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

Friday, December 23, 2005

2005 Christmas Eve

2005 Christmas Eve
December 24, 2005

Merry Christmas. Although it’s been said, many times, many ways, Merry Christmas to you. In our own country, we say it many ways. In the Hispanic farm communities, they say, “Feliz Navidad.” In the Korean immigrant churches, they say, “Sung Tan Chuk Ha.” In Hawaii, they say, “Mele Kalikimaka,” which is impossible to say without moving your hips. In Alaska, the Native Americans say, “Jutdlime pivdluarit ukiortame pivdluaritlo!” (The nights are three months long, so they can afford to stretch it out. By the time they all finish saying it, it’s spring.) Here in East Tennessee, we say, “Merry Christmas, y’all.” Or, in Sevier County, “Merry Christmas, you’ns.” In our own country, and around the world, everybody says it a little differently. The words, and the feelings beneath the words, are as individual as every person who says them. Because Christmas is going to mean unique things to each one of us. All of us have our own Christmas memories. All of us have our own traditions – family traditions and personal habits. Some people love Christmas and can’t stop decorating, can’t stop buying presents, can’t stop holding mistletoe over people’s heads (even though it gets them in trouble at the office party). Some people prefer the quiet of chestnuts roasting on an open fire. And some people have trouble saying the “Merry” part of it all. We say Christmas differently, we celebrate Christmas differently, we feel Christmas differently. Preachers tell us to remember the “true” meaning of Christmas. But the truth is, there are true meanings of Christmas. There are more meanings of Christmas than there are ways to say it. And what Christmas truly means to you might not be precisely the same as what it means to the person on the other side of town, or even the other side of the pew.

“Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Not even the angels had one word for Christmas. Some would have heard, “City of David,” and said, “The King! The restorer!” Some would have said, “David who?” Some would hear, “Messiah,” some would hear, “the Christ.” Our own Bibles can’t even agree on precisely what to call him. Different versions call him very different names, and we each hear these names according to our own experience. To you, “Savior” might mean one thing. To me, it might mean something else. I suppose it depends on what you need to be saved from.

So even though we’re sharing this moment, this worship, I know that when I said, “Merry Christmas,” and you said, “Merry Christmas,” back, you might have been wishing me something very different than I was wishing you. Does that mean that one of us said it wrong? I doubt it. If not even the angels can agree how to say, “Merry Christmas,” how could we expect to say it perfectly right?

I know for some of you this IS Christmas. The hymns, the anthems, the bells, the candlelight. And for some of you this is just another part of a long, parental plot to make you sit still and wait on the one night you physically can’t.

“…they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

From the very first, Christmas has been amazing, something you both run and tell others about, and something you ponder in your own heart. Christmas is loud and quiet. Christmas is incredible and understandable. All the wishes of Christmas – all the true meanings of Christmas, whatever language they’re said in and however you might hear them – all of Christmas is about God. God who is so much bigger than we can ever comprehend. God who we try to squeeze into our hearts and squeeze out of our words. God who is great King, Savior and Lord. God who is a baby born in a manger. God who is. And God who loves. No matter how we say it. Or even if we don’t. Christmas means God. God in our dark, silent nights. God in our bright Yule mornings. The God who loves simply can’t leave us alone. God will find a voice to speak to us. God will find a language we understand.

Whatever words we use to say it, God’s Word has become flesh. God’s Word lives among us. It IS said many times, many ways. And it’s worth saying until we can’t say it any more. Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas to you.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Christmas Day

John 1:1-14
Christmas Day, 2005
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church PCUSA
December 25, 2005

O sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things.
His right hand and his holy arm
have gotten him victory.
The Lord has made known his victory;
he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness
to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen
the victory of our God.

Morning. A Bethlehem morning. The golden light of morning peeks over the horizon, over the tops of the earthen homes, turning their ordinary clay rooftops a gentle, kingly gold. Morning, and Bethlehem, the city of bread, awakens to breezes of dough kneaded, baking in the ovens of mothers making meals. Up long before dawn, the women and their work give the city its name and provide its daily life. When even the roosters are sleeping, the mothers bow before their bread-boards, quietly pounding, rolling, shaping their families’ lives by the flicker of a lamp and the light of the stars. Their Sabbath is over. Their week has begun. Six more days of creation greet them with a sigh. God of earth and heaven, God of sky and sea, God of hope and glory – is, for these women, the God of kitchens and God of mixing bowls. God of spoons and God of sprinkles, God of the flour wiped across their foreheads and squeezed beneath their fingernails. Their altar is their hearth, their synagogue their home. They breathe and the Lord God fills their lungs. They cough, and they see the angels’ dust. Quietly, so only the stars can hear, they hum songs of faith, songs of life, songs of promise. Here, in a Bethlehem morning, in homes where hearts beat and stomachs growl, here is God’s heavenly chorus. And it goes…

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises.
Sing praises to the Lord with warm, baking bread,
with warm, baking bread
and the sound of children, turning in their beds.
With stiff hands and the sound of the oven fire,
make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.

Morning. A Bethlehem morning. A mother with a baby sleeping on her breast twitches awake. What child is this, she wonders to herself. What child is this who stirs and whimpers his toothless newborn yawns. The first bronze light of his first morning catches the matted curls of the first hairs of his head. Rising and falling with each of his mother’s breaths, his tiny face scrunches, then relaxes with peace, heavenly peace. A baby sigh. Mary closes her eyes and smells the bread from the house nearby and imagines how it will look, broken and steaming, fresh from the oven’s heat. With butter. Newly churned butter, melting across the crust, gliding in a line to a pool on the wooden plate beneath. Her one craving – the simple luxury of the butter, slick on her fingers and lips. Oh, Joseph, please find some bread today, and, if you can, just a small taste of butter. Just enough to make the flavor of the loaf sing. The bread of life will join with all creation in song. And its song goes…

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who live in it.
Let the babies clap their hands;
let the mothers sing together for joy
at the presence of the Lord, for he is coming
to judge the earth.
He will judge the world by its daily bread,
and the peoples with the taste of mercy.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth of baking bread. The mornings of working mothers. God created the dawns lit by glowing hearths and stars lingering in the sun’s new sky. God created joints that ache and backs that pop because the world makes them wake up too early for too long. God created the sparkling frost of first daylight and the chilly wind that makes us yearn for the shelter of a mother’s arms. In the beginning, God created. And in the first dawn of the first morning, God’s firstborn opened its eyes and looked out at all that was and all that might be. There’s a part of God that remains an infant. It’s the part of God that makes a new day new, makes fresh bread smell fresh, makes us see the world as if we’ve never seen it before. The Firstborn of God brings first light upon all that was, and is, and ever will be. And if you listen very closely to a baby’s breath, to a mother’s sighs, to the world as it wakes up and shakes off the sleep of its own long, dark night – if you listen very closely, you can hear God’s Firstborn singing even today. And the song goes like this…

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him;
yet the world did not know him.
He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.
But to all who received him, who believed in his name,
he gave power to become children of God,
who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man,
but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory,
the glory as of a father's only son,
full of grace and truth.

Let’s stand and sing.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Giving Up or Giving In

Luke 1:26-38
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Sunday, December 18, 2005
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church PCUSA

Have you ever thought about how unlikely the Christmas story is? And, “unlikely” is putting it mildly. “Unbelievable,” might be a better description. If the concept of Christianity were totally new to you – and I know that’s pretty unlikely or even unbelievable living in the South – but if the first thing you ever heard about Christ, or about Christianity, were the verses we just read, you’d probably think, “These people have been hitting the egg nog a little heavy.”

First, Mary is “betrothed.” She’s not “engaged,” like the modern translations say. Being betrothed was pretty much like being married in Mary’s culture. And if you turned up “with child” with someone other than the betrothee, the punishment was death by stoning. From the very beginning of the beginning of Christmas, God’s breaking God’s own laws.

And then, the angel Gabriel tells Mary, the child will come from the house and lineage of David (that is, the betrothee’s – Joseph’s – family line). But Joseph doesn’t have anything to do with this child-to-be. Another confusing thing.

And then, there’s the whole notion of the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary. I’m not even going to try to explain that one. All I know is that’s not the way they teach it in Biology class.

Any reasonable adult, hearing this story for the first time, would be scrunching their eyebrows. The Christmas story is unlikely, unbelievable. You could even say it sounds simply impossible. Some people say, “Well, you simply have to suspend your disbelief and have faith that this is the way it happened.” The flipside of that is, though, that if you can’t believe these unbelievable things, your faith is a little defective.

But listen closely to what the angel Gabriel tells Mary. He doesn’t say, “Just believe, Mary, and it’ll come true.” And the angel certainly doesn’t sit Mary down to have the supernatural facts of life talk. The angel pretty much tells Mary straight out, “This is what’s going to happen.” Gabriel explains nothing; he’s just giving a little advance warning. And, when you’re Mary, advance warning is a good thing. The angel tells Mary, “Don’t be afraid.” And then he tells her one, crucial piece of information. One critical piece of information that in a sense tells her the entire gospel story, the story of what’s to come in her life, and the story of her baby’s whole life. He says, “Nothing will be impossible with God.” Nothing will be impossible with God.

Which says to us – whether we’re trying to make sense of Christmas, or whether we’re just trying to make sense of the craziness in any given day – at the precise point when we hit the brick wall and throw up our hands and think life is just impossible… at that precise point God’s just getting started.

Faith is NOT believing unbelievable things. Faith is knowing when you’re overshadowed by the impossible. Faith is knowing you’re overshadowed by the impossible, and saying, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. I don’t have any idea what’s going on or how to explain it. But let it be with me according to your word. And I’ll do my best not to be afraid.”

Christmas begins with the impossible, and Christmas ends with faith.


If the impossible casts a shadow, there has to be a light behind it.

What do you do when the impossible overshadows you? Do you give up? Or do you give in? Mary’s reaction to angel Gabriel doesn’t sound to me like giving up. It sounds to me like giving in. It’s a fine distinction, but the difference is miles wide.

What if Mary had given up? What if, instead of the response we read in the Bible, Mary had said something like this: “Oh Lord, my life is just over. Joseph’s going to hate me. He might even drag me before the synagogue and make me repeat everything you’ve just told me. That’ll be entertaining. Sorry, Lord, I’m off to my country cousin Elizabeth’s. And good luck finding me or this baby after I’m gone. Lord, if this is what it means to be your servant, I’m giving up. See you later.”

Oddly enough, giving up sounds a lot like fighting against. Giving up on God, running away from God, is just another way of fighting against God, defying God and God’s choice.

I think there’s little doubt in churches that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was an extraordinary person. And maybe she was extraordinary because she was so faithful. Or maybe she was extraordinary because she had just enough faith to give in to God’s will, instead of giving up in the face of the impossible. Somehow, for some reason, Mary could see the light behind the shadow.

So what about you? What do you do when the dark angels of the impossible sneak into your head? Do you give up?

This whole sequence with Mary and the angel sounds a lot like a dream. It could have been. Mary’s betrother, Joseph, had dreams. Joseph was a dreamer and in his dreams, the angels told him pretty much the same thing as they told Mary.

What about your dreams? Do you give up on your dreams because they’re impossible? Or do you give in to your dreams because they’re too powerful to resist?

Mary didn’t give up, but she did give in. Mary gave in to the irresistible power of a God who wasn’t afraid to do the impossible. God still isn’t afraid to do the impossible. Honestly, I don’t think God would ask any of us to do what’s impossible. God knows we’re only human. But God would ask, and God does ask, that we have just enough faith to give in to the idea that God can do, God does do unlikely, unbelievable, even impossible things. And here’s the best part, God does these things with unlikely, unbelievable, even impossible people – like you and me.


“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

That’s probably putting it mildly. Is the appearance of God’s foremost angel, when you’re standing there in your pajamas – is this good news? or bad news? Well, yes. In this case, it’s a little of both. Mary’s been chosen. She has found favor with God. But finding favor with God doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to find favor with people. People like, say, your trothee, or your parents, or the neighbors who keep wondering why you’re putting on weight. What sort of greeting might the messengers of God bring? A good greeting? Or a bad greeting?

Here at Christmas time, we talk about “good news” and “great joy.” “Glad tidings,” are what we sing. Of course, Christmas is good news.

But good news, especially the good news of God, comes at a price. The good news of God always costs us something. If we give in to the power of God, we have to give up the power of the impossible. We have to give up the power the impossible drapes over us. If we give in to God’s power, we have to give up the power of resistance. We have to give up the power of doing things our way, in our time. As much as Mary might have wanted to rush that baby, that wish was not within her power. As much as we might want to rush God along, God’s going to get here when God gets here – nine months, nine years, nine seconds. We don’t know. And if that’s not bad news, it’s at least hard news. Good tidings of great joy can be a perplexing kind of greeting.

One of the Psalms (#137) asks, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” That’s a good question, and it hasn’t gone away. In this strange land, we’re called by God to sing the song of “peace on earth, goodwill to all.” Especially we’re called to sing it at Christmas. But the good and tough news is, we’re called to sing it all the time. In all the impossible times of this world. Between tsunamis, and hurricanes, and broken levies, and earthquakes. And terrorist threats. And wars. You and I are called, just as Mary was called (although in a different way) to sing the Lord’s strange song in a land all too familiar, a land where God is thought impossible, a land where loves are divided and loyalties are broken. In this strange land, you and I are called to sing about the unlikely, impossible power of an irresistible dream. You and I are called to give in to the spirit and the truth of the Christmas that won’t stop coming back – again, and again, and again. You and I are favored by God, just enough, to be overshadowed by the impossible but not overwhelmed by it. “The Lord is with you,” the angel told Mary. The Lord is with you. And you. And you. The Lord is with you and nothing, not the strength of this world, not the strength of any resistance, will take that power away.

So that leaves us with a choice. Pretty much the same choice as Mary. Do we give in to God’s power, do we give in to the power of Christmas? Or do we give up?

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Me, I Want A Hula Hoop.

Date: 12/04/2005
Feast: 2nd s of adv
Church: Lake Hills
Bible text: Mark 1:1-8

Of the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – the Gospel According to Mark is the only one that doesn’t tell the story of Jesus’ birth. Matthew and Luke tell us how Jesus was born in body. They tell us of the baby, of Joseph and Mary, the manger and the wise men. The Gospel According to John tells us how Jesus was born in spirit – the light of God, born before all creation. But Mark, the Gospel that always seems to be in a hurry, bounds over Bethlehem, skips over the shepherds, and shoots past the star that shone in the east. The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, according to Mark, doesn’t even begin with Jesus. It begins with his cousin, John the Baptist, when both of them are in their late twenties. And it starts like this:

"See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,' "

According to Mark, the gospel of Jesus Christ begins in a hurry. And it begins with someone else.

When I was young – and I really hate having to preface my words like that – back when I was a “wee tot,” – back when “having a record,” didn’t mean you’d been to prison – back when you physically saw your music turning round and round and could read the label if you moved your head in a circle fast enough…. (Where was I? Oh yeah.) When I was young, I had a favorite Christmas record album. Maybe some of you had it, too. The best song on the album (and the only one I remember) went like this…

Dave: "All right you Chipmunks! Ready to sing your song?"
Alvin: "I'll say we are!"
Simon: "Yeah!"
Theodore: "Let's sing it now!"
Dave: "Okay, Simon?"
Simon: "Okay!"
Dave: "Okay, Theodore?"
Theodore: "Okay!"
Dave: "Okay, Alvin? Alvin? ALVIN!!!"
Alvin: "OKAY!!!"

Christmas, Christmas time is near,
Time for toys and time for cheer.
We've been good, but we can't last.
Hurry, Christmas, hurry fast!

Want a plane that loops the loop.
Me, I want a hula hoop,
We can hardly stand the wait.
Please, Christmas, don't be late.

For me, and for so many kids now and always, this song embodies the spirit of Christmas. Hurry. Don’t be late. We can’t stand waiting. Christmas begins in a hurry. And it begins with someone other than Jesus the Christ. Does that mean the Chipmunks got it wrong? Or does that mean the gospel translates differently for different people?

Malls. Online shopping. Black Friday and Cyber Monday. These have become the hurried, alternative signs of the celebration of the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ – if you believe they have anything to do with the baby Jesus at all.

My favorite Christmas TV special is one that you simply couldn’t get away with making in this day and time. Again, I’m sounding old and grumpy, but it’s true. I am getting old and grumpy. Made way back in 1965, “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” remains one of the most clever pieces of social commentary ever made. Charlie Brown is sick of the commercialism of Christmas. We hear Linus reciting scripture in the lone spotlight of the school stage. Made about the same time as the Chipmunks’ Christmas Album, Charlie Brown translates gospel differently, and gently, for people who can’t wait, and who can’t be good much longer.

“Repent! For the kingdom of heaven has come near.” John the Baptist shouted his message from the banks of the River Jordan. “Hurry!” he said to the people. “Get down here now! Because there aren’t many days left. For shopping or for anything else.” You see, for John, the coming of Christ, the Messiah, meant the end of the world as we know it. And maybe the end of the world, period. So if you didn’t get your business done in a hurry, you might not get it done at all. It’s funny how the anxious truth of John, the anxiety of his words, has gotten translated into our day and time. Oh sure, these days, the days of Advent, are anxious times. But not because we’re worried about the coming one who’s going to baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit. Did you see the news footage of the store doors bursting open and the shopper getting trampled on the floor? That ought to bring us horrible anxiety. But that’s not the kind of anxiety John the Baptist had in mind. And that’s not the kind of hurry he – or the gospel writer, Mark – were advocating.

Mark – for whatever his reasons were – wants us to know that the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t have to begin with the peace and quiet of a silent, holy night, where all is calm and all is bright. Mark wants Christmas to hurry and not be late. I think Mark’s version of the gospel is telling us that the advent of Jesus Christ comes to foolish people scrambling in the dark, as well as to people who are calm and bright. In Mark’s version of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ begins by telling us to get ready. Mark tells us to get ready, and hold on tight, because this good news is going to be a bumpy ride and its purpose is to shake us up. It’s going to involve birth and death, and crucifixion – but most importantly to you and me, this gospel ride is going to involve you and me, too.

Something I recently had pointed out to me is that the Gospel According to Mark in our Bibles doesn’t have a proper ending. At the end of the book, it just stops in mid-sentence. “Therefore…” and then, nothing. Maybe Mark lost his train of thought before the publisher snatched up his manuscript. Maybe he had a fatal heart attack. Or maybe, the whole gospel story is just the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. Maybe the whole Gospel According to Mark is just the hurried setup, the prologue to saying, “OK, now – YOU finish it. You’ve got the beginning, now you supply the ending. You’ve heard the story; now what are YOU going to do with it?”

According to Mark, John the Baptist’s message (which eventually becomes Jesus’ message, by the way) isn’t to “slow down and gaze at the Tannenbaum.” John (and Jesus’) message is to “repent.”

Another minister recently told me a definition of repentance. She said, “Repentance is changing what you love.” Repentance is changing what you love. If your Christmastime hurry and anxiety moves you closer to the kingdom of heaven, then fine and good for you. But if your Christmastime anxiety pulls you away from Christ, then you need to change what you love, if not in word then at least in deed. Change what you love so your heart can repent, so you don’t run at a frantic chipmunk pitch. There are other ways to translate your love and need for Jesus Christ.

Want a plane that loops the loop? You, you want a hula hoop? Or an Xbox 360? Fine and good. But if your love for Christ gets lost in translation, then your love is pointing the wrong direction. The greatest gift that John the Baptist brings us is the gift of pointing, pointing Jesus out to us. Pointing us down the straight paths that lead us to God’s love.

If, this time of the year, if you feel like a 33-and-a-third record playing at 78 rpm, if that’s the way you have to be to get everything done, then, OK. The gospel-writer Mark and John the Baptist were in a hurry, too – and the good news still got told. I know my life’s not going to slow down at Christmastime, so I’m not going to stand here and tell you to decelerate yours. You see, Christmas – the kind of Advent of Jesus Christ that John tells us about – doesn’t depend on us. God’s good news is going to catch up with us no matter how fast or how slow we run. The four gospels in the Bible can’t even agree on exactly how the good news of Jesus Christ begins. What they can agree on is how it ends. It ends with you. The gospel’s point is your life in the here and now… and the lives of your neighbors… and the lives of your friends… and even the lives of your enemies, too. The gospel ends with you and Christ finishing the story that begins saying, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

You know how the gospel begins. And so, therefore…

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Wake Up!

Mark 13 24-37
How Do You Know What's Coming?
Mark 13:24-37
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
November 29, 2005

“What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake!” said Jesus to everyone. “Keep awake!” Because with the advent of Jesus Christ, with the preparations for his kingdom, looking toward the future… we don’t know what’s really going to happen. We might THINK we know, but we don’t know. Especially when we’re talking about Jesus, we don’t – and we can’t – know what’s going to happen.

How do you know what's coming? It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas (everywhere you go). We're lighting candles and singing the GOOD hymns. Not that all the others aren't good, but there's just something about those Christmas carols. We preachers try to remind you that it's not really Christmas season yet. We try. We say, "Wait! Hold on! Thanksgiving was only last Thursday. Scripture says thou hast 27 more shopping days left. 27 more days of Advent. We tell you Christmas season doesn’t really begin until the day AFTER Christmas. Silly preachers. Everybody knows Christmas season starts the day after Halloween. Everybody knows what’s coming. Everybody’s making plans.

You know what time it is. You’ve planned for it. Some of you already have all your presents bought and all your cards in the mail. If that’s you, keep it to yourself. Cold weather’s finally here. The deceitful trees have thrown all their leaves into our gutters. WalMart has giant, inflatable Santas. We know what time it is. Like the fig tree Jesus spoke of, we see the change of seasons. We know what's going to happen. It's the end of football season. This year it's really the end of football season. Time for hunting season. Hunting for an Offensive Coordinator season. We can read the writing on the wall. We know what's going to happen.

We know what's coming this Christmas season because the same things happen every Christmas season. We light the Advent candles. We have the Cantata. We read pretty much the same scriptures. And hear sermons on pretty much the same scriptures. That’s why we start with the one that says, “Keep awake!” All this stuff about the sun and the moon and the stars burning out... all this prophesy about the foundations of the universe being shaken up. Do we really believe that? We believe them in principle, sure. But we don't really expect these things to happen. Not before this generation passes away. Not before we finish our Christmas shopping, at least. We might believe it as a concept, but we don't watch for it. We don't stay awake for the end of the world as we know it. Good Presbyterians that we are, we know what's coming because we plan what's coming. We save. We buy. We make lists for Santa and go to the mall so our kids can hand him the printouts from the gift registry. Christmas is a time of no surprises, or few surprises. We tell the jolly old elf what we want and then sit back and let him do his thing. We know it's Christmas because there aren't surprises unless we say there are going to be surprises, and if there are surprises, we darn well better know what they're going to be.

We know it's Christmas because the same things happen every year. We're comfortable with them. We're OK with tradition. Yes, the Christ baby surprised everyone that first Christmas day, but one surprise in 2000 years is enough. Christmas is the great festival of predictability.

So what do we do with scripture that tells us that Christ's advent is utterly unpredictable? What do we do with scripture that tells us while Christ's coming is good, it's not exactly pleasant? What happens when the Word of God goes against everything we expect -- in the busiest holiday season of the year? Christ and Christmas are on a collision course. Someday all that we can prepare for will run headlong into all that we can't. And scripture tells us what we can't prepare for will win. How do we know what's going to happen? Not because we've put it on layaway. Not because we've done it that way for 1000 years. We know what's going to happen because God says it's going to happen. Maybe that's the biggest surprise of all. What God says is going to happen will happen. And God's happening will wipe out everything we think we're prepared for.

Praying, and watching for God's kingdom to come is not the prayer of the man or woman who has everything. Praying and watching for God's kingdom is not the prayer of the child who can't wait to see what's under the tree. Praying and watching for God's kingdom is the prayer of someone whose life is predictable only in its chaos. When we reach the point of knowing in our hearts that things aren't how they're supposed to be... When we reach the point of hoping for hope itself... God's promises of universal surprise begin to pull us through. God's promises of a new heaven and a new earth pull us into hope that we can't buy, make, bake, or charge. God's promise of change gives us life when our plans fall dead. When we honestly don't know what's going to happen... When we truly can't plan our way around the block, Christ whispers the advent carol to us: "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel. That mourns in lonely exile here. Until the Son of God appear. Rejoice. Rejoice. Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel." It isn't a carol of birth; it's a carol of rebirth. It’s almost too honest to sing. Advent strips us down beneath the jolly stuff we want to wear. Advent sings straight at the heart. Like an arrow to the soul, Advent sings songs only God knows how to write. We don't know exactly how they're going to go. But we know they will. Not because we can sing, or live, or plan our words and deeds so carefully. Advent will come in God's way, in God's time, because God says it will.

How do we know what's going to happen this Christmas? We all have our ideas about that. But how do we know what's going to happen in Advent? How do we know what's going to happen when Christ comes? We don’t. We can't know. But God knows. And God says, "Just watch. Watch. Keep awake. And you'll see."

So what do we do with our Christmas commitment to predictability? What do we do with the decorations that always go on the same table, in the same configuration? What do we do with the ceramic penguin with the scarf that always has to face 24 degrees south-southwest? Probably the same things we do every year. But what can change, what needs to change is something only you can change, with God’s help. If Christmas bores you, if Christmas wears you out, if Christmas traditions lull you into sleepwalking through the season, then WAKE UP! Wake up to Christ’s advent. Wake up to the season of Advent. Wake up to the totally unpredictable, totally uncontrollable force of a God strong enough to snuff out the sun and shake the stars out of the sky. Wake up to the God who’s unpredictable enough, and uncontrollable enough, to choose you, to say “Yes” to you. Wake up. And stay awake. For you don’t know when Christ is going to born again in you.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

When Did We See You?

Matthew 25:31-46
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church PCUSA
November 20, 2005

Each month at Session meeting, I ask the following question: Where have you recently seen God at work in the church? Sometimes we get a lot of responses. Things like – at the Thanksgiving Dinner, or, in Mike Kirkland’s mission work to the Gulf Coast, or, in the mentoring program at Mt. Olive School. Sometimes there’s a lot going on that has touched peoples’ souls or hearts or hands. But a lot of the time, when I ask, “Where have you recently seen God at work?” we kind of just sit there in uncomfortable silence. And, because I’m the one asking the question, it seems like a LONG silence.

Now, I know God is at work in this church. And I know the Session members – the members of our governing board – are very much aware of God being at work in the church. I think good, Presbyterian modesty prevents them from trying, or even appearing, to take credit for the work of the Almighty. But I think something else is also going on during those times of uncomfortable silence. The truth is, we’re – and by that, I mean all of us – we’re just not used to being asked where we think God is at work in our own lives, right now. Oh, if we’re looking back at the past, we’re probably all able to pick out one or maybe two really big “lightening bolt” kind of times when we know God had to be doing something behind the scenes, or maybe even in front of the scenes, right in our faces. But when we’re asked, “Where is God working right now in your life?” we’re uncomfortable presuming on behalf of God.

I can’t get over the idea that in the story Jesus told about the kingdom, the sheep – the ones the king in the story tells, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world,” these sheepish people respond by saying, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” In other words, they did the good works of the king, without realizing what they were doing. They were just decent folks doing what they figured all decent people did. They didn’t feed the hungry because they thought it would get them skybox seats in heaven. They didn’t visit the sick because they thought God would keep them healthy in exchange. They didn’t give clothes to the Salvation Army because they thought it would earn them a golden robe in the sweet by and by. They just did the right thing because they wanted to do the right thing. If you asked them, “Where is God at work in your life, right now?” they’d probably say, “I don’t know. All I know is that I’m late to my kid’s school program.” Or, “I don’t know. Can I get back to you after I go work at the Volunteer Ministry Center?” Or, they might even just sit there, staring back at you, waiting for someone else to talk, because they don’t want to presume on behalf of the Almighty. It’s one thing for me, as your minister, to stand up here and tell you, “God is at work in your life.” It’s quite another for you to say, “God is at work in my life, right now – and I want to tell everybody about it.” That kind of bold, public witness just isn’t very Presbyterian. But being sheepish isn’t a bad thing. If you’re a sheep, and all you ever do is quietly and obediently go where you think the Good Shepherd Jesus is telling you to go, you’re doing alright. In fact, in terms of the story Jesus told in today’s scripture, you’re doing more than alright.

I had a conversation this past week with a minister from a different denomination, one of the other thirty-one flavors of churches God gives us or humans just naturally gravitate into because they like the hymns better over there. And this minister was telling me how tired he had become of having members of his congregation come up to “witness.” He said he got tired of hearing the members “witness” because almost every single one of them talked about the past. They talked about what God had done – ten, twenty, fifty years ago. So this minister told his congregation that if they wanted to witness they had to do it differently. They had to limit their “witness” statement to three minutes – kind of revolutionary – and, they had to talk about what God was doing in their lives, right now – this past day, this past week, maybe this past month, but nothing previous to that. And, this minister said, something changed. At first, it took some work and some encouragement. But then, suddenly, people started telling each other really important things. Really relevant things. Really personal things that people in the congregation could really, really relate to. It made God come alive. Now, God wasn’t limited to what God had done in a galaxy long ago and far away. People started talking about how God was present in the carpool to school. They started talking about how God was with them at physical therapy, this past week. They started talking about how God was at the PTA meeting, or in a conference room, or at the bottom of a deep pile of dirty clothes. God came alive for this congregation in the here and now – not just in the past, and not just in the sweet by and by. God was at work right now. And, once people started talking about it, they were surprised. Very pleasantly surprised.

Marshall McLuhan, the author who wrote the book, The Medium Is The Massage, that a lot of us had to read in the late 60’s or 1970’s because of some nutty professor – McLuhan had one sentence that I still remember. Probably because there was also a picture of it on the page. Books with pictures are good. He said that we’re like people who are driving a car into the future, with our eyes glued to the rear view mirror. That’s so true. We don’t know what’s coming in the future. We can’t see the future. The best we can see is where we’ve been. So, we drive on our merry ways, sometimes just flooring the pedal to the metal, applying mascara, talking on the cell phone and listening to a CD, and all we can see is where we’ve been. We have to guess how the road’s going to turn by looking at how it’s turned in the past. You, me – we’re all trying to figure out how to behave by thinking about what’s worked in the past. Check the rear view – no bodies laying in the dust? Must be doing OK. So far, so good.

That’s how most of us think about God. We see God in the rear view mirror, if at all. “When, Lord, did we see you?” If we can’t answer THAT question, forget about, “When, Lord, where are we seeing you, right now?”

There’s this Old Testament idea about God that gets carried over into the here and now. The Hebrews believed that no one could look at the face of God and live. They’d burst into flames like the Nazis in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” But then, God made a New Covenant. Not that the Old Covenant was gone. But in the New Covenant, God wrote new chapters in the story. In the New Testament, Jesus comes along. And guess what? You CAN look Jesus in the face. You CAN look Jesus in the face, and live. You can see God at work in the here and now, and not only can you live after seeing God’s face, you can begin to live like never before BECAUSE you’ve seen the face of God.

When we see God in the here and now, that’s sacramental. We call the Lord’s Supper and Baptism, sacraments. They’re sacraments because not only did Jesus tell us to “Go, do” these things; they’re sacramental because we believe that they’re like mysterious gateways that open up the real, live presence of God, right before our eyes. We don’t know how they work. We just believe they do. When we take the cup and taste the bread, when we hear the water pouring into the font, we believe we’re looking into the face of God. And, we believe this one other, totally amazing thing: we believe God’s looking back, right at us, right here. And not only is God looking back, God’s smiling. God’s saying, “Yes,” to us. God’s giving us license to see God not just here, in the official Sacraments of the church, but in sacramental events of every daily life. At the PTA meeting. In the conference room. At the bottom of a deep pile of dirty clothes. Because what we believe is that God’s not limited by the past. And God’s not resigned to the future kingdom come in some distant tomorrow. We believe God’s alive and at work right now. Wherever we feed the hungry, or clothe a stranger, or care for the sick, the forgotten, the imprisoned. Whenever we open a gateway to the here and now, you know who we’re going to find on the other side? Surprise! It’s Jesus.

So we can drive ourselves into the future, and take our eyes off the rear view mirror. Because there’s more to see than just what happened in the past. We might not be able to see very far into the fog ahead, but we can see far enough to know God’s in front of us.

You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.

That’s how the writer of Psalm 139 said it. If we just open our eyes and look around, we’ll see God at work in our lives – in front of us, behind us, and in the seat beside us. God was there all along, and we barely even knew it.

“When did we see you, Lord?” we ask. “Well,” says the Lord, “when did you look?”

Thursday, October 27, 2005

All Y'all Saints

1 Corinthians 1:1-10
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church PCUSA
Sunday, October 30, 2005 – All Saints’ Observed

Are any of you into scrapbooking? Would any of you like to be into scrapbooking if you only had 1000 hours to look through the mountain of pictures in your closet? That’s the problem with looking through old photographs. What starts out as a one-hour project turns into a five-day walk down memory lane. You start passing pictures around to family members and saying, “Aww, look how cute you were when you were a baby. What happened?” “Look how much hair you used to have.” “Look how thin we were.” And some of the pictures that at the time we thought were absolutely horrible turn out now to be some of the best. A bad prom dress. A plaid leisure suit. A stuck-out tongue. After the pictures age a little, like a fine wine, the candid shots that caught us as we truly were often turn into the most beloved. To anyone else, that picture of you holding up two fingers behind your brother’s head might look silly. And it might look silly to you, too. But it’s not the pictures that are so valuable. It’s the memories. So one hour or sorting old photos turns to two, three, or four hours of refreshed memories. Looking through memories takes time.

But in another sense these memories give us time. The old photos remind us that life is so much richer, and deeper, than the surface of this moment. We have history. We have importance. We have a lifetime of experience and meaning. Pictures of grandparents and great-grandparents remind us that we’re all more than just our mere selves. These people whose faces we might barely remember are part of us. Part of them lives on in who we are.

When the Apostle Paul begins his letter to the Corinthians he addresses it to the people he remembers. He calls them, “Saints.”

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours…

Paul is addressing these mere mortals as “saints.” He says these mere church-goers are people “called to be saints.” Called by God Almighty. Called by Christ Jesus. Called by the Holy Spirit. Predestined, perhaps. The church at Corinth sounds like a great place. A place where everyone is enriched in Christ, in speech and knowledge of every kind. A place where no one is lacking in any spiritual gift. Where they’re strengthened by Christ to the end, so that they’ll be blameless on the day of judgment. What a great church!

Except. Paul has a few pictures of these people in his mind. He’s heard reports. These people he addresses as saints aren’t all that saintly. The next sentences of his letter, the part we didn’t read, tell a fuller story.

For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, "I belong to Paul," or "I belong to Apollos," or "I belong to Cephas," or "I belong to Christ." Has Christ been divided? (Literally, “Has Christ been cut to pieces?”)

Upon closer examination, this glossy picture of heavenly saints has some problems. And the rest of Paul’s letter is an attempt to help them correct these problems. If these church people are, as Paul calls them, “saints,” then there must be more to sainthood than getting your picture on a stained-glass window.

Over the past weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time going through the archives of our church, getting ready for the birthday we just celebrated. We have a scrapbook that’s literally falling apart, and if any of you who are into scrapbooking would like to take it on as a project, that would be great. I especially love the earliest photos. The ones of Parson Larson leading worship at the C’est Bon dinner club. Legend has it that some of our best church members were found under the tables on Sunday morning. Nobody seems to remember if that’s true or not. Especially the ones who were found. Stories don’t have to be true to be good.

Jesus – and the Apostle Paul – found saints under tables, up trees, in doorways and alleys. They found people who were willing to say, “Yes,” to God, and to whom God said, “Yes.” Not a complicated transaction. Some were noble characters, and some were just plain characters. They became the saints of the church not because of anything they did or didn’t do. They became saints not because someone thought their picture would look good in a stained glass window someday. They became saints because God said so. Paul said they had been, “Sanctified in Christ Jesus.” So that even if he were mad at them, even if they were splitting into quarrelling factions, even if they were making faces behind each other’s backs, the picture still turned out. God’s scrapbook has some funny-looking photos. But still tells the story. And their story is our story. The story of the early church is the story of every church. Because they’re part of us. Part of them lives on in who we are.

Today we pause for a few minutes to think about being saints. The church, in its calendar, calls the day after tomorrow not “Some Saints’ Day,” but “All Saints’ Day.” We remember the people from our own histories. We remember the saints who have helped shape who we are. We call by name the ones who in the past year have transcended a limited, earthly sainthood, and have died in Christ, so that they might be raised in Christ. And, we take a moment to look around. Look around the sanctuary at the people who help make you who you are. Look at the saints who are “sanctified in Christ Jesus,” to say, “Yes,” to God’s good news. And take a good look at yourself, too. You’re here. You’ve said, “Yes” to God in whatever grand or simple way you can. The mere fact that you’re here, worshipping God, or at least trying to worship God, or at least trying to put the devils of this world out of your mind for few minutes so that God might fill you with something else. We’re scraps in the book of the church. And even if we don’t think we have anything to offer, God holds that photo, and treasures it. You’re part of God’s memory. And memories take time. But memories give time, too.

Memories give time. The promise in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is that we have an eternity of time. Part of that eternity begins now. Part of that eternity is already within us. When we open up our Bibles and read about First Century saints, when we look around and think about Twenty-first Century saints. When we look at ourselves. We catch a glimpse of the eternity God will someday show us in fullness. We catch a glimpse of a family resemblance with the saints who are in heaven. We see the past. We imagine the future.

The Apostle said, “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” And not just you or you, but all of you. All y’all got called. All of you saints. All the saints.

To God be the glory, forever and ever.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

A Baptismal Letter

Matthew 22:34-46
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church PCUSA
October 23, 2005

For the sermon this morning, I have a letter that I’d like to share. It’s a letter written from me to Alexandria Melody Kaur Singh. It’s a letter about God and about her. I don’t think she’ll understand all of it. But that’s OK, because nobody understands all of what God has to say or who God is, or even who we ourselves are. But we try. We preach sermons, we write letters, we send emails, we call on the cell phone, we fax. Occasionally we even talk to each other. How we communicate the good news of Jesus Christ isn’t important. The medium is not the message. So sometimes we preach, sometimes we sing, and sometimes we write letters.

Dear Alexandria Melody Kaur Singh,

Hi. I’m James and I’ll be your pastor. I’m the guy with the big, wet hand who held you and walked you around the sanctuary a few minutes ago. I’m a minister, but I’m also a dad, so I have some idea how proud your family is of you. That’s pretty cool. You don’t have to do anything, and everybody thinks you’re adorable. Especially your grandparents. Just between us, they’re the ones you want to talk to when your mom says No. But if anyone asks, you never heard me say that.

You’re blessed to be part of a wonderful family. But this morning, you got adopted into an even bigger family. This morning, we baptized you. I got my hand all wet and put it on your forehead, and said some words about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. People have been saying these same words over babies just like you for a long, long time. “I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” It’s something we do in public to tell the world who we are. It’s something Jesus told us to do. He told us that whenever we baptize anyone – young or old – he’s right there with us, watching, helping, giving us the words to say. When we baptize, we believe Jesus is with us. Jesus is with us. But that’s only half the story.

We also believe that when we baptize, we’re with Jesus. We’re with Jesus. And that’s really important. We believe that when we baptize anyone – young or old – it’s like a ceremony of adoption. When we baptize, we’re showing the world that God is adopting us into God’s family. That means that Jesus isn’t just with us; it means Jesus is now our brother. And we’re his sister or brother. It’s like God is like a very, very grand parent who sits back, sighs a big sigh, and says, “Now. You’re officially part of the family.”

Alexandria Melody Kaur Singh, you’re officially part of God’s family. You always were part of God’s family. But now, it’s official. And all the people here are witnesses. They saw it happen. And they’ll tell you all about it someday. They’ll tell you what was true from the moment you were born: You are a child of God. We’ve always known that. But now we’ve said it out loud. You are a child of God, a sister of Jesus Christ, an adopted member of a holy family that will surround you with their spirit and their prayers. And that, my child, means a few other things.

First, it means you’ve got a long list of other relatives you’ll need to know about. You’ve got a very grand father, Abraham, and a very grand mother, Sarah. Abraham had a late-life crisis and couldn’t stay in one place very long. Sarah laughed out loud at God. You’ve got two older twin brothers, Jacob and Esau, who fought so much they even fought with each other in their mother’s tummy. You’ve got an uncle named, Moses, who wasn’t very good with a map, but was very good at directions. He gave us commandments. Those are directions that’ll help you learn more about who you are. And, if by some stretch of the imagination you ever misbehave, the commandments will help you learn what’s right.

You have a grand mother named, Mary. Mary listened to angels. Mary had a baby. And she named the baby, Jesus, because that’s what the angels told her to do. We’ll talk more about Jesus in a minute. You’ve got twelve uncles called, The Disciples. They weren’t very good fishermen, but they were good at listening to Jesus and then telling other people what he said and what he was like.

And, Alexandria Melody Kaur Singh, you’ve got a room full of brothers and sisters, and aunts and uncles, and step-moms and step-dads, right here. And, like the rest of the family, we’re not perfect (except for Jesus). We aren’t a perfect family, but, you know what? God has adopted us, too. God loves us, too. God has said that we’re his children, just as you’re God’s child. That’s more than cool.

Now, a minute ago, I said I’d tell you more about your brother, Jesus. There’s so much to tell. Someday you’ll be about to read about him in our book, the Bible. Someday you’ll hear Sunday School teachers and Bible School teachers tell stories about Jesus. But here’s what I want to tell you today.

One day, some people asked Jesus what was the most important thing in the world. Was it one of Moses’ commandments? Was it following every rule so God would never be mad at you? No. Jesus said it was something else. Jesus told them there’s one most important thing in the world, but it has two parts.

The first part of the most important thing in the world is: Love God. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” The first part of the most important thing in the world is: Love God.

The second part of the most important thing in the world is like the first part, but different. The second part says: Love your neighbor. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

It sounds like two different rules, but really it’s just one. Because if you really love God, you’ll love your neighbor. And if you really love your neighbor as much as you love yourself, you’ll show your neighbor that you love God. One most important thing, with two parts.

You probably think it’s funny that we have to have a commandment to tell us to love God and each other. You probably think, “Well, what else would people do?” When your mom holds you so tight, when your grandmother sings you a song to help you go to sleep – when people spend their days and nights doing things like that, what’s not to love? Of course you love. It’s the natural thing to do.

Well, it was like that for most of us, too. But part of growing up and getting big is growing apart. It happens to everyone. The people we love still want to hold us in their arms, and we want to hold them right back. But as we get bigger, the space between our arms and their arms gets bigger, too. So Jesus reminds us – Jesus commands us – to fill that space with love. Love is the only thing that makes us right again, the way we started out to be, the way you are right now.

Being baptized as a child of God means you’re officially adopted into a family so big you can’t believe it. But your baptism also means that no matter how big you get, God’s love is always bigger. If you ever feel lost or alone, God’s love is the way back home. If you remember to love God and love the people around you – whoever they are – you’re on the right road.

So, Alexandria, welcome to the family. If you ever forget what that means, we’ll help you remember. And if we ever forget that that means, you can teach us. In a way, you already have, just by being here. Your baptism is our baptism. Your God is our God. Your brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and very great grandparents are ours, too. You are loved by the God who loves us all. Welcome to the family.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Jesus Reads Scripture

Luke 4:15-30
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church PCUSA
October 9, 2005

Jesus reads scripture. Take a minute to think about that. For just a minute, set aside all the other things happening in this passage.

Set aside the more obvious miracles. Set aside the miracles that Jesus has been doing in Capernaum, the miracles of healing the hometown Nazareth crowd wants him to do for them. Set aside the miracle of Jesus’ escape when the angry crowd runs him out of town and tries to throw him off a cliff. “He passed through the midst of them, and went on his way,” it says. George Lucas could make some cool special effects out of that one.

But not only the miracles; set aside the human dynamics going on here. Set aside the crowd’s praise of their little boy grown up so well. “Look, isn’t that Joseph’s son reading scripture and pronouncing those big words?” Set aside the crowd’s anger when he doesn’t put on a show.

And furthermore, set aside not only the miracles and the response, set aside even the scripture that Jesus reads, that he says is fulfilled in their hearing. If you set aside all those things, you get one central kernel of information: Jesus reads scripture.

When you stop and think about it, that’s pretty miraculous in itself. Jesus has an ability, and Jesus has a calling. Jesus takes his human ability – the simple ability to read – and combines it with a divine calling based upon the content of what he reads. If you take human ability, combine it with divine calling, and guide these with scripture, you’ve got the recipe for miracles.

Here’s what I think: If it works for Jesus, it’ll work for us, too. Now, not many of us are going to open our Bibles and announce that we’re the long-awaited Messiah who’s going to restore sight to the blind, release to the captives, and freedom to the oppressed. If we really do read our Bibles we’ll see pretty fast that putting ourselves on par with God is a bad idea. What I think the example of Jesus is saying is that miracles don’t come from some secret recipe of eleven herbs and spices that only God knows. What worked for Jesus, and what’ll work for us, is taking our human ability, combining it with the hint of divine calling, and then letting the words of scripture be our guide.

Jesus read scripture. And miracles started to happen. Prophesy started to happen. Jesus began to happen. You and I have this incredible gift of being able to read scripture, too. When we read scripture, what’s gonna happen?


Have any of you read the Bible cover to cover? Bless your hearts. Have any of you TRIED to read the Bible cover to cover? What happens? Well, most of us can make it through Genesis, because there’s creation and procreation, lots of action and violence. And a few of us can make it through Exodus, because there’s Moses and the Ten Commandments and entertaining plagues. But then, we get to Leviticus. “You shall offer a bull without blemish, cutting it into parts and washing its entrails and legs. The entrails and legs shall be washed with water….” You might get the feeling even God fell asleep during Leviticus. So you skip over to the New Testament. But the New Testament starts out with all those begats. “Abraham begat Isaac; and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas… And Judas begat Phares… and Phares begat Esrom; and Esrom begat Aram….” Who knew begetting could be so dull?

So here we’ve got this amazing book, this book of life, this book of love – and most of us are afraid to do anything with it. We figure, if it’s boring, we must not be very smart. Or worse, if we doze off we’re scared we’ll be insulting God.

Or, we simply don’t have time. We’d like to sit down and read the Bible, but we barely have time to read the newspaper. We’ve got all this other stuff yammering for our attention, beeping, ringtoning, pop-up boxing… squealing, crying, and cell-phoning to tell us, “Hey! You’ve forgotten me!” And the Bible doesn’t do those things. Unless you have a version I don’t know about. “The iPod Bible,” or something like that.

We have this book of life, this book of love – and it just sits there, waiting. Books are like that.

I would imagine the people of Nazareth felt the same way. If not more so. For most of them, the Bible was kept so sacred it was untouchable. And even if they could get their hands on the scrolls, they had to be able to read, which was not a common thing. And then to read not in their native language, Aramaic, but in Hebrew, the language of their ancestors. For anyone to read scripture was a pretty amazing thing. But to interpret scripture, as if it didn’t bore you to tears or scare you to death – to apply it to your own life as if you knew what it meant – for someone to do THAT was a miracle.

And it’s still a miracle today.


Starting at verse 15: He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written…”

The Jewish synagogue was designed to be a place of very unpretentious teaching. The kind of place anyone might listen and learn. And Jesus followed the traditions of the synagogue. When it was time to read scripture, he stood up, and the scroll was handed to him. He read the scripture in Hebrew. Maybe some of the people understood the old language, maybe some didn’t. He rolled up the scroll, handed it back, and then sat down to teach in the common language, Aramaic. So here’s Jesus, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, the Son of God, sitting in a circle on the floor, the way our kids do during Children’s Sermon. And he says…

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

And all spoke well of him, scripture says, and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth, because his sermon was only one sentence long, and they knew they could beat the Baptists to lunch. OK, maybe that’s not exactly what it says. It wasn’t the length of the sermon the people of Nazareth were amazed about. It was the content. Jesus took the scripture, this scroll of words that had been so boring or frightening or time-consuming – Jesus took the scripture, this scroll of words, and literally declared that it had come alive, before their very eyes, in their very hearing. Jesus read scripture. Jesus read scripture and found out who he was. Jesus read scripture and the people of Nazareth found out who they were. Jesus read scripture, and lives changed. Miracles started to happen.


Fred Craddock, a teacher of preachers, tells his students, “The surest way to stop growing is to stop reading.” Go, visit the church Library during its open house today, and find something to read. Let the church help you grow in that way. There are Bibles in the library. There are books about the Bible. There’s all kinds of good stuff.

But whatever you choose to read, whether it’s the Bible or something else, if you treat it like a bunch of dead words on a page, that’s exactly what it’ll be. The words only come alive when they form a kind of triangle. At one point, we have the words. At a second point, we have our human gifts or abilities, whatever they might be. And at the third point, we have the hint of a divine calling from God.

Scripture says that God knew you and formed you, even before you were born. It says that God knows the number of hairs on your head. God knows when you rise up and when you lie down. You are a child of God. And as a child of God, you’ve been born with unique gifts and abilities. The fingerprints of your life belong to you, and nobody else has anything exactly like you do. God has given you a set of abilities and the capability for more.

Faith teaches us that our abilities are meant for more than our amusement. God has made you who you are for a reason. Your unique gifts are meant to glorify your maker, to be a channel for God’s love to flow through. The church sometimes talks about “vocation,” your Christian vocation. Some people are called to teach, to teach children to read (and God bless you teachers who are called to do that). Some people are called to grow flowers. Some people are called to sweep floors. How the world sees your vocation isn’t nearly as important as how you see it. Maybe one morning, you sat straight up in bed and declared out loud, “God is calling me to….” And your husband or wife said, “Not right now, God isn’t.” If that’s how clearly God has spoken to you about your purpose in life, you’re blessed. I think for most of us, there’s this sense of nudging, this hint that sticks in our minds and just won’t go away. Sometimes God shouts to us, and sometimes God whispers. Either way, it’s still God.

When you take that sense of what God’s calling you to do, when you combine it with your talents, and when you let the words of scripture guide you – that’s when the pages of scripture are filled full. Maybe you aren’t going to fulfill prophesy the way Jesus did. So what? That was his job. You’ve got your job. No matter how big or how small God’s job for you is, you can become alive in scripture, filled full with gracious words. You can live among those gracious words, and God’s gracious words can live in you.

Jesus’ ministry started with the simple act of reading a book and sitting down. When you read God’s book, what’s gonna start in you?

Wednesday, September 21, 2005


Matthew 21:23-32
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church PCUSA
September 25, 2005

In the last presidential election, one of the candidates – I can barely remember his name – was branded (fairly or unfairly) a “flip-flopper.” In a stroke of visual publicity genius, the opposition started showing up with cheap flip-flops in their hands, holding them above their heads and clapping them together to drive the point home. “He’s a FLIP-FLOPPER.” It sounds a little silly now, but then it was said as if that’s the worst possible thing a person could ever be.

In the gospel lesson today Jesus takes some people to the woodshed for NOT being flip-floppers. The religious high-and-mighties are stuck. Chances are that even if they want to change their minds, they can't. It's enough to make Jesus angry. You don’t want to make Jesus angry. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus said, “the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” He doesn’t tell the leaders they won’t get into the kingdom, but they’re going to have to take a number. While the people they look down their noses at get bumped to the front of the line.

Changing your mind. Changing your beliefs. Just changing in general is a really hard thing. Change too much, and people call you a flip-flopper. Change too little, and people say you’re closed-minded. (I can hear it now: “Daaaadyyyy. You’re acting like it’s still 2015. You’re so old-fashioned.”) And yet, the world is changing all around us, every day, faster and faster. What’s the saying? “The only thing you can count on is change.” You might flip-flop on political issues. You might flip-flop on social issues. But is it ever OK to be a flip-flopper in your faith?


Jesus didn’t preach many sermons, but he did tell a lot of stories. When the preachers came to split their gray hairs with him, he took their indignation and turned it into a children’s sermon, a story.

“What do you think?” he asked them. “A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?”

This is NOT a lesson in practical parenting. This is NOT a lesson on how to treat your mom and dad. If that’s what you’re looking for, it’s a lesson on how to drive your parents crazy. Most kids already know how to do that. “Dad, I’m going to go to college. Dad, I’m going to drop out and find myself. Dad I’m pretty sure my self is in Europe. Can you give me some money to find out? Dad? Dad?”

Jesus tells the story of the two sons as an opportunity for grace. Even the disrespectful son can change his mind from, “I will not,” to “I will.” He won’t erase the disrespect, but he will, in the end, do the will of his father. Between the lines, Jesus is telling the leaders there’s still time to change their minds – if they want to, if they choose. They can become faithful flip-floppers, and that’ll be OK. Or, they can hold onto their stubbornness and take their places at the end of the kingdom’s line.

What is this saying to us?

Number one: It says God forgives. It says even though a person might make God angry, God forgives. God is blessedly inconsistent in God’s outlook toward us. And that’s good. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” wrote Emerson. The mind of God is so much greater, and capable of so much more than our little brains and our hobgoblins. God is biased. God is biased in our direction. God is biased toward us when we do manage to pull our minds out of our own foolish little consistencies. God’s mind can change, even after we’ve done things so stupid we’ve managed to anger the Almighty. God forgives. God can change.

Number two: The parable says we can change. There’s a T-shirt that says, “Change is good. You go first.” There are so many staunchly conservative religious groups in the world today. They scare me. It doesn’t matter whether they’re Christian, Jewish, Muslim, whatever. Religious groups who have their minds so securely fixed, who are so certain God agrees with them – and them alone – are dangerous. They defy the good news of the Gospel. They fight the idea of repentance. They arm themselves, sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally, arm themselves against the idea that people can change.

Jesus’ message to the religious leaders is NOT that they can’t get into the kingdom. His message to them is, though, that they’re going to have to wait. They’ve got to wait their turn until the people they hate, the tax collectors and the prostitutes, take their place at the front of the line. Maybe – maybe – Jesus places the leaders at the end of the line, NOT to shame them, but so they’ll have time. Time to think. Time to listen. Time to listen to what the folks in front of them have to say. Time to hear the voices of the people they won’t allow in worship. Time to hear how these people’s children cry, just as their own children do. Waiting at the end of the line, they’ll have time. Time to change.

When beliefs turn so harsh, when we become so rigid that we dismiss people as unimportant, it’s usually when we don’t think we have time. We don’t have time to listen to the complaints of the customers. We don’t have time to visit a hospital. We don’t have time to read a book with a different point of view. So we cut corners – we cut out the corners of thought – and start thinking in straight lines, black and white, right and wrong, my way or the highway. What the scripture is saying is the highway to the kingdom has a lot of corners; it curves around and through places we don’t like to go. The highway to the kingdom takes us past neighborhoods we don’t want to see. The way of Jesus takes time. Time changes us.

A fundamental belief of Christianity is that the resurrection of Christ gives us eternal life. No matter what happens in this life, we’ve got all the time in the world – and then some. Stop for a moment; think about that. You’ve got all the time in the world – and then some. You’ve got eternity, promised in the waters of baptism and sealed in the blood of Jesus Christ. Even if you’re afraid you’re really one messed up human being, you’ve got time. You can change.

Jesus said to the religious folk: “John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds….”

God can change. God can forgive. God can move from anger to mercy. God can change. Can we?


John Brichetto – one of the saints of this church, now in heaven – used to tell a story on himself. He would tell the story of the worst business decision he ever made. During the Korean War, John was stationed in South Korea as an officer in the Air Force. Another Air Force buddy decided he was going to set up a business after the war, and was going to export back to the States the funny little shoes the Koreans wore. “Aww, are you crazy?” John asked him. “Nobody’s going to want to wear those silly things. Pieces of rubber with an attachment between the toes. No way.” So he passed on the offer. After the war, his buddy started exporting those shoes. He called them… “flip-flops.”

Repentance is another name for a spiritual flip-flop. And if we’ve already made up our minds about everything, if we don’t think we need the gift of repentance, God will let us pass on the offer. But that would be a mistake.

We can change our minds. And God can change our hearts.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

What Is It?

Matthew 20:1-16
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church PCUSA
September 18, 2005

I wonder if God arranged it so this scripture would show up on “Volunteer Sunday.” Volunteer Sunday, when the church is asking you how you’d like to serve in the coming year. Would you like to dream up and lead new ministries for our church? Tell us what they are. Would you like to skip the meetings and just “Git-R-done”? Check a box. We really do need you to volunteer. We’ve even compressed it into one simple brochure with a handy tear-off page. Jesus should have had it so easy. Let’s see, Matthew, tax collector, “Stewardship Committee.” Check.

Florida weekend in East Tennessee. Is there really any better time to be a volunteer? Because it’s great… to be… a Tennessee Vol. We’re all about that volunteer stuff. It’s in our blood. From Sam Houston and John Sevier all the way to Rick Clausen. The Volunteer State is named for people who would rather fight against unbeatable odds than sit on the bench, waiting.

So, when I read the parable of the workers in this beautiful corner of God’s green earth, I know which of the workers the Tennesseans would be. Up before dawn, ready to get on the truck and head out to the worksite. I know which of the workers you’d be. Here at our little Tennessee church, all you have to do is ask, and pretty much whatever it is, it’ll get done. Sometimes it even gets done before we ask. You people are amazing. Your work ethic, your volunteer spirit, show in how much we can do, despite being a bit smaller than the mega-churches with fourteen Sunday services. God is well-served by your accomplishments.

But what if we had a church where nothing happened? What if on Sunday mornings only two or three walked in the doors, creaking closed behind them, with shoes echoing clip… clop… on their way to the back pew, where they sat in silence, until the ushers woke them up and told them it was time to go home? What if? Would God be well-served by that accomplishment?

God’s kingdom on earth needs workers. “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few” (Matthew 9:37). Jesus needs volunteers. But the parable today isn’t about this earthly kingdom. It’s about God’s heavenly kingdom, a place even more beautiful than East Tennessee. And it makes us ask the question, does it matter in the heavenly kingdom, whether you work your tail off for Jesus… or not? Can lazy people get the same reward as the volunteers? What do we say when God isn’t fair?


The Old Testament lesson today is an oldie but a goodie. It features two great Hebrew words – “loon” and “manna”. “Loon” is the Hebrew word for “murmur,” and it really sounds like what it means. Have you ever been in a big crowd of people who are murmuring against someone? Maybe at, I don’t know, a football game? What do you say when someone on the field irritates you? “Booooooo!” You call him a loon. Maybe something stronger, but that’s not murmuring. In today’s Old Testament lesson, the people of God, the Chosen People, the people delivered from Pharaoh, the people who saw the Red Sea parted – yes, those people – are murmuring. They look to heaven and say, “Boooooo.” “You should have left us in Egypt, Lord. At least we had three daily pots of gruel.” They look at Moses, their commander-in-chief, and say, “Loon.” Moses and his slick-talking brother, Aaron, say, “It’s not our fault! We were just doing what we were told.” They’re dodging bullets and passing the buck. Even Moses is murmuring against God.

Now, you would think people with that kind of history wouldn’t murmur. You might think they’d be grateful for all God has “volunteered” to do for them. Well, they are. But what has God done for them, lately, you know? God hears the complaints. Instead of smiting the Israelites, God says, OK, you’ve got a point. The menu has been a little lean. They’ll have meat – quail – at night, and in the morning they’ll have… they’ll have… some sort of… bread? Some say it tastes like chicken. This… this daily bread that God provides: the Israelites see it and ask the question every obnoxious kid asks when mom’s been cooking for hours on something new she saw on the Food TV Network. “What’s this stuff?” Which proves there is such a thing as a stupid question. “Well, you want to know what it is? Really? Just for you, we’ll call it… “What’s This Stuff.” “What Is It.” “Manna.” That’s literally what the Hebrew means. “And you Israelites, you’re gonna be eating What’s This Stuff every morning for a very long time, so you’d better get used to it.”

Manna is God’s daily bread for God’s chosen people. Even way back then, God’s mercy was confusing. Is it good news or is it bad news? Is mercy fair? Is mercy tasty? What is it?


The parable of the workers is smack in the middle of a bunch of stories about arrogance. Everyone wants to be #1 in the polls, even the disciples. So Jesus sits the disciples down and tells them this story, about a kingdom where, like the manna, everyone gets exactly the same daily bread.

There’s a landowner who goes out early in the morning to hire workers at the going daily rate. But he needs more workers, so he goes back to market square about 9:00 and hires some more. Apparently the landowner’s not the best at gauging his workforce, so he goes back again to get more workers at noon. And again at 3. And again at 5:00.

But here’s the punch line. And it’s sure to offend any orange-blooded volunteer. When the owner’s handing out the paychecks, he gives a certain amount to the lazy people who started at 5PM… and the same amount to the not-quite-so-lazy people who started at 3PM… and the same amount to the pretty-good workers who started at noon… and the same amount to the above-average workers who started at 9… and the same amount to the rise-n-shine, git-r-done volunteers who started work before the sun came up.

And the early-morning workers must have known something about manna, because they look over the 5:00 workers’ shoulders at their checks, then they look at their own checks for the same amount, and they say, “What is this?”

And the owner looks at the 5:00 workers and says, “It’s grace.”


In the kingdom of this world, we’re volunteers. We are workers. We are doers. We are people who know how to get things done. But in the kingdom of heaven, a kingdom we can’t even see, much less understand, who’s to say we aren’t the 5:00 workers?

The point of this parable is not so much that God rewards everyone equally. The point is that God doesn’t do rewards. God does something else. What is it, that God does? Precisely. God does What Is It.

God fed the Israelites on What Is It when they were lost, tired and murmuring. God fed the disciples on What Is It when they walked behind Jesus – and when they ran away from him. God feeds us on What Is It when a miracle comes that we can’t explain, that we couldn’t expect, and that we could never on our own make happen. God goes beyond what’s fair and what’s not. God goes beyond what’s fair and what’s not fair – God goes to what’s merciful. And if God wants to share mercy with whomever… who are we, to question God?

When we think about all the things we’ve done, and all the things we haven’t done…
when we think about all the people we’ve helped, and all the people we haven’t helped…
when we think about what we deserve, and what we don’t…
who are we to judge what’s fair? And what’s not?

In a kingdom where the last shall be first and the first shall be last, we’re just lucky – we’re just blessed to have a place at all. And if God wants to give mercy, by any name, in any form, to someone we might think is less deserving – that’s God’s business.


There is SO much for the church to do. There’s so much each of us can do. There’s so much we can do for victims of Hurricane Katrina. And there’s so much we can do right here, in our own church and community, too. There’s so much work to do, it’s hard to know where to start.

Start here. Instead of murmuring about what isn’t being done, or what all you’ve had to do, or what all everyone else has put on your to-do list, start your day with God’s daily bread of mercy. Set your mind and your heart NOT on what you can or can’t do. Set your mind and your heart NOT on what other people have left undone. Instead, set your mind and your heart on what God already HAS done.

I can’t guarantee that’ll make you peaceful and happy and take away your stress. I doubt stress relief is that simple. Setting your heart and mind on what God already HAS done won’t take meetings off your earthly schedule. But your heavenly schedule – that’s a different matter.

When we compare ourselves to other people, other situations, mercy might taste bitter. But then, when God gives so much more than we deserve, that same mercy tastes delectable. How God’s daily bread of mercy tastes depends on the position of your tongue. Is yours a tongue that murmurs? Or is yours a tongue that says, “Thank you”? What is it?

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Anger Management

Matthew 18:15-20
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church USA
September 4, 2005

We lived in the deep – DEEP – south for three years. There’s a church almost every 100 yards. And believe me, down there, the figure of 100 yards has religious meaning. But this weekend, when the deep south is usually deep in discussion about the starting quarterbacks of Tulane and Miss’sippi State, this weekend the discussion is literally and figuratively much deeper. In a lot of the US Gulf Coast, there USED to be a church every 100 yards. Hurricane Katrina has changed the landscape. This morning, in tents, and in shelters – in open fields littered with debris – churches are gathering and standing together. And if they aren’t reading Psalm 69, even if they don’t say the words out loud, their hearts are speaking the verses with “sighs too deep for words.”

Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God. – Psalm 69

You get the idea that the people in the Psalm are sad. Very sad. But more than that, there’s a little “gotcha” in the last verse there. These people aren’t just sad. They’re tired of waiting on God. They’re getting angry.

The Psalm we read earlier today is a different psalm about waiting for God. But instead of nature flooding up to their necks, the people of God are crying out because another nation has their foot on Israel’s neck. They praise God while they wait for God to pass the ammunition.

Praise the Lord!
Let the faithful exult in glory….
Let the high praises of God be in their throats
and two-edged swords in their hands,
to execute vengeance on the nations
and punishment on the peoples. – Psalm 149

Here, the people of God are sick and tired of being oppressed and they’re ready to rise up and break the chains of their oppressors, take back their land, and execute vengeance with blood and chains. THIS will be glory for all the faithful ones, praise the Lord.

Insurance companies are theologians. Did you know that? They have a term for events like Hurricane Katrina. They call them: “Acts of God.” Insurance companies are bad theologians. But we know what they mean. What I’m wondering is, if the Bible gives us permission to get mad – really mad – at human oppressors, does it also give us permission to get really mad at “Acts of God”? Whether the WATERS are strangling your neck or some MAN (or woman) has his foot on your neck, are you not equally justified in your anger?

Does anger, justified or not, have a place in the hearts of Christian men and women, like you and me? Does anger, anger at God have a place in the hearts of faithful people? If the answer to these questions is Yes – and the Bible seems to think it is – what do we do with our anger? Do we indulge anger or manage it?

Everybody gets angry. Well, pretty much everybody. If you believe bumper stickers (and I do) a lot of people don’t get angry. Right across from the sticker that says, “Protected by Smith and Wesson” is the one that says, “I don’t get angry; I just get even.” In one of his movies, Woody Allen says, “I don’t get angry; I just grow a tumor.” These people are special. In a good way, I mean. The rest of us get angry.

Doctors tell us anger is a kissing cousin of fear and both of them grew up in the reptilian backwoods of our brains. Buried down around the holler from the spinal cord is the little knot of brain that tells us, “Get even.” In some brains, that little knot gets a lot of mileage.

We get angry because when God invented humans God built us that way. God put that little knot of brain in there so our ancestors would be smart enough to run from the ancestors of tigers. Their stickers said, “Og no get angry; Og just RUN!!!” And no matter how much medication we take, that little knot of brain is still with us. So the same species that sent a man to the moon is the same species that invented professional wrestling. I’m serious. I’ve been to wrestling matches. Without fear and anger, especially from the grandmothers on the front row, they’d be out of business.

But we digress.

Anger is a part of us. We may not always stop to think about it, but it’s there. God planted it in us. But God also surrounded that little knot of anger with the brains to choose. We can choose whether we’re going to indulge anger or manage it.

Indulging anger. Anger over-indulged is rage. Rage reduces us to animals. God created us to have dominion over the animals, not to turn into them. Rage is anger turned godless. Rage makes suicide bombers walk onto subways. Rage makes men hit their wives. Rage twists itself into acts of unspeakable evil. The Bible never condones the over-indulgence of anger. God hates – and that is the biblical word – God hates those whose rage is a terror to those it oppresses.

But can anger be appropriately indulged? At least, is it OK to express anger without fear that somehow God’s going to smite us?

I watch a lot of children’s videos. Not always out of choice. I have children. In one of the videos, Huckle Cat and his friends, Lowly the Worm and Hilda the Hippo (I’ve seen these a few times), put on a show for the neighborhood parents. In their show, Huckle sings one of the songs we teach kids here at church, “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” Apparently, Huckle Cat is Presbyterian. But Huckle adds a verse that I’d never heard before: “If you’re angry and you know it, stomp your feet.” Fourty-four years of singing this song and I’d never heard that verse. Did any of you sing it that way at your church? Not many. Because at church we teach children to, “Be nice.” Be nice because… God is nice. If the original “Happy and You Know It” people wrote the verse about being angry, the church has edited it out.

Nice Christian people have trouble getting angry. Actually, they don’t have any trouble getting angry at all. They have trouble ADMITTING they’re angry. Why? Because Jesus didn’t get angry, they say. He subjected himself to beatings and crucifixion for our salvation. Therefore, logic says, never admit you’re angry and you know it. Not exactly the best logic.

A lot of people remember “the one example” when Jesus got angry – when he overturned the moneychanger’s tables. Truth be told, Jesus got angry way more times than that. We just don’t talk about it very much. Jesus got angry at his disciples, got angry at religious leaders, angry at people who didn’t share their money with the poor. Oddly enough, he didn’t get angry at the people possessed by devils; he healed them. Jesus got angry at the people who tried to possess God. And those people, not even Jesus could heal.

Is it OK to be angry at God when the waters over which you have no control put their foot on your neck? Is it OK to be angry at the people and powers that leave you helpless? Is it OK to indulge your anger just enough for your face to really show it? Today’s Psalms say… Yeah. But here’s the difference: If the psalmists wrote the song, it would go, “If you’re angry and you know it, tell God.” Tell God about it. Your anger isn’t going to hurt God.

Managing anger. Anger management. There was a movie a couple of years ago by that name, the moral of which was, if your new therapist looks like Jack Nicholson, keep shopping. The New Testament today gives a lesson in one method of anger management, straight from Jesus himself.

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

It’s not the only biblical method of managing anger, and it might not work in all situations. But it tells us a couple of things. First, people – good, church-going Christian people – are going to get angry at each other. And that’s OK. Second, the good, church-going Christian thing to do is to go and talk to the offending party. Preferably without bringing an attorney. Third, the point of going to resolve the anger isn’t to win the point, and isn’t to exact vengeance. The point of going to the person is to “regain” them. To restore the church – and the person, and you – restore the church to wholeness. Even people who aren’t “nice” have a place at Christ’s table. Who better? Who did Jesus love to eat dinner with? Preachers? Pffew. Gentiles and tax collectors. In other words, if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let the church show up at their house for supper.

Jesus ends his lesson in church anger management with a promise: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Normally, when we hear this verse, it’s meant as consolation when only a few show up on Sunday morning. “Don’t fret, preacher. You know what Jesus said.” But oddly enough, the two or three Jesus is talking about aren’t gathered for worship. They’re gathered to fight out their problems. THAT’S where Jesus is when two or three are gathered – right in the thick of it. Maybe he’s got a whistle and a black and white striped shirt. Jesus the referee. But maybe – just maybe -- he’s on the side of the one everybody else thinks is wrong.

Or on the side of the woman who, by a so-called act of God, has lost her home and who won’t go to church and who shakes her fist at heaven in anger.

Or the man who won’t speak to his grown son.

On their side not because they’re right. But because they need someone to stand by them. And who better… than Jesus?

Thursday, August 25, 2005


Matthew 16:21-28
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church USA
August 28, 2005
Temptation. The Tempter. The Seducer. When I say these, who do you think of? Jessica Simpson? No. We’re in church. You think of the devil. Satan. Right? THE Tempter. The one who tempted Christ in the wilderness. Horns, tail and pitchfork.
Wouldn’t it be great if devils always dressed like that? But the horns and pitchfork stuff is just a cartoon. Real temptation is much more subtle, more attractive, and definitely better dressed. And no one’s immune from temptation. Even Christ was tempted. Even in those precious moments when the goodness of the living Christ is revealed to us, there are temptations to turn him into someone else.
Today’s scripture is about temptation. Peter is tempted. Even Jesus himself is tempted, if only for a nanosecond. Temptation is the passionate desire to turn yourself, or your savior, into something else.

We might not be able to completely define temptation, but we know it when we see it. We know what temptation is, but where does it come from?
Does temptation come the devil? The CEO of Temptation, Inc.? Is temptation like a brain virus, or a soul virus, manufactured in Satan’s invisible gene lab? Is temptation part of unseen powers and principalities, constantly at war with God for possession of our souls?
Well, in a way, yes. If you read certain scripture, you can’t escape this idea. The Bible starts out with the serpent tempting Eve with the forbidden fruit. Or the book of Job, where God and Satan have a contest over how much punishment a good man can take. Satan runs the temptation factory. And he’s got a product that sells itself.
When Peter rebukes Jesus for talking about dying, Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan!” Simon, who Jesus just nicknamed, “Peter,” gets another nickname, and it’s not nearly as nice.
Why do we do things we know we don’t want to do? Why do words fly out of our mouths that we know we don’t want to say? Why do we keep screwing up? We know better. But it’s as if some unseen body-snatcher invades in a moment of sleep. The devil. Give him six, and pray that we can block the extra point. Temptation comes from an outside power greater than we.

Or, does temptation come from the inside? Are you the root of your own temptation?
Do you bring temptation on yourself? When was the last time you tempted yourself with something? Oh, come on, you know you do it. There’s a sale at your favorite store – Dillard’s, Home Depot, the Sea Ray boat store. And there’s a letter from your bank saying they’ve just extended your credit to seventeen billion dollars. Sure, the monthly payments could feed a family of six. But hey, life is short. Your kids can pay it off.
But maybe the biggest temptation we pull out of our hats isn’t the temptation to do something wrong, it’s the temptation to do nothing at all. When Jesus says he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering, and be killed, and on the third day be raised – when he says this, Peter doesn’t offer any alternatives. He just says, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” OK, Peter, what would you prefer Jesus do? Well, I don’t know, but not this. Instead of Jerusalem, maybe a vacation in a safe, quiet place on the coast.
A couple of weeks ago, there was a commentary on Public Radio called, “Always Go to the Funeral.” The author wrote about how her father taught her, in her teens, to do this. She said,
“Always go to the funeral” means that I have to do the right thing when I really, really don't feel like it. I have to remind myself of it when I could make some small gesture, but I don't really have to and I definitely don't want to. I'm talking about those things that represent only inconvenience to me, but the world to the other guy. You know, the painfully under-attended birthday party. The hospital visit during happy hour. …In my humdrum life, the daily battle hasn't been good versus evil. It's hardly so epic. Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing.
Peter doesn’t say what he wants Jesus TO do, he just knows what he DOESN’T want Jesus to do. Forget doing something else, if Jesus had done nothing, if Jesus had taken the weekend off, instead of doing the heavenly something, where in heaven’s name would we be? Temptation comes from inside. And it blocks the good inside from making it outside.

Or, is temptation a necessary evil? Is temptation a built-in side effect of anything good?
Going back to Eve and the serpent, the question always gets asked, why did God have to plant apples? And why did God plant the thing smack in the middle of the garden? And if God created the world and saw that it was good, was God not paying attention when making the serpent? Could God have made women less inquisitive? Could God have made Eve more like her husband, willing to sit on the couch and wait for snacks? (We digress.)
God created the world and called it, “good.” God created the world out of love. And maybe the temptation to turn the things we love into something “not good,” is just built-in to the equation. Good can’t be good without the temptation for it to turn bad.
In the same paragraph that Jesus commends Peter for having the divine vision to see the Messiah… eight sentences after he calls Peter “blessed…” three sentences after he gives him the keys to the kingdom of heaven… Peter goes from being Disciple #1 to Jesus calling him, “Satan.” How fast the first becomes the last. How fast the best friend turns into the worst enemy. How fast the fruit that is good, and a delight to the eyes, and that makes us wise… turns sour.
Think about where your greatest temptations come from. Do they come from the people you hate? Of course not. Do they come from snarling devils with pitchforks and bad teeth? No. The greatest temptations come from the people we normally love and respect the most.
Teenagers who get tempted to do wrong things: Who does the tempting? The kids they NEVER hang out with? No way. They get tempted into stuff by their friends. Their boyfriends, their girlfriends, their peer groups. So what do you do? Forbid them to have friends? (“Get thee to a nunnery.” Not a half-bad idea.)
If you love, if you care, temptation to twist that love into something else, something you create in your own image instead of something created in God’s… if you love, if you care, temptation is always part of the equation. How you resist, and IF you resist, that part of the equation is left for you to solve.

Jesus solved the problem by turning his back on temptation. “Get behind me, Satan.” Of course, he didn’t actually turn his back on his beloved friend, the founder of his church. But Jesus did make it painfully clear that pain is part of love. Pain is part of his love for Peter. Pain is part of his love for us. And because he loves, because he serves, because he obeys the will of God MORE than he fears the pain of love, he will go to Jerusalem, and he’ll take Peter with him. Jesus chooses. And so can we.

Temptation. Does it come from the devil? From inside ourselves? From simply choosing to love?
In the end, it really doesn’t matter where temptation comes from. Temptation happens. And there’s no avoiding it. Unless we lock ourselves in our room, or some garden paradise, and resign ourselves never to face the holy places of God. And that may be a way to exist, but it’s no way to live. To never risk the road to the holy city is to lose ourselves to hell.
Jesus calls us to live lives that are full and fresh and new. Jesus calls us to live lives that every now and then threaten to scare the stuffing out of us. Jesus calls us to live – with him, as his friend. Jesus calls us to live -- as people who may stumble. But Jesus calls us to live – to live knowing that nothing, “neither death, nor life, nor things seen, nor things unseen, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Whatever the Satan of your temptation is, put it behind you. Live. And Christ will live with you.