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

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


Luke 1:39-45

“Cut To the Chase!”

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church

December 24, 2006

Cut to the chase.

Here, in the final 24 shopping hours before Christmas, I want to take a moment to thank you all for coming to church. Especially you men. Because, being of the male persuasion, I know how important the last minutes of shopping time can be. Shopping gets more exciting as the game clock winds down and you’re this close to staging a last-second, three-point good-husband shot from way downtown. For an awful lot of people – men, women, boys and girls – Christmas is a full-contact, competitive sport… which is just how God envisioned it. “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great parking spaces. Even at Wal-Mart.” (And there was much rejoicing.) Elbowing for Elmos, cursing the computer, beeping at the Blount County drivers (and I am one, now. Which proves all the stereotypes). Yes, it certainly looks and sounds a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go.

Advent is a time of waiting. We do a lot of waiting this time of year. Not by choice. We wait because the checkout lines are halfway down the aisle. We wait because the online ordering network crashed. We wait because we drive cars – and so does everyone else, all at the same time. We wait, but not because we want to. We wait, but we don’t enjoy it. We wait, and think of all the thirty-eleven other things we ought to be doing, but can’t because, you know, it’s Christmas, and this is just the way things are. We’re at church and we’re -- supposed to be still. And enjoy it. Even though we know the clock is tick-tick-ticking away those last precious minutes of preparation and the doggone minister is torturing us with what we already know can we please just cut to the chase?

Mary the mother-to-be of Jesus waited. Her cousin, Elizabeth, the mother-to-be of John the Baptist waited. To put it more precisely, they expected. They were expecting. And while it’s traditional to think of their expectation as a blissful duet of immaculate conception, there’s no reason to believe their waiting wasn’t as unremarkably human as that of any other mothers-to-be. Nausea, pain, cravings, moods that swing from Alpha to Omega…. It would be sweet to think that Mary and Elizabeth had it different from others of the female persuasion. It would be sweet – but not very realistic. In all likelihood, their waiting was filled with all the ups and downs, all the joys and irritations, and moreso, that have come to be associated with the Christmas season. And as with any other mothers-to-be, as their birth clocks were tick-tick-ticking away and their bodies held them captive to what they already knew, they would have been more than willing to ask God to cut to the chase.

Instead, God tells Mary and Elizabeth, and us – wait. Wait another 24 minutes. Wait another 24 hours. Wait another 24 moments of a while of a spell. Wait some undefined interval that makes no sense when you could be doing something else, when Jesus could just appear, full grown and Kingly. Wait. God told the world to wait – through all the Old Testament times. God told Mary and Elizabeth to wait – nine months and so many minutes and so many seconds (each of which pregnant women are keenly aware). There must be something special about waiting, because God asks us to do it so often. God will cut to the chase. But not yet.


It’s a figure of speech we don’t think much about. Cutting to the chase is born of 20th Century Hollywood. Whether it’s Laurel and Hardy racing a train, or Mel Gibson getting pulled over by the cops, the chase scene is the part to which a movie builds. Even “The Sound of Music” has a chase scene. The nuns steal the Nazis’ distributor cap (yea for the clergy!) and the Singing Von Trapps finally make it across the border. But cut to the chase too quickly, and the suspense never happens. You’ve got to have “A Few of My Favorite Things,” and “Edelweiss” and all those other great songs first. In order for the chase to work, we have to wait. (And Julie Andrews has to sing.)

The Gospel According to Luke is kind of like a movie-musical. Really. If you look at the text in your Bible, just before any great event ever happens in Luke, there’s a song. You can tell by the way the paragraphs shift into poetry-form. The characters, like Mary and Elizabeth, break into song in anticipation of whatever hair-raising miracle might be coming up next. So instead of, “Ouch, Elizabeth, I can’t wait for this baby named Jesus to be born,” we hear, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” The text today is a scene of joy, and the hills are alive with the sound of its music. There will be plenty of chases to come – Jesus will be chased out of cities, crowds will chase after his healing, the disciples will race to tell that he is risen – but before cutting to any of these chases, God is going to make Mary and Elizabeth – God is going to make us all – wait.


Each of us has our own personal Christmas story. If Hollywood made a movie of your last four weeks, how would it look? If Blockbuster had the DVD of your Christmas, would they put it under “Action/Adventure?” Or maybe, “Family Drama?” “Comedy?” Or, “Horror?” What would be the title of your holiday movie? “It’s a Wonderful Life”? Or, “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”? “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”? Or, “Home Alone”? Or, on the musical side, if you had to sing one song to describe your Christmas, what would it be? Did you ever notice how many Christmas songs are about waiting, about absence? “I’ll be home for Christmas, just you wait and see.” “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas.” Even, “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth.” Waiting. Absence. No wonder people get melancholy this time of year. So many of our songs are about the emptiness of waiting.

How is your Christmas story going this year? Has the plot been filled with waiting? The question itself sounds so strange. How could anything be filled with waiting? We think of waiting as a time of absence – the blank tape when nothing’s on the screen, the skip at the end of the record. But God thinks of waiting differently. God intends waiting time to be fertile time. God isn’t a magician; In the Bible, God is a carpenter, God is a farmer, God is a fisherman. God in the Bible is a person who understands the fullness of waiting. As with Mary and Elizabeth, God enjoys the pregnant pause.

Poet Alice Meynell, who lived in turn of the (Twentieth) Century England, wrote

No sudden thing of glory and fear
Was the Lord's coming; but the dear
Slow Nature's days followed each other
To form the Saviour from his Mother
- One of the children of the year.

How many nights did the Wise Men follow the star? How many times had the shepherds fallen asleep gazing toward heaven, praying for a sign? As Mary rubbed her hand across her tummy, how many lullabies did she hum to her baby? Mary was literally filled with the Holy Spirit, but even she had to wait to see her Savior, to hold his hand, to teach him to speak, to watch him grow into a man. Instead of cutting to the chase, God fades in slowly. We become aware of God as we wait for God. We ask God to make our waiting a time of fullness, to use our waiting hours, to inch us forward, to guide each day so that it builds upon the next, so that our purpose on earth slowly, slowly grows toward its fulfillment. In these last waiting hours before Christmas, may we become aware of God’s presence. May we become aware of God’s fullness even in God’s silence. May we stop chasing after fulfillment. May we hear God’s heartbeat inside us. Lord, don’t cut out a thing. Help us to become more like Mary and Elizabeth. Help us to wait. Amen.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Luke 3:1-6

02-Ad2-P-Year C

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church

December 10, 2006

In the sixth year of the Presidency of George W. Bush, when Phil Bredesen was Governor of Tennessee, and Bill Haslam was Mayor of Knoxville, and Mike Ragsdale was Mayor of Knox County, and Charles Child was the Clerk of Session at Lake Hills Presbyterian Church, and Carla was the Organist, and Anderson was baptized….

You remember when that was, don’t you?

Luke places the ministry of John the Baptist in its historical context, in real, human terms. He gives us a very precise roadmap to John’s ministry. Here it is, he tells us, when so-and-so was Emperor, and so-and-so was governor, and so on. His early readers might nod their heads in recollection.

“Oh, yes. That was the year my younger brother was born, and my life’s been miserable ever since.”

Or, “Wasn’t that when we moved to Nazareth?”

Or, “That was the year we bought our first camel, the one with the extra riding blanket. A convertible.”

John the Baptist wasn’t some vague or imaginary figure. He lived and breathed the same air as Tiberius, Pilate, Herod, Philip, and a hundred thousand others who could place their own lives in his context, and place his ministry in their context. Luke gave the early gospel readers a way to remember. But more, he gave his readers a way to make the story their own.

What are the significant events in your life? You might not remember what year it was as years are numbered. But you remember the world around these events. You remember the turning points where you made a choice, or when fate made a decision for you. You remember the times when extraordinary events took hold of your life, and changed you. But, more often than not, we remember the extraordinary in the context of the ordinary. It’s the little, contextual things that trigger intense memories. You smell the aroma of turkey in the oven, and you remember a life-changing conversation you had with your mother. You watch a baby being baptized, and you remember the birth of your own child. Someone clears their throat and it sounds just like the way your dad did it. We safely and quietly hold within our hearts treasured memories of special events. But, more often than not, it’s some tiny, almost insignificant cue that brings these treasures to mind.

How do you remember the person, or the events, that led you to Christ? Some of you can remember the precise day and time when you accepted Jesus as your personal savior. For some of you, the presence and salvation of Jesus Christ has always been near, even if you didn’t recognize it. Maybe like Anderson, you were always part of the church, and the church was always part of you, even though you didn’t know what that meant. But even if faith snuck up on you, there’s someone or something that was like John the Baptist for you. There’s someone or something that was a signpost, a prophet, a realization. Think about that person, that event that first led you to your own faith.

If we think of Jesus as God come to earth, then Jesus is a man who needs no introduction. God could easily have given Jesus and his ministry to the world without the help of John the Baptist. And yet, throughout scripture, there’s always someone pointing the way. Almost no great biblical event ever takes place without someone there to announce ahead of time what’s to come. The way-pointers are an indispensable part of God’s standard operating procedure. When Jesus was born, it was a star that pointed the way to Bethlehem, so the wise ones and the lowly shepherds could find the manger. When Jesus began his ministry, it was his cousin, John, who prepared the way of the Lord, calling people to repentance, baptizing them for the forgiveness of sins. There’s always someone or something that points the way to Jesus. This is the way God works.

Again, think back to the way-pointers to the turning points in your life. Think of yourself and your faith before them. And think of your faith after them. What did they contribute to your understanding of Jesus? Could you have found your faith without them? God has created a world, and given us the gift of faith. But this faith is always, always brought to us with the help of someone or something coming before to point the way. Which is also to say that our faith is never, never solely our own. We need each other, we need the church, we need even the unholy, hum-drum events of life to point us to Christ our Lord.

Think of your daily routine. There are probably hundreds of habits that carry you from morning to night. A morning alarm clock signals the dawn. A crying baby signals it’s three hours before dawn. A TV show tells us it’s time to pack up and get to work. A phone call reminds us of an appointment. Yet, most of the time, these ordinary events are just part of a daily blur of activity, rushing past us without causing so much as a ripple in our consciousness. What if the routine of your day became to you a sign of God’s sustaining love? What if these casual events could become signposts pointing the way to the real and present Spirit of Christ? What are the chances that YOU might serve as a way-pointer for someone else? What if your presence, rooted in the date and time of this day served to change someone’s life, even if you didn’t know it? Were all the events or persons who led you to faith aware of their importance in your life? Or were they just normal people, everyday happenings that gave you eyes to see and ears to hear?

John the Baptist was the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. Each of us face our own wilderness as we make our journeys through life. Each of our lives have twists and turns impossible to predict, and are often relentless in their tossing, turning curves. John was an exceptional voice in a world that marked time in ordinary ways. All it takes, is one. All it takes is one voice to help us find our way when we’re lost. All it takes is one voice of compassion, one voice of comfort, one voice of encouragement when we’re not sure how or even if we want to walk any further. All it takes is one.

Give thanks to God for the ones who have pointed you in the direction of Jesus Christ. Give thanks to God that even your ordinary voice, even your ordinary cycle of waking and sleeping, working and playing, shopping and returning – even those most routine and hum-drum habits of the seasons of your life – Give thanks to God that even those might be the one voice in the wilderness for someone lost and afraid.

Listen again to today’s scripture, thinking about those people or events that have signaled the greatest change in your own faith. In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.' "

May God move straight through the twists and turns of your life’s road. May God’s love smooth over your rough and jagged corners that unintentionally hurt those who pass by. May God’s justice lower your mountains of conceit, and may God’s love fill the depths of your emptiness. May you see, in the fullness of these days, THESE ordinary days, the salvation of God as it holds you and guides you, and brings you home.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Did Jesus Get It Wrong?

Luke 21:25-36
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
Sunday, December 3, 2006

I’ve been doing this for a few years now, but it still seems such a disconnect to start this season with scriptures like these. I mean, for goodness’ sake, it’s Christmas, right? The stores – don’t even get me started. The communities are having parades, with marching bands and civic leaders waving. Santa always arrives at the parade’s very end, throwing out candy to all the children. That’s kind of a parable for Christmas season, isn’t it? A month-long parade, with Santa throwing presents at the end. And you know, as parables go, it’s not a bad one. Folks are generally jollier in December. People are smiling and wishing each other a Merry Christmas, even the employees at Wal-Mart are doing it this year. Like the John and Yoko song goes, “So this is Christmas.” Yup, it is. It’s a happy time. All of which makes me feel like a great big Grinch to have to be reading scripture like this one. In its scriptures of John the Baptist shouting, “Repent, you broods of vipers!” and Jesus telling the world to look for signs of apocalypse, it’s as if the church is poking a finger in Santa’s eye, saying, “Hold on just a darn minute, here.” It’s like the church is saying, “Hey, wait a minute. It’s not Christmas yet. This is Advent Season.” We’re not red and green. We’re purple. The color of repentance. If we did Advent by the books, we wouldn’t sing any Christmas carols, we wouldn’t put up any decorations. Is that what Jesus wants? I have a hard time believing Jesus wants us to prepare to celebrate his birth by sitting around like grim-faced Puritans pondering our sins and waiting for the end of the world. “Merry Christmas, you sinner.” But on the other hand, he does tell us, “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap.” It seems such a contradiction with everything else. Could Jesus – or at least the church – be missing something?

“Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away….” I don’t want to name any names from the pulpit, but there’s one member of our church who annually pokes a finger in my chest about this scripture and those like it, which say, “This generation will not pass away” until all these things have taken place. “So, preacher,” he says. “Did these things happen and everybody missed them? Or was Jesus wrong?” And every year I give my same answer, (exasperated sigh) “I don’t know. I didn’t write these things. I just read it, and try to make sense of it.” I tell him, “The Lord also says to go home, get in your closet, shut the door, and pray. Which is exactly what I think you should do, right now.” Actually, it’s a very good, if not irritating question. It’s the kind of thing Michael Gant could teach a lesson on, for, I don’t know, six or seven months. Was Jesus wrong? Did the world miss something? Are we missing something?

A few years ago, way back in the 1980’s, the world saw the rise of a very unlikely prophet. Bob Geldof, the lead singer of the British band, the Boomtown Rats, wrote a song called, “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” and sponsored the original Band Aid concert for famine relief for Ethiopia.

It's Christmas time,
there's no need to be afraid
At Christmas time,
we let in light and we banish shade
And in our world of plenty
we can spread a smile of joy
Throw your arms around the world
at Christmas time.

But say a prayer,
pray for the other ones
At Christmas time...
...it's hard, but when you're having fun

There's a world outside your window,
and it's a world of dread and fear
Where the only water flowing
is the bitter sting of tears
And the Christmas bells that ring there
are the clanging chimes of doom
Well tonight thank God it's them
instead of you!

And there won't be snow in Africa this Christmas time
The greatest gift they'll get this year is life
Where nothing ever grows
No rain or rivers flow
Do they know it's Christmas time at all?

Here's to you raise a glass for everyone
Here's to them underneath that burning sun
Do they know it's Christmas time at all?

Feed the world
Let them know it's Christmas time again

If you thought the world was in trouble in the 1980’s, compare that to the post-9/11 here and now. We’ve got the horrors of Sudan, North Korea, Afghanistan, Lebanon – and, of course, Iraq, where the pressure cooker gets turned higher every day. You turn on the news, or pick up the paper – you see these signs that the world’s just going nuts, and you think, well, maybe Jesus got it right, after all. I mean, if you think about it too much it really is a poke in the chest or a finger in the eye. How can the world be such a contradiction? Noel – and pure hell. All at the same time.

So Jesus says, “Be on guard…. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” When you think about it in a global sense, then Jesus might not have missed anything. He might have seen more than we would ever want to. “Wake up!” he tells us. He tells us to open our eyes and look around. If the world makes you depressed, then maybe it should. Maybe reality should make you thankful that you’ve escaped these things. Maybe seeing the condition of God’s children across an ocean or across the tracks should motivate you. Maybe it should make us all pray for the coming of the Son of Man, a real, true, and lasting Advent.

It’s like another song we sing,

O holy Child of Bethlehem,
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel!

Instead of a disconnect, Advent scriptures call us to re-connect. Jesus isn’t a contradiction to Christmas, he’s its greatest prediction. There will be a day when the world is fed. There will be a day when the soldiers all come home. There will be a day when the captives are freed and we’re all released from the sins and fears that bind us. We will find rest in the dear desire of every nation and there will be joy in every longing heart. It turns out, in the end, Jesus got it right. Jesus will get it right. He’ll get everything right. The question is, will we?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Where Did You Hide the Mustard?

John 18:33-38
Christ the King Sunday
58-Cking-W-Year B
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
November 23, 2003, Nov 26, 2006

Today is “Christ the King” Sunday, according to the church calendar. The lectionary of scripture readings gives us a bit of prophecy today. It tells us to look ahead to what the upcoming holiday season is all about. Here we are -- we’ve got a seat on the roller coaster of holidays, and we’re hanging at the top of the first hill, at the moment when the chains have stopped clanking. And in the silent second before gravity shoots us down the tracks we open our eyes to look ahead at where we’re going to end up. Thanksgiving and Christmas: what’s it all about? What IS truth? Instead of reading the Feeding of the 5000, which might be more appropriate for Thanksgiving – or about the angels tuning up their harps for Christmas Eve, the calendar of scripture gives us Jesus on trial before Pilate. It’s EASTER scripture. It reminds us that what we’re about to sling through isn’t only about the ups and downs of holidays, isn’t only about the bouncing and squealing, and isn’t only about digestive tract aerobics. “Christ the King” tells us to look beyond what the world tells us to see what’s the truth.

“What IS truth?” Pilate asks Jesus. Some of us look really bad. I don’t mean that we aren’t good looking; I mean that we aren’t good at looking for things. You might be one of those guys who can’t find anything– or you might be married to one of those guys (or you might have BEEN married to one of those guys). I can stand with the refrigerator door open, staring straight at the bottle of mustard, and still holler out, “Where did you hide the mustard?” It’s because I’ve got this image in my head of what a bottle of mustard is supposed to look like, and where it’s supposed to be. My brain doesn’t accept any deviation from the image. When I’m searching the house for something, I have to prepare by realizing what I’m looking for may actually look different than how I think it does. Therefore, I can never really know what I’m looking for. It disturbs the children to see their father wandering aimlessly from room to room, but they’ll get used to it. “What are you looking for, Daddy?” “Well, dear daughter, I know what I think I’m looking for. But I also know that what I’m looking for may not be what I find.” It’s a moment of Zen I can share with the kids. Pilate is a where-did-you-hide-the-mustard kind of guy. The truth of God is standing before him and he doesn’t see it. Jesus is a huge deviation from the earthly image of a king, and Pilate’s brain can’t process it.

Every year, from the church to Charlie Brown, we’re told to look beyond the boxes and bows to find the REAL meaning of Christmas. As if it’s some kind of secret. Where the holidays are concerned, we’re all where-did-you-hide-the-mustard kind of people. It’s not that the truth is hidden; it’s that we have a pre-printed template of how things are supposed to be. Blame Currier & Ives, blame MasterCard, blame your PS3 or your Wii. Blame whoever you want. Every year we put Christmas on trial, judging how well it measures up to our dreams or memories. And so, by pure association, we put Jesus on trial, too.

No wonder people get stressed or depressed at Christmas. No wonder so many people lose their religion at the time they’re supposed to be finding it. Trying to twist the image of God into our personal mold is not only a waste of time, it’s a waste of faith. Pontius Pilate looks at a king and sees anything but. Bethlehem sleeps while a handful of shepherds find the infant Savior. We buy more and decorate more and cook more and wonder why we don’t feel Jesus more. We can’t change the shape of the mustard jar; but we can change our idea of what we’re looking for.

In the court of Pilate it wasn’t the truth that was on trial; Pilate’s eyesight was what was on trial. In the Thanksgiving-Christmas holiday season, it’s not Jesus that’s on trial. Jesus is the truth and the truth doesn’t need to be tested. During the holidays, it’s not Jesus that’s on trial; it’s our ideas about Jesus that are put to the test. Jesus was never and is never on trial; we are.

Of course it’s no big news that we’re all tried and tested in the holiday season. Is the breadcrumb dressing as good as his mother’s? Is the turkey cooked too dry? Are the Christmas lights better looking (and/or more plentiful) than the next-door-neighbor’s? (And by the way, there’s nothing more exciting than guys who can’t find mustard climbing up ladders with electrical cords hanging from their mouths.) Are the presents good enough? Did other family members get better ones? We know this stuff isn’t the “true” meaning of Christmas. We know Thanksgiving isn’t an annual cooking competition. We know this, but the holidays have such great temptation. But the great temptation isn’t spending too much, isn’t eating too much, isn’t partying too much. Those are temptations, but they aren’t the big one. The great temptation of the holidays is looking straight into the eyes of their truth – and not seeing it. Christ the King is a huge deviation from anything human brains would ever conceive. The kingship of Christ doesn’t have to be proved number one. The truth of Christ doesn’t have any competition. During the holidays, it’s not Jesus that’s on trial; it’s our ideas about Jesus that are put to the test. If we think we can’t rightly give God thanks if the pie crust burns around the edges, we’re wrong. If we think Christmas won’t come if Santa goofs up, we’re wrong.. The truth of Jesus Christ the king will have stood right in front of us, and we will have missed it.

Jesus tells Pilate that his kingdom isn’t of this world, and that the world just doesn’t get it. To a great extent that’s still true today. But just as then, there are parts of the world that do get it. There are shepherds who’ll hear angels, there are wise men (and wise women) who’ll follow a star. There are people who have just enough faith in Christ the King that they’ll hang on for the up and down (and sometimes loopy) roller-coaster ride of the holiday season. And when it’s all over and done they’ll look around and say, “Let’s do it again.”

In these coming weeks, wherever our preconceived notions get in our way of seeing Christ the King, wherever our mental blocks keep us from feeling the true meaning, keep us from seeing the truth, of all these days, relax… let go… and know that Christ is born, Christ has died, Christ will come again. Christ is King. And that’s the truth.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Luxury of Giving

Mark 12:38-44
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
Sunday, November 19, 2006

“One must be poor to know the luxury of giving,” wrote English novelist George Eliot. George's real name was Mary Anne Evans. Mary Anne realized that if she wanted to be taken seriously as a writer, she'd better sound like a man, one way or another.

When the wealthy men saw the poor widow approach the treasury box, they would not have taken her seriously. If they noticed her at all, they likely scowled and wondered what she was doing there in the first place. Her clothing would have identified her as a widow. It wasn't that widows were prohibited by law from putting money in the treasury. Rather it was that by law widows received money from the treasury. The faithful, wealthy men would have known well the law of Moses. From the first books of scripture, God's law dictated that widows and orphans – who had no male head of household to provide for them – were to be treated with mercy, and given a portion of each offering. This was part of Israel's welfare system. While this woman might have been ignored, she wasn't completely forgotten.

So, what was she doing there, in the first place? Before we can answer the question about the poor woman, we have to ask, what were the rich men doing there? Listen again to how this passage begins.

“He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums.” Giving was a very public act. You could see how much the other givers were giving to the treasury, and the other givers could see how much you were giving. Even more, there was apparently a place where an audience of observers could sit down across from the giving place and watch the givers as they gave.

In the church, giving is a private matter. Very private. Aside from a few members of the Stewardship and Finance Committee, no one -- not even the minister -- knows how much you give. Unless you, yourself, choose to publicize your giving, no one would ever know the amount of your contribution. You are set free to give as much or as little as you like. Is our way better than the way of Jesus’ time? It’s certainly more comfortable. How would you feel if the secrecy of giving was taken away? Would you give more? Or would you stop giving altogether?

And yet, in other ways, charity or philanthropy is still a very public act. But we sit down opposite other treasuries. Magazines like Forbes profile the giving habits of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. People magazine keeps up with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, telling the world that they’ve had to hire a personal philanthropic advisor. Oh, to have such challenges that we'd have to hire an advisor to help us give our money away. We watch the spending lifestyles of the rich and famous on TV – from President Carter building homes for Habitat for Humanity to Snoop Doggy Dogg entertaining his friends on MTV’s “Cribs.” Perhaps we’re more discreet, but we do watch how other people spend their money. On one hand we’re looking for clues on how we ought to be using our money. But on the other hand, watching how other people spend money, or stockpile money, or lose money, or give money away is pure entertainment.

As it is and ever shall be, so it was in the beginning. Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, and watched. Perhaps the audience could even hear the money as it fell. A large bag of coins from Mr. Pharisee. Clank! Several really large bags of coins from Mr. Jolie-Pitt. Clank-clank-clank! It was theater both for the rich clankers and for the poor clank-ees. It was giving as entertainment. According to Mark, when Jesus watched the wealthy putting their money in the treasury, he saw them entertaining themselves and entertaining the onlookers. To hear Mark tell it, that’s all the rich men were doing at the treasury.

Alone in the line of wealthy men, waits a woman dressed in black. She is so much the opposite of everything around her. Poor among the rich, a woman among men, a mourner among the entertainers. When her turn finally comes, we can imagine the crowd growing quiet in anticipation. Did her husband leave her some hidden fortune? Has a rich relative provided a gift? She holds her hand over the bowl. She releases one copper coin. It drops, then pings, then spins and falls. She releases another coin. Isn’t it strange, how sometimes the quietest sounds are louder than all the clanks?

What is this woman doing here? Where did she get these coins in the first place? It may well have been that these were the same coins she had received from the treasury. It may well have been that this widow was like a first-century Rosa Parks, who had had enough of the back of bus and the bottom of the barrel. If these coins had come from the treasury, on account of the law of Moses, then Jesus and his followers were witnessing one woman’s singularly bold act against society. She may have been saying, “Here. Take back your pennies. I refuse to pardon your guilt. I refuse to be the object of your entertainment. I refuse to allow my existence to be your luxury.” If Jesus was right, that this really was all she had to live on, and if the money had come from the treasury as it was supposed to, then when given the choice of living a cast-aside life on the cast-offs of people who wouldn’t miss their money or her, this woman would rather starve.

Jesus makes a very strong connection between giving everything and the kingdom of God. When the Rich Young Ruler comes to Jesus and says, “Teacher I’ve kept all the commandments since I was a boy, tell me, what must I do to inherit the kingdom of God?” Jesus says, “You still lack one thing. Go, sell all you have and give it to the poor. Then come, follow me.” It’s not that Jesus disapproved of wealth – his ministry was often supported by the generosity of wealthy persons, such as Mary and Martha and their brother, Lazarus. If Mary and Martha had sold all they had and given it to the poor, there wouldn’t have been much left for Jesus. Our hearts are made good by God; in our hearts we’d love to be able to give away our wealth – all of it if necessary – if doing so would help church or charity. But we know we can’t walk away from our responsibilities without causing more problems than solutions. Earthly realities intrude. The widow gives away everything she has to live on. Whether that’s two coins or two billion, the point remains – she has nothing left in this earthly reality. Therefore, her entire existence must be focused on a different reality – God’s reality: the kingdom of heaven.

We live in the wealthiest nation in the history of the earth. But what does the way we use our wealth show the people in line around us? In so many ways, we are starved. We’re starved for entertainment, even though there’s more entertainment around us than we’ll ever watch. We’re starved for friendship, even though we have more ways to talk to each other than we’ll ever use. We’re starved for worth, even though our bank accounts say we’re worth more than eighty percent of the rest of the world. If we’re living for our own luxury, if we’re giving out of our luxury, if we’re existing for our own entertainment, it’s not that we might as well be starving; we already are.

What is the widow doing at the treasury in the first place? She’s doing exactly the same thing Jesus is. Both she and he are calling us to live in a different reality, maybe the only real reality, the only lasting reality. Both the widow and Jesus are calling us to live. But instead of living for our own entertainment, they’re calling us to live for the kingdom of heaven. Both the Son of God and this daughter of circumstance are calling us to listen for something more meaningful than the clanks. They’re calling us to listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit, guiding us to use not just our money, but everything we have to transform this world into the kingdom of heaven.

“One must be poor to know the luxury of giving,” wrote Eliot. But if your mind is set on the kingdom of heaven, giving isn’t a luxury. A luxury is something frivolous, something you can live without if you have to. It’s entertainment. When it comes down to what’s really important, most of us wouldn’t give two cents for all our luxuries put together. The goodness God put within our hearts tells us God’s kingdom is the only wealth that really lasts. We know that. We hear its whispers. But the pressures of keeping up in this earthly life are really, really loud. And very immediate.

We kept asking, what were those rich people doing at the treasury, and what was that one, poor widow doing there. What are you doing at the place where your treasure lies? Which would you rather have – wealth or worth? If we’re really trying to turn this world into the kingdom of God, if we’re trying to claim our value as children of God, then we know giving isn’t a luxury – it’s a necessity. If your mind is set on God’s kingdom, it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor. It doesn’t matter if your check is large or your money goes plink. What matters is that you devote yourself and all you have to a life of true worth.

You’ve really got to admire the widow in today’s story. Not just because she gave what she had, but because of the way she did it. She could have found some less public way to give away what she had. She could have slipped it to a friend who needed food more than she did. She could have kept it private. But instead she stood in that line. She stood up alongside all those rich young rulers. She stood up in front of Jesus and everybody. With her two coins, she said to them all, “I may not have much, but by the power of God Almighty, I am somebody. I am worth something, and nothing can take that away. I may choose to give it away, but by God Almighty nothing – and nobody – can take my worth from me, and you WILL take me seriously!”

I think God wants us all to experience that world-defying, that heavenly freedom. I think that’s what Jesus did when he surrendered everything for the sake of God’s kingdom. What he did was no luxury. But it had infinite worth. What if you were more like that woman, boldly declaring your worth? What if we all were?

Saturday, November 11, 2006


Luke 20 19-25
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church

When we think of someone being “possessed,” we usually think of being possessed by demons. But today’s scripture is a possession story, too. It’s a different kind of possession story, though. And, in a way, it’s an even scarier possession story than the ones about demons. Today’s scripture asks us to take a close look at what we possess. And it asks us to think, hard, about who – or what – possesses us.

The story begins with the scribes and the chief priests. The Bible says the scribes and the chief priests watched Jesus and sent spies who pretended to be honest, in order to trap him by what he said, so as to hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor. The common perception of the scribes and chief priests is that they were demonic, evil, grumpy old men who both resented and feared this young rabbi Jesus. And, knowing how professional clergy can sometimes be, there probably were some like that. But, perhaps because I am a professional clergyperson, I’m a little more forgiving of the scribes and chief priests. They had the awesome responsibility of keeping the faith pure in an age of governmental corruption and radical multiculturalism. Roman thought, Greek thought, Samaritan thought, Zealot thought – you name the thought, people were thinking it. From almost every direction, the good, traditional, orthodox faith of their fathers was under attack. What would we do, if we thought some wild young radical, like, I don’t know, Joel Hanisek, was dragging the church off its foundations and onto some tree-hugging tangent? Well, because it was Joel, we’d probably call his mama and let her take care of him. But what if it was some other, tattooed, nose-ringed, pony-tailed kid? Not that Jesus would be any of those things, but that’s probably not far from how the scribes and chief priests saw him. Trouble. Even if they secretly agreed with a little of what he was preaching (and it appears some of them did), the guy was trouble. He had to be dealt with.

The relationship between church and state – or in this case, synagogue and state – has always been tricky. There’s a fine line between government assistance and government interference. From a theological perspective, the scribes and chief priests didn’t have any use for the governor, Pontius Pilate. He was just Rome’s latest puppet dictator. But from a political perspective, from the perspective of helping them hold onto the purity of their faith, without dirtying their hands, Pilate and his minions might just prove useful.

Do you see the slippery slope the scribes and priests are sliding down? I honestly don’t think they all woke up one morning and thought, “We’ve got to get rid of someone this week – how about this Jesus fellow?” I’m guessing they felt pressured. Maybe some of the big tithers were asking questions. Maybe some of their members had gone off to follow Jesus. I’m also guessing they were scared. Their livelihoods were being challenged. Not just previous generations of faith, but their own, personal life’s work was being attacked from within. Fear plus pressure makes people do strange things.

What makes otherwise good people do evil, ugly things? The great theologian, Flip Wilson, (showing my age) used to say, “The devil made me do that!” More recently, Dana Carvey’s Church Lady would ponder, “Mmm, who could it be? Maybe… Satan?!?” Poor devil gets blamed for everything. Truthfully, though, I think the reason good people do evil, ugly things is a lot less cosmic. We laugh at these TV characters because they’re hitting close to home. All of us get pressured. And then it’s a short step to getting scared. And then it’s another short step to stressing out and withdrawing inward into our own, panicky little worlds. We convince ourselves that we’re right, and they’re wrong, and that we’ve got to stop the bad people before they hurt us any more. Before they damage our traditions. Before they ruin our lives’ work. We might blame the devil, but it’s not demon possession; it’s self-possession. Think of how it looks when you squeeze the air from one side of a balloon to the other. The pressure and fear squeezes the godly side of us smaller and smaller – while the sinful side of us gets more and more puffed up. If you squeeze hard enough, it’s as if the God side almost disappears altogether. Now, I’m not for a minute trying to justify the treachery and sin of the scribes and chief priests. What I’m trying to say is that any of us, even the best of us, can be pressured, squeezed and frightened into doing no less than they did. Did the scribes and priests believe they were doing the right thing? Doesn’t everyone? Don’t we all believe we’re doing the right thing, or the best thing, given the circumstances? When we’re possessed by our own interests, God is squeezed out. Think you can fool Jesus? The scribes and priests did. The pressures and fears of this world had hold of them. Simply put, they were possessed.

So Jesus looks at the coin. “Whose head and whose title does it bear?” he asks. “They say, “The emperor’s.” He says to them, “Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Jews found the Roman money horribly offensive, because it had the emperor’s head and title on it. As if it belonged to him. Our money has, “In God we trust,” written on it. Does that mean our money belongs to God? If so, does it then mean the things we buy with our money also belong to God? W.W.J.B – What Would Jesus Buy? Did you ever stop to think how interesting it is that we call the things we buy with our money, “possessions”? When things are possessed, that’s OK. But when people are possessed, that’s bad. When our things get RE-possessed, that’s even worse.

The scribes and priests got into trouble when they let themselves become possessed. Possessed with pressure, possessed with fear, possessed with envy. Good people become bad people when they become possessed people. Your home, your car, your iPod are, hopefully, enjoyable things. Hopefully, you don’t use your things to inflict pressure, fear, or envy upon people who don’t have things as cool as yours. Hopefully, you aren’t possessed by pressure, fear, or envy to get things as cool as your more wealthy (or more indebted) neighbors. But, in the quiet moments of your late nights or early mornings, you get the nagging feeling that you’re becoming possessed – either by your possessions or by your obsessions – if you’re getting the feeling that you’re sliding down that slippery slope and squeezing God out of your life – what can you do? Is it possible to get yourself DE-possessed? Can you be RE-possessed by God?

The spies ask Jesus, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor?” And we all know how Jesus turns the argument around on them. But what we don’t often notice is that Jesus changes the wording. He doesn’t say anything about paying. He doesn’t say anything about buying. He doesn’t say anything about selling. In short, he doesn’t use the language of commerce. He doesn’t use the language of possession. He says to “give.” “Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and give to God that which is God’s.” “Give,” he says, in both cases. The question, then, isn’t What Would Jesus Pay? Or, What Would Jesus Buy? Or even, What Would Jesus Do? Jesus turns the coin to its other side. What Would Jesus Give? What DID Jesus give? The long and short answer is, “everything.” He gave everything – for us. He gave everything – to God. Jesus was DE-possessed so we could be RE-possessed by the God whose possession we all are in the first place. Think about it – if the scribes had been willing to give a little – if the chief priests had been willing to share a little of their power and authority, they wouldn’t have needed to send spies to trap Jesus. Put simply, the only way to get yourself DE-possessed is to share, to give. If you have possessions, share them. If you have money, give it. When you exercise your generosity, you exorcize some of the possessive demons that threaten you with pressure, fear, and envy. What Jesus knew, and what the scribes and priests weren’t able to comprehend, is that everything belongs to God in the first place. Everything that is Caesar’s, everything that is the scribes’, everything that is the tricksters’, everything that’s yours, everything that’s mine – everything belongs to God in the first place. So giving and sharing isn’t so much paying up or giving away; it’s returning what we’ve been loaned to its true owner.

Who, or what, possesses you? Here in church, the right answer is always, “God.” But when you get home – when you look at all your stuff – when you examine the items in your checkbook or on your credit card statement – who, or what, really possesses you? The emperor? The bank? The good news is that even there, the right answer is always, “God.” In the Bible, the opposite of being possessed by demons is being healed, being set free. In a culture where too often our possessions possess us, in a world where it’s way too easy for good people to do evil, ugly things, healing and freedom come from the same place they did in the Bible – by sharing and giving. Even if it feels scary, give to God that which is God’s. Be possessed. Not by demons, but by God.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Muy Caliente!

Mark 9:38-50
“Muy Caliente”
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
Sunday, October 1, 2006

Today is World Communion Sunday. It makes me think of foreign countries, foreign languages. The foreign country with which I have the most familiarity is Mexico, not just because I’ve been there; I’ve spent a lot of time in Mexican restaurants. I know. It’s like thinking you know about Italy because you like pizza. I’ve learned to accept my limitations. Thanks to these restaurants, I’ve been able to learn a second language, sort of. I learned most of what little Spanish I know by reading menus. “Mas queso, por favor,” (more cheese, please). “Grande.” And if you’re ordering salsa or getting peppers on your meal, you have to know, “caliente,” the word for hot. Order “Muy caliente,” (very hot) and you’re going to need Rolaids.

Jesus talks about seasonings today. He uses some very hot language. “For everyone will be salted with fire.” “If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell.” When you try to swallow such fiery words, you can almost feel the sweat on your forehead. Jesus’ words are very, very heated in any language.

Being an expert in menu-based Spanish, I applied my extensive knowledge to come up with today’s sermon title, “Muy Caliente.” Last week, I was hanging with my amigos y amigas from Maryville College, when I heard one of them speaking Spanish as if she had actually spent money on a language class. I know there are these other, more time-consuming ways to learn Spanish, which are probably more reliable, so I thought this would be an opportunity to make sure I had my sermon title correct. “Caliente?” she said, glancing sideways at her compadre. “Well, yeah. That’s the way it gets used in restaurants,” she said. “But you sure wouldn’t want to say that in Mexico.”
“Oh?” I said, gulping, knowing that the title had already gone to print in both the bulletin and the newsletter.
“Yeah,” she said. “If I said, muy caliente in Mexico, they’d think I was describing my boyfriend. “In Mexico, if you’re describing food, you’d say, muy calor.”

Just when you think you’ve become fluent, a country goes and changes the language on you. Who would have guessed Taco Bell would be so inaccurate? I am going to write that company a letter.

Reflecting on my language mistakes, and because it was too late to change the sermon title, I realized this is a very good example of taking what you read too literally. Not only do words mean different things in different places – Mexico, Chi Chi’s – words can also be used to accommodate readers’ limited understanding. Because I’m used to seeing caliente salsa, I’d be more likely to order that than salsa calor. Salsa calor sounds to gringo Americans as if it would have more calor-ies. So, make ours caliente.

How is Jesus using words in today’s lesson? Does he mean them the way we might expect, because that’s what we’re used to hearing? Or is he choosing his words to make a different kind of point? This is a very serious issue for people who read not just these words, but anything in the Bible. We have to distinguish how the words are used, even if they’re the words of Jesus and written in red. Is Jesus speaking literally? Is Jesus speaking figuratively? When does the Bible say what it means and mean what it says? And when is it meaning something else? This has always been a hot topic for Christians. Is the Bible the literal word of God? Is it the inspired word of God? Is it the word of human beings trying to be faithful to God? You can almost feel the temperature rising when people start asking, discussing, arguing over questions like these. Muy calor.

“If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell.” Surely, Jesus doesn’t mean this literally. To you or to me that might be self-evident. I was talking last week with a friend who’s a chaplain at a hospital for people with mental illnesses. He told me of people he has personally worked with who have latched on to this particular passage, and carried it out upon themselves with disastrous results. There are to this day people who have serious illnesses, who tragically have taken these words at their literal meaning. I think these people are among the first for whom Jesus weeps. Ironically, this passage begins with the disciples asking Jesus about a man who’s casting out demons, demons we would call mental illness. They ask if they should stop this man, since he’s not one of them. Jesus tells them absolutely not. And I think Jesus meant that literally. “No one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.” God bless the doctors, nurses, volunteers and family members – of any faith – who care for people with demons. God bless people with mental illness and the saints who care for them. Does Jesus literally say this in this passage? No. The world of his time didn’t have the language. But put the Bible into our world, and it’s a very small interpretive step to read that blessing from this scripture.

While I was in seminary, the question was put to me, “Why do we even need preachers? “Why do you have to preach sermons? “Why can’t we just open up the Bible and read the scripture and be done with it?” Preachers ask themselves that same question all the time. Usually on Saturday night when the sermon’s just not writing itself. People also ask, “Why do I need to go to church? “Why can’t I get close to God on the golf course?” (Well, listen to the language of people who slice one off into God’s beautiful woodlands. That’s why.) People say, “I’m worried about my children. They’re good people, but I just can’t get them to come to church.” Does Jesus answer these questions literally in this passage? Of course not. But the disciples do ask, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” And Jesus says, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.”

Here was a problem person, an exorcist, who wasn’t a part of the organized church. Whoever he was, he knew about Jesus and did good deeds in Jesus’ name. But he wasn’t one of the officially sanctioned disciples. He wasn’t Presbyterian, bless his heart. He wasn’t mainline Protestant, or Roman Catholic, or even non-denominational-independent-primitive-no-singing-dancing-cussing-or-women-wearing-pants-allowed. He was just a guy, doing good deeds, because somewhere along the way, he learned that was what God wants him to do. Should he be stopped? Of course not.

No one can pick up the Bible and read it without making interpretations. Heck, no one can read the phone book without making some kind of interpretive judgment. This plumber looks more reliable than that plumber. We don’t know why, it’s just a judgment call. The basement’s filling up with water and we need answers, quick. It would be hard for a document to be more literal than the phone book, and yet it gives different people different solutions at different times. Some people want preachers to tell them what the Bible literally says. But then, you have to wonder, does the preacher literally know what he’s talking about? Is he or she possessed by demons? We hope not. Whatever other teaching or service preachers provide, I think the main reason I’m here – and we’re all here in church – is to reassure each other that it’s OK, even right, to be interpreters of the Word of God. Whether we think of the Bible as literal, or inspired, or good advice doesn’t really matter. Arguments like those are just distractions. What matters is that we encourage each other to be interpreters of what God’s word means right now, to you and to me, to our world. What matters is that we take this understanding and use it to do powerful deeds, in Jesus’ name, whether or not we fully understand what we’re talking about. For, as Jesus literally says, no one who does so, will be able soon afterward to speak evil. In any language.

If, this morning, we were sitting in a church in Mexico, most of us wouldn’t have a clue what the preacher was saying. If we opened up the Spanish language Bible, we might catch a word here and there, but for the most part, we’d be lost. But. We’d hear people singing hymns. We’d see the minister breaking the bread. We’d hear the pouring of the cup. We’d see the people sharing Communion. And we’d know we had landed in a place where deeds of Christ’s power were being done. Through the literal words we’d understand nothing. Everything would be foreign. But by the spiritual Word of God, we’d be at home.

So, how do you take your food? Cool and mild? Or hot and spicy? t’s really a matter of taste. Some of us like our food to relieve our stress. And some of us want food that begs for a cup of cold water. How do you take your spiritual food? Do you interpret the Bible so it calms your life? Or do you read it in a way that heats things up? Even this is a matter of taste. The surroundings where we grew up, our mental wellness, what we’ve learned from our menus of family, school, and TV have more influence over our reading of scripture than we’ll ever know. Faith, like food, hits us in the gut. And it’s usually our gut that tells us whether we’re on the right track spiritually. That’s why whoever we are, wherever we are, its so important to remember we’re all interpreters. We’re all trying our best to interpret the words of the Bible and the words of the people around us. We’re all trying our best to interpret our world and get a taste of the richer meaning God kneaded into it. Here at church, when we really want to get close to Jesus, to understand him in our gut, we have a meal. The Communion meal of Christ might relieve our stress or it might cause us more. Jesus says we’re all to be salted with fire, and that we’re never supposed to lose our sense of taste. How did he mean that? Figuratively? Or literally? We won’t know until we partake of that peace of Christ that passes all understanding.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Going After the Little Guys

Mark 09 30-37
“Going After the Little Guys”
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
Sunday, September 24, 2006

Imagine you’re back at school. It’s a warm, autumn afternoon. The teacher has opened the windows because it’s so stuffy in the classroom, but the stillness of the air makes this yet another fruitless act in an increasingly fruitless day. The teacher is talking Algebra, but she might as well be speaking Chinese. “Wah wah. Wah wah WAH wah,” she drones. Thankfully, you’re sitting by the window. If you gaze hard enough, you can actually see the grass growing. Whap! What was that? Against your ear, stinging like a bee’s tail with a broken point. Whap! This time on the other ear, it hits you again. You can feel your ears turn burning red, aching all the way to your nose. As you take your hands down from your throbbing ears, you hear soft snickering. You squint your eyes in recognition. You’ve heard this sound before. Slowly, you turn your head. Two rows back sit the perpetrators, grinning like rabid hyenas. Vinnie. Shane. In their hands, the evidence – Rubber bands. Spit wads mashed tighter than diamonds. What will you do? What will you do? It’s a long class, getting longer by the second. If you ignore them, your ears will become larger, redder targets. If you tell, you’ll become an even bigger target for afterschool retribution. So, you stare at those evil boys with your meanest Clint Eastwood glare. Use the Force, Luke. A miracle! It works. They fold their hands and you can almost see their halos growing. You are one bad dude. You are a Jedi. You turn back around in your seat, bathing in psychic supremacy, and discover the true secret of your strength. The teacher. Standing directly before you. Calling your name in a voice that would make Darth Vader tremble. Now, not just your ears, but your head, your stomach, your lungs are aching. “Uh… I can explain,” you say. “Good,” says the teacher. “I’m sure the Principal will enjoy hearing it. You and Vincent and Shane may now be excused to the Office.”

“But it wasn’t my fault.” “It’s not fair.” “I’m innocent, I tell you! Innocent!” Whether schoolkids or grown-ups, how many times have we heard ourselves thinking, if not saying these excuses? “I was distracted.” “I was just a bystander.” “I haven’t had enough coffee.” But no matter how good the excuse, when we get caught doing something we shouldn’t, the fact remains – we got caught. What we were doing probably wasn’t that bad. But we got caught. And therein lies the rub. It’s not the punishment; it’s the public humiliation, it’s the getting taken down a notch or two that really hurts.

In today’s lesson, Jesus is the teacher. The disciples are the students. Jesus is being very God. And the disciples are being very, very human. These apostles are being more schoolboys than saints. They’re getting themselves into trouble. They’re victims of their own distraction. Jesus catches them, red-handed and red-faced. He doesn’t punish them, per se. But he does take them down a notch or two. In public. In front of the kids. And that’s what really hurts.

Jesus is going through Galilee, trying to keep a low profile. He’s teaching his disciples and he doesn’t want any distractions. He wants them to focus. “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands,” the Teacher tells the students. “And they will kill him, and in three days after being killed, he will rise again.” And he may as well have been speaking Chinese. “Wah wah. Wah wah WAH wah,” is apparently all they hear. The disciples are a distraction to themselves. Here’s my favorite verse in this passage: “But they did not understand what he was saying… and were afraid to ask him.”

Everybody knows, there are some kids whose thing is asking questions. It’s what they live for. And if you’re a teacher, you can spot these kids a mile away. Sometimes they ask good questions. And sometimes they run out of good questions, so they ask not-so-good questions, because they feel an obligation. “Is this important?” “Is this going to be on the test?” “Can I get a copy of your lecture notes?” They’re the question people. Every class has one. But more kids are the sit-in-the-back-and-pray-the-teacher-doesn’t-call-on-me type. It’s not that they don’t know the answer. It’s that they’re afraid of being told, “No. You’re wrong.” Or, they’re afraid of being picked on by other kids for always having the right answers. They figure, it’s better to lay low, keep quiet, and spare yourself one or both kinds of humiliation. It seems the majority of us were (or are) like that.

There were no question people among the disciples that day on the road through Galilee. Teacher Jesus was teaching, but the disciples were off in their own world, a human world, filled with human worries, oblivious to things spiritual, swimming in the shallow waters of schoolboy and schoolgirl concerns. Jesus sees the wandering eyes, hears the whispering behind his back. And he calls the disciples on their distraction. He doesn’t get angry and shout them down. He merely asks, “What were you arguing about along the way?” “But,” says scripture, “they were silent.” Jesus knew what they were arguing about. He didn’t even have to ask. We know, too.

Who’s the greatest, Who’s the best, Who’s the teacher’s pet? Who’s the coolest, Who’s the cutest, Who do you want to stay away from? Whether it’s in school, at work, or even in church, human nature is such that anytime you get a group of people together, we’re going to size each other up. We’re going to divide into groups by order of coolest to weirdest to least likely to be noticed. Most successful, least successful – best dressed, worst haircut. Most likely to win the sales incentive award. Like tends to associate with like, and we spend a lot of time figuring out who we want to be like. Most of the time it’s pretty benign, just the way of the world. But sometimes not. Things can get ugly. Especially when religious disciples are doing the arguing.

We’re Presbyterian. Did you know there are over 20 different flavors of Presbyterian in the United States? You’ve got us, the Presbyterian Church (USA). PCUSA. We’re the largest and the oldest. (One time when being both large and old is something to brag about.) But you’ve also got the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), the Cumberland Presbyterian Church (CPC), the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC), the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), and so on. To non-Presbyterians it must sound kind of absurd. But to those of us who understand the subtle differences? Well, let’s just say, no daughter of mine better bring home some PCA preacher-boy. (Actually, I’d prefer they stayed away from ordained clergy altogether.) Most Christian denominations are the same. And then we hear of Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims and wonder, why are these people always fighting when they’re both Muslims? There are Orthodox Jews and Reformed Jews, Tibetan Buddhists and Chinese Buddhists. The human tendency to divide into groups and argue about who’s the greatest transcends faith boundaries. That’s scary. It says our divisions are stronger than our religion. Or worse, our religion IS our divisions. Taken to the extreme (and it seems more and more people are doing just that) religion turns into nothing more than separating the godly from the godless, by whatever means necessary.

So on the one hand we hear the disciples are arguing over which one is the greatest and we want to laugh at their schoolboy antics. But on the other hand, we have a ton of evidence of how dangerous these antics can become. Just pick up the paper, or turn on the news, and there it is. “But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.” Of course they had. What else do religious people argue about?

“He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."”

What kind of a child was this, do you think, who wandered into Jesus’ classroom? Where were her parents? Why wasn’t he working, like children back then were supposed to? Was he a child of the community, a relative of the disciples? Or was she one of those random children who doesn’t seem to be connected to anyone? This scripture is NOT about sentimentality over children and how sweet they are. This scripture is about putting away childish things, and growing up in faith.

A person who wants to be first has to intentionally be last, be the servant of everyone else. Whoever wants to be first has to intentionally go after the little guys, the least guys – the least children, the least adults – and welcome them – welcome them into faith. Whoever wants to be first has to be an evangelist. Not an evangelist with a TV channel and a Rolex. But evangelists who aren’t afraid to hug people they wouldn’t know what to say to. Conventional wisdom says, “A man is known by the company he keeps.” Jesus would not only agree, he’d add to it. God is known by the company a man (or a woman) keeps. “You welcome them, you welcome me,” he says, “and you welcome God.” But where Jesus defies conventional wisdom is by changing the company. If we follow his logic, then the surest way to mess up our faith is to argue about being the greatest. Worrying about such things distracts us, deceives us into thinking we know better than our Teacher.

In a taped interview that was shown at his funeral, Steve Irwin talked about how his daughter, Bindi, would grab his face between her hands and turn him so he had to look at her, had to listen to her, instead of the fourteen other things he was thinking about. I think, in a similar way, Jesus was trying to let this other little child grab the faces of the disciples and force them to look, force them to listen not just to her, but to Jesus, to look to God, to see the ministry they needed to have. With this scripture, Jesus is grabbing our faces, forcing us to focus. Pay attention. Pay attention to the least people. Look at the people who have nothing to offer you. Listen to the people to whom you have no idea what to say. Welcome the strange.

Outside the Principal’s office, you and Vinnie and Shane sit in three really uncomfortable chairs. The big, round clock above you tick, tick, ticks as you await the chance to tell your story and seek justice from on high. The bell rings. The door doesn’t open. The clock ticks more. Another bell rings. The door still doesn’t open. Is the Principal even in there? Is this some kind of a trick?

God has created a world where it seems all of us are waiting for the chance to prove our case, to show how we’re right, we’re the greatest, we’re most worthy of forgiveness. Meanwhile the people we’re not like are seated right beside us, staring straight ahead, waiting their turn, too. I wonder what would happen if we stopped waiting for godly supremacy to solve our problems, and turned our heads and looked at each other. Talked to each other. Listened to each other. What would happen if we welcomed Jesus, welcomed God in each other? Could the people we think are the very least have something important to teach us about being the greatest?

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Tame Those Toxic Tongues

James 3:1-12
“Tame Those Toxic Tongues”
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
Sunday, September 17, 2006

I grew up in West Virginia, so we were required by law to watch “Hee Haw.” It was an integral part of the Saturday night TV lineup: “Hee Haw” at 7, “Lawrence Welk” at 8. TV doesn’t get much more thrilling than that. If you’ve never watched “Hee Haw,” you should. Once. That’s enough. I understand the reruns are being shown again on CMT. Thank goodness for the V-chip. One of “Hee Haw’s” weekly routines was the Rumor Song. (Remember this one?) It featured Gunella Hutton and a bevy of women standing in a cornfield singing this:

“Well, we're not ones to go 'round spreadin' rumors/Well, really we're just not the gossipy kind;/No, you'll never hear one of us repeatin' gossip,/So you better be sure and listen close the first time!”

And then they’d sing a verse about Junior Samples or Grandpaw Jones and the problems they were having with the missuses. We’d laugh ‘till it hurt. But then, we only had three channels.

Rumors and gossip on television used to be confined to the cornfield, or the soap operas, or to something Barney overheard Andy saying to Helen about someone else getting married so all of Mayberry started planning Andy’s wedding by mistake. Nowadays rumors and gossip aren’t just segments; they’re the whole purpose of shows. “Desperate Housewives,” “Jerry Springer,” and all the so-called reality shows exploit our most voyeuristic urges. People don’t have time to get together at the clothesline or the cornfield, or even at the water cooler. So we get our fill of scandal by watching at eight, seven Central. And if you can’t watch the shows, you can always catch the bleeps and blunders on the Internet. (Which reminds me, did any of you hear CNN’s Kyra Phillips leave her microphone on while talking about her sister in-law in the bathroom? Love to have a hidden camera at their next family reunion.) All these shows and sites have a competitive edge to them. This week’s rumors and gossip, this week’s scandals have to be juicier than last week’s. They have to be shared faster. They have to intrude farther. Not only do we have to hear the story, we have to extract blood to verify the rumors, as with Floyd Landis and Barry Bonds.

Perhaps it’s fitting that so many sports professionals are now the subject of rumor. Gossip itself has always been a competitive sport. No matter what it is, or how it starts out, the next person down the line either has to best the story, or add something to it, so that by the end (if there is an end), the final story bears almost no resemblance to the original. It’s like the kids’ game, where the first one whispers in the second one’s ear, and so on down the line, until the one at the end tries to say what was heard. It’s never what was said at first – and the kids are trying to repeat verbatim. Perhaps that’s illustrative of all communication. The more people involved, the worse the communication becomes. Plus, add to that the 15 minutes of fame that come with having rights to the story – fact or fiction – and the thrill of victory dwarfs the agony of someone else’s defeat. Rumor and gossip are bloodthirsty sport. And at their core they’re selfish. Rumor and gossip are the absolute lowest form of self-promotion. The puffing-up of the rumor-teller depends on letting the air out of the rumor-ee. People will even go so far into obsessive, competitive selfishness that they’ll spread ugly rumors about themselves just to get attention. John Mark Karr comes to mind. Rumor-hungry 24-hour news networks, and the rumor-thirsting people who watch them, are more than willing to fan the flames.

Speaking of flames, “How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!” writes the Apostle. “And the tongue is a fire,” he says. “The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.” Apostle James’ head would just burst apart if he ever saw an episode of “Judge Judy.” Not so much because of the content (although it’s hard to imagine an Apostle getting hooked on the show, or, say, “Nancy Grace”), but because of all the terrible things (true or false) that people will say about each other. Publicly. In front of God and everybody. It’s less hard to imagine what the Apostle might do if he walked into our living rooms and saw us munching popcorn and staring at the tube, listening to all the things people say about each other. He’d want to just smack us upside the head. Rumors! Gossip! The very flames of hell, themselves! Eagerly anticipated, willingly watched, and shamelessly spread. Heaven forbid a Saint of the church would push us off the couch, grab the bowl of chips, and flip over to see what’s happening on Wisteria Lane this week. But, sin being what it is, and rumor and gossip being as powerful as they are, who’s to say?

No doubt the Apostle was so extreme in his condemnation of rumors and gossip because he understood how even the best of saints can be drawn into their web. No doubt he himself had seen the damage done by even the best-intentioned person who let his tongue flap faster than his conscience could restrain. Maybe he himself had committed sins of the tongue. He wrote, “…no one can tame the tongue -- a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” To the Apostle James, the tongue is just a tainted transmitter of toxic waste. Blech!

Which is ironic, because all of Jesus’ apostles (including, we assume, James) were present on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came down from heaven and appeared to rest above the head of each disciple as “tongues of fire.” At Pentecost, the tongues of fire were ignited by God. They were a gift to the church, its main and central gift of the Holy Spirit. The tongues of fire were symbols of what the evangelists were supposed to be, spreading the good news, preaching the gospel, teaching all the world what Jesus had told them. But somewhere, somehow, the symbol of the tongue was infected by human sin. The fire of God had morphed into the flames of hell. When did this happen? How did it happen? Probably the first time one of those disciples spread a rumor.

“The tongue is a fire,” said Apostle James. “With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.” With these words, James goes beyond the human hurt and destruction caused by rumor and gossip, to an even deeper issue of faith. Who are we? Why are we here? Are we here to listen to ourselves? Did God create us and give us tongues so we could say ugly things about people who aren’t in the room, in order to make ourselves look important? Is our purpose to glorify ourselves at the expense of others? Is that why God put us on earth? Is that who we’re supposed to be? Of course not. We know that. Intellectually. We know we’re not supposed to spread rumors and gossip because it’s wrong. Just like we know we aren’t supposed to speed, or litter, or copy computer software, or break any other of the Ten Commandments. We know rumors and gossip are bad, maybe even of the devil. What makes rumors and gossip worse than bad, makes them downright evil, is that they pervert who we are and what we’re here to do. Our brothers and sisters – the human beings who are our neighbors – the people of this earth – are made, as the Apostle says, “in the likeness of God.” When we verbally assault any one of those brothers or sisters made in the likeness of God, it’s like we’re assaulting God. We betray who we are, and what we’re intended to be. We sin for our own glory, and vandalize the image of God. The Apostle says, “My brothers and sisters, this ought not be so.”

If rumor and gossip are a competitive sport, then the quickest way to stop is to set yourself up for failure. This is a game you must dare to lose. Realize that there is no possible story, no possible fact or fiction you can spread that can’t be bested, and won’t be bested by the next person down the line. No one can stop gossip. But you can stop yourself from playing the gossip game. Unilateral withdrawal is the only response. There is no negotiated cease-fire. You have to pull yourself away from the front lines. Accept defeat with honor (but not too much honor). Know that by losing the gossip game, you become more the child of God you’re intended to be.

The Rev. Cynthia Logan tells the story of her grandmother, who once invited the Ladies’ Circle over to her house for afternoon tea. When the discussion turned to gossip, Cynthia says, her grandmother stood up, removed the tea from the table, told the ladies she wouldn’t abide gossip in her home, and sent them straight out the door. You go, grandma. It simply comes down to the opposite of what Alice Roosevelt Longworth said, “If you can’t say anything good about someone, sit right here by me.” It’s more like what most grandmothers taught us, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” Grandmothers are smart people.

The spiritual battle for your tongue is only won by the good news of Jesus Christ. A spirit of encouragement is the only way to repent from habitual sins of gossip and rumor. Like a horse with a bridle in its mouth, we have to let the Holy Spirit pull our attention, and our words, back into line. It may feel uncomfortable at first, but let your mouth be pulled toward words of optimism, hope, and faith – and away from the infinitely destructive words of rumor. Who really cares what other people are doing, anyway? If they’re not doing works of optimism, hope and faith they really aren’t worth talking about in the first place. Put your mind on God, and your tongue will light the fires of the Holy Spirit. The flames of hell will find someone else to fire up.

The shelf life of rumors is very short. You’d better be sure and listen close the first time, if rumors are what you’re listening to. If you hear the same gossip more than once or twice, it gets old. Rumors grow stale very fast. But words of love, words of optimism, hope and faith always bear repeating. You can never tell your kids, “I’m proud of you,” too many times. You can never say, “Thank you, mom,” enough. You can never tell someone too much that you believe in them, that they are children of God. As many times as you stop to think to say, “Thank you, God,” you can never say it too many times. Because sin is out there. It pulls us away from who we are and what we’re supposed to be. It sets our tongues a-wagin’. But sin is not our master. Sin does not have to have its way with us. We can use our gifts of speech and our talents of encouragement to light a fire for God. Brothers and sisters, this is the way it’s supposed to be. Tame those toxic tongues.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Do. Be. Do. Be. Do

James 2:1-17
Do. Be. Do. Be. Do.
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
Sunday, September 10, 2006

For Protestants, particularly those of us descended from the traditions of Martin Luther and John Calvin, the book of James has always been a problem. Luther hated it, and wished he could tear it out of his Bible. Mainly because of the final verse in our reading today, Chapter 2, verse 17. “Faith without works is dead.” The Apostle continues the argument in verse 18. “But someone will say, 'You have faith and I have works.' OK, says the Apostle. Then, “show me your faith apart from your works.” Well, I'm waiting. Show me that faith. Oh, having trouble? Well, then, he concludes, “I by my works will show you my faith.” The implied question for us readers is, which way, would you think, is easier? Showing the faith of your heart or showing the works of your hands? In the words of the expensive tennis shoe people, “Just Do It.” Just do.

Well, Martin Luther – who had done a lot of good works – hated this argument. Because he had come to the realization that no amount of good works could earn you salvation. John Calvin, the father of Presbyterianism, would say that no matter how high we lifted ourselves, we're still just “worms” under God's feet. It's not good to argue with Luther and Calvin. Salvation is a gift from God. Period. Faith itself is a gift. You can't earn God's favor. It just is. God loves you, like it or not. If you have to prove it, you don't understand. Just be.

But on the other hand, there's a very practical, down-to-earth side to the writings of the Apostle James. And he's not alone in the Bible. “If,” wrote the Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” As James said, you can't see poor people with no clothes and no food and simply say, “I'll pray for you.” You have to put your love and faith into action before it adds up to anything. Just do.

Just do. Just be. Just do. Just be. Do. Be. Do. Be. Do. Said the great theologian, Frank Sinatra. A man who could do just about anything he wanted, AND kick back and enjoy the suave pleasure of just being Frank Sinatra. What about you? Are you more defined by what you do, or by who you be? Do your faith and your works walk hand-in-hand? Or is what you believe disconnected from what you do? Ol' Blue Eyes probably wasn't intending his words so theologically, but he did shed some light on scripture. When it comes to faith, you can't sing a “be” without a “do.” And you can't have a “do” without a “be.” One just leads to the other. Do. Be. Do. Be. Do.


We're ordaining and installing elders today. Anyone who's ever served on a church Session will tell you, you can't just be an elder without a pretty fair amount of doing, too. Elders chair committees. They lead programs. They make sure that the church is doing what it says it believes, that we're all practicing what we preach.

We're starting a new year of Sunday School and Youth Groups today. We're kick-starting Scott (which normally only Rhonda gets to do), and restarting the Choirs. Anyone who's ever been a Sunday School or Youth Group leader will tell you, you can't just be a teacher without a heck of a lot of doing. Usually more than the kids. You can't just be a member of the Choir without doing a lot of singing, praying, practicing (and cutting up). Especially if you're a Bass. It's hard to tell what that group is going to do, be, do. Ideally, everyone who comes through the doors of the church is made to be welcome, but also called to do some kind of ministry on behalf of Jesus Christ. God calls all of us to show our faith AND our good works. We're all called to preach and to practice, each in our own ways. You may not be called to sing in the choir, but you might be called to appreciate the inspiration of good music. They do; you be. Some other time, some other way, you'll do. And they'll be – be the recipients of your good works. God may not be calling you to be Billy Graham. You don't have to be some giant of faith to just sit down and pray with somebody. God might be calling you to cook supper for people who've suffered a death in the family. You don't have to be the Emiril of casseroles to care for someone in need. When your faith and your good works are in sync, you're a preaching, witnessing, singing ambassador of God. Your faith is alive. It might not be the best or the strongest, but it's alive. That's what the Bible requires of us. Alive is enough. Alive is integrity -- integrity of word and deed. Whatever we do, whatever you do in this coming year, do it with the integrity of a living faith... and you'll be, the kind of person God wants you to be. And that'll do.


“Strangers In the Night,” was the song with Sinatra's famous line of, “Do-Be-Do.” It's at the very end of the song. When you listen to the record, it kind of sounds as though Frank knew he needed to sing a little more, but wasn't sure what, so he improvised. And that little throwaway has become part of music history. The church is called to be a community, not of strangers, but of friends. Friends whose work and whose faith shines in the light of day. The church, in some places, by standards of society, might look like a group of throwaway people. Jesus' original followers, for example, weren't known for their status or education. They weren't known for their great words or miraculous works, although they accomplished both. The men and women who followed Jesus were known mainly because they followed Jesus. They followed. And after Jesus' death and resurrection, when they were called on to form the early church, they improvised. They knew they needed to sing a little more, but they weren't sure exactly what, so they kept on doing and being what Jesus had taught them to.

Nearly 2000 years later, we're the beneficiaries of their doing and being. Sometimes we recite the words exactly the way they taught us. For instance, we read the words of scripture just as they've been handed down to us. And sometimes we improvise. Because it has been 2000 years, and a different world calls for different kinds of doing and being. Like good jazz singers, we're each called upon to sing the words of our faith with our own unique style. Maybe that means singing. And maybe that means sweeping the floors. Maybe it means something else that nobody has ever tried. That's the thing: when you're being a follower of Jesus Christ, there's no telling what you'll do.

Giving Martin Luther and John Calvin their due, the good news is that your salvation is God's business. And there's no way you could ever earn eternal life. No amount of good works can ever save you. But, as the Apostle James might say, your good works won't hurt you, either. And when done in the spirit of Christ, your good works will help the world. When done in the spirit of Christ, your good deeds will help your household, your community. They will help you. When you're hand in hand with the spirit of Christ, when your faith and your works are hitting on all cylinders, you will become a smooth-operating crooner for Christ. You will do. And you will be. You will do-be-do-be and do again, to the rhythms of God almighty.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Time to...

Ecclesiastes 3:1-15 + Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
September 3, 2006

Labor Day weekend. It’s the time we citizens celebrate the contribution of organized labor and the rights of workers in the United States.

Yeah, right.

In Knoxville, Tennessee, the holiday weekend has one purpose this year, and we all know it has nothing to do with working. This weekend is about playing. Playing football. Playing tailgating – although technically some of us take that too seriously to call it play. Playing at the sale racks at the mall – but again, that’s less “play” and more of a full contact sport. Playing at Boomsday, watching the fireworks, grilling out. Labor day is a weekend to loosen up, and NOT to think about labor. It’s summer’s last time of lightness. So, wear the white shoes one last time before next Easter. Labor day is time to play.

Ecclesiastes tells us that for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. A time for work and a time for play. God has made everything suitable for its time. But after this beautiful poem, the writer asks, “What gain have the workers from their toil?” And then, “I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; “moreover it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.” With the words of Ecclesiastes playing in the background, Labor Day takes on religious significance. You see, we aren’t intended to slave away, day after day, without joy, and without a balance of time. Time to work, sure, but also time to enjoy what we’re working for. It’s God’s gift that our labor, whatever it might be, isn’t just an end in itself. God gives purpose to our days. But weekends (such as this) dedicated to play, are God’s gift, too.

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Whenever I hear that, I think of Jack Nicholson in, “The Shining,” typing reams and reams of this one sentence as his mind unravels. If you ever want a testimony to why you shouldn’t lock yourself into your work, go rent that movie. Especially if you’re the caretaker of a haunted motel. But all work and no play does more than make us dull boys and girls. God has created a variety of time for our lives. All work and no play knocks us out of step. Instead of the poetry of “a time for this and a time for that,” life becomes “a time for work.” And a time for work. And a time for more work. Time to sleep? Maybe. Time to eat? In the car. Time for watching the kids grow up? The world wants us to march along in lockstep; God wants us to waltz. We play the same song day after day. We trip over the rhythms of God’s design.

Keeping step with the rhythms of God’s design isn’t easy. When you look at the list in Ecclesiastes, there’s a lot of stuff we’re supposed to have time for. A time to be born and a time to die – well, those pretty much take care of themselves. But then there’s planting and reaping, weeping and laughing, mourning and dancing, seeking and losing. (By the way, the Bible got that one backwards. There’s a time for losing, and THEN a time for seeking. Losing takes so little time. Seeking time gets longer every year.) There’s a time for keeping, tearing, sewing, killing, healing, embracing, loving, hating… and throwing away stones. If variety is the spice of life, God intends our lives to be anything but flavorless and dull. But again, what’s written in Ecclesiastes is poetry, not a literal to-do list. If you make it through the day without killing anyone or throwing stones at somebody, I think God would be OK with that. But to live your life as a poetic act takes conscious effort.

I get simultaneously disgusted and amused when I hear myself saying, “I need to make time for that.” Or, “Let’s carve out some time to do that.” As if I have the power to create even a second of time. What I’m really saying when I say silly stuff like that is, “I need to spend less time doing something else.” Now, most of us like to think everything we do is pretty darned important. If it wasn’t important, we wouldn’t spend so much time doing it. So trying to find something to cut out or cut down on isn’t easy. Especially if that something pays the bills. Keeping step with the poetry of God’s design gets harder every year, whether you work inside or outside the home, whether you’re retired, or even if you’re a kid trying to juggle homework, class time and the forty-leven extracurricular activities now required by law. But then, we wouldn’t expect living by God’s design to be as easy as letting the world suck the life out of us. It takes effort to learn God’s dance steps. Today’s scripture says that God wants us to enjoy, to eat and drink and take pleasure in (and from) our toil.

Simon and Garfunkle (and I know some of you have no idea who they are) told us, “Slow down; you move too fast. You got to make the morning last.” Ah, youth. I hope everyone’s feeling groovy now. Art and Paul sang that song at least one, maybe two generations ago, depending on how you count. 1966. In 2006, people grumble because it takes so long to download songs. Many, many generations ago, around 26 AD, in the land of Israel, getting people to slow down and stop moving too fast was a problem, too. We envision the lives of people in Jesus’ day being simple and easy. But people are people. Back then, they probably complained about the long lines at the watering hole and camels that wouldn’t start and kids who took too long getting dressed. The rabbis and priests realized there was a huge disconnect between peoples’ lives on the Sabbath and the other six days of the week. The people were just too busy. They forgot about God and charged off doing their own things just as much as we do. So the rabbis came up with a solution. If people are too busy doing other stuff to think about God, make the other stuff holy, so you have to think about God. And so the rabbis came up with huge numbers of laws about how to wash your pots and pans, how to do this and how to do that. It’s not a bad idea.

When you’re preparing food, do you really think about all it involves? If the food we eat is a gift from the earth, and if the earth is a gift from God, and if the family you’re cooking supper for is made up of children of God – then, yes, washing your pots and pans can be a religious act. Peeling the skin off a chicken can be a yucky act of prayer. Chopping an onion can be an emotional experience. Apply the laws of cleanliness to all of life and simply washing your hands brings you closer to God. Not a bad idea at all. If the laws can teach you to dance to God’s rhythms, then good. But – if the rabbis start demanding you march in lockstep to their rules, if you’re not allowed to be friends with people who don’t follow the same rules, then something’s wrong. The holiness of the cleanliness laws has been adulterated into just another set of rules and pressures that keep people from slowing down and feeling groovy.

The rabbis – the Pharisees – noticed that Jesus’ disciples didn’t wash their hands (the right way) before they ate. These were hungry guys who lived in tents. They may not have washed their hands at all. The Pharisees blew their whistles and threw a flag and asked Jesus, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” It’s hard for us to understand, but this was a really big deal. The Pharisees saw the disciples as breaking step with the march of tradition. But more, the disciples were letting the ways of the world pollute their faith, literally. The disciples ate with dirty hands, that had touched dirty utensils, patted dirty camels, handled dirty money, maybe even touched dirty people. This was a religious crisis.

Jesus saw a teaching moment, and broke into a sermon. He called the crowd together and said, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” Evil intentions are what keep people away from God. It’s not dirty hands that defile us, but dirty hearts, dirty minds, dirty intentions. Jesus escalates the religious crisis instead of calming it.

Time. The beat of time. This past week, in so many news retrospectives on the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, people were talking a lot about time. I saw an interview with one old, New Orleans musician, who talked about how Katrina just knocked out all the rhythms of life. Getting water, getting groceries, cleaning muck out of your home or your business – these are what’s important now. All the other stuff is lost in time. I think what Jesus was talking about – what the Pharisees were trying to make people do – what Ecclesiastes preached about – was cleaning the muck out of your life. It’s not that there isn’t enough time. It’s that we let our time become so adulterated, so mucked-up, that even the good things get lost in the storm. Instead of a time to sew and a time to reap, a time to laugh and a time to cry, all our time gets so mixed up together that we’re not consciously doing anything. We’re trying to juggle everything. Multitasking. And it doesn’t work. It’s a religious crisis. And it’s escalating in a bad way. If you’re trying to move to God’s rhythms, you can’t march, waltz, tango, Watusi, and Hustle all at the same time. God has set up the world so there’s a time to march, and a time to waltz, and even a time to do The Hustle, Lord help us. The problem isn’t that we don’t slow down we move too fast; the problem is that we’re no longer conscious of how cleaning the pots and pans might be a religious act. Planting a garden might be a faithful prayer. Driving to soccer practice might be a family value. The times of our lives might be holy, if we focus our hearts and minds on the holiness of our time.

Whether it’s in your mind or in print, you probably have a list of things you have to do, beginning this afternoon, and running through the week to come. How are these things holy? What do they contribute to your life with God? Whether it’s preparing a meal or writing a report, can these things, one at a time, bring you into richer harmony with God? Can they help you dance to God’s rhythms? Growing closer to God takes time. Whatever you have to do in the next twenty-four hours, do it consciously on behalf of God. Wash your hands, your heart, and your mind clean. Not with water, but with the Holy Spirit. So that even if your hands are dirty, what you put your hands to will preach God. All the time. Working. Playing. Even doing nothing at all. Your time is a holy gift. Make how you spend your time holy, too.