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The Sparrow and the Cross

“The Sparrow and the Cross” Genesis 21:1-21; Matthew 10:16-39 © 6.25.17 Ordinary 12A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

“What are you worth?” If someone were to ask you or me that question, which would actually be rather rude, I suppose, unless it came from our financial planner, we might immediately begin mentally or on paper to list our assets and then subtract our liabilities, arriving at a figure known as “net worth.” On the other hand, “Are you worth anything?” probably with an emphasis on the last word, and said in a mean, sarcastic tone, is about self-esteem, what we can or can’t do, our value to someone else. “You’re not worth it” is a cruel assessment that the annoyance, the effort, the emotional turmoil our habits, opinions, and neediness cause another are simply too big an investment of time and energy.

How do we measure the worth of a human life? After 9/11, attorney Kenneth Feinberg had that task. He and the Fund he chaired had to determine how much money each victim’s family should get. He factored in age, dependents, life insurance, and income and earning potential had they lived. The amounts thus determined varied dramatically, from $250,000 for blue-collar workers to as much as $7.1 million for executives. But Feinberg later wondered about such calculations. He had accepted the legal premise that lives were worth different amounts in financial terms, but he now found that idea in conflict with what he called his “‘growing belief in the equality of all life’” (quoted in Liddy Barlow, The Christian Century, June 7, 2017: 20).

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The Preposterous Gospel

“The Preposterous Gospel” Genesis 18:1-15 © 6.18.17 Ordinary 11A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

On a day much like any other, Abraham sat in the door of his tent, half asleep from the sweltering heat of a desert at noonday. Maybe he would give in to the tug of gravity on his eyelids and take a nap. Sarah, inside their home, was doing some chores. But then she, too, would lie down for a siesta.

What happened next made Abraham decide he must have nodded off as he sat there looking out over the landscape. Otherwise he would have noticed the approach of three strangers who suddenly stood before him. A moment ago they were not there; now they were, as if they had stepped through a portal from some other dimension. Who were these men? How they did they get here? Where were they from? We find out later that they are divine, but for now neither Abraham nor Sarah knows that.

Anyway, such questions of identity and what they were doing traveling in the heat of the day were really irrelevant. They were visitors to Abraham’s home, and his obligation was to show hospitality. Bread to strengthen his guests for their journey. Water to slake their thirst. A cool spot beneath the shade of the oaks.

But then, after promising a simple repast, Abraham decided to treat his guests to choice veal, milk, and yogurt, in addition to some of Sarah’s wonderful pita bread. Then, so Abraham could meet their every need, he stood by like a slave while the three men ate.

Much has been made of the patriarch’s hospitality, usually along the lines of how we encounter God when we welcome strangers. In our day when we fear the other so profoundly, that’s a relevant message. And preachers like me are also fond of pointing out how Abraham wasn’t doing anything unusual when the three showed up. No ritual or prayer, no sacrifice or songs. Just sitting around watching TV, so to speak. There is holiness in the ordinary.

But as tempting as it is to ring the changes on both those themes, I have to point out that Abraham’s hospitality was simply what was expected by his culture. As one writer puts it, he served the guests because “it was what you did” (http://gmcelroy.typepad.com/desertscribblings/2008/06/june-15-2008—fifth-sunday-after-pentecost.html). And if the day were ordinary until this point, it was about to become anything but.

Everything quickly gets turned upside down. Guest becomes host. The familiar becomes strange. Resignation gives way to rejoicing. It’s on the unexpected, the crazy, the incongruous, and the surprising that this story turns.

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The Great Commission

“The Great Commission” Matthew 28:16-20 © 6.11.17 Trinity A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

When I was a student at the University of Georgia, I was an obnoxious know-it-all. (Obviously, things haven’t changed much in 45 years!) I particularly delighted in challenging professors in humanities classes, a practice for which I was praised by peers in my anti-intellectual fundamentalist circle. (We said Ph.D. stood for “post hold digger.”) My religion professor, as I recall, put me told in no uncertain terms; I’m sure he’d heard it all before from arrogant kids like me. The philosophy teacher, though, was more subtle in giving me my comeuppance. An exam came back with this comment: “Some small sins of omission and one grievous sin of commission.”

Except in that pairing, the last word is pronounced “kǝ-mish’-ǝn.” It’s a term with many meanings and uses, both a noun and a verb, all of which are related somehow to action and/or authorization. An independent commission, without a partisan agenda, seeks the truth. A commission of Presbytery closes a church or ordains a minister. A ship or an officer in the military is commissioned. So might be a work of art or a symphony. Somebody is charged with the commission of a crime. “Out of commission” means a vehicle, for example, is not fit for use anymore.

By being commissioned, a group of people or an individual is given authority to act by some delegating body, assigned a certain task to carry out on another’s behalf, whether the government or the church or a patron. There is or should also be a sense of personal investment in the project; “commission” is related to “commit.” Whether committing a crime, serving on or earning a commission or being guilty of sins of commission, as different as those activities are, we are accountable, responsible.

All this can inform our understanding of our Lord’s last command to his disciples, according to Matthew. Since the Scofield Reference Bible of 1909, the last three verses of this gospel have been known as “the Great Commission,” a term taken up by Christians all along the theological spectrum, not just the Dispensationalists for whom Scofield wrote. 

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Seeing Visions, Dreaming Dreams

“Seeing Visions, Dreaming Dreams” Joel 2:23-32, Acts 2:1-21 © 6.4.17 Pentecost A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

It was an event so rare, even unprecedented, that not even the oldest among them could remember anything like it. Each member of every living generation knew they had witnessed history; they would share the tale as a cautionary lesson with those yet to be born. Such a crisis might be averted in the future if everyone would honor their commitment to the Lord.

The devastating locust plague and drought that had prompted such reflection were now over, and the people looked forward to better days. Yahweh promised abundant rain, plentiful food, and a bright future, free of the shame that had marked the community.

But that wasn’t all. A great revolution was coming, a time when old cultic barriers would come down, priestly orders would be obsolete, and everyone from greatest to least, regardless of gender or age, would be filled with the enlivening breath of God. Dreams and visions, the means of direct access to the very mind and heart of Yahweh, would be the common experience of young and old; prophecy, the sharing of the word of God, would be the task and privilege of men and women alike. The restoration of land and crops was expected to be paralleled by a blossoming of vital spirituality in everyone. The crisis would be followed by jubilation, then awakening.

Joel’s tale of turning and revival from the 5th century BC was for living generations in his day and for those yet to come; it formed their memory and inspired their hope. It can do much the same for us. This ancient text seems remarkably relevant to our own time, and especially today as we focus on two generations of youth and young adults in the reception of confirmands, the recognition of a high school graduate, and the welcoming of a rising college senior to start the summer music series.

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If It Were One Minute to Midnight

“If It Were One Minute to Midnight” 1 Peter 3:8-9, 13-15a; 4:7-19; 5:5b-11 © 5.28.17 Easter 7A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

In 1945, a group of Manhattan Project scientists founded the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, saying that they “could not remain aloof from the consequences of their work.” In 1947, their famous Doomsday Clock first appeared on the cover of the magazine. As the Bulletin’s website says, the clock symbolized “the urgency of the nuclear dangers that the magazine’s founders—and the broader scientific community—[were] trying to convey to the public and political leaders around the world.”

The clock has varied between 17 minutes to midnight in 1991 and two minutes to the final hour in 1953. For the past two years, it’s been set at three minutes before 12, the closest it had been since the early 1980s. At the beginning of this year, the hands were advanced 30 seconds. The Bulletin’s Science and Security Board warned that the danger of global catastrophe had increased from even the dire situation of 2015 and 2016 (http://thebulletin.org/timeline; http://thebulletin.org/sites/default/files/Final%202017%20Clock%20Statement.pdf).

The author of the late first century epistle known as 1 Peter would find the scientists to be too optimistic. For him, the end of all things is imminent, just around the corner, approaching at warp speed. It’s one minute to midnight, and he wants his readers to be ready.

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The Mystery of Godliness

“The Mystery of Godliness” 1 Timothy 3:14-4:10 © 5.21.17 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Every afternoon of the work week, our miniature dachshund Chloe sits on the arm of the loveseat in our living room and waits for Susan to come home from the office. Then, every evening, she snuggles down between the arm of the couch and Susan’s left side. Or if she’s in a different mood, she curls up in Susan’s lap with a throw pillow over her. On the weekends, Chloe is at Susan’s heels everywhere Susan goes. If we’re outside, and Susan just goes around the corner of the house where Chloe can’t see her, the dog stands at the gate between the back yard and the carport and whines until Susan returns.

Chloe’s devotion is an example of what we might call “doggieness” or “dogliness” but in humans, when directed toward the Deity, we would term “godliness.” It’s passionate loyalty, the desire to be with the one we love, the distress we feel when God isn’t near. That sort of godliness is expressed by the biblical terms qeosebeia (theosebeia) and qeosebhV (theosebās). We think of the medieval saint caught up in ecstasy, the martyr willing to give his or her life rather than deny Christ, the African-American preacher I saw at a funeral who at sometime during his sermon entered another realm and had to be brought back down to earth by two colleagues.

The great 20th century poet Rainer Maria Rilke put down in rhyme such deep self-giving to God. In The Book of Pilgrimage, he cried out: “Extinguish my eyes, I’ll go on seeing you./Seal my ears, I’ll go on hearing you./And without feet I can make my way to you,/without a mouth I can swear your name./Break off my arms, I’ll take hold of you/with my heart as with a hand./Stop my heart, and my brain will start to beat./And if you consume my brain with fire,/I’ll feel you burn in every drop of my blood” (II.7 in Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, translators, Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God: 163).

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The Way, the Truth, and the Life

“The Way, the Truth, and the Life” John 14:1-14 © 5.14.17 Easter 5A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

I sit in my tiny office, a converted church library, my Bible open to the gospel text we heard a few minutes ago. As a fresh-out-of-seminary associate pastor, I’m allowed to preach once every six weeks or so, and to tell you the truth, I had so little life experience, read so narrowly, and labored so obsessively over every word that it took me that long to come up with what to say. I had never heard of the lectionary, so I relied on “God laying the Word on my heart,” as I would have said then.

This particular day, the Spirit spoke through John 14:6. Upon reading Jesus’ words, I had an epiphany. Or to use Martin Luther’s phrase about his discovery of justification by faith, I felt I had been “altogether born again.” I realized that I had been worshipping the Bible, not Jesus. And that was life-changing. It was the day I stopped being a fundamentalist.

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