The Words of Our Faith: Philippians 2.1–13

2018.5.13 no wayDelivered at Ames UCC
on May 13, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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OMAR IBN SAID
In the very early 1800s there was a man named Omar ibn Said. He was educated, he tithed, and he taught his Muslim faith to the children of his community in Senegal. Then, at age 37, married and with a family, Omar was kidnapped during a raid, and put to sea on one of the last ships to participate in the Atlantic slave trade before it was banned. Despite being a small and delicate man, Omar survived the middle passage, those six weeks below deck of filth, starvation, stench, and fear. In the autobiography he wrote years later, Omar said that on his arrival at the slave auctions in Charleston, South Carolina, “In a Christian language they sold me.”

However, Omar escaped from the man who would own him. He walked 200 miles, but even though he was under threat for every inch of those miles, he did not give up his practice of praying five times each day. Unfortunately, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Omar ibn Said was captured and jailed.

Then Omar did something remarkable, at least to the white people of Fayetteville.

As the account of Omar I’m basing this on notes, white people were used to being around black people and African people, and they were used to believing that black people and African people were all ignorant subhuman animals, who would do no more than toil and birth more property. Imagine their reaction when Omar ibn Said covered the walls of his jail cell with Arabic. In Arabic, Omar scratched out verses from the Koran that presumably already had and would continue to sustain him in his life before and certainly during captivity.

The white people were agog.

In our reading today, Paul is scratching out a Christian hymn that presumably already had and would continue to sustain him in his own life before and during captivity.

2018.5.13 witnessCHRIST HYMN
Because in addition to walking and preaching and teaching over thousands of miles all for the love of God and God’s love of all people, Paul also repeatedly went to jail for that very work. That’s where he is as he writes this letter to the emerging church in Philippi.

While jailed, Paul was visited by Epaphroditus, who delivered gifts from the Philippians. This letter serves as a thank you note for that support, and offers furthers guidance for persevering in their faith, even when there are struggles and struggles in their church. That guidance, that guide, is the vision of God in Christ expressed in verses 5–11, which you see offset in your bulletin today.

Known as the Christ Hymn, the words are not Paul’s, but most likely by another, otherwise unknown author and were probably sung by Paul and the Philippians in worship, maybe as part of the rite of baptism.1 The hymn teaches the singers to share in the mind of Christ: Be humble, take risks, give thanks to God.

What a comfort that must have been to Paul. What a comfort, even as a newcomer to a brand-new expression of faith, to have those lines to present in his mind. Not only memorized, but tattooed on his heart, just like those Koranic verses were for Omar ibn Said, so that their meaning could be useful in a time of trial.

OUR HEARTS
What do you think you have tattooed on your hearts?

What holy, weathered, and well-loved words would sustain us should we find ourselves suddenly captive, like Omar, or predictably jailed, like Paul?

I imagine many of us know the Lord’s Prayer by heart. And the more I pray it, the more layers and life I find within each word, as it moves from giving praise, to naming the goal, to asking for sustenance, to confessing brokenness, to requesting protection, and to a conclusion of joyous surrender.

I know

Love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might and your neighbor as yourself.

and

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.

and snippets from psalms Mary’s Magnificat and the Beatitudes and Genesis.

I have a lot of refrains from hymns to draw on; I’ll spare you those recitations.

But what if I prayed fives times each day, no matter what, like Omar ibn Said did two hundred years ago and billions of Muslims do to this day?

In 2018 I’ve taken on the discipline of praying the divine hours, also known as the divine office. It’s a Christian practice of fixed 2018.5.13 lords prayerhour prayers that go from the time of rising through bedtime: lauds, midday, vespers, and compline. Each hour’s prayer can take as little as five minutes, but the inertia of habits and the easy distractions of measurable outcomes and laundry can be a struggle to overcome.

JUST DO IT
Then I learn about Omar ibn Said and I hear Paul’s continued instruction from prison:

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for (God’s) good pleasure.

Yes, Philippians, yes, Amesians, faith work is hard and faith community is hard, but do the work of faith anyway. Don’t make excuses or be seduced by false comforts. Learn to pray, be in worship, commit to community.

Do the work of faith for you do not do so alone or only for yourself. There is no solitary prayer, or baptism, or communion.

The moment we open our mouths or our hands, we are not speaking or working only for or with ourselves but with the voice of the whirlwind, the hands that carried babies out of slavery, the centuries of disciples whose witness has proven just how weak the forces of nonbeing really are.

Even though on the run, the words of his faith allowed Omar to rest within the holy collective. Even while in jail, the the words of his faith allowed Paul to step into divine freedom.

That’s what I want for all of us.

That’s what God offers all of us: the way out of no way, the language that names the vision that offers the tools that opens the plantation gates and the jail doors and the shackles of violence, division, and distrust that both bind and divide us at this very moment.

2918.5.13 whirlwindBE READY
In our racist society it is unlikely that many of us here today will be trapped in a jail cell simply for the color of our skin though we could easily be because of how the content of our scripture compels us to fight that racism.

So like Omar ibn Said and Paul, if you haven’t already, find the words of faith that most stir and comfort and energize you. Don’t just memorize them but study them, interrogate them, ask yourself and God why they move you so. Know your own witness. And if you have done all those things already, teach us how and what you have gained from doing so.

Let each of us have the words of our faith at the ready so that even when we are fleeing, we remain grounded, and even when our language cannot be understood, our very ability to use it renders our captors agog.2918.5.13 sell out

And let us never again use our Christian language, the language of Christ, to sell or to sell out other people, but to ever and only bear witness to freedom, peace, righteousness and God’s love for all people.

AMEN

1Coogan, Michael, ed. 2001. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Removal, Resistance, Return: Ezekiel 37.1–14


2017.12.3 resist risk
Delivered at Ames UCC
on December 3, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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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.
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I AM: Exodus 2.23–25, 3.10–15

2017.10.1 redeemDelivered at Ames UCC
on October 1, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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INCONSISTENT
Our church has seen pretty substantial growth over the last year. Really even in the last six months. I’m thrilled. I’m thrilled that this 152-year-old place and this 2,000-year-old religion still have so much life and relevance.

But I’m also surprised. I don’t think I’m supposed to say that, but it is true.

In my experience and in my studies, it is the churches that offer a lot more clarity and control than we do that grow. Most mega-churches are those that offer specific rules for who is inside God’s grace and who is out, as well as specific steps one must take—and specific phrases one must say—in order to get special protection or closeness to God.

We don’t, either in this local UCC church or at the national level.

What we offer is conversation.

What we offer is a framework for hearing Biblical interpretations—worship—then opportunities to seek your own through service and fellowship. We place a high value on taking personal responsibility for unpacking the assumptions about God in Christ each of us has, and constructing and re-constructing theologies and lives based on what new light breaks forth from God’s holy word and our lives.

That is hard.

That is hard because it means we cannot outsource our spiritual journey to a creed or church constitution. It is hard because it means we have to be in community, listening to many voices and perspectives. It is hard because it is unending.

So, in an average year it would surprise me to see such a steep rise in interest in a place that does not provide the comfort of rules. In a year where I have witnessed such groaning for a little stability, so many cries for a break from surprises and uncertainties, I am even more so.

But when I return to today’s encounter between God and Moses, maybe I shouldn’t be. Maybe what we are seeing at this church is the presence of the God of Moses—and an eagerness to be in service to that God like Moses.
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Real Religious Freedom

Published May 5, 2017 in the Ames Tribune

By Eileen Gebbie

Over the last few days I have been watching a friend’s Facebook feed as she tours a plantation-turned-national-historic-place in South Carolina. My friend and the tourist site share the same name because that is where her people were once owned. My friend has been walking freely on the ground where her great-grands once walked while being shackled, bloodied, and denied their humanity. And she reports that such denigration endures: The slave quarters were moved to build a restaurant and a hotel now sits on top of the un-excavated slave cemetery. The experience of the “founding father,” who signed the Declaration of Independence and who lived there, has been restored. But that of the captive humans who made his success possible has been re-written or ignored in favor of commerce and convenience.

I have been reading all of this while watching the U.S. President sign a declaration of religious independence and talk about how rarely enforced tax codes have oppressed people of faith and houses of worship.

The photos of people behind the President as he signed the “Religious Freedom” executive order suggest that the order has diverse, multi-faith support. I cannot speak to the Jewish or Sikh Americans shown on the White House lawn; that is not my place. But to my fellow Christians standing there grinning while wearing vestments and habits and crosses, I say for shame. No American Christian has any right or reason to ever claim persecution or oppression on the basis of religion.
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No Fear, No Desperation: Exodus 32.1–14

husharborDelivered at Ames UCC
on October 9, 2016

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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LEADERSHIP TEAMS
When Genya C. preached on the story of Abraham and Sarah a few weeks ago, she shared how it wasn’t until she helped to launch the Godly Play curriculum for grade schoolers here that she came to know about our church leadership teams. Coming for worship with her family, she hadn’t realized all that happens behind the scenes. Genya is now the head of our Christian Ed team. But it’s the Financial Stewardship team I’ve been highlighting of late. They are charged with just that: the management and solicitation of financial gifts to God through Ames UCC.

Earlier this summer the Financial Stewardship team and I were working on the timeline and strategy for 2017. We looked at October for a good Sunday to set for the pledge deadline. When I glanced at the scripture schedule and saw today’s was about the golden calf, I said, “Oh, it has to be October 9.” Because what better story is there for talking about money and God than one of creating false idols? The preaching possibilities seemed to be many: Don’t make money your idol, money isn’t God, faith isn’t a shiny object.

Actually preparing such a sermon, though, feels bad. The result can only be pastor as finger-wagging nag or holier-than-thou know-it-all. Even if I confessed all of my personal financial mistakes and failures to give generously to church, the physical dynamics of this room would still put me in a position to sound like a real scold.

And it wouldn’t be an accurate depiction of the text.

FLIGHT
Look at what has happened: The people got ready to flee, marked their homes and themselves as loyal to God and then they fled. Their passage out of slavery was terrifying: An army bore down on them; a body of water blocked their way. But they got out. Just as God has done so many times for the subjugated, a way showed up out of no way. The sea of reeds revealed a path and to safety they went.

Or a semblance of safety. Moses and his people didn’t have a destination other than not-Egypt. And they did not have much food. They took on faith that God would guide them to a place where they could live without fear and with sufficient manna.

Once in the wilderness the people found God too loud and shocking, so they asked Moses to do all of the talking. Moses said yes and continued to embody the holy presence that they needed to stay strong. But sometimes Moses went away. Sometimes Moses was called to be in a different kind of communion with the divine, out of their eye sight and ear shot.

He had been gone from the Hebrews for upwards of 40 days by the time they turn to Aaron for help.

I can imagine that might have been stressful. Despite all of the evidence the Hebrew people have that they will be okay, it is still scary to be out of a house, with no permanent kitchen. And they believed that God had abandoned them once before. After all, it felt like God had allowed them to go from power in Pharaoh’s house then down into slavery. So if Moses is their link to God and Moses is gone, a bit of anxiety is understandable.
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Just in Case: Exodus 12.1–13 and 13.1–8

uncertainwildernessDelivered at Ames UCC
on October 2, 2016

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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INTERESTING
I’m going to start with the interesting, and then go to the urgent and the uncertain.

Last week we met Joseph, descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob/Israel. He rose to great power in Egypt. But over time God’s promise of many generations to Joseph’s family became intolerable to the rulers of Egypt. Over time, the pharaohs felt the need to control these alien people as they would enemies, as they would property.

By Moses’ generation, the Hebrew people are enslaved. Moses was born at a time of pogrom so his mother found a way for him to be adopted into Pharaoh’s home. He grew up with a princess for a mom, but had to flee that life of privilege after murdering an overseer who was brutalizing Hebrews.

But God lured him back. God convinced Moses that if he would yes, together they would set Moses’ original people free.

When we catch up with Moses today, God has given Pharaoh the chance to do the right thing. But each time Pharaoh refuses, a plague besets the Egyptian people. After nine refusals and plagues, God promises a tenth and final plague: a virus that will wipe out first born males just as Pharaoh had done so many times himself.

Before taking that final step, though, God needed more people than just Moses, to say yes to liberation.

And so on this night before the great escape it was important for the people to mark themselves and their homes. Like Moses, they needed to formally and publicly declare themselves as ones allegiant to the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob/Israel, and Moses. Thus the shared meal and blood on the lintel.

But that’s not the only way the Hebrews distinguish themselves from others. In this passage we also hear about the establishment of a new Hebrew calendar, a new first month of a new year. It is a new way of tracking time for a new life.

And then they flee, leaving behind God’s destruction.

Here the interesting bit: The ritual meals of unleavened bread and meat likely already existed before any flight from captivity.
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Matthew 6.1–13: Our Debts

disinheritedDelivered at Brookside Park in Ames
on August 14, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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Each summer the members of Ames UCC, First Christian Church, and First Baptist Church all gather at Brookside Park for a joint worship service. The three pastors choose a piece of scripture then divide it into thirds for preaching. We do not coordinate our messages or theme, but trust that God will guide us. Below is my offering on the last third of the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6.11–13) from Sunday, August 14, 2016.

Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.

I’ve been reading Howard Thurman a lot lately. If you’re not familiar with him, Thurman was a 20th century African American pastor, theologian, preacher, writer, and mystic. His Meditations of the Heart is manna for the starved soul. His Jesus and the Disinherited is strength for the oppressed.

At the beginning of the latter he poses a question, a question put to him by a fellow person of color, who asks how Christianity can be the religion of those with their backs against the wall. How can the religion of the conqueror and the colonialist and the keeper of human chattel be the religion of those who suffered the most under each of those systems? Thurman’s questioner concluded, “…sir, I think you are a traitor to the darker peoples of the earth” (p. 5).
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