Bitterness Turned to Joy: Genesis 18.1-15, 21.1-7

Bitterness Turned to Joy: Genesis 18.1-15, 21.1-7
Delivered at Ames UCC on September 15, 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. Lastly, this sermon is somewhat shorter as we also had a powerful testimony from a congregant offered during worship.

CHILDREN

We are blessed, and I don’t use that word casually, blessed by the presence of many infants, toddlers, children, and youth at Ames UCC. Zillions it seems, some days.

This is a place that their parents, grandparents, and guardians have identified as safe, nurturing, and accepting. A place where their little and ever-growing ones will find their own voices. Where they can build friendships that will withstand the schoolyard struggles of cliques and apps, the home side worries of money, divorce, even death.

This abundance has been no accident. We have created such a place, such a church together, through intentional choices. It has taken thoughtfulness and the commitment of money and time, like the pledges we are invited to make by the end of September, to build essential ministries and retain exceptional staff.

It has also taken a particular posture toward children and youth. We have as a body, as part of Christ’s body, heeded his example of embracing all children not only as our own, but as people with their own insights and knowledge. They are not dumb clay for the forming, like the adam in last week’s story, but spiritual beings with lessons of their own to teach.2019.9.17 trust

Our blessed abundance is an interesting contrast to so many of our stories. So many of our stories involve couples who are desperate to have just one child, let alone zillions, but cannot. Like Sarah and Abraham.

SARAH & ABRAHAM

By the time we catch up with them today, Sarah and Abraham are well past their childbearing years. They have been on the road for a long time, having been sent out by God with the promise of birthing a great people. Over the decades they have had run-ins with Pharaoh, tried an end run on God’s promise through a steward and a slave, and had their names changed. Still, no child of their own, let alone a dynasty.

So here we find them encamped, paused in their itinerancy, and visited by other travelers, to whom they offer abundant hospitality. The strangers ask after Sarah and announce that she will bear a child. Sarah rolls her eyes and laughs but, fast forwarding a few chapters, there she is in her 90s having baby Isaac.

Now, as with last week, this story is not intended to be a biological account of a parturient nonagenarian. It is a metaphor. It is a metaphor that can work for us even if we have never been physically infertile, or even wanted to have kids. Many of us can relate to painful frustration and deep hopelessness.

Think about the areas in our shared world where despair and death, a lack of fertility, seem the only or the inevitable outcome. Yemen, Israel, Palestine; Honduras, Brazil, the US-Mexico border; our water, our air; our relationship with guns, our addiction to drugs; our system of government and civil society itself.

On hearing the strange men say she would have a baby, Sarah laughed bitterly to herself, bemoaning her post-menopausal body and impotent husband and lack of sexual pleasure. If someone told us we could birth a solution to all of those problems, or even one, we would probably sputter out a guffaw of our own, thinking, “After we have gone this far, after our troubles have become so aged, after our partners in problem solving so intransigent, shall we yet know relief?” Pffft!

YES

“Yes,” God says, “yes. Maybe not in your lifetime. Maybe at an age beyond your oldest possible age. But hear me say that fertility, which is new life and new possibilities, is not bound by the limited bodies and limited time of humans. I asked Abraham and Sarah to walk so far and for so long not only to test their faith, though surely it did, but to send you all a message. The stream of the life eternal begun at creation has carried the redemption of life in its waves and its wake since before you were born and will carry it on well after you. Trust me.”

As so we do, or try, because coming to church is an act of trust. It isn’t like movie or a club. Corporate faith practices are not consumer products that we select only because they make us feel good, or make us feel like we are on the side of right, and everyone else wrong.

In2019.9.15 worshipstead, this life with worship is tent-setting. It is trusting an open-ended and ancient path of promise, with companions unpredictable. It is a trusting a future not only beyond our control but beyond our view.

Except maybe through our kids.

In the face of our grown-up and aged death-dealing the blessing of these children and youth is their embodiment of God’s persistent life-giving.

So in spite of the bitterness of our world, our laughter can be one one of joy, too.

For Sarah, it was joy at the fulfillment of God’s promise but also the fulfillment of the promise when it had become impossible for her and Abraham to do so alone. Joy born of the outcome and the means: a holiness with capacities far greater than our own.

We laugh with joy along with our kids here, not only because they are talented and smart and funny and not of their potential for continuing the traditions we so love after us. We laugh with them for joy because, despite our inevitable deaths, they remind us there has always been and will always be a greater holy life.

AMEN

Already and Always a Blessing: Genesis 12.1–9


2018.9.13 spark
Delivered at Ames UCC
on September 16, 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.

NOT MUCH
Well, there’s not really enough in this passage for me to work with, is there? The action is pretty limited: God tells Abram to go, he does, God promises Abram some land, Abram builds an altar.

There isn’t much language or symbolism for me to unpack, either. Bethel can mean “house of God” and if Bethel, the house of God or the garden of Eden, is to the west of where Abram built an altar, we could hear that to the east of Eden Abram still found cause to thank God. To echo last week’s story, despite how far humanity had come from the garden, Abram as everyman constructs a reminder that God is present no matter where we go.

In a different context, I might speak to the issue of God offering up another peoples’ land to Abram, but I think that would be a negative lesson, and we have enough negative lessons these days.

So, again, not really enough to work with for a sermon. I wonder if Abram felt the same way about himself when God called him out.

CALLED
We don’t know anything about Abram at this point beyond his age of 75, that he is a descendent of Noah, and that his wife Sarai is infertile.

We do not know anything of Abram’s character or why God would choose him. There are no tales of his chivalry or wisdom or might or piety. Noah, his great-to-the-eight grandfather, is described as a blameless and righteous man, but not Abram.

Abram is just an old guy, by ancient Mesopotamian standards, who lives with his wife and nephew, and one day is told by God “You shall be a blessing and all the earth shall be blessed through you.”

Woah! Where did that come from, God? I wonder if Abram felt confused and overwhelmed, and like maybe he didn’t have enough for God to work with, not enough for blessing the whole earth. Perhaps you don’t believe you have enough to be a blessing either.
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Sing a New Song: Hymn Sing Sunday


Delivered at Ames UCC on September 3, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
Please join us Sundays at 10:30 a.m.
All are welcome.

Our church spent this Sunday almost entirely in song, and old classics at that: “This is My Father’s World,” “Spirit, Spirit of Gentleness,” “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” “When Peace, Like a River (It is Well with My Soul),” “This Little Light of Mine,” “Lift High the Cross,” “I Love To Tell The Story,” “How Great Thou Art,” and “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” It was an opportunity to remember who we have been and see who we are still becoming.

MY SCHOOL
Some of you know that I grew up in two churches. There was my family’s Lutheran church plus the church that was the Episcopal school I attended from 3rd through 12th grade.

At that school, I attended chapel services once a week. The chapel is a beautiful space, one of those 60s-built blonde wood designs with loads of light and space. I remember not being impressed when the chapel’s congregation—because there was one separate from the school—installed stations of the cross on the wall. I thought it was too cluttered. There is an altar, rather than a Communion table, so when we received Communion we did so at a railing, on our knees. The same was true at my home church.

In that chapel we celebrated the start of school and the end of school. We had a rowdy Christmas tradition of singing the twelve days with each grade doing their corresponding verse. Seniors partnered with first graders to help them be loud. We also mourned there when several of our classmates and a teacher died in an accident. But mostly I think that we fidgeted there. We would flip through the books of worship and giggle as we read the marriage vows to each other.

I also remember a period of time when we had a music instructor, John Hoffacker, who is now a choral director in Minnesota.

LIFT HIGH THE CROSS
Mr. Hoffacker had us meet in the chapel for several weeks, at least, to learn the hymn we just sang, “Lift High the Cross.” I don’t remember the occasion—maybe a bishop visit?

But I do remember how he taught us the hymn: First, we just sang it in classic mainline white Protestant teenager style. Commonly known as monotone: “lifthighthecrosstheloveofchristproclaim.” Then he hollered at us for sounding like a bunch of White mainline Protestant teenagers, telling us to belt it out. So, compliantly, we screamed it: “LIFT HIGH THE CROSS, THE LOVE OF CHRIST PROCLAIM.” We all thought we were hilarious.

But in the end, after practicing and studying the words, were able to sing it with meaning. And any time that memory surfaces, I am filled with love for my school and love for the God who inspires such resounding joy.
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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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Infertility and Righteous Women: Genesis 18.1–15, 21.1–7

Infertility & the Company of Righteous WomenDelivered at Ames UCC on September 20, 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.

VERY HARD
Sarah’s story can be among the very hardest for women who are struggling with fertility.

Pregnancy, for the majority of women, comes without much effort. Have sex with a fertile man at the right time of the month and, nine months later, you have a baby. But it is not that easy for all women. Not all women’s bodies are able to carry every pregnancy to term.

Current data from the National Institutes of Medicine show that 15–20% of women who know they are pregnant will lose that pregnancy. That’s a pretty large percentage, and one that begs the question of why the church has not yet developed good rituals for such losses.
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