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

Dive in Here: Genesis 2.4b-13

Dive in Here: Genesis 2.4b-13

Delivered at Ames UCC on September 8, 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.

NO HELL

You may have picked up, over these last four years, that I’m not a heaven and hell preacher. The notion of realms of absolute joy and absolute pain don’t rightly flow from the more complicated picture of God we have received from our ancestors. What makes more sense to me is the phrase you’ve heard me pray so many Sundays: streams of the life eternal. The same streams that are part of today’s creation story.

CREATION

This is actually the second of our two creation stories.

T2019.9.8 streamhe first version describes how “the earth…was welter and waste” with darkness all around, and God’s breath hovered over waters and God invited light. Through six days God invited more creation to come forth, pausing after each cycle and seeing that “it was good.” On the sixth day our ancestors invite us to picture God as saying, “Let us make a human in our image.” That divine multiplicity, the holy Our, makes a human in its own images, makes multiple humans in their image. And then there was rest.

God in this first account is gentle, rhythmic, flowing like those original waters, soaring like the fowl over the earth, holding the power to ordain an entire day as hallowed.

Quickly, though, in the second account, our view is taken down from the sky and up from the sea, right onto Earth. In our Wednesday evening Bible study last week, Leah suggested the second account isn’t so much a different story of creation but a zooming in on the details skipped in the broad strokes of the first.

So focused, we see God handling, manipulating, fashioning first human. There’s a Hebraic pun at work here in the originals that does not translate well into English: Soil is ‘adamah and a generic human is ‘adam. So from ‘adamah God fashions ‘adam. It would be like saying from soil God created “so” or from putty God created “put.”

In this first human there is no sexual differentiation. It is yet neutral, neutered. God gives that human the same breath, the ruach, that had hovered, that had fluttered, over the deep in the first creation account.

God places then places that original potentiality into a beautiful garden, one including with the tree of life itself as well as one of “weal and woe,” good and evil. From that garden, from the first human home and the refuge of God’s greatest treasure, flows a river and then flows streams: Pishon, Gihon, as we heard read, and if we’d kept going, the Tigris and Euphrates. Life begins and then life flows.

Neither version is a scientific account, nor do they claim to be. They are theological speculations on the presence of holiness in the actual chaos of creation and evolution. They are theological instructions on how to live with God in this world.

Which is also a description of church.

CHURCH

In this place, we thoughtfully, and often joyfully, consider where God is in the midst and the mess. We look to these gorgeous, and often perplexing, myths and poems and prose as well as the ongoing revelation of God in our lives, to make choices about how to best, how to most creatively, as in creation-ly, move through the world.

Our church confronts the realities of good and evil while being serenaded by the contemporary tributaries of that original life-giving river. We call those tributaries Holy Baptism and Holy Communion; Godly Play and Youth Group; Learning Center and Unscripted; fellowship groups and Bible study; AMOS, CROP Walk, Emergency Residence Shelter, Good Neighbor Emergency Assistance, and Pridefest; Caring Network, cards of care, Matthew 25 Ministers, and this our communal prayer and praise.

LIFE ETERNAL

I don’t believe we go into an eternal life at death because has been eternal since before our births. Billions of years ago it began and billions of years it will continue.

The forms have changed and will continue to do so, but carbon, water, light, they collide and recreate and illuminate in cycles of newness and endings eternal. And we are in the midst, the water and carbon that came together to make us someday falling away again the light of our souls reforming.

The question the stream of life eternal asks is not that which St. Peter would ask at a singular encounter at some pearly gates, but an ongoing query about which tributaries we will walk along, which we will avoid, and which we will dive into wholly.

2019.9.8 lapisThe land of the river Pishon had gold, bdellium, and lapis lazuli—or currency, a useful resin, and beautiful ornaments. The land of the river Ames UCC has integrity, accountability, and love, the currency, useful tool, and ornamentation needed for this day.

On this day of beginnings, in scripture and in our church’s ministry year, I invite you to dive in here. Over the days, weeks, months, and years to come, make this your place of immersion, your garden rooted.

Seek here, together, the breath-taking gifts of learning from generations before. Seek here, together, renewal of God’s gift of breath to all.

AMEN

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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Light in You: Matthew 9.19–34

Delivered at Ames UCC on August 19, 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.

2018.8.19 lampSTEWARDSHIP
I suspect that more than a handful of you, on seeing the cover of our bulletin today, thought, “Oh, she’s going to preach about giving money to the church. But isn’t it too early for the pledge drive?”

Yes, it is. It will be another four weeks before you receive a letter and pledge card along with a proposed budget that would fund the dreams of our church leadership teams. And though this is the first of three sermons on stewardship, I’m not going to speak to your time, talent, and treasure today.

Instead, I want to speak to your spark. Actually, I’m going to invite you to let Jesus speak to it.

MATTHEW 6
My preaching professor once said that sometimes we need to let scripture speak for itself, let the passage do all of the work. This passage does both well, as Jesus’s meaning here is not hard to find, particularly once returned to its larger context. In this case: a very long speech by Jesus.
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No Fear, No Desperation: Exodus 32.1–14

husharborDelivered at Ames UCC
on October 9, 2016

©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.

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

Sermons are written to be
heard rather than read.

Please join us for worship
at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays.

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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Pledge to Bring God’s Vision to Life: Genesis 37.3–8, 17b–22, 26–34, 50.15–21

bustedupfamilyDelivered at Ames UCC
on September 25, 2016

©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.

JOSEPH’S STORY
Our schedule of scripture this fall is taking us on an interesting walk through the formation, the dissolution, and legacies of families.

It began with the first human, split then into two. The first two humans betray God. But they live to make a family. One of those children betrays God, parents, and a brother through murder. But the generations persist.

Last week we met Abraham and Sarah. Abraham and Sarah were old and infertile and without home. They were cynical but they were also kind. And eventually Abraham and Sarah had a child together. That child, Isaac, came with the promise of many more generations to come.

Isaac and his wife Rebekah have two children, children are Jacob and Esau. Jacob acts up a lot. He steals his brother Esau’s rights as first born son. Jacob dreams of heaven and he wrestles with an angel, Jacob becomes Israel. Israel has four wives and many children. But with Rachel he has Joseph.

As much of Joseph’s story that we heard today, we skipped a lot. Once enslaved in Egypt, Joseph is able to outsmart a false assault charge and rise to the ranks of highest power in Pharaoh’s court. Thanks to going through these terrible trials, Joseph is in the position to influence power when he has dreams of famine and the need to be prepared. Joseph saves his master and even his own cruel brothers from starving to death.

Joseph ultimately forgives those brothers, is reunited with his father Jacob/Israel, and is able to mourn him when he dies. Joseph, the youngest brother, then becomes the patriarch of the clan and lives to see many generations after himself.

Between the international and court politics, and the jealousy, and the forgiveness it is a truly rich story. But I want to start today with dreams that provide for the future. I want to talk about stewardship.
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Jacob’s Greed and Our Pledges: Genesis 32.22–30

Delivered at Ames UCC on September 27, 2015
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
We worship at 10:45 a.m. Please join us.

FAMILY OF ORIGIN
Unlike so much of the gospels, which have pretty discrete stories, Jacob’s saga is long and complicated. We cannot read any of the episodes independently as we might a parable.

Jacob is the child of Isaac and Rebekah. Remember, Isaac is the miracle child of Abraham and Sarah. So Jacob is part of the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah: that they would have a home and a great many descendants.

Jacob was born a twin. His brother is Esau. Esau was born first, with Jacob holding onto his heel as if to hold him back or shove him aside so that Jacob himself might be first born. Even as they grew, Jacob wouldn’t let the issue go. Esau came home very hungry one day. Jacob offered him some lentil stew on the condition that Esau give up his birthright. Esau did.
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