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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,” http://www.patheos.com/blogs/biteintheapple/transfiguration-2/).

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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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God With Us

“God with Us” Isaiah 7:10-17 and Matthew 1:18-25 © 12.24.17 Advent 4A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

In his memoir A Room Called Remember, author and theologian Frederick Buechner offers some pointed observations about this season. “Christmas,” he insists, “is not…just Scrooge waking up the next morning a changed man. It is not just the spirit of giving abroad in the land with a white beard and reindeer. It is not just the most famous birthday of them all and not just the annual reaffirmation of Peace on Earth…. On the contrary, if you do not hear in the message of Christmas something that must strike some as blasphemy and others as sheer fantasy, the chances are you have not heard the message for what it is. Emmanuel is the message in a nutshell…. ‘God with us.’ Who is this God? How is he with us? That’s where the problem lies” (57-58).

I dare say we don’t often think of Christmas as a problem, at least not in any theological or religious sense. Sure, we wonder what to get that hard-to-please relative who has everything and says he or she doesn’t want anything. Or maybe there’s the stress of planning and baking and cooking and welcoming out-of-town family. Perhaps we wonder how we can get out of going to some Christmas party we’re obligated to attend or which event might be a may-omit on a packed calendar. But by and large, when we hear the message of Christmas is “God with us,” we smile and feel warm inside, even or especially if the rest of the year we haven’t experienced the divine presence, have been lonely or known loss. It’s the word we’ve been waiting and wanting to hear.

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“What About Him?”

“‘What About Him?’” Luke 2:1-20 © 12.24.17 Christmas Eve by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

The Polar Express is a film that deserves to be on everyone’s list of must-see Christmas movies. Based on the charming book by Chris van Allsburg, it’s about an unnamed boy who’s skeptical about Santa Claus. But on Christmas Eve, he has a dream—or is it a dream?—that a train called “The Polar Express” pulls up at his front door. A conductor invites him on, where with other children he will be taken to the North Pole to see Santa. One of the kids will receive “the first gift of Christmas.”

“Hero boy,” as the credits call him, meets other children in the plush car where they’re seated. One is a know-it-all; the other, an African-American girl, who is the feminine lead in the movie. The train heads for the neighborhood on the other side of the tracks, and stops to pick up a poor kid in shabby nightclothes. He doesn’t want to get on at first, but decides at the last minute that he does. He runs to jump aboard, but the train is moving too fast, and the boy falls in the snow. Our hero pulls the emergency brake, and the boy climbs on, but sits all by himself in the last car.

Later on we find through a song that though the poor boy has heard about presents wrapped up in red and green, he’s never seen any. Santa doesn’t stop at his house. Later, the hero boy and hero girl talk with the kid, whose name we eventually learn is Billy, and find that “Christmas doesn’t work out” for him. In every way, Billy is excluded from the joy of the holiday, whether at his home or now on the train, sitting by himself.

When the Express reaches the North Pole, and the children begin to file out to make their way to the center of town, the poor boy doesn’t get off. The hero girl asks the conductor: “What about him?” To that, she gets the reply: “No one is required to see Santa.” And that moves the girl and the hero boy to invite Billy to go with them to the festivities.

“What about him?” “What about her?” “What about them?” Those are Christmas questions. The angels proclaimed a message of joy which would be to “all people.” This was no exclusive offer for those who could afford it or who were vetted by a government authority for admission to the manger or considered ritually clean and socially acceptable. The great joy was for everyone: righteous Pharisee and crooked politician, prostitute and priest, sinner and saint. It was for the losers, the left-out, the looked-down-on, and the disregarded as well as for the successful, well-heeled, influential, and popular. The Pharisees had their rules and their lists of who was in and who was out, who was clean and who was dirty, decent and disgusting. The Roman occupiers and their aristocratic collaborators the Sadducees kept their own rosters of who could be trusted and who couldn’t, who could be manipulated and convinced for the right price, who got an audience with the governor and who was left waiting endlessly, never allowed to voice concerns. Indeed, everybody at every level of society had his or her own ideas of us and them.

But the Christmas gospel from choirs of angels cuts across all those lines. The great joy of God’s deliverance is for everybody. As if to punctuate the message, to make sure we get the point, God sends his angel visitors not to the halls of government or the office of the chief priest or the homes of prominent businesspeople. He dispatches them to sing to shepherds, out in the fields, watching their sheep. Lowly, despised men near the bottom of the social and economic ladder were the first to hear of Christ’s birth. Matthew, by the way, does much the same thing, but in his gospel it’s foreigners, Persian sages, who get the news before the so-called insiders in the palace of Herod. A generation before Luke’s gospel was written, in one of the first books of the New Testament, Paul would proclaim the inclusive message: “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female, but all are one in Christ Jesus.”

The Christmas gospel speaks to each of us, but not only to us. If we hear the message as about One born who will be our personal Savior, comfort us in this life, and then take us to heaven, and that’s all we care about, we have missed the point entirely. The Franciscan priest Father Richard Rohr asks: “Is there no other priority than my personal salvation?” (https://cac.org/the-goal-2017-12-17/) In answer, he writes: “Going to heaven is not the goal of religion. Salvation isn’t an evacuation plan or a reward for the next world. Whenever we live in conscious, loving union with God, which is eventually to love everything, we are saved. This can and should happen now in this world (https://cac.org/returning-to-union-2017-12-19/).

If we’re faithful to the Christmas message of the angels, our priority will be the welfare of our neighbors now. When we see someone left out, we must ask about their well-being and their inclusion in the blessings we enjoy. When we see someone hurting or despairing, we are summoned to wonder how they might find help and healing and experience the joy promised. The blessings of Christmas are diminished for everyone as long as one is excluded, as long as someone or a group of someones sits in the back of the train, alone and downcast, like the kid in the movie. We lose the plot, as they say, when we believe that just because some action or policy doesn’t hurt us, it doesn’t hurt anyone else (cf. John Pavlovitz, https://johnpavlovitz.com/2017/12/20/empathy-america-obituary/). Because the baby of Bethlehem grew up to command us to love our neighbors, we follow him best when we show courtesy and civility to others, which is a big deal in these days when the norm is bullying of and cruelty toward anyone who is different. We imitate him truly when we live with tolerance, and perhaps even move beyond tolerance to true understanding; when we extend a helping hand to our sisters and brothers in this community and beyond. We show we’re his disciples when we attend to the log in our own eyes before we try to remove the speck in our neighbor’s, when we refuse to parade our piety in public, and know it’s the height of hypocrisy to decry the immorality of our land while living without charity or decency ourselves.

But Christmas in this day of deep and worsening inequality moves us beyond individual charity to justice in society. If indeed the Savior born in Bethlehem is the Lord, if he “rules the world with truth and grace,” then Christmas is about justice, for our God is a God who insists on equity and compassion. This lowly one laid in a manger comes to “make his blessings flow” and “make the nations prove the glories of his righteousness,” which in Hebrew is the same word as “justice.”

The birth of Jesus can’t be separated from his teaching, his death or his resurrection and ascension. They’re all cut from the same cloth. What happens in the Christmas story gives us clues about God’s purpose for the world, what Jesus would proclaim as an adult and call “the kingdom of God.” Later in Luke, he described his agenda in the words of the prophet: to proclaim liberty to the captives, good news to the poor, and freedom for the oppressed.

Christmas is not just a day or even twelve days. It’s a way of life. It’s a calling.

Ebenezer Scrooge, having changed his ways, resolved to honor Christmas in his heart and try to keep it all year long. The 20th century activist, poet and preacher Howard Thurman reminded us what that might mean. In his poem “The Work of Christmas,” he wrote: “When the song of the angels is stilled,/When the star in the sky is gone,/When the kings and princes are home,/When the shepherds are back with their flock,/The work of Christmas begins:/To find the lost,/To heal the broken,/To feed the hungry,/To release the prisoner,/To rebuild the nations,/To bring peace among brothers,/To make music in the heart.”

And at the end of the classic Christmas movie The Bishop’s Wife, the bishop ends the sermon the angel had written for him this way: “All the stockings are filled, all that is, except one. And we have even forgotten to hang it up. The stocking for the child born in a manger. It’s his birthday we’re celebrating. Don’t let us ever forget that.

“Let us ask ourselves what he would wish for most. And then, let each put in his share: loving kindness, warm hearts, and a stretched-out hand of tolerance. All the shining gifts that make peace on earth.”

Indeed, God’s peace, which in the Bible means wholeness of mind, body, and spirit, is the greatest gift we can give our neighbor, including the least of these in whom Jesus said we meet him. Peace is the promise and the hope of Christmas for all. When some say “you’re not welcome,” God says “come on in.” When we’re told “that’s impossible,” we’re reminded of the angel’s assurance to Mary “nothing is impossible with God.” When we’re terribly afraid and confused, we hear the glorious news of great joy which bids us not to fear. And because we know we are cared for by God, that the Messiah has come, that God is with us, we may reach out in compassion to our neighbors and seek justice for them. We can ask with boldness and conviction, with the intent to act: “What about them? What about her? What about him?”