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The Importance of Punctuation

“The Importance of Punctuation” Genesis 45:1-15; 50:15-21 © 8.20.17 Ordinary 20A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

There’s a poster and meme easily found with Google that reminds us of the importance of punctuation. The pictures and drawings vary, but the first line always reads: “Let’s eat Grandma.” The next says: “Let’s eat, Grandma.” The final sentence proclaims: “Punctuation saves lives.”

That’s funny and true, but for me it’s been Susan who has taught me that proper punctuation is vital. For most of our thirty-six years of marriage, she’s been an editor and communications specialist and has helped me improve my writing and speaking, while coaching me on the use of everything from an apostrophe to a virgule. Sometimes she and I lament the sad state of grammar and usage in papers and magazines we read.

But even if we know a pretty good bit about commas and em dashes and so on, there’s something else more substantive about punctuation I hope Susan and I are both continuing to learn, and I trust you are as well. It’s this: sometimes when life appears to put a full stop, a hard break—a period—in a sentence of our story, there is an overruling divine hand that wields a pen with ink red as the blood of Jesus, replacing the period with a comma. Life goes on. The end is not yet. Or as the common saying goes: “This too shall pass,” though the passage may be through many sorrows, toils, and tears. God, who stands beyond and above time, sees past, present, and future all at once—our big picture—and invites us to trust that even our suffering or that of our families, friends, and neighbors is not in vain, but somehow is a life-saving comma, a brief pause, a transition, in the larger scheme of things.

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The Power of One

“The Power of One” Genesis 37:1-4, 12-36 © 8.13.17 Ordinary 19A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

“One is the loneliest number.” So goes the old song by Three Dog Night.

But if one is a lonely number, it’s also a powerful one.

You can’t be serious, someone might object. What can one person do, especially against gigantic and faceless bureaucracies, global problems, overwhelming odds or rampant evil?

What can one do? There are plenty of negative examples that ought to convince us of the power of that number. Ask the Jews of the Holocaust whether Adolf Hitler, one man, was a force to be reckoned with. What about the bully who makes school or work a nightmare? The shooter, the suicide bomber, the abuser, the distracted or drunk driver who changes lives forever by victimization, assault, injury, and death? The ruthless and amoral or incompetent and stupid politician who leads a country down the road to disaster? The unforgiving and demanding parent for whom nothing the kids do is good enough? The power-hungry and lying preacher who foments fear and its offspring hatred in his or her congregation? One person can make a big difference.

If one is such a powerful number to do evil, why is it not for good as well? Do we believe evil is stronger than good?

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“Grits” Matthew 14:13-33 Ordinary 18A © 8.6.17 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

There’s a scene in the old movie Bruce Almighty where Jim Carrey as Bruce and Morgan Freeman as God are talking as they stand on water in the middle of a lake. When their conversation is finished, God glides away without making a ripple, while Bruce, now endowed with divine abilities, sloshes toward the shore, but still without sinking.

The film assumes we know the gospel story of Jesus walking on water. It’s a divine thing to do or at least something we might expect from a superhero or a person in command of incredible technology. Even my first college roommate Charles, who was not a believer by any stretch of the imagination, knew the claim about Jesus. He denied it, though, thinking that the text must have been corrupted. Instead of Jesus walking on the sea, it really said he walked by the sea. Well, where would have been the miracle or the display of divine power in that?

I would guess that those who know the story of Jesus walking on water also may recall that in this gospel, unlike in Mark and John, Peter got out of the boat and hydro-ambulated for a little while himself. His experience has become a favorite metaphor in classic evangelical Christianity. The chaotic sea becomes sin that threatens to suck us down to death. The wind and the waves are the troubles of life that distract us from gazing steadily at Jesus. Our Lord reaches out his hand to rescue us in our fear and distress from the dark and threatening deep, and all is suddenly well. Peter is held up as a model believer because of his willingness to risk having nothing solid under his feet if that means he can be with Jesus and attempt great things in his name. There was even a Christian self-help book published at the beginning of this century titled If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat (John Ortberg, 2001). Since then, a participants’ guide and DVD have become available, in addition to the original work. For the author, water-walking is “a picture of doing with God’s help what I could never do on my own.” Get out there, do mission, focus on Jesus, and he will take care of you!

There’s just one problem. As an Episcopal priest friend once reminded me, Jesus doesn’t commend Peter.

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Southern Bread

“Southern Bread” Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 © 7.30.17 Ordinary 17A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

When I was growing up in south Georgia, there was a popular TV commercial for a particular brand of white sandwich bread. It featured an animated character—a Confederate colonel complete with white goatee and gold braid. He would say in an exaggerated accent: “I’d even go North for Southern Bread.” (“Ah’d even go Nawth for Suth’n Bread.”)

The advertisers, of course, wanted us to believe that their product was of such superior quality that a gentleman born and bred on Tara or some other plantation would leave the red clay and beautiful hoop-skirted belles of Georgia (“Jawja”) or the distinctive delights of any of the other states in our part of the country and go to New York or Chicago or Boston if those Yankee cities were the only places to get his beloved bread. The cost in energy, time, money, homesickness, and culture shock might be great, even prohibitive. But the taste of just a morsel of Southern Bread on the palate was worth any sacrifice.

No doubt each of us could identify something we possess that cost us as dearly as a trip north (“nawth”) by a Confederate officer. But the meaning it gives us, the pleasure it brings, the mere joy of having it, the memory of the adventure and surprise of finding it—all this and more make the investment of our resources seem paltry by comparison.

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Axis Mundi

Axis Mundi” Genesis 28:10-22 © 7.23.17 Ordinary 16A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Back in the day, before there were giant online retailers like Sweetwater, Musician’s Friend, and Reverb, if you wanted to buy an instrument you had to go to a brick and mortar store, whether a chain like Guitar Center or more likely a local shop. There you could try out a guitar way beyond your price range, feel the weight of a Les Paul electric before Gibson put chambers in it or crank a Mesa Boogie tube amp to ear-bleeding levels. One thing you were forbidden to do in many of those places, though, was to play “Stairway to Heaven.” Amateur guitarists deciding on an instrument had picked the acoustic opening of that iconic rock song by Page and Plant so much that shop owners were sick of it, and put signs on the wall banning it from the premises.

Let’s suppose Jacob had gone into his favorite store, “Seraphim Strings,” to buy an inuk, an instrument similar to his multioud, but with frets and steel strings. He would have been disappointed that he couldn’t try out his purchase with what had become his theme song after Bethel. Not the lyrics, of course; the stories are very different. I mean the reminder in the title of a life-changing experience he had had, along with the way the song develops, opens up, emotionally and musically as it takes the listener on a journey into another realm. As the song puts it, Jacob’s shadows were taller than his soul, but there was still time to change the road he was on (

How did he get to the place he named “Bethel”? By his own fault, by his own most grievous fault, as the old prayer of confession puts it. He is now a fugitive, on the run from his brother Esau, who with just cause wanted to kill him. You recall that when they were younger men, Jacob had taken advantage of Esau’s momentary hunger and extorted the birthright from the older sibling for a bowl of stew. Then, when their father was old and blind, Jacob had used a trick to get Isaac to confer Esau’s blessing on him instead.

So he is now under self-imposed exile from home and family. But Jacob’s flight is not without direction or purpose. He’s also going back to the home country to find a wife from his mother’s family, which is another story.

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Bad Judgment, Odd Choices

“Bad Judgment, Odd Choices” Genesis 25:19-34; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 © 7.16.17 Ordinary 15A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

They were a perfect family. Mom and Dad, now in their later years, still held hands in public, and everybody commented that they were such a sweet older couple. The two sons had put aside their childhood differences and combined their talents to open “Red,” an upscale bistro in the historic district. It featured fresh, locally sourced game and fish, creatively prepared, with organic vegetables and fruits from area farmers. On Sundays, when the restaurant was closed, they could always be counted on to be present in worship, often having invited a couple of guests. Even the young men listened intently to the sermon instead of secretly checking social media feeds on their phones, even though the message tended to be long, boring, and rambling, full of impenetrable logic and obscure words. When the service concluded, they pumped the preacher’s hand and exchanged pleasantries before heading home for a leisurely Sunday dinner.

Well, not so much. The real story has Isaac and Rebekah allied with their favored son against each other. Dad liked Esau, because he was a huge, hairy hulk of a man who loved to hunt and fish and bring Isaac some choice venison tenderloin to roast. Esau was happiest on his four-wheeler or working on the restoration of his vintage Chevy pickup while he listened to Eric Church and Chris Stapleton. On a Saturday night, he always had a pretty young woman on his arm. At other times, he would get his buddies together in his man cave to watch sports on his 80-inch TV while they enjoyed buckets of KFC wings and tenders and a case of PBR, iced down just right.

On the other hand, Jacob was a quiet boy who mostly stayed to himself. Rebekah favored him, because he was a homebody and loved to cook, experimenting with spices and herbs. He had just had his recipe for lentil stew published in Middle Eastern Living, as well as in this year’s Best of Canaan. The video of his latest psalm, on which he had accompanied himself on an exotic-sounding electric multioud, an instrument of eleven strings, had gone viral. Rebekah couldn’t understand Isaac’s love for Esau, whom she considered brutish and vulgar or why such a man should get the inheritance because of a few minutes’ difference in the time of their birth. Jacob was much more worthy, talented, handsome, and holy. And he was smart and patient. She was sure that at the right time he would cook up some way to claim what should be his.

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Representing Christ

“Representing Christ” 2 Corinthians 5:14-6:2, Matthew 10:5-15, 40-42 © 7.9.17 Ordinary 14A (texts for Ordinary 13A) by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

When Mama died five years ago, it became my responsibility as executor of her estate to sell the house that she and Daddy had lived in for decades. What a job that was, for the usual reasons plus some unique to my family. When finally Amanda, the estate’s Realtor®, had found a buyer in the tough Albany, GA market, and the closing was scheduled, I wasn’t going to take two days off work, spend the night, eat out, and drive a total of 16 hours to be at an attorney’s office for 30 minutes. So I followed the standard practice of giving Amanda a limited power of attorney (POA) to act in my stead. She was Tom Cheatham, executor, for the purposes of signing the documents; what she did, I did.

In a more general way, while Mama was still living, I had a POA to act on her behalf in all sorts of ways. The key language was: “granting and giving unto my said attorney-in-fact full power and authority to do and perform every act…as fully as I might or could do if personally present….” I didn’t have to go back and consult Mama at every turn; I did and could do what I thought was right and proper and necessary as if I were my mother.

On a corporate level, in the church for example, there are committees and commissions. The former can only make recommendations to the body that appointed or elected them; they can’t act on their own. The latter, on the other hand, have authority rather like that granted individuals in a POA. When teaching elders are ordained, for example, the presbytery appoints a commission to act on its behalf. A handful of people hold a service and lay on hands, and not only is the man or woman ordained for a congregation or the presbytery, but for the whole PC(USA). Something similar is done to close a church, hear a disciplinary case or deal with a conflicted situation. We also have three permanent commissions in any presbytery: the Commission on Ministry, the Commission on Preparation for Ministry, and the Permanent Judicial Commission.

Governments might similarly empower diplomats to act on their behalf under various titles and in particular situations. All these sorts of arrangements, whether POAs, commissions or envoys, would fall under the ancient heading of the shaliach or personal representative. In Jewish law of Jesus’ day, a man’s duly authorized messenger “is as the man himself.” What the shaliach did or said was considered not his deed or word, but that of the one who sent him. The one who received and welcomed the shaliach aligned himself with all the messenger stood for, including the values, obligations, and traditions of his family, tribe, and faith.

Jesus assigns the status of shaliach to his disciples. They are his commissioners, attorneys-in-fact, spokespersons with his authority. He has been sent, given a mission, by his Father, and he now empowers the disciples to carry it out. So whoever welcomes those who come in his name in fact welcomes Jesus, with all he stands for. As Paul said in Galatians, they are received “as Christ Jesus,” and as the apostle put it in 2 Corinthians, God makes his appeal through them. They speak on behalf of Christ.

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