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Theology Matters

“Theology Matters” John 3:1-21; Ephesians 2:1-10 © 3.11.18 Lent 4B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Theology is mostly autobiography. “At its heart, theology, like most fiction, is essentially autobiography. Aquinas, Calvin, Barth, Tillich, working out their systems in their own ways and in their own language, are all telling us the stories of their lives, and if you press them far enough, even at their most cerebral and forbidding, you find an experience of flesh and blood, a human face smiling or frowning or weeping or covering its eyes before something that happened once” (

That’s one of my favorite observations from author Frederick Buechner. The way we understand and experience who God is and what God wants, which is what we mean by “theology,” is filtered through the sieve, seen through the lens, of our circumstances, relationships, education, fears and prejudices, needs and wants, hopes and dreams, whatever it is that we include in our story. Perhaps that’s as it should be for people who believe God came among us in human flesh.

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The Gospel As Oxymoron

“The Gospel As Oxymoron” 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 © 3.4.18 Lent 3B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

I love words. The sound and beauty of them. Putting them together. The sound of them put together in interesting combinations. The roots of them. Finding just the right word for the right sentence.

That’s why I like the figures of speech known as “oxymorons” or if we want to be absolutely proper with the Greek plural, “oxymora.” The word comes from Greek “oxy,” which means “acute,” “sharp,” “pointed” and “moros,” translated as “foolish” or “silly.” An oxymoron is an expression that’s acutely silly, utterly ridiculous. It’s a combination of words that shouldn’t and can’t belong together, under the Law of Non-Contradiction, what Aristotle called “the most certain of all principles.” It says that the same attribute can’t belong and not belong at the same time to the same subject and in the same way. Something can’t be dull and sharp, possible and impossible, soft and hard all at once.

Yet we talk about “thunderous silence,” “sweet sorrow,” “love-hate relationships,” “making an effort to run effortlessly,” “preparing for spontaneity.” Some people are “passive-aggressive.” George Carlin, the late comedian, in an early classic routine joked about “jumbo shrimp.” The author Sheldon Vanauken, a friend of C.S. Lewis, spoke of the passing of his wife as an oxymoron: “That death, so full of suffering for us both, suffering that still overwhelmed my life, was yet a severe mercy. A mercy as severe as death, a severity as merciful as love” ( We human beings have experiences that can’t always be explained by logic.

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Arc of the Covenant

“Arc of the Covenant” Genesis 9:8-17 Lent 1B © 2.18.18 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

The story of Noah’s ark has inspired all sorts of crafts and paintings and jewelry, nursery murals, and fun songs. The account of the ark is a staple Bible text for children. In fact, the first time we hear it is when we’re small. It’s just perfect, isn’t it, for little ones, with all those animals and birds? The cute giraffes with their long necks way up high above the roof of the ark. The elephants with their trunks hanging out over the stern. The creatures of all sorts going in two by two, while doves and ravens fly overhead. And Mr. and Mrs. Noah overseeing the project, making sure every need is filled. It’s a story of safety and protection and care, all the kinds of things adults want children to experience and depend on. And because teens and adults also crave and need security and peace and calm in these violent and chaotic times, we like to hear it over and over as well.

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“Swiftly Pass the Clouds”

“‘Swiftly Pass the Clouds’” Mark 9:2-13 © 2.18.18 Transfiguration B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

It was a Thursday, as Shirley Ritter used to say when she began a story, sometime in the summer or fall of 1982. I was in the sanctuary of my new church in Montevallo, AL, where I had just finished rehearsing what for me in those days passed for a sermon. Before going back to my office, several blocks away in the Presbyterian Student Center, I wandered around the building, as a way to get to know the place.

I had only made it as far as the fellowship hall adjacent to the sanctuary when I noticed a lovely antique bookcase with etched glass doors, donated by the estate of a matriarch. Inside were 1960s booklets and King James Bibles, languishing unused.

When I opened the cabinet, a book from the old Covenant Life Curriculum caught my eye. It was designed for youth and young adults who were navigating the sometimes perilous waters of growing up, made even choppier by the cultural currents and waves of change in the 1960s. It was called The Worry and Wonder of Being Human.

I liked the title and made a note of it. And now all these years later, it puts into a nutshell the twin themes of the morning’s gospel reading. On the one hand, Mark assures us that the experience of transcendence, of wonder, is open to human beings. There are those moments when we sense God’s presence strongly and acutely. We long for something to give us hope in the midst of trouble, and we’re blessed with an unforgettable and surprising revelation. As someone has put it: “[I]n stories, transfiguring moments arrive as unexpected joy.  We cannot…make them happen, but when they occur, we never, ever, forget them” (Nancy Rockwell, “Transfiguration,”

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God Knows

“God Knows” Psalm 139:1-18, 23-24 © 1.14.18 Ordinary 2B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

It’s close to midnight, the time Shakespeare called “the witching hour.” In bars all over town, people are partying—drinking, dancing, flirting, losing their inhibitions—a fact celebrated in the old Eric Clapton tune “After Midnight.” By contrast, at the same moment, in a home or a hospital, someone is lying in bed, denied sleep by worries about the day just past and the fears of the one whose dawn seems far away. A child is sick, a pain is never ending, a crucial meeting looms large. At still another place, people are engaged in conversation over late-night coffee about the issues of the culture and their lives, seeking resolution or reconciliation, trying to understand another’s viewpoint, maybe even praying.

Rewind 3000 years or so, and things are much the same. Only the names, places, and circumstances have changed. The taverns are full, and wine and beer flow freely. Parents still worry about their children, sick or hungry or afraid. And a lone poet sits on his rooftop, his papyrus scroll lit by a candle. It’s his time for study and reflection, for recording thoughts and feelings about the most important reality in his life. He thinks about his bed downstairs and the rhythm of his days. And that’s all he needs to lay quill to paper: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me,” he writes. “You know when I sit down and when I rise up… you search out my path and my lying down….” He could flee to the limits of the known world or pull the darkness over him like a shroud, but this knowing God would be there. His bed could be not where he was right now, which was in a comfortable home with a loving wife and children to care for their parents in old age, but in the lonely place of horror and desolation the Hebrews called “Sheol,” and shuddered as they said the word. Yet this watching, searching God would be there, too. And in his late-night reverie, the psalmist is utterly filled with wonder, for he is watched over, protected, known, accompanied by the One who made him so marvelous, so complex, so self-aware that he can praise his Creator, this Weaver Woman God, this Sovereign so glorious, which in Hebrew, as I have said before, is “heavy,” “weighty,” fraught with gravitas. And when he comes to the end of his life or the end of his nightly sleep—what a late friend of mine once called “a little slice of death”—when he comes to such a moment, even then God is still there. The poet is with God, and God is with him.

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The Voice of the Lord

“The Voice of the Lord” 1 Samuel 3:1-4:1a and Mark 1:4-11 © 1.7.18 Ordinary 2B Baptismal Renewal/Ordination and Installation by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

What does the voice of the Lord God sound like? How do you imagine it? When I was growing up, in all the movies and TV shows, the Almighty often spoke in deep, resonant tones, never loud or strident, and usually with a King James English vocabulary or at least a British accent, calling to Adam and Eve in the Garden or to Moses from the burning bush. (“Moses, Moses, put the shoes from off thy feet, for the ground whereon thou standest is holy unto the Lord.”) And, of course, the voice was always a mature male one. As everybody knew, God was an old man with a beard.

The ancient poet had his own ideas. The voice of the Lord is like thunder; it’s stentorian, extremely loud. It rips forests apart and sends trees whirling. No one can fail to pay attention to or recognize the majestic and powerful sounds from the mouth of Yahweh.

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The Lens of Faith

“The Lens of Faith” Luke 2:22-40; Galatians 4:4-7 © 12.31.17 Christmas 1B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

This Sunday finds us in a kind of limbo. Christmas Day was almost a week ago now, and our focus is on the new year. In a little over twelve hours, the ball drops, the champagne cork pops, and it will be 2018.

We might try to celebrate Christmas personally for twelve days, as on the church liturgical calendar. But that’s hard, isn’t it, given that in society at large, once people sing a couple of carols and open presents and eat a big meal, Christmas is over? Time to return the gifts, go back to work, figure out how to pay for all the stuff we bought we couldn’t afford. A few trappings remain—the wreath on the door, the candles in the windows, the tree in the den or the office lobby, likely up only until tomorrow. Then they’re gone, and things get back to what we’ve come to consider normal.

So what do we do now? In the midst of putting away the new clothes, getting oriented to the updated electronics or taking down the decorations, is there a word from God that can help us prepare for the new year soon to dawn? Is there some possibility that even when there’s no big festival on the calendar, we will still experience the warmth, joy, and love of Christmas? Will we heed the reminder of Santa in the original Miracle on 34th Street that Christmas isn’t just a day, it’s a frame of mind?

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