It’s not a brag if you can back it up

Mt. Lebanon UMC
Cannon UMC
September 28, 2014

Philippians 2:1-13 (CEB)
2 Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, 2 complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other. 3 Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. 4 Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others. 5 Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:

6 Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
7 But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a slave
and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.

9 Therefore, God highly honored him
and gave him a name above all names,
10 so that at the name of Jesus everyone
in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
11 and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

12 Therefore, my loved ones, just as you always obey me, not just when I am present but now even more while I am away, carry out your own salvation with fear and trembling. 13 God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his good purposes.

The Roman colony of Philippi was located right on the border between Europe and Asia, at a sort of strategic break in the hills which meant that it was the simplest and most natural route for travel. In its past, it had also been the home of gold and silver mines. Those mines had long since been exhausted by the time of the early Christian church, but the combination of the wealth from those mines and the strategic location made Philippi a powerful center for business and trade.
We read about Paul’s visit to Philippi in the 16th chapter of Acts. Paul and Silas baptized a woman named Lydia who became a strong supporter of Paul’s. They cast a demon out of a slave girl who was working for her masters as a fortune-teller, and the girl’s masters had Paul and Silas thrown into jail, where their chains were released by an earthquake, giving them the opportunity to preach to the jailer and his family.
Of all the churches that Paul started or preached in, Philippi was particularly near and dear to his heart. Paul had a policy of not taking support from the churches where he preached, but he accepted a gift of support from Philippi that the church there sent to him after he’d moved on.

That gift had been sent by way of a Philippian named Epaphroditus, and the messenger stayed on to travel with Paul and help him with his work.
But now Epaphroditus was having some health problems, and Paul used him as a messenger once more, sending him home with thanks for services well-rendered. It was Epaphroditus who delivered Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
Paul has little in the way of direct criticism for the Philippians, and the letter is more about warnings of what to avoid than it is about criticism. In today’s passage, Paul warns the Philippians against disunity.
The great Bible commentator William Barclay, to whom I turn just about every time I write a sermon, points out that disunity is actually a danger for almost every healthy church. After all, in a healthy church, people care about what’s going on. People are passionate. In a dying church, people just sort of coast along, but in a healthy church, people have ideas and initiative and people want to make sure everything is right. And that sometimes leads to differences of opinion. That leads to people getting on each other’s nerves.
I’ve been in a play the past two weekends. A play is an enterprise where you have to have a lot of trust, a lot of cooperation. One of the first things my drama teacher, Miss Jan Hall, taught us when I was a freshman in high school was the importance of trusting your fellow actors. We did trust exercises, the type of thing where you close your eyes and fall backward and trust the person behind you to catch you.
But actors sometimes have difference of opinion, with the director or with each other. One person thinks a scene should be played bigger and louder, and another person thinks it should be softer and more emotional. It’s all a part of the process.
Our country was built by men who disagreed passionately with each other. If you know anything about our constitutional convention, you know that there were some men, and some states, who wanted a strong central government, and others who wanted states’ rights. There were some who wanted to copy the British system of government, and some who wanted something completely new.

Each of these men cared very deeply, and each had the best interests of the country in mind, but they had very different ideas about what the problems were, and very different ideas about how to solve them.
In the days of the early church, there were a lot of passionate, new converts. This was still the first generation of the Christian faith, and as such there was a lot of potential for disagreement and disunity. Now, disagreement isn’t a bad thing, but disunity is. The early church had debates over all sorts of things – about the nature of the trinity, for example, or about what was expected of gentile converts to the faith as compared to the original Christians from the Jewish tradition.
But Paul wanted to make sure that his friends in Philippi didn’t let disagreement turn into disunity. It was critically important, especially in an age when Christians were persecuted and sometimes had to fear for their lives, that the church remain united.
So Paul advises them to avoid the types of attitudes that can drive a church apart. “Don’t do anything for selfish purposes,” he writes, “but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.”
Boy, that’s hard to do sometimes. Nowadays, we know we’re supposed to help others, or at least give lip service to helping others, and to higher purposes, but at a deeper level so many of our actions and attitudes are driven by selfishness. We want what we want. We cling to the things we have, we covet the things we don’t have, we want attention or we want to be left alone, and we find some way to justify what we want by making it seem like it’s in some higher good.
There are different kinds of selfish purposes. There’s greed, of course, the desire for money or possessions. We’re a more materialistic society now than ever before. Everyone wants the fanciest car or the latest electronic gadget. If only I could win the Powerball, everything would be great. I could quit my job and buy a nice house and go to all those places in Europe I’ve always wanted to see.

Apple recently introduced a new smartwatch that ties in with your iPhone and does all sorts of fun and useful things. The watch starts at $349, but it will come in several editions, including an 18-karat gold edition with a sapphire watch face that will cost $5,000. And there are people who will pay that, just to have the gold Apple Watch.
But greed isn’t the only kind of selfishness. There’s also a lust for power. Some people could care less whether they have money as long as they’re in charge. In fact, they’ll gladly exchange money for power. And that’s a kind of selfishness that surely popped up in some of those early churches, and continues to pop up in churches today. At some churches, you have the person who puts the biggest check in the offering plate each week and who believes that entitles them to make all the decisions. You have churches where the preacher is fighting the church council, or where one committee is fighting another, just to see who can get control and call the shots.
There’s also a selfishness for what Barclay calls “personal prestige.” Some people may not want money or power but they want to recognized, acknowledged, paid respect to. I’ve been guilty of all three of these kinds of selfishness, but I think this may sometimes be my weak spot. I get annoyed in situations where I think I deserve a little respect and I don’t get it. And that’s just as un-Christian an attitude as wanting money or power.
Paul knew that selfishness could drive the church at Philippi apart, and so he wants to warn them against it. He calls for them to “with humility think of others as better than yourselves.” And then he points out the ultimate example of humility.
Depending on what translation of the Bible you’re reading, you may notice that, starting with verse 6, the layout looks a little different. The first few verses are written as prose, but the passage starting with verse 6 is written in the form of a poem or a hymn. Scholars can tell such things by looking at the way the passage reads in its original language. This was both a hymn of praise to Jesus, and a word of example to the Philippians:
“Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
“But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a slave
and by becoming like human beings.
“When he found himself in the form of a human,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.”

There’s an old saying that’s been attributed, in several different forms, to several different speakers over the years. Walt Whitman said, “If you done it, it ain’t bragging.”
Dizzy Dean said “It ain’t bragging if you can do it.”
Muhammad Ali said “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.”
But the example here is of God the son, the all-knowing, all-powerful, infinite and eternal lord of the Universe, making himself humble, taking on the form of a human being.
There’s a lot of interesting commentary about the Greek words used in this original passage. The Greek language, of course, is quite a rich one, and there are cases where the Greek language has several different words to express different nuances of something that has to get by with only one word in English. We’ve all heard the example of the three different Greek words that get translated as “love” in English – philos, eros and agape. Each one describes a different type of love.
Well, there are several different Greek words for “to be” and several different Greek words for “form,” and the Bible scholars tell us that the Greek words in this passage stress that Jesus had the very essence of God. At this time, the early church was still struggling to understand the concept of the Trinity, but Paul clearly states that Jesus is of the form and essence of God. And yet, Jesus, a person of the holy Trinity, was willing to give up that nature, to empty himself and take on the form of a human being, even of a helpless infant.
That’s a hard thing to wrap your mind around, but it’s important for us to understand, and it’s a powerful lesson for all of us in humility.
Paul writes that Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
One of my heroes is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great 20th Century pastor and theologian, who was part of a resistance movement in Germany and who was eventually put to death for being connected to a plot against Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. It’s a fascinating and dramatic story of a man who had both a deep understanding of Christianity and the courage and opportunity to put it into practice. I highly recommend the book “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy,” by Eric Metaxas.
The day that Bonhoeffer was executed, a physician at the prison, H. Fisher-Huellstrung, had no idea at the time who Bonhoeffer was or what he’d been accused of. But he was amazed at Bonhoeffer’s attitude in the face of death. Here’s what the doctor wrote about it, some years later:
“On the morning of that day between five and six o’clock the prisoners were taken from their cells and the verdicts of the court martial read out to them. Through the half-open door in one room of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor, praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this unusually lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”
It’s remarkable to hear stories like that of humble men and women, but of course Jesus’ humility in the face of death is of an entirely different nature, something it’s different for us to even imagine.
Jesus triumphed over adversity, and his triumph has made it possible for us to triumph as well. That hymn, or poem, that Paul is writing ends this way:

“Therefore, God highly honored him
and gave him a name above all names,
so that at the name of Jesus everyone
in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Jesus Christ is Lord. That is the foundational statement of the Christian faith. No matter what our disagreements or differences, no matter what our denomination or style of worship, no matter whether we gather in fear in someone’s basement or whether we gather in style in a grand cathedral, the one thing that we all have in common is that simple acknowledgement: “Jesus is Lord.”
That acknoweldgement, of course, requires the very humility about which we’ve been talking. When Jesus is lifted up, we are put in our proper places. When our focus is on Jesus, we human beings are all equals, brothers and sisters in Christ.
So Paul, after his hymn about Jesus’s sacrifice and glory, returns to giving advice and encouragement to the Philippians:
“Therefore, my loved ones, just as you always obey me, not just when I am present but now even more while I am away, carry out your own salvation with fear and trembling. God is the one who enables you both to want and to actually live out his good purposes.”
God enables us to want God’s purposes, and God enables us to live out those purposes. We can’t do it on our own, and that keeps us humble. We have to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. We are bold in our faith but humble in our knowledge of our own weakness and selfishness.

And that humility keeps our focus on Jesus and helps to preserve unity in the church, whether “the church” means a local congregation or the worldwide community of Christians. We may meet in different places, we may have different understandings of what the Bible says, but we are united in the proclamation that “Jesus is Lord.”

Pickup rehearsal

Our original plan was to have two full rehearsals, but without costumes or perishable food props, one tonight and one tomorrow night.

But when we got ready to rehearsal tonight, we realized a reason why we needed to wear costumes tomorrow night. And so we decided that tomorrow night would be another dress rehearsal, and tonight we’d just do a table read, running our lines but not our “blocking” (stage movements).

It went pretty well. I’d listened to my lines a couple of times since last weekend, but I can’t say that I was very intense about it, and so it was nice to know that I didn’t lose all my lines over the past few days. Everyone else did well too.

Everyone reports getting good feedback about our opening weekend, and ticket sales are going well so far for our second and final weekend. If you don’t have your tickets yet, call 684-8359.

Recovery mode

Community theater folk use the term “hell week” to describe the last week before a performance opens. It’s busy, and intense, and stressful.

We had a rehearsal last Sunday afternoon, but it wasn’t the whole play. Then we had rehearsals every night, Monday through Thursday, lasting generally until 9:30 or 10 at night – and this was during a relatively-busy week for me in my day job. Then we opened Friday night and had a performance Saturday.

The play was well-received, and I think all of us were happy with opening weekend. This has been a great cast to work with – a wide variety of personalities and backgrounds, but we’ve all thrown ourselves into this play and we’ve all gotten along quite well. There’s not a weak link in the chain.

I was a little worried about how some people would take my part – I’m playing a pretty unlikable character, and I use quite a bit of mild profanity. One man from church jokingly told me in the reception line Saturday night that the bishop wanted to see me about revoking my lay speaker certification. But I think people have taken the play for what it is.

This morning, instead of going to First UMC, I went and judged a barbecue cookoff at Fellowship For Christ, a non-denominational church north of town, and then stayed for their service. I did not stick around for the church picnic afterward, though; I went to Walmart, stood in the express lane for what seemed like forever, and then came home. I tried to watch the first episode of “The Roosevelts” but fell asleep through most of it. Later in the day, Vickie Hull from church posted a Facebook photo from Normandy Lake, where First UMC was having its annual Galilean Service and picnic. I had completely forgotten about that – and, of course, I wasn’t in church this morning to be reminded of it.

That’s OK, though. I needed to recuperate today. I did not walk, I did not study my lines, I did not do much of anything once I got home.

Normally, you have one rehearsal, called a “pickup” rehearsal, between the two weekends of a community theater production. We’re going to have two, on Wednesday and Thursday nights, because we love you, the audience, so much. I have a couple of early-evening commitments – a funeral visitation Monday, and a county meeting Tuesday – until then, but I’ll still have tonight and most of the next two evenings to try to catch up on unfinished business.

If you’re in the area, and able to come and see us next weekend, I think you’d really enjoy the play. You can make reservations by calling 931-684-8359 or visiting The Fly Arts Center Monday, Tuesday or Thursday from 11 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.

A man with true grits

I have used a pre-mixed breader for fried chicken made by a company called House-Autry, but when I was in Food Lion a week or two ago I found something of theirs I’d never seen before: Dinner Grits.

As the name implies, these are boxes of grits in several savory flavors, made to be combined with shrimp or some other meat and used as a main dish.

They have Broccoli & Cheddar; Parmesan & Herb; Creole; Cheddar Cheese; and Roasted Garlic & Butter flavors.

The packaging for most of the flavors emphasizes shrimp & grits, but when I saw the product I had already added some hot smoked sausage to my shopping cart, thanks to a coupon from Food Lion’s in-store coupon kiosk. Smoked sausage (or andouille, on the rare occasions when I can get it) is my go-to ingredient when I make Zatarain’s jambalaya, and I figured the smoked sausage would probably go well with the creole flavor even though it wasn’t one of the suggested ingredients on the box.

I have to say, it didn’t turn out badly

start planning

Regardless of when a community holds its actual event, the American Cancer Society Relay For Life year runs from Sept. 1 through Aug. 31. The Relay website has now been reset for the new year, which means it’s now open for people – like you – to create and join teams, or to contribute to people who have.

In Bedford County, our Relay For Life event won’t take place until June 5-6 of next year. Why would anyone want to form a team so early?

It’s true that some of our teams may not organize until some time after the first of the year, or even in the spring. But part of the fun of being in Relay is that it’s really a year-round thing. Our best, most successful teams here in Bedford County have fund-raisers at various points throughout the year. That means they have fewer other Relay fund-raisers with which to compete, and that they can do more, raise more, and have more fun.

First, let’s backtrack for those of you who don’t know what Relay is or how it works. Relay For Life is the American Cancer Society’s grass-roots fundraising program. The focus of that program in each community is an actual overnight event – like the one which I mentioned would be June 5-6, 2015, in Bedford County. Relay is not a run – although it started that way – and it’s not any sort of race. The event is held around some sort of oval track (often at a high school stadium, although ours is on a horse show track). Various teams of walkers stay on the track for the duration of the event – in Bedford County’s case, that’s 12 hours, from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Each team must have at least one person walking at any given time during the event; that’s what makes it a relay, because team members take turns walking for their team.

The walking is only part of what goes on Relay night. There are many other festival-style aspects to the event. Each team typically operates some sort of concession stand, selling food or T-shirts or pony rides or what have you. There are also special ceremonies and observances, such as the Survivor Lap which opens the event by honoring cancer survivors, or the goosebump-inducing Luminaria Ceremony which takes place some time after dark. In the wee hours of the morning, there are picnic-style games to keep everyone’s energy level up.

So some of the Relay money is raised on Relay night, by the concessions I mentioned in that last paragraph. But most of it is raised in advance of Relay. Teams can raise money in a variety of ways. Individual team members can ask friends or family for money on their own, a process that’s made easier with e-mail and social media tools at the Relay web site. But most teams put heavy emphasis on team fund-raisers – yard sales, bake sales, T-shirt sales, poker runs, pageants, candygram sales, flamingo placement, and any number of other events limited only by the imagination.

That’s why it’s a good idea to form teams early. The earlier you get started, the more and/or better fund-raisers you’ll be able to plan, and the more money you’ll be able to raise.

What happens to that money? Glad you asked.

So, who can form a Relay team? Just about anybody. We have workplace-based teams (some officially sanctioned by the employer, others unofficial), church-based teams, school-based teams, and teams of people who have been brought together because they’re friends and family of a particular cancer patient, past or present. It’s up to you. There’s no official team size, either. You need enough people to have a walker on the track at all times, and probably to operate some simple concession at the same time. But how you divide all that is entirely up to your team, and you can bring in all sorts of friends and family members even if, for example, your company only has a handful of actual salaried employees.

If you’re here in Bedford County, go to http://relayforlife.org/bedfordtn for more information. Otherwise, go to http://relayforlife.org and search for the Relay event in your area.

This program has meant an awful lot to me since my mother’s passing from pancreatic cancer in 2010. I am a member of the organizing committee for the Bedford County event. (We’re treated like a Relay team in terms of fund-raising, and we have our own year-round committee fundraisers, but we don’t actually walk during the event because we’re busy putting on the event.) I had thought, up until the past few days, that I might have to miss the 2015 Relay due to a family commitment, and that thought really saddened me. But the conflict has been resolved, and I look forward to being there for all 12 hours (plus setup and teardown) in 2015.

Will you be there with me, at least for part of that time? Form a team, or join an existing team. I know cancer has touched people you love and care about, and maybe it’s touched you as an individual. This is a way you can respond. Our Relay motto is “Celebrate, Remember, Fight Back,” and we try to do all three in equal measure during a Relay event. Please think about joining us.

You scream, I scream, we all scream for bananas

I had to go to United Grocery Outlet for a couple of things, and they had bananas — labeled as “overripe” — on sale for 29 cents a pound. The ones I bought were actually perfectly ripe, with lots of brown specks and splotches, at the peak of sweetness without having turned mushy. I’d been meaning to make banana ice “cream” again, and this is the perfect opportunity.

If you’ve not tried this yet, it’s a must. It’s basically frozen bananas, pulverized into the creamy texture of soft-serve ice cream or frozen yogurt. There’s no added sugar, no cream or milk or dairy of any kind. The only ingredient is bananas. Of course, you can add fruit or chocolate chips or flavor extracts or anything else.

They now make a gadget, called “Yonanas,” especially for this purpose. One of my friends bought one and raved about it on Facebook, and I passed that recommendation along to another friend without trying it myself. Then I discovered that you can do the same thing just as easily with your food processor, and I felt guilty for having steered my friend wrong. (If she minded, she didn’t let on.) Here’s a web site with all the details: http://toriavey.com/toris-kitchen/2014/07/banana-soft-serve/

The bunch of bananas I bought today will make two batches of soft-serve. If you haven’t tried this yet, do it while the temperature is still fairly warm – although I suspect that, like ice cream, it will be good any time of the year.

In the house of Pharaoh, but not of the house of Pharaoh

Mt. Lebanon UMC and Cannon UMC
August 24, 2014

Exodus 1:8-2:10 (CEB)

8 Now a new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “The Israelite people are now larger in number and stronger than we are. 10 Come on, let’s be smart and deal with them. Otherwise, they will only grow in number. And if war breaks out, they will join our enemies, fight against us, and then escape from the land.” 11 As a result, the Egyptians put foremen of forced work gangs over the Israelites to harass them with hard work. They had to build storage cities named Pithom and Rameses for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they grew and spread, so much so that the Egyptians started to look at the Israelites with disgust and dread. 13 So the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites. 14 They made their lives miserable with hard labor, making mortar and bricks, doing field work, and by forcing them to do all kinds of other cruel work.
15 The king of Egypt spoke to two Hebrew midwives named Shiphrah and Puah: 16 “When you are helping the Hebrew women give birth and you see the baby being born, if it’s a boy, kill him. But if it’s a girl, you can let her live.” 17 Now the two midwives respected God so they didn’t obey the Egyptian king’s order. Instead, they let the baby boys live.
18 So the king of Egypt called the two midwives and said to them, “Why are you doing this? Why are you letting the baby boys live?”
19 The two midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because Hebrew women aren’t like Egyptian women. They’re much stronger and give birth before any midwives can get to them.” 20 So God treated the midwives well, and the people kept on multiplying and became very strong. 21 And because the midwives respected God, God gave them households of their own.
22 Then Pharaoh gave an order to all his people: “Throw every baby boy born to the Hebrews into the Nile River, but you can let all the girls live.”

2 Now a man from Levi’s household married a Levite woman. 2 The woman became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She saw that the baby was healthy and beautiful, so she hid him for three months. 3 When she couldn’t hide him any longer, she took a reed basket and sealed it up with black tar. She put the child in the basket and set the basket among the reeds at the riverbank. 4 The baby’s older sister stood watch nearby to see what would happen to him.
5 Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe in the river, while her women servants walked along beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds, and she sent one of her servants to bring it to her. 6 When she opened it, she saw the child. The boy was crying, and she felt sorry for him. She said, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children.”
7 Then the baby’s sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Would you like me to go and find one of the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?”
8 Pharaoh’s daughter agreed, “Yes, do that.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I’ll pay you for your work.” So the woman took the child and nursed it.10 After the child had grown up, she brought him back to Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopted him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I pulled him out of the water.”

Jacob, his son Joseph, and Joseph’s many brothers had been saved from a great famine as a result of Joseph being sold into slavery in Egypt. As you remember, Joseph became a high official, second only to Pharaoh, and when the famine hit it was Joseph’s prophetic vision, and the wisdom to know what to do about it, that meant Egypt had plenty of food while its neighbors were starving. Joseph’s brothers, who had thought Joseph to be dead, went to Egypt seeking food, and when they found out Joseph was alive Joseph invited them, along with their father Jacob, to move to Egypt under his protection.
Generations passed. The Israelites increased in number, but they apparently continued to live separately from the Egyptians and were not assimilated into Egyptian culture. They remained faithful to their family and their God.
Here in America, which has extended welcome to refugees and the downtrodden of many lands, many big cities have enclaves of people from some foreign culture. Nashville has a Kurdish community, full of oppressed Kurds who fled from Iraq during the revolution of the late 1970s. I remember when my brother and sister-in-law lived in Southern California and my sister-in-law took me to a heavily Vietnamese section of Orange County. We had a meal of pho, a type of Vietnamese soup with thin slices of beef, at a restaurant there, and we went through a shopping mall where all of the stores catered to the Vietnamese community.
Joseph and his brothers eventually passed away, as did the Pharaoh who had welcomed them. The community of Israelites – descendants of Israel, which if you remember was Jacob’s new name – became large enough that the Egyptians were threatened by them. What were they up to? What were their plans? At the point of this week’s Bible passage, the Pharaoh ruling in Egypt decided that he had to act first, to prevent the Israelites from jeopardizing Egypt’s security. There’s no indication in the Bible that the Israelites had done anything to make themselves seem like a threat, but the powers of Egypt felt threatened by them anyway. They decided the best defense was to attack first. They enslaved the Israelites and put them to hard labor.

But that wasn’t enough. They decided to take even more drastic action, action to solve the problem long-term. The plan, to our modern ears, is so shocking and offensive we don’t even like to think about it.
They first try to accomplish their goals with the help of midwives – women who assisted mothers in labor.
There’s a British show, which airs on public TV here in the U.S., by the name of “Call The Midwife.” I haven’t seen it, but it’s one of the most popular things on public TV these days, probably second only to “Downton Abbey.” It’s about a group of nurses working as midwives in London in the 1950s. Midwives, then as in Bible times, were trusted, someone an expectant mother would never think to question.
The Egyptian leaders tried to convince two Israelite midwives to kill the boy Israelite babies while allowing the girls to live. In that day and time, before our modern medical care, the infant mortality rate was quite high, so in any particular case it would be quite easy for a family to believe that a child had simply been stillborn. That might keep the Israelites from realizing what was going on and rising up in rebellion against it. It’s easy to imagine that Pharaoh used threats of violence to try to get the midwives to go along with this plan.
But the midwives, to their credit, believed in God and didn’t carry out Pharaoh’s order. And they protected themselves by telling a white lie, one which probably played on the Egyptian’s stereotypes and prejudices against the Israelites. They told the Egyptians that the Israelite women were so hardy that they often gave birth quickly, before the midwife could get there to help.
God blessed the midwives for refusing to go along with Pharaoh’s plan. The midwives were blessed with families of their own, and the Israelite women continued to give birth to baby boys as well as baby girls.
Eventually, the Egyptians got tired of this and gave up trying to accomplish this terrible task secretly. Pharaoh ordered that baby boys born to the Israelites be thrown into the Nile River to drown.

That story reminds us of the New Testament story of Herod. After Herod heard a prophecy from the Wise Men of a new king being born in Bethlehem, Herod ordered that all Hebrew boy children below a certain age be killed. It’s somewhat strange that in that instance, Joseph and Mary were able to escape the slaughter by taking their son Jesus … to Egypt.
We don’t know the names of Moses’ parents, only that Moses was a descendant of Levi, one of Joseph’s brothers. Moses’ mother, like Mary, sought to protect him from being killed. She hid him as long as she could, but then when he became too big to hide she entrusted him to God. She took papyrus, made a basket out of it, and made it waterproof with tar. Interestingly enough, the word translated as “basket” by the Common English Bible in this passage is a word borrowed from the Egyptian language, and it’s the same word that’s translated as “ark” in the story of Noah and the ark. In fact, some Bible translations use the English word “ark” in both places. That’s appropriate, because in both stories, God’s people were set afloat, and God was entrusted to keep them safe. Both Noah’s ark and Moses’ basket were vessels whose passengers were utterly in God’s care.
Moses’ mother put the basket in the river, and it floated downstream. Moses’ sister – and her name isn’t used here, but we tend to assume that it’s Miriam, who is identified later as the adult Moses’ sister – followed the basket from the shore to see what happened to it. The basket floated by where Pharaoh’s daughter was bathing, and she took pity on the child and decided to raise it as her own. She is the one who gives him the name “Moses.”
Moses’ sister then approaches Pharaoh’s daughter and asks if she needs someone to nurse the child. It’s not as if they could run out and buy formula. So Miriam runs home and gets her mother, and Pharaoh’s daughter hires Moses’ own mother to nurse him.
So Moses, who would become an Israelite hero, is raised in the most unexpected place – the household of Pharaoh.

We know from later in the book of Exodus that Moses was not a born leader – he was not confident speaking in public, which he used as an excuse when God first called him. But surely, growing up in the household of Pharaoh, he learned many things about leadership and organization that he put to use later while leading a great nation through the wilderness.
We were created to be citizens of God’s kingdom. But we find ourselves in the midst of Egyptians, making our way in the house of Pharaoh. In John 17:14-15 (CEB), Jesus is praying for his disciples. This is a part of his prayer: “I gave your word to them and the world hated them, because they don’t belong to this world, just as I don’t belong to this world. I’m not asking that you take them out of this world but that you keep them safe from the evil one.”
We are tasked, as Christians, to be in the world but not of it. What does that mean exactly?
We are surrounded by things that bother us as Christians – whether it’s in our nation’s sexual morality, or economics, or movies or music or TV shows or what have you. It’s very important that we as Christians be in the world – that we understand the culture. We can’t communicate with people unless we can speak their language. Understanding our culture helps us understand people’s needs, and helps us present the Gospel to them more effectively.
When we hear of promiscuity, for example, the challenge for us as Christians is to figure out what people are really looking for in relationships, and why they are trying to meet that need with a lifestyle that can’t possibly satisfy them in the long run. When we hear of a city in Missouri erupting in anger and violence, we have to figure out what people are truly angry about and how we can talk to them about God’s love and peace, and how we can address real problems and concerns. When the suicide of a great entertainer calls attention to depression and mental anguish, we have to try to understand what we, as Christians, can do to help people get the care and professional assistance they need.

We have to be in the world in order to respond to the world, in order to challenge the world, in order to love the people who make up that world. I mean no disrespect to, say, the Amish, or to members of contemplative orders like monks or nuns who feel that God is calling them to live lives set apart from the world. But those are special cases, special callings. The New Testament example is of a church that was engaged with the world, even as it stood up against the world.
In Acts 17, the apostle Paul comes to the city of Athens and begins speaking to the people. But he uses part of the Athenians’ popular culture as a point of reference: Acts 17:23 (CEB) “As I was walking through town and carefully observing your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: ‘To an unknown God.’ What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you.” Paul had his eyes open, and was able to use what he learned about the Athenians as a way of talking to them about Jesus.
But while we are and must be in the world, we have to watch that we do not become of the world. We are here to transform the world, not to be transformed by the world. That’s a hard line to walk sometimes. Jesus, in his earthly ministry, was not afraid to be seen with, to associate with, people of ill repute. He ministered to them, he accepted them, he loved them, and he ultimately transformed many of them, all while remaining true to his own nature and his own calling. But sometimes we find it hard to hold on to our integrity and find ourselves being changed by the world.
We need to have a sense of personal integrity, and trust in God for the courage and wisdom to follow through. I think the midwives in our story today are great models for that. They stood up to the rulers of Egypt, at great personal risk, and they refused to compromise their faith. At the same time, their understanding of Egyptians, and what Egyptians might be willing to believe about the Israelites, came in handy as they tried in any way they could to prevent the Egyptians from committing genocide.
I have two friends, Brenden Taylor and Michael Hansen, who have a podcast called “Finding Christ In Cinema,” in which they look at current movies and try to find religious symbolism in them, the type of thing you could use to start a conversation with a friend about your faith.
Brenden and Michael will sometimes point out that the movies they talk about have offensive content. “This movie has a great message about personal courage,” they might say, “but there’s some bad language and some sex.” Or maybe, “This movie shows the terrible consequences of using drugs, but it’s not something suitable for young children.”
They have a sort of catch phrase they use in situations like that – “Be a filter, not a sponge.” A filter is someone who can take what’s good from popular culture while being aware of, and rejecting, what is bad. A filter is someone who can watch a movie, talk about it with friends, but not have it affect their own personal standards. A sponge, on the other hand, is someone who just soaks up popular culture, whose sense of what’s acceptable is shaped by what they see on the screen or hear in their music collection or read on the pages of a novel. We, as Christians, are called to be filters – understanding popular culture without becoming transformed by it.
Sometimes, Christians try to use popular culture in evangelism. I am strongly committed to encouraging artists who happen to be Christians, because I know that who they are will be reflected in the works of art they create. But sometimes, our attempts as a church to promote “Christian art” become heavy-handed and just look silly to the secular world.
I don’t know how many of you used to watch the TV show “King Of The Hill.” It was a cartoon, but for grownups, set in a little town in Texas. In one episode, the central character, Hank Hill, was upset because his son Bobby had fallen under the influence of a very hip, charismatic youth minister and had started listening to Christian rock bands.
At one point in the episode, Hank angrily confronts a Christian rock band. He says to them, “Can’t you see, you’re not making Christianity any better? You’re just making rock ‘n roll worse.”
There is actually a lot of contemporary Christian music that I find creative and that I enjoy, but I also know the kind of music Hank Hill is talking about – music that just copies what’s already being done and puts Christian lyrics on it. A copy is a copy is a copy, and people know when they’re getting an imitation instead of the real thing.
If Christians simply copy what’s being done by secular artists, it’s not really art – and they’re doomed to fail.
We have to be in dialogue with the world, but we need to be true to ourselves, and to what God expects of us. This world is not our true home, just as the house of Pharaoh was not Moses’ true home.
We don’t know what Moses’ childhood was like, or whether he had any contact with his real mother once he was no longer nursing. But we know that he still had enough sense of his own humanity, and perhaps even his own status as an Israelite, that he intervened when he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave. That led to him becoming a fugitive, giving up the house of Pharaoh. I don’t want to get ahead of the Lectionary here, but that ultimately set the stage for him to receive God’s call and become the leader who brought the Israelites out of slavery, out of Egypt, and returned them to the promised land.
Our own challenges, and our own temptations, may not be as dramatic. But we have to remember that this world is just our place of residence, not truly our home. And we have to trust God to give us the courage and wisdom to learn what we can from our culture, while staying true to the Kingdom.

wibbley-wobbly, timey-wimey

I will be at the Celebration tonight, so my DVR is set to record Peter Capaldi’s first real appearance (apart from the last 30 seconds of the Christmas special) as The Doctor on “Doctor Who,” one of my all-time favorite TV shows.

I’m one of those annoying people who boasts that I’ve been a fan of “Doctor Who” since the show’s first run. I started watching Tom Baker and Peter Davison episodes on public television when I was in college. Oklahoma public television ran individual cliffhanger episodes of the show every night at 10. Independently, my father and brothers were discovering the show back here in Tennessee, where the Nashville public TV station ran it on Saturday night, stitched together into entire stories.

When the BBC revived “Doctor Who” in 2005, it originally ran on SciFi (now SyFy) here in the U.S., and didn’t have much of a following. But BBC America eventually got the show, and did a much better job of marketing it. Now it’s built up quite a following here in the former colonies. But I can still smugly say I knew it way back when.

I’ve posted numerous times in the past trying to explain the show for those who weren’t familiar. I’ll try to do that again here, but a little more succinctly. It’s a science fiction program, which ran from 1963 to 1989 in the U.K. There was an attempt to bring the show back in 1996 as a joint British-American production, filmed in Canada, but that only produced one TV movie. Then the BBC brought the show back on its own in 2005.

Unlike some other long-running science fiction franchises, like “Star Trek” or “Battlestar Galactica,” “Doctor Who” has achieved its longevity without ever rebooting its continuity. It’s one long storyline, going back to 1963. The main character has been played by a dozen different actors, the latest of whom starts tonight. They differ quite a lot in age, appearance and even in personality. You could say the same thing about James Bond, of course – but the difference is that in “Doctor Who,” the change from one actor to another is written into the story. The Doctor is an alien, and one of his powers is that when he is subject to great physical trauma, he can “regenerate” – create a new body. The new body is still The Doctor, with all his memories, but may have differences in personality and outlook.

That’s what’s happening tonight. In the episode that aired on Christmas Day, the old Doctor, played by a quirky and relatively-young actor named Matt Smith, regenerated into Peter Capaldi, whose age is more in line with some of the doctors from the old 1963-89 version of the show. Here’s how that episode ended:

As much as I liked Matt Smith – and I did like Matt Smith – there have been hints that the show may now go in some directions more like those older episodes, and for us long-time viewers, that sounds like a treat.

The Doctor travels through time and space in a vehicle called a TARDIS. From the outside, it’s the size of a phone booth and has the appearance of a police call box, which was a common sight on the streets of London in 1963. But the real police call boxes went away and that box is now associated exclusively with “Doctor Who.” The TARDIS is huge on the inside, which is a constant source of amazement whenever the Doctor invites some earthling (or other alien) to travel along with him for a while.

If tonight’s episode is like past regeneration episodes, The Doctor won’t be quite himself for a bit (for example, in the clip above, he seems to have forgotten how to fly the TARDIS). He usually has a bit of a recovery process while he gets used to his new self.

I’ll be at the horse show tonight, preaching in the morning, then we have a family birthday celebration and I have a rehearsal. But hopefully, sometime late tomorrow afternoon or tomorrow night, I’ll get to see tonight’s introduction to the Peter Capaldi era. Until then, no spoilers!

He who hesitates….

Why did the chicken cross the road?
why-did-the-chicken
The actual question should be why this chicken didn’t cross the road. When I walked out to my car to go to lunch, about 11:15, he was standing right as you see him here, motionless, as cars swerved around him. For my readers from out of town, we have a Tyson processing plant in Shelbyville, and a number of tractor-trailers filled with chickens drive past the T-G every day. This bird probably escaped from one of those somehow.

Just as I was taking this photo with my smartphone, a man in a pickup truck, no doubt thinking to himself “¡Pollo gratis!”, pulled over. He walked over and grabbed the chicken.

Someone, I suspect, will be eating well tonight.