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On Their Shoulders

“On Their Shoulders” Deuteronomy 8:7-18 © 11.18.18 Ordinary 33B (Thanksgiving Day celebrated) by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

No doubt all of us have seen those human pyramids made of cheerleaders in which successive rows reaching ever higher are formed as people stand on the shoulders of those beneath. Or maybe we’ve witnessed circus performers or gymnasts going up, up, up until finally the man or woman on top does some truly amazing feat of skill and daring.

We may not be cheerleaders or gymnasts, but figuratively speaking, we also stand on the shoulders of others. Not merely occasionally, but every day. Not in one area of life, but in many. As the theologian Miroslav Volf of Yale Divinity School has observed, “everyone’s life is enmeshed in social systems and shaped by other people.” That recognition, he says, should inspire a sense of gratitude. Indeed, a life worth living, according to Volf, is marked by care and gratitude, rather than how much we own or what we have done (https://www.christiancentury.org/article/features/getting-college-students-ask-what-makes-life-worth-living). No more than those addressed by the authors of Deuteronomy may we exalt ourselves and say “my power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” So as we approach a day of thanksgiving and as we’ve come from a recognition of the contributions of veterans, I want to reflect with you on what a debt we owe to those who form the foundation of our freedom, our technology, and our daily lives.

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Two Coins, Three Lessons

“Two Coins, Three Lessons” Mark 12:38-44 © 11.11.18 Ordinary 32B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Let me invite you for a few moments to put yourself in the place of people experiencing various kinds of vulnerability and fear. For example, try to imagine yourself as a small child, lost in some huge store, and you don’t yet know your phone number or even the names of your parents. They’re simply “Mommy and Daddy.” Everywhere you turn, there’s nothing and no one recognizable; you stand still, crying without relief. Or much later in life you find yourself overextended financially, whether because of reckless spending habits or because your job simply doesn’t pay enough or you had lost it through no fault of your own. You’re unable to conceive a plan to get out of debt and pay your monthly bills, especially that huge balance on your credit card; your fear and despair preclude rational thought. Could be you’re in a strange city, and your car breaks down in a not-so-great neighborhood, and you wait an anxious hour for the AAA roadside assistance to get there. Perhaps your time of vulnerability is a vigil in the waiting room, when you sit powerless, longing for news of how the surgery was going for your loved one. Though you trust your doctor and God, you nevertheless feel so very alone.

Now suppose that every day you knew nothing but such vulnerability, powerlessness, and fear. You had to struggle even to survive; you frequently went to bed hungry; you were what we call today “food insecure.” The laws did not favor you, and the passersby were not friendly or helpful to you when you were reduced to begging on the city street. Given such a situation, you had little to contribute to the economy, and generally, you were regarded as a burden and a nuisance, maybe an embarrassment.

Despite your dire straits, though, you somehow manage to continue to trust in the goodness of God. You could become bitter and resentful, your every thought focused on questions like “Why me?” and “What did I do to deserve this?” You could think somehow you’re being punished for an unknown sin; you might say things like “God must hate me, if he exists at all.” You could stop worshipping God, unwilling to give glory to a deity so cruel and unfeeling. But you don’t. Instead, you attend faithfully; you do what you can. You mount the steps of the Temple and put in two little coins, all you have to live on, not worried that the bill collector would soon be knocking on your door, your landlord will want the rent.

You are a widow in Jesus’ day, vulnerable and powerless. But still you believe. Still you trust. Still you risk your livelihood to give a gift to the God who sustains your meager existence.

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Where Death Is No More

“Where Death Is No More” Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44 © 11.4.18 All Saints’ by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Revelation is a strange book. We’ve noticed that many times before, whether in sermons or church school lessons. Maybe because it is so odd and hard to understand, it was inevitable that dishonest and misguided preachers and writers would so easily exploit, twist, distort, and misrepresent it in an effort to keep people afraid and under their power. But the vision of John is actually one of hope and of assurance and support in the midst of hardship.

Most of all it’s about freedom from the oppression and fear of humankind’s ultimate enemy: death. The Grim Reaper is always busy deforming and destroying human life. He especially delights in twisting the minds of those who willingly become his servants and kill out of hatred, like the man who took the lives of eleven worshippers at Tree of Life synagogue and wounded others, including the officers who sought to stop him.

We all hope that we and our loved ones, indeed anyone, can live a long life and not die violently and in an untimely way. But none of us can or will ultimately elude the clutches of death. We are all mortal and will go down to the dust. In the meantime, we must deal with the passing of spouses, parents, friends, even our children. Bro. Bubba Lollar and I just buried Kayla Prestridge yesterday at only 25 years old, so for one family in this church the wound of grief is fresh indeed, and no salve consisting of pretty words or beautiful images will dull the pain. For others, that hurt has healed or at least become bearable, except on certain days or at particular places. Then it feels fresh again, and the tears well up.

So no doubt you join me in being ready for death to be no more and pain to be over. That’s the promise of God, the vision of the prophet. But it’s so distant, isn’t it? With our souls smarting from the sting of death, who can believe it?

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Top Ten Ways to Know You’re a Faithful Church

“Top Ten Ways to Know You’re a Faithful Church” © 10.28.18 Reformation Sunday by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

The Top 10 list. Maybe you know, but I couldn’t find who compiled the first one or when or where. Someone, tongue firmly in cheek, might suggest that Yahweh invented it when he gave the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Whatever its origins, we’ve seen all sorts of such rosters. There’s the “Ten Most Wanted,” first published by the FBI on March 14, 1950 (http://time.com/3742696/history-fbi-top-ten-list/). Or in the ‘80s, the radio personality Casey Kasem hosted a TV show called America’s Top 10, featuring songs from the Billboard Hot 100 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/America%27s_Top_10). David Letterman back in the day shared a humorous Top 10 list on his late night talk show. And of course, we look at the rankings of college teams or the best cars or musical instruments to buy.

This morning, on Reformation Sunday and two days before my ordination anniversary, I have my own Top 10 list. In it, I’ve tried to gather up, to distill, what in forty-one years of ministry I’ve come to consider the most important things I believe about faith and the Church. These are general observations, broad conclusions drawn from my experience, so you may or may not find that they’re helpful or apply to you. No doubt you could come up with a list of your own, and I hope you will.

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Listening to Bartimaeus

“Listening to Bartimaeus” Mark 10:46-52 © 10.21.18 Ordinary 29B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

The unfortunate accident that left him blind at fourteen had robbed him of sight, but not determination. He was just a beggar whose given name nobody knew; “Bar-timaeus” is what we would call his last name, his surname. It’s given in Aramaic, the common language of the region; then Mark translates it for his Greek-speaking readers. The fact that he names him at all, however, is significant. Beggars and other poor folk typically just blend in with the scenery, with no personality or anything particularly human or special about them. But even before the encounter with Jesus, the gospel writer is already signaling that this man is important; we need to listen to him.

Bartimaeus’ relative anonymity didn’t stop him from trying to claw from life a little dignity. If he lost that, he surely would have nothing, for he had never been able to work. Nor had he ever known the joy and challenge of marriage. What woman would want to marry a man who could not support her? So, here he sat, to the world around an almost nameless and surely worthless nobody. But if the chance came for something better, if somehow he had a chance to see again, he would fight tooth and nail to take advantage of it.

He heard shouts and asked someone what was going on. “Rabbi Jesus is coming through town,” the man next to him said. “Jesus!” Bartimaeus thought, excitement building in the very depths of his being. He had heard amazing tales. Deaf people hearing. The lame walking. The demon-possessed freed from bondage. Why, over in Bethsaida a blind man was even given sight again! Bartimaeus faintly recalled some promise of the prophets about how the Messiah would do things like that.

He started shouting at the top of his voice. This was his big chance, the one he had been hoping for all these years. “Shut up!” someone said sharply. “You’re making a scene!” added another. The rebukes and curses were thick and heavy. But he kept on crying out. Nobody was going to tell him to be quiet when maybe he could see again. “Jesus! Have mercy on me!”

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Access Granted

“Access Granted” Hebrews 3:1-2, 5-6; 4:14-16 © 10.14.18 Ordinary 28B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Who of us has not confronted with frustration the bewildering phone menu of our bank or credit card company, the cable or the cell phone provider, a government office or even a church or a small business? It usually goes something like this. After you select your language, whether English or Spanish, you hear: “In order better to serve you, our menu options have changed.” Then if you know your party’s extension you may dial it at any time or press a certain number for a dial-by-name directory. If not that, then you press 1 for this and 2 for that, 3 for some other thing, 4, 5, 6… Each selection then has a sub-menu. And if you’re like me, often none of the possibilities match what you want to do, which is talk to a real person, and you’re left trying to figure out whether the computer wants you to say “representative,” “customer service,” “advocate” or simply touch “0.” As if this were not enough hassle, you must input your 16-digit account number followed by the pound sign along with the last four digits of your Social Security number and sometimes your birthday, in a particular format. You do that, but then the wait time is extraordinary, and you have to decide whether to hold on or give up. If indeed you reach a real person who may or may not be able to help you with your problem and may nor may not have the authority to do something and may or may not care, guess what you have to give him or her, after already entering it? Your birthday. Your Social Security number.

If you prefer online business, like checking your account balance or downloading music, updating your Netflix queue or getting a sweater from LL Bean, you need at least a user name and password. True as well for looking at or posting on Facebook or reading an article in the Internet edition of a magazine. Quite often to establish an account, you have to type in the distorted letters and numbers you see in a box on the screen to prove you are not a robot. There may be two-factor authentication or even with some accounts, three steps required. Sometimes there is the security question or set of questions. “Who was your first grade teacher?” “What was the name of your best friend in 9th grade?” “Which of the following places have you not lived?”

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Savory Saints

“Savory Saints” Mark 9:38-50 ©10.7.18 World Communion Sunday by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

For most of my life, I loved and craved salt. Fortunately, Susan has weaned me off of so much of it, with her tasty cooking using homegrown herbs. The major breakthrough was when I no longer slathered corn on the cob with butter and covered it in salt. But when I was a kid, I would pour some out of the shaker onto my hand and eat it by itself, so fond was I of the flavor, so addicted. As an adult, I would often salt food without even sampling it first. Some years ago, I joked that I was glad to hear our Lord declare that salt is good. It was extremely satisfying, I said, to have the authority of Jesus for my personal habits.

Of course, our Lord isn’t making a recommendation for our diets, and he certainly didn’t intend to give sanction to my culinary eccentricities. But if he’s not talking about how we use seasoning on food, what does he mean?

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