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.

A match you can’t win

Lynchburg First UMC
Aug. 3, 2014

WP_20140803_002A company called World Wrestling Entertainment, or WWE, which was founded in 1952 under the name Capitol Wrestling Corporation, reported $508 million in revenue in 2013, with a profit of $2.8 million. It has $378 million in total assets.
I can’t claim to have ever been a fan of professional wrestling – it’s just not my thing – but there’s no arguing that it’s one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the U.S.
Notice that I said “entertainment,” not “sports.”
It’s an open secret that the type of professional wrestling you see in the WWE and some of its competitors and emulators is entertainment, not a true athletic competition. Yes, it’s physical. Yes, it can even be dangerous. No, I wouldn’t care to get one of those wrestlers mad at me and run into him in a back alley. But the matches are scripted, in the same way that “NCIS” is scripted, or “The Big Bang Theory,” or “The Simpsons.”
Before anyone steps into the ring, the outcome has already been decided. The bad guys have been told to play the part of a bad guy; the good guys have been told to play the part of a good guy. The winners and losers have already been chosen.
They used to try a little harder than they do now to keep this a secret. There is a term called kayfabe, which came from the world of carnivals, and it meant the illusion that wrestling was real. If you broke kayfabe, if you gave away the secret, you were in big trouble, not only with the promoters but with your fellow wrestlers.
But in 1989, there was a dispute about whether or not the WWE should fall under some of the regulations and fees which applied to professional sporting events in New Jersey. Those rules were designed to ensure fair and honest competition. Vince McMahon, the owner of what was then known as the World Wrestling Federation, knew that the WWE couldn’t abide by the rules, and so he testified before the New Jersey State Senate, admitting that what his company produced was entertainment, and not “a bona fide athletic contest.”
In the years since that time, the rise of the Internet has made it even even easier for fans to find out the truth about their favorite performers and the behind-the-scenes working of professional wrestling. Performers like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson have moved back and forth between the WWE and the big screen, reminding us that they are, when it comes right down to it, actors as well as athletes.
But the fact that the WWE is now known to be scripted hasn’t seemed to hurt its popularity among the people who enjoy it.
After all, when we go to see a magician we know that what we’re seeing is trickery, not real magic. But that doesn’t make it any less fun. And we certainly know when we go to see “Captain America” or “The Hobbit” that it’s all made up. We can suspend our disbelief and just enjoy the story as it plays out. Apparently, the people who enjoy professional wrestling can do the same thing – it doesn’t matter so much whether what they’re seeing is “real” or scripted, only whether or not they find it entertaining.
Of course, some people have criticized the appropriateness of WWE’s storylines and the wrestlers’ behavior as it applies to young children, who make up a big part of the WWE audience. But that’s a separate issue, and one I’m not qualified to get into here and now.
There is, of course, another form of wrestling – one that’s not scripted, but rather a legitimate athletic competition. There are high school students, college students and Olympic athletes who take it very seriously. They sometimes are heard to grumble about how their good name has been tarnished by the shenanigans that go on in professional wrestling.
But what if I told you that the very first wrestling match of which we have a written record was scripted? What if I told you that, just like the WWE, it had a pre-determined outcome and wasn’t a real competition?

Genesis 32:22-31 (CEB)

22 Jacob got up during the night, took his two wives, his two women servants, and his eleven sons, and crossed the Jabbok River’s shallow water. 23 He took them and everything that belonged to him, and he helped them cross the river. 24 But Jacob stayed apart by himself, and a man wrestled with him until dawn broke. 25 When the man saw that he couldn’t defeat Jacob, he grabbed Jacob’s thigh and tore a muscle in Jacob’s thigh as he wrestled with him. 26 The man said, “Let me go because the dawn is breaking.”
But Jacob said, “I won’t let you go until you bless me.”
27 He said to Jacob, “What’s your name?” and he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then he said, “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel, because you struggled with God and with men and won.”
29 Jacob also asked and said, “Tell me your name.”
But he said, “Why do you ask for my name?” and he blessed Jacob there. 30 Jacob named the place Peniel, “because I’ve seen God face-to-face, and my life has been saved.” 31 The sun rose as Jacob passed Penuel, limping because of his thigh.

Jacob, one of the most fascinating characters of the Old Testament, spent most of his life as if it were a competition. There were times when he came out a winner, and times when he came out a loser.
The competition started at birth. Jacob and Esau were twins, the sons of Isaac and the grandsons of Abraham. Esau was born first, and Jacob was born grasping at Esau’s heel, almost as if he’d been competing to come out first himself.
The status of being the first-born, even between two twins, was all-important in that day and time, and Jacob, as he was growing up, knew it. With the cooperation of his mother, he eventually tricked Esau into giving up his own birthright and Isaac’s final blessing.
Esau was furious and vowed to kill Jacob once the period of mourning for their father had ended. So Jacob fled the country, and ended up working for a kinsman named Laban. Jacob fell in love with Rachel, Laban’s younger daughter, but Laban tricked Jacob into marrying Leah, the older daughter, first. Jacob had to work for Laban for seven more years before being allowed to marry Rachel as well.
But then Jacob got the upper hand, tricking Laban into an agreement that increased Jacob’s flock of sheep at the expense of Laban’s. That ended up souring the relationship between Jacob and his father-in-law, and Jacob found himself on the move once more – this time, though, Jacob was the head of a family, responsible for wives and children and servants. He left Laban, and God commanded him to head home. Jacob could only hope and pray that the years which had passed had cooled his brother Esau’s temper.
Jacob got word that Esau was on the way to meet him, with a company of four hundred. Jacob was accompanied by four women and 11 boys, according to the account in Genesis. Jacob didn’t know whether those 400 people were a welcoming party or an army bent on revenge. So Jacob tried to take out some insurance in that regard by sending ahead some gifts to soften his brother up.
Then, as another little bit of insurance, Jacob decided to move his traveling party – his family, his servants, and all his livestock – across the Jabbok river in the middle of the night. This isn’t explained, but I think it may just be that Jacob wanted to move under the cover of darkness. If his brother was really coming to kill him, Jacob didn’t want to be ambushed – he wanted the meeting to take place in the light of day. So he moved his camp in the middle of the night to create some confusion about his exact location.
That was the scene. Jacob knows he’s about to encounter his brother for the first time after years of absence, but he doesn’t know whether it will be a friendly meeting or a hostile one. His background taught him to expect the worst. Much of his life to that point had been about seeing the world in adversarial terms. You either did unto others or else they would do unto you. If you wanted something, you had to take it – and you constantly had to be on guard against someone else taking what was already yours.
Jacob saw the world as a series of contests. Sometimes you came out on top, sometimes you didn’t. But it was always you against the opponent.
And now, Jacob has sent all of his party across the river. For whatever reason, he’s the last one to cross – but before he can cross, he has an unexpected visitor. Was this the ambush he was afraid of? No, this intruder had nothing to do with Esau. He’s referred to in the Bible account only as “a man.” Was he really a man? Was he an angel? Was he some strange manifestation of God himself? In any case, the wrestler was a representative of God, a spokesman for God, someone who could, at a crucial moment, exercise power in a Godlike way.
After showing up out of nowhere, this man wrestles with Jacob – not just for a while, but all through the night, in the darkness.
The acclaimed author Frederick Buechner wrote a novel called “The Son of Laughter” which tells the story of Jacob, and his account of the wrestling match is quite moving. I want to read you a few paragraphs from it:

He outweighed me, he out-wrestled me, but he did not overpower me. He did not overpower me until the moment came to over power me. When the moment came, I knew that he could have made it come whenever he wanted. I knew that all through the night he had been waiting for that moment. He had his knee under my hip. The rest of his weight was on top of my hip. Then the moment came, and he gave a fierce downward thrust. I felt a fierce pain.
It was less a pain I felt than a pain I saw. I saw it as light. I saw the pain as a dazzling bird-shape of light. It blinded me with the light of its wings. I knew I was crippled and done for. I could do nothing but cling now. I clung for dear life. I clung for death. My arm trussed him. My legs locked him. For the first time he spoke.
He said, “Let me go.”

But Jacob refused to let go, even after the man had injured, and clearly beaten him. Jacob knew he could no longer win, but he refused to lose until receiving a blessing from this mysterious stranger.

And the mysterious stranger asks for Jacob’s name. As you know, names in Bible times were often chosen for their meaning. Jacob meant “heel” or “leg-puller,” which was a reference to him grabbing Esau’s heel as they were being born. But – like Abraham before him, and like Peter and Paul after him – the man gave Jacob a new name, Israel, which means either “wrestles with God,” or “God rules,” or “God judges,” or even “God contends,” depending on which scholar you believe.
Then Jacob asked for the stranger’s name, but the stranger turns that right back at him. “Why are you asking?” Jesus did that frequently – responded to a question by asking a question of his own.
The stranger doesn’t identify himself – he really doesn’t have to – but he blesses Jacob. We aren’t told the content of the blessing, and we’re never given any further details about the mysterious wrestler. Jacob calls the place Peniel, and claims to have seen God face-to-face.
So, what was the purpose of this wrestling match? The Bible makes clear that the wrestler could have dislocated Jacob’s hip at any moment during the match. Jacob was being tested, but Jacob was never going to win, at least in the rules of wrestling as we understand them.
And yet, the wrestler tells Jacob that he did win: “You struggled with God and with men and won,” says the wrestler.
How did Jacob win?
He won by losing.
Let’s back up a bit. Jacob, the ultimate trickster, the man who saw every transaction as a way to win or lose, leaves his father-in-law Laban – and he could have gone anywhere. But God told him to go home – back to the land that had been promised to his grandfather Abraham. Jacob listened to God, Jacob heard God, and Jacob obeyed God, even though Jacob seems at the time to have believed it was a death sentence. Jacob thought there was a very real chance that his brother was going to welcome him home by trying to kill him. And yet, Jacob followed God’s command. Jacob was willing to give up his life in obedience to God.
That made Jacob a winner before the wrestling match even started. When we surrender ourselves, our destinies, our security to God, when we are willing to lose everything for God’s sake, that’s when we ultimately win.
Jacob, at some point in this wrestling match, knew that he was dealing with an opponent who was beyond his control. And yet, he would not let go. He wanted a blessing. The man who once tricked his own father out of a blessing knew that this was God, or God’s representative, and Jacob saw the chance to get a much more powerful blessing than the one he received from his father. While Jacob could trick his brother, his father and his father-in-law, there was no way to trick God out of a blessing. The only thing Jacob could do was hold on and hope for the best.
Jacob had learned his lesson – the secret to success is not defeating your enemies but surrendering to God. And Jacob was given a limp, an injury from his wrestling match, as a reminder of the lesson.
The image that this story gives us of Jacob wrestling with God is a strange one, one that it’s hard for us to understand. We can’t defeat God, and most of us know it, even though we go through periods of denial. For most of us, the true battle is not between me and God but between me and myself. Will I go this way or that way? Will I be obedient or disobedient? Will I be faithful and patient, waiting on God’s timetable? Those were Jacob’s challenges as well. Jacob could never have beaten the mysterious wrestler. His challenge was whether or not he’d be able to hold on until dawn. Our challenge, too, is to hold on through the night, not to let go of our faith, to wait for the dawn of God’s blessing.
Daniel Parkins wrote this on the Relevant Magazine web site:

God will always win the wrestling match; if we were smart, then the sooner we submit, the better.
In the upside-down Kingdom, where to be poor is to be rich, to mourn is to be comforted, we see the profound reality of the Gospel in Genesis’ account of a wrestling match. Having come into contact face to face with the Lord of hosts, with the ever patient and faithful One, we see at long last a broken and contrite spirit humbled to the core. We see a man dependent upon God, rather than dependent upon himself. We see in Jacob a picture of a man renewed by the power of God, now remade in His own image, finally surrendered to the will of God for his life. We see in no small measure great faith worked out.

Jacob saw the face of God by letting go of his own security, his old ideas of winning and losing, and by holding on to God for dear life, until God’s blessing became clear. Psalm 17:15 says this: “As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake I shall be satisfied, beholding your likeness.”
May it be said of each of us that we behold God’s face, by letting go of ourselves and our own ideas of security, and instead clinging to God’s promise and God’s blessing until, at last, the dawn comes.

behold, I stand at the door and wait to be buzzed in

For some years now, the United Methodist Church has had the marketing slogan “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.”

And yet, as the result of a daytime, office-hours theft a few years ago, First United Methodist Church has had a locked front door on weekdays, even during its regular office hours. You have to be buzzed in. I understood the reasoning behind it, but it always bothered me.

Now, our new pastor – and this is one of several things I’m starting to appreciate about her – wants to unlock the front door during office hours, both for the symbolism of it and so that people have access to the chapel near the front door if they want to come and pray. She needs help to do it, though. We used to have both a business manager (whose office is near the pastor’s, far from the front door) and an administrative assistant (whose office was right next to the front door). Now, we only have the business manager, and so there’s no one near the front door to welcome people.

So the pastor, in this week’s newsletter, is asking for volunteers to take shifts working the front office. She wants to keep the church open, even during the lunch hour when the office is currently closed. What a beautiful message, and what an appropriate way of living up to our slogan.

the curmudgeonly lay servant

LSMinistrieslay-servant-emblemI had a great time this weekend at the Murfreesboro District Lay Servant school at Beersheba. I took a class on leading worship and it was fantastic. I also got to see several people I knew. There was a men’s group from Blakemore UMC using Beersheba at the same time, and so I even bumped into Mountain T.O.P. founder George Bass.

So I had a great experience this weekend. But the whole thing reminded me of some of the reservations I have about some recent changes in the whole lay speaking / lay servant program. I’m not sure there’s a lot of point in me venting them, since it’s sort of a water-under-the-bridge situation, but I decided I needed to get them off my chest.

First, a bit of background. “Lay speakers,” in the United Methodist parlance, have been people who are not ordained ministers but who are available to preach, lead worship, etc., for example when a pastor is sick or on vacation. Some lay speakers have even been asked to lead smaller churches for extended periods of time when a pastor was unavailable. They have to rely on an ordained minister to perform baptisms, weddings, funerals and the like, and even to bless the communion elements.

There have traditionally been two different types of lay speakers. After taking a basic course (usually offered over the course of a weekend, or on two consecutive Saturdays), you became a “local church lay speaker,” meaning that you were prepared to speak at the church where you were a member. After that, you could take an advanced course – any of several that might be offered – and become a “certified lay speaker,” meaning that you were prepared to speak at any other church as needed.

You had to take an advanced course at least every three years to maintain your certified status – but it didn’t matter which one. Sometimes, I would take a new class after just a year or two, because I wanted to; other times, the three-year deadline would sneak up on me and I’d have to take a new class right away or risk losing my certification. I actually took “Go Preach!”, the most basic advanced preaching class, more than once because it was the only one that was available during a given training event, or what have you. And I gained something new from it each time I took it. I took other classes as well, including one on crafting better sermons, one on leading small group studies, and what have you.

I’ve been a certified lay speaker for a number of years now, and in fact in 2007 I was the first lay speaker ever to deliver a (brief) sermon at the Tennessee Annual Conference. In 2013, I preached about a dozen Sunday morning services – an average of once a month, although in practice a large number of them were during the summer months, due to preachers taking vacations or mission trips.

A couple of different things have taken place over the past couple of years – one denomination-wide, the other specific to our conference. The denomination-wide change was to rename the program from “Lay Speaking Ministries” to “Lay Servant Ministries.” The stated rationale was that there were a lot of different ways to serve the church, and we shouldn’t limit the program to just those who are comfortable standing behind a pulpit.

Here is where I will start to sound like a curmudgeon. The distinction of “Lay Speaking Ministries” was a perfectly legitimate, even obvious, one. Yes, there are many ways to serve a local church – and we should be encouraging every church member to serve in those ways. But I don’t understand what that had to do with lay speaking. To use an absurd analogy, that would be like saying that you shouldn’t have to use a firearm to be in the U.S. Marine Corps, because you can serve your country in other ways than just shooting at people. Yes, it makes a weird kind of sense, but it negates the whole reason you started the Marine Corps in the first place.

Meanwhile, the Tennessee Conference (which, despite its name, represents primarily Middle Tennessee) has implemented a new training regimen. I believe you become a certified lay servant after you take your first advanced class, but in order to be a certified lay speaker you now have to take one course each from five different topic areas: spiritual gifts, United Methodist heritage, preaching, leading worship and evangelism.

In years past, the Murfreesboro District has held about two training events a year – one in the spring and one in the fall. There’s no guarantee that a particular training event will have all five of the topic areas offered as options; the one I attended this weekend didn’t have all of them covered.

If I understand the rules right (and I may not), and going by the current schedule, it could take a local church lay speaker two and a half years (or more, if the schedule doesn’t work out right) to take all the classes required to become certified.  You could conceivably do it more quickly by picking up some courses in adjoining districts, such as the Columbia or the Nashville district.

I’m also completely confused about to what extent long-timers like me are “grandfathered in” under the new requirements. One person who spoke at this weekend’s training said that we long-timers needed to talk to the district lay speaking director and make special arrangements with her. But when I complained about my confusion online, the district director (whom I know personally) said I was good to go. I still don’t know if I’m supposed to make an effort going forward to pick up the other topic areas, and I’m not sure how I would count one or two of my past courses, or if they’d count at all.

I understand the value of the added material called for by the new program – and, in fact, I look forward to taking a course in the area on United Methodist heritage. (If one had been offered this weekend, I would have signed up for it.) But it seems like a dramatic change from the current system, and I’m not sure it’s been well explained. I wish there were a way some of the material could be delivered by online courses or what have you. I wonder how many local church lay speakers are going to stick with it long enough to meet the new requirements to be certified.

So, to summarize – we’ve changed the name from “Lay Speaking” to “Lay Servant” in order to encourage more people to join, but in order to be an actual lay speaker you now have to meet much more stringent requirements.

Thus ends my curmudgeonly screed.

Vital Dihydrogen Monoxide

Goose Pond UMC
March 23, 2014

(Adapted from First UMC Shelbyville, March 27, 2011)

Are you familiar with dihydrogen monoxide? It’s widely used as an industrial solvent, in a number of different industries. In its liquid and solid forms, it’s powerful enough to damage asphalt, concrete or even stone. It can corrode metal. In its gaseous form, it’s been known to cause severe burns. Autopsies and biopsies have revealed that people suffering from cancer and other serious illnesses have dihydrogen monoxide in their systems. And yet, dihydrogen monoxide is used in the production of nearly every processed food. It’s even found in baby formula.
The chemical formula for dihydrogen monoxide, as its name implies, is two hydrogen atoms combined with one oxygen atom – H2O. In other words, the chemical that can damage asphalt, corrode metal and cause severe burns is … water. You can find it in the bodies of sick people because you can find it in the body of every person.
The facts I read about “dihydrogen monoxide” were from a humorous web site. The site lists all sorts of alarming-sounding facts and pretty much leaves you to figure out on your own what dihydrogen monoxide actually is.

We know, however, that by whatever name, water is essential for any of us if we want to stay alive. Adult bodies are somewhere between 55 and 60 percent water. Depending on the temperature and the conditions, you can’t survive more than a few days without drinking water. When Aron Ralston, the hiker portrayed in the movie “127 Hours,” was trapped under a boulder, his concern wasn’t that he would die without food but that he would die without water.
But dihydrogen monoxide may not be the only kind of water. Water plays into two of our lectionary passages today:

Continue reading

the wheel, un-reinvented

Well, after lay speaking this morning at Cannon UMC and Mt. Lebanon UMC, I went to look up next Sunday’s passages from the Revised Common Lectionary, so that I could start working on my sermon for Goose Pond UMC in Coffee County.

If you’re not familiar with the lectionary, it’s sort of a schedule for the scriptures to be used in Sunday worship. The Catholic Church has its own lectionary; the Revised Common Lectionary is a Protestant version, for those denominations or preachers who believe in such a thing. These would tend to be the same churches that recognize some form of the liturgical calendar – seasons like Lent, Advent and what have you.

Each week, there are four basic scripture passages. There’s at least one Old Testament passage (other than the Psalms), at least one New Testament passage (other than the Gospels), a passage from the Psalms and a passage from the Gospels. Some weeks, there are more than that – especially if there are alternate ways to treat that Sunday within the liturgical calendar.

For example, some churches celebrate the Sunday before Easter as “Palm Sunday” and would want a Gospel passage about Jesus’ triumphal entry of Jerusalem at the beginning of Holy Week. Those churches would typically recognize the crucifixion during a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday service. But churches that don’t have a Maundy Thursday or Good Friday service might choose to observe “Passion Sunday” instead, treating the crucifixion one week so that they can concentrate on the resurrection the next. The lectionary includes passages for each of those two options.

The lectionary runs on a three-year cycle – if 2011 uses the calendar for Year A, and 2012 uses the calendar for Year B, and 2013 uses Year C, then in 2014 you go back to Year A again.

A pastor may pick only one of the week’s lectionary passages and focus on it exclusively. Often, though, there’s some sort of common theme or element, and the really skillful professionals can often weave two, three, or all four of the passages into a single sermon. I’m an amateur, and I usually just preach on one of the four passages.

United Methodism would in general be a church that uses the lectionary, although it’s enough of a big tent that there are pastors, especially at small churches, who don’t use it. There are also special occasions when a pastor might want to ignore that week’s lectionary because of some special occasion or situation which the pastor feels requires a different direction.

Lay speakers, especially if we’re called upon at the last moment, aren’t necessarily expected to go by the lectionary, but I do, whenever possible.

I recall a lay speaking class I took in which the class members had differing opinions about the lectionary. Some didn’t like it, feeling that in every case you should seek God’s inspiration rather than relying on some dusty man-made schedule. Others, and I am among them, find God’s inspiration within the lectionary, which sometimes forces us out of our comfort zones and requires us to look at passages we might ignore otherwise.

Anyway, I want to look at the passages for next Sunday and they looked familiar. I save all of my sermons to a folder on my computer, and it didn’t take me long to find a sermon I preached on the Third Sunday of Lent three years ago – remember, the lectionary runs on a three-year cycle – at my home church, First UMC Shelbyville. I looked at the sermon and remembered it immediately, and I recall being pleased with it. (Boy, that sounds egotistical.) And it incorporated two different lectionary passages — the OT passage and the Gospel passage.

Anyway, I decided that, rather than start from scratch, I would update and adapt  that sermon from three years ago and use it next Sunday.

It runs about a page or two longer than my usual sermon; it may need a bit of tightening. I’ll read it aloud some time in the next night or two and see if it really is longer time-wise. Then again, some of my sermons are on the short side so maybe this is just more of an average-length sermon.

Anyway, I won’t have to panic this week about whether or not I’ve written my sermon.