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What to Wear to a Wedding

“What to Wear to a Wedding” Isaiah 61:10-62:5, Matthew 22:1-14 © 10.15.17 Ordinary 28A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Getting married these days is expensive. According to a 2016 poll of 13,000 couples by the wedding website The Knot, the average cost of a wedding day has hit an all-time high of $35,329, up by almost $2700 from the previous year. Expenses vary by state. Those getting hitched in New York City will shell out over $78,000, while Montana is a bargain at just under $21,000. Much of the cost is due to the party, with couples aiming for “total personalization” and the “ultimate guest experience.” Catering, the venue, the cake, flowers, photos, and entertainment eat up a great deal of the budget. The cheapest item is wedding day make-up at $100, with the average venue coming in at the other end of the spectrum at a whopping $16K. And none of that includes the price of the honeymoon (https://www.theknot.com/content/average-wedding-cost-2016).

Now imagine if you spent all that money on invitations, flowers, fees, catering, professional photos and videos, the band or DJ, and of course the dress and the rings, and at the last minute nobody came. Not because they couldn’t get away from pressing engagements or all 100 or 500 of them suddenly had family crises, but because they weren’t interested. They simply didn’t want to come, despite your gracious invitation to share your joy on a special day. How disappointed, hurt, even angry would you be?

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The Message at the Heart of Creation

“The Message at the Heart of Creation” Psalm 19 © 10.8.17 Ordinary 27A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Fascination with the heavens is as ancient as a cave dweller gazing at the stars and regarding them with superstition and ignorance and as modern as the latest ventures by SpaceX or NASA, based in solid science. Who of us has not looked up at the constellations, maybe from a pitch-black field away from city lights, and recited “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight…” or “Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are”? We may get out our iPhones and use an app to identify what we’re seeing. Or we may be content to lie on our blanket or sit in our lounge chair and feel small, in awe, simply lost in wonder.

So we readily identify with the poet who long ago sat on his flat roof perhaps night after night, meditating, and looked up at the heavens. His conclusion was that the stars and planets were speaking to him and all humanity. No, there were no words, nothing audible. This language is heard with the heart, captured with the imagination, experienced as an intuition, almost like telepathy. It can be understood by anyone on earth, speaking any tongue, of any age or race or economic status. And though his or her stars would be different, someone on a planet 100,000 or a billion light years away could be caught up in the same reverie as that poet or as any of us are when we look at the lights in the sky.

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No Borders Here

“No Borders Here” Philippians 2:1-13 and 3:10-21 © 10.1.17 Ordinary 26A World Communion Sunday by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

To say there’s great variety among Christians is to make a statement that rightly elicits a sarcastic “Duh! Ya think?!” Sometimes our diversity is enriching, at other times bewildering, even on other occasions destructive. Believers across the globe don’t agree even on what books belong in the Bible, much less how to follow its principles. We argue about a familiar litany of hot button social topics, and even within the same denomination, there may be a spectrum of viewpoints. Some churches still forbid women to lead and preach, while others, like ours, have long affirmed that gender is no barrier to ordination. The list could go on and on, to touch on matters of membership and baptism, marriage and divorce, and a host of other issues.

Today, on World Communion Sunday, we’re particularly aware of the various practices and understandings at and about the Lord’s Table around the globe. This ancient meal with bread and cup is known by several names—Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, Eucharist. Most Christians call it a sacrament; others, an ordinance. What happens at the Table is disputed. Do the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ or do we feed on Christ spiritually? Or is the meal merely a memorial of his death? Who may come to the Table? Just members of a particular church? All the baptized? Or does baptism matter at all? Who may celebrate and serve it? And that’s not even to mention what vessels should be used or the controversies about frequency, methods, and types of bread I’ve seen in congregations.

The hope on this Sunday, though, is that Christians of every kind will affirm what unites us in Christ, while humbly acknowledging we have a great way to go before we are indeed one. We’re called to a global perspective.

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The E Word

“The E Word” Isaiah 55:1-13, Acts 8:26-40, Matthew 4:12-22 © 9.24.17 (PC[USA] Evangelism Sunday) by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

A one-panel comic I once saw pictured a man with his eyes bulging out and his hands over his ears as if he had heard something obscene and terribly offensive, like a profanity uttered in the presence of children. His mouth was wide open as he screamed: “Oh, no! Not evangelism!”

How many of us, upon hearing the word “evangelism,” react as the cartoon character did or nearly so? We want to close our ears, gasp in shock, order the speaker to hush. The “E word,” “the E bomb,” like some of those others we refer to only their initials, is not something to be used in polite company, especially in the formerly mainline, now offline, church.

Odd, isn’t it, that we regard almost as vulgar a word that means simply “telling good news”? How did the best news in the world, a message of peace, love, and justice, get to be something so perverted and mean, and telling it the equivalent of uttering nasty words? Perhaps it’s because we don’t typically define “evangelism” in a positive way, and we leave it to others to fill it with content. For example, we may think of evangelism as the ranting of some huckster tent preacher followed by an endless altar call to the strains of “Just As I Am,” played over and over. Or maybe it’s the sort of thing I engaged in at the University of Georgia with a para-church group whose name you would recognize. I would cold call an unsuspecting fellow college student, claiming I wanted to come by and conduct a survey. But what I actually intended to do was read him a little booklet of four spiritual principles, which the group called “laws,” and invite him to accept Jesus. In business, that’s called “bait and switch” or less kindly, a “scam.” There wasn’t really a survey, and the results were never going to be published. It could be that evangelism feels too much like invading somebody’s else’s privacy. Religion is personal, and none of us, we say, has any right to impose our viewpoint on another. Finally, we may be afraid of being painted with the same brush as Christians who are not particularly sensitive and loving when they preach and share what they regard as the gospel. We don’t want to be lumped in with “those” believers. Too late! Our inaction and silence in the traditional churches has allowed fundamentalists to step in, take over, and convince the culture that all Christians are as objectionable, intolerant, and hypocritical as they are routinely perceived to be by the very people they are trying to reach.

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A Pastor’s Education

“A Pastor’s Education” © 9.17.17 Theological Education/Seminaries Sunday by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Let me begin by sharing with you a sobering but not surprising statistic. According to a 2011 survey by our Board of Pensions—the latest figures available—between 75 and 85% of PC(USA) clergy will be eligible for retirement by 2030. That means the majority of our ministers are baby boomers or early GenXers and are aging just like the rest of the denomination.

At the same time, Millennials and younger GenXers are not becoming candidates for ministry, leaving a vacuum of leadership in churches, not-for-profits, and the academy. Lee Hinson-Hasty, who directs the Theological Education Fund of the Presbyterian Foundation, has noted: “There simply are not enough seminary graduates to replace all of the retiring pastors expected in the next decade” (http://www.presbyterianfoundation.org/News-Events/Theological-Education-Fund-Blog/July-2017/The-key-to-more-pastors-mentoring-and-affirming.aspx). He recalls a conversation with a Committee on Preparation for Ministry member at a recent event. “He told us their Presbytery has no candidates or inquirers right now. None. And that Presbytery includes a major American city with a population over two million!” (http://www.presbyterianfoundation.org/News-Events/Theological-Education-Fund-Blog/July-2017/Big-Tent-Takeaways.aspx). There are only half as many candidates nationwide as of December 2016 as there were as recently as 2010, 658 vs. 1200 (http://www.presbyterianfoundation.org/News-Events/Theological-Education-Fund-Blog/March-2017/Will-there-be-enough-ministers.aspx). Just for comparison, our presbytery had three candidates and one inquirer as of last spring.

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An Abiding Astonishment

“An Abiding Astonishment” Deuteronomy 6:1-25; Psalm 78:1-8; Matthew 13:51-53 © 9.10.17 Christian Education Celebration Sunday by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Last Sunday afternoon Susan and I were in Geraldine, AL, where state route 75 crosses 227. We were looking for Buck’s Pocket, an obscure park that according to Google Maps and the few road signs we had seen should have been just off 227. Well, not so much. Susan’s instincts told us we had gone too far when we got to Geraldine, so we stopped in a gas station parking lot, and I got out my phone. I pulled up Google, searched for “Buck’s Pocket,” and unexpectedly ended up with a computer voice telling us to turn around and go so many miles until a left and so on. I should have looked at the website instead of asking for directions. It turns out the park was permanently closed, which we discovered when we got there, after all that trouble and time.

Like much, if not all, of our technology, from the fabrics we wear to the cars we drive to the surgeries we have done to the food we grow, my phone that talked would have seemed like magic to the ancients, including the sage who penned Psalm 78. To us, blessed with science and understanding that gives us new tools and medicines and techniques at a dizzying pace, all is as it should be, normal, no particular cause for amazement or its flip side, fear. The only things we may call a marvel anymore are the movie studio and comics of that brand. We no doubt say “been there, done that, got the T-shirt, tired of the T-shirt.”

But I have to wonder, at least when it comes to spirituality, if the folks in the tenth century BC can teach us something. They believed God did astonishing, miraculous works. So is it that God is doing less in our day or we lack the capacity to see, to appreciate, because our lives are filled with devices and capabilities that would have astounded those of old, that would have elicited the cry “‘Tis a wonderment”? Yes, we can still be surprised or filled with awe, whether at the size of a storm or the ferocity of someone’s hatred, but I suspect those times are few, and our feelings fade as normalcy returns.

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“Who Do You Say I Am?”

“‘Who Do You Say I Am?’” Matthew 16:13-20 © 8.27.17 Ordinary 21A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Among the many things that make us uniquely human, surely the ability and the impulse to ask questions has to be near the top of the list. Almost as soon as they can speak, kids start asking “Why?” Even the Alzheimer’s patient, robbed of so much, still asks questions, even if they’re heart-breaking ones, like “Do you know me?” It’s no accident that autocrats and dictators don’t want anybody engaging in activities that implicitly or explicitly raise questions. They try to discredit, intimidate, even jail and kill journalists, preferring state-run media and official statements. They squash art, jazz, and literature, forms of expression that encourage non-conformity, fresh ways of looking at the world. It’s not surprising that authoritarian, hierarchical churches try to silence those who ask “Who says?” and “Why not?” and that dysfunctional families insist that everybody do things the way the patriarch or matriarch decrees, not ask about traditions or try to open closets and bring out skeletons. All these people and institutions are bent on reducing us to things, taking away our humanity, our voice, our wills, our imaginations, so they may impose their warped visions on us.

Jesus spent a good bit of his ministry asking questions. In doing that, he affirmed our humanity and expressed his own. We become conversation partners with God himself, here with us in flesh in our Lord.

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