What is the Next Right Thing?: Philippians 1.1–18a

2018.5.6 indecentDelivered at Urbandale UCC
on May 6, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

GREETINGS
Grace to you, Urbandale UCC, and peace from God our Creator and your siblings in faith and in wonder at Ames UCC. I am Eileen Gebbie, the senior minister at Ames UCC, where I have the honor of serving with Pr. Hannah Hannover, the minister for families with kids (and the rest of us).

We are the oldest church in Ames, having beat out the United Methodists across the street by one year, and worship in a classic brick sanctuary. But on the exterior of our traditional space are testimonies to our contemporary faith: a God is Still Speaking rainbow banner and another proclaiming our love of our Muslim neighbors and all refugees.

We have been a Just Peace church since 1986, and a devoted team rings our memorial bell every Wednesday as a reminder. And we have been Open and Affirming for 18 years. I understand that next week you are celebrating the 25th anniversary of your own vote to become Open and Affirming. That would have been in 1993, if my math is right.

BALLOT MEASURE 9
In 1993 I was in my home town of Portland, Oregon. In the fall of 1992, I and my fellow Oregonians voted on the first anti-gay ballot measure in the United States. I should clarify, it was the first anti-gay and anti-pedophile ballot measure in the U.S. because the authors assumed they were one and the same.

In the year leading up to that vote, the measure’s supporters threw every homophobic and ignorant argument at us that you can imagine and that I cannot repeat in a house of God. But, of course, they did it in the name of God. In the name of God they conflated love with abuse, mutuality with violence. It was ugly. The late Donna Red Wing was on the forefront of our defense and received death threats as thanks.

I wish I could say the results offered redemption, but they didn’t really: We defeated the measure by only 56%. Not 90%, not 80%, not even 70%. Not a number that would demonstrate that ignorance and religious bigotry were minority positions to rebut and a minor problem to solve. It left me shaky. And it landed me, with many others, firmly and far beyond the walls of any Christian church.

I know that Iowa has been on the forefront of gay rights, and that gay marriage became legal here in 2009, but I can imagine that in 1993 there were plenty of Christian people in Iowa who would have agreed with the Christian people in Oregon who favored legal bigotry.

That’s the environment in which this Christian church offered a different witness to God in Christ. That’s the culture in which this Christian community stood in solidarity with their—our— queer siblings in Christ.

The same queer solidarity that got Jesus killed and kept his movement alive.

SOLIDARITY
Look at the company Jesus kept: At any given moment he may have been with women householders like Martha, compromised tax collectors like Zacchaeus, bereft Roman soldiers like the one with the sick servant, bereft fathers who begged for the life of their daughters when so many other Biblical dads let them die or worse, hungry people who needed food and rich people who eventually paid for his grave.

The company Jesus kept was indecent, it was improper, and it went against all that was socially right. The disciples and apostles, like Paul, kept it up after the Easter mystery.

PAUL
Paul, the Jewish Roman citizen and persecutor of followers of the Way, had an epiphanic encounter with his God through Christ, and became a most fervent teacher, preacher, and traveler on behalf of that same Way he once scorned. Paul traveled thousands of miles over hundreds of hours to nurture the growth of countercultural holy feasts and practical care.

It was hard.

There’s evidence in the letters to the Corinthians and to the Galatians that Paul and other preachers did not agree. The Acts of the Apostles reveal tense negotiations between Paul, who never met Jesus the man, and the disciples who had.

And Paul can be as hard on us as any contemporary oppressor, like all of that business about silent women and obedient slaves. That’s not gospel, that’s not good news; that’s cultural violence.

But Paul did follow Jesus’s radical relationality by bring together people who were Jewish and those who were not. And he did leave us with a model of passionate service and public love, as in the opening of this letter to the Philippians:

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.

That’s how I feel being in a space that has for 25 years offered a living, Christ-like solidarity, one that has wrestled with the baggage of our religious tradition to bear witness to the truth of our faith. You have practiced passionate service and public love. And I thank God for knowing of you. Because of you, I have joy to pray. And, as Paul shows, such joy and thanks leads to hope.

NEXT?

And this is my prayer, Paul continues, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best

Paul hopes that the Philippians’ faithfulness to the queer company of Christ will lead to more knowledge and insight so that they will always do what is best.

2018.5.6 white churchesI share this hope and this prayer for the entire United Church of Christ. As far as the UCC has come in welcoming people who are LGBTQIA, we are still only 30% officially Open and Affirming.

And despite our significant accomplishments for racial justice, we remain a highly racially segregated branch of the Christian family tree.

As of 2016, 86% of UCC churches are overwhelmingly or exclusively white. Only 5% of our churches identify as multiracial. In their statistical reporting, the national church notes that in 2006 the number of white churches was at 90% and multiracial at 1%, so there has been some movement toward the middle, but not much.

Why have we been more successful in the ONA movement than movements for other marginalized, demonized, and falsely characterized people?

Is there anything each of our churches might do or stop doing to be more genuinely welcoming and safe for people of color? Not for our sake, not so that we white people can feel good about ourselves, but for the sake of the body of Christ.

Who have we left outside the church walls now?

How will we continue to be counter-cultural feast-makers and practical caregivers?

How might the passionate service and public love we celebrate today overflow into more knowledge and insight to help us know what to do next?

FINAL THANKS
I am glad for the opportunity the Central Association of the Iowa Conference of the UCC provided to remind us that the church is bigger than our individual congregations.

It means that the body of Christ, that queer configuration of grace, repentance, feasting, prayer, humility, boldness, justice and every variety of human expression imaginable is even bigger still.

I thank God when I remember this.

And, again, I thank you.

I do not know if the vote 25 years ago was easy or it was hard, but either way, I know that it put you firmly on that old and dusty Way.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

AMEN

Equality before God: Acts 17.16–31

2918.4.19 fallDelivered at Ames UCC  on April 29, 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.

WARNING
A word of caution before I fully begin: Today I’m going to touch on violence against women.

If that is too raw a topic for you, too personal a pain, feel free to step outside into the beautiful air for ten minutes or go get some coffee in the Fellowship Hall. Do so knowing that you have done nothing to deserve the pain you have suffered, absolutely nothing. But I do hope you will come back for our song and prayer, for the good news of this community of peace, healing, and love.

Let’s all stand for a moment to stretch so that if anyone feels like leaving, she may do so unselfconsciously. Thank you.

ATHENS
Today Paul is in Athens, having left Philippi to continue his work of nurturing holy feast communities. That’s a 410-mile, or 118-hour, hike. Added to last week’s total, that’s at least 1,800 miles and 500 hours he’s gone for the love of God and God’s love of all people.

Athenians were known for their intellectual curiosity, so it is no surprise that outside of the Areopagus (the main administrative building) Paul finds people to engage with, in debate and conversation. The passage says that in addition to everyday Joes, Paul encounters followers of different philosophical schools.1

Paul calls attention to a local altar with an inscription that reads “To an unknown God.”

But God is known, Paul says. Look to Genesis he says. That is the God known and knowable by virtue of our existence here today. We may think we are searching for God, but God is always near. And God hopes we will return our attention to God. God hopes that we will finally return to the potential with which we are all gifted.

Humanity clearly has a very hard time with seeing each other as equally gifted of God, equally beloved of God.

TORONTO
As you know, in the week since we were last together, ten people were murdered and 15 injured by a man driving a van; he just plowed into them.

In some ways this event is unremarkable. Motor vehicles as weapons are becoming increasingly common. And the death toll was also not nearly as severe as in other terroristic events over this last year.

But this particular crime, this particular criminal, returned to light a vicious ideology promulgated online. In it, straight men who have not been sexually active rail against men who have been and the women who have “denied” them. Members of this “community” have encouraged each other to castrate sexually active men and to rape all women, among other things. In this online space, the Toronto van driver has been praised as a saint.

At the core of this ideology is entitlement: entitlement to the bodies of women. The men—and it is only men who promulgate this position—are angry because they have not gotten what they feel is rightly theirs. Which is not new: Entitlement to female bodies has been around as long as there have been females.

What is different with Toronto is the weaponization of the hate and the application of that weapon at a larger and random scale. This isn’t a stalker obsessed with one woman. This isn’t an ex-husband who goes on to kill an ex-wife. These are straight men who have become so obsessed with their lack of sex, and so unwilling to look to their own part in that reality, that they have made what they call “involuntary celibacy” the fault of all women, and so the death of any women will do.

Our own ideology, our religion, is not free from such violent misogyny. Just open the Bible. When the townspeople want to attack your houseguests? Send out your daughters to be raped instead. That’s the story of Sodom. Want a baby? Rape your slave. That’s Abraham and Hagar. And, really from the start, women are nothing but trouble for men. Just look at Eve tricking Adam into eating the forbidden fruit.

No. Let’s not. Let’s not give any more credence to that old lie. But do let’s go to Eden. Do let’s go to the God of Genesis as Paul suggests.

2018.4.29 adamEDEN
Please recall that Genesis is a theological exploration of the relationship between the world and divinity, not a biology textbook, so please hear the following as metaphor.

In Eden, in the garden, God makes a rather queer being, the adam. The adam is queer in the sense that it was, as yet, unusual and unique in its nature. It was also queer in the sense that it contained all manner and potential of human gender, and biological, and sexual expression.

Into the adam God breathes life. Then God invites the adam to split, to serve as the original chromosomal pair, and so we have male and female. And we can say now that was just the first division. Biology is not so binary.

Things go well for awhile in Eden. Then they don’t.

A being of God’s own creating, a snake, a fellow God-born garden-dweller approaches the female and the male. It invites the female to eat a pomegranate. She does. She invites the male to do the same. He does.

The two feel ashamed as they hear God coming toward them through the garden. God learns what has happened and is upset. The humans are banished. In their banishment, the male and female have children, two boys. One of those boys grows up to kill the other.

It’s a mess. Our story about the relationship between holiness and humanity is of initial unity with God quickly destroyed by forces we could not resist, immaturity we could not conquer, and emotions we could not contain.

2018.4.29 internetForces we cannot resist, immaturity we cannot conquer, and emotions we cannot contain: sounds just like the Internet, doesn’t it?

DOESN’T HAVE TO
But it doesn’t have to.

That’s the story of Genesis: This world doesn’t have to sound, feel, and act like Eve, Adam, Cain, and Abel. It does not have to include male supremacism, nor any of the other hierarchies of hate.

Adam blames Eve for his choice. He does not take responsibility for his own actions. He could have. He could have been honest about what he had done without pointing a finger at her.

Cain is jealous of his brother Abel God says to Cain,

Why are you angry…sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you but you must master it. (Genesis 4.6–7)

Cain could have kept that creature at the door and spared his brother’s life its rage.

And before all of that, Eve and Adam could have remembered that they were never alone in the garden.

The story says that only after eating the apple do Eve and Adam hear God walking toward them. This makes God sound more like a superhuman being rather than a literally universal life force.

Since that is not possible, it must be that in the time it took for the snake to get their attention, the humans forgot about God. For a brief moment their senses became so narrow that they lost their awareness of God’s constant presence. That same constant presence Paul preached on at the Areopagus. That same God that is known and knowable, ever ready for the return of our attention.

START WALKING
Genesis is an exceptional book because of the accuracy, not of its geology and biology, but of its depiction of the human condition: We blame, we get jealous, we kill. Look at Toronto.

But it grounds that depiction in a unity with each other, the queer adam from whence we all come and whose legacy of divine breath we all yet breathe. Whatever else is in the Bible, whatever else we need to banish from being promoted as religious truth, in the beginning we were equal, we were one.

2018.4.29 snakeGod is still calling us to return to that potential with which we are all gifted. So we must teach our children that the only body they may claim is their own and never believe anyone who tells them differently.

And we need to do both in the name of the God of Genesis with as much fervor and intensity as all of the people online combined. If Paul could spread God’s good news by walking for thousands of miles without the benefit of real shoes, imagine how far we can go.

Let me end by saying that if you, any of you, of any sex, of any gender, have ever been assaulted and need to speak of the violence you’ve endured, you can tell me or Pr. Hannah. And if you are currently being hurt in your home or elsewhere, do tell me or Pr. Hannah. Together, be assured, we will get you free.

As for the rest of us, let us not be distracted by the snakes of misogyny. Let us join with the real saints in light in the public square, at city hall, in our schools, at our workplaces, to share the good news of our equality and our unity in God. That is our human story, that is our human song.

AMEN

1 Levine, Amy-Jill, ed. 2011. Jewish Annotated New Testament Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Treasuring God: 1 Kings 5.1–5, 8.1–13


divine love
Delivered at Ames UCC
on October 29, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

This service of worship was unusual, for several reasons. First, I broke with my rigid adherence to liturgical tradition in order to wear an Easter white stole that celebrates the rainbow of God’s people. Second, during the sermon I invited the congregation to have conversations in small groups. Third, much of my preaching went off-script in response to those conversations. And, fourth and finally, we ended the service by standing in a circle to sing “Blessed be the Ties that Bind.” In moments of crisis, I am both grateful for and awed by the gifts our tradition provides, the tools we have ready-made to help us understand our world and to remain faithful to God. —Pr. Eileen Gebbie

THE ARK OF THE COVENANT
The Ark of the Covenant makes its first appearance in Exodus 25. The freed Hebrew slaves are in the desert. God gives Moses instruction for how to build a tabernacle—that word in Hebrew is abode—that the people could carry with them on their journey. As part of that portable worship space, God describes the construction of the Ark, including the cherubim from today’s reading but also a lot of gold:

11You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside you shall overlay it, and you shall make a moulding of gold upon it all round. 12You shall cast four rings of gold for it and put them on its four feet, two rings on one side of it, and two rings on the other side. 13You shall make poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold. 17Then you shall make a mercy-seat of pure gold; two cubits and a half shall be its length, and a cubit and a half its width. 18You shall make two cherubim of gold; you shall make them of hammered work, at the two ends of the mercy-seat. 21You shall put the mercy-seat on the top of the ark; and in the ark you shall put the covenant that I shall give you.

Gorgeous-sounding, no?

When everything is complete, the story goes, the Ark is then hidden behind a curtain and a cloud comes over everything, with God’s glory filling the tabernacle. From then on, the people only continue their travels when the cloud clears; they stay put when it does not. Although we have reason to chuckle at the freed Hebrews taking 40 years to make an 11-day walk, it seems that God played a part in their pace.

Later on, once the people had found the promised land (or colonized it, depending on your perspective) the Israelites try to use the ark for their own purposes. In 1 Samuel we learn that the Israelites are at war against the Philistines. It isn’t going well so the leaders bring out the ark, hoping it will save them.

It doesn’t. The Philistines win and the Ark is taken as a prize.

But the Ark isn’t totally inert or powerless: Once placed in a temple with the god of the Philistines, it begins to wreak havoc. First, the statue of the Philistine god falls apart and the people become infested with tumors, hemorrhoids, or the bubonic plague, depending on which translation you read. The Philistines return it with offerings of gold shaped as tumors, hemorrhoids, or buboes.

ABOMINATIONS AND APOSTATES
You may now be thinking to yourself, “Well now, that is all very interesting, but what about the hate mail?” Let’s talk about that now.

As most of you likely know by now, a blogger who describes herself as Christian and uses a punching fist as her logo sicced her hundreds of thousands of online followers on our church.

Why? Because of our Halloween party. Continue reading

Des Moines Register Op-Ed

On Saturday, October 28, 2017, the Des Moines Register published this Op-Ed piece, Ames church deserves kudos, not hate Campaign, for inclusive Halloween party for teens by Rekha Basu, in support of my church, the Ames United Church of Christ, after it suffered online attacks from a blogger and her followers. Thanks to the Des Moines Register for spreading the good news about our work.

Love Wins

22218394_1674120785954907_6048896865063890605_oOn the evening of Tuesday, October 24, a Christian blogger posted about a planned Halloween party at my church. The party was explcitly for LGBTQIA+ kids and their friends. When I got up on Wednesday, October 25, the day of the party, I was met by the now all-too-common violence that the Internet facilitates so well.

Below is an email I sent to the congregation in response to this. I also posted it on our Facebook page. As of this writing, my message has been seen by over 63,000 people—and we have gained nearly 200 new followers on our Facebook page. God’s good news of radical welcome will always find a way!

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

The United Church of Christ has, as a national denomination, long been on the forefront of not only prophetic witness but prophetic action. We have heard God’s call not to be a stiff-necked people or to make false idols. Therefore, we resist the temptation to deny scientific knowledge or worship the Bible as if it is God rather than precious stories about God. Ours is a faith found in the intersection of our sacred scripture, prayer, and life lived in Christian community.

Recently, fellow seekers of God from different branches of the Christian family tree have been critical of our Open and Affirming (ONA) position and a Halloween event that specifically welcomes LGBTQIA+ youth and their friends. The result has been a barrage of online messages and Facebook posts, some simply curious and others clearly bullying.

On the eve of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, this moment is a reminder that there has never been one kind of Christianity. Not in the days and months after the ministry, murder, and mystery of Jesus Christ, nor in the centuries since. At Ames United Church of Christ, we stand confidently in our conviction that the diversity of human gender and sexual expression is just one more example of the gorgeous outcome of God’s invitation to create with the tehom, a truth with basis not only in love but in biology.

My request to those who stand in solidarity with our church’s expression of faith is to not engage with online posters, bullies, or trolls. I know the temptation, but in cyberspace there is no potential for conversation, not the kind Jesus calls us to have face-to-face and heart-to-heart.

If you are so moved, you are welcome to give the church a high rating on our Facebook page, make an independent post on our “wall,” and to be with us in worship on Sunday, October 29 at 10:30 a.m. The topic is why building temples to God is a way to avoid a spiritual journey with God. Perhaps that is where some of this distress is rooted: Ames United Church of Christ is choosing God over the temples of tradition, fear, and ignorance.

Yours along The Way,

The Rev. Eileen Gebbie, MA, MDiv
Senior Minister