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Bad Judgment, Odd Choices

“Bad Judgment, Odd Choices” Genesis 25:19-34; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 © 7.16.17 Ordinary 15A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

They were a perfect family. Mom and Dad, now in their later years, still held hands in public, and everybody commented that they were such a sweet older couple. The two sons had put aside their childhood differences and combined their talents to open “Red,” an upscale bistro in the historic district. It featured fresh, locally sourced game and fish, creatively prepared, with organic vegetables and fruits from area farmers. On Sundays, when the restaurant was closed, they could always be counted on to be present in worship, often having invited a couple of guests. Even the young men listened intently to the sermon instead of secretly checking social media feeds on their phones, even though the message tended to be long, boring, and rambling, full of impenetrable logic and obscure words. When the service concluded, they pumped the preacher’s hand and exchanged pleasantries before heading home for a leisurely Sunday dinner.

Well, not so much. The real story has Isaac and Rebekah allied with their favored son against each other. Dad liked Esau, because he was a huge, hairy hulk of a man who loved to hunt and fish and bring Isaac some choice venison tenderloin to roast. Esau was happiest on his four-wheeler or working on the restoration of his vintage Chevy pickup while he listened to Eric Church and Chris Stapleton. On a Saturday night, he always had a pretty young woman on his arm. At other times, he would get his buddies together in his man cave to watch sports on his 80-inch TV while they enjoyed buckets of KFC wings and tenders and a case of PBR, iced down just right.

On the other hand, Jacob was a quiet boy who mostly stayed to himself. Rebekah favored him, because he was a homebody and loved to cook, experimenting with spices and herbs. He had just had his recipe for lentil stew published in Middle Eastern Living, as well as in this year’s Best of Canaan. The video of his latest psalm, on which he had accompanied himself on an exotic-sounding electric multioud, an instrument of eleven strings, had gone viral. Rebekah couldn’t understand Isaac’s love for Esau, whom she considered brutish and vulgar or why such a man should get the inheritance because of a few minutes’ difference in the time of their birth. Jacob was much more worthy, talented, handsome, and holy. And he was smart and patient. She was sure that at the right time he would cook up some way to claim what should be his.

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Representing Christ

“Representing Christ” 2 Corinthians 5:14-6:2, Matthew 10:5-15, 40-42 © 7.9.17 Ordinary 14A (texts for Ordinary 13A) by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

When Mama died five years ago, it became my responsibility as executor of her estate to sell the house that she and Daddy had lived in for decades. What a job that was, for the usual reasons plus some unique to my family. When finally Amanda, the estate’s Realtor®, had found a buyer in the tough Albany, GA market, and the closing was scheduled, I wasn’t going to take two days off work, spend the night, eat out, and drive a total of 16 hours to be at an attorney’s office for 30 minutes. So I followed the standard practice of giving Amanda a limited power of attorney (POA) to act in my stead. She was Tom Cheatham, executor, for the purposes of signing the documents; what she did, I did.

In a more general way, while Mama was still living, I had a POA to act on her behalf in all sorts of ways. The key language was: “granting and giving unto my said attorney-in-fact full power and authority to do and perform every act…as fully as I might or could do if personally present….” I didn’t have to go back and consult Mama at every turn; I did and could do what I thought was right and proper and necessary as if I were my mother.

On a corporate level, in the church for example, there are committees and commissions. The former can only make recommendations to the body that appointed or elected them; they can’t act on their own. The latter, on the other hand, have authority rather like that granted individuals in a POA. When teaching elders are ordained, for example, the presbytery appoints a commission to act on its behalf. A handful of people hold a service and lay on hands, and not only is the man or woman ordained for a congregation or the presbytery, but for the whole PC(USA). Something similar is done to close a church, hear a disciplinary case or deal with a conflicted situation. We also have three permanent commissions in any presbytery: the Commission on Ministry, the Commission on Preparation for Ministry, and the Permanent Judicial Commission.

Governments might similarly empower diplomats to act on their behalf under various titles and in particular situations. All these sorts of arrangements, whether POAs, commissions or envoys, would fall under the ancient heading of the shaliach or personal representative. In Jewish law of Jesus’ day, a man’s duly authorized messenger “is as the man himself.” What the shaliach did or said was considered not his deed or word, but that of the one who sent him. The one who received and welcomed the shaliach aligned himself with all the messenger stood for, including the values, obligations, and traditions of his family, tribe, and faith.

Jesus assigns the status of shaliach to his disciples. They are his commissioners, attorneys-in-fact, spokespersons with his authority. He has been sent, given a mission, by his Father, and he now empowers the disciples to carry it out. So whoever welcomes those who come in his name in fact welcomes Jesus, with all he stands for. As Paul said in Galatians, they are received “as Christ Jesus,” and as the apostle put it in 2 Corinthians, God makes his appeal through them. They speak on behalf of Christ.

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“‘The Yoke of Grace’”

“The Yoke of Grace” Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 © 7.2.17 Ordinary 14A/Independence Day by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

The first time I heard the 1812 Overture, composed in 1880 by Tchaikovsky, was on a TV commercial when I was a boy. The ad was for a certain puffed cereal, and the maker was claiming the breakfast food was so light and airy because “it is the cereal that’s shot from guns.” The tune for that jingle was the finale of the Tchaikovsky piece. Sing it to yourself. I apologize if it sticks in your head.

Anyway, the overture has become associated with Independence Day fireworks since Arthur Fiedler first used it during a concert by the Boston Pops in 1974. And that’s appropriate, since Tchaikovsky intended it to celebrate freedom and commemorate the defeat of a tyrant, namely, Napoleon.

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The Sparrow and the Cross

“The Sparrow and the Cross” Genesis 21:1-21; Matthew 10:16-39 © 6.25.17 Ordinary 12A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

“What are you worth?” If someone were to ask you or me that question, which would actually be rather rude, I suppose, unless it came from our financial planner, we might immediately begin mentally or on paper to list our assets and then subtract our liabilities, arriving at a figure known as “net worth.” On the other hand, “Are you worth anything?” probably with an emphasis on the last word, and said in a mean, sarcastic tone, is about self-esteem, what we can or can’t do, our value to someone else. “You’re not worth it” is a cruel assessment that the annoyance, the effort, the emotional turmoil our habits, opinions, and neediness cause another are simply too big an investment of time and energy.

How do we measure the worth of a human life? After 9/11, attorney Kenneth Feinberg had that task. He and the Fund he chaired had to determine how much money each victim’s family should get. He factored in age, dependents, life insurance, and income and earning potential had they lived. The amounts thus determined varied dramatically, from $250,000 for blue-collar workers to as much as $7.1 million for executives. But Feinberg later wondered about such calculations. He had accepted the legal premise that lives were worth different amounts in financial terms, but he now found that idea in conflict with what he called his “‘growing belief in the equality of all life’” (quoted in Liddy Barlow, The Christian Century, June 7, 2017: 20).

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The Preposterous Gospel

“The Preposterous Gospel” Genesis 18:1-15 © 6.18.17 Ordinary 11A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

On a day much like any other, Abraham sat in the door of his tent, half asleep from the sweltering heat of a desert at noonday. Maybe he would give in to the tug of gravity on his eyelids and take a nap. Sarah, inside their home, was doing some chores. But then she, too, would lie down for a siesta.

What happened next made Abraham decide he must have nodded off as he sat there looking out over the landscape. Otherwise he would have noticed the approach of three strangers who suddenly stood before him. A moment ago they were not there; now they were, as if they had stepped through a portal from some other dimension. Who were these men? How they did they get here? Where were they from? We find out later that they are divine, but for now neither Abraham nor Sarah knows that.

Anyway, such questions of identity and what they were doing traveling in the heat of the day were really irrelevant. They were visitors to Abraham’s home, and his obligation was to show hospitality. Bread to strengthen his guests for their journey. Water to slake their thirst. A cool spot beneath the shade of the oaks.

But then, after promising a simple repast, Abraham decided to treat his guests to choice veal, milk, and yogurt, in addition to some of Sarah’s wonderful pita bread. Then, so Abraham could meet their every need, he stood by like a slave while the three men ate.

Much has been made of the patriarch’s hospitality, usually along the lines of how we encounter God when we welcome strangers. In our day when we fear the other so profoundly, that’s a relevant message. And preachers like me are also fond of pointing out how Abraham wasn’t doing anything unusual when the three showed up. No ritual or prayer, no sacrifice or songs. Just sitting around watching TV, so to speak. There is holiness in the ordinary.

But as tempting as it is to ring the changes on both those themes, I have to point out that Abraham’s hospitality was simply what was expected by his culture. As one writer puts it, he served the guests because “it was what you did” (http://gmcelroy.typepad.com/desertscribblings/2008/06/june-15-2008—fifth-sunday-after-pentecost.html). And if the day were ordinary until this point, it was about to become anything but.

Everything quickly gets turned upside down. Guest becomes host. The familiar becomes strange. Resignation gives way to rejoicing. It’s on the unexpected, the crazy, the incongruous, and the surprising that this story turns.

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The Great Commission

“The Great Commission” Matthew 28:16-20 © 6.11.17 Trinity A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

When I was a student at the University of Georgia, I was an obnoxious know-it-all. (Obviously, things haven’t changed much in 45 years!) I particularly delighted in challenging professors in humanities classes, a practice for which I was praised by peers in my anti-intellectual fundamentalist circle. (We said Ph.D. stood for “post hold digger.”) My religion professor, as I recall, put me told in no uncertain terms; I’m sure he’d heard it all before from arrogant kids like me. The philosophy teacher, though, was more subtle in giving me my comeuppance. An exam came back with this comment: “Some small sins of omission and one grievous sin of commission.”

Except in that pairing, the last word is pronounced “kǝ-mish’-ǝn.” It’s a term with many meanings and uses, both a noun and a verb, all of which are related somehow to action and/or authorization. An independent commission, without a partisan agenda, seeks the truth. A commission of Presbytery closes a church or ordains a minister. A ship or an officer in the military is commissioned. So might be a work of art or a symphony. Somebody is charged with the commission of a crime. “Out of commission” means a vehicle, for example, is not fit for use anymore.

By being commissioned, a group of people or an individual is given authority to act by some delegating body, assigned a certain task to carry out on another’s behalf, whether the government or the church or a patron. There is or should also be a sense of personal investment in the project; “commission” is related to “commit.” Whether committing a crime, serving on or earning a commission or being guilty of sins of commission, as different as those activities are, we are accountable, responsible.

All this can inform our understanding of our Lord’s last command to his disciples, according to Matthew. Since the Scofield Reference Bible of 1909, the last three verses of this gospel have been known as “the Great Commission,” a term taken up by Christians all along the theological spectrum, not just the Dispensationalists for whom Scofield wrote. 

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Seeing Visions, Dreaming Dreams

“Seeing Visions, Dreaming Dreams” Joel 2:23-32, Acts 2:1-21 © 6.4.17 Pentecost A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

It was an event so rare, even unprecedented, that not even the oldest among them could remember anything like it. Each member of every living generation knew they had witnessed history; they would share the tale as a cautionary lesson with those yet to be born. Such a crisis might be averted in the future if everyone would honor their commitment to the Lord.

The devastating locust plague and drought that had prompted such reflection were now over, and the people looked forward to better days. Yahweh promised abundant rain, plentiful food, and a bright future, free of the shame that had marked the community.

But that wasn’t all. A great revolution was coming, a time when old cultic barriers would come down, priestly orders would be obsolete, and everyone from greatest to least, regardless of gender or age, would be filled with the enlivening breath of God. Dreams and visions, the means of direct access to the very mind and heart of Yahweh, would be the common experience of young and old; prophecy, the sharing of the word of God, would be the task and privilege of men and women alike. The restoration of land and crops was expected to be paralleled by a blossoming of vital spirituality in everyone. The crisis would be followed by jubilation, then awakening.

Joel’s tale of turning and revival from the 5th century BC was for living generations in his day and for those yet to come; it formed their memory and inspired their hope. It can do much the same for us. This ancient text seems remarkably relevant to our own time, and especially today as we focus on two generations of youth and young adults in the reception of confirmands, the recognition of a high school graduate, and the welcoming of a rising college senior to start the summer music series.

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