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Praise and Worship Song

“Praise and Worship Song” Psalm 150 © 4.28.19 Easter 2C by Tom Cheatham at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Starkville, MS. All rights reserved.

It’s said that the seventeenth century Anglican bishop Lancelot Andrewes could speak for an hour on a single word so that every conceivable meaning of it would be clear. And his audiences loved it. Inspired by his example this morning, I intend to spend the next sixty minutes on a term from Psalm 150, repeating it over and over, in the manner of some contemporary praise and worship songs. I’ll say it with different inflections and at varying volumes, just to keep things interesting. So coffee time and church school are going to be somewhat delayed.

I’m kidding, of course. But only about the time and the repetition, not the focus on one word. It’s hard to avoid paying attention to it when it occurs in every verse in Psalm 150. In Hebrew it’s “Hallelu,” or “Hal’lu”; in English “praise.” The first and last words of the psalm are “Hallelu Yah,” which has come over without translation into English as “Hallelujah.” We also use the Greek pronunciation and spelling: “Alleluia.” It means “Praise Yahweh,” with “Yah” being a kind of nickname or shorthand for God.

Preaching on a text with so much emphasis on praise is a little bit like lecturing on an exclamation point. A speaker can talk about the function of punctuation in general and the purpose of the symbol that looks like a baseball bat hovering over a ball. He could talk about authors who have been particularly fond of using it; she could reflect on its commonness in everyday speech. But talking about an exclamation point is not like using one (!), demonstrating its power. In a similar way, for this psalm, someone has suggested making “Hallelujah!” the theme of the whole service and simply singing praises. On the other extreme are the Puritans back in the day, who would have spent an inordinate amount of time in one of their four-hour meetings explaining the poem in detail before singing it. As I usually do, I’m aiming for somewhere in the middle, knowing full well that talking about praising God can never match our actually extolling our Sovereign in all of life, experiencing each day as a hallelujah moment.

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Five Gold Rings

“Five Gold Rings” Colossians 3:12-17 © 12.30.18 Christmas 1C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Yesterday was the fifth day of Christmas, and following the song, I want to give you five gold rings on this, my last Sunday with you. The carol, of course, refers to actual jewelry, but today I’m taking a cue from the lectionary reading from Colossians. My five gold rings are compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. They’re the foundation of Christian community. And, though they don’t go on our fingers, they are a kind of adornment. The author, a follower of Paul, intends for us to “clothe” ourselves with them.

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The Power of Lowliness

“The Power of Lowliness” Micah 5:2-5a, Luke 1:39-55 © 12.23.18 Advent 4C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

On US 82 between Albany and Tifton, GA there’s a little town called “Ty Ty.” When I was a kid, we used to drive through it twice every Sunday, once on the way to see Grandma in Albany, then again as we headed home to Tifton. And all those times, I never saw any sign of life. Drivers could zoom through Ty Ty without encountering even so much as a yellow caution light.

I looked at the town on Google Maps satellite view the other day, and it’s a bit more substantial now. There’s a Dollar General, a big Baptist church and a couple of other smaller congregations, a city hall, a little grocery store and one gas station, plus a place with the charming name “Grandpa’s Auto and Tire Repair.” But still no traffic signal of any sort.

I think of towns like Ty Ty when I read about Bethlehem. It was only six miles from Jerusalem, but it may as well have been 60. With travel as it was in those days, the hustle and bustle of the big city barely affected the place. Judah was small, but Bethlehem was insignificant even among the Judeans.

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The John the Baptist School of Leadership

“The John the Baptist School of Leadership” Luke 3:1-18 © 12.9.18 Advent 2C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Back in the day, I was a big fan of the late Stephen Covey. I attended a multi-part seminar on his “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” struggling as I was to find some way to get a handle on my responsibilities as the pastor of a tall steeple church, a job in which I discovered quickly that I was out of my depth. I still have the little wallet card reminding me of the seven habits, as well as the four quadrants of time management. Covey said that effective leaders are proactive. Next, they begin with the end in mind, put first things first, and think win-win. Such people seek first to understand, then to be understood. They synergize, which refers to problem solving in cooperation with those who have a different viewpoint. And finally, they sharpen the saw, by which he meant they have a balanced program of self-renewal in every area of life. There was also an eighth habit, which was the subject of an entire book, namely to find your voice and inspire others to find theirs. A bookmark in the volume, published in 2004, reminds me I only got as far as page 48. So much for learning to be effective!

As I was casting about for some fresh way to approach the story of John the Baptist, which I’ve been preaching on for all these decades during Advent, I realized that, like Covey, Luke and John himself have given us some principles of leadership that are worthy of consideration. As Connie, Debbie, and Margaret are installed today, I invite you to reflect with me on four characteristics of leaders that Luke suggests in his introduction of John and the prophet provides by example.

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Beginning at the End

“Beginning at the End” Luke 21:5-8, 25-36 © 12.2.18 Advent 1C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Over Thanksgiving, my brother-in-law Jeff and I were sitting around in his living room talking about my retirement. He said he guessed that beginning last Sunday I would be preaching Christmas messages. I told him that I was indeed planning on going out on a positive note, but that there was a season called “Advent” between now and Christmas, in addition to Christ the King Sunday. Jeff is a faithful Southern Baptist, so he’s not familiar with the liturgical year.

He’s in the majority, truth be told. I certainly had no idea such a season as Advent existed when I was growing up, and I was puzzled by the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” We never had ashes imposed to begin Lent, which we didn’t observe anyway. None of our preachers said anything about festivals like Pentecost or All Saints’. And the Christmas tree and decorations went up in our house the day after Thanksgiving.

Advent in particular is rather difficult to get our heads around, much less wholeheartedly embrace. It’s the new kid in town liturgically, observed only since the 1100s. It’s a strange season. It feels confused, and it’s definitely confusing, as if it can’t make up its mind what it wants to be. Advent has an identity crisis. Are we anticipating the coming of the Lord at the end of everything, perhaps with a little fear and trembling or are we eagerly anticipating the Savior’s birth, putting ourselves in the place of hopeful prophets and longing peoples from centuries ago? Is the appropriate clothing sackcloth and a rough purple sash or party attire? Are we repenting or reveling, rejoicing or regretting? Advent seems to be a season put together by a denominational task group or something they would do in Congress, with nobody really happy or quite sure what’s been accomplished or what it means.

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The Cosmic Christ

“The Cosmic Christ” Colossians 1:15-20 © 11.25.18 Christ the King by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Think for a moment about your favorite hymns. What is it about them that makes them so dear and beloved? The most common response to that question I’ve heard throughout my ministry is that they remind the person of his or her childhood. We sang “The Church in the Wildwood,” one says, while someone else offers “Amazing Grace” or “Jesus Loves Me” from Sunday school. Another possibility is that the song was a parent’s or a child’s favorite, and now that they have passed on, singing the hymn brings a blessed memory. Or it could be that the hymn evokes deep feelings of faith, even tears. It gives a sense of joy in trouble. Maybe you just like the tune and feel confident and comfortable singing it. And, of course, you love certain hymns because they are important sources for teaching and learning theology.

Huh? I suspect you were with me till I got to the stuff about theology. We tend not to regard hymns as teaching tools or avenues for serious reflection. At least, that’s been my experience. I have very rarely, if ever, had anybody comment about the words to a hymn one way or the other. Any complaints or compliments have been about tunes.

The ancient Christians sang hymns, too. And they probably had their favorites for the same reasons we do. But they seem to have been more intentional about using hymns as a primary means of doing and teaching theology. They did pay attention to what they were saying in the song. Maybe that’s because most people couldn’t read, and scrolls were expensive even if you could read, so concepts were taught by memorization. And what better way to memorize than to sing something? “A-b-c-d-e-f-g,” and so on. Or maybe the ideas about Jesus they had in their heads found natural expression in songs that let the world know what was in their hearts.

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On Their Shoulders

“On Their Shoulders” Deuteronomy 8:7-18 © 11.18.18 Ordinary 33B (Thanksgiving Day celebrated) by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

No doubt all of us have seen those human pyramids made of cheerleaders in which successive rows reaching ever higher are formed as people stand on the shoulders of those beneath. Or maybe we’ve witnessed circus performers or gymnasts going up, up, up until finally the man or woman on top does some truly amazing feat of skill and daring.

We may not be cheerleaders or gymnasts, but figuratively speaking, we also stand on the shoulders of others. Not merely occasionally, but every day. Not in one area of life, but in many. As the theologian Miroslav Volf of Yale Divinity School has observed, “everyone’s life is enmeshed in social systems and shaped by other people.” That recognition, he says, should inspire a sense of gratitude. Indeed, a life worth living, according to Volf, is marked by care and gratitude, rather than how much we own or what we have done (https://www.christiancentury.org/article/features/getting-college-students-ask-what-makes-life-worth-living). No more than those addressed by the authors of Deuteronomy may we exalt ourselves and say “my power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” So as we approach a day of thanksgiving and as we’ve come from a recognition of the contributions of veterans, I want to reflect with you on what a debt we owe to those who form the foundation of our freedom, our technology, and our daily lives.

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