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“To This We Are Witnesses”

“‘To This We Are Witnesses’” Acts 3:1-26, Luke 24:33-49 © 4.15.18 Easter 3B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

It’s Easter evening. The eleven apostles left after Judas’ suicide are gathered with other followers of Jesus. Two people who were met by the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus burst into the room with news that the crucified Jesus was alive and had shared a meal with them. This was in turn confirmed as Cleopas and his companion heard how the Lord had appeared to Peter.

Then suddenly, without warning, Jesus stands in their midst. Their first reaction, as ours would be, was fright. They thought Jesus was a ghost, even though they had just heard how he had eaten a meal. He proved to them he was no phantasm, but truly present in the flesh, by eating some fish and inviting everyone to touch him.

Then Jesus repeated what he had done on the Emmaus road, explaining what had been written about the Messiah—the Christ—in the Torah, prophets, and psalms. He commissioned those present to be his witnesses; to preach an inclusive, universal message of repentance and forgiveness; and to wait for divine power for their work.

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The Main Thing

“The Main Thing” John 20:19-31 © 4.8.18 Easter 2B at First Presbyterian, Amory, MS by Tom Cheatham

If there’s a mantra or motto for skeptics, it’s probably “seeing is believing.” Claims about a product, an institution or a person’s competence have to be backed up by what we’ve observed; our experience confirms or casts doubt on the truth. Suppose someone selects a car on the basis of ads on TV, talking with friends and family who have a similar or the same vehicle, and getting an online recommendation from Edmunds and Car and Driver. Then comes the test drive and purchase at the dealer. But the car doesn’t perform as expected and desired. Gas mileage is well below what was predicted. The engine is sluggish. There are annoying little rattles everywhere. The electronics act up. The evidence, then, would tend to discount the advertising claims and the opinions of the experts, as well as initial impressions. Our new car owner might even begin to wonder what and whom he or she can trust.

Or how about the young adult who enrolls in a university because the cool website convinces him or her that the school is just right? So do the campus visits with current students and potential professors. The classes offered will be challenging but fun. The social scene will offer lots of opportunities to meet the all-important potential romantic partners and make friends. There’s even an emphasis on learning through service and/or co-op placements. Plus the financial aid package offered is generous. In his or her years at the school, the student indeed makes lots of friends, learns a marketable skill, and feels a sense of connection. The claims were true, first impressions accurate. So the grad, now an alum, becomes an enthusiastic supporter of the institution, and years down the road, she gives millions to endow a faculty chair; he becomes president of the school he loves.

The text for the morning is a story about a disciple who was first skeptical, like the car buyer, but then like that university student, became an ardent and tireless servant of a cause. A legend first recounted in the apocryphal Acts of Thomas tells us he even carried the gospel to India as a slave. And he was held in high enough regard by one segment of early Christianity—the Gnostics—for them to name a now famous or infamous non-canonical gospel after him, a collection of 114 sayings of Jesus, some of which purport to have been secretly delivered to the apostle. But before India, before being co-opted by one branch of the early Church, I think Thomas had been burned a few times. Like the proverbial scalded dog, he didn’t easily trust without a good bit of convincing over time. His experience led Thomas to maintain a healthy skepticism, a wait-and-see attitude, about most things. And those things included the outrageous claim that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

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Poisson d’Avril

Poisson d’Avril” Luke 23:50-24:11 © 4.1.18 Easter Day by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

“Laughter is the best medicine.” We all know that old piece of folk wisdom. It so happens that the saying is backed up by science. Dr. Frank Lipman, in an article for the Huffington Post in 2012, writes: “What’s the one prescription I am always happy to dispense? Take two belly laughs and call me in the morning. …[L]aughter is one of the easiest things you can do to promote healing and well-being. In fact, in my 20 years of medical experience, I’ve found that patients who have a sense of humor and laugh a lot tend to heal better and faster than those who don’t. Therefore, I say if health and wellness are your goals, skip irony, bypass sarcasm and make the conscious choice to add more joyous laughter into to your day.” He goes on to list ten benefits of laughter, including boosting the immune system; reducing stress; stimulating the release of endorphins, those mood-elevating brain chemicals; lowering blood pressure; and easing tension (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-frank-lipman/laughter-health_b_1380643.html).

Perhaps no day is more associated with laughter, and maybe thus ultimately with healing, than April Fools’. People play good-natured jokes on each other. The media may run spurious stories, then reveal the hoax the next day. This year, thanks to the way the date of Easter is determined, according to the vernal equinox and the full moon and the date of Passover, the festival of fools coincides with the day of resurrection. The last time both fell on the same date was in 1956, when I was three. The next will be in 2029, then in 2040, then not again this century. So this Sunday is likely my one and only opportunity to connect the two days and say something about the resurrection and laughter.

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Parting Hymn

“Parting Hymn” Psalm 116; Mark 14:17-31 © 3.29.18 Maundy Thursday by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

When we think of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, we no doubt call to mind the classic words he said over the bread and the cup, as reported in the synoptic gospels and in 1 Corinthians. Or perhaps we remember the troubling sayings about betrayal, and the puzzlement and worry of the disciples. Maybe we turn to the gospel of John and our Lord’s example of service as he washed his disciples’ feet. We hear him speak the commandment, called the mandatum in Latin, that has given this day its name: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

But do you and I ever imagine Jesus singing?

He did, you know, along with all his disciples. We have no idea what they sounded like individually or together. There were of course no recording devices. With instruments or not, we don’t know. But they sang, in the style of the day, as they had done on Passovers previous, as they grew up and on into adulthood. Prescribed for the festival, following the dinner, was a group of psalms called the Hillel or Hallel Psalms, 113-118. All or in part, they were known as “the hymn.” Mark tells us that when Jesus and the Twelve finished the traditional meal, they sang “the hymn” and went out to the Mount of Olives.

Psalm 116, which we heard a few moments ago, falls right in the middle of the group. It was originally composed by someone who had recovered from a serious illness or had come through some other crisis. The particular kind of offering he or she gives could also apply to a successful trek across a desert, being released from prison or surviving a storm at sea. From the description, it sounds as if the poet had suffered not only from bodily distress, but also from depression. Life was one unending zombie apocalypse, as we might say today, in which he or she was assaulted constantly by horror and pain. The grasping hands of the land of the dead, Sheol, laid hold on him or her and refused to let go.

Upon making it through a crisis like an illness, the Jewish ritual practice prescribed a thank offering. Two sorts are referred to in the psalm. One is the libation, the lifted cup, a kind of toast to God for all he had done. In the cup was to be strong drink, meaning not wine or beer, but distilled spirits with a substantial percentage of alcohol, like whiskey. The worshipper was to pour it out to Yahweh (Numbers 28). (If it was fine, and thus costly, whiskey, such an action must have been especially hard! But no doubt that was the point.) The other was a sacrifice of bread, oil, and a lamb, with part given to the priests and the rest eaten on the same day as the sacrifice (Leviticus 7). The rituals were the payment of the vows the psalmist had made during his or her crisis.

At some point, the psalm became part of the liturgy of Passover. The images of individual suffering and deliverance became applied to the community, which in its slavery and oppression had been in the grip of death-dealing forces, but had been delivered by Yahweh. This and three other poems were read or chanted at the lifting of the fourth cup of the Passover meal. The psalms were preceded by a prayer of thanksgiving in which Yahweh was praised as the one “‘who brought us from bondage to freedom, from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning to a Festival-day, and from darkness to great light, and from servitude to redemption’” (Pesachim 10:5, quoted in James Mays, Psalms: 371).

As the early Jewish Christians read the psalm, it became a lens through which to view Jesus’ last night with his disciples as well as coming events. And so it is for us as well. We may even get a glimpse of our Lord’s feelings that evening. Jesus is the One suffering, with the pangs of Sheol taking hold of him, indeed coming to a costly death that grieves the heart of God. But he is delivered, so that he walks again in the land of the living, the bonds of the grave loosed. The cup he lifted up at the meal was filled, metaphorically, with his own blood, poured out on the cross in the presence of disciple and detractor alike. Jesus was the Servant of the Lord par excellence, the son of the handmaid of the Lord, Mary.

I wonder if as Jesus chanted the psalm, he was thinking of his impending suffering. Did he sing the line “everyone is a liar” and think of Judas or know that when the going got rough, the protestations of the others never to forsake him would prove false? Did he wonder if he could indeed keep faith when he was greatly afflicted, when he wanted so much for the cup of suffering to pass from him, as he would put it later?

As a noted commentator on Psalms has put it: “The psalm becomes the voice of Jesus and the congregation, the one providing the cup and sacrifice, the other united by them with him in his death and resurrection” (James Mays, Psalms: 372). Through our Lord’s offering of himself, poured out as a libation, we are delivered from death to life. In the midst of our crises, when death has its grip on us, when we feel stuck in the muck and mire of grief and pain, when illness and loneliness and doubt assail us, when we cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” we may yet shout “Hallelujah” because God hears, God delivers, God will not leave us in the grip of Sheol anymore than he did his own faithful Son.

Jesus and his friends sang this Hallel psalm as a parting hymn, before they went out into the night and what lay ahead. It was the last Passover they would share until that day when all creation sang the song of the new creation.

In the meantime, whenever we gather for the Eucharist, the meal of thanksgiving, we are reminded of this psalm and its call to make and pay vows, to trust God in suffering. What it means for us day to day on our journeys is reflected in an old Communion hymn by Aaron Wolfe: “A parting hymn we sing around thy Table, Lord; again our grateful tribute bring, our solemn vows record. Here have we seen thy face, and felt thy presence here; so may the savor of thy grace, in word and life appear. The purchase of thy blood, by sin no longer led, the path our dear Redeemer trod, may we rejoicing tread. In self-forgetting love be our communion shown, until we join the Church above, and know as we are known” (Aaron R. Wolfe, 1858).

Buyer’s Remorse (Hoopla, Hype, and Hosanna)

“Buyer’s Remorse (Hoopla, Hype, and Hosanna)” Mark 11:1-11 Palm Sunday B © 3.25.18 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

I’ve made some really bad decisions and stupid choices in my life. A good percentage of them have been purchases. There’s the cheap electric guitar I bought online a few years ago because I liked the design of the top and inlays; never mind how it played. It’s rarely been out of the case. Or I think of all the ties, trousers, jackets, and shoes I’ve bought for whatever reason over the years that languished in my closet until I finally gave them away. But definitely the worst choice I ever made was a 1977 Pontiac Sunbird.

All through high school and college and then into my first church, I drove hand-me-down cars from my mama. First there was a 1962 Mercury Comet, then the 1970 Plymouth Belvedere. I should have been grateful just to have transportation, but I wanted something other than those plain, unexciting vehicles. So when I got out on my own in the late ‘70s, and I could afford to buy my own car, I went with the Sunbird, in a body style called a “fastback.” I liked its spoiler and sport suspension, tape deck and great-looking interior. But a good car it wasn’t. I suffered with its myriad major mechanical troubles for several years before it finally gave up the ghost. Many times as I sat at the shop getting this or that repaired, I wondered why I hadn’t bought that reliable, plain, boxy Toyota I had considered. The crazy thing was that when we met, Susan had exactly the same car, as a sedan, and it never had anything wrong with it.

Well after my purchase, I had buyer’s remorse about my Sunbird. You know the term. “Buyer’s remorse” is typically the regret someone has after spending big bucks on a house or a car or some other expensive item. It can also apply to anything you bought that you come to believe was a mistake. There were those record albums back in the day with one or maybe two good songs on the album, and the rest was junk and filler, so the record ended up on your shelf, rarely played, despite your having spent a chunk of change from your allowance or hard-earned wages. With buyer’s remorse, you wonder if you paid too much or whether you should have been so extravagant or if maybe a salesperson pressured you into buying. When you start driving the car or settling into the home, it turns out to be not quite what you expected or wanted, but you just bought it, and it would be a hassle to turn right around and trade or sell. Besides, you don’t want to look foolish to your friends and family. So you just live with it and start longing for the day when you can get something else.

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“As Christ to You”

“‘As Christ to You’” Hebrews 5:1-10 © 3.18.18 Lent 5B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

There’s a wonderful story about the inspiration for one of the 1960s’ greatest songs. The tale recounts how Bob Russell of the band The Hollies came upon a child carrying another one. It seemed to Russell that the boy was struggling a bit under the load. So he asked: “Isn’t he a little heavy for you to carry?” The question brought this response: “He ain’t heavy; he’s my brother.”

Russell took that line and worked it into the lyrics of the classic song that some of you may remember. They go like this: “The road is long, with many a winding turn that leads us to who knows where. But I’m strong, strong enough to carry him. He ain’t heavy; he’s my brother. So on we go. His welfare is my concern. No burden is he to bear; we’ll get there. For I know he would not encumber me. He ain’t heavy; he’s my brother. If I’m laden at all, I’m laden with sadness that everyone’s heart isn’t filled with the gladness of love for one another…” (https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/hollies/heaintheavyhesmybrother.html).

Out of the mouth of a young child, as so often happens, came wisdom for all humankind. To carry another for whom we care is no burden. It’s a choice we make, a privilege we cherish, a service we perform for the sake of love. On this journey we need each other. Especially in the community of faith, the Church, we’re called to exhibit in our lives the care that little boy showed his brother. It’s a summons from God to be priests for and to each other.

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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” (https://www.facebook.com/Frederick.Buechner.Center/posts/1425542354162962).

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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