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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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“If You Want to Be First”

“‘If You Want to Be First’” Mark 9:30-37; James 3:13-4:3, 11-17 © 9.23.18 Ordinary 25B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

It’s a rather typical day in heaven. A number of people are waiting for St. Peter to open the pearly gates, and of course, he’s taking an eternity. Some of those in line begin to talk with each other about their lives on Earth and what that experience might presage about their status in Heaven. “Well,” says one, “I was a pastor for 40 years. During that time, I baptized over 2000 people. Every church to which I was called grew tremendously in every way. Surely I will be our Lord’s favorite.” “Yes,” says another, “but I spent my entire life on the mission field, in what were often nearly unbearable conditions, toiling long hours as I helped the suffering and tried to show the love of Christ. Surely I will be first in Jesus’ heart.” Yet a third pipes up: “Your deeds are no doubt commendable, and I will admit that both of you in a figurative way have given your lives for the kingdom. But I was murdered by extremists because I was working for peace and justice, serving the least of these my brothers and sisters, the poor and the downtrodden. I know Jesus will honor me above all for my martyrdom.” A fourth person near the back of the line has been listening to the good-natured competition. “But,” says he, “didn’t Jesus say the last shall be first?” At that, all gathered there before the gates raise a chorus: “I want to be last! I want to be last!” And Jesus asked them: “What were you arguing about on the way?”

A couple is experiencing serious marital discord. In fact, they’re on the verge of divorce. But they decide to give the relationship one last chance and go to a marriage counselor. She notices in the course of their conversation that the man and woman seem extremely stiff and reserved, both with each other and with the counselor. Wanting to lighten the mood, and introduce an element of playfulness, the therapist says: “You know, you two are the second most serious couple I know.” “Oh?” they respond in unison. “Who’s the first?” And Jesus said: “What were you arguing about on the way?”

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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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