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:

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Front and Center

Morton Memorial UMC
Sept. 1, 2013

Luke 14:1, 7-14 (CEB)

14 One Sabbath, when Jesus went to share a meal in the home of one of the leaders of the Pharisees, they were watching him closely.

7 When Jesus noticed how the guests sought out the best seats at the table, he told them a parable. 8 “When someone invites you to a wedding celebration, don’t take your seat in the place of honor. Someone more highly regarded than you could have been invited by your host. 9 The host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give your seat to this other person.’ Embarrassed, you will take your seat in the least important place. 10 Instead, when you receive an invitation, go and sit in the least important place. When your host approaches you, he will say, ‘Friend, move up here to a better seat.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. 11 All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”
12 Then Jesus said to the person who had invited him, “When you host a lunch or dinner, don’t invite your friends, your brothers and sisters, your relatives, or rich neighbors. If you do, they will invite you in return and that will be your reward. 13 Instead, when you give a banquet, invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind. 14 And you will be blessed because they can’t repay you. Instead, you will be repaid when the just are resurrected.”

The great silent film star Charlie Chaplin, on a lark and under an assumed name, entered a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest that was being held in a movie theater in San Francisco.
He didn’t win.
He didn’t even make the finals.
I think everyone has a story of showing up somewhere expecting to be well-received and getting a rude awakening. Continue reading

Asking and receiving

A couple of notes: I wrote this on Saturday, on short notice, based on one of this week’s lectionary readings. But I did lift and adapt some passages from an essay I have up elsewhere on this site. Also, I realize this is the second time this summer I’ve referenced “Chariots of Fire” (although, in my defense, not at the same church).

First UMC Lynchburg
July 28, 2013

Luke 11:1-13 (NRSV)
11:1 He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”

11:2 He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.

11:3 Give us each day our daily bread.

11:4 And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

11:5 And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread;

11:6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’

11:7 And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’

11:8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

11:9 “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.

11:10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

11:11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish?

11:12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?

11:13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

From time to time, you hear athletes thanking God in locker-room interviews, or sometimes even entertainers thanking God in awards show acceptance speeches.
This practice is just as often held up to ridicule, and I can think of some particular comedians and commentators for whom it’s a personal pet peeve.
The usual argument these commentators make is that, quote, “God has better things to worry about than who wins a football game.” At first glance, this is quite a reasonable statement. There’s no reason to think that God has a favorite NFL team.
Continue reading

A Commandment Close By

First UMC Shelbyville
July 14, 2013

Deuteronomy 30:9-14 (CEB)
9The LORD your God will help you succeed in everything you do—in your own fertility, your livestock’s offspring, and your land’s produce—everything will be great! Because the LORD will once again enjoy doing good things for you just as he enjoyed doing them for your ancestors, 10and because you will be obeying the LORD your God’s voice, keeping his commandments and his regulations that are written in this Instruction scroll, and because you will have returned to the LORD your God with all your heart and all your being.
11This commandment that I’m giving you right now is definitely not too difficult for you. It isn’t unreachable. 12It isn’t up in heaven somewhere so that you have to ask, “Who will go up for us to heaven and get it for us that we can hear it and do it?” 13Nor is it across the ocean somewhere so that you have to ask, “ Who will cross the ocean for us and get it for us that we can hear it and do it? ” 14Not at all! The word is very close to you. It’s in your mouth and in your heart, waiting for you to do it.

This weekend, just across the street on the courthouse lawn, there was a chili cookoff. Actually, there were two of them – a regional event on Friday night and the Tennessee state championship on Saturday. As it turns out, I was a judge at both of them. I enjoyed it – but don’t offer me any more chili for a week or two. The cookoffs were sanctioned by the International Chili Society, and so contestants had to abide by that organization’s rules and regulations.
Continue reading

Here I am; don’t send me

Cannon & Mt. Lebanon UMCs, June 23, 2013
First UMC Shelbyville, June 30, 2013

Jonah 1:1-10 (CEB)
1 The LORD ’s word came to Jonah, Amittai’s son: 2 “Get up and go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it, for their evil has come to my attention.”
3 So Jonah got up—to flee to Tarshish from the LORD! He went down to Joppa and found a ship headed for Tarshish. He paid the fare and went aboard to go with them to Tarshish, away from the LORD. 4 But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, so that there was a great storm on the sea; the ship looked like it might be broken to pieces. 5 The sailors were terrified, and each one cried out to his god. They hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to make it lighter.
Now Jonah had gone down into the hold of the vessel to lie down and was deep in sleep. 6 The ship’s officer came and said to him, “How can you possibly be sleeping so deeply? Get up! Call on your god! Perhaps the god will give some thought to us so that we won’t perish.”
7 Meanwhile, the sailors said to each other, “Come on, let’s cast lots so that we might learn who is to blame for this evil that’s happening to us.” They cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. 8 So they said to him, “Tell us, since you’re the cause of this evil happening to us: What do you do and where are you from? What’s your country and of what people are you?”
9 He said to them, “I’m a Hebrew. I worship the LORD , the God of heaven—who made the sea and the dry land.”
10 Then the men were terrified and said to him, “What have you done?” (The men knew that Jonah was fleeing from the LORD, because he had told them.)

The story of Jonah is, in some ways, a hard one to look at seriously. It’s been reduced to cartoon imagery. I can’t say the name “Jonah” without you thinking of a whale. And the big fish (whether it was a whale or not) is certainly part of the story. But it’s far from the only important part. There are a lot of people who don’t even know the story; maybe they think that Jonah being swallowed was just an accident, and the point of the story is that God gets us out of trouble when trouble swallows us up. But that’s not the point of the story at all.
The point of the story is God’s call, and Jonah’s response.
Continue reading