The Very Impressive Centurion

Mt. Lebanon UMC
May 29, 2016

Luke 7:1-10 (CEB)

7 After Jesus finished presenting all his words among the people, he entered Capernaum. 2 A centurion had a servant who was very important to him, but the servant was ill and about to die. 3 When the centurion heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to Jesus to ask him to come and heal his servant. 4 When they came to Jesus, they earnestly pleaded with Jesus. “He deserves to have you do this for him,” they said. 5 “He loves our people and he built our synagogue for us.”
6 Jesus went with them. He had almost reached the house when the centurion sent friends to say to Jesus, “Lord, don’t be bothered. I don’t deserve to have you come under my roof. 7 In fact, I didn’t even consider myself worthy to come to you. Just say the word and my servant will be healed. 8 I’m also a man appointed under authority, with soldiers under me. I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and the servant does it.”
9 When Jesus heard these words, he was impressed with the centurion. He turned to the crowd following him and said,“I tell you, even in Israel I haven’t found faith like this.” 10 When the centurion’s friends returned to his house, they found the servant restored to health.

This is one of my favorite stories from the Gospels, and when I saw it in the Lectionary for this week I was delighted, and I thought I knew the story well. But whenever I go to look something like this up for a sermon I learn something new.
For example, a week ago I would have told you that a centurion was an officer in the Roman army who was in charge of 100 men. The word “centurion” comes from the same root as “century,” or “bicentennial,” or “percent.” It means 100.
However, I learned that by the time of Jesus, the Romans had changed their structure a little bit, and by that time a “centurion” was actually in charge of about 80 soldiers. The Romans didn’t bother changing the name, though; they were still called “centurions.” It’s like when you say you’re going to “dial” a phone number even though your phone doesn’t have a dial. Force of habit.
But actually, it’s possible that the centurion we’re talking about here wasn’t really with the Roman army at all – at least, not the real Roman army. According to the Wesley Study Bible, historians tell us that the Romans had no troops stationed in the region of Galilee, which they considered a remote and unimportant backwater. So this particular centurion, and whoever was under his command, may have been local forces, not actually a part of the official Roman army but rather mercenaries whom the Romans had hired to keep the peace – sort of a Roman cross between the National Guard and the French Foreign Legion.
But the qualities that made a good centurion were the same no matter what the nationality. Luke, who wrote both this gospel and the book of Acts, mentions centurions numerous times, and according to the commentator William Barclay it’s always in a positive context. It was a centurion at Jesus’ crucifixion who said “Surely this was the son of God.” There were several times in the book of Acts when we hear about centurions protecting Paul or ensuring that Paul is treated fairly while he is a Roman prisoner.
Perhaps it was the case that a centurion was a man who had proven himself worthy and earned some level of trust and responsibility – but who hadn’t yet risen high enough on the organizational chart to be truly corrupted by power.
Whatever his citizenship, we know that the centurion in today’s scripture was a gentile – and yet, he was a gentile who was friendly with, and supportive of, the local Jewish population. In Luke’s account, the Jewish elders from that community come to Jesus on the centurion’s behalf. They tell Jesus that the centurion loves their people and that he actually donated the money to build the local synagogue.
The great center of worship for Jews was the temple in Jerusalem. But synagogues were, and are, neighborhood or community meeting places which are the Jewish equivalent of a local church.
Although the Romans had their own gods, and their own belief system, they did not necessarily force the countries they conquered to worship their gods. If there was a pre-existing religion, and if it wasn’t fanatical, the Romans tended to encourage that it continue, believing religion to be a civilizing, or at least pacifying, influence. The Roman emperors would rather have the people in a temple or a synagogue than in someone’s back room plotting rebellion. In fact, according to William Barclay, Caesar Augustus encouraged the building of synagogues in Judaea for that very reason.
But we don’t get the sense that this centurion’s support of the local synagogue in Capernaum was calculated. We get the sense that he had developed a warm and friendly relationship with the Jews of that area, which is all the more amazing because the laws of Moses limited the extent to which he, as a gentile, could interact with those Jews.
It is possible for a Gentile to convert to Judaism, but that’s not what had happened here. The centurion remained a Gentile. That meant that in certain ways, he and the people he was helping had to remain at arm’s length. But he was friendly enough to Judaism to give enough money to build the local Jewish community a meeting place.
It’s easy to be generous to your own. It’s harder to be generous to those outside your circle, and even harder to be generous to people who are, by their own laws, prevented from showing you a full measure of generosity.
This centurion was a remarkable man. But the Bible is filled with stories of unexpected people as examples of faith.
This centurion had a slave who was ill. Now, just as this centurion’s attitude toward the Jews was quite unusual, his attitude towards his slave was also quite unusual. Roman slaves had no rights. One writer even recommended to his fellow Romans that they go through their slaves every year or two and the ones who were no longer productive should be abandoned to die. But this centurion apparently had a different attitude towards this slave, and the slave’s illness grieved the centurion.
And so, the elders came to Jesus and they asked Jesus to intervene. They tell Jesus what a good man the centurion is, and it comes out as if they’re apologizing for the fact that he’s a gentile. We know there was no love lost between the Jews and the Romans, or the Jews and the gentiles in general.
“Well, we know he’s a gentile,” they tell Jesus, “but he’s not one of the bad ones. He’s one of the good ones. It’s okay if you help him.”
It’s funny, because that sounds kind of prejudiced. Anyone who has a really bad prejudice will try to defend themselves by pointing to their one black friend or their one Hispanic friend. “See? I can’t be prejudiced! I have a black friend!”
At any rate, the elders bring the message to Jesus, and Jesus – in his compassion – goes with the elders to the centurion’s home.
But then the centurion hears that Jesus is coming, and sends word – “No,” he says, “I’m not worthy to have you in my home.” And, in fact, Peter – after Jesus’ resurrection, when he visited the centurion Cornelius and began the process of sharing the gospel with the Gentiles – acknowledged that, under the rules and customs of the time, it was considered wrong for Jews to visit Gentiles or associate to closely with them, such as visiting them in their homes. The centurion in this passage knew that as well, and he didn’t want to put Jesus in a position of breaking the Jewish law.
But the next part of his message is what’s really extraordinary.
“Just say the word and my servant will be healed,” says the centurion. “I’m also a man appointed under authority, with soldiers under me. I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and the servant does it.”
There’s an old story – and I apologize to those of you who have heard it before – about a town where there was a bad flood. One man was sitting on his porch, his entire house surrounded by the flood waters. An inflatable raft came by, and a man from the sheriff’s department said to him, “Get in the boat, and I’ll take you to the shelter.”
“No thanks,” said the man. “The Lord will take care of me.”
The flood waters continued to rise, and the man had to move up to the second floor of the house. He had the window open, and a powerboat came by with someone from the Civil Defense. “Get in the boat,” they said, “and we’ll take you to the shelter.”
“No thanks,” said the man. “The Lord will take care of me.”
Well, the flood waters continued to rise, and the man had to climb up onto the roof of the house. A National Guard helicopter came flying overhead and dropped a rope ladder. “GRAB HOLD OF THE LADDER,” said a guardsman holding a bullhorn.
“NO THANKS,” the man yelled back. “THE LORD WILL TAKE CARE OF ME.”
Finally, however, the flood waters rose too high and the man drowned. He found himself at the Pearly Gates, and was escorted inside, where he insisted on speaking to the Almighty.
“Why didn’t you take care of me?” the man demanded to know.
“I sent two boats and a helicopter,” God responded. “What more do you want?”
That’s us sometimes – we ask God for help, but we get a little too specific about what form that help should take. Maybe we ask for a new washing machine when God’s will is actually to make our old machine last a little bit longer – or maybe God has plans for us to encounter someone at the Laundromat. We get fixated on asking God to help us in some specific and dramatic way, and we miss the beauty and richness of all the other ways God might be looking after us.
But the centurion was not trying to limit God – just the opposite. The centurion was showing that he understood that God works in many different ways. When he heard Jesus was coming to visit him, he was alarmed – because he knew it was against the religious laws for an observant Jew to enter his home. So he sent word to Jesus – “Don’t come. I know you don’t have to come. I have men under my command, and I tell them to go somewhere or to bring me something, and they do it. I know you can heal my servant from anywhere.”
In the account of this same story in Matthew’s gospel, the centurion even rushes to meet Jesus himself to say this in person. That contradicts Luke, who quotes the centurion as saying he’s not worthy to approach Jesus in person.
The centurion knows what it’s like to have a little bit of power. And he has the imagination, and the faith, to understand that Jesus has divine power. And just as the centurion can send people to do things or get things, the centurion knew that Jesus could heal his servant from afar.
Jesus responded to this with amazement. I read from the Common English Bible earlier, and I want to repeat verse 9: “When Jesus heard these words, he was impressed with the centurion. He turned to the crowd following him and said, ‘I tell you, even in Israel I haven’t found faith like this.’”
Jesus was impressed with the centurion! What a remarkable thing! This centurion had a better concept of who Jesus was, and of what Jesus was capable, than the Jews who had come to recommend him. He had a level of faith that Jesus hadn’t found anywhere in Israel.
In the fourth chapter of the gospel of John, Jesus is in Cana, but a royal official from Capernaum comes to see him. The royal official has a son who was sick. The official, like the Jewish elders who approached Jesus on the centurion’s behalf, assumes that Jesus needs to be present to heal his son. But Jesus, as the centurion understood, isn’t limited by time or place. Jesus speaks the word, and sends the royal official home.
When the official gets home, an overnight trip, he discovers that his son is healed – and when they tell him what time the boy started getting better, it was at one in the afternoon on the previous day – exactly the time that Jesus had pronounced him healed.
So Jesus can heal from anywhere, and this is true in the case of the centurion’s servant, who was found in good health by the Jewish elders when they got back to town.
The centurion’s faith is held up as a model for our own. The centurion had complete trust that God, in the person of Jesus, could and would do what was right. But the centurion, rather than insisting that God act in one certain way, put his request in the context of God’s kingdom as a whole. The centurion didn’t want Jesus to come to his home because he was concerned about the impact on Jesus and his ministry.
That concern might have been misplaced – Jesus was on his way to the centurion’s home, and apparently had no hesitation about going there, just as Jesus freely associated with whoever needed him and whoever turned to him, regardless of how those associations looked to the religious leaders of that day. But the important thing is that the centurion was concerned for something larger than his own household.
God encourages us, throughout the Bible, to bring our cares and concerns and requests to the holy throne. We don’t always receive what we ask for. Sometimes we ask for things that would be harmful to ourselves or others. It’s like the Garth Brooks song – some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers. Sometimes we make requests that aren’t really that important in the larger scheme of things. Sometimes we don’t know why God doesn’t grant our requests.
Those of you who are parents or grandparents may have a better sense of this. When your child, or your grandchild, comes to you and asks for an ice cream cone, you know that ice cream cone isn’t of any great importance in the long run. You know that you’re providing for that child in a hundred other ways that are much more important – seeing to their health and their education and their safety.
Sometimes, you have to say “no” and the child doesn’t understand why. But that doesn’t mean you don’t want them to ask. The fact that they ask you for things is a sign of their trust, a sign that they know you love them and that you want the best for them. It’s part of the conversation of growing up.
And as they grow up, as they begin to mature and better understand the world and their place in it, what they ask you for will change.
God wants us to ask for things, for ourselves and in intercessory prayer for others. God already knows what we need, but God still wants us to make the request because that conversation helps us. It helps us realize what our own priorities are. It helps us realize our dependence upon God. And as we grow in our faith, our prayers will change over time – they’ll become less selfish and more about what’s best for others. The centurion wasn’t requesting healing for himself – he was requesting that his servant be healed. Although, actually, even that’s not true – it wasn’t the centurion who made the initial request, it was the centurion’s friends, the Jewish leaders.
Prayer is a conversation with God. It needs to be a two-way conversation, in which we listen for God’s voice in our hearts. God wants us to be in that conversation, and even if we start that conversation asking for the wrong things, at least it’s a start.
And this story is also a great example of the importance of intercessory prayer. Everyone here is concerned with someone else’s welfare – except the servant, and we don’t meet the servant, so he’s not really a character in the story.
Let us all aspire to be more like the centurion, someone who trusts completely in Jesus, who believes in Jesus’ kingdom, and who has the compassion to pray for others. Maybe someday, we’ll get to hear Jesus say that he was impressed by our faith as well.

Faces at the Cross: Joseph of Arimathea

First United Methodist Church
March 6, 2016

During the season of Lent, each different worship service at First United Methodist Church is focusing on one of the “Faces at the Cross”: someone associated in some way with the crucifixion story. When the Rev. Lanita Monroe asked me to fill the pulpit this Sunday, she asked me to preach on this Sunday’s subject, Joseph of Arimathea.

I want to read you three passage, from three different gospels, each from the Common English Bible. Each of these passages is about today’s Face at the Cross, Joseph of Arimathea:

Luke 23:50-56 (CEB)

50 Now there was a man named Joseph who was a member of the council. He was a good and righteous man. 51 He hadn’t agreed with the plan and actions of the council. He was from the Jewish city of Arimathea and eagerly anticipated God’s kingdom. 52 This man went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. 53 Taking it down, he wrapped it in a linen cloth and laid it in a tomb carved out of the rock, in which no one had ever been buried. 54 It was the Preparation Day for the Sabbath, and the Sabbath was quickly approaching. 55 The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph. They saw the tomb and how Jesus’ body was laid in it, 56 then they went away and prepared fragrant spices and perfumed oils. They rested on the Sabbath, in keeping with the commandment.

John 19:38-42 (CEB)

38 After this Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate if he could take away the body of Jesus. Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one because he feared the Jewish authorities. Pilate gave him permission, so he came and took the body away. 39 Nicodemus, the one who at first had come to Jesus at night, was there too. He brought a mixture of myrrh and aloe, nearly seventy-five pounds in all. 40 Following Jewish burial customs, they took Jesus’ body and wrapped it, with the spices, in linen cloths. 41 There was a garden in the place where Jesus was crucified, and in the garden was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. 42 Because it was the Jewish Preparation Day and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus in it.

Mark 15:42-47 (CEB)

42 Since it was late in the afternoon on Preparation Day, just before the Sabbath, 43 Joseph from Arimathea dared to approach Pilate and ask for Jesus’ body. (Joseph was a prominent council member who also eagerly anticipated the coming of God’s kingdom.) 44 Pilate wondered if Jesus was already dead. He called the centurion and asked him whether Jesus had already died. 45 When he learned from the centurion that Jesus was dead, Pilate gave the dead body to Joseph. 46 He bought a linen cloth, took Jesus down from the cross, wrapped him in the cloth, and laid him in a tomb that had been carved out of rock. He rolled a stone against the entrance to the tomb. 47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was buried.

When Lanita asked me to preach on Joseph of Arimathea, I was delighted – I’ve always found him an interesting character.

I once tried to write a novel about what happened to the disciples in between Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. I knew I wasn’t a trained scholar of Bible history, but I told myself it was going to be more allegory than speculative history, and so if the characters used modern speech patterns or if I got some minor detail wrong, it wasn’t a big deal. But I eventually decided the story was too big for my skills as a writer. I still have the manuscript on my computer somewhere, and I look at it occasionally.

When Jesus was arrested – and willingly surrendered, telling Peter to put away his sword – the disciples seem to have made themselves scarce. Peter, of course, famously followed Jesus to the place where he was being tried, but then denied three times that he knew Jesus. We hear about John being at the crucifixion, and Jesus speaking to him. And we hear about Judas Iscariot’s remorse and death. For the most part, the 12 disciples seem to have laid low on that sad Sabbath day. They didn’t disperse, or leave Jerusalem, and when the Sabbath was over they were found together in the same place on Easter morning. But the Bible doesn’t tell us much about what happened to the disciples in between the crucifixion and the resurrection.

We can assume that this was a moment in which most of the disciples had lost faith, or were at least in a state of confusion – their shock and disbelief on Easter morning indicated that they weren’t expecting Jesus to return, even though he’d spoken about it during his ministry. So many of Jesus’ teachings were in parables or metaphors, and the disciples did not seem to have the courage to take the idea of Jesus rising from the dead literally. This was a moment when Jesus’ followers might have been reconciling themselves to what seemed to be proof that he was just a great teacher and not the world-changing messiah that they’d been promised.

It’s hard for us, knowing the outcome of the story, to imagine the despair that Jesus’ followers must have felt. They believed he was the Messiah. Many of them, not understanding the true nature of his kingdom, had assumed that his destiny was to lead the people of Israel to political freedom, overthrowing the rule of the hated Roman Empire.

Now, Jesus – the miracle worker who could raise others from the dead – is dead himself. Hope is over. The game has ended, and our team lost. The disciples clung to each other, but they must have been questioning whether they’d wasted the months they spent following Jesus.

Joseph of Arimathea, however, is the other way around – and that’s one of the things that’s interesting about him. Joseph was fearful while Jesus was alive and yet somehow found boldness after Jesus’ death.

Joseph was a wealthy man, and he was a member of the Sanhedrin – a council, or court, composed of 70 members, plus the high priest. The Sanhedrin was responsible for questions of Jewish law.

We know that Joseph was wealthy, but we don’t know from the Bible what his occupation was. There are legends and traditions, which developed in church history, that Joseph was involved in metalwork somehow. In the middle ages, when the church was fascinated by the holy grail, the cup used during the Last Supper, there were legends – and they were only legends, with no apparent basis in fact – that Joseph had been the first keeper of the grail.

During Jesus’ lifetime – according to John’s gospel — Joseph had kept his admiration for the controversial teacher from Nazareth quiet, out of fear of his fellow members of the Sanhedrin. Nicodemus, with whom Joseph worked to bury Jesus’ body, first came to Jesus under cover of darkness, and it’s implied that Joseph had been just as anxious not to let anyone know of his interest in Jesus’ teachings.

And yet, now, with Jesus’ beaten and bloody corpse nailed to a piece of wood, Joseph of Arimathea chose to take a step out of the darkness. It was at this moment in which he decided his devotion to Jesus would no longer be a secret.

By earthly measures, by conventional wisdom, the cause of Jesus of Nazareth had already been lost. Joseph of Arimathea had nothing to gain and everything to lose by allowing his feelings to be made public. It’s like someone deciding to root for the losing team after the game has ended.

The idea that Joseph would oppose his fellow members of the Sanhedrin is a remarkable one. The Sanhedrin were about preserving the peace, and the status quo, and the power of the existing religious elite. They surely convinced themselves that they were doing what was right for their own people and what was right in the eyes of God. It not only took courage for Joseph of Arimathea to stand up to them, it took spiritual perception. It took spiritual perception for him to realize the truth in Jesus’ teachings, a truth that seemed to run counter to what the Sanhedrin stood for. It can be hard to question and move past long-held convictions when they turn out to be against the will of God.

I highly recommend the book “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy,” an award-winning biography of the great theologican Dietrich Bonhoeffer written by Eric Metaxas. One of the things that comes through in Bonhoeffer’s story is the extent to which so many elements of the official state-sponsored church in Germany – the reichskirke – were easily co-opted into support of the Nazi cause during Hitler’s rise to power. They thought that their patriotic and religious duties were one and the same, and Hitler seemed to be doing great things for Germany. So they rationalized and they made excuses and they just went along.

Most of them went along.

Bonhoeffer and a group of other pastors began to see the Nazi regime for what it was and they began to form a movement called the Confessing Church which distanced itself from the German government. Bonhoeffer, of course, eventually gave up his life for the cause. He had been sent to safety in America but deliberately returned to Germany to stand with his fellow Germans. He played a part in a conspiracy to assasinate Hitler and was eventually executed by the Nazis.

In the movie “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington,” Jimmy Stewart, playing a character named Jefferson Smith, says that lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for. It’s at this moment, when the cause of Jesus seems to be a lost cause, that Joseph of Arimathea decides to go public with his admiration for Jesus and all that Jesus stood for. Mark, in the Common English Bible, says that Joseph “dared” to go to Pilate and ask for Jesus’ body. And given the uproar that had surrounded Jesus and led to his crucifixion, it was an act of daring to ask for his body and give him a dignified burial.

It seems like an odd, even offensive, comparison to make, but one of the things that happened to pop into my head as I thought about Joseph of Arimathea was the story of the Rev. Louis Sanders.

Robert McGill Thomas, a Shelbyville native, became one of the all-time great obituary writers for the New York Times. I never got to meet Mr. Thomas, even though he visited Shelbyville quite frequently and even kept a house here. But after his death, I read the wonderful book “52 McGs,” which is a compilation of 51 of his best obituaries from the Times, along with his own obituary. Robert Thomas was best-known for writing obituaries of unusual and off-beat subjects, and it was from the book “52 McGs” that I first learned about the Rev. Louis Sanders.

Rev. Sanders was a member of the Christian church – Disciples of Christ, like First Christian Church across from Hardee’s – who attended Vanderbilt Divinity School. In 1963, he was head of the Fort Worth Council of Churches, not unlike Lanita being the head of Bedford County Ministerial Association. Following the Kennedy assassination, he was working on organizing a memorial service for JFK, but it was also his duty to make sure that someone was available to preach at the funeral service for – well, for Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who had been arrested as an assassin and then shot two days later by Jack Ruby. The Fort Worth Council of Churches felt that Oswald – or at least, Oswald’s family – deserved some sort of funeral service, an act of simple Christian compassion, even though at that moment Oswald was perhaps the most hated man in the world.

Two ministers agreed to officiate at Oswald’s funeral, but then when they discovered the services were outdoors, at the graveside, they pulled out at the last minute, afraid that they themselves might be killed by snipers. So Rev. Sanders, who had come to the service as an observer and had left his Bible in the car, performed the ceremony, reading the 23rd Psalm and a passage from John 14 by memory, and giving a two-sentence eulogy which mainly mentioned Oswald’s mother and how much she loved her son.

There is, of course, no comparison to be made between the man Louis Sanders eulogized – a man guilty of a horrific crime – and the one whom Joseph of Arimathea buried, who was blameless. The comparison is only in the courageous acts of mercy which were made despite overwhelming opposition from the community.

For Joseph of Arimathea, giving Jesus a tomb was compassionate and kind. We don’t know what he was thinking or feeling about the teacher from Nazareth whose body he claimed, but he at least knew that Jesus had been mistreated by his fellow members of the Sanhedrin.

I don’t believe he had, at this time, a complete understanding of Jesus’ true kingdom. Almost no one did. Had he known Jesus was about to rise from the dead, the courtesy of a tomb would have been, well, somewhat meaningless. The fact that Joseph of Arimathea offered a tomb probably means that he thought Jesus was going to need a tomb.

But Joseph at least recognized something of Jesus’ holy nature, and had the courage to stand up in the face of opposition from his fellow members of the Sanhedrin.

There may be many times in our life, in our faith, in our service to the church in which we don’t fully understand God’s plan. But we have to do our best to be faithful, and sometimes our faithfulness is rewarded in unexpected ways. The conspiracy in which Dietrich Bonhoeffer was involved failed to assasinate Hitler, and yet Bonhoeffer in martyrdom became an example and an inspiration to millions, drawing attention to his valuable writings.

Abraham and Sarah trusted God to give them descendants even when they were past their child-bearing years. Mary and Joseph trusted God even when she was unmarried and mysteriously pregnant.

Joseph of Arimathea donated a tomb thinking that it would be the eternal resting place of a great teacher who was killed before his time. Instead, the tomb itself would become a symbol of the greatest event of human history. The empty tomb of Jesus speaks to resurrection, and rebirth, and hope. Joseph of Arimathea had the wisdom and vision to follow God, and the courage to trust in God without knowing the complete plan. May each of us be able to say the same.

all jerusalem was troubled

First UMC Shelbyville

January 3, 2015

Matthew 2:1-12 (CEB)

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”

When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:

You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,

by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,

because from you will come one who governs,

who will shepherd my people Israel.”

Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy.  They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.

We think of this passage from Matthew as a story about three visitors from the East. The word for them in Latin was “magi,” plural of “magus.” Sometimes that’s translated as “wise men,” and sometimes – as in the Common English Bible, from which I read today – it’s not translated at all. The idea that they were kings is not mentioned in the Gospels. Matthew, in fact, is the only one of the Gospel writers who tells this story, and he uses the term “magi.” It was later Christian writers who called them kings, perhaps inspired by Old Testament prophecies of kings bowing before the Messiah. In fact, two of our other Lectionary passages today make reference to this. From Psalm 72:10-11 (CEB):

Let the kings of Tarshish and the islands bring tribute;

let the kings of Sheba and Seba present gifts.

Let all the kings bow down before him;

let all the nations serve him.

And from Isaiah 60:2-3 (CEB):

Though darkness covers the earth

and gloom the nations,

the Lord will shine upon you;

God’s glory will appear over you.

Nations will come to your light

and kings to your dawning radiance.

There have been various theories about exactly who the magi were. The commentator William Barclay quotes the historian Herodotus; Herodotus identified the magi as Medes. The Medes were part of the Persian empire. They tried to overthrow their Persian conquerors and failed, and the leaders of the Medes lost their ambition for military victory, according to this story, and just became priests and religious leaders. They not only served their own people but they became advisors to their conquerors, the Persians.

As you’ve heard many times, we don’t actually know how many of them there were. “We Three Kings” makes a nice song, but all we know is that there were three different gifts. Those gifts could have been given by two magi or by 10. But we like the idea of three people, each one holding a different gift, and so that’s what we put on the Christmas cards.

The magi, whomever they were, saw a star which they interpreted as a sign, an indicator of the birth of a new king and they traveled to Judea to try to find out about it. Billy Hix will have more to say about that star during his program next Sunday night; it’s a great program and I strongly encourage you to attend.

The star only leads them in a general direction, towards Judea, and so when they arrive in that country they went to its capital, Jerusalem, to check in with its current king.

That king was Herod – or, more specifically, Herod the Great. There was a story just a week or two ago at the Christianity Today website, by a seminary professor named Alexander Stewart, in which he makes reference to three different books that have been published about Herod the Great in the past two or three years.

Most of us just know about Herod from this Bible story. The king about whom Matthew writes in this story is Herod the Great. There’s another king named Herod, Herod Antipas, who is referred to elsewhere in the Gospels, during the adult ministries of Jesus and John the Baptist. Herod Antipas was one of the sons of Herod the Great.

Herod was not the king because he was descended from David. In fact, he wasn’t descended from the Jews at all. Herod was born about 73 B.C.E. His ancestry was Idumaean. The Idumaeans were known in the Old Testament as the Edomites. They had been conquered by the Jews in the second century B.C.E. and forced to convert to Judaism. So Herod was brought up as a Jew but was not truly of Jewish ancestry.

Herod the Great was King of the Jews because he’d been appointed to that post by the Romans. Julius Caesar had first appointed Herod’s father as procurator of Judea, and Herod was able to curry favor with a succession of Roman emperors and stay in power for 40 years.

By many earthly measures, Herod’s reign was a successful one. There’s a reason that he’s called “Herod the Great,” in comparison to his sons.

Herod expanded the temple in Jerusalem, and the Western Wall – a retaining wall which is one of the only remnants of that temple – is a must-see stop for tourists to Jerusalem. That western wall is part of what Herod built. He also built fortresses and seaports. His reign was a peaceful one. When there was famine, or hard times, he reduced taxes or even donated some of his own treasures to buy food for the people, something that few kings of that day or time would have done.

There was a famous saying about the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, that said, yes, he was a dictator, but at least he made the trains run on time. It turns out that statement is a bit of a hoax – yes, the Italian train system got a lot better during Mussolini’s lifetime, but most of that had to do with improvements made by the administration from before Mussolini came to power.

Herod was an efficient ruler; if there had been trains in Herod’s time, Herod would certainly have made them run on time. But he was also jealous, and ruthless with those whom he perceived as a threat. Herod ruled with an iron fist.

Given Herod’s paranoia, it’s not surprising that he was upset when the magi showed up with reports that a new king had been born. But what surprises me is the rest of verse 3: “When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him.”

Everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him?

Why?

What reason did the people of Jerusalem have to be troubled?

Herod was not well-loved by his people, and he knew it. When Herod was near death, he gave his officials a list of prominent citizens of Jerusalem, with the order that they were to be arrested, and whenever Herod died, those citizens were to be executed as well – so the people would not be inclined to rejoice at Herod’s passing. (Fortunately for the citizens of Jerusalem, this plan does not seem to have been carried out.)

Is that the reason the people of Jerusalem are troubled – because they’re afraid of how Herod will react to this threat? Are they afraid of being caught in the crossfire? Shouldn’t the promise of a new king be a sign of hope? Shouldn’t it give them reason to hope for redemption from the cruelty of Herod – and maybe even redemption from the Roman government which was the source of Herod’s power?

If anyone in Jerusalem was hopeful as a result of the magi’s visit, Matthew doesn’t tell us about them. He just says the people of Jerusalem were troubled, just as Herod was troubled.

We are often threatened and troubled by changes, even good ones. The prospect of a new king – a new regime – a new era – is a prospect full of questions. And we don’t like questions; we like certainty. Questions make us nervous. We want to be in control of our own fates, and changes remind us that we’re not.

The arrival of a new king would be a dramatic change, a change that could have profound effects, good or bad, for everyone in Jerusalem. Would he be a wise king or a foolish one? Herod derived his power from the Roman government, but perhaps a new king might try to challenge the Romans, to lead the people in revolt. Maybe such a revolt would be successful – but it might not be. And it could be bloody either way.

Or maybe Herod would try to end this new king’s reign before it began – perhaps that’s what the people were really concerned about. And if so, they had a right to be concerned. We know about the tragic action that Herod took in Bethlehem, killing all of the young boys under the age of two – an evil response from a ruthless and frightened man. Fortunately, Joseph had been warned to take his family to safety before Herod carried out this evil plan.

No one in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ birth could have possibly imagined what kind of king Jesus would turn out to be. Even the people who lived through his earthly ministry had trouble understanding what was going on and recognizing it as it happened. But the people of Jerusalem, hearing reports of a new king, could imagine enough possible outcomes to make them nervous. They were too busy imagining the worst to hope for the best.

The most troubling thing about our relationship with God isn’t going to church, or trying to do good, or confessing our sins. The most troubling thing about our relationship to God is that we have to give up control. The most troubling thing about true Christian faith is that it requires us to trust God, and often it requires us to reject the things that give us security. Jesus told the rich young ruler to sell everything he owned. He told Peter, Andrew, James and John to drop their nets and walk away from their livelihood as fishermen. He told a Pharisee named Saul to abandon his self-righteousness and the laws of Moses which had governed his life in order that Saul could become Paul, an evangelist to the Gentiles.

The Christmas season is a time of tradition and comfort, as we celebrate the arrival of a baby in a manger, someone who – it seems – cannot threaten us at all. But we cannot forget that this this baby is a king, a king who is destined to rule over us.

It’s interesting that while the people of Jerusalem were troubled by the arrival of their new king, the magi – who, according to most interpretations, were Gentiles and from another country – were celebrating. They, somehow, had a clearer view of the truth of what was happening. It reminds me a little of the story of the Roman centurion who asked Jesus to heal his daughter – a case where an outsider had a clearer understanding of who Jesus was, and how his kingdom worked, than Jesus’ own disciples had at the time.

The holiday which takes place on the Christian calendar this Wednesday, and which we’re celebrating a bit early this Sunday, is called “Epiphany.” That word has two common uses – one is as the name of this holiday, and the other is defined as “a moment in which you suddenly see or understand something in a new or very clear way.”

The magi, despite the fact that they were pagans, if you will, from another country, another religion, another way of life, had an epiphany. They saw a star, and they knew somehow, through some revelation of God, that the star was the indication of a new age to come. And the magi knew enough to come in reverent adoration, bearing gifts, to honor this king. Despite what we see on Christmas cards, this visit did not take place on Christmas night. It was some time later, after Joseph and Mary had moved into a house. In the 11th verse of the passage I read earlier:

“They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

Herod saw Jesus as a threat. The people of Jerusalem saw Jesus as a question mark. Both were afraid of this infant king. But the magi saw this king as a new hope, a cause for devotion and celebration.

It’s easy for us to be excited during the advent season about the celebration of the baby Jesus. But what will happen when we realize that this little baby is our king? Will we welcome him to the throne, or will we be troubled? Will we be like Herod, and refuse to yield the throne to this new ruler?

What does it mean to make Jesus the king of our life? It means giving up control. We don’t like giving up control. We want to be the king. We want security. We want to rule with an iron fist.

Or sometimes we are like the people of Jerusalem – we sit around and worry, more concerned about our own safety and convenience than we are about God’s plan.

When we reserve the throne for Jesus, when we make Jesus the king of our lives, sometimes we have to step out in faith. Sometimes we have to do things that frighten us. Sometimes we have to love people who are difficult to love. Sometimes we have to change our priorities. Following the star – following the king whom the star represents — may mean traveling far from home and comfort, and it may mean changing your travel plans if God tells you to.

But it also leads to a sense of joy and wonder that Herod and the people of Jerusalem were, it seems, incapable of experiencing.

What would happen this year if each of us decided to follow God’s epiphanies rather than our own fears?

know your own sin

Mt. Lebanon UMC

August 2, 2015

David was only Israel’s second king, and he is considered its greatest king and the royal ancestor of Jesus. The gospels take great pains to point out that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, David’s home town, and that Jesus was descended from the house of David.

David was praised for his devotion to God, and this simple shepherd boy survived the wrath of Israel’s first king, Saul, and became a powerful and successful king on his own, and the founder of a royal dynasty. Continue reading

Just over the horizon

Lynchburg First UMC
Oct. 5, 2014

Philippians 3:4b-14 (CEB)

4 … If anyone else has reason to put their confidence in physical advantages, I have even more:
5 I was circumcised on the eighth day.
I am from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin.
I am a Hebrew of the Hebrews.
With respect to observing the Law, I’m a Pharisee.
6 With respect to devotion to the faith, I harassed the church.
With respect to righteousness under the Law, I’m blameless.
7 These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ. 8 But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ 9 and be found in him. In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ. It is the righteousness of God that is based on faith.
10 The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings. It includes being conformed to his death 11 so that I may perhaps reach the goal of the resurrection of the dead.
12 It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose. 13 Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. 14 The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.

Many centuries ago, men thought that if you sailed far enough in any direction, you’d fall off the edge of the earth. Some of us were taught that people still believed that in Columbus’ day, and that part of Columbus’ heroism was that he believed the Earth was round and proved the naysayers wrong.
Columbus had great courage and initiative as an explorer, but you can’t give him any credit for the idea that the world was round. The educated people of Columbus’ day were already agreed on that fact, and had been for centuries.
Columbus did have one view that was in opposition to the scholars of the day – he thought the Earth was much smaller in diameter. Columbus thought that Japan was only 2,400 miles west of Spain – it’s actually more than 10,000 miles. That’s why Columbus thought he could sail to Asia in only a couple of months.
But Columbus was wrong – and the scholars of the day, using a figure that dated as far back as the third century B.C., were right. The big round Earth was much larger than Columbus believed it was, and if it had not been for the unknown continents of North and South America standing in the way, Columbus and his men would probably have perished. They would never have made it all the way to Japan, much less India, with the provisions they had on board.

Even though educated people have known the earth was round since hunderds of years before Jesus was born, there have been other people in many eras and cultures who have believed the myth of a flat Earth.
There’s a wonderful, low-budget South African movie from the 1980s called “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” The movie actually has several different plots, all of which come together in the end, but the most famous plot of the movie tells the story of a remote tribe of bushmen, with no exposure to civilization or the outside world. This tribe encounters a strange and, to them, magical object which has been dropped into their village by a crop duster in an open cockpit biplane flying overhead. We recognize the object as an old-fashioned glass Coca-Cola bottle, but the bushmen have never seen anything like it, and assume it’s been dropped by the gods from heaven as some sort of gift.
At first, they’re amazed by this gift from the gods. It’s the hardest object they’ve ever touched, and they can use it to pulverize grain or vegetables. It does strange and interesting things to the light. It even makes a funny noise when you blow across the top of it.
But the trouble is, this special object is the only thing the village has ever had that there was only one of. They start fighting over it. The bottle causes them to experience greed, jealousy and violence, as the members of the tribe fight over this gift from the gods.
The tribal elders decide the bottle is evil and should be thrown off the edge of the Earth. So they send one of their tribesmen to do just that. After some misadventures over the course of the movie, he discovers a huge canyon, with the far side of the canyon hidden by mist and clouds. Our hero assumes the cliff on which he’s standing must be the edge of the earth, and so he throws the Coke bottle into the canyon – a happy ending for a very funny movie.
The Jewish leaders of Paul’s day thought that obedience to God’s law was a destination. And they thought, like the innocent bushman from “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” that they had arrived at that destination.
Paul had been one of those Jewish leaders, secure in his own piety and holiness. In this morning’s passage, he states his credentials.
Paul was a Jew by birth. That’s why he points out that he was circumcised on the eighth day. There were converts to the Jewish faith, who were circumcised at the time of their conversion. But the eighth day, as an infant, was when a natural-born Jew was circumcised.
Paul was not only a Jew, he was a Jew from the tribe of Benjamin. Now, if you think back to the story of Joseph and his brothers in the Old Testament, Joseph and Benjamin were special to their father Jacob because they were the sons of Rachel, the more favored of Jacob’s two wives. Jacob wanted to marry Rachel but was tricked into marrying Leah first. Jacob tended to favor Rachel and Rachel’s sons.
The tribe of Benjamin was the tribe that produced Saul, Israel’s first king. It’s possible that Saul of Tarsus’s parents named him in tribute to King Saul, who was respected even though his reign ended badly. So the tribe of Benjamin had a royal history.
David did not come from the tribe of Benjamin, but the tribe supported him as king, and was the only tribe other than Judah which remained faithful to David’s grandson Rehoboam when the land of Israel divided into northern and southern kingdoms. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin continued to worship at the temple in Jerusalem and thought of themselves as the true heirs of the Jewish faith, while the northern kingdom had to worship elsewhere.
Paul’s status as a member of the tribe of Benjamin connected him to Israelite history. The commentator William Barclay says that Paul boasting of being part of the tribe of Benjamin was a little like the people who boast that their family came over on the Mayflower, or the people who can trace their ancestors back to the time of the American Revolution.

Paul also says that he is a “Hebrew of the Hebrews.” This is not the same thing as just saying that he’s a Jew. What Paul is saying is that he knows and can use the Hebrew language, and can therefore read the Hebrew scriptures, as his parents did before him.
As the Jews became dispersed, many of them adopted the language of wherever they ended up living and some lost their ability to read, write, or speak the Hebrew tongue. But in order to be considered truly pious, you still had to be able to read the scriptures. Even though Paul was from Tarsus, a Gentile city, he and his parents before him had been careful to keep up their use of the Hebrew tongue, which is how Paul was able to read and understand the scriptures.
Lastly, of course, Paul could claim to have been a Pharisee. Now, today we remember the Pharisees as the opponents of Jesus. But for Jews in Paul’s day, the Pharisees were respected, admired, paragons of the faith. The Pharisees not only obeyed the laws of Moses, they obeyed a very detailed set of intepretations of the laws of Moses, interpretations that – as Jesus pointed out several times – went farther than what God had originally intended when those laws were given to Moses. The Pharisees believed that they were doing everything God expected of them and more. They thought they had achieved piety by their strict and complete obedience to the law.
Paul, when he was Saul, believed himself to be blameless – and, before his conversion, he thought that his persecution of the Christian church was one more feather in his cap, just more proof of his holiness and obedience.
But this isn’t Saul of Tarsus speaking – it’s Paul the Apostle. And the things he once considered his greatest assets he’s now written off as losses – distractions and delusions which kept him from seeing the truth about who he really was and about who God really is.
This reminds me of the parable Jesus told in Luke 18:10-14 (CEB):

10 “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
11 The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’ 13 But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ 14 I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”

The good things the Pharisee did weren’t bad in and of themselves. Fasting can be a good thing. Tithing is certainly a good thing. The laws that God gave to Moses were good, designed to bring the people of Israel together and reinforce their identity as God’s chosen people. They were meant to be helpful. But for the Pharisee, those good things had become obstacles. The laws of Moses, and the many layers of rules and regulations which the Pharisees had built on top of the Mosaic law, had stopped being ways to please God and had become ways for the Pharisee to feel superior to others.
Paul – Saul – had been the same way. His assets as a pious Jew had become liabilities, because they prevented him from seeing his own sin. You can’t repent if you don’t think you have anything to repent of.
Paul had to become like the sinner in that parable – he had to realize that his assets were worth nothing in comparison to the debt he owed. On the road to Damascus, Paul got that realization. Now, years later, he tells the Philippians that he has lost everything – but he realizes the things he lost were worthless, and he describes them with the Greek word skubala – which the Common English Bible describes, somewhat cryptically, as “sewer trash.” Some translations simply use the word “garbage.” But Paul was using much stronger language, and it would have been heard that way by the people of Philippi. A better translation, according to some sources, would be “feces,” or maybe even a more shocking word that it would be inappropriate for me to use here.

When compared to the amazing grace offered by Jesus, when compared to a real relationship with the creator of the universe, the fake holiness that Paul had enjoyed as a Pharisee was as worthless as something you flush down the toilet.
Christianity requires that we realize our own sin, our own need for forgiveness. Christianity requires that we be broken, like that tax collector in Jesus’ parable, throwing ourselves on the mercy of God.
Paul says, “In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ.”
Paul recognizes that he would never be able to achieve righteousness through his own efforts. He must trust in the righteousness purchased for him through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
But God does not want us to stop there.
Paul says “The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings.”
Christianity is a relationship. It is an ongoing process of knowing Christ and participating in Christ’s suffering and resurrection.
There was a heresy in Paul’s time which today’s scholars call antinomianism. It was the belief that, once you were saved through grace, that was the end of it; you could at that point willfully commit any sin you wanted and go forward doing anything and everything, and it would not matter, because you’d been forgiven.
But that’s not Paul’s understanding. He believes that his righteousness is part of a relationship, part of knowing Christ, and therefore it requires our ongoing participation.
“It’s not that I have already reached this goal,” writes Paul, “or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose. Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.”

People once thought the edge of the Earth was a destination, someplace you could get to. In reality, of course, the edge of the Earth is just the horizon – and no matter how far you go, you can never, ever get to the horizon. In fact, when it comes to our relationship with God, the further we go, the more we understand our own shortcomings, and the more we realize how far we are from true perfection.
John Wesley used the word “perfection” to describe Christians, and this is sometimes misunderstood. Wesley knew better than to claim that he or any other Christian was without sin. He understood only too well this ongoing voyage, this never-ending trip toward the horizon. His use of “perfection” referred to a change in the Christian’s basic motivation. Wesley said that Christian perfection meant having a heart “habitually filled with the love of God and neighbor” and as “having the mind of Christ and walking as he walked.”
Our Christian walk is just that – a walk. It requires us to keep moving. There may be detours or delays, but if we’re truly in relationship with Christ that will keep us moving forward. Like Columbus, we may not wind up the exact place we thought was our destination. But like Columbus, we may find it’s someplace even better than our imagination.
We can’t boast about what we’ve accomplished, but we have to continue in our grateful response to the amazing gift God has given us.

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.”

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.

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:

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Regeneration

Mt. Lebanon UMC and Cannon UMC
March 16, 2014

John 3:1-17 (NRSV)
1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.
2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”
10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

I don’t know if any of you are familiar with the TV show “Doctor Who.” It celebrated its 50th anniversary last November, and It’s been one of my all-time favorites since I discovered it as a college student in the early 1980s. It’s a British science fiction TV show, about a mysterious alien, whose name is “The Doctor,” from a planet called Gallifrey. The main character has been played by 12 different actors over those five decades, and a 13th has just taken over the part and will start in new episodes later this year.
What happened was, the first man to play the part, in the mid-1960s, decided to quit. At that time, “Doctor Who” was considered a children’s show, and so the producers just made up a new plot point – something they might not have been able to get away with in a show aimed at grownups – and decided that the people of Gallifrey have the ability to “regenerate” – to heal themselves from some great trauma by transforming into an entirely new body.

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