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A Community of Stewards

“A Community of Stewards” Haggai 1:1-2:9; 2 Corinthians 9:1-15; Matthew 25:14-30 © 11.19.17 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Last week, at the congregational meeting, you heard discouraging news. In light of an expected shortfall in income for 2018, the session had passed a budget with a number of cuts. Some of them had been recommended by the budget team, others by members of the council. And even with the reductions, we may still not come out in the black. Add to the budget woes the fact that due to deaths, as well as families and individuals joining elsewhere, our roll at the end of 2016 showed 68 active members, after years of hovering around 80. That was a trend that began in 2015, with 73 at the end of that year. Worship attendance has declined from an average of 50 in 2013 (a figure that included Christmas and Easter) to 39 for the first half of this year.

Having said all that, it’s important that we get a little perspective. First, we’ve been here before. At the end of 2005, according to the official statistical report, membership was 62, though average attendance was almost 50, which again included Easter and Christmas. Yes, the budget for 2018 is lower than this year’s, but since 2003, the figures have fluctuated from a high income of $91,881 in 2013 to a low of $76,560 in 2008. Second, we received six wonderful youth in the confirmation class this year, and the youth group will soon get going again. Third, the percentage in attendance at worship is actually about what is typical for a small church, around 50%. Larger churches, like the one I had in KY, do well if a third of their members come on a Sunday. Finally, I have complete confidence that you—session and members alike—will meet the challenge of the coming year. You always have or you wouldn’t have been in this place for 113 years and counting.

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The Witness Stone

“The Witness Stone” Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-28 © 11.12.17 Ordinary 32A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

There’s a 1980-something movie called Moscow on the Hudson in which the late Robin Williams plays a Russian defector who comes to live in New York City. In one scene, he stands in front of the shelves of coffee in a supermarket. There’s freeze-dried, rich blend, Colombian, Kona, and French roast. You can get it ground for a percolator, for the drip pot or whole bean and grind it yourself on the spot or at home. It comes in pouches, canisters, and cans. There’s caffeinated and decaffeinated. Then there are the instant coffees…. In Russia, he has been used to coffee or no coffee, and standing in long lines to get it. Faced with so many choices, he succumbs to an anxiety attack and falls, knocking over a display.

I can identify. After Susan and I got our flu shots at Kroger last Monday, she took me on a tour of the frozen foods and ultimately the rest of the store to get my ideas about additional options for microwave lunches she could buy for me to bring here and some different fruits and veggies she might get for us at home. I was floored by the ice cream freezer at Kroger. It spanned an entire wall of the store. The pizza, opposite the frozen desserts, also took up an astounding amount of space. Then there were the sandwich meat and cheese choices later on, followed by the fresh and frozen meats and seafood.

We’re confronted with choices all the time, aren’t we? Sometimes the availability of options is overwhelming, as it was for the movie Russian in the American grocery store. Which phone and what plan do we buy? What about shows to watch on TV and from what service? Whom do we trust for our news?

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Connections

“Connections” Colossians 3:1-11 © 11.5.17 All Saints’/All Souls’ by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

It’s usual and customary to speak of the Presbyterian Church as “connectional.” Councils from sessions to the General Assembly, along with congregations, are linked by a common purpose and identity. We affirm a faith interpreted by a set of historic documents that make up our Book of Confessions, and we follow a form of government, a way to worship, and rules for discipline contained in our Book of Order, all built on a solid foundation of principles we are reminded of in the first pages of that book. The act of one session or presbytery is that of the whole church. The property of a congregation is held in trust for the benefit of the mission of the entire PC(USA). So, when this session ordains a ruling elder, he or she is an ordered minister anywhere and does not have to be ordained again when moving to another city or state. What’s done in California or Idaho is good in Mississippi or Florida and vice-versa. The same goes for church membership. We don’t require rebaptism or an initiation class, whether for Presbyterians coming from elsewhere or for any Christian. We accept all baptisms and affirm our connection to the broader Church; we are all the body of Christ, whatever our doctrine, our government, our sacraments. And Presbyterians welcome all to the Lord’s Table.

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The Cleft of the Rock

“The Cleft of the Rock” Exodus 33:12-23 © 10.22.17 Ordinary 29A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Earlier this month, Susan and I marked the ninth anniversary of her dad’s passing. Neal exemplified the values of the WWII generation. He was honest, hard-working, reliable, courageous, honorable, and authentic. Such strong character made him a highly respected employee of Thompson Tractor in Birmingham, a man depended on by the CEO of the company, Hall Thompson.

Hall was rich and powerful. Neal was neither, but the qualities I mentioned drew the CEO to him as someone who would tell him the truth when everyone else fawned and flattered. Neal would look Hall in the eye and tell him a project was stupid and to remember he told him so when it went wrong. He pushed farther than anyone else would or could.

Increase the risk of such talk exponentially, beyond losing a job to losing a life in the white-hot heat of holiness, and you have the relationship of Moses and Yahweh. I doubt if any of us have ever spoken to God the way the great Hebrew leader did. He prayed the Jewish way, with chutzpah, bold assurance, shameless audacity, and not in the timid, deferential manner of the typical Christian. We could learn something from that. Our relationship with God is a covenant, and a covenant takes two partners, both of whom are accountable to the other and responsible for keeping their promises. We rightly insist that God not suddenly back out, then blame us for not obeying when he calls us to some task or has expectations of us.

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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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