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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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.
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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.
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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.
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Look up and see Jesus

This is the group morning devotion I led this morning on our last day of Mountain T.O.P Adults In Ministry. I normally wouldn’t post something like this, but I had a special request. (Hi, Jan Lloyd-Gohl!)

Camp Cumberland Pines, Cumberland Heights, TN
June 29, 2013

Matthew 17 (CEB)
17 Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain. 2 He was transformed in front of them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as light.
3 Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Jesus. 4 Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Lord, it’s good that we’re here. If you want, I’ll make three shrines: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
5 While he was still speaking, look, a bright cloud overshadowed them. A voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him!” 6 Hearing this, the disciples fell on their faces, filled with awe.
7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

The Transfiguration, along with maybe the raising of Lazarus from the dead, is probably the most amazing thing witnessed by the disciples during Jesus’ earthly ministry prior to the crucifixion.

Peter, upon witnessing the presence of the two legendary figures, immediately went into public relations mode. Hey, he must have thought, this will show everyone! Once they see this, they’ll know that Jesus is the Messiah and have no choice but to appoint him as king and allow him to lead us in revolt against the Romans. Peter, overwhelmed by the experience, offers to put up tabernacles, or shrines, or shelters, depending on who you believe.
But God reminds Peter of what is really important: “This is my beloved son, Jesus. Listen to him.”
Many of you, like me, have been coming to this place, this program, for years. Others are first-timers. It’s a special experience, one we look forward to every year, one we’re constantly talking to our friends and neighbors about. And that’s a good thing. It’s a great thing. I didn’t think I was going to make it to the mountain this year, but God and the full-time staff made it possible for me to be here on short notice, and I was so excited about coming.
But now, we’ve gotten our fishhooks and we’ve loaded up our cars. In a little while, we’ll be headed home.

7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

The purpose of this week has been to fix up houses and to teach workshops. But beyond that, it’s been to love our home repair families and the teenagers with whom we’ve worked. And beyond that, it’s been to look up, and see no one except Jesus. We mustn’t ever become so obsessed with the Mountain T.O.P. experience that we forget to look at Jesus.
On Wednesday night, some of us stopped by and saw the inscription at the lookoff point at Beersheba Springs, where Mountain T.O.P. was born: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills.” That’s from Psalm 121. Here it is in the Common English Bible:
121I raise my eyes toward the mountains.
Where will my help come from?
2My help comes from the LORD,
the maker of heaven and earth.
3God won’t let your foot slip.
Your protector won’t fall asleep on the job.
4No! Israel’s protector
never sleeps or rests!
5The LORD is your protector;
the LORD is your shade right beside you.
6The sun won’t strike you during the day;
neither will the moon at night.
7The LORD will protect you from all evil;
God will protect your very life.o
8The LORD will protect you on your journeys—
whether going or coming—
from now until forever from now.

“…and they looked up, and saw no one except Jesus.” As wonderful as this experience has been, all that matters is for us to look up and see Jesus. When we’re looking at our slide show, when we’re sorting through our photos or giving a report to our Sunday School class, we’ll talk about our traditions and the friends we’ve made and the worship that made us cry and the fun times we’ve had. We’ll talk about dominoes, and the room that got TPed, appendicitis, and Stone Door, and the woman with the distinctive laugh, and poppy-seed chicken, and putting the “P” in MPT, and fishhooks. That’s a natural way to talk about an experience like this. But let’s never get so excited about putting up a tent for Elijah that we forget about Jesus.
Going forward, we have to continue to have the faith, and the works, that we had this week with Moses, and Elijah, and Michael, and Joey, and Janey, and Brooke, and Alli here on the mountain.
As you leave here, look up – and see no one but Jesus.

From suffering to endurance

First UMC Shelbyville
May 26, 2013

Romans 5:1-5 (NRSV)

1 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Zach Sobiech, an 18-year-old from Lakeland, Minn., died this past Monday after a four-year battle with bone cancer. I first found out about Zach this week in a 22-minute documentary, called “My Last Days,” that you can see on the Internet. In fact, I strongly recommend that you look it up on the Internet. I also strongly recommend that you have a box of Kleenex handy while you watch it.
Zach Sobiech became an Internet sensation last fall, when a song he wrote as a farewell to his family was posted to YouTube. It got three million hits before his passing and has gotten at least two million since that time. That prompted a web site called Soul Pancake to do a short documentary about this remarkable young man.

What’s so remarkable about Zach Sobiech is his attitude. He wasn’t suicidal – he wasn’t looking forward to dying or being separated from his family and friends – but his attitude was relentlessly positive, life-affirming, dedicated to loving those around him for every last second he had available. He and his family made a decision that he would plan his treatment around quality of life rather than trying to prolong the inevitable, and he spent as much of his time as he could loving those around him and trying to live life with his friends, and his girlfriend, as a normal teenager. Continue reading