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Wisdom Calls

“Wisdom Calls” Proverbs 1:20-33 © 9.16.18 Ordinary 24B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

She was shouting loudly, clapping her hands to emphasize her point. Her message was mostly highly traditional and hierarchical social values purporting to be Christian teaching. It was her firm conviction, for example, that women should not work outside the home.

Now all this would not have seemed unusual had this woman been preaching in some rural fundamentalist congregation somewhere in this state or anywhere else in the deep South. But she wasn’t. Rather, she was proclaiming her word to a group of people who had gathered to wait for the bus at Bienville Square in Mobile, AL. On one side of her, there were businesspeople, lawyers, and office staff enjoying their lunches on the square. On the other side, the First National Bank building loomed 34 stories over her head. It housed not only the financial institution, but also the offices of a large and powerful law firm. At the top was the exclusive Bienville Club. Across the street diagonally from this preacher was another bank, with more lawyers, more offices. It was where I worked on one of the upper floors as legal assistant for a Presbyterian attorney.

Two blocks away, to the east, lay the Port of Mobile, where one might see ships from many nations anchored, taking aboard or unloading their cargoes. On one particular day, there was an American tanker, and just beyond it, a Russian freighter. Down the street from the square, about two blocks, was the federal courthouse. No, this woman was not in a rural church. She was in the heart of a city’s financial, legal, and commercial district. She was proclaiming her version of the gospel where one could as easily see a homeless person in shabby clothes asking for help as encounter an investment banker in an expensive dress and heels on her way to a meeting, where there were sailors from all over the world on the streets, patronizing the waterfront’s sleazy bars.

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“Open Up!”

“‘Open Up’” Mark 7:24-37 © 9.9.18 Ordinary 23B PC(USA) Christian Education Celebration Sunday by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Today is Christian Education Celebration Sunday across the PC(USA). I couldn’t find a theme for the day or even a specific website, despite going to the link listed on the official planning calendar. So it’s a happy coincidence the lectionary gospel this morning provides a wonderful word for our reflection. “Ephphatha!” Jesus commanded. The church remembered and preserved what Jesus actually said, in his own language, Aramaic, but translated it into the common tongue of the Mediterranean region, Greek. It’s quite a mouthful in that language, but in English it’s simply “be opened” or “open up”!

On the surface, the story is a typical healing miracle of the sort we might find elsewhere in Mark or the other gospels and Acts or even in other ancient literature. It has all the traditional elements: someone asks Jesus to heal him or her, then our Lord gives a command which brings about an immediate cure. Jesus asks folks not to speak about it, but the more he asks, the more they spread the word. There is one unusual element in today’s account, namely, that the mechanics of the healing are described. Jesus spits. He touches the man’s tongue and puts his fingers in his ears. And as we’ve noticed, the actual Aramaic verb was kept. Someone once called it a “power word,” whatever that means.

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Keeping the Meaning

“Keeping the Meaning” Mark 7:1-23 © 9.2.18 Ordinary 22B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

In the 1980s, when I was working on my Doctor of Ministry from Columbia Seminary, I had to participate in a program called “Clinical Pastoral Education,” usually known as “CPE.” I became a hospital chaplain twice a week, traveling from Montevallo, AL, where I was a pastor, to Birmingham to work at Baptist Medical Center Montclair. The training included reflection on ministry with usually highly critical supervisors; writing papers called “verbatims,” which as the name implies were word-for-word summaries of visits with patients; and being “on call” overnight, spending the night in the hospital and getting up at a moment’s notice to offer pastoral care in case there was a death. And, of course, there was classroom instruction, a significant portion of which had to do with medical practices. Infection control, for instance. That’s where we learned the proper way to wash our hands in a hospital. As those of you who are medical professionals know, there’s a ritual or procedure for this task, having to do with the time to dispense towels and how you turn the faucet on and off, etc. It’s all designed to ensure that everything possible has been done to protect patients from germs passed on by visitors and hospital personnel.

The ancient Jews also had their procedures for washing hands—and cups and plates and kettles. They could have coined the saying “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” Except in their case, cleanliness was godliness. There was a whole body of tradition and regulations about what was acceptable and unacceptable, clean and unclean. The tradition had begun in the Bible, but since the first rules had been written, they had been added to over and over. So now, by Jesus’ day, there was a long list of things people were supposed to do to stay what we call “ritually clean.” Washing your hands before eating was one of them.

The original purpose of the regulations was good and important. In our day, of course, we think of washing our hands, utensils, and cookware as necessary and reasonable, the way to stay healthy. And maybe that was part of the purpose for the practice in the ancient world, too. But the ritual was about more than staying germ-free, which in any case they had no idea about. Rather, the priests wanted to remind the people even in the midst of their daily activities that they were to be holy like God. They were supposed to be people who acted better and differently than their pagan neighbors. Every time they washed dishes or bathed or whatever, they could be reminded that they were set apart, special. Even the big body of extra regulations had the same purpose. It wasn’t just pointless, stupid law to make life hard.

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Safe House

“Safe House” Psalm 84 © 8.26.18 Ordinary 21B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Like you I’ve seen my fair share of bird nests, whether in person or in pictures. Susan and I found an abandoned cardinal nest, for example, when we were taking some limbs off a tree in our front yard a couple of Saturdays ago. Some nests are neat, some sloppy and ill-constructed; some smaller, like the hummingbird’s, some very large, like the hawk’s or the eagle’s. Some are in trees or thick bushes; others in houses or a hole in a wall. But whatever their differences, every one of them has been someplace the birds considered safe. Even the dove who built her nest in our gutter next to the downspout thought her babies would be secure.

When the psalmist writes that “even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord…,” he’s no doubt thinking of this instinctive insistence of birds on safety for their young. The house of God is a safe place. And not only for birds. As a hymn writer paraphrases: “Beneath your care the sparrow finds place for peaceful rest/to keep her young in safety the swallow finds a nest./So, Lord, my King Almighty, your love will shelter me/beneath your wings of mercy my dwelling place will be” (“How Lovely is Your Dwelling,” Psalter Hymnal). Its safety is one thing, an important thing, that makes the house of God such a good place to be.

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The Way of Discernment

“The Way of Discernment” 1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:1-15 © 8.19.18 Ordinary 20B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Who of us at one time or another has not felt overwhelmed and even frightened at the enormity of a task before us, whether home repairs or renovation; a major life change, like starting a family or beginning a new job or retiring; figuring out how to pay for our share of mounting medical bills and prescription costs; or even how to attack the weeds that have taken over our lawn and flower beds? We scarcely know where to start or what to do.

The Old Testament text for the morning presents King Solomon feeling similarly overwhelmed three years into his reign. He rules a vast empire, the greatest Israel ever knew, stretching from the Euphrates in present day Iraq and Syria to the border of Egypt. One could either describe the realm as a huge, richly textured tapestry of customs, religions, and languages or else a confusing patchwork so complicated that governing it was like herding cats. How could any one man hope to be up to the task of either honoring and respecting or else controlling and pacifying so many different people?

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Emotional Mechanics

“Emotional Mechanics” 2 Samuel 18:1-15, 33 © 8.12.18 Ordinary 19B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

When I was a little boy, I delighted in taking things apart, mainly my toys. Trouble was, I couldn’t put them back together again. So, with my hopelessly disassembled plaything in hand, I would go to my mama, wanting her to restore the plane or truck to its former glory. Later on, when I was a little older, and constantly mixed up and anxious, it wasn’t toys but tattered feelings and dashed expectations I took to Mama. Whatever the problem, she was the one who could fix things, I thought.

If I cried to Mama, King David ran to his commanders Joab, Ittai, and Abishai. He wanted someone to rescue him from the outcome of his actions. Or should I say, inaction.

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The Magnet of Love

“The Magnet of Love” John 6:22-35, 41-51 © 8.5.18 Ordinary 18B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Canadian pop and country singer k.d.lang’s first hit in the early ‘90s was entitled “Constant Craving.” In one line, she mused: “Maybe a great magnet pulls all souls towards truth or maybe it is life itself that feeds wisdom to its youth.” What lang wondered about and didn’t or couldn’t name, our Lord and the gospel writer are certain of. There is indeed One who like a cosmic magnet draws humanity to life and truth, and that’s the God who sent his Son Jesus among us.

C.S. Lewis once spoke of his conversion as his having been “dragged kicking and screaming to the altar.” That famous writer may speak the language of coercion, but the text and other witnesses do not. The scholastics, theologians of an earlier day, talked about “irresistible grace,” a notion distorted by less capable minds into the taking away of choice in our dealings with God, as if he comes to dwell within us whether we wish it or not. Grace is indeed irresistible, but only because what God offers us is such a wonderful delight that we want it more than anything. Only because we’re touched by someone who captures our imaginations and envelopes us with love beyond our dreams. Only because his teaching is so life-giving and life-enhancing. The God whose love we know in Christ is no sinister force, no giant gaslighting scam artist, drawing us in with a web of lies and deceit, capturing us in a place and a relationship from which there’s no escape. We bond with this God and he with us because of the sheer joy of it, the deep sense of giftedness and peace that’s ours when we know God in Christ.

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