown, further away from city and civilization. While there, he is tempted by the devil.

Now, not The Devil, not pointed tail and pitch fork.

Based on the Greek word used in manuscripts, and the Jewish audience for which Matthew’s gospel was intended, this is a character like the Accuser in Job, a diabolical force that is part of creation rather than a discrete being in opposition to it. I like to use the term forces of nonbeing when I encounter this voice in scripture, just to keep my imagination from getting lazy.

So the forces of nonbeing offer to turn desert stone into bread. Jesus declines. The forces of nonbeing take Jesus way up high to give Jesus a chance to see if God would really save him from falling. Jesus declines.

On a mountaintop the forces of nonbeing offer Jesus all of the power and glory of earthly realms. Jesus declines.

Those are not temptations a human could resist.

By the time Jesus and the forces of nonbeing collide, he has been fasting for forty days and nights and the scripture says he is famished. A famished, a starving, person takes food; base animal instinct demands as much.

Furthermore, a person with any smidgen of doubt about God—which is all people—grabs opportunities to be reassured.

And all of the power and glory of the earthly realms is compelling to both the egomaniacal tyrant and to one who would use that power to establish peace; and most likely everyone in between.

Jesus, then, is not like us. He is stronger than any one of us. He has more than the average share of God’s ruach, God’s breath, in him. Whatever the ancestry and setting Matthew so insists upon, in this instance we know that Jesus is of a different kind.

So I guess we can write this story off as all about Jesus, and not at all about us.

Except.

Except for this business of praying and fasting for forty days and nights.

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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.
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First, Rest in God: John 2.13–25


2018.2.21 new
Delivered at Ames UCC
on January 21, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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LOVE
Part of me really loves this story.

It’s the part of me that grew up watching Jesus Christ Superstar and its temple scene with women, guns, and sunglasses up for sale. It’s the part of me that loves the liberation inherent in our tradition’s theology: freed slaves, women prophets, direct confrontation with those who are complicit in or mimic the power structures of occupation.

It’s this kind of story that allows me to continue to seek God through Jesus Christ. I could not walk a path that does not eliminate false, human-made barriers to God; I need a path that strips me of my blinders to corruption and self-centered comfort.

FIGHTING
This story sounds different today, though. I’m not sure I can even hear this story today over all of the rest of the fighting in our world.

I thought about putting together a list of the kinds of back-and-forth juvenilia and nastiness from our elected officials on Twitter or some of the commentary over the recent controversy regarding vulgarity in the White House, our house. But I couldn’t bring myself to read them and saw no value in inflicting them on you afresh. You already know.
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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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Our Calendar, God’s Calendar: Psalm 100

Delivered at Ames UCC  on June 11, 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
(except in July when we have a different schedule—see our website).

CALENDAR
Who knows what this is? Yes, it is a calendar of the liturgical church year. Liturgy means “work of the people” so this is a calendar of the seasons of our work as people of faith.

Last week was Pentecost, with all its red excitement. Now we go into Ordinary Time, which is a season to reflect broadly on Creation and Church, so it is a cool green. We will stay green until Advent, way off in November.

I love this calendar, for several reasons. First, the design. I just think it is neat. Second, the lack of dates.

While the rest of our calendars are numbered and the years just keep going up, going up into digits that still feel impossibly futuristic to me, this calendar is eternal. This calendar has no concern for what year we are in or even what month we are in, since sometimes Easter (the white square with cross) can be in March or April. This calendar does mark the passage of time but it has no beginning or end, only cycles of preparation, transformation, celebration, and application.

Our scripture is the same: Although time does progress within it, marked by the rise and fall of human nations, it has endured because what it has to teach transcends all such specificity. And so it allows us to transcend our specific time.

IGNATIUS OF LOYOLA
A few weeks ago, I took a retreat to a Jesuit center a couple of hours west of here. The Jesuits are a Roman Catholic order of priests, formally called the Society of Jesus (thus, Jesuit) founded by Ignatius of Loyola in France in the mid-1500s. I’d heard for years about “Ignatian spiritual exercises” but all I knew was that, when done in full, they take 30 days. I don’t have that time, but I do well with structure, so I asked for a four-day version.

I learned many things during those days, about myself and God. But what I want to share with you today is Ignatius’ use of imagination within prayer and with scripture. Ignatius believed our imaginations, our ability to mentally place ourselves someplace we physically are not, is a gift from God.

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Ames High School Baccalaureate

2017.5.24 aweOn Wednesday, May 24, 2017, I participated in an interfaith service of celebration for the Ames High School Class of 2017 at the Ames Middle School. A voluntary event for participants, its goal is to recognize the role of god in our lives and give the school’s visual and performing artists one last chance to share their talent. My fellow speakers were Imam Mahjoob Jaily of Darul Arqum Islamic Center and Father Charles Ahenkorah of St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Catholic Student Center.
My remarks follow:

Thank you, Ames Community School District and Ames High School community for inviting me to participate in this, your 2017 Baccalaureate. I am The Reverend Eileen Gebbie from Ames United Church of Christ. If you don’t know of my church, we bear the distinction of being the oldest one in Ames—by one year—and sharing a parking lot with one of Ames’ most important public institutions, the library.

In the Christian tradition, we practice many different types of prayers, from silent and solitary to corporate and loud. But one writer has described the content of all types of prayers as falling into three categories: help, thanks, and wow.

So, I will offer my remarks tonight, prayerfully, in those categories.

HELP
First, help.

I need your help. I need your help badly.

Ours is a world that is hungry and angry, alienated and frightened. None of those are new: The human experience has never been easy, we have never been particularly fair with or kind to one another. As you already know from your schooling, the history of humanity is defined by tribalism, which requires some people to be seen as acceptable and welcome with others seen as foreign and unwanted. I do not need to name for you all of the violence done because of the boundaries we create through religion, race, sex, and nation of origin.

But I believe that you can help us find a new way through all that old ugliness.

You are of a generation far more experienced with and exposed to the varieties of human existence than ever before. Your generation knows best—from your families of origin to the families that are made up of your friends—that it is not only possible to come together across religious, racial, sexual, and national identities but it is joyous, too.

So, please, help me. Help me and the older generations to know and do better so that you are not the last generation of all.

THANKS
Second, thank you.

Thank you for making it to this day. Thank you for doing your homework and showing up for your teams and clubs and for putting in your hours of rehearsal and for sharing your talents with others.

Some of you may shrug this off with a, “Pfft, no big,” but it is. It is a big deal to get through high school. High school is a test of every facet of your self at the same time that you are trying to define that self. Even if you have a stable home life and parents to help with homework and sufficient money to eat every day and have a cell phone, the relational pressures of this time of your life could have become too much, could have overwhelmed all of your talents and drive.

And if you made it to this day all while being uncertain about clothing or meals or bed, I thank you doubly.

Thank you all for loving yourselves throughout the moments when the world treated you, or you simply felt, unlovable or unloved.

WOW
Lastly, wow.

Wow is an expression of awe. We humans, regardless of age or education, need awe.

Our ability to be of help and to be grateful for the help of others is grounded in our ability to stand in awe before that which gives us the strength for both. You may call it love, you may call it God. Whatever your name for all that is sacred and holy in creation, find a community that will help you develop a deep and lasting connection with that divine power.

Even though your final exams are over, even though you may be going straight to work after graduation or to the military or to more learning, life itself will continue to test you.

A faithful community of awe will not only feed your good works and precious souls, it will also help you when you are sick, mourn with you when you grieve, and celebrate with you when you are blessed. And it will show you the profound honor of doing the same, with and for others.

So, Ames High School Class of 2017, help, thanks, and wow.

Amen and congratulations!

Luke 11.2–4: Ask God for the Word

lordsprayerDelivered at Ames UCC
on September 4, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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WORDS, WORDS, WORDS
A few years ago I was in the art gallery at a retirement community for pastors, missionaries, theological professors, and other religious workers. I came up to a silkscreen in black on an off-white background. It was of a male preacher at a pulpit. His mouth was open, hands holding onto the pulpit, and all around him was “WORDS WORDS WORDS.” Meaning, the word WORDS was scattered all over. I took it to mean there was no substance to his preaching, just blathering, empty words.

I about busted a gut laughing when I saw it because, first of all, preachers really need to not take themselves too seriously. And, second, because I could relate so well. As anyone who has been around me when I’m trying to find my way through a sermon can tell you, on being asked what the topic is, I will often say, “I don’t know! Blah, blah, blah, Jesus, blah!”

In other words, “I cannot find the words to share and explain what this passage seems to be saying about God and us.” I know there is truth in Jesus, but words often fail in expressing that truth.

Yet how often do we Christians find ourselves clinging to specific words? Take the Lord’s Prayer, for example: Is it “forgive us our sins” or “forgive us our debts” or “forgive us our trespasses”? How many of us, when in a space that uses a different version than we are accustomed to, still pray our preferred version?

And which one is the right one? Which one did Jesus really say and mean?

MATTHEW AND LUKE
Well, as often happens in our sacred collection, there are two versions of this prayer in the Bible, one in Matthew and one in Luke.
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Making Prayerful Meaning: Acts 1.1–14

lovecallsDelivered at Ames UCC
on April 3, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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MEANING-SEEKING
We humans are seekers of meaning. We are makers of meaning, too. Through science, art, religion, family, and friends we both interpret and create the world around us. In doing so, we come to know what to expect in life. Or, when something unexpected happens, we either try to make it fit within our existing expectations or reform the expectations all together.

The book of the Acts of the Apostles begins with the greeting “Dear Theophilus” and references how the author has already described the life and work of Jesus up to his ressurection. That was the gospel of Luke. Luke and Acts were written together, in the 80s, to describe the full arc of the Jesus movement.  They are a well-constructed history of Jesus making an argument for his messiahship. There is no sense or claim, especially in Acts, that these words came together through divine inspiration or dictation. Instead, the author researched the alleged happenings and is now interpreting those stories of Jesus for his audience. He is explaining the meaning of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection as well as the actions of his followers.

That’s a pretty good description of my job, and Pr. Hannah’s. You searched for and hired people trained in Christian history and theology and ritual in order to continue to find or make meaning in the stories of Jesus and his disciples with you.
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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.
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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