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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Monday, August 13, 2018

Thoughts Before David's Wedding--Part 2

As almost all families do, we became convinced quickly that our David was brilliant and far advanced beyond his age.  Certainly two ways he was gifted in the first year were growth and sleep.  He was a hungry baby and grew accordingly.  From eight and three-quarters pounds (all three of our babies were born within two ounces of one another's weights) to over thirty pounds at age one, he was a fast grower.  Maybe all of the eating and growing played a role in how well he slept.  Two beginner parents couldn't be more thankful than to have a baby who slept mostly on schedule and over fourteen hours a day.

The more mobile David became, the more we realized his capacity to focus in on one thing and stay at it.  The first "research and study" commitment we discovered involved small balls, those baby's interlocking beads, and buckets.  David would take apart the "necklace" of plastic beads and place them one-by-one into a bucket or pitcher until he filled it up or ran out of beads and balls.  Then he would find another bucket, and carefully remove each item from the first bucket to place it into the second bucket.  There were, of course, times for dumping the bucket, followed by placing all items back into the bucket.  As he got able, he would put the beads back together in a string, then take them apart and place them in a bucket.  Day after day, little David pursued this vocation.  What he was learning from it probably goes far beyond what we might imagine.  Taking a riff from the old Monty Python jokes about British bureaucracy, we used to say that baby David worked for the "Ministry of Taking Things Out of Things and Putting Them Into Other Things."

Duplo blocks provided a new variation on this crucial research task.  If I stacked fifteen or twenty or more colorful Duplo square blocks in a tall tower, he would rush to claim it from me and painstakingly remove each block from the tower, either placing it in a bucket or placing it on a flat Duplo base piece.  It would get tedious, but I could think back and come up with many more examples.

Along with the balls and blocks, David also was obsessed with books.  I was a graduate student at Duke when he was an infant, and I shared a big part of the daily child care while Everly went to work to make a living for us.  When he was awake, and we weren't busy with playtime, he would often sit on the bed and look at books.  With a full load of classes, I was almost always holding a book.  One of our rooms was packed full of bookshelves.  Then Everly would get home from teaching school in the evening, and after dinner she would be working with papers and books.  David got the impression early that human beings must mostly read books, so he dove in and started reading.  At night we would have to read every book in sight, and repeat some if necessary.  Years later, we carried a milk crate to the Durham County Library to check out enough books, sometimes with twenty or forty on one subject, to keep the boy busy.

That intense research and study drive with focus on a single subject continued for many years.  He knew all about birds, about geography, about Mayan and Aztec civilizations, about dinosaurs, about Bible stories, about folk tales, and so many more topics which he would press into until he had exhausted the resources available at The Regulator Bookshop, Sandy Creek Books, the public library, the Gothic Bookshop, and any other sources we could find.  He also turned his focus to book series, and would read every volume of the Boxcar Children, Ramona, Fat Chance Claude, Berenstain Bears, The Magic School Bus, Roald Dahl, and on and on.

The curiosity to learn in depth about a subject and the ability to focus through to understand the breadth of the subject describes to me one of the amazing gifts that David came into the world to display.  It's never gone away.  Focus and discipline get harder as we get older and face more complicated tasks, but no one can seriously doubt that David is gifted in this way.  In recent years, his orchids and cacti, which expanded to his community garden plot and his prize-winning Dahlias, his rocks and crystals, his knowledge of how to care for dogs--all of these show us again and again what an impressive capacity for useful knowledge he has.  Even his editing and research-oriented employment has let this gift become manifest in the workplaces where he has thrived in Ann Arbor. 

And ultimately, this sometimes quiet and shy boy, became a fascinating conversationalist.  It's a joy just to get him started sharing all that he has learned and thought about.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Thoughts Before David's Wedding--Part 1

In a couple of weeks, my oldest child, David, will get married. He is 32, and we have all come a long way since that first day he joined us out in the air and under the stars on a night in 1986. Everly had gone to work like other days, planning to take leave soon. It was still at least a couple of weeks from the "due date," but David got ready to be born. She called, and I hurried to Nimitz High School where she was teaching so we could go to the Irving Community Hospital. It was a long afternoon and evening of waiting. The doctor was watching the Texas Rangers baseball game and joking that we had to name the baby for whoever was at bat when he was born, and the doctor was pulling for Oddibe McDowell.

All did not go as planned, and the medical staff decided to do an emergency C-Section. That meant I was not allowed into the room for the procedure. I was panicked, worried about the dangers of general anesthesia. But that process moves quickly, and soon I was brought into the operating room and shown this little, red, squinting, frowning boy and allowed to hold him briefly. Once Everly woke up again, all was well, and we started a long journey together in our sixth year of marriage. Within a couple of months, we were moving to Durham, where all kinds of wonderful things unfolded for all of us.

A while later, I somewhat reluctantly told Everly, that the moment I looked on that little baby, who came from our love and the heritage of our families, changed my self-understanding and my life more than any other moment in my life. Joy flooded and overwhelmed the room as I gazed upon little David. I explained that it was not a replacement or advancement over having met her. It was not more significant than knowing her, but at the same time it was more intense and systemically life-changing than anything else. I should add that David's birth was not more beautiful and love-filled than Naomi's reluctant and delayed journey into the world or Lydia's scheduled and efficient planned C-Section birth. The love just grows. But I was an experienced Dad by the time Naomi and Lydia arrived. David was a tsunami of grace that washed over us and our little home in Grand Prairie, Texas, and we continue to reside in that grace as he embarks on his own venture in making a family.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Waiting for the Revealing of the Children of God

Romans 8:19-27
19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

         From this text today, I want to reflect on the phrase, “Waiting for the revealing of the children of God.” 
Back in April, it was not my day to give words of tribute to our pastor, teacher, and friend, Dr. Turner, on the occasion of his retirement from teaching at Duke Divinity School.  But as I begin, I want to offer thanks that are relevant to this sermon today.  I could make a very long list, but I will limit to three words of thanks.
There are many things that I have to thank William C. Turner for.  I have met pastors of Black Baptist congregations before whose first reaction to me was to be suspicious of what kind of angle this white man is playing.  I don’t blame them.  They have good reason to be suspicious.  And I wouldn’t be surprised if at least part of Rev. Turner’s reaction to me when I showed up at Mt. Level was to wonder just what I might be up to.  But whatever his range of thoughts may have been, his public and official reaction to me was never anything but care and welcome.
            Some of you may think I still have a ways to go on this next matter, but I have to thank him for teaching me how to preach.  I was at best a mediocre preacher in my experience up to the time I came to Mt. Level.  I found in our conversations that Dr. Turner and I had similar ideas about what a sermon should accomplish and how it should be structured.  But I had never had such a week-by-week training school of how to make the most of the divine opportunity of standing behind this sacred desk.  While I still have much to learn, my colleagues at Shaw tell me I have become a decent preacher over the years.  You all have had to endure my training, periodically sitting while I inflict my schooling in this craft.  And you all have been very good to help me understand when I am doing better, or maybe not so much better.
            But by no means least of all, I have Dr. Turner to thank for helping me to grow into a robust and rich understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit.  I explain to my students in theology class that I come from a kind of Baptists whose doctrine of the Trinity is weak, almost replacing the Holy Spirit with the Bible.  Dr. Turner’s writings on the tradition of the holiness churches and their relationship to the invisible institution of the black church before white people would allow free public worship by enslaved Christians—these have awakened me to a lively and powerful understanding of the Spirit’s work in the church.  His insights and guidance helped me not to ignore the way other theologians pointed me toward the Spirit’s work. 
            So today on the festival of Pentecost, the high holy day of the Spirit and the church, I cannot but stand before you to offer praise to God the Spirit who comes to us, pursues us, convicts us, calls us, fills us, and drives us onward toward God’s purpose for us.  We gather today to worship God who is Spirit, and we must worship in spirit and in truth.  We cannot come trampling the courts of our God who sees deeper into our hearts than we can see ourselves.  We cannot gather with pretense of self-righteousness before the convicting Spirit of God.  We cannot fast, cannot pray loud, wordy prayers, cannot try to impress others with our vocal expertise, cannot wear fashionable displays, cannot boast of our righteousness, and expect to please God who is Spirit.  We worship in truth.  We come and offer our righteousness as filthy rags before the Holy Spirit of God.  We humble ourselves to pray with pleading for the Spirit to fill us and guide us.  We gather in this sanctuary made sacred not by our feet, but by the Spirit who sets us on our feet every gifted day that we awaken into the world God has made.
            “Come, Spirit!  Come!” is our worship cry.  “Send the power!” is our plea to the God of heaven and earth.  Like the disappointed and confused, yet hopeful followers of Jesus in the first century, we bring ourselves together into one place, and behind closed doors we await the Spirit promised to us by Jesus.  We long to be nothing less than the very body of Christ, Christ’s presence on this piece of ground, a glimpse of the glory of God enlivened by the unction of the Spirit.  The church, the household of faith, gathers in the Spirit’s power to be the church, to be God’s people, the beloved community living as God created us to be, in fellowship with one another through our shared life in the Spirit.
            This is the festival we celebrate today, and it is good and right to seek to know how the Spirit works and leads us on a day like today.  The apostles found themselves surprised to know the way that the Holy Spirit would work among them.  Empowered by the Spirit’s movement, they served God in ways that they had not imagined.  The Jews gathered in Jerusalem for the festival also encountered the surprising work of the Spirit, hearing the preaching in their own languages from dozens of lands and locales in the known world.  Pentecost reminds us that no matter how much we thought we knew about God, God will still surprise us in the work of the Spirit.
            The texts for today include the story of the first Pentecost Sunday in the history of the church.  We have already acknowledged that story from Acts and will have it in mind throughout our worship.  However, I am focusing on the epistle for today.  It speaks to the kind of experience that the earliest church gathered in Jerusalem had faced as they waited for the coming of the Spirit with power.  Even though the first Pentecost of the church had happened during the first half of the third decade from the birth of Christ, what we might call the “30s,” Paul is writing more than two decades later about a similar pattern of experience in relation to the Spirit.  Yes, the Spirit had come at Pentecost with power.  Yet the Christians in Rome found themselves also waiting to see what the Spirit might be about to do. 
            This entire eighth chapter of Romans is a study of the work of the Spirit in the life of the church.  We cannot let ourselves try to create our own way of living, to be guided by our own desires apart from God’s transforming Spirit.  On our own, we will try to earn our place with God.  We will think God owes us something.  We will try to game the system and get over on God and one another.  But the Spirit lifts us out of this self-centered, selfish way.  The Spirit sets us free from sin and death.  We who are united to Christ and one another share in the Spirit.  The Spirit who enlivened the executed Jesus now gives life to our mortal bodies and to the corporate body of which we are limbs and organs.  As a people, we learn to listen for the Spirit’s voice.  The voice of the Spirit has not been isolated in any one of us, but each of us has the Spirit working to guide and shape our lives together as God’s people.  No one has a corner on the Spirit’s leadership. 
Thus, we all listen for the Spirit’s voice in one another.  We listen to the still, small voice of God calling for us from our inmost hearts.  We pray.  We study.  We praise.  We listen.  And often, we must wait.  Paul tells the Romans that in their time, during the fifth decade after Jesus’ birth, creation waits with eager longing.  Creation…that’s a big word, a big idea.  It’s kind of like a popular word from our era, the “universe.”  Creation means everything that exists that is not God, but which comes from God.  It is stars and planets, atoms and subatomic particles.  Creation is plants and animals, rocks and rivers.  Creation is food and drink, atmosphere and soil.  Creation is humanity in community, neighborhood and countryside.
So if our era of living is anything like the era of Paul the Apostle’s living, then we might conclude that also in our time, creation is waiting.  The land on which our sanctuary rests is waiting; the trees that line our parking areas, the grass in the cemetery, and the stones carved with our ancestors’ names are waiting. The timbers that were carted down from Granville County wait with eager longing.  The congregations worshiping across the street and down the road, the neighbors busy in their yards or homes, those sleeping in on a Sunday morning are all waiting.  The residents of Mill Grove who continue generations of family in this part of town as well as the immigrants from Mexico who found this neighborhood attractive and affordable wait with eager longing.  The workers at the Circle K, at the Bojangles, at the Waffle House, and at the Advance Auto Parts are waiting.  The worn out gravel roads, the boarded windows, the wrecked cars all in rows long to be set free from decay.  The poles that support power lines or t.v. and internet cables, the yellow stripes that divide lanes where we drive, even the deep pit where gravel is quarried wait for the revealing.  The new families who found a place to raise their kids off Hebron Road wait.  The hardworking folk who walk down our streets to reach the bus stop so they can go to work are eager.  The dogs and squirrels and cats and foxes and birds who live all around us—all creation is waiting with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.
Are there any children of God in Mill Grove?  How will they be made evident?  What would make anyone believe that there are children of God here?  God made this world, this vast creation, with the purpose of building love and justice for all people, for all of God’s creatures.  In all our efforts and failures, we have not managed to live up to what God wants for us and our neighbors in this world.  Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church recounts our admirable history of serving God through more than a century and a half, and yet we read Paul’s words to the Romans and understand that creation is groaning in labor pains. 
There are labor pains in our neighborhood as flood waters rise through the sewer system into our sanctuary.  We wait for clean up of a mess and for proper repairs of a drainage system unready to handle the rains of the recent storm.
There are labor pains as teachers in our state, in West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, Colorado, and across the land, stand up together to tell the legislature and state school board that enough is enough.  Students need textbooks.  Schools need buildings repaired.  Teachers need to be able to afford a place to live and food for their tables.  How long will politicians prefer to pay more for housing prisoners than for teaching children?
There are labor pains in Santa Fe, Texas, near the home of your own daughter Lydia Broadway who found herself driving by ambulance after ambulance on Friday morning a children with gunshot wounds were being driven to the hospital down the street from her home.  All creation groans, waiting for the revealing.  Where are the children of God?  Where are the people who live as Jesus led them to live?  Where are those who love God and neighbor?  Where are they who bind up the wounded they find on the side of the road?  Where will they be revealed.
Paul says that even we groan.  We wait as a woman in labor.  The urgency can be overwhelming.  The possibility of what may come lies beyond a struggle that we fear we may not be ready to face.  We long for our adoption into the family of God.  We know that Jesus has come to us, that we have followed him, that he has saved us, yet we find ourselves longing for the fulfillment of all that it means.  We feel in our bodies the need for the fullness of God, of the Spirit’s presence and power, of the transformation from one degree of glory to another.
All creation waits, longs, groans, for the Spirit to set us free.  Free to be what God made us to be.  Free to live as God calls us to live.  Free to share our lives with abandon, with relentless affection, with humble service toward one another.  Come, Spirit!  Rule in our hearts today!
For many of us, the calling of Vision 150 has become a sign of the Spirit’s presence.  [Vision 150 is a plan to enlarge our church’s ministry in our community, including replacing a no longer structurally sound building with a new facility that will support more community ministries.]  We have grown into the vision, perhaps initially skeptical or doubtful, waiting for the Spirit to take hold of us.  We have seen signs of the Spirit moving in new ministries and in concern for the use of the land beneath us.  We have talked about the need to know our neighbors.  We have recognized that this corner of our town has needs that we may, perhaps, be strategically situated to be able to help meet. 
And still we wait.  We wait to see an adequate down-payment toward building a facility.  We wait for the future breaking of ground and the passing of a treasured but weary landmark as it is replaced with functional spaces for ministry.  We wait with all creation to see what will be revealed.
On the other hand, if we claim to be the followers of Jesus, if we have given our lives to our Lord, if we have the Spirit living in us, then part of what this letter to the Romans is saying to us is that we are the ones creation is waiting for.  We are the children of God, or at least we are called to be them.  God has touched us, laid a hand on us, filled us with the Spirit, and we are the ones to be revealed as the children of God.
All around us, creation is waiting to see if we will step into our calling.  Will we be friends with the people who live on Denfield, Monk, Ryan, Bobs, Todd, Teel, Weeping Willow, Rainmaker, West, Sun Dried, Felicia, Summer Storm, Justice, Shay, Graymont, Melanie, Geranium, Miller, Cozart, Swanns Mill, Genlee, Magnolia Pointe, Fanning, Lillington, and more and more and more?  Will we learn from them what kind of community they long to be part of?  Will we make partnerships with neighbors to see Mill Grove flourish as more than just the houses near a fast food smorgasbord?  Will we reach beyond to Old Farm, Argonne Hills, Danube, and Dearborn, where many of our Mt. Level family live?  Will we be among the voices advocating for a just and equitable plan for improving or rebuilding Oxford Manor?  Creation all around us is waiting to see what will be revealed in us.
And creation waits because it is not clear what is coming.  Too many churches have closed themselves to their communities.  They live far away, drive to their building, dress in their fancy clothes, get entertained, make networking connections, and leave, hoping never to have to talk to anyone who might be walking near their church building.  Many churches have revealed themselves to be the latest version of a social club or an entertainment center, but not to be the children of God who are following Jesus toward God’s purpose of beloved community.  Too many churches are satisfied to share a couple of hours of the week together, but want to be left alone to make their own friends and plan their own activities without concern for the people who live across the street or down the block from where they gather to worship God in the Spirit.
What will be revealed on this piece of land?  Will it be the revealing of the children of God, the ones who love the people they meet on the street, who are willing to make new friends for the sake of the one who they have promised to follow?  Will it be the children of this world who are mostly concerned with keeping up with the Washingtons or the Johnsons and watching their favorite shows and hiding inside their houses to avoid associating with the people they don’t even care to know?  What will be revealed?  All creation is waiting, eagerly anticipating, groaning for redemption and liberation.
We don’t see it yet, but we hope.  We hope, and we wait with patience.  And in our waiting, we already start to live the way that shows what kind of world we want.  As the teachers of nonviolence have taught us, the path to the goal must take on the character of the goal.  If we want to live in a loving world, then the path to get to it is to start loving right here as we walk toward it.  If we want to live in a world with justice, then we need to hunger and thirst for justice as we seek to bring it into being.  If we want to live in a peaceful world, a world of shalom, then we have to become peaceable people making peace with one another as we walk toward our goal.  The means must be as pure as the end.  The road to beloved community is to start building a community of love.  The path to a friendly neighborhood is to start making friends with our neighbors.  We live in the hope of what we are being called to be, but do not yet see.
The Spirit drives us to be the church that Jesus called us into.  The Spirit gives us strength to make new relationships.  The Spirit gives us power to change the character of our neighborhood.  The Spirit calls us to make our home to be the foretaste of the Kingdom of God, the Reign of God in this world.  In our weakness, the Spirit helps us.  Even when we don’t know what to do first, the Spirit is way ahead of us, praying in us and with us for the fullness of God’s purpose to be revealed in us.
All creation waits, and the Spirit is drawing us forward.  The Spirit is ready to make us into the very people God wants us to be.  The Spirit works within and around us to make things happen that we are not sure can happen.  The Spirit is transforming us to be the revelation of the children of God in Durham, on Hebron Road, on this soil and among these trees, on the streets and in the homes.  Will we heed the Spirit?  Will we walk in the Spirit?  Will we let the Spirit reveal to us and to our neighbors that we can be what God has called us to be?
What a day that first Pentecost of the church was!  Peter went far beyond his own learning to proclaim a new word.  He recognized that the prophets had expected a day when a great transformation would begin.  Whatever the barriers and limits that people had put on themselves, blaming it all on God’s will and God’s plan, the word coming from Peter and the apostles on that day said that God would be shaking things up.  The young and old would all be blessed to see what God can do.  The men and the women would all proclaim the world of God with power.  On that day, Jerusalem changed dramatically, and the change had implications for dozens of cities and regions and language groups for miles in all directions.  It was not a day for narrow vision or limited possibilities.  The Spirit was doing the kind of work that would free creation from its bondage to decay.  The labor pains were ending with the reward of transformation.  The Spirit was bearing fruit that would expand and continue for millennia into the future.
Can we join that movement here in our neighborhood?  Will we join the gospel band?  Spirit, guide us!
Lord grant us the capacity to listen to your Spirit, to wait for the guidance we need, and to step out in public to reveal that as for Mt. Level and our house, we will serve the Lord.  We will be the children of God revealed as the loving koinonia, the communion of sharing our lives and our goods and our gifts with one another for the good of all creation.  Lord, send your Spirit to fill us.  Spirit, change us.  Spirit drive us forward.  Come, Spirit!  Amen, and amen!

***********
Benediction:
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful and enkindle in them the fire of Your love.
Send forth Your Spirit; renew the face of the earth.
O God,
Who instructed the hearts of the faithful by the light of the Holy Spirit,
grant us in the same Spirit to be truly wise,
and ever to rejoice in Your consolation.
Through Christ, our Lord. Amen.


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Saturday, December 02, 2017

If You Are Coming for Me...

This is a sermon first preached at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church on October 29, 2017.

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18
19:1 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:
19:2 Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.
19:15 You shall not render an unjust judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great: with justice you shall judge your neighbor.
19:16 You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the LORD.
19:17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself.
19:18 You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

Matthew 22:34-46
22:34 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together,
22:35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him.
22:36 "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?"
22:37 He said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.'
22:38 This is the greatest and first commandment.
22:39 And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'
22:40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
22:41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question:
22:42 "What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?" They said to him, "The son of David." 22:43 He said to them, "How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
22:44 'The Lord said to my Lord, "Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet"'? 22:45 If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?"
22:46 No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

Recently Congresswoman Maxine Waters found herself under attack in public because of her strong stands taken against white supremacists and her criticisms of the President. She has gained quite a reputation for her outspokenness, and as a matter of both personal defiance and of encouragement to young women to speak their minds, she has been famously quoted as saying, “If you come for me, then I’m coming for you.” They’re a version of what we might call “fighting words.”

It’s been a long time since I could classify myself as a person who knows all the latest slang and popular phrases. By the time I figure them out, my kids are happy to tell me that I’m so far behind that “nobody says that any more.” So I don’t know if Maxine and I are out of fashion to use the phrase, “If you are coming for me…” to state a challenge to potential critics and enemies. I have a colleague in another city at a university not to be named who can be expected fairly often to offer up challenges to people who would dare to question or challenge her. I think she is the one I first learned the phrase from because she used it quite often. I’ve noticed several other younger academics inclined to take offense at people they think are looking for trouble, and they have started their responses with this phrase, “If you are coming for me….”

When I was looking at this familiar passage in Matthew 22, it struck me that Jesus was surrounded by challengers and enemies who were scheming and making plans about how they were coming for him. The beginning of chapter 22 continues a sequence of similar scenes. A day before, Jesus had thrown the whole city into an uproar, taking over the temple, chasing away moneygrubbers and cheats who were exploiting the poor by jacking up prices on supplies for worshipers hoping to offer sacrifices.

 It was probably a fine-tuned system of outsourcing public business to private contractors. The highest bidders got to set up their tables and animal pens in the temple for a fee, and maybe an extra kickback to the officials to secure their favored position as a preferred vendor. Jesus messed up the furniture, scolded the vendors, chased away the animals, and then would not let anyone walk through the temple. Both the priestly leaders and the Roman occupiers held emergency meetings to consider what kind of response they should make. The may have met all night to get ready to come for Jesus when the morning broke.

At the beginning of the day, when Jesus showed himself in town again, the leaders of the temple were coming for him. They asked him why he thought he had authority to act the way he had been acting. Jesus was a shrewd political operator. He knew that the crowds were on his side, so on this next day after the big confrontation in the temple, he made use of that. This time he turned the metaphorical tables on these priests by asking them to weigh in with their opinions about John the Baptist. They were trapped. John was a popular figure and now a martyr. The crowds would not take kindly to the priests trashing one of their heroes. Jesus outmaneuvered them, and they went away frustrated and angrier.

For the rest of that day, groups kept caucusing, trying to come up with a way that they could come for Jesus and show him up. They were sure they could outwit him. They knew he had to be just a backwoods bumpkin who they could eventually humiliate and get the people to turn on him. Sure of themselves, each group would come with a question or puzzle, only to be caught up by Jesus and have to walk away. It almost became a contest between various cliques and factions to see who could get to Jesus first. After the chief priests and elders failed, the Pharisees gave it a shot. When they couldn’t trick Jesus, the Sadducees gave their best try and failed as well. So at the beginning of our reading today, we learn that after the Sadducees failed, the Pharisees got up their nerve again and came with the question about the greatest commandment. Jesus’ answer was so good, they had nothing to say in reply.

I guess they thought he might say the law was of no value or something similarly rebellious. Instead, he went to the deep meaning of the law, quoting two of the most beloved teachings of the Torah which were revered by the rabbis. They had come for him over and over, and to no avail. So when they had nothing left to argue about, Jesus came for them. He posed them a puzzle from the Psalms, a hermeneutical conundrum about the Messiah as the Son of David, but also as the one whom David himself called Lord. They were mad as hornets at the trap Jesus set for them, and again refused to answer his questions because they feared the crowd’s reaction if they condemned Jesus publicly, even though that’s what they wanted to do.

It’s as if Jesus had said to them, “If you are coming for me, then you had better be ready to face the truth.” “If you are coming for me, then you had better realize who it is you are dealing with.” “If you are coming for me, know that I am calling all God’s children together.” Jesus was fine with their challenging questions, but they weren’t ready for the kind of answers he brought.

What made Jerusalem such a center for turmoil and political controversy? Why was the temple such a focal point for conflict when Jesus came to town? Probably any of us who have read and studied the gospels have raised these questions from time to time. We recognize that Jesus had enemies. We may be puzzled as to why anyone would not like Jesus, whom we have boxed into an image of sweetness and meekness. But if that’s as far as our thinking has gotten us, then we need to dig deeper and ponder further.

While the world of Jesus was in many details very different from ours, there are also many ways in which we need to look at his world as similar to ours. We don’t have a Caesar or occupying Roman legions. We don’t have the same kind of Ruling Council of Priests, Scribes, and Elders, the Sanhedrin, or partisan groups called Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, and Zealots. On the other hand, we do have Presidents and Governors and Mayors. We have Capitol Police and State Police and Sheriff’s Deputies and ICE Detention Officers. We have a City Council and County Commissioners and a General Assembly and a Congress. We do have Democrats and Republicans, a Tea Party and Anarchists and the Alt-Right. We have the Chamber of Commerce, Bank of America, Walmart, AIG, Amazon, and GlaxoSmithKline.

In our world, as in Jesus’ world, the people who are claiming the most power are scheming together to make sure that anyone else who might want power will have trouble getting hold of it. They look for wedge issues, and they make up ways to divide communities against one another. The Sanhedrin was trying to drive a wedge between Jesus and the crowds of people who had come to the Passover Festival. They were hoping their provocative questions would break down the popular consensus around Jesus and get people arguing with one another. As Jeanne DeCelles has written (New Heaven, New Earth),
Jesus did not get into trouble with the powers of his day simply by challenging the individual behaviors of his hearers. His downfall came from challenging the very systems of his society. He challenged the cornerstones. Just as the values of Madison Avenue, Wall Street, and the Pentagon conflict with the gospel, so too with Jesus and the institutions of his time: he was in conflict with the power structures of his own day, religious and civil alike.
Yes, on the day after Jesus cleared the temple, they came for him. They were set on bringing him down by dividing the crowds against him. On this day, they would not succeed. But they would keep trying.

 Ironically, the Roman Empire’s agents were using the same strategy against the Jewish leaders that the Sanhedrin was using against Jesus and his followers. They played favorites and offered benefits to some and not to others. Some Jewish leaders were called Herodians because they had signed up to play along with the Roman appointed kings in the family of Herod. Others, the Sadducees and Pharisees, had originated when the previous empire’s Greek rulers worked to divide Jews against one another before the Maccabean uprising. Now the Romans played Sadducees and Pharisees against each other, and here they were taking turns at Jesus. All the while, they were maneuvering for power against one another. And the Zealots were lurking on the margins, looking for the chance to stir up turmoil in hopes that it might lead to a revolution to overthrow Rome.

 This strategy of empire to divide God’s children against one another is a perennial and highly successful means of keeping the rest of us down. Rev. Dr. Barber regularly instructs whoever will take time to listen that the strategy of the powerful and wealthy has always been to convince poor whites that no matter how bad their lives are, at least they aren’t black. Now they also try to divide blacks against Latinos, white men against minorities and women, and any potential crack in the social fabric they can capitalize on.

Barber calls on us to remember how the fusion politics that brought black and white farmers and business owners and families together to stand up for their common interests and the common good managed to overthrow the plantation politics that concentrated wealth and power in the hands of a few families. The last thing the empire wants the rest of us to do is to figure out that we could work together to make things better for all of us.

Some of you were here at Mt Level last Thursday night. If you arrived near 7 pm, you may have had to park far away. The sanctuary was full to overflowing with people from many different parts of Durham. There were Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Pentecostals, Holiness, and some who claim no denomination. There were Unitarians and Reform Jews. There were members of non-profits organized for the environment, for helping students, for supporting the unemployed, for promoting affordable housing, and for building community solidarity. There were African Americans, Latinos, pale-skinned folk, and Asian Americans. There were students from Duke and Carolina, from Central and Shaw. There were people from different neighborhoods, different professions, and different socio-economic classes.

We had every reason imaginable to divide against one another, create rivalries, look down on one another, and try to get an advantage over one another. But in this case, we did not do that. Not only the current member organizations, but a dozen more churches and community groups who hope to become members crowded into this hall. They came together, WE came together, because we realized that it is not our differences but our ability to build trusting relationships for mutual benefit that make us strong.

Moneyed interests and political powers of another sort may wish to tear us down by trying to divide us. They might try to make the Durham Committee or the People’s Alliance shun us or treat us as rivals. They might try to get the DCIA or the Ministerial Alliance to see our clergy leaders as a threat. They might encourage a new group like Durham for All to see Durham CAN as a giant to be knocked down and defeated. Durham CAN could act superior and ignore other potential partners in the struggle. But that’s not what happened here on Thursday.

On Thursday, when they came for us, we stood together to fight for better housing for all, for better wages for all, for a first and a second chance for all. The full parking lot and the full house of people on Thursday night is a glimpse of what it means to live up to the great commandment to love one another. It is love in action that stands up for those who struggle even when they don’t look or talk the way we do. It is, as our own pastor, Dr. William C. Turner, Jr., told the gathered masses, “the measure of who cares.” Which of the people in our community will bear the mark of those who care?

Of course, just because Durham CAN had over 600 people uniting around an agenda on housing and jobs does not mean we have arrived at heaven on earth. Maybe there is a small glimpse of what could be, but the powers of this world have many tricks and traps to continue to break apart what is strong and healthy and flourishing.

Even after a success, we can easily fall back into the trap of letting ourselves be divided and then trying to protect our little bit of turf from others. This is the nature of sin. Sin is the decay and even destruction of the good that God has accomplished in our lives and in our communities. Sin is turning away from the path of hope that we set out on. Sin is rejecting the best possibilities that God and our neighbors have to offer us. And it does not only happen in our cities and suburbs and countryside. It happens in our churches.

Jesus reminded the Pharisees and the crowds in the streets on that day that what God wants for us can be stated in a few crucial sentences. These two commandments represent the revelation in the Torah of the very purpose and meaning of creation and human existence. Late in the night when we can’t sleep, we may find ourselves asking why are we even here? What is the meaning of life? Well, Jesus answered those questions on this day in Jerusalem.

He told all who would listen that the God who is Love spoke the world into existence as an expression and fulfillment of the love that flows in eternity from each person of the Trinity, mutually and reciprocally, perfectly and unendingly. God made the world out of love and for love. We are here in the world to love. We are made to love God and to love one another. Love your neighbor as yourself.

Wayne Gordon says that when he was a young coach and school teacher, leading Bible studies with high school youth, those kids grew very serious about their devotion to God. One day, they brought an insight to him that powerfully changed his reading of this text.

They called his attention to the commandment to love your neighbor. They said, “If the individual Christian is supposed to love our neighbors, wouldn’t it be true that a church full of Christians is supposed to love our neighborhood?” Their deep insight helped him to recognize the call of God to start a church and make a long-term commitment to transforming a run-down, poor neighborhood into a place fitted to God’s purpose of abundant living and beloved community.

But few churches in our day share that kind of vision. We lock our buildings against the neighborhood and flee away to distant places to live. Church people don’t know their neighbors, and when they do know them, they don’t like them or want them inside their church buildings. The original families in a church grow suspicious of newcomers, and new members resent the people who try to hold on to power and position.

Churches start to function as subsidiaries to social power. They occupy socio-economic strata in the social order, so that executives and managers go to this congregation, professionals and academics go to the other congregation, laborers and factory workers here, schoolteachers and public employees there, and the unemployed or homeless don’t feel welcome at any church.

Erika Edwards, a professor at UNC-Charlotte, spoke to the Shaw Divinity School Women’s Conference about the heritage of scientific racism. In earlier eras, biologists, medical doctors, anthropologists, and various other scientists sought to prove what everyone already had decided was true—that white Europeans were superior to people of darker skin from other parts of the world. Very few scientists would be willing to make those kinds of claims in public in our time, but the residual effect of that era continues to operate in the thinking and structures of our culture and our churches. Edwards talked about ways in which ranking—from darkest to lightest skin—functions to classify people’s beauty and intelligence even today. Dividing and conquering even within communities of color prevents the kind of loving cooperation that would lead to the uplift of all.

Ruby Sales talked to us at the same conference about the way that generations are being divided against one another in the current political climate. On the one hand, she said young people do not know the history of the struggle and the costs paid by those who have gone before them. All they can see is that too many seem satisfied to have gotten a small piece of the pie, to have climbed up a few steps of the ladder, and no longer have a vision of change for the better.

On the other hand, older folks have become accustomed to their strategies of respectability politics to the point that the patterns of respectability have replaced the ideals of freedom, hope, and community. Wearing braids, getting tattoos, sagging pants, or short skirts are interpreted as evidence that young people have no dreams or care too little about themselves. They may blame the young people for the lack of knowledge of their history and of the costs paid for every advance, when it was the responsibility of their generation to pass down the story.

All over this country, young people are outside of the churches believing that those of us inside have become too elitist, too self-congratulatory, too closed minded, and too uncaring about the world around us. All over this country, people inside churches are wondering where the young people are, decrying how kids are so messed up these days, angry at the social forces they blame for undermining the lives and faith of our children. We have become divided against one another, and we are being conquered.

So even within our churches, we let the empire seduce us, divide us, turn us into parties and sects and cliques. But Jesus would have none of it. He turned the argument back around to the heart of the gospel. God has loved us. God made us for love. Love God with all that you are. Love one another. Love others by wanting for them everything good you would want for yourself.

Jesus was quoting from the Old Testament. Loving God who made us and loves us was the Shema, the core confession of the entire tradition of the Jews. Today’s text from Leviticus names many ways of thinking about what it means to love our neighbors. We must not harbor any hate. We must be willing to speak up and correct those who are bullying or cheating or doing harm to themselves and others. We can’t hold grudges or be happy at other people’s misfortune. We mustn’t be opportunists and getting advantage or money from what has hurt someone else.

Leviticus says that in graphic terms: you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Lord. We must deal justly and judge others with justice. We can’t be respecters of persons. We must aim to do no less than to display the love of God, the character of God, in the way that we live.

How is it that we can resist sin and the powers, thrones, dominions, and authorities of this world in order to live according to God’s purpose and calling to love our neighbor? At its most basic level it involves a surrender of our willfulness and our selfishness to God. What is best for us and what we ought to do may not always be what we first wish for and want to do. Our vision is limited, but God in Jesus Christ has revealed to us the way that we should go.

Jesus has called us to be peacemakers, to hunger for justice, to be pure in heart, meek, and humble. Jesus has shown us the way to lead by becoming a servant, to give of ourselves so that there will be no need among us. And he summed it all up by reminding us to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Turning away from our limited self-interest, toward the richness of God’s interest in the flourishing of all our communities, all our neighborhoods—this is the path away from enslavement to sin and domination by empire and the powers of this world that have refused to bow the knee to Jesus.

Have you come to worship today with a searching heart? Have you found yourself jealous of the good others have and bearing grudges every time someone else found success? Are you worried that you will lose out because someone else who is struggling might get some of what you want? Have you wondered if God even cares for you or is on your side?

Have you ever come to know that Jesus came into the world to show us that God is for us? And if God is for us, who can stand against us? How many ways might we keep on dividing ourselves from one another when what God wants for us is to live in loving community? The Holy Spirit is active and present to call you today to unite yourself to God, to follow Jesus down a path of love and servanthood. If you have never given your life to God by following Jesus, there is no reason to continue to delay. Be joined to Jesus so that you live in him and he lives in you.

Have you let your church become your social club where you want to pick and choose the kinds of people who are allowed to join? Has church become a place of status where we can look down on the people who don’t measure up, feeling smug that we are the ones God likes? Has church become an in-group busily defining how many others we can put into the out-group?

If the Holy Spirit has quickened in you a desire to become holy as God is holy, to be set apart by the generosity of your love rather than by the uppity angle of your forehead, then renew your vow to God to be an apostle of love in your neighborhood, in your family, and in your church. God is stirring in Mt Level, and wherever people have ears to hear, to raise up leaders and to raise up a new generation.

If we are not ready to respond and ready to listen, we will continue to quench that work of the Spirit. Will we someday look back on Thursday night, October 26, 2017, as the last day in the history of our church that we saw a full house? Lord help us to be ready to open our hearts and our doors to whomever you send to us, that we might shine as a beacon of love and fulfill our calling to be beloved community in this corner of Durham. Let us not divide ourselves, but unite ourselves to those who are brokenhearted, alone, and struggling, even if they are different from us in so many ways.

If you are in search of a church home, we pray that the Holy Spirit will speak to you about where your life should be united to the work of Christ in our city. If the Spirit is prodding you today to say that Mt. Level is the community of God’s people where you should be, then we welcome you to join with us in the service of God that we have also been called to do. The doors of the church are open.

Whosoever will, may come into the loving community of neighbors who are gathered today to love one another. If you are coming for me, let me be the first to acknowledge that God is calling us into community. Let us be reconciled to one another, and take on the ministry of reconciliation in this world so full of those whom God loves.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Importance of Remembering: A Sermon for Ordination to Ministry

This sermon was preached on August 27, 2017, at First Baptist Church, Raleigh, NC (Wilmington Street) as part of the ordination service for Rev. Belinda Wisdom and Rev. Chris Whitaker.
Exodus 1:8-22
1:8 Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.
1:9 He said to his people, "Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we.
1:10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land."
1:11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh.
1:12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.
1:13 The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites,
1:14 and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
1:15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah,
1:16 "When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live."
1:17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.
1:18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, "Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?"
1:19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, "Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them."
1:20 So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong.
1:21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.
1:22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, "Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live."

Romans 12:1-8
12:1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
12:2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God--what is good and acceptable and perfect.
12:3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.
12:4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function,
12:5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.
12:6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith;
12:7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching;
12:8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

The Importance of Remembering

The story of the Hebrew midwives is familiar.  Their names are less familiar, but the writers of the Torah made sure to include them so that we could know them:  Shiphrah and Puah.  They are crucial to the history of God’s salvation of Israel, and through Israel, the world.  Let’s say their names:  Shiphrah and Puah. 
They were important members of the community because they played an important role at a crucial moment in everyone’s life.  They weren’t like the bakers or fishers to whom people might go every day for bread or fish to eat.  You didn’t stop by once a week to get any needed supplies.  No one depended on them to lead periodic religious ceremonies, either weekly or monthly.  Children didn’t go to them on school days to practice their reading or math.  But Shiphrah and Puah were important.
When the time came to need the services of Shiphrah and Puah, a family would hate to have to do without them.  Probably someone in any family had some experience with helping a woman through childbirth; however, Shiphrah and Puah were the communal stewards of the wisdom of generations.  Moreover, they had seen it all.  They knew well that every baby did not come into the world in the same way and at the same pace.  They knew that women’s bodies and emotional strength were different.  They had learned ways to encourage and calm and comfort mothers dealing with the pain and anxiety of giving birth.  They could recognize when a baby was under stress or in danger.  When it came time for Shiphrah and Puah to do their job, people would be foolish to ignore their gifts and skill.
That’s why the King of Egypt strategically chose them to carry out his diabolical plan.  He was jealous of the prosperity of the Hebrew people.  He was fearful they might rise up in rebellion.  He was concerned about the loyalty to one another and their commitment to justice.  Over the years, he and his predecessors had found the Hebrews to be useful as cheap immigrant labor.  He knew that the Pharaohs had not always treated the Hebrew workers fairly.  He needed a plan to make sure they would continue to be unable or unwilling to stir up a revolution.
Sadly, the King of Egypt did not understand his own formative history.  He did not know how his ancestors had benefited greatly from the unexpected appearance of this sheep-herding clan from the northeast.  He must not have been told the stories of the visions and dreams that the slave boy named Joseph had interpreted for the Pharaoh.  Someone had not bothered to clarify that Joseph of the Hebrews had been vice-regent of the entire kingdom, supervising an era of great prosperity and power for Egypt among the nations who were their neighbors.  So the Bible tells us that this Pharaoh did not know Joseph.
Not knowing Joseph meant that he was willing to use and abuse the descendants of Joseph for his own greed and ambition.  Not knowing Joseph means he was not thinking about how “all life is interrelated.”  He had not reflected on the fact that “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny.”  He apparently did not realize that “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” (MLK, Jr.)  Those, of course, are words from Dr. King.  Ken Medema has another way to say it pertaining to our being created by God:  we are “bound together and finely woven with love.”  But Pharaoh did not seem to know that.
He thought that he could get his way by dividing society into warring groups.  If he could make the immigrants seem dangerous in the eyes of others, then he could try to leverage that fear and hate to get some things that he wanted.  If he could single out a group who look and talk and eat and pray differently, then he could get others to flock to his agenda and follow him down any path.
I don’t know who Pharaoh’s advisers were.  I suspect some had big investments in the construction industry.  Some were in the extraction business, cutting and transporting stones for monumental construction projects.  Other advisers probably had trained security teams for managing work projects.  And he kept his generals close to try to make himself seem more patriotic.  He had to know people who knew how to get financing for big projects.  Above all, he loved building big towers to show off his power.  His advisers knew how to manipulate their king to make him feel good about himself while deciding to do things that they wanted him to do.
To build his construction projects—cities, towers, roads, monuments—he needed a ready, inexpensive work force, so he was working the Hebrews as forced labor, drafted into “public service.”  He made their working conditions worse and worse, without adequate compensation.  They had to go home from a hard day of building cities and monuments and work more just to get food on the table.  The King of Egypt had enough insight to realize he might not be able to keep these people down forever, so he huddled with his most devious advisors to come up with a plan.  He was ready to compose and promulgate another Pharaoh-dential executive order.  The one about making bricks without straw had been very unpopular.  His advisers suggested that he work a back channel this time.  They had an idea of where the weak spot was among his opposition.
He called Shiphrah and Puah to a meeting.  He had nice chariot go by and pick them up.  They were brought into the plush palace of the king for a face-to-face meeting.  Anyone might be impressed and honored by such an opportunity.  He was counting on the “wow” factor to win them over.  He tried talking with them like they were buddies and allies.  He explained to them what he wanted them to do.
Shiphrah and Puah were certainly overwhelmed by being in the palace.  They may not have been reacting the way the Pharaoh wanted, but they were intimidated.  They knew the cost of opposing the people in power.  So they played along.  He gave them some parting gifts and sent them back home to do his bidding.
Shiphrah and Puah are the predecessors of some more famous Hebrews who came along many centuries later.  Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were three Hebrew young men who were told by a great king to do something they knew they should not do.  We know them by the names that king called them—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  They had another friend named Daniel, whom the king liked to call Belteshazzar.  But just as these young men understood that they could not meet the expectations of the king if they were to meet the expectations of God, so did Shiphrah and Puah.
The Pharaoh had asked the midwives to do something unspeakable.  He wanted them to kill babies when they were born.  Worried that the Hebrew boys would grow up to be “bad hombres,” Pharaoh wanted them killed before they had a chance to breathe the fresh air of the world God had made them to live in and love in.  Pharaoh wanted to end their hopes and possibilities before they could ever get started.  He had figured out that a secret deal with the midwives would solve his problems.  But the problem with this Pharaoh, this most powerful ruler of his era, was that he had fallen into forgetfulness.
One of the great sins of power is forgetfulness.  Now stop before you jump to conclusions.  I’m not saying that when we sometimes forget the things we meant to do that it’s sin.  I’m not saying that as we get older and names and words slip out of reach in the middle of a conversation that we are sinning.  That’s not what I mean by forgetfulness today.  The forgetfulness I am talking about has to do with the way violence and power work in society.  Often when people scheme and cheat and push and shove to get what they want, they turn around and talk about how they earned it through virtue and character.  This kind of forgetfulness retells the history to make the people with power the heroes.  It retells the story to sanitize out the oppression and violence.  The textbooks don’t call forced laborers slaves, but immigrant employees.  They call forced segregation school choice.  They call slaves happy members of the extended family.  Forgetfulness becomes self-congratulation that erases the memory of violent, murderous schemes to gain and maintain control.
If everything had worked out the way Pharaoh was planning, he would have had little problem forgetting the conniving violence he employed to weaken the Hebrews.  A cover story about disease or genetic defects would have been invented to rationalize so many infant deaths.  All who knew the truth would be paid off or eliminated.  Pharaoh was playing a dangerous game, but the stakes were high and the potential rewards were great.  Pharaoh was willing to do what it takes to achieve his objectives and make Egypt great again.
Shiphrah and Puah returned to their homes and their work with a new resolve.  They would have to redouble their efforts to save the lives of the Hebrew children.  They could not be careless.  If they openly disregarded the Pharaoh’s authority and flaunted their disobedience in order to look heroic, Pharaoh would find other agents to carry out his plan.  And who knows what would happen to them for their rebellion?  So Shiphrah and Puah had to have a workable plan.  They had to get their story straight.  Lives were at stake.
They realized that the very forgetfulness that was Pharaoh’s modus operandi could work in their favor.  The King of Egypt did not know Joseph.  He had forgotten the common history of the Egyptian Kingdom and the Hebrew immigrants.  He had replaced it with a narrative rooted in the logic of difference.  The logic of difference says that if you and I are different in a few ways, then perhaps we should conclude that we are different in every way.  We might even be complete opposites.  If my skin is light and yours is dark, then the logic of difference says that whatever I think is good about me must be the opposite about you.  If I am good looking, you must not be.  If I am hard-working, you must be lazy.  The logic of difference is insidious and demonic.  It hides the obvious truth we could see if we would just look at one another and get to know one another.  It replaces our opportunity to know one another with the assumption of inscrutability, of unknowability.  It is a reasoning process that has shaped the invention of the races in the modern world.  We use it all the time in how we think about men and women, too.  The logic of difference is an intentional kind of forgetfulness.
So when the Pharaoh had time to realize that there were still lots of new little Hebrew boys running around in the ‘hood, he sent his chariot out to get Shiphrah and Puah to bring them before a board of inquiry.  He asked them why they would go against the specific instructions he gave them.  They played on his prejudice.  They leveraged his ignorance.  They offered a story about how Hebrew women were different from Egyptian women.  Of course, he knew that had to be true.  He believed in the logic of difference with all his heart.  So they set him up.  They said that when they got called to help with a birth, these Hebrew women with short labor and fast childbirth would already be finished.  The baby would be born, and their chance to secretly kill the baby boys was past.  They didn’t say whether they had still managed to kill a few of the boys—they let him think maybe they had, or at least they were trying.  Wow! Pharoah thought.  This plan was harder than I thought!  So it seems he sent them away with instructions to work harder and move faster to carry out their plan.  Shiphrah and Puah survived another brush with the empire, and Hebrew parents and children were a little safer for a little longer.
It is a powerful story.  It sets up the story of Moses’ birth.  The desire to keep baby boys alive made it very difficult for Hebrew families in this time.  Eventually, Pharaoh made it a patriotic duty for Egyptians to kill Hebrew baby boys.  That led to the unique turn of events of Moses’ floating in the river and adoption into the household of the Pharaoh.  How many other little boys did not survive the murderous plot against them?  “Rachel, weeping for her children” was a cultural memory that flowed down through the centuries, all the way to the Exile.
This contrast of forgetfulness and remembering strikes me as a crucial message for today.  We gather here in a commissioning service for those who have answered the calling of God to minister among God’s people and in the homes and streets and halls of power where we find the people God loves.  What will be our modus operandi as we do this work?  Will we surrender to forgetfulness and leave behind the people who brought us this far?  Will we use our commission to lord over others and to use them to serve our greed and lust for power?  Will we forget who Joseph was, or will we remember?
This story points to at least three ways in which remembering is crucial to taking up the mantle of servant leadership.  First, we can see that Shiphrah and Puah remembered who they were.  Second, we can recognize that they remembered who called them.  And third, they remembered why they had been called.
The story of Shiphrah and Puah leaves one important detail uncertain.  Were these midwives from the tribes of the Hebrews, or were they Egyptians who worked among the Hebrews?  Some have argued that Pharaoh would have had little reason to trust them to do this horrible task if they were Hebrews.  He would have selected Egyptians with whom he might hope to share a common prejudice against the immigrant Hebrews.  That seems possible.  Many, however, have argued that the midwives were part of the Hebrew community which was where they did their work.  Various rabbis have supported this view down through the centuries.  The wording in the text is ambiguous, but I think it doesn’t make a big difference for our purposes.  In either case, whether Egyptian or Hebrew, these women remembered better who they were than did the Pharaoh.
These women had worked and built relationships among the Hebrew immigrants for long enough that they had become well-known, even respected in their work.  When Pharaoh wanted to scheme with some midwives, these were the ones well-known enough to get the invitation to his palace.  Even though he did not remember Joseph, apparently Shiphrah and Puah did.
Now the text does not mention that they knew Joseph.  But they did clearly know the people of Joseph.  They knew the goodness of family life, the love of friendship, the joy of new beginnings, the struggle of poverty, the pain of grief and loss.  They knew flesh and blood human beings, created by God, made for love, given gifts and strength for work, striving to make the most of their situation.  They knew the stories of cousins and aunts and uncles, of parents and grandparents and great-grandparents.  They remembered the history of where they had come from, whether as Hebrew immigrants or as Egyptians who had cast their lot in friendship with the Hebrews sojourning in their homeland.  They knew the people of Joseph.  They remembered the many ways his character and virtue had been taught, shared, and passed down through generations of Hebrew children.  They remembered the welcome of the Hebrews into Egypt and the gratitude and service the Hebrews offered in return.  They remembered that they stood on the shoulders of giants.  They remembered who they were.
In taking up Christian ministry, can you remember who you are?  Not many among you were noble, not many wise, not many powerful.  But each one has been given grace gifts by the Holy Spirit.  Each earthen vessel is capable of having the power and wisdom of God poured into it for God’s use.  God didn’t have to use you, but God has called you.  The church didn’t have to notice you, but the church has acknowledged your potential and called you to a task.  The Spirit didn’t have to fill you, but you have known the unction that only comes from God.  Do you remember who you are?
In small towns and in some neighborhoods, it was traditional to get to know someone by asking, “Who is your momma?  Who is your daddy?  Are you so-and-so’s boy?  Are you what’s-her-name’s girl?”  It is about figuring out who you are by remembering who you come from.  Are you from Joseph’s people?  If you weren’t born to them, have you been grafted into their family?  Do you remember what kind of people Joseph taught them to be?  Are we going to see Joseph when we see how you live?  Are you going to be the Jesus we see in the world?  If you want to be God’s servant and a minister, then remember who you are.
We can also see that Shiphrah and Puah remembered who called them.  Part way through the story, we might start thinking that the midwives who got called to the Pharaoh’s palace would become the Pharaoh’s agents.  We might think they would be answering the call of their king and becoming his servants.  But the story turned out differently.  He was accustomed to being able to impress people or throw his weight around and get them to do his bidding.  He was used to being the boss and hiring and firing according to his whims.  So he seemed surprised when what he asked Shiphrah and Puah to do did not happen.  When he called them back, he was probably looking forward to getting to say, “You’re fired!”
The story took a different turn.  Not only did the Pharaoh stay oblivious to what was happening in the birthing rooms of the Hebrews, the One who really called these midwives took care of them.  Shiphrah and Puah knew who they worked for.  They knew who had called them out as leaders.  We don’t know how many midwives served the Hebrew women, but it probably was more than two.  So Shiphrah and Puah are representative figures.  Maybe they were the leaders and organizers of the midwives.  Whatever their role, they had a clear understanding who it was they worked for.  So when the Pharaoh stepped in to try to be their new supervisor, they were polite and immediately disobeyed.  They served the one who had put them to their task, not the one who wanted to use them to do his dirty work.  And the story tells us that God stood by them, protected them, and blessed them mightily for remembering that it was God who called them.
Will you remember who you work for?  One of the first things that usually happens in a church when a new minister comes along is that everyone tries to get a piece of her or of him.  Folks want to have coffee or go out for lunch.  They come by the office or call on the phone.  The conversations may start very general and encouraging, but many of them end up playing an angle.  People have grudges against other church members, or they have been upset ever since some group or program got eliminated.  They have visited a church and seen something they like, or they are never satisfied with the way the Bible is taught.  So they start recruiting the new minister to be on their side, to join their cause, or even to do their dirty work.  They plant seeds of suspicion or communicate veiled ultimatums. 
Who do you work for?  Of course, Shiphrah and Puah worked for the families they served at times of childbirth, and you work for the people God is sending your way.  But don’t get that mixed up.  You work for them because you work for God.  Your work for them is to do the work of God, not to join in schemes for power or influence, for greed or status.  You are not their stepping stone, but they are not your stepping stone either.  God is the one who has called, us, and we are pressing on toward the high calling of Christ Jesus.  God took hold of you, and now you are striving to take hold of that for which you were taken hold of by God.  You have to lay aside the weights.  You have to shun the temptations to sin that so easily get your imagination.  You have to leave some things behind so you can reach out for the fresh gifts of God’s Spirit.  Remember who called you.  Remember who you work for.  In all your ways, acknowledge God, and God will direct your paths.  If you want to be God’s servant and a minister, then remember who called you.
Let me highlight a third way of remembering that we can see in the story of Shiphrah and Puah—they remembered why they had been called.  They were midwives.  That was their job.  It was their calling.  They knew they served God’s people.  They knew that it was God who called them.  And they also remembered what is was they had been called to do.  They remembered why they had been called.  Their job was helping families bring healthy children into the world.  They had to learn the traditions, learn from experience, develop the science through observation, be alert and rested for the job, give their best every time, and find the joy and fulfillment that comes from a job well done, a life lived in faithfulness.
Now and then a birth might not go as hoped.  There might be complications and injury to the mother.  There might be problems that keep a child from being born strong, or alive.  Shiphrah and Puah had to be ready for these times as well.  They were called to do their best to help a family bring a baby into the world, and they also were called to support and care for families who struggled with the vicissitudes of life that can come with childbirth.  They had a mission.  They were servants of God and servants of their fellow human beings.  They were called with a purpose, and they could not let that purpose slip away from their vision.
Too often, a change in role can cause a change in how a person relates to others.  We all have seen it.  It can happen in even the most minor of situations.  Sometimes, in a church committee, people have worked together for many years, sharing, speaking up, listening, and carrying their loads as equals, as children of God seeking to do what they are called to do.  Then one of the group who has not been the chair of the committee before becomes the chair.  Suddenly, the new chair acts like a different person.  Because of a title, she or he starts behaving as if the other committee members should only do the listening part, not the thinking and talking and deciding parts.  It starts becoming a one-way relationship of boss and underling rather than equal partners.  And all that can happen when there isn’t even any program money to decide how to use.  Rising into an office can confuse some people so they forget what they were called to do.
Pharaoh thought he could get Shiphrah and Puah to forget that they were called to help life flourish and get them to become murderers and life-destroyers.  He thought that their promotion to being in his inner circle would change their view of their work.  Thank God that he was mistaken.  They could not see any way to accept his orders to kill the baby boys.  They were strategic in finding a plan to make sure they could prevent that from happening under their watch.  They knew their calling, their purpose, and they kept their eyes on the prize.
You are called to be a servant.  Minister is the translation of the Greek word diakonia, which is also translated as servant.  You are not overlord.  You may oversee some programming, some budget, some mission tasks, but oversight is not the same as being the boss of me, the boss of him, or the boss of her.  God has called you to serve.  By now you may know some specific ways in which God wants you to serve.  So if you are called to preach, do so with truth and conviction.  If you are called to teach, study to show yourself approved.  If you are called to evangelize, make your life good news to those God sends your way.  If you are called to hospitality, then receive God’s children with joy and generosity.  If you are called to pray, then make yourself a vessel of God’s work as you are transformed to do his will.
The lectionary epistle text for today reminds me of my own calling to ministry.  It seems centuries ago that I was 18, but at that tender age I accepted God’s call to minister.  I had no idea where it would lead, and could not have predicted I would ever be in a position to stand before you here today.  But in those early days of my calling, I often returned to this epistle text from Romans 12. 
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, [I beseech you] by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.  For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.

At 18 I was a mixed up mess of overconfidence and fear.  I had been told by everyone that I was smart and gifted, and I often believed the hype.  But some of the time I knew it was just hype.  I knew I was just a scared kid trying to make it in a bigger world.  I was trying to listen to God and trying to be somebody.  I didn’t want to disappoint my family, and I wanted my friends to like me.  And no small part of me was trying to impress the girls I couldn’t get my eyes off of.  If that’s not a description of an earthen vessel, I don’t know what is.  So when I read Romans 12, it reminded me I had some changing to do.  I needed to grow up from my immaturity.  I needed to put aside the wants and ways of the world that I had learned growing up, and I needed to take on the wants and ways of God.  I needed to follow the way of Jesus, which this verse describes as presenting oneself onto the altar as a living sacrifice to God.  It’s a complicated metaphor.  I was relieved that it said I could be a living sacrifice, even if I also realized in the back of my mind that when Jesus lived that way it had cost him his life.
This giving up of my self-made image, my self of my own construction, was the crucial step to learning God’s will for me.  I longed to hear God’s call, and this epistle text told me that by giving myself, I could find my way to discern the will of God, and that it would be good.  It would be excellent.  That’s what I wanted.  To achieve as high as I could, but within the scope of what God wanted me to do.  I couldn’t think too highly of myself, but had to put myself on God’s altar to be remade, to be transformed, to become God’s servant to do God’s will.  If I would walk that path, God promised to make the most of me for a particular task in my time and my place.
Do you remember why you have been called?  Too many lose sight of it when they get dollar signs, TV ratings, and big buildings on their minds.  Others just want to go their own way and can’t figure out how not to try to be the one who is large and in charge, even if it means only with a tiny flock of longsuffering church people.  God has a good purpose for you.  It means putting yourself aside and letting God replace your ambition and greed with God’s own purpose and grace.  If you want to serve God and be a minister, then remember why you were called.
I rejoiced when I saw that this story of Shiphrah and Puah was the lectionary text for this Sunday.  For any of you who heard it preached this morning, I pray that the Holy Spirit has brought you an additional gift from the richness of the Holy Scriptures as you heard it again.  But there is one more thing I want to point out about the importance of remembering as we close.
There are many times when the Bible lets us down concerning God’s love for and calling of women to lead and work for the Kingdom of God.  Written in times when women had little status in society, too often the texts omit and forget their names.  In the story of the great flood, we never learn the names of the very important characters who are the wives of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.  Even in the stories of Jesus, a Samaritan woman from Sychar who comes to get water at the well, a Syro-Phoenecian woman who gives Jesus the opportunity to expand the grace of God to Gentiles, a woman who gives all she has to God, a woman who touches his garment in faith, a woman he forgives when the crowd wants to stone her—so many who are central to communicating his gospel life go unnamed.  But this story is not one of those.
We know the names of Shiphrah and Puah.  The Books of Moses tell us their names.  The Torah, God’s gift of love to the people of Israel, names them.  But did you notice, there was a so-called famous character in this story.  He is called the King of Egypt.  He is called by the Egyptian imperial title, Pharaoh.  But we don’t know his name.  Scholars argue about which of the known rulers of the Egyptian empires this character might be.  They compare the dynasties and their writings, and some theories seem sort of right, and sort of wrong, to fit the Bible story.
We don’t remember this Pharaoh’s name.  The Bible doesn’t remember this Pharaoh’s name.  The Books of Moses do not remember this Pharaoh’s name, although surely Moses, who lived in the household of Pharaoh knew who this king was.  But we do remember the names of a couple of midwives who worked among an outcast immigrant people.  We know these women who were instruments of God’s work.   
We know these ministers, even though we don’t know the Pharoah.  He already demonstrated that he had a bad memory.  He forgot what he did not want to know, and he did not know Joseph.  But Shiphrah and Puah knew Joseph.  They remembered who they were.  They remembered who called them.  And they remembered why they were called.  Go forth today in the spirit of Shiphrah and Puah and serve God with the same faithfulness they demonstrated so many centuries ago.  Speak their names.  Remember.  Amen
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