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Preparing the Way

“Preparing the Way” Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8 © 12.10.17 Advent 2B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

There’s a new Wal-Mart grocery store and gas station set to open in Starkville in January. It’s on the Highway 12 bypass, just off 82, perfect for tailgaters to stop and get their provisions as they head to the stadium, then fill up on the way out of town as they travel back home. It will also be nice for people who live in nearby apartments or anybody on that side of town, who before had to shop at stores some distance away.

I go by the site every Wednesday and Sunday as I drive here. I’ve watched the progress of the development for months, as armies of workers swarmed over it seven days a week. I don’t remember anything much about what the plot of land looked like before, though I think it was forested. I do recall mounds of dirt and giant machines, as the uneven ground was leveled and prepared for building. What was high was brought low, and the low lifted up.

But we need not go any farther than our yards to find an example of ground altered and improved by human hands for a new purpose. Maybe we need to fill in a dip near a fence, where the ground has been washed away by runoff. Or we’re trying to develop a flowerbed, so we till the soil, put in compost, remove roots, break up clumps, and so on. We have trees and shrubs cut down, because they’re fragile and likely to break in a windstorm or they’re poorly placed and encroaching on our home. Then something else or nothing is planted where they used to be. The work is hard, time-consuming, and even expensive if we hire it out, but the success of our project at least in part depends on it.

It’s to such leveling of our lives, to similar preparation of our hearts, that Advent turns our attention. Both Second Isaiah and John the Baptizer invite us to consider how our lives need to be altered to welcome the Messiah.

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Knowing What Time It Is

“Knowing What Time It Is” Mark 13:24-37 © 12.3.17 Advent 1B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Sometimes reading parts of the Bible is like being a new member of a family or a fresh addition to a group of old friends. At gatherings, there are all kinds of insider jokes, knowing looks, and code words that we have to be initiated into. Somebody at the Thanksgiving table says about a recent event: “Yeah, that was just like last Christmas,” and we have no idea what’s being talked about. Or a single word provokes laughter, and you or I sit there wondering what we missed. Seeing our distress, some kind soul explains it, and suddenly we’re more a part of the in crowd.

Trying to understand apocalyptic literature is an especially difficult outsider experience. The name of this kind of material comes from a Greek word that means “unveiling,” as at the end of an old-fashioned wedding when the bride’s veil is lifted for the kiss. It can also be translated “revealing,” as in what God does in letting people know what he’s up to. The technical name of the book we call “Revelation” is “The Apocalypse of John.” And the section of Mark we heard is usually called “the Little Apocalypse.”

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“Some Little Word”

“‘Some Little Word’” Matthew 25:31-46 Christ the King A © 11.26.17 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

At this great remove, I don’t remember his name, but I’ll never forget what he said. We were talking during a break at one of the college conferences I regularly attended as a campus minister, and this student from Tennessee observed that what he and others his age wanted from life was something worthwhile to which to give their time and energy.

I guess his words struck me and stuck with me so because the theme of my life has also been that I want to do something that matters. And isn’t that what we all desire? To do something, to be someone, that matters. We’d like to know that something we said or did made a positive difference.

Tom Long, the renowned professor and preacher, observes that “some churchgoers are satisfied with feel-good Christianity, but…many Christians…yearn for a more costly, demanding, life-changing discipleship.” We want to be involved in a cause that matters, to be called to sacrifice and to spiritual disciplines, to be challenged to give deeply of ourselves. Then we can look in the mirror or come to the end of our lives and know our days have been spent in worthwhile pursuits.

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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” 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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