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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Monday, December 22, 2003

05-Ceve-W-C Christmas Eve 2003
Luke 2:1-20
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
December 24, 2003

The Christmas Story as a whole, as told by the Apostle Luke, in Chapter 2, verses 1-20, reading from the King James Version:

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

There’s something special about hearing those words. They sound so majestic read from the King James. Jesus is a “babe lying in a manger.” Mary is “espoused” and “great with child.” “And it came to pass,” is like the Bible’s, “Once upon a time.” The words themselves are a sign of peace and goodwill in a world that’s sore afraid.

I don’t know what tomorrow’s going to be like at your house. But I can guarantee you that by tomorrow afternoon, our house is going to look like Toys-R-Us opened a franchise in our living room. There’ll be ribbons popping and paper tearing, and lots of squealing. And then Kristen and the girls will wake up, and there’ll be even more popping and tearing and squealing. My big present this year is a new video camera, which, for practical reasons, I already have. My job will be recording the joyous mayhem, so late in the afternoon we can relive the morning, over and over and over. Christmas day is loud, Christmas day is wonderful, but it’s not anything like the little town of Bethlehem how still we see thee lie. Our Christmas rocks and rolls like Big Bird hopped up on too many D Cell batteries. The quiet, the peace, the magical words that, like Mary, we ponder in our hearts, come tonight. For a lot of us, Christmas Eve is Christmas. Christmas Eve is the Christmas of kings and of THE King.

Tonight is our time to take a deep breath, and to let Christmas fill our souls. Tonight is our time to be like the shepherds, to bask in the glory of the Lord shone around us. Tomorrow will bring a different kind of time. Tomorrow we’ll have gone our separate ways, and will be celebrating who knows how in the comfort of our own homes. But tonight we’re in the household of the King, gathered around his table, before a tree signed in his monograph, beside a cross crowned with his glory. May we all take a few moments to ponder these things in our hearts.

If you look around the sanctuary tonight, you may see many of the same people you expect to see every year, keeping tradition by sitting in the same pews they sit in every year. Which is good, because if you move around too much it really messes me up. You may see the faces of people you don’t know. Or people whose faces are familiar but whose name you can’t remember and it’s driving you crazy because you know they’re going to come up to you and you’re going to have to go, “Hi…. It’s so good to see you again, and Look! There’s Dennis McCurry!” On the night of the birth of our Savior, who brings forgiveness, even to people with faulty memory cells, we pause to remember HIS name, even if we can’t remember many others.

If you listen to the sounds of the sanctuary tonight, you may hear many of the same hymns and carols we sing every year, keeping tradition by letting us our songs employ and harking at the herald angels. Something I hadn’t noticed until this year is the hymns are about equally divided between songs about staying awake and songs about sleeping in peace. That’s appropriate for a night in which most parents are half-awake and most kids are only half-asleep. There’s so much about Christmas that can only be said in song. Even if we can’t carry a tune, the music of Christmas sings to our souls. The familiar scriptures, too, the same words we hear every year, keep the beat of God’s message in our hearts.

And, if you taste what Christ himself offers tonight…. Until recently, I had no idea how much candy kids can consume at Christmastime. Visions of sugarplums turn to nothing but plumb sugar-induced hallucinations. I’ve heard so many grown-up people say, “Well, I probably shouldn’t, but…” as they grab an extra slice of fudge. There’s so much sweetness to over-indulge in. No wonder there are so many hymns about the “Sweet little Jesus child.” What else could he be? But the meal Jesus prepares and invites us to share is more balanced. There’s sweetness in the grapes, but there’s sour in the dough of the bread. There’s sweetness in the birth, but sour in the sacrifice. Which is appropriate because another year of both sweet and sour is behind us, and another year of both is about to come. But tonight we stop to remember that Jesus is Lord over both the sweet and the sour. Jesus is Lord over our indulgence and our omission. In this time of so much rich food, and so many dreams of rich living, Jesus offers us simply himself in a humble taste of God’s kingdom.

Tomorrow morning Christmas will be here. But if you look, listen and taste – Christmas is here tonight, too. Because what’s here – because the heavenly Host here – is absolutely the true Spirit of Christmas. A lot of what we do is familiar, because we do it every year. We can thank our God that Jesus does the same things every year, too. Year in and year out, day in and day out, in the language of both kings and shepherds, Christ the Savior is born. And we can keep these things in our hearts, and ponder them all year long. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill to all.
Luke 01 39-45 Mary and Elizabeth
“The Sound of Home”
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
December 21, 2003

Today’s scripture marks a change in tone. In the past weeks, our scripture lessons have been about John the Baptist. John stood in the Jordan river and shouted at the people to “Repent!” from all their sinful ways. John had an angry tone.

I want pause for a minute to take a quick poll. How many of you have been to the mall in the past week? How many of you have been to a Wal-Mart? (doesn’t have to be a “super” Wal-Mart, any kind will do.) How many of you have been to the Post Office in the past week? How many of you have sat in extraordinarily long traffic or stood in extraordinarily long lines?

You, like John the Baptist, may have had an angry tone. You, also, may have wanted to shout at the people to “Repent!” (or something like that). I try not to use bad language in front of our daughters. Like most parents, I’d prefer they learn it from TV. So instead I do what I like to call the Marge Simpson Growl. Whenever Marge gets upset, instead of saying bad words, she growls like this: “Mrrrrrrr.” This time of year, the kids hear me going “Mrrrrrr” a lot, and even little Anna has learned to make the sound. Whether your angry sound is a growl or a curse upon the loins of other shoppers, I’m guessing that in these days most of us haven’t been too far from the tone of John the Baptist. If only in that respect, we’re in tune with scripture.

But now the tone of scripture takes a dramatic change. Now, after all the shouting, the scene changes from the crowded riverside to a place on the peaceful side of the hills, where there’s a tiny cottage at the end of a path. Instead of a big river, there’s a trickling stream just past the backyard. There’s a front porch and a couple of rockers. A little grove of olive trees on the side. It’s not much. But it’s the retirement home Elizabeth and Zechariah had been dreaming of all these years. Not having any kids, they were able to save a pretty fair amount. That is, not having any kids until, well, let’s just say Zechariah and Elizabeth were “surprised” when she turned up “with child.”

So now, instead of a wild-eyed prophet clothed in camel’s hair, we have a mother-to-be in an apron whose ties don’t reach all the way around anymore. Instead of splashing the sinful, her hands hold her lower back as she navigates around her small house that’s about to get a whole lot smaller. She’s trying to straighten up without bending over because her favorite little cousin Mary is coming for a visit. Seems like they’re both in the same predicament. One old, one young, but this being with child is uncharted water for both of them. Elizabeth would welcome a kindred soul who could talk without raising an eyebrow.

The tone of scripture has changed. From “Mrrrrrr,” it’s now the murmur of a lullaby. No more “Repent! Repent! You wretched sinners!” As we get nearer and nearer to Christmas, the word of God sounds more like, “Hush, little baby, don’t say a word….”

You see, God has more than one sound. The grown child of Elizabeth – angry, prophet John – shouts that Jesus is coming and we’d better get back home and change our tone. And yes, we need to remember that God growls at us. Growls at our stupidity. Growls at how we defiantly stand in God’s way. But Mary and Elizabeth are prophets, too. The tone of their prophesy is the song of a mother’s love. And just as Elizabeth greeted Mary and welcomed her into her house, the closer we get to Christmas, the closer we get to hearing the prophetic voice of God gently say, “Welcome home.”

There was a child in Elizabeth’s tummy that leaped for joy at the sound of Mary’s greeting. I know a lot of children that leap for joy at Christmas. They’ll also leap for candy, leap for presents – this time of year, they’re just leaping. Lord help the school teachers who try to accomplish any kind of lesson plan. The answer to the eternal question, “Can you please sit still?” is, “No.” No they can’t. They’re children and as long as there’s the hope of anything more than a lump of coal in their stockings, they’re going to leap and squirm. That’s simply the nature of kids.

It wouldn’t be too far of a leap to say that within each of us, there’s a child who wants to jump for joy over Christmas. We’re all just kids at heart, and in our hearts we know these are special days. It shows in the little extra love that goes into the cookies. It shows in the proliferation of light-up plastic Santas in the yard. Christmas is time to let loose of the child within, to not worry so much about the parts of us that shake when we laugh like a bowl full of jelly. Sing louder, laugh harder, let the child leap for joy within you.

But within each of us there’s also a longing for a place called “home.” A home where we’re the long-lost relative welcomed back. A home where we’re understood. A home where our sins – while not overlooked – are seen in perspective. A home where the good within us shines. More than the child within, it’s the soul within us that longs for the gentle prophesy of Christmas. Christmas is time to let loose of the soul within. Love like nobody’s watching. Give like you don’t need anything. Hope that tomorrow’s going to be alright. Expect your distant relative Jesus to leap for joy when you show up at his door – home – just in time for the holidays. You are God’s child. And it’s simply the nature of children to want to leap at Christmas.

Where is home, and how do you get there? In other times people called this home the Kingdom of God. And God’s kingdom is hard to see in a world that goes “Mrrrrr.” It’s hard for us to see God when that’s the tone of life. Home, kingdom – whatever the name, it’s not a place, really. It’s more of a feeling. And so our prophets of the kingdom are now two expectant mothers, people whose feelings are unusually intense. These women are sharing the same wavelength, literally sharing the same home for a while.

This is the time of year when a lot of us are going home. We drive, we fly. We visit the places and the people around whom we tried to grow up. We reminisce about silly stuff – about the time a brother hit us over the head with a turkey leg, or the year the cat pulled down the Christmas tree. But it’s never quite the same, is it? We’re older and wider. I mean wiser. And wider. It’s easier to see the cracks in the walls. We may associate home with people or a place, but in our hearts we know what we’re looking for is more than any person or place could be.

To get to the soul’s home, which is the kingdom of the heavenly Father, we can’t drive, we can’t fly. We call what we’re after this time of year the Christmas Spirit, after all. It’s not the Christmas Action or the Christmas Thought. It’s not the Christmas Accomplishment or even the Christmas Present. Not really. Although we often act as though it is. But we know better. If accomplishments, actions, thoughts and presents are all we’re after, we’ll most likely enter and leave the season going, “Mrrrrr.” Because no matter what we do or act or think or accomplish, there’s always something more that we could have done, or acted, or thought, or accomplished. No matter how hard we try, we know these aren’t the way. And so we leave the season no closer to home than when we began.

In a sense, a heavenly home has to find us. And so the great act of prophetic faith in today’s scripture is simply this: Elizabeth opens the door to Mary and says hello. In that alone, scripture says, her soul was filled with the Holy Spirit, and the child within her leaped for joy. Elizabeth’s best gift to Mary – her blessing – was these words: “Blessed is she who believed there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” When the tone of your life changes… when your heart shines with the light of hope, peace, joy and love… when you simply believe there is fulfillment in what God has spoken to you… you ARE blessed. You may not be completely home, but you’re a lifetime closer than when you began.

So the little cottage in the hills may not have looked like much, but it was home enough for God, and God’s son, and God’s Holy Spirit. When the evening came, and all the chores were done, Elizabeth and Mary may have lowered themselves into the front porch rocking chairs with a combined “Mrrrrr.” And then looked at each other and laughed. What a sight they must have been, these two unlikely mothers-to-be – one too old, one too young, the most improbable prophets of God’s word. They looked up at the stars and they smelled the breeze. They felt the promise of God moving within them. And to the creaking rhythm of their chairs, they began to hum. If you or I had been there, we might have said it sounded like a lullaby. Or a Christmas carol. Or maybe just a tune about how good it is to be home.

Thursday, December 04, 2003

Luke 3:1-6
02-Ad2-P-Year B
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
December 7, 2003

The scripture today is all about God’s messenger. God is sending a messenger to tell the people to shape up. This is a voice like the people haven’t heard in years, the sound of a prophet echoing out of the wilderness, his voice bouncing around the temple and off the walls of the buildings where Caiaphas and Lysanias work. “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make his paths straight! Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth. And all flesh shall see the salvation of God!” The messenger of God scared the daylights out of the people. And they came to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins.

The weeks of Advent – better known as Christmas Season – have become a season of baptism here at Lake Hills. Goodness sakes, we’re “having a baby done” every other Sunday, no exaggeration. And that’s actually very appropriate. The messenger of God who prepared the way for the coming of Christ was John the Baptist, not John the Presbyterian. I think John would be proud of us for thinking outside the box.

Whether or not we’re in the Christmas spirit, we’re certainly in the baptizing spirit. John would tell us that we’re getting it right. John would tell us that decorating the house and mailing out cards… John would tell us that making lists for Santa and baking cookies… John would tell us that trimming trees and wrapping packages… John would tell us that all this might be OK, but it’s not the point. John would tell us that if we REALLY want to get ready for Christmas, we ought to keep the water flowing. Baptize those babies. Baptize your house. Baptize yourselves because Jesus Christ is on the way. The spirit of Christmas might be chestnuts roasting on an open fire, but the spirit of Advent is the sound of splashing waters, the sound of sins being confessed, and the sound of God’s messenger echoing off the walls.

If you leave here today and travel Alcoa Highway, you will see the signs that our neighbors the Baptists put up each week. “Prepare to stop!” they say. Which, in some ways, might be a summary of what they just heard in church. I don’t think they intended these signs in the theological sense. I think they’re more concerned about traffic, and hats off to them for achieving the miracle of any kind of traffic control on that highway of the devil. John the Baptist wanted us to prepare the King’s Highway. John wants us to prepare to stop, to stop driving ourselves crazy and to stop driving God crazy. John is calling for the miracle of traffic control for our souls.

Your spirit, my spirit – has a disease. The disease is sin. Sin causes us dis-ease, causes us un-ease, causes us unrest. Sin causes us to do the things we know we don’t want to do. Sin causes us to love the things that are bad for us. Sin drives us away from the hope of paradise, paradise that only comes in relationship with God. Sin sends us off in the direction of the day, hoping to find ease, rest and salvation in whatever savior we can buy or buy into. Sin lies. And like the snake in the Biblical paradise of Eden, sin’s lies are reasonable, attractive and somewhat affordable given the current interest rates. If we’re really going to get ready for Jesus Christ, we have to prepare to stop. We have to prepare to stop the flow of traffic that on our own we’re powerless to get out of. The irony is that the power to stop doesn’t come from a force of will; the power to stop comes from confession. Confession is the power beneath God’s baptismal waters.

When the people came to be baptized by John, they didn’t do it because it was a sweet service. They did it because they were scared. They had sins on their shoulders and they wanted to wash them off before God came. When we bring people to be baptized – and it’s usually infants, but not always – when we bring people to be baptized, it’s one of the most moving times we ever have in worship. There’s just something about the sound of the water splashing back into the bowl, about watching the baby’s expressions. We’re doing something deeply profound as we stand before God and each other and promise that we’re ALL going to be godparents to this child.

But I would say another reason that sharing in the sacrament of baptism is so moving, is because for a few moments we’re tapping into the raw power of God. Confession, the power beneath God’s baptismal waters, is like the guardrails on God’s highway. When we baptize, for a few moments we step forth and dare to frame a human life within those boundaries. The babies don’t have any sins to confess. Hayden hasn’t done anything except be incredibly cute. But the day will come – as it does for us all – when he needs to know the power of God’s forgiving love. What we have said today is that he is starting his life surrounded by and molded in the power of confession. He can’t say the words, so we say them for him. We turn our backs on sin. We renounce the ways of evil. And we turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as our Lord and Savior. We make the absolute best and most powerful confession anyone could ever make on behalf of our child. No matter what else happens, he is covered in God’s love. He is guided by the power of confession. He is baptized.

You are a congregation full of people who have been baptized in God’s love. Whether you remember it or not, your life has been framed within the power of confession. God knows we aren’t perfect. God knows we’re barely prepared to stop any of our sins, no matter what the signs say. But God doesn’t intend for you to live your life perfectly. Perfection is an illusion, a virtual reality. Perfection is an earthly lie. But confession is truth. Confession is actual reality. God intends for you to live your life actually. God intends for you to be bathed – not in your own imperfections, not drowning in your own mistakes; God intends for you to be washed clean in the power of Jesus Christ.

And so right here, today, we prepare to stop and we prepare to go forward. We prepare to stop the sins that mess us up. Not by beating them. But by confessing them. Not by brute force. But by the power of an infant child, surrounded by love and guided by forgiveness. We may or may not be ready for Christmas, but that’s not the point. Right here, today, we get ourselves ready for Jesus Christ. The spirit of Advent is the spirit of confession. The spirit of Advent is the sound of splashing waters. The spirit of Advent is the spirit of John the Baptist, who calls out to each one of us, saying, “YOU prepare the way of the Lord! YOU make his paths straight! Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth. And ALL FLESH shall see the salvation of God.”

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

Mark 13 01-07
57-ORD33-G-Year B
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
November 16, 2003

Since our context is Stewardship Commitment Sunday, and since the Bible wasn’t written with chapter and verse numbers, I want to back up into the paragraph that precedes this one and read the context for today’s lesson – Mark 12:41-44.

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."

The scripture today isn’t just about the end of the temple, and the end of the world. And the story about the widow giving her last two coins isn’t about the end of her bank account. When you put these scriptures into context with each other they tell us: Jesus is here to flip the whole world upside down. The poor become rich, the rich become poor – the temple comes down and nations rise up. The coming of Jesus doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the world. But it does mean the end of the world as we know it. Jesus slams the stuff in the world feet first into the air.

It also means that when the world is going down in a bucket, that’s exactly the time we should be on the lookout for the kingdom of God. When nations rise against nation, when the ground of life shakes, when the people we thought would save us break our hearts – those are the times when small acts of love are the biggest signs of God.

If you’re a fan of supermarket tabloids (and who isn’t?) you know the world’s going to end – real soon. You also know the President meets with space aliens, AND the Bat Boy is helping hunt for Saddam, AND Arnold Schwarzenegger will be governor of California. (Wait, I think I saw that in the other papers.) There are any number of TV preachers who claim to know the secret codes of scripture and can prove the Bible says the European Union and bar codes are bringing on the Apocalypse. But honestly, if you read the “legitimate” papers or watch the news, a person could get pretty depressed over the way the world’s going. Seems like it’s not having “birth pangs,” but “death pangs.” Seems like the words of Jesus are televised nightly, as nation rises against nation, kingdom against kingdom, with earthquakes, fires and famines.

So is Jesus predicting the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD? Or is he speaking in symbols? Or is he talking about our day and time, right now, when so many of his predictions seem to be coming true? Yes? No? All of the above? Was Jesus wrong in his prediction? After all, nations have been rising against nation for a couple thousand years, and we’re still here. Earthquakes, famines, etc. happen all the time, and humanity always finds a way to survive.

That’s the problem when we take scripture out of context and start trying to decode a piece here and a part there. We pick up a tabloid theology that feeds on fears of everything coming to an end. But put his comments in context and Jesus isn’t so concerned with death pangs of the world. Jesus isn’t talking about the end of the world; he’s talking about the beginning of God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom of hope. So when it seems like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel and the whole world’s turning upside down – we should look NOT for the end of the world; we should look for the infant beginnings of God’s hope. Almost unseen behind the world’s big signs of small-minded troubles are God’s small signs of big love.

A small sign of God’s big love is when a church of only about 300 people (and you know that’s nothing compared to the Baptists) – a small sign of God’s love is when a church commits to share its money, believing it can do something big. Whether you’ve got big bucks or only a few little coins, when we can cheerfully and confidently turn it over to God and a Presbyterian session – that’s a sign of a greater kingdom being born.

A small sign of God’s big love is when a Scout troop of about 20 boys (and you know that’s nothing compared to the number of kids in gangs, or (even more) the number of kids doing absolutely nothing) – a small sign of God’s love is when a Scout troop and its leaders teach skills to “be prepared” for the times when life’s going to knock them upside down.

A small sign of God’s big love is when we pray together as a church. I have a sign in my office. It says, “The only normal people are the ones you don’t know very well.” We are a group of people who are brave enough to come to church with the cracks in our armor showing. We stand up and we share our broken places as well as our healing. And in response we might bake a casserole (and it’s a proven fact that churches can’t exist without casseroles), or we send a card, or we put a hand on a shoulder. We pray. We might think it’s not so much. But when the things we CAN’T do for each other seem so big, and the things we CAN do seem so small, the fact that we care enough to try is a sign of God’s greater kingdom being born.

“When you hear of wars and rumors of wars… [when] nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom… [when] there are earthquakes and famines…” – Yes, Jesus is talking about our day and time right now. And if the ground beneath your feet is shaky, and if you’re thirsting for relief from your problems, you may THINK it’s the end of the world. But someone might bring you a casserole. Or someone might do some other small thing. For a few minutes that small thing can become more important than all the junk life’s thrown at you. Then you’ll feel a birth pang of God’s greater kingdom.

The Anthem today was called “Beyond the Rain and Rivers.”

Far away I’ll go, beyond the rain and rivers, far away beyond the sun,
To a place I have known where my heart may find a home;
Where my spirit finds refreshment, quiet and peace.

O for such a day and such a place. And in the resurrected Christ we can trust and hope in these words. But in this life, in the Living Christ, we can also sing this:

Here and now, I am, beneath the rain and rivers, here and now beneath the sun,
In a place I know well where my heart seeks out a home;
Here my spirit finds refreshment, quiet and peace.

Refreshment and peace, NOT because this great big world is always so kind and loving to us. But refreshment and peace because there IS kindness and love in this world – at all. The miracle is that we experience these in our context – and not only in the promise of heaven. So while the headlines remind us how bad things continue to get, we hold up the example of a church pledge card, of an Eagle Scout award, of a prayer. Not denying the world, we do these in spite of it. And in merciful love of it.

May God heal those places where the world is broken. But even more, may WE commit ourselves to healing people the world has hurt – the people we’ve hurt. And where nations rise up against one another, or kingdoms against each other, or churches, or family members… where troubles shake us and spirits are dried up, may our simple deeds of kindness and love bear witness to a tiny birth of God’s great kingdom.

Thursday, October 30, 2003

Mark 12:28-34
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
November 2, 2003

A husband and wife are getting ready to go to sleep. They’re having an argument over who’s going to get up first and make the coffee the next morning. The husband says, “I’m the man of the house and you’re the woman. You’re the one who should get up first and make the coffee.” The wife says, “Oh no. You’re the husband alright. But you’re the one who needs to get up and make coffee for me.” The husband says, “Oh my dear, you’re so wrong. God has established an order to things. The woman is the one to get up and make the coffee.” The wife says, “Oh, is that what God says. Well, it’s the man who needs to get up and make the coffee, and it even says so in the Bible.” The man says, “Oh yeah? Prove it.” And he puts the King James Version in her lap. So the wife turns a few pages. Then she turns a few more. “Here it is,” she says. “HE BREWS.”

I’m pretty sure that’s not a true story. It was told me by a senior citizen lady who goes by the name of “Sunshine.” I was visiting the hospital last week and Sunshine told me that one. She said, “That’s one you can use in church next Sunday.” And I just did, which proves the Lord does work in mysterious ways.

So, we’re in this hospital room and Sunshine tells me she got her name because she visits nursing homes every week and does something like a stand-up comedy routine for the residents. And then she goes into her stuff, and she’s telling me joke after joke. And some of them are pretty good. Not all as good as HE BREWS, but pretty good material. So after a while, I’m thinking, hey I’ve got material. I can spread sunshine, too. In the back of my mind there’s this tiny voice screaming, “Nooooooo! Don’t even try.” But if I listened to all the voices in my head, I’d never get anything done.

So, I tell her this one. And this IS a true story, which I think makes it even funnier. I’m sitting at a church potluck dinner between these two elderly ladies, who are just as sweet as they can be. One’s Gladys, the other’s Helga. Those aren’t their real names, but for the sake of the story, we’ll just pretend. They’ve known each other for decades and they’re kind of like sisters. Gladys and Helga are telling me how getting old hasn’t been so bad, and they really haven’t had to change their lifestyles all that much. Gladys though, concedes. She says, “Well, I have to confess. I have stopped driving at night. On account of I have a cataract.” To which Helga slaps her hand down on the table. “Oh Gladys, you know you do not! You know you have a Buick!”

That one just kills me. So I tell Sunshine this hilarious but true story and this is the response I get.

“Mmmmm. Cataract. She thought she said Cadillac. Mmm.”

At which point, I’m ready to crawl under the bed. I’ve tried to match wits against the Jedi joke master Yoda, and I have failed.

Chapter 12 of Mark’s gospel is one long series of competitions. Only instead of a joke-off, the challengers are coming up to Jesus in a kind of scripture-off. And it would have been better for these guys if there had been a voice screaming, “Nooooo! Don’t even try.” But you know how we men are in situations like this. Wouldn’t have made any difference. So here they come.

First come the politically-minded Pharisees. They’re sure they’ve got a zinger. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor or not?” You remember this one. This is the one where Jesus tells them to bring him a coin. “Whose head is it on the coin?” he asks. “Caesar’s,” they say. Jesus says, “Then give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and give to God that which is God’s.”

Ding! Round one’s over. Next!

Then come the sophisticated Sadducees, who don’t believe in life after death, and they’ve gotta be giggling under their breath as they put one to him, about, of all things, life after death.

They say, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies, leaving a wife but no child, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. There were seven brothers; the first married and, when he died, left no children; so the second brother married her and died, leaving no children; and the third likewise, and so on. None of the seven left children. Last of all the woman herself died. In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her.”

Jesus says, “You don’t know either the scriptures or the power of God. Don’t you know where it says that they will be like angels in heaven, who neither marry nor are given in marriage. God is the God of the living, not of the dead.”

Ding! Round two is over, and they skulk away.

But during all this public debate, biding his time, watching from the sidelines, is this old scribe. A Jedi scripture master. He’s been studying Jesus. He’s been learning his moves. He’s watched as the other challengers were dismissed in shame. Having chosen his moment, this scriptural heavyweight enters the ring. On one side stands Jesus. On the other side stands the scribe.

The scribe goes straight for the jugular. “Which commandment is the first of all?”

A scriptural question. Jesus answers with more scripture, Deuteronomy 6. (And the crowd is thinking, “Who reads Deuteronomy?”) “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”

Zing! Right back at cha, scribe, ol’ boy. And then, Jesus turns the challenge back by adding another quote from scripture, Leviticus 19. (Whoa. Nobody reads Leviticus.) Jesus says, “The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

It’s like Jesus is saying, “I’ll see your Deuteronomy, and raise you a Leviticus.”

OK, so now the scribe knows he’s up against somebody good. “You are right,” he says, “to say that God is one and to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.”

And then the scribe digs deep, way deep into scripture and pulls out a trump. Hosea 6:6. “Loving God and neighbor is much more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

Oh boy. The crowd’s gotta be thinking, “How’s he going to beat that?” That’s GOOD material.

But you and I know something that the crowd doesn’t. We know that Jesus wasn’t interested in winning a scripture-off. We know that Jesus wasn’t playing games with scribes or scripture. We know that Jesus didn’t care two hoots about the applause of the crowd.

So with one sentence, Jesus calls all the games to a stop. Instead of continuing the war of words, instead of using more scripture like yet another weapon, Jesus listens to the meaning of the words the scribe himself has just said. He listened to these words of scripture instead of just hurling more out to prove how smart he was. He listened to the scribe and said, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

After that, the Bible says, no one dared ask him any questions.

You probably know somebody who lives for the thrill of verbal victory. No matter how funny you think you are, no matter how juicy you think your information is, no matter how bad you feel – this other person’s always funnier, juicier, or closer to death. One-upmanship is addictive. Getting the last word is cool.

Jesus knocks the hot wind out of us. Jesus’ last word isn’t victory. Jesus’ last word is love. Love of God. Love of neighbor. Love of self. Love of enemies. Love. The game of life isn’t about winning or losing. Life’s not a game and scripture isn’t ammunition. Not many of us get into physical battles, thank the Lord. But we all get into wars of words, land mines of thoughts, replays of moves we wish we’d made and points we know we could score if we had another chance. Jesus tells us that the ideas of winning or losing are irrelevant. This isn’t a life-off. We either love or we don’t. Our words and acts either spread love or they don’t. Our lives either spread sunshine or they are very dark indeed.

Thursday, October 23, 2003

Revelation 21:1-6a
All Saints’ Day 2003
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
October 26, 2003

This morning, we’re making promises and remembering saints. The stuff of life tends to come in bunches. In my ministry, I can rarely remember a time when I was preparing for a funeral that I wasn’t also preparing for a birth or a baptism. God gives a balance to life. One of the best known scriptures tells us there’s a time to be born and a time to die – and so often they’re the same time. This morning, we baptize and we memorialize, and I wonder if they aren’t two sides of the same coin. Life’s beginning and life’s end – alpha and omega – all are one in Christ Jesus.

I want to introduce you to some saints today. Their presence is with us, whether we realize it or not. I’m not talking about the supernatural. No, their presence is with us in the most natural of ways. Because these are saints whose lives have intersected with the life of our church. It’s just natural that anytime one life rubs up against another, things change. And so I want to introduce you to these saints who are part of us, or in some cases reintroduce their memory.

Myra Overcash was a beautiful and remarkable lady. When she smiled, she made you relax, and THAT is quite a gift. It’s a sign of inner peace, and the roots of that kind of smile go far deeper than momentary courtesy; they come from strength. Myra Overcash had tremendous strength. She raised two sons, one of whom has many special needs. She moved wherever she needed to as the wife of a business executive. Toward the end of her life, when her organs were shutting down, she asked me why she was still living. I said, “Because you’re one tough lady.” And she smiled.

Myra was an East Knoxville girl. And something I’ve come to learn is that the people who grew up in East Knoxville, like Myra, like Judge & Helen Child, like John Brichetto – East Knoxville people stick together. And Myra was just about the best I’ve ever met at keeping up. She could rattle off the names and memories of people she knew from childhood, sixty or more years ago, and she could tell you where many or most of them were, and what they had done. She called them, she wrote them. She knew how to be a loyal friend, and again, THAT is quite a gift.

Myra and Hugh only came to worship here at Lake Hills a few times. Their health kept them mostly at home, and to this day, keeps Hugh from getting around as he’d like. But for a little while Myra’s life became part of this body of faith. And by the grace of God, her faith, her peacefully strong smile, continues as a part of us.

Myra Overcash died July 3, 2003.

Those of you who were here in our church’s early years knew well Mary Elizabeth Witherspoon. Her husband, Jack, is a charter member of the congregation. Mary Elizabeth never actually joined the church. She was a Quaker, through and through, a member of the Society of Friends, as they’re officially called. And she was a friend to this church. In the early years, Mary Elizabeth taught, and organized, and kept this church on track, because she was our friend.

I continue to learn about Mary Elizabeth, and her acts of friendship and conscience. Back in the late 50’s and early 60’s when the first lunch counter in Knoxville was integrated so blacks and whites could eat at the same table, Mary Elizabeth very quietly went to our minister, Bob Larson, and other community leaders. She asked them to do one simple thing – and that was to go to that lunch counter once a week and eat lunch, so the owner would know he wasn’t losing any business.

At Mary Elizabeth’s funeral, the Witherspoons’ longtime housekeeper, an African American woman stood up to speak. She told of the time when she and Mary Elizabeth were getting the house ready for a dinner party. She said that she told Mrs. Witherspoon, “When your friends get here, I’ll go upstairs.” “No,” Mary Elizabeth said. “When my friends get here, you’ll be one of them.”

Mary Elizabeth Witherspoon died April 13, 2003.

When Kristen and I first came to Lake Hills, I visited with the older members of the congregation. One day I came home and told Kristen, “I met the sweetest lady today. You’ve got to meet her.” Irma Lee Fischer was kind enough to adopt Kristen and me as foster grandchildren for a while. We took her to lunch several times, which in itself was a treat. You see, Irma Lee didn’t just eat a meal – she savored every bite. She’d eat so slowly, tasting everything, and trying to figure out which spices, and which ingredients had been used. She was about five-foot-two and a hundred pounds – maybe her eating habits helped. Lunch with Irma Lee lasted a couple of hours.

Because this care and interest went farther than the food. Irma Lee was the same way with people. She didn’t do small talk; Irma Lee did deep talk. She’d ask questions and listen as if she was trying to savor every word. She remembered details. She cared.

Again, Irma Lee was someone who was active in the church a number of years ago, so there are a lot of people here today who never met her. But her presence, her kindness and her savoring of persons rubbed off on this body of faith.

Irma Lee Fischer died May 26, 2003.

And then there was Truett Lindner. One of the former ministers of this church said it best when he said of Truett, “He was a saint in spite of himself.” Truett was one of God’s unique creations, through and through. He was as genuine a character as you’d ever meet. And if you missed his genuine opinions, Truett would be glad to repeat them for you in no uncertain language.

I remember one of my first Sunday mornings at Lake Hills. Everyone was standing around in the front hallway, talking. I saw Truett and I think it was Charlie and Frank and Jim Worden talking so I went up to them. After a moment of polite conversation, Truett looked at me and said, “Now, preacher, I’ve got a joke for you.” Now, other people might lower their voice when telling a joke of this flavor in public. Other people might not tell a joke of this flavor in the crowded front hallway of the church. Other people wouldn’t have told it to their pastor. But other people aren’t Truett Lindner. It became kind of a ritual. Every Sunday, Truett would have a joke for me. I would see him coming and I’d just try to make sure I wasn’t standing near any first-time visitors.

Truett had a work shed out back of his house, filled to the ceiling with every nut and bolt, every power tool he’d ever owned. I’d come over for a visit and Truett would kindly dust off a lawn chair for me, and he’d wax poetic with stories of his life, many of which may have been true. Truett grew up in Bellbuckle, Tennessee, which he made sound like the land of Davy Crockett. Truett was the paperboy in Bellbuckle. At the right time in his story, Truett would reach behind a cabinet and pull out the miniature .22 caliber rifle he used to carry in his paper bag. Bellbuckle was a town that armed its paperboys.

Truett was passionate about his family, his dogs, his country and this church. There were many years when Truett WAS our Property Committee.

Truett Lindner died January 29, 2003.

But on the other side of the coin…

Brayden Michael Batts was born August 8, 2003. And today, October 26, 2003, Brayden became part of this living body of faith. Brayden is part of a new generation of this church. He’s a member of the “baby boom” that we’re experiencing of late, the rash of reproductive evangelism that has Cheryl wringing her hands over where we’re going to put all these babies. Wouldn’t it be great if someday Brayden stands before this congregation, holding yet another saint-in-the-making?

Our church is alive and well and birthin’ these babies because of saints like Myra, and Mary Elizabeth, and Irma Lee, and Truett. Their lives touched this body of faith and we wouldn’t be the same place were it not for them. Each person who enters these doors is a gift from God. Some of these gifts are now memories we treasure. And some of these gifts are a new generation of promises for the future. But from their beginning to their end – alpha to omega – all are one in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Today we baptize and we memorialize; we remember and we celebrate our Lord God. And we rejoice in God’s promise that the home of God is among mortals, and he will dwell with them, and they are able to be his peoples; and between the lines of our each of our lives, God himself is with us.

Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Mark 10:17- 30. The Camel, the needle, and God
October 12, 2003
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church

As the great theologian Spongebob Squarepants says, “You’ve got to use your imagination.”

I want you to imagine that in this hand, I’m holding a needle. Wow. Good imaginations.

Now, I want you to imagine that standing on this side of me, behind the flowers, and not knocking them over, is a camel. A big, hairy, snorty, smelly, spitty camel. Camels are what, like, seven feet tall with their long necks and their humps? Big creature. Kind of a frightening creature to find in your church sanctuary.

OK. Now, imagine that I’m going to pass the camel through the eye of the needle.

There just isn't any way to do it, is there? Well, we could try to imagine a really big needle. But, technically speaking, something that big wouldn't be a needle. Needles are supposed to be small. We could use our imaginations to see a really tiny camel. But something that small wouldn't really be a camel. So, there really isn't any way we could pass a camel through the eye of that needle unless we made one of them into something else - something other than a camel, something other than a needle. Or we’re going to really have to use our imaginations, and deceive ourselves into thinking we can do something impossible.

To a camel through the eye of a needle, one of them is going to have to become something else, or else we’re not living in the real world.

In today's New Testament lesson, we read that a rich man came up to Jesus and asked him, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" And Jesus answered, "You must sell all you have and give the money to the poor, then come, follow me."

Just as a camel can't pass through the eye of a needle unless it first becomes something else, so Jesus tells the rich man that if he wants to find eternal life, he also must become something else. If the rich man sells all he has and leaves everything to follow Jesus, he will no longer be (in terms of dollars and cents) a rich man. He’ll be something else.

What will he be? For one thing, he’ll be poor. But will being poor make him righteous?

By worldly standards, we Americans are wealthy people. I grew up with the feeling that the best example of a truly righteous person is someone who has given up all that wealth, who has sold everything and devoted their life to the poor, someone like a Mother Teresa, who has given up everything to minister to those who have nothing. And no doubt, Mother Teresa, and those like her are wonderfully righteous people, God bless them.

But, I'm a twenty-first century American. And my idea of righteousness isn’t the same as the idea held by a first century, Middle Eastern, Jewish person. In fact, it's the exact opposite.

To the people of Jesus' day, a person's wealth was a sign of God's blessing. And by those standards, certainly, the rich man who knelt before Jesus had been blessed. He had kept all the commandments since his youth. He’d been good. No imagining. No deception. And to his mind (and the mind of Jesus' disciples) God had rewarded him for his goodness. To the first century mind, here was a shining example of what it meant to be a righteous person, a saint. Here was a man who was as close to God as a person could get.

And then Jesus said, "Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." And when the man heard this he was shocked.

Jesus turned this man's world upside down. He told this saint to do something very un-saintly, unrighteous. "Take the blessings of God - and give them away." Give away the blessings of God? To the ears of Bible-times, the command of Jesus made no more sense than if he had asked the man – to thread a camel through the eye of a needle. Only Jesus wasn’t fooling around. Jesus wasn’t calling the man’s bluff. He wasn’t telling him to use his imagination. Jesus was serious.

I wonder what happened to this man. The Bible says he was shocked and went away grieving. I wonder if, eventually, he gave away some or all of his possessions. Maybe he got over his sadness and kept everything, and found a kinder, gentler savior.

Or maybe the point of the story isn't what the man did with his wealth, his blessing. Maybe the point is simply that Jesus told him to do the ONE thing he couldn’t do. The man couldn't give his money away, not even to inherit eternal life. Like a camel that can't fit through a needle's eye, it was impossible for this saintly man to do everything Jesus demanded of him – no matter how good he was.

No one of us… not even the most saintly of us – whether we determine our saintliness by our wealth or our lack of it – not one of us has the ability to buy his or her way into eternal life. It’s simply impossible. None of us… not even the best of us – lives a life of perfection, and does everything God commands. It’s simply impossible.

"For mortals,” Jesus said, “it IS impossible. But not for God; for God ALL things are possible."

As we search for a glimpse of eternal life, we’re all like camels trying to fit through a needle's eye. If we remain camels, we'll never go through the needle. We somehow have to become something else, something other than camels. Somehow we have to be reborn.

"Very truly, I tell you," said Jesus, "no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above," - without being reborn by the spirit of God - a God for whom all things are possible - even sending a camel through the eye of a needle.

If we truly are to follow Christ, we can’t rely on our riches or our poverty, our perceived righteousness or our imagined goodness. For no one is good but God alone. We must learn to have faith in the God who saves, faith in God alone and in God’s saving grace.

But wait a minute. What about the rich man? What about the money? What about selling all that we have and giving it to the poor? If we end talking about faith and rebirth and holiness, we do end our conversation talking about some wonderful, heavenly, Godly things.

But that’s not the end of the story.

Jesus may have been talking about eternal life, but he began his discussion of heavenly life right here, in the middle of earthly life. If all Jesus wanted to do was talk about having faith in God, he could have chosen any number of other means.

But this time, in this story, he chose to talk about a rich man and that man's righteousness. And maybe a first century understanding of righteousness was different from our twenty-first century ideas. But even so, I believe the Bible speaks to us in our situation just as much as it spoke to first century people in theirs. And I truly doubt that the people in the Bible, however righteous they might have been, liked their money any less then than we like ours.

If we raise this story high into a heavenly realm, so high above our wallets, we only tell half the story.

No, I don't believe giving his money away would have made the rich man more righteous, any more than holding his blessings close to his chest would have. For as Jesus said, no one is good but God alone. And the Bible even tells us, Jesus loved the man… just as he was, money and all. But maybe, if the rich man wasn't so busy holding onto his wallet, he might have been able to open his arms, and accept the eternal life that God was trying to give him.

The story of Jesus and the rich man holds a mandate for all of us who have material wealth. It holds a mandate for us as we stand together as a church. It commands us to take the blessings we receive and share them among those who have needs. Those who come to us looking for food or for a place to stay. And I dare say those who have needs also include children who need educational materials, youth who need youth groups, and adults who need a place to learn more about God. The story of Jesus and the rich man holds a real-world mandate for all of us as the Stewardship Committee comes calling upon us in the weeks to come. “Sell all you have and give it to the poor,” isn’t Jesus calling the rich man’s bluff. Jesus is saying it seriously, and saying it seriously to all of us. In this Stewardship Season, please consider the portion of all you have that you’re pledging to the church. I don’t think the Stewardship Committee is going to be as tough as Jesus. I don’t think they're going to ask you to sell all you have and give the money to the church. But they are going to ask you to consider the amount of your everything you’re giving away. And they’re going to ask you to prayerfully consider increasing over what you’re giving this year.

But not even that’s the end of the story.

Jesus' command to the rich man didn't end with selling everything and giving it to the poor. Because that would be a one-time event. You do it, it’s done. Not even selling everything and giving the money to the poor is an end in and of itself. In addition to selling and giving, Jesus then gave the man one more command. He said, "Come, follow me."

Jesus doesn’t want our money anywhere near as much as he wants our commitment. And for Jesus, commitment means giving OURSELVES away – again and again and again. For Jesus, commitment means giving OURSELVES to him, and to God… giving OURSELVES to the leading of the Holy Spirit. For Jesus commitment is never a one-time event. It has to happen every single day of our lives. With every morning, we’re born anew. With every day, we have the chance to serve and to follow Jesus Christ. And God tells us to do it NOT so we’ll buy our way into heaven. God wants our commitment so heaven can find a dwelling place in us.

May we in all we do, in all the money we spend and give away, in all the blessings we share, both individually and as a church – May we in all we do, follow our Lord, Jesus Christ. And may it not be just our imaginations.

Saturday, October 04, 2003

1 Corinthians 11:17-26
51-Ord27-G-Year B
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
October 5, 2003

It’s good to be back. I know you always have a good time when Parson Larson’s here. And I understand the kids had a really great time with Susie during the Children’s Sermon. I also hear the choir did a really awesome spiritual number. Being gone makes you appreciate what you’ve missed.

But it’s good to get a vacation. One of our church members once told me he can always tell when I’ve been on vacation. Actually, that’s not what I heard him say. What I heard him say was that he can always tell when I NEED to take a vacation. He swears that’s not what he said, but I have a feeling both are probably true.

Someone asked me if we had a nice, relaxing time. We’ve got a four year-old and a 15 month-old. Relaxing isn’t part of the picture. But it was nice to get to the beach.

But our first reason for going wasn’t vacation. We went back to Dothan, Alabama – Peanut Capital of the World – and I got to preach, and Kristen played flute, and the kids just played, as part of the church’s 50th anniversary Jubilee Year. Having been gone for nine years, it was amazing how much had changed. The kids I remember as being Emily’s age are now taller than I am (which in itself is no big deal), but they’re all driving, and dating. Yet another sign that it’ll be a long time before we relax on a family vacation. The church has done some remodeling, both structurally and spiritually, and things are going really well. It’s a great church, with good reason to celebrate. And so, it was good to be back, and to see God so at work.

On the other hand…. The Apostle Paul has been away from the church in Corinth for a while, and things are not going so well there. The church is splitting into factions. People are getting drunk at the Lord’s Supper. Some are coming early and eating until they’re stuffed. Others are getting to the Supper so late that they don’t even get a bite. Any time a church starts to feeling all sorry for itself because it has “problems,” they ought to read First Corinthians. In the time that he’s been away, the church in Corinth that Paul himself helped begin has turned into a royal mess.

So what’s the difference? What keeps one or two churches on track, while another one, founded by the great Disciple himself, turns into a mess?

First is the confession that the church isn’t just another human organization. Sure, the people of Corinth are getting together on Sundays. Sure, they’re eating a meal they call the Lord’s Supper. They’re probably having committee meetings and wondering when to start a capital campaign for a Family Life Center. They’re a human organization, but a church they are not. They’re going through the motions of being a church, but a church is more than motions.

In order for any church to be more than a human organization, in order for the Lord’s Supper to be more than bread and grape juice, the Holy Spirit has to be at work. The Holy Spirit has to CHOOSE to be at work among a group of people, and that’s the hard part for humans to accept. We have to train ourselves to wait, and to pray that we’ll receive something that we can’t make for ourselves.

And if that lesson was hard for the Corinthians, imagine how much harder it has to be for us. We’re Americans – Ameri-Cans, not Ameri-Can’ts as the cliché goes. If we want something, we go out and earn it… or charge it. We get what we want… and sometimes we want what we get. “How long, O Lord, how long?” asks the Psalm. To be a church means putting our trust in the Holy Spirit, which like the wind blows this way and that, whenever and wherever it chooses. One of the youth of the church asked me to explain the Holy Spirit and before I said anything else, I said, “I can’t. I can try, but I really can’t.” The Holy Spirit is that invisible, mysterious force that makes churches work, and work toward God’s purpose. The catch there is that God’s purpose may not always be in the best interest of the organization, which makes things even more mysterious.

A church that’s on track is one that, for lack of a better word, SENSES that something beyond themselves is what gives them life. From youth groups, to choirs, to serving food at the mission – the best gauge of “church-ness” is whether you SENSE the Holy Spirit leading you. The hungry stomach was leading the church in Corinth.

The second thing that keeps a church on track is the knowledge that four walls and a steeple aren’t the church. The sanctuary isn’t the church. The parking lot isn’t the church. The classrooms aren’t the church. And the office and administrative area CERTAINLY isn’t the church. The copier machine is actually of the devil. And so are several of the computers. YOU are the church. You don’t GO to church on Sunday, because the church is already IN you. We come to worship, but we ARE the church.

In fairness to the church in Corinth, they didn’t have the luxury of 46 years of time together (as does Lake Hills), or a two-thousand year history to draw upon. They were figuring out this church stuff as they went along. We have the luxuries of tradition and history that teach us how to be church. But every generation has to figure out for itself how to implant the knowledge of church in the hearts and minds of its members, so when we exit the doors on Sunday morning, church doesn’t exit us. Church has to be portable. Church has to be part of us, before we can truly be part of it.

In Jeremiah, we hear God’s plan: “This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the LORD," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”

Church has to be imprinted on who we are and what we do every day of the week, or else Sunday is just going through the motions.

The third thing that keeps a church on track is the recognition that the church IS the body of Christ, as Paul says. But which body? His earthly body or his heavenly body? Here’s where another one of those mysterious God-things happens again. The church is BOTH Christ’s body broken, and Christ’s body resurrected.

We’re Christ’s body broken. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul acknowledges that there are factions in the church, that there are always going to be factions – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s a youth group, listening to youth group music, and growing their youth group hair – which by the way is kind of reminding me of the 60’s on a couple of you guys. Youth groups don’t want old people like me invading your territory and preaching about how good Milli Vanilli used to be.

We’re Christ’s body broken because we’re sinful people, coming from different places, carrying different baggage. We’re Christ’s body broken as a church because we’re each of us broken in our own ways. Broken but beloved by God, we get together. We’re not always an example of how to do church right. We mess up. We make bad decisions. But we try, we do our best, we forgive, and learn and move on. No, we’re not always a stellar example of how to do church right; but if we’re faithful, God can take our brokenness, and make it right enough.

We’re Christ’s body broken, but we’re also Christ’s body resurrected. The risen Christ appeared to his church, gave them the gift of the Holy Spirit, and told them, “Go,” do this, do these things in remembrance of me. We are on track as a church when we humbly do the work of Jesus Christ. We are Christ’s hands and feet in this world. We are responsible not only for saying his name, but for going and doing what he would do if he were here today. In Communion, the you and I take Christ’s body and blood into ourselves. We do it symbolically, but it’s also real in ways we can’t explain. All over the world today, when the minister says the words and the people share the bread and cup, it’s as if we’re disciples, it’s as if Christ is here among us, resurrected, alive, going and doing. Christ keeps us on track; we’re just following his lead. And so we say the words, we share the meal, and by the grace of God we’re doing something right. We’re one body, working together in all its parts.

We believe that we’re not just another human organization. We believe that we’re more than a building that people go to once a week. And we believe the scripture that tells us we’re now supposed to be the body of Christ for the world – a body broken, yes, but a body also resurrected and alive.

When you take Communion today, really take it. Don’t be like the Corinthians who were thinking of themselves. Think instead about Jesus Christ. Think instead about his church. Think instead of how you are his church. And think of the day when World Communion will be Everlasting Communion, and we gather at his heavenly table, with no more factions, no more messes, no more anything, but Jesus.

Friday, September 12, 2003

Mark 8:27-38

48-ORD24-G-Year B

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church

September 14, 2003

OK. There’s really no way to work this “elegantly” into the sermon, so I’ll just go ahead and get it over with right now.

Yes, I truly did win a Food City contest, and yes I really did drive twenty laps of NASCAR at the Bristol Motor Speedway last Sunday afternoon. I know some of you thought I was just making that up in order to get a laugh two weeks ago. I didn’t make it up, and I had no idea you’d laugh so hard. I keep remembering Dustin Hoffman in Rainman: “I’m an excellent driver.” If you remember in the movie how the mentally challenged Rainman drove in circles around the driveway… substitute a louder, faster car – and me – and you’ve pretty much got the picture. I want to say that I have a newfound respect for NASCAR. We’re not gonna sell the house and buy an RV so we can follow the Winston Cup, or anything. But it was definitely cool. And yes, Kristen truly does have video and photos of the event. Right now they’re being held as evidence in a really minor pit row accident, but when they’re released, I’m sure you’ll see them, on CNN. Actually, I did OK. Didn’t hit the wall. Didn’t hit any cars. Didn’t hurt anyone. I don’t know how fast I was going, but I did pass another driver. Followed like glue behind an instructor in the car in front of me. I think he thought my name was Peter, because at one point he shouted into his headset, “Get behind me, Satan!” I told you there’s no elegant way to work this in. The teacher led me up high by the wall on the straightaways, down low on the curves. It was a great adrenaline rush, and I highly recommend it. Seeing it on TV, or hearing about it, doesn’t come close to actually getting strapped into a car, taking a deep breath, and hitting the gas for yourself.

Jesus went on his way with his disciples to the villages of Kingsport and Johnson City; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” When I was in seminary, the very first question on my very first Theology exam was this: “Who is God? Be concise.” Jesus was putting an exam before his disciples. “Who DO people say that I am?” Be concise. And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do YOU say that I am?”

There comes a point when it doesn’t matter what anyone else says. There comes a point when it doesn’t matter what anyone else says about Jesus, or about God. There comes a point when the only thing that matters is what YOU have to say about Jesus… how YOU answer the question. The secondhand repetition of someone else’s belief doesn’t pass the test.

In the scripture today, Jesus leads his disciples along a particular track of thought. He starts out wide, having them think about what other people say. Then he narrows it down to who they think he is. But Jesus doesn’t let their thinking get too narrow, as Peter finds out. And then, having strained out the gunk of worldly thinking, he expands their minds to heavenly thoughts.

As we try to figure out who Jesus is to each of us, in a personal sense, scripture gives us this model of wide to narrow – but not too narrow – and then wide again. Like expanding our chests when we breathe, and then letting the air back out again, scripture gives us a model where we take in a range of understanding, then let out what isn’t healthy for us. And so the Breath of Life, Jesus, gradually begins to live in us, and we in him.

I ask you today to think about where you are in the process of understanding who Jesus is, for you. Are you taking in a wide breadth of information? Are you filtering out ideas that aren’t necessarily healthy? Have you narrowed your ideas so much that you’re in danger of rebuke? Or is God opening your mind to heavenly thoughts? I offer these not as end-points, but as signposts along a road of understanding that we travel again and again. Never mind what the other people are saying, who do YOU say Jesus is, for you? And who might you say he is tomorrow?

“Who do people say that I am?”

Part of our Presbyterian Book of Confessions, The Westminster Confession, says this is Jesus: “It pleased God, in his eternal purpose, to choose and ordain the Lord Jesus, his only begotten Son, to be the Mediator between God and man, The prophet, Priest, And king; The head and Savior of his Church, The heir of all people to be his seed, And to be by him in time redeemed, called, justified, sanctified, and glorified.

The Son of God, the second Person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance, and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon him man’s nature, with all the essential properties and common infirmities thereof; yet without sin: being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, of her substance. So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and Man.”

Perhaps this isn’t the most comprehensive definition of who Jesus is that’s ever been written, but it’s close. The Westminster Confession bounces off the walls of church tradition. It covers just about all the ground good Presbyterian theology will allow. Mediator. Prophet, priest, and king. Head of the church. Heir of all people. Son of God, Second Person of the Trinity, Very God and very man, yet one Christ. A person could spend a lot of time, wrapping her thoughts around all of these pictures of Jesus.

And even in scripture, there’s a range of ideas about Jesus -- four gospel pictures alone -- and not one of them describes him fully. Jesus asks the disciples who people say he is, but he’s not conducting a public opinion poll. Jesus wants the disciples to think. He wants them to consider what other people are saying in order to better understand what they themselves would like to say. After all, the people are all a little bit right. There’s a bit of John the Baptist in Jesus. And there’s a bit of Elijah, and the other prophets, too. But there’s also much more.

Take a deep breath and consider the number of ways you’ve thought of Jesus over the course of your lifetime. Now take an even deeper breath and multiply those thoughts by the number of people who’ve ever lived. From people who have been injured by the church to people who have found deepest love, opinions of Jesus range from worst enemy to best friend. It’s not a question of shopping for the one Jesus that’s just right for you. It’s about finding that Jesus is bigger than you, and infinitely bigger than your experience.

And so in trying to say who Jesus is for us, we start by remembering that there’s a lot of “usses” in the world. And not one of us is completely right in our opinion or our experience.

Having cast his net wide, Jesus then asks the disciples, “But who do YOU say that I am.” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

Peter narrowed his answer, which was good. But then he went too far. He took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him. “Um, Jesus. You’ve gotta stop saying all this stuff about suffering and rejection, and being killed and rising after three days. Really. You’re scaring us. You’re scaring away potential converts with this kind of talk. Honestly, it’s kind of disturbing.”

To which Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan! For you’re setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”

Which seems to say that Peter’s sin wasn’t so much the rebuke of Jesus, although rebuking the Son of God does qualify as a really bad idea. To me it says that Peter’s sin was in getting his mind so set, was in getting his mind so set on HIS idea of Jesus, that he didn’t leave room for God’s ideas.

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” I think for most of us, this comes a whole lot closer to a statement of faith than something like the Westminster Confession. Jesus needs to be personal, and not so big, in order for us to get our arms around him. But, as with Peter, the danger comes in holding him so tightly that neither one of us has room to grow.

“Jesus loves ME, this I know,” but does Jesus also love the people who betray and deny him? “Yes, Jesus loves ME,” but does he also love people who don’t love me? Does he also love the people I don’t love? Does he love them enough to suffer and be persecuted and die for them? This is where faith gets hard. This is where things get complicated because these are the questions that rebuke the little Jesuses that we want to hold onto. “Yes, Jesus loves me,” but does he love my actions that consistently deny and betray his trust?

After narrowing down to a personal level, and after confessing that our personal levels could use a good rebuking most of the time, an infinitely bigger, heavenly picture of Jesus begins to focus. This is the point where all words fail, even the big Westminster ones. This is the point where awe and praise begin. This is the point where we give ourselves over to following something we can’t express, yet something we feel to be irrefutably true.

This is the point in the gospel story when Jesus “called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?”

Like Mary in the garden on Easter morning, no we can’t hold onto Jesus. But we can follow his lead. We can’t define him, but he can give us definition. He’s beyond our words, but we can tell people about him, through the way we live, certainly, and through our words, if necessary.

Take a deep breath and think about who gave you that breath. Think about what you want to do with that breath. That breath of life belongs to God. You’ll have to let go of that breath. You can’t hold on to it for very long. But that breath will give you enough life to take another breath, and another.

In the same way, you have a perception of who Jesus is. But even your perception belongs to God. As you travel the road of faith, you’ll let go of that idea, because God won’t let you hold onto it for too long. But that sense of understanding of Jesus will give you enough life to look for another, and another. And it’ll keep you going until the day when you see Jesus face to face, and in fullness.

Thursday, September 04, 2003

1 Peter 5:1-14
47-Ord23-G-Year B
Rally Day
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
September 7, 2003

To those of you who are newly ordained and installed elders,

You are about to embark on a three-year journey. Three years sounds like a long time today. Three years from now it’ll be 2006. Remember when 2006 sounded like the galactic future, with George Jetson and flying cars? Now it sounds like the year a lot of us will finish paying for the minivans we bought in 2001. 2006 will be here before you know it. And between now and then, those of you serving on Session will have voted on renovations to the nurseries and the Old Fellowship Hall, sanctuary flooring, and adding a skybox to the Choir Loft. (I’m joking about the skybox. But when you think about that, sanctuary flooring doesn’t seem like such a big deal.) By 2006, you will have given your blessing to baptizing an entire herd of new babies. Whoever said Presbyterians aren’t productive didn’t know what they were talking about. By 2006 those of you who are new to church government will have a new appreciation for everything that goes on behind the scenes. From the abject tedium of budget negotiations to the absolute thrill of meeting with a Confirmation Class of sixth-graders standing before you and professing their faith in Jesus Christ, you will have seen more, and learned more about your church than you could imagine. I hold up to you the words of 1 Peter 5:1-14, and I wish for you as Peter did, peace to all of you.

To those of you who have affirmed the ordination and installation of these elders,

You have given your “yes” to these people. You have said, “I do,” to them, and taken them, before God, as your lawfully appointed church leadership. Uphold your vows to them. Pray for them. Support them. Remind them that God has a reason for calling them. They are to be servant-leaders. They are to be both servants and leaders. Don’t let them lean too far in either direction. Look at their names on the back of the bulletin. When you see them doing something good, tell them so. Call them, write them a note, shake their hands. In verse 14, Peter suggests a kiss of love. Yet another time when a literal interpretation of the Bible is problematic. Whether you agree or disagree with their decisions, rest assured that your Session members are doing their very best to find and follow the will of God.

Now, to those of you who are Sunday School Teachers, Youth Group Leaders, Children’s Church teachers, Nursery volunteers, and behind-the-scenes coordinators of all these:

God bless you. The words of 1 Peter apply in all respects to you. Substitute the word “teachers” for “elders” and it works just perfectly. On those days when the kids have had too much sugar, or when the babies won’t stop crying, remember verse 10, which says, “And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.” The King James Version says God will “settle” you. All Youth Group leaders ought to get a tattoo of that one. If you are a teacher, in whatever role, know that God has named you to a most high calling. For to you God has entrusted our children. To you God has entrusted our adults who want to keep learning. Tend well the flock that is in your charge. In due time, scripture says, God will exalt you. And you students, no matter what your age, accept the authority of your teachers and clothe yourselves in humility in your dealings with one another. Every single one of us is a work in progress. All of us are students. All of us are still learning to be “church,” and we’re going to keep learning how to be church for the rest of our lives.

To the Choir, I say, welcome back. Having worship without the choir is like letting ten pounds of air out of your tires and expecting to get the same mileage. You inspire us. Your spirit is contagious and your ministry is obvious. Keep growing and we may well have to consider those skyboxes.

To all the church, whether you’re a teacher or a learner, or an elder, or a younger – or even if you’re just here for the barbecue, let the words of 1 Peter be your guide. Discipline yourselves. Keep alert. Cast your anxiety on God, because he cares for you. God will “settle” you. And in God’s due time you will find the peace that passes all understanding.

Today a new church year begins. Let a new year of the church begin in you. And to God be the power forever and ever. Amen.

Monday, September 01, 2003

John 6:56-69
45-Ord21-G-Year B
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
James McTyre
August 24, 2003

Getting the relationship right.

Jesus told his disciples hard words about his relationship to God. And because of his hard words to them, the Bible says, “many of his disciples turned back, and no longer went about with him.”

In this day and age, it’s difficult to imagine the church wanting to say anything that’s going to turn people away. Fewer and fewer people attend worship on Sunday mornings. And so church signs have begun to resemble commercial billboards, with catchy phrases to lure people in. “Good seats still available,” some of them say. “Wal-Mart’s not the only saving place,” says another. And then there’s the number one church sign of the apocalypse, “For all you do, his blood’s for you.” I am not making these up. I’m proud to serve a church whose sign is both tastefully attractive and blessedly un-catch-phrasey. If you ever drive up and see the sign saying something like, “Communion Sunday – over a billion served,” you can be sure that I’m no longer the pastor.

Ironically, it’s the churches that claim to make no accommodation to culture that depend the most on the catch-phrases of culture for their advertising. The Presbyterian Church (USA) has done almost everything it can to avoid going that route; and we have the membership trends to prove it. In a culture based on service industries, in a world where user-friendliness is a top priority, it’s hard for churches to compete. It’s hard for churches not to want to compete, as if the one with the most members wins. It’s hard to imagine the church wanting to say anything that’s going to turn people away – or stifle people’s enthusiasm – but that’s exactly what our founder, Jesus Christ, did. Now, he didn’t turn people away because of their weakness or unsuitability. After all, he refused to turn away even the one who would betray him, Judas, son of Simon Iscariot. Rather, Jesus was unafraid to turn people away because in a catchy-sign world that worships customer service, he chose to serve God above everyone else. He got the relationship right.

As we conduct ourselves as a church, as we live in our families, as we go about our days, getting the relationship right – is the most important thing. It’s also the hardest thing. But it’s the thing that Jesus was all about. It cost him. It cost him followers. It cost him his life. But getting the relationship right was his everything. We are Jesus’ modern-day disciples. We follow Jesus not when we’re strongest, or most worthy, or most catchy. We follow Jesus on those blessed days when we get the relationship right, and serve God above everyone else.

When I lived in Texas, I once went to a church where the minister was giving the children’s sermon. He pulled out a football. To show you how old I am, he told the kids the football was autographed by Roger Staubach, and they all went, “oooooh.” You say that now and they say, “whooooo?” These days you’d want a football signed by Peyton Manning. You hold a football signed by a Hall of Famer and pretty much anything you say is golden. And it’s a credit to this minister that after nearly 20 years I still remember exactly what he said.

He told the kids (and the grown-ups, too): “When we come to worship, we have to get the relationship right. When we’re in worship, the ministers (plural ministers – this church had about 20 of them) and the choir directors and the choirs – they’re like the coaches. They wave their arms a lot, and sing and occasionally get all red in the face, and pace back and forth – they’re like the coaches who tell us what to do. You, the kids and the grown-ups in the congregation, you who sit in the pews – you’re like the players out on the field. You’re the ones who are doing the real work of worship. You’re the ones trying to execute the plays and connect.”

“But God – God is like the folks up in the stands. Whatever we do down on the field, we’re doing it for God, who’s up there, watching and hoping that we’ll do well. And depending on how we do our work down on the field of worship, God stands up and cheers. We hope God doesn’t go, “Booooo.” “So when you come to worship on Sunday mornings, you need to think. Is God cheering because of what I’ve done? Or is God going home early? We’ve got to get the relationship right.”

So many times we get it backwards, don’t we? We think we’re the audience who watches what’s going on. We need to be careful about that. I know some of you don’t like hearing applause in worship, because your mother taught you it was tacky.
“Don’t clap – you’ll wake up your father.” We need to be careful when we feel the urge to applaud, not because we might wake someone up, and not because it isn’t deserved. We need to be careful because it puts us in the wrong place in the relationship. Scott and I have talked about this numerous times, how what we do is worship coaching, and not a performance. We certainly don’t want to do anything to stifle enthusiasm, but we want to make sure the relationship is right. People say, “Well, what do we do when the music makes us want to cheer?” as it so often does. I think that it’s not so much that we want to clap; it’s just that we don’t know what else to do. Our culture has conditioned us to have a very limited range of response. It’s either “Yea!” or “Boo!” At Montreat, they tell the congregation to go, [hand wave]. I think that’s just strange behavior.

It’s really not that complicated. We worship-coach people can see it in your eyes. We can feel it in your spirit. We can hear it when Carla finishes an Offertory and the whole place goes, “Wwwwwww.” Close your eyes and listen for the sound of God clapping. Don’t be afraid of the silence. God will fill our silence. And be sure to find the musician, or the kids, or the choir after worship and say, “You really made me think about God today.” That’s enough. Really. Because that’s what we’re here to do. When anything else happens, something in the relationship isn’t right. Someone from the field is trying to get up into the stands.

We are a service and entertainment oriented culture. It shows up in our daily lives as well. The temptation is always there to turn marriages, or parenting, or growing up into a show put on for our enjoyment. How many times have we heard ourselves saying or thinking, “I am not here to cater to your every need?” Our kids usually don’t believe us when we say it, but we try to make the point. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of watching someone serve us. It’s so easy to get angry at God for not living up to our expectations. The relationship can get out of whack so easily.

When Jesus told his followers that the road would be hard, a lot of them turned away, and no longer went about with him. In other words, they broke off the relationship. Jesus looked at his chosen twelve, including the one who would betray him. He asked them, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter, the one who would deny even knowing him, answered, “Lord, to whom can we go?” What simple truth. Even the ones who mess up the relationship know that Jesus is the only one, the only one, who can order and point their lives the right direction. It isn’t that Jesus is more catchy or more entertaining. It’s not even that they wouldn’t rather follow someone else. It’s just that Jesus is the only game in town and these twelve guys know it. Jesus is the one who makes them think about God. “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” They got the relationship right. And that’s the thing Jesus is all about.

When someone does something that makes you think about God, tell them. Write them a note. Give them a call. Let them know they’re doing something that puts you in right relationship with God. “You made me think about God today.” Say that to your husband or your wife. It’ll definitely freak them out. Let them know that because of their inspiration, you’re wanting to serve God more. And this will be a sign unto you, and unto them, as well. By the grace of God, it will be all the sign they need.
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