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

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Day After Christmas

Matthew 2:13-23

The Sunday after Christmas.

"'Twas the Day After Christmas"

-by Rev. Ken Goodrich, Buchanan, Va.

Twas the day after Christmas, when all through the town

Every creature was stirring, taking ornaments down.

The lights were extinguished, the candles all burned,

Empty boxes abounded wherever you turned.

The children were cranky, they'd been good for so long

That their innards were bursting to do something wrong;

The toys of which visions had danced in their heads

Lay abandoned in corners, their batteries dead.

When you sprang to the window and threw open the sash,

Your eyes were assaulted by mountains of trash.

So it's back to the office, to the matters at hand,

As relief, like an aspirin, spread through the land,

And the windows, in outlines of colors once bright,

Now returned to dark shadows, as black as the night.

The fires of warm feelings were beginning to wane,

Like the hard, icy touch of a cold windowpane

As the world, like the dread of an overcast day,

Reverted to form, to its patterns of gray,

When what in our wondering ears should we hear,

But the Word of the Father to be of good cheer;

To take hold of the light that will never go out,

And carry it high, and spread it about.

Throw the holly and ivy out if you will,

But the star is before you. Follow it still.

The wonder of Christmas, of God coming here,

Cannot be confined to the end of the year,

For the light of the manger, which is now packed away,

Continues to shine and glows brighter each day

As the people of God respond to his call,

And take this, the true meaning of Christmas to all:

Friends, the glory of God neither falters nor ends,

For the gift of the presence comes again...and again.

There are an awful lot of people for whom today is Christmas. I was talking to one person last week whose dad is a paramedic in a small county. There are only three EMTs in the rotation, so every three years, dad's on call, down at the firehouse. Their family celebrates Christmas one day late. And that's OK.

There are an awful lot of nurses, doctors, police, firefighters, and, of course, a tremendous number of people in the military, for whom Christmas comes a day late, and they're lucky if it lasts a whole day. We need to remember them and thank them. If you happen to be one of those late-Christmas workers, first, Thank you; and second, Merry Christmas.

I don't think we have any garbage collectors in our congregation, at least not the professional kind. For most of us, it's just a hobby. I'm pretty sure the professional trash collectors get a premium this week, and they deserve every penny. There's no recession in the number of boxes and impossible-to-open plastic toy packaging. Just getting everything to the curb takes a donkey and three wise men.

There's also an awful lot of people for whom Christmas is just hard. The presents, or the hope, peace, joy and love don't show up. They're more melancholy than jolly. And anyone who listens enough times to, "I'll Be Home for Christmas," needs an IV of Prozac. I started listening to our local Hispanic radio station, "Noventa y tres punto cinco, La Lider." It's physically impossible not to smile at carols done Mariachi style.

"Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt...."

Christmas went by horribly quickly for Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus. The joy of Christmas turned to tragic sadness for the people of Israel. It turned terribly confusing for the Holy Family, three non-kings who couldn't find a safe place to rest, who ended up in a foreign country, hearing voices and sounds beyond their understanding. The manger must have looked pretty comfortable at that point. Christmas left more suddenly than it had come, and looked as though it might never come back.

If you Google the phrase, "...who saved Christmas" you can find an amazing number of entries. There's "The MAN Who Saved Christmas," "The DOG Who Saved Christmas," and its sequel, "The DOG who saved Christmas VACATION," (which stars BOTH Mario Lopez AND Paris Hilton), "The LITTLE GIRL who saved Christmas," "The TOY who saved Christmas," (that's the Veggie Tales version), "The GOBLIN who saved Christmas," (Okayyyy??), and even, "The MUSLIM CABBIE who saved Christmas" (which is actually a very heartwarming story about a New York cab driver who returned over $20,000 in cash to its clueless owners who carried $20,000 cash in New York City, for non-drug-related purposes).

There's so much of this idea that Christmas has to be saved. Ironically, that's exactly what the scripture's about today. Mary and Joseph had to run hide in Egypt, the place of Israel's enslavement to Pharaoh (which is the last place anyone would look), in order to protect all the future Christmases to come. Even the first Christmas went from the heights of joy to the depths of sadness and fear. Christmas was here; and then it was gone. Just like that. Except that it wasn't gone. It was just hiding for awhile. Until it was safe to come back out again.

The wonder of Christmas, of God coming here,

Cannot be confined to the end of the year,

For the light of the manger, which is now packed away,

Continues to shine and glows brighter each day

As the people of God respond to his call,

And take this, the true meaning of Christmas to all:

Friends, the glory of God neither falters nor ends,

For the gift of the presence comes again... and again.

We're reminded by those workers who have to modify their Christmas calendars that Christmas can be celebrated any day. It's not over and done. In fact, Christmas is never over and done. It might be hidden away in a dark corner of your heart, but it's there. It might be disguised as random acts of kindness done any old day that seem to have no grounding in reason or purpose. The secret is, oh, yes they do. Any act of hope, peace, joy or love is quietly, invisibly tied back to Christmas, to the birth of goodness, the coming of God, Emmanuel, who is with us every minute of every day.

You know, people would think you're either crazy or a Presbyterian minister if you went around all year saying, "Merry Christmas!" At the Dogwood Festival: "Merry Christmas!" At the beach in summer, "Merry Christmas!" At opening day of football season, "Merry Christmas!" Yes, you would be odd. But you wouldn't be wrong. You'd be right. Christmas can be any old day. And in fact, it is. The gift of God's presence comes again... and again... and again.

So, we begin the day after Christmas by saying, "Merry Christmas." O come, let us adore him. All year long.

James McTyre
Pastor, Lake Hills PCUSA
Stated Clerk, Presbytery of East TN
Office: 865-577-8510
Cell & SMS: 865-268-9628
Skype: jamesmctyre

Saturday, December 18, 2010

What Joseph Didn't Do

Matthew 1:18-25  James McTyre Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA) Sunday, December 19, 2010  There's a story of a church Christmas Pageant.  A few hours before show time, the mother of the boy who's supposed to play Joseph calls the church and frantically explains that her son's come down with a terrible case of the flu, and can't leave the house.  The director of the pageant thinks for a moment, and says, "That's OK. We'll just write Joseph out."  They still have Mary. Still have three wise men. Still have the sheep, the shepherds, and the angels.  By the time you get all those kids in bathrobes and cardboard wings up there, it's one crowded manger.  So, the pageant goes on without Joseph.  And no one even notices.   We went last week to see Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" at the Clarence Brown theater, in which Sharon Gerkin proudly had a granddaughter performing, and who was, in the critics' vernacular, "Awesome."  Before the show, as is tradition, just before the lights went down, the announcer called out the night's scratches and substitutions.  "Tonight, the role of [blah blah] will be played by [blah blah blah]."   Which is always a great disappointment to grandparents, but to the rest of us, who don't know [blah] from [blah blah], it's all [blah blah blah].  So, the play goes on, understudies in place.  And no one even notices.   What difference does it make if I'm here?  Do I matter?  In a world, as Scrooge says, with, "Surplus population," does one person's position or disposition really matter?  You see this all over at Christmas.  Kevin gets left, "Home Alone," and his family doesn't notice.  In "It's a Wonderful Life," Jimmy Stewart's shown how Bedford Falls would have turned out if not for him.  Even "A Charlie Brown Christmas" is about the difference one blockhead can make.  What if Rudolph hadn't had a red nose?  What if Karen hadn't taken Frosty to the North Pole?   What if Joseph hadn't silently stood by Mary's side?   What if you weren't you, and you weren't here?   ---  There are only six days left 'till Christmas.  Did anyone else's blood pressure just go up?  Why are we sitting here in church when there's so much left to do?   We do, do; do, do.  The more we do, the more important we must be, right?  Would you agree with me that in the Bible, Joseph's pretty important?  But what did he do? I mean, really?  It's truer to say that Joseph's more important for what he didn't do.  Joseph didn't speak.  In all the Bible, Joseph never speaks a word.  Joseph is completely silent.  Obviously, he's an introvert.  Yea! Let's hear it for the introverts!  Don't cheer; you'll scare them.  Let's just give them a moment of silence.  Joseph didn't father Jesus.  In Matthew's begats, he's listed as "the husband of Mary."  Not the way a first-century male wants to be known.  In Luke's begats, he's listed with parentheses, kind of like Roger Maris and his asterisk.  Luke says, "Jesus... was the son (open-paren) as was thought (close paren) of Joseph.  Joseph didn't "dismiss Mary quietly" as was his right.  The Bible says, "...an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, 'Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife."   Two things, there: First, Joseph didn't exercise his rights, and second, Joseph didn't "be afraid."  The only description of Joseph we get is that he was "a righteous man."  What does that mean?  In the Bible, it's pretty simple.  Righteousness, in the Bible, is putting your rights at least third down the list.  After he was grown up, Jesus said the Greatest Commandment is putting the rights of God first (as in, "Love the Lord, your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and spirit), and putting the rights of your neighbor second (as in, "...and love your neighbor as yourself").  Joseph didn't exercise his rights, even though he was entitled.  I think it's safe to say that just about any time you hear someone saying, "Well, it's my right to... [blah, blah, blah]," they're thinking first about themselves, with God and neighbor somewhere further down the line.  What if everyone believed their own rights weren't as important as everyone else's?   Joseph didn't "be afraid."  I say it that way because I doubt Joseph wasn't afraid.  He would have had all the tough guys down at the carpenter shop, nudging each other, "Oh, look. Here's 'Mary's husband.'"  He had a betrothed, great with child, and no place to stay in a strange town but a manger.  Of course he was afraid.  But he didn't be afraid.  In other words, his being wasn't defined by his fear.  You can experience the emotion of fear without letting fear be your life.   What would you do if you weren't afraid?  What if fear didn't hold you back from saying yes to your dreams?  What if none of us were afraid to let our better angels guide us?  Joseph didn't speak.  He didn't father Jesus.  He didn't dismiss Mary.  He didn't exercise his rights,  and he didn't "be afraid."  For a person who didn't do a lot, Joseph sure did do a lot.  Someone else might have done something, and messed up the very first Christmas.  If you think because you're not doing something grand and noteworthy, if you think you're not important, think about Joseph.  Think about all he didn't do.  If you wonder what importance you might have, wonder at Joseph.  For all your limitations and for all your faults, whatever they may be, if you weren't you and you weren't here, the world would miss you.   You cannot be written out, and there is no understudy who can fill your role.   Look at the centuries upon generations God put into Joseph, a man who stands silent between the parentheses and behind his wife.  "Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah... and Judah the father of Perez... and on and on and on until we come to Joseph – the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.  Yes, it's a supporting role, but a role without whose support, the whole thing might have crumbled.  We try to do so much.  We try especially at Christmas to do and to leave nothing undone.  But Christmas isn't about what you or I might have done.  Christmas is about what God has done.  Christmas is about celebrating what God has done in Christ Jesus our newborn Lord, and also about celebrating what we haven't done – and can never do – to mess that up.  It's when we praise God for what we can't do that God uses our weakness, God uses our empty silence, as an open manger, for love's birth. 

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Little Drummer

2010-12-05 Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 3:1-12
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)

When I was little, claymation Christmas specials were cool and groovy.
Of course, "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer" was the coolest, and still is.
Its classic lines live on.
"Eat, Papa. Eat."
"She thinks I'm cuuttte!"
And, my favorite, "I don't want to make toys! I want to be a dentist!"

There were never very many overtly religious claymation Christmas specials.
Claymation. The Bible.
The just don't go together well.
But there was one.
It was based on Bing Crosby's second-greatest Christmas hit after,
"White Christmas."
It was "The Little Drummer Boy."
There's no drummer boy in scripture.
It's not exactly a Bible story.
It's Bible-ish.
I remember liking this claymation special so much because I could
identify with the little drummer boy.
Not because I could play drums or have a sense of rhythm.
I just thought it was cool that a little kid could do something
special for Jesus.

Mary nodded, pa rum pum pum pum
The ox and lamb kept time, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my drum for Him, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my best for Him, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,
Then He smiled at me, pa rum pum pum pum
Me and my drum.

We have kids helping lead worship today, and I imagine Jesus smiles at
them, too.
A drum, a hand chime, a song - it doesn't really matter. It's just
pretty cool that a little kid can do something special for Jesus.

There's no little drummer boy in the Bible.
But the prophetic vision of Isaiah comes pretty close when he tells of
a herd of animals marching along behind a little child.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.

Such peace.
There's peace in the kingdom.
Peace in the valley.
Peace and goodwill to all.
It's important to remember that Isaiah's words are part of a bigger song.
And as a song, it's poetry.
And as poetry, it's not based on the real world.
It's real-world-ish.
The creatures that ordinarily bite and devour each other have had the
biting and devouring lifted out of them.
And a little child, maybe the only one who doesn't know enough to be
afraid, is leading the parade.
Again, it's a song; it's poetry.
The point is not that the animals have been let out of their cages and
no one's been eaten.
The point is that there's peace.
The world can sleep in heavenly peace.

That's Isaiah's poetic vision of Christmas.
He may not have gotten all the facts right, but he nailed the concept: Peace.
A peaceful kingdom ushered in by a little child, whose heart beats a
rhythm we now follow.


John the Baptist, on the other hand, must not have read that part of his Bible.
Because when he announces the coming of Christ, he doesn't sound like
Bing Crosby.
He sounds like my grandmother describing rock and roll music - "lots
of crash, boom, bang."

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he
said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the
wrath to come?"

"Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree
therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into
the fire."

John's vision is Jesus overthrowing the blue-bloods. Their strength
will be slashed to the bone. Their birthright will burn with
unquenchable fire.

In John's Christmas vision, Jesus takes no prisoners.
Definitely not cute, claymation child's play.
John sees Jesus smashing the incumbents and molding new characters for
new power.
If Isaiah's vision is like Bing Crosby's, Little Drummer Boy, John's
like an angry rapper shouting, "Fight the Power."

Christmas is heavenly peace.
And, Christmas is no peace at all.
It depends on which scripture you're reading, and which prophet's song
you're singing.
Christmas is peace; Christmas is no peace.
I guess it also depends a lot of peace itself.


Spinoza, a Jewish philosopher said, "Peace is not an absence of war,
it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence,
confidence, justice."

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist teacher, said, "Our capacity to make peace
with another person and with the world depends very much on our
capacity to make peace with ourselves.
"If we are at war with our parents, our family, our society, or our
church, there is probably a war going on inside us also...."

In the book of Jeremiah, the Bible rants against religious leaders who
say, "Peace, peace, when there is no peace."

Peace may not be the absence of war, but the absence of personal peace
certainly leads to a likelihood of warfare.
Peace is not just some abstract feeling.
Every day, you make choices.
You have to consciously choose to create opportunities to be benevolent.
You have to choose to act with confidence, even when you're not feeling it.
You have to choose justice when you're dealing with people, even if
you don't like them.
Without these real-life choices, you're out of sync with peace.
That's why John the Baptist got so mad at the Pharisees; they were
coming to get peace without giving it.

I think that's another reason the story of the Little Drummer Boy
sticks with me.
I like how instead of sitting around thinking about doing something
nice for Jesus, he actually got up and did it.
Wasn't much.
A bunch of pa rum pa pum pum's (21 of them, to be exact, not counting
the ones that are going to be stuck in your head the rest of the day.
You're welcome).
It's not about the size or the cost of the gift. (OK, for some people
it might be. But that's a different sermon.)
And it's not just the thought alone that counts, as in, "Oh, yeah, I
thought about getting you something for Christmas."
Would you say to your mom, "Oh, I thought about texting you on Christmas"??
Good idea?
Let's poll the moms.
It's not about the gift OR the thought, it's that the thought
motivates you to some sort of action.

Peace, without action, is just a nice feeling.
It might make you all warm and fuzzy inside, but so what?
Jesus didn't say, "Blessed are the peace-feelers"; he said, "Blessed
are the peace MAKERS."
If you want peace at Christmas, make peace at Christmas.
That's not always fun.
You might have been at war with someone for a long time.
They might not want to stop fighting, or stop feeling resentment, or
stop their jealousy.
Again, you have to choose peace, you have to choose to act in peace,
if you want peace, regardless of the other person.


I once saw a behind-the-scenes show about how they make those
claymation specials.
Every scene takes hours and hours.
You've got to get the little figure in just the right position, then,
snap the picture.
Then, move the arm just a smidgen.
Snap another picture.
Raise the eyebrow.
Snap another picture.
It's a horribly long, boring process.
Animators have to have incredible patience.
They can't just turn the cameras on the clay figures and expect them
to magically move.
That would be kinda creepy.

In the Bible, it says God took a lump of clay and breathed life into it.
God was the animator of human life.
And I would guess that as God watches our starts and stops, God would
have to have some pretty incredible patience.
So we pray that instead of just standing there, waiting for something
to happen, we pray that God will direct our movements, and put a song
of peace in our hearts.
So that our actions tell a story of thoughts and meaning brought to life.
We may not be much more than lumps of colorful clay, or we may not
have the most to give, but that's not really the point.
Young or old, big or little, we can nail the concept of peace in our actions,
so that it's more than just a nice idea,
it's the rhythm of our footsteps,
the beat of our breath,
the song of our souls.

Here's another song about peace. It's called "The Peace Prayer of
Saint Francis," and was written by a French priest for soldiers in
World War I.
Maybe it was carried by a drummer boy, too.

"O Lord, make me an instrument of Thy Peace!
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is discord, harmony.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sorrow, joy.

Oh Divine Master, grant that I may not
so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life."

May the peace of Christ be with you...

James McTyre
Pastor, Lake Hills PCUSA
Stated Clerk, Presbytery of East TN
Office: 865-577-8510
Cell & SMS: 865-268-9628
Skype: jamesmctyre

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Giving Thanks

Psalm 46, Colossians 1:11-20
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)

Last Wednesday night, in the Fellowship Hall, we had a magnificent
Thanksgiving dinner. Cooked up by the Communities Committee, and
executively cheffed by Michael Gant, "The Turkenator." Pilgrims wish
they had a dinner like ours.

This coming week, many of you will be traveling for Thanksgiving meals
with family or, perhaps, loved ones. If you're flying, the TSA has
announced that for a small fee, they'll do special "Before" and
"After" body scans, so you can see exactly where all the pumpkin pie
went. They're expecting the pat-downs to take a little longer on the
return trip (more ground to cover).

If you don't have Thanksgiving plans, or if you're looking for a new
way to celebrate, the folks at the Knox Area Rescue Ministries and the
Volunteer Ministry Center would love to have you come spend the day
with them. Go to www.karm.org and look under "Tent of Hope" to sign up
online. Volunteer Ministry Center is vmcinc.org. There's absolutely no
better way to realize how much you have to give thanks for than by
spending time with those who'll give thanks for your time and

Sandwiched (no pun intended) between the rich abundance of last
Wednesday's meal and this Thursday's, we have this feast, the one
we're sharing today. It's a little different. For one thing, the main
course is bread, which on our menus is usually a side item. Bread is
what they bring you at Calhoun's when you're waiting for the real meal
to show up. Bread's kind of an afterthought, a nice touch, though. But
something you could live without, and probably do better by avoiding
because of the extra carbs. Leave it to Jesus to turn things upside
down. The last shall be first, the rich shall be poor, and the side
shall be the entree. There are people in the world who would kill -
literally, kill - for a loaf of fresh-baked bread, that is, if they
had the strength to stand up and do it. Jesus takes the part of the
meal we often overlook, and makes it the centerpiece. He probably
wants us to realize how lucky we are, and how thankful we can be.

And then, there's the grape juice. Not wine. Because there are a lot
of people who shouldn't drink anything alcoholic. And because we've
got enough Puritan left in us to make us shudder at the idea of
alcohol on church grounds. Mr. Welch invented unfermented grape juice
for his congregation, and the idea stuck, which is fine. The kind of
fruit of the vine isn't as important as drinking it in the name of the
one who said, "I am the vine, and you are the branches." And even
then, there are variations on the theme.

One Sunday, at a church I know, the elder forgot to fill the trays
with cups. Time came for the minister to serve communion. He lifted
the lid, and had a moment of frozen panic. Not to worry, said the
elder in charge, who leapt from his pew and ran downstairs to the
kitchen to get the grape juice. Unfortunately, the elder had also
forgotten to buy grape juice, to fill the cups. But there was orange
juice. Communion took a little longer that day, and was accompanied by
some Florida sunshine. Jesus shakes his head: "I am the branches, and
you are the nuts."

If you reunite with family this week, remember, the only normal people
are the ones you don't know very well. And even they think you're a
little odd. We all have our quirks. It's just that some eccentricities
are more acceptable. Some of us are more skilled at camouflage.

In between the big meals where we're eying the helping sizes of the
people around us, where we're taking mental notes of table manners,
where we're worried about who's going to stick around to clean up and
what we're going to do with all the leftovers -- in between these
wonderfully abundant meals is the bread and the cup of this day, this
daily bread, this cup of blessing. Jesus reminds us that he comes to
us most often in between the big events. Jesus reminds us that he
comes to us in small bits, easily digestible, and quickly past. Jesus
comes to us as "just enough," to give us a taste.

Scripture says to us, "May you be made strong with all the strength
that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure
everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the
Father...." A bite of bread and a swallow of juice aren't huge
servings, but they contain just enough to make you strong with all the
strength that comes from his glorious power. It's just enough to
prepare us to endure everything with patience, while joyfully having
thanksgiving in the Father. We don't need our communion with God to be
huge; we just need it to be lasting.

Somewhere, this Thursday, there are going to be soldiers, huddling
under a tarp, opening up MREs of cold turkey and frozen green beans.
Somewhere, this Thursday, there are going to be people pulling
single-serving turkey dinners from the microwave. Somewhere, there
will be mothers in homeless shelters trying to keep their kids from
eating too fast. Somewhere, there will be Norman Rockwellian fathers
carving Butterball turkeys while distant relatives clink glasses and
toast their occasional nearness. But the golden thread that ties them
all together will be the spirit of Thanksgiving, the spirit of giving
thanks, for however much or however little they might have.

Thanksgiving doesn't depend on the size of the turkey, or the numbers
around the table. The elements of Thanksgiving are right there in its
name: thanks and giving. If you are thankful, and if you give, you've
got the concept. It's really pretty simple. Kind of like a piece of
bread, and a cup of juice. Simple. But enough. The meal at the Lord's
Table is simple enough to be enough. It's enough to get us through to
the next big event. It's enough to get us through, with patience,
knowing that Christ who is in all and through all, bringing home all
things to God the Father.

James McTyre
Pastor, Lake Hills PCUSA
Stated Clerk, Presbytery of East TN
Office: 865-577-8510
Cell & SMS: 865-268-9628
Skype: jamesmctyre

Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Safe Place

Psalm 98
Isaiah 65:17-25
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)

I was visiting with a member of the church last week. I was sitting in
the living room with my hand resting innocently on the chair arm. Out
of nowhere, her cat sprang up and plastered its front paws onto the
back of my hand. I made a loud noise unto the Lord, though I can't say
it was entirely joyful. "Oh, don't worry," I was told. "She doesn't
have claws. But she might bite a little." A while later, after I had
regained my composure, the cat made a leap for my head. Actually, it
was leaping for the back of the chair just behind my head. But your
reflexes don't know that. "Oh, don't worry," I was told, "she may
start combing your hair for you, but that just means she likes you."
I'm wondering, "What does she do if she DOESN'T like me?" Now, we used
to have cats, ourselves. Some of you may remember the aptly named,
"Pouncer." I understand the difference between a cat who's happy to
see you and one who isn't. But even so, you can never tell about cats.
They're willing to change their opinions. So, even though I knew I was
in the home of a welcoming cat, I tried to keep an eye on where it was
at all times. Because I knew it was doing the same with me.

Isaiah writes of the Peaceable Kingdom, "The wolf and the lamb shall
feed together. The lion shall eat straw like the ox. They shall not
hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, says the Lord." God's kingdom
is where no one - man or beast - has to sleep with one eye open. God's
kingdom is where no one - man or beast - has to worry about safety.

They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labor in vain,
or bear children for calamity;
for they shall be offspring blessed by the Lord —
and their descendants as well.

God's kingdom is a place of complete, and permanent, safety.

I got to hold a freshly born baby a couple of weeks ago. Got to cradle
him in my arms and feel his warmth. The moments before he started
crying and spit up were peaceful and peaceable in the most heavenly
sort of way. Holding a newborn is in itself a blessed covenant of
peace. They will be their precious selves, and you will cradle them
and keep them safe. You will be my child, and I will be your keeper.
If only for a few minutes. A covenant of safety, just like in Isaiah.
Our daughters are growing up now, so I can't cradle them without
slipping a disk. But the covenant of safety will always be there.
Especially when boys enter the picture. I'm thinking about getting a
shotgun. Not that I would ever use it. Much but it would send a
message, as I held it across my lap, in the rocking chair, on the
front porch. No matter what age your kids are, sixteen or sixty, you
want to uphold that covenant. God's kingdom is where no one - young or
old - has to worry about where their children are, or what they might
be doing. God's kingdom is where no one - young or old - has to worry
about safety.

I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy...
No more shall there be in it
an infant that lives but a few days,
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime;
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.

God's kingdom is a place of complete, and permanent, safety.

Last Thursday, when I was writing this, I was also listening to the
radio. I heard the story of a young woman, now 28 years-old, who had
served in the war in Iraq. Stationed in the middle of nowhere, she had
just gotten into the Humvee and the replacements had taken their
positions. They could see them waving in the distance when the sniper
fire hit the replacements and they all went down. The woman being
interviewed came home, but because of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder,
just couldn't get her life together. She lived on the streets for a
while, but now has made it to a shelter for women veterans. She's
getting treatment. For the first time in a long time, she feels safe.
God's kingdom is a place where no one - man or woman - has nightmares
of war. God's kingdom is a place where no one - young or old - has to
worry about safety.

I will rejoice in Jerusalem,
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it,
or the cry of distress.

Door locks and security systems. Carry permits and pepper spray. Cell
phones and OnStar. 911 and smoke detectors. X-rays, pat-downs and
shoeless airline passengers. In an unsafe world, we'll sacrifice a lot
for safety. Isaiah wants the people to know - the Bible wants us to
know - that God cares for our safety. God is not complacent. God's
dream for us all is a kingdom where no one - man or beast, young or
old, male or female - no one has to worry about safety. God's dream is
a place where enemies unite, where old wounds heal, where even the
wolf and the lamb shall lie down together.

It's our job as a church, to carry that dream. It's our job as a
church, to be that safe place. It's our job as a church to welcome, to
hold, and to reach out in acts of comfort and prayers of hope. It's
our job to do this especially in the face of overwhelming danger. The
world is a dangerous place, and if you think too much about the
dangers, it can be overwhelming.

Remember when you were a kid, playing tag? There was always someplace,
a tree, a rock, a patch of dirt, that was base. Whenever you stood on
base, no one could tag you. You were safe. That's us. We're base. If
you need to cry, you can cry here. If you want to laugh, you can laugh
here. This is where it's OK to let down your guard. Because this is
God's place. And God's place is where no one - no one - should ever
have to worry about safety.

It's our job as a church to carry the dream. But even more than that,
it's our job to get ready to see the dream come true. So we put
together our broken pieces and get them ready to go out, go out and
tell, and show, and live so other people can know the dream. We pledge
our money. We fill up shoeboxes. We serve Thanksgiving meals in
preparation for the day when no one has to worry about safety.

For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever....
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
says the Lord.

James McTyre
Pastor, Lake Hills PCUSA
Stated Clerk, Presbytery of East TN
Office: 865-577-8510
Cell & SMS: 865-268-9628
Skype: jamesmctyre

Sunday, November 07, 2010

What Time Is It?

Haggai 1:15 - 2:9
15 on the twenty- fourth day of the month, in the sixth month.

The Future Glory of the Temple

Chapter 2
In the second year of King Darius,
1 in the seventh month, on the twenty- first day of the month, the
word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: 2 Speak now to
Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of
Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say,
3 Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How
does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? 4 Yet now
take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son
of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the
land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts,
5 according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt.
My spirit abides among you; do not fear. 6 For thus says the Lord of
hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the
earth and the sea and the dry land; 7 and I will shake all the
nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will
fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts. 8 The silver is
mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts. 9 The latter
splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord
of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of

2 Thessalonians 2:1-5
The Man of Lawlessness

Chapter 2

1 As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered
together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, 2 not to be quickly
shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter,
as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already
here. 3 Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come
unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the
one destined for destruction. 4 He opposes and exalts himself above
every so- called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat
in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. 5 Do you not
remember that I told you these things when I was still with you?

2 Thessalonians 2:13-17
Chosen for Salvation

13 But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters
beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for
salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in
the truth. 14 For this purpose he called you through our proclamation
of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus
Christ. 15 So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to
the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or
by our letter.
16 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved
us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, 17 comfort
your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.

I hope everyone enjoyed an extra hour of sleep last night. Falling
back is so much better than springing forward. When you fall back, you
get an extra hour of Sabbath rest, and you don't have to worry about
arriving at church right as we're pronouncing the Benediction. When
you spring forward, there's always the fear you'll skulk into church
during the Postlude and wonder why everyone's so quiet. ("Well, that
was a short service.")

The scriptures today are about events in time. About times falling
back, and times springing forward. Einstein wasn't the first to have
theories about time. Everyone does. We all have our theories of what
makes for good times and what makes for bad. Playing the University of
Memphis: good times. Playing Georgia: bad. We all have our hypotheses
about what makes time pass quickly, and what makes it drag on,
forever, and ever, and ever.

In the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the
prophet Haggai came to the people of Judah with a prophesy about time.
"Do you remember the Good Ol' Days? Do you remember the salad days,
the Sunday, Monday, Happy Days? No, of course you don't, you little
whipper-snappers. But you've heard us old people talk about them.
Times like those times - and even better times - are ahead."

In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul writes to the Thessalonians.
"Don't worry that the time of the Lord is upon you. Don't worry that
you've slept through it. Don't be misled by false time-keepers, who
worry you to death that somehow the Gospel isn't truth. Comfort your
hearts in this day, in this time. Don't get all worked up about in
troubles about that time, or some other time."

We spend a lot of time thinking about time.

High time. Nick of time. Quality time. Half Time.

Time in a bottle. Time and tide wait for no man. Time is money.

Once upon a time. Two-timer. Third time's a charm.

Borrowed time. Stolen time. Wasted time. Prime time.

Time flies. Long time, no see. A stitch in time saves nine.

A whale of a time. A snail of a time. Time and time again.

It's football time in Tennessee. Basketball season's ramping up.
Baseball season's finally over. Quail and rabbit hunting season opens
next Thursday (betcha didn't think I'd know that). In the church, it's
Stewardship season, which combines all of these. We aim for budget
goals, tackle our shortfalls, and hope everyone's pledge pops up, so
we don't go out of bounds, and shoot our ministries in the foot.

A time and a season for all matters under heaven, the Bible says.
People are obsessed with times and seasons because we know we have a
limited number of them on this earth. We fight the times with
surgeries, Botox, and Tea Party candidates. We fight the toll of the
seasons with medicine, and diet, and Pilates. Our electronics squeeze
productivity out of nanoseconds. Ironically, we live in an age where
we want everything to be faster, but we all just want to slow down.
Give me a porch, a rocking chair, and a good book, and chuck the cell
phone into the lake. Somewhere there was a time change they didn't
tell us about. They said we'd spend our golden years lounging in a
hammock in Aruba, not chugging Golytely and getting another hip
replaced. Every generation has its own idea of what those Good Ol'
Days were, and they usually ended about the time we turned eleven.

If you had all the time in the world, what would you do?

If you had no watch, no cell phone, no schedule... if you had no
calendar, no appointments, no deadlines (and don't you love that word,

if you had none of these, what would be your lifeline?

What would be the measure of your life?

Second Thessalonians says, "Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and
God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort
and good hope...." Eternal comfort. God is in such a different time
zone. Most of us are lucky to hold onto a feeling of comfort, hope and
peace for a few minutes.

It says, "As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being
gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be
quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word...."

So many of us stay shaken in mind and alarmed, in a time of constant
vigilance for... something. Usually something bad. Because you know,
if you wait around long enough, something bad will happen. It's a
proven fact.

But the prophet Haggai tells the people that God says, "In a little
while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry
land," not in a bad way, but in a way that brings New Good Ol' Days.
So God is saying that if you wait around long enough, something good
will happen.

God doesn't move in Standard Time or Daylight Savings Time. God moves
in people-saving time. People-saving time is where we practice
stewardship of this infinitely valuable moment. In this moment - not
in the good ol' days gone by, and not in the better days ahead - in
this moment, in days measured "good" and even in days measured "bad,"
in this time - scripture says - God loves us through grace and gives
us eternal comfort and good hope. So we can comfort our hearts and
strengthen them in every good work and word.

If you had no clocks, no deadlines, the only way left to be the
measure of your days would be your stewardship of your time. The only
meaningful questions would be, "What have you done to receive this
moment's infinite value? What have you done to multiply its worth?"

In his letter, Paul uses a term that passes by our ears, but would
have stuck in the ears of the people of the day. "First fruits." And
he does something really amazing with it.

For centuries, the Jewish people practiced the giving of the "first
fruits" of their harvest as their tithe to the Lord. They would have
heard, "first fruits," and thought, "Stewardship Season." They lived
according to the laws of Exodus and Deuteronomy that ingrained in
them, "The choicest of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring
into the house of the Lord your God." The first fruits of everything
were about tithing.

But here's what Paul does with this term. It's amazing. He says to the
people, "God chose you as the first fruits." He talks about how God
chose people as the "first fruits." Literally, then, God is tithing.
We are God's tithe. We are God's offering to the world in THIS time,
God's Stewardship Season. We are God's tithe to the world. And here's
what that means. It means, then, that we can live as people of first
and infinite value. It means we can live as people whose days and
minutes are of worth, not because of what we've done, but because our
moments are worthy of God's giving. There's your lifeline. There's the
proper measure of our days. Not how productive we can be, but how much
of an offering we let God make of us. Our times are worth something
because God gives us, in the name of Jesus Christ, as a gift to the
world around us.

People say, "There's no time like the present." The Bible says,
"There's no time BUT the present." Because the present time is God's
time. God has no clock to set forward or back. YOU are God's
timepiece. You are God's lifeline to the world.

Now, a word of warning, here. You may know someone about whom you've
heard it said, "Oh, he thinks he's just God's gift to the world." "She
thinks she's just God's gift to mankind." It's usually not meant as a
compliment. I don't want you to go out of here thinking, "The preacher
said I'm God's gift to the world. So get out of my way." Remember
where the gift comes from, and what its purpose is. God gives us
worth, gives our time worth, in the name of Jesus Christ. We have
value in the name of Jesus Christ, not in our own names. Use your
gifts for good, not evil.

In these changing times, what time are you? You might feel as though
you've reached the time of falling back, and letting the young people
get things done. You might feel as though you're ready to spring
forward, to what you don't exactly know, but something important - you
can feel it in your heart. Whether you're savings time or standard,
whether you're fresh fruit or getting closer to your expiration date,
it really doesn't matter. Your time has come. Your time is now. Go out
and be a gift of God's stewardship and you'll live into your worth.

James McTyre
Pastor, Lake Hills PCUSA
Stated Clerk, Presbytery of East TN
Office: 865-577-8510
Cell & SMS: 865-268-9628
Skype: jamesmctyre

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Bring Out Your Dead


Ezekiel 37:1-10 Dry bones

John 11:30-44 Lazarus raised

"Bring Out Your Dead"

Some friends were wondering how to dress up their baby for Halloween.

I suggested Harry Potter. You get some round, baby glasses.

Get a Sharpie and mark a lightning bolt on his forehead.

So cute.

Our kids have gotten too old for us to dress them up.

Now, the only one in the house who can be made up in our own image is the dog.

Please don't dress your dog for Halloween. It's just humiliating to them.

They stand there, staring straight ahead, like they're wearing the cone of shame.

The other dogs make fun of them.

Find a baby to dress up like Harry Potter.

Halloween has now become second only to Christmas in the amount of money spent.

All those costumes and lawn decorations really add up.

Why do we spend so much money on Halloween?

Is it because we're becoming a ghoulish, pagan culture preoccupied with the powers of darkness?

Or are we just screaming for an excuse to dress up and have a party?

We celebrate Halloween because it's license to play pretend.

There's so much to be scared of these days, it's a relief to put on costumes and laugh at the things that scare us.

I think our culture is reclaiming the original intent of Halloween, which was to dress up and scare the evil spirits before they had the chance to scare us.

It's not every year that Halloween falls on Sunday, and Scott and I had some fun batting (no pun intended) batting around ideas about what we could do to make church scarier.

He suggested hymns like, "Holy Ghost, Send a Revival," or "There is a Fountain Filled with Blood," or "I Will Not Be Afraid."

I told him those were all Baptist hymns and Presbyterians don't know any of the scary church songs.

I suggested making the sermon longer and taking up the offering twice.

I decided to take a look at a couple of scriptures that went with an All Hallow's Eve theme, namely, the dry bones of Ezekiel and the raising of Lazarus from the dead.

If you were to take them at face value, and read them without any knowledge of how they fit into rest of the Bible, they're pretty creepy.

Skeletons walking. The return of the mummy.

But if you put them into their context with the rest of scripture, they do what I think our culture is spending so much money trying to do.

They celebrate the scary stuff – lifting up the scariest stuff of all -- life and death -- so we can see it in the light of God.

And even if we can't laugh at the subject matter itself, at least we can reassure ourselves instead of being so seriously scared.

We can use these scriptures as I think God intended them to be used:

to scare the demons back into the darkness, before they scare the life out of us.

Even though we don't talk about death very often, or don't like to think about it, the Bible isn't so shy.

The Bible is well-acquainted with death in all its different forms, and in the Bible, death boils down to two different kinds: spiritual death and physical death.

In our scripture today, Ezekiel speaks to the condition of spiritual death, while the story of Lazarus in John speaks to the physical.

First, spiritual death.

The prophet Ezekiel had a vision.

And in his vision God took him to a wide, desolate valley, filled with dry bones and set him down right in the middle.

Bones as far as the eye could see in every direction.

God said, "Mortal, can these bones live?"

And Ezekiel records, "I answered, 'O Lord God, you know.'"

(Good answer.)

Then God said, "Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord."

And as he spoke God's word, something miraculous began to happen.

At the sound of God's word, the bones began to rattle.

Knee bones connected to the thigh bones, and jawbones and skulls – finding each other and re-connecting, pulled together by some invisible, irresistible magnetic force.

And then they began to grow muscles, and then skin began to wrap around them.

Yes, the Bible has cool special effects, too.

Ezekiel spoke again and at the sound of God's word, the zombie bodies breathed in the breath of God and came alive!

Reanimated – just like Frankenstein's monster, only better.

And God spoke to Ezekiel and explained the vision, "Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel.

They say, "Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost.

Therefore, prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, and I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live..."

And so the voice of God spoke to hopeless people when all the hope had drained out of them, telling them, calling them, commanding them: Live!

Give my creatures life!

Life beyond your hopelessness, you mortals.

Live -- not by your own breath, but by the breath of God.


There's an old saying.

"The only difference between a rut and a grave is the depth."

And all of us who have been stuck in our own ruts, or who have tried to dig our family members out of theirs, know exactly what this means.

You sure don't have to be dead to feel like it.

Fatigue, depression, an unhealthy diet –

brain pathways and chemical dependencies –

lifestyle changes –

all these can sap the life out of us.

The good news is that it seems science is finally getting closer to understanding what the Bible has known all along:

Physical illness and mental illness and spiritual illness are all interconnected.

And thank goodness when churches and doctors and pharmacists and nutritionists and friends can all work together to help pull us out of our ruts before they become our graves.

Thank goodness when the breath of God is breathed back into us through the kindness of people who care –

Who speak to us when we look like the living dead.

What's really scary is to be afraid that we don't have someone like Ezekiel to "prophesy" to us when we're down and out.

But what's even scarier is to find ourselves in Ezekiel's shoes, trying to preach to dry bones that won't come back together.

All of us know someone who's intent on self-destruction.

All of us know someone who refuses help, no matter how many kind, helpful words are breathed in their direction.

There's always a reason why our advice won't work.

What do you do then?

What do you do when the powers of death and darkness really do take over?

We often call the story from today's New Testament reading, "The raising of Lazarus."

So, going by the name, you figure it's about him.

But if you read it carefully, Lazarus doesn't have all that many lines.

I think toward the end he says something like, "Mmmmmmmm."

The ones who get all the press in this story are really his sisters, Mary and Martha.

You remember them.

Like Jan and Marcia, they had sister issues.

Mary was the one who sat at Jesus' feet while Martha cooked dinner.

Martha was the one who said, "Lord, tell my sister to get in here and help me fix your dinner."

And Jesus says, "Martha, Martha, Martha."

In today's scripture, Lazarus falls ill, Martha sends for Jesus, but Jesus won't come.

And since he won't come, Lazarus dies.

When he finally does get there, four days later, Martha jumps his case.

"Lord, if you had come when we asked you, my brother wouldn't have died."

A little later, sweet little Mary comes out and shakes her finger at him, too.

"Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn't have died."

Well, maybe he would, maybe he wouldn't – that's something we'll never know.

One thing we do know for sure is that even though he was brought back to life this time, Lazarus did, eventually, die.

In the Bible, physical death might be delayed, but it will not be denied.

We're all like Lazarus.

Our death may be postponed, maybe even by a miracle of God, but eventually it's going to get us all.

Delayed, but never denied.

Which brings me back to the thought that this passage is less about Lazarus' miraculous resuscitation, and more about the effect it had on his sisters, the ones who actually talk to Jesus.

I doubt that there are very many among us who haven't at least thought the same things Mary and Martha said.

"Lord, if only you had been there, he or she wouldn't have died."

We know in our hearts that's only temporarily true.

If we want to know what to do when the dry bones don't fit back together, we have to listen to what Jesus said to Martha in response.

Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again."

Martha said, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day."

Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die."

And then Jesus asked Martha, "Do you believe this?"

In Luke, Chapter 10, Jesus said, "All things have been handed over to me by my Father." (Luke 10:22)

All things – even death – belong to the life-giving power of Jesus Christ.

And the entire rest of the story is illustration of just that.

But Jesus' question to Martha is Jesus' question to us all: Do you believe this?

Does death scare us so deeply that we can't see through the night of All Hallow's Eve to the Day of All Saints which follows?

(Tomorrow is, by the way, All Saints' Day.)

Does death scare us so deeply that we can't imagine that it, too, falls under the power of Jesus Christ?

Is it a ticking time bomb that fills our days with silent dread?

Or do we trust that even though it scares us to our souls, it still belongs to God,

that it is part of the all things in heaven and on earth that are under the power and dominion of Jesus Christ,

Christ who defeated even death for our sakes?

Do we believe this?

That, I think, is the point of the raising of Lazarus:

not just that Jesus had compassion on one of his friends,

but that Jesus has dominion over all of us –

power and dominion over all parts of us –

our flesh, our bones, our life, and our death.

So that even when things get horribly broken, and don't fit back together, we can trust that we are never, never beyond the re-creating, redeeming love of God our Father.

Spiritually, physically, completely - we belong to God.

And praise God that there is nothing so scary in heaven or on earth that can change any of that.

In a way, it would make sense if Halloween fell on Sunday every year.

It would make sense to remind ourselves that even the ghosts and goblins belong to the Lord's Day.

Even though they aren't OF God, they are never ABOVE God.

In the end, the day is His, not theirs.

Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing,

to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 24-25).

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Discomfort Zones

Luke 18:9-14
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income. ' 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner! ' 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

I love Camp John Knox, but I also fear it. I fear it because whenever I'm there, I'm filled with irrational fear. I'm filled with fear that once again, I'm going to allow myself to be harnessed into a zip line. I'm filled with fear that Dennis is somehow going to force me to water ski. It doesn't matter that Dennis is at home in Knoxville, reading the paper. In my delusions, he's lurking behind every tree with a life jacket and a ski rope. He'll leap out, and in seconds he'll click the straps and signal the boat, which will yank me full speed through the forest, or off the dining hall balcony, into the water. The logical, thinking part of my brain knows Dennis is not to be feared. The logical, thinking part of my brain does not understand the meaning of public face-plants that have a way of showing up on Facebook with captions like, "Here's another preacher who can't walk on water." The thinking brain doesn't remember the ache of ligaments. So, as often as possible, I ignore my thinking brain. As Stephen Colbert points out, those who fear are those who survive. Were our ancestors not fearful and paranoid, our species wouldn't be what it is today. So, for the good of the human race, when I get to Camp John Knox, all my instincts tell me to run away.

Providentially, the scripture assigned for today's reading is about allowing yourself to be humiliated. More correctly, it's about humbling yourself, "for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

When talking about the camp, Bri often talks about "comfort zones." I prefer my comfort zone wide, and with pastries. Bri talks about how one of the key ministries of Camp John Knox is to safely nudge us out of our comfort zones, after we've signed insurance release forms. The theology of the Camp presupposes that the camp is part of "the other." Camp is a place of "the other." There are other people there, people who if they walked up to us on the street, we wouldn't trust to fasten us into a rappelling harness. There are other creatures there, bugs and who knows what that crawl through the bathhouse and invade our personal space. There are other sounds there, other sights there, that by their vivid there-ness remind us that we're in the "other," we're not in Kansas, or Knoxville, anymore. Camp itself shrinks our comfort zones as soon as we exit our climate-controlled cars and step foot onto the crunching gravel.

One of the current mantras of the camp is, "Kids meet God at camp." It's not because God is more there. God is not more at camp than God is anywhere else. Rather, it's because of what's not at camp. At camp, our comfort zones are smaller. Our imaginary force-fields of safety - and that's what they are, imaginary force-fields - shrink down. At camp, what we're used to is gently, but firmly taken away. No cell phones, no video games. No worn-in beds, no worn-out daily routines. The imaginary dividing zone between who we are and what we fear is exposed as the illusion that it is. Camp is a place of intentional, but loving, dis-comfort zones. And, ironically enough, the discomfort zones are where we find God.

In the parable, the Pharisee is thanking God for his comfort zones. "I thank you, God, that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income." We all know, or at least know of obnoxious, arrogant people like the Pharisee. Thank goodness we're not like that. At least not in public. Wouldn't be polite to say things like that, at least not openly, at least not to anyone but our closest friends, whom we know are going to agree. Gossip networks, online or off, are part of our comfort zones. The Pharisee's social network was the town square. Unsophisticated bumpkin.

The tax collector in the parable, on the other hand, was thanking God for a very small zone of comfort. In fact, he was thanking God for his dis-comfort zone. "God, be merciful to me, a sinner." Today, we'd say he obviously had very low self-esteem syndrome, and might want to get some help to work on that. Or maybe, he had come from water-skiing out on the River Jordan. Maybe he had done a few face-plants. Maybe something had happened that had moved him just enough into discomfort that instead of shoring up his comfort zone, he found God.

I heard someone say, "It's a shame we have to get sick to find out how many people love us." Suddenly, people we haven't talked to in years are popping out of the woodwork with casseroles, and phone calls, and cards. Those people love you; they always have loved you. Just like God loves you, and has always loved you. The shame is that we all so resolutely reinforce our comfort zones, that these invisible force-fields keep us from rubbing elbows, and offering shoulders. The shame is that the irrational fear of looking stupid keeps us from experiencing the truth of other people. The embarrassment is that irrational fear keeps us from accepting the love of God. We're so dug into our comfort zones that it takes catastrophic force to crash through them. And that is a shame.

We read how the Pharisee thanks God he's not like the tax collector. What we know, from the vantage point of our own safety, is that while the Pharisee is obnoxious and arrogant, that's not his sin. The Pharisee's sin is that he's deluding himself into thinking that he's not like the tax collector, when, in fact, he's exactly like him, in every way, but one. The difference is that the tax collector is facing his fear of discomfort, and the Pharisee isn't.

Last summer, one of the volunteer helpers at Camp, one of Dennis's posse, went to camp to help teach some kids to water ski. He ended up being assigned a little boy with Autism. The boy was not comfortable letting anyone touch him, much less letting anyone teach him how to get into the water, or get up on skis. Children with Autism have zones that put the rest of us to shame. But over the hours they spent together, that protective zone of comfort got smaller, and smaller, until - at last - the boy not only got in the water, he got up on the skis. I can only imagine he thought he was walking on water. And I'll bet, in Spirit, Jesus was skiing right there beside him.

James McTyre

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

God Is Better Than That

Luke 18:1-8 "God is Better Than That"

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Father James Martin, a Jesuit Priest and writer, published a prayer last week in response to a teen suicide. It's called, "A Prayer When I Feel Hated."

"A Prayer When I Feel Hated"

Loving God, you made me who I am.

I praise you and I love you, for I am wonderfully made, in your own image.

But when people make fun of me,

I feel hurt and embarrassed and even ashamed.

So please God, help me remember my own goodness,

which lies in you.

Help me remember my dignity,

which you gave me when I was conceived.

Help me remember that I can live a life of love.

Because you created my heart.

Be with me when people make fun of me,

and help me to respond how you would want me to,

in a love that respects other, but also respects me.

Help me find friends who love me for who I am.

Help me, most of all, to be a loving person.

And God, help me remember that Jesus loves me.

For he was seen as an outcast, too.

He was misunderstood, too.

He was beaten and spat upon.

Jesus understands me, and loves me with a special love, because of the way you made me.

And when I am feeling lonely,

help me remember

that Jesus welcomed everyone as a friend.

Jesus reminded everyone that God loved them.

And Jesus encouraged everyone

to embrace their dignity,

even when others were blind to that dignity.

Jesus loved everyone with the love that you gave him.

And he loves me, too.

One more thing, God:

Help me remember

that nothing is impossible with you,

that you have a way of making things better,

that you can find a way of love for me,

even if I can't see it right now.

Help me remember all these things

in the heart you created, loving God.



Jesus tells a story.

In a town there was once a judge who didn't fear God or care about people.

In that same town there was a widow who kept going to the judge and saying, "Make sure that I get fair treatment in court."

For a while the judge refused to do anything. Finally, he said to himself, "Even though I don't fear God or care about people, I will help this widow because she keeps on bothering me. If I don't help her, she will wear me out."

The Lord said: Think about what that crooked judge said. Won't God protect his chosen ones who pray to him day and night? Won't he be concerned for them? He will surely hurry and help them.

A lot of times, I think, people read this passage and they come away comparing God to the grumpy judge.

A lot of times, I think people come away thinking Jesus is telling us we should persist in prayer the same way the lady persisted in bugging the heck out of the grumpy old judge.

As if God's policy is to grant the prayers of the most annoying people.

I think what Jesus is really saying is, "You know how the judge feels.

(Tired. Irritated. Hated?)

"You know how the widow feels.

(Tired. Irritated. Hated?)

You know how you feel when you get what you want, whether it's a positive answer, or just getting someone off your back.

"OK, now. Set all that aside, because God's better than that."

God is better than a grumpy judge.

And God's better than your impatience.

The Lord said: Think about what that crooked judge said. Won't God protect his chosen ones who pray to him day and night? Won't he be concerned for them? He will surely hurry and help them. But when the Son of Man comes, will he find on this earth anyone with faith?

Prayer is not about prevailing.

Prayer isn't about winning and losing in the same way we win or lose when we're trying to get our way.

Prayer isn't about getting what you want.

I think Jesus is telling us to pray not because of our wants for what we don't have, but because of the faith that we do have.

I think what Jesus' sermon comes down to is this:

Prayer isn't about getting what you want; prayer is about surrendering your wants.

Prayer is about surrendering your wants.

If there is surrender in prayer, it's not in God surrendering to your annoyance.

If there's surrender in prayer, it's about us surrendering –

us surrendering those things we want so badly –

it's about us surrendering those things we want so badly, and laying them at the feet of God who already knows us inside and out.

That's what I think Jesus means when he asks, "when the Son of Man comes, will he find on this earth anyone with faith?"

Faith isn't convincing a grumpy old man to give you what you want.

Faith is giving in to the feeling that even before a thought is on your mind or a word is on your lips, God understands, God cares, God loves.

God made you as you are.

And so you can take that prayer to God, having faith – faith – that God cares about the burdens that weigh you down, as well as the joys that make you say, "Halleluia."

You can take that prayer to God having faith – that God will supply the "Amen."

If someone already knows what you're going to say, and if that someone wants the very best for you, what, then, is the purpose of the words you speak?

If your kids tell you they love you, you don't say, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. You told me that last week."

There's no way you could hear it enough.

You want to hear those words because you love back.

I would guess it's pretty much the same for God, wanting to hear our prayers, even though God already knows what we're going to say.

When we give in to that feeling, we start to understand that we're not alone.

Life is not us against City Hall or us against the bullies, or even us against God.

We're not alone.

God is with us.

God listens.

God cares.

If God is with us, if God listens, and if God cares, then prayer grows and changes into something truly amazing.

If God is with us, if God listens, and if God cares, then prayer turns into so much more than just us talking and talking and talking.

You talk enough, you pray enough, and eventually there's going to come a time when you're talked out and prayed out, and there's nothing left to say.

Then, maybe, maybe, if we listen really, really close, we can hear God answering those prayers.

Faith is surrendering to the idea that we're not alone.

But faith is also listening – listening for the reply – of the Quiet One who's there beside us.

When was the last time you really, really just listened – for God?

Didn't cajole God, didn't bug God, didn't tap your foot for God – when was the last time you really, really just listened?

How much time did you give God?

Five minutes? Ten?

You know how long the average attention span lasts these days?

About seven seconds.

No wonder people give up on prayer.

God's got all eternity, and we want answers in seven seconds.

You may not be able to hear,

and even if you hear, you might not be able to understand,

and even if you understand, you may not be able to accept God's answer to your prayers.

That doesn't mean God isn't answering.

Faith isn't the magical power to get what you want in seven seconds or less.

Faith is the trust that there is an answer from God, whether we get it or not.

Think about it: does it take more faith to pray when you're getting what you want, or does it take more faith to keep praying, even when you don't?

The first half of prayer is surrendering your wants, but the second half is listening, even if don't hear the answer.

Even if we don't hear the answer right away.

Even if we don't get it if we hear it.

As Father James Martin said in his prayer,

Help me remember

that nothing is impossible with you,

that you have a way of making things better,

that you can find a way of love for me,

even if I can't see it right now.

Most of us don't pray until we're in trouble.

Couldn't think of a better time.

Maybe when you're low, maybe when you're feeling alone, maybe when you feel hated – those are absolutely the best times to pray.

Let God have it.

You will never be able to talk God's ear off; you will never be able to pray so much you become a nuisance.

You might wear yourself out praying, and that might just be another lesson of the parable.

Because when we wear ourselves out from talking, we might just hang around a while in the silence.

Maybe even eight seconds, or nine.

So the lady, who feels alone, who's treated unfairly, who probably knows this judge guy hates her... this lady keeps on.

So you and I, who might feel alone, who might feel like life is unfair and God is ignoring us... we keep on.

We keep on, not because for some strange reason we have faith that we're precious to God.

We have faith that even if God doesn't rescue us from the pit, at least God's down there with us.

We pray.

We listen.

And we do it again.