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

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Journey: Mary of Nazareth

2012-11-25 (Reign of Christ Sunday, but I'm treating like Advent #1 because that's where people are in their lives of activity, faith, and trouble.)
Luke 1:26-38
The Journey: Mary of Nazareth
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, 'Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.' But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.' Mary said to the angel, 'How can this be, since I am a virgin?' The angel said to her, 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.' Then Mary said, 'Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.' Then the angel departed from her.

I am so excited about Christmas! Christmas is coming! Did you know that? Christmas makes me smile. Smiling's my favorite. Especially at Christmas. When you get to eat from all four of the food groups. Candy, candy canes, candy corns, and syrup.

Did you know there a people who get all grumpy at Christmas? They're on the naughty list. There are people who think it's all kind of Humbug. They'd rather swallow a toothpick and be tortured by a legion of hobgoblins. They say Santa sits on a throne of lies.

I'm not kidding. They complain about traffic. They fuss about the crowds. They don't enjoy listening to Christmas carols 24 hours a day. They feel pressured to entertain, pushed to overeat, and bullied to bake creative treats. Did you know there are people like that? Just a bunch of cotton-headed ninny-muggins.

Last week, I went back and read through some of my old Advent sermons from previous years. I'm depressing. I sound more like Ebenezer Scrooge than Buddy the Elf.

Part of it's because, you know, I'm a preacher, and preachers don't go, "Ho, ho, ho!" Preachers are supposed to say, "Christmas is about Jeeeezusah" Jesus only got three presents and none of them were any fun. Well, the gold was OK. But frankincense and myrrh? Embalming spices. What, they were all out of onesies? That's what happens when men buy presents.

I think I've also been Scroogy because Advent scriptures are picked by grumpy old men with digestive problems. It's all John the Baptist, going, "You brood of vipers! Repent! Flee the wrath!" Which helped when I went shopping on Friday. "The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon shall turn to blood! And the Christmas Joy Potluck will be the 16th at 6PM."

I think it's also because when you're all grown up and mature, you're supposed to be cool about stuff. And I live to be cool. Unaffected. "Oh, it's so exhausting, going to all these... gatherings. Smiling. Wearing sweaters."

I also want to be sensitive. I also know enough about brain chemistry to know that a lot of people really do get clinically depressed at Christmas. A lot of us are lonely. A lot of us are keenly aware of absences at the table. So I try not to hit the joy button too hard. I dress in black robes. I don no gay apparel.

And, on top of all that, I also know there are a lot of people in the world who are not going to have a merry Christmas. Who don't have enough to eat. Who don't have a roof over their heads. It's the progressive, Presbyterian way to moderate our joy with a keen appreciation for suffering.

JESUS is the reason for the season. Don't forget: the holly has blood-red berries and sharp points that resemble the spears that you used to pierce Jesus' side... kids.

No wonder people get depressed at Christmas. And, I would say that the church contributes to the problem by trying to fix the problem. Preacher boys & girls try to "fix" Christmas - but not too much. We mix the messages and end up with a kind of bipolar, high-low, drink responsibly, buy meaningful presents Christian malaise.

So, this year, this Advent, this Christmas season, I want to be different. We're not going to talk about ourselves. At least, not primarily. If you find personal connection and inspiration from the sermons, don't blame me.

This year, instead of focusing on our jolliness, or our melancholy, or our spending, or our suffering, we're going to talk about people who aren't here. At least, not physically. We're going to take a journey. We're going to take a journey to Bethlehem and we're going to talk about the people we meet along the way. People like Mary. People like Joseph. Maybe even some angels and aaaaa-donkeys. And any resemblance to people living or dead will be purely coincidental. Or the grace of God.

This Advent, we're taking this journey with a really great book as our map. It's called, The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem. It's by Adam Hamilton. If you want the full effect, you need to buy the book and read it yourself. Because I'm easily distracted. But I'll try not to go too far astray. Because I think it's really important to do this.

I think it's really important to think about Christmas through somebody else's eyes. In fact, I wonder if we don't really GET Christmas unless we try to see it through somebody else's eyes. A different way. A way that's not colored or darkened or even overly brightened by our own biases. A way that's not controlled by society's manipulations. A way that's not even directed by the church's institutional traditions. I think it's really, really important to let the characters in the story of Christmas speak to us in their own voices, on their own journeys.

So, that's where we're going to go these next 4 weeks. I hope you'll come along and meet these people, maybe all over again, maybe even for the first time.


Look over there. By the spring of "living waters" bubbling up at the base of the cave. See that girl? That's Mary. Mary of Nazareth. Like everybody else in Nazareth, she comes to this well to get water every morning. Mary's marrying age. Which back then was about 13. Really. Old age was 50, if you were very lucky. Giving birth was the second most dangerous thing a woman could do. God's chosen people didn't have a lot of choice. You preserved the tribe and kept your ancestors' line intact.

Mary didn't have options. She lived in Nazareth. The name comes from the Hebrew word, "netzer," which means branch, or shoot. Like that one, persistent little sprig of green that grows from a lifeless stump. The name could have come from the prophecy of Isaiah that says, "There shall come a shoot from the stump of Jesse." Jesse being the father of King David. Or, the name might have meant kind of like a weed at the edge of real life. Which is kind of what Nazareth was. Just a village of 100-200. Probably a lot of whom were day-laborers in the big city down the road, Sepphoris. Sepphoris had some palatial homes, with mosaic floors that needed scrubbing by lower branches of society. Like Nazareth.

The "living waters" of Nazareth where people came for life, were, logically, at the bottom of a cave. That's how springs work on limestone. To the people of Nazareth, that's natural. In fact, Mary and the people of Nazareth made their homes in caves. That's the beauty of limestone. Cool in the summer, warm in the winter. You need a new room? You carve one. Extreme Makeover, Nazareth Edition.

Mary's at the bottom of a cave, getting life. Which is kind of symbolic. You see, Mary's guilty of the first most dangerous thing a woman can do. Her family has betrothed her in an arranged marriage to the family of Joseph. For reasons both social and biological, they have to wait a year before marriage to make sure she's not. You know. There were no rights of the unborn. They just killed the woman. Killed her with the same stones that built their homes and ground their bread and built the life that begat the begats of the father's family tree.

And if that seems harsh, well, you try living in a cave in pre-modern Palestine for a few centuries, washing other people's floors, where middle age starts at 15.

Mary. At the base of society. At the bottom of this womb-like cave where life is found. Mary has a secret. It's either crazy, or it's a miracle. It's definitely dangerous. Mary wonders, "How can this be?"

A lot of people have asked the same thing. I think if you get hung up on the science you miss the point of the poetry.

Is it grandiose thinking? Oh come on. All us parents are sure our kid's going to grow up to save the world. Life is taking a wild turn for Mary. She's skidding into Dead Man's Curve. Or dead girl's curve.

Look. I don't want to overly psychologize what's going through the young head of the Mother of Jesus. We don't know whole story. We just know what she said when the living waters of life threatened to pull her under.

'Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.'

Instead of drowning, Mary becomes like a leaf, floating on a stream. Instead of throwing stones, she lets the waters of life carry her.


Now. I said I didn't want to talk about us this Christmas, this Advent season. So, I'll address this to Mary. Mary, do you find yourself at the bottom of a dark place, where, ironically, life bubbles up? Are you between a rock and a wonderful, new direction? Do you see yourself at the edge of change? Has life thrown you this secret dream of salvation that just might lead you to peace, and joy, and redemption? Will you fight it? Or could you let go, and see where it carries?

2000 years and a lot of changes, and Christmas, Jesus, his Advent, still is equal parts jeopardy and joy. Christmas isn't about us. But it is about the choices we face. It's about the unexpectable twists. It's about the unpredictable turns that we know life is going to throw. Will we be ready? Will they be the end of us? Or will they somehow be our salvation, like a tenacious little sprig - a "netzer" - shooting up from places hope should not grow?

The Prophet Isaiah had an answer. And it goes like this:

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,

and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.

2And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,

the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,

the Spirit of counsel and might,

the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

3And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,

or decide disputes by what his ears hear,

4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,

and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,

and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

5Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist,

and faithfulness the belt of his loins.

6The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,

and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,

and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;

and a little child shall lead them.

7The cow and the bear shall graze;

their young shall lie down together;

and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,

and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den.

9They shall not hurt or destroy

in all my holy mountain;

for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord

as the waters cover the sea.

10In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Answer the Call: Overflow With Thanksgiving

2012-11-18 2Cor 09 06-12
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church
Stewardship Dedication Sunday

2 Corinthians 9:6-12 The Cheerful Giver
6The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. 9As it is written,
"He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor;
his righteousness endures forever."
10He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. 11You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. 12For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God.


Last Sunday in worship we observed Veterans Day with some amazing music. Thank you, veterans and your families. Thank you, Carla. Thank you, choir. Thank you, handbells.

We celebrated a record number of Operation Christmas Child donations with the Leaning Tower of Shoeboxes, that almost made it to the end of worship.

This week, we're jumping ahead a few days to celebrate Thanksgiving. We had a cornucopia of abundance at last Wednesday's Thanksgiving Dinner, and thank you to the Church Events committee for cooking, and cooking, and cooking.

There are so many reasons to give thanks today.

For instance, there's only one more game left in football season. It's Kentucky, and they're 2-9, so, you know, it's a toss-up.

The Lady Vols started their season. Won by 53 points at the home opener.

There are so many reasons to be overflowing with gratitude. Today's message is about overflowing with gratitude as we "Answer the Call."


This year's theme for stewardship season is, "Answer the Call." I want to thank Jim Williams for doing an awesome job as chairperson. We've had personal and inspiring talks about answering the call by Blake, and Mark. Linda even brought her cell phone. As always, she was, "Wonderful."

Speaking of phones, last Sunday, during the sermon on, "Answer the Call," someone's cell phone went off just as I was making the thematic point. I want to thank whoever that was for the subtle addition. I resisted the urge to say, "Answer the call."

I like the theme of, "Answer the Call," because whether he was talking about money - and Jesus talked about money a lot. The only person I know who talks about money as much as Jesus did is Dave Ramsey. If I preached on money as often as Jesus did, you'd say, "Um, can we just narrow this down to, like, November, and get it all over with at once?" Which is how Stewardship Season got invented.

But whether Jesus was talking about money, or becoming a disciple, or loving your neighbor, he called people. Jesus worked by calling, not by arm-twisting. He never said, "Love your neighbor as yourself. Or you're gonna burn."

Jesus walked by the sea, he called apostles. Jesus walked through town, he called the poor, the sick, the outcasts that nobody else would call, not even maybe. Jesus walked through foreign countries where holy people weren't supposed to go, and he called Samaritans, some pretty good ones, too.

Jesus worked by calling, never by arm-twisting. And he called people to give, never to get. Jesus didn't need apostles. Jesus didn't need followers. Jesus didn't need hungry, dirty people following him around. He could have done it like a rock star. There's an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical about that. But that's not his style. That's not his purpose. Jesus was never about getting. Jesus was all about giving. So he didn't twist arms; he called.

Stewardship in the church isn't about arm-twisting. It's about calling. It's about asking you to answer the call. We could probably get more money if we arm-twisted. There are churches that demand to see your tax returns. And it works. It's very effective. I do not criticize them. Presbyterians tend to be more, I don't know, subtle. We rarely lock the doors and pass the bucket repeatedly. But I'm not above it.

Stewardship is about calling, not arm-twisting. Of course we need the money, but the money's not the point. Of course the church needs money, but more than that, the church needs, the community needs, the world needs, YOU need - Jesus. It's not about the money coming in. It's about the ministry going out. It's about the love and justice going out. It's about what the Apostle Paul wrote in today's scripture, it's about "overflowing" in many thanksgivings to God. That's how this church talks about stewardship. That's our style.

It's what the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth: "For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints (that is, the church itself) but is also overflowing (overflowing - spilling out, to homes, to communities, to the world) in many (many) thanksgivings to God."

Answer the call. Overflow with thanksgiving.


Because of the weird way Presbyterian government works, I'm not even a member of this church. Did you know that? Kristen's a member. Emily's a member. Anna's going to be a member as soon as she goes through Confirmation. I'm a member of Presbytery. So, I'm not really a member of any church. I'm like a permanent Visitor. Which means I get the good parking space.

In Biblical terms, You're like the Apostles. I'm more like the ones they searched the hedgerows and alleyways and compelled them to come in. And I am thankful every Sunday that you still invite me back.

Over the past weeks, church members have offered their thanksgivings for this church. Blake, Mark, Linda, and Jim Williams, have had the chance to offer thanksgivings.

As someone you keep inviting back and who's never going to officially "join," as someone who's never going to have my name on the roll up yonder, in the big book, above Patty's desk, as someone who has answered a call to this place, I'd like to add my thanksgivings to those who have spoken from the heart about Lake Hills Presbyterian Church.

Last Sunday marked my anniversary with this church. The first time I stood in this pulpit was 18 years ago, last Sunday. The second Sunday in November, 1994. I had brown hair, one chin, and a size 32 waist. Michael Gant and the Nominating Committee (which has always been one of my favorite bands) found me sojourning in Alabama. They showed me the beautiful sanctuary. They showed me the neighborhood. They showed me the walking path. They showed me the tennis courts. And I thought, "What am I going to say to all those rich people?" You know there are churches in Alabama where the walking path is to the bathroom? Who don't even have ONE tennis court? And yet their football team does rather well.

So, 18 years ago last Sunday, I stepped into the pulpit for the first time. Before that, I'd been kind of a youth pastor. That's because I used to be kind of youthful. Before that I'd written software. I was scared to death. I had no idea what to do or how to do it. And yet, you took me in.

You took us in. Ken Rymer built us our first house. You rejoiced with us when Emily was born. And then came the night when Kristen called Gail at 3 in the morning and said, "Can you come over and watch Emily, because I'm going into labor?" I'm pretty sure she broke some traffic laws getting to the house. You adopted us. We overflow with thanksgiving for you.

We overflow with thanksgiving for all our partners in ministry here. Especially for the ones who are on staff. Carla shares her heart and soul every single Sunday through her music. Scott is like a brother. The younger, crazy one, who does all the stuff you could never get away with. Patty is the blessed caretaker of the absent-minded pastor. And Cheryl. Her title says, "Christian Educator," but that doesn't begin to cover what she does and who she is for this church. She is truly a blessing, to me and to this congregation, in ways that words aren't adequate to describe.

This is such a healthy church because I think we're all partners in ministry together here. Too often a church's health gets reduced to numbers. How many come to worship? What's your budget? Did you meet your budget? Thankfully, the Holy Spirit is not an aggregator of numbers. There are larger churches, sure. And there are churches larger and smaller that are fundamentally unhealthy. You can feel it when you walk in the door. Something's just not right.

This church feels to me like the kind of place that's far more concerned with what God can do, than what people shouldn't do. I think you - and never ever forget, you are the church, not the building - I think you are more concerned with getting ministry done than keeping everything unsoiled by human hands. Do not ever take that for granted. Because there are a lot of churches more worried about doing things absolutely, inoffensively right than just going and doing them in the name of Jesus Christ.

We laugh. We laugh loudly. We have awesome meals. We take meals to people who are hungry. We build houses for people who need shelter. We treat kids like guests instead of tiny criminals who break things. And we say, You know what? You don't have to be an expert to give something a try. If you want to teach, if you want to work with Middle School Students (and God bless you if you do), if you want to sing, or ring, or show love for living things... bring it. We're kind of a laboratory for spiritual gifts, where you never know what's going to bubble up and overflow.

So, as I begin the 19th (19th!) year of being a partner in ministry with you today, I want to say, thank you. Thank you for having me another week. Thank you for being a family to our family. Thank you for overflowing in so many thanksgivings to God.

For, as the Bible tells us so, "For the ministry of this service is not only (about) supplying the needs of the saints but is also (about) overflowing in many thanksgivings to God."


This was Paul's stewardship sermon to the church in Corinth. And they were not the healthiest church in the world. They had lots of little cliques and factions. They fought over who got to take Communion first. They got drunk on Communion wine and ate like pigs at the table. They couldn't have worship without people shouting over each other. Men were having affairs with their fathers' trophy wives. And the women would not keep their heads covered. Probably wore pants to worship, too.

And Paul didn't have a solution. He didn't have the ministry expertise to say, "Oh, here's what you do." Instead of imposing a solution, he extended a call. Paul's call (not a solution) Paul's call to the church in Corinth was to become generous. Generosity produces thanksgiving. Which is odd, because most people think it's the other way around. But it's not. Generosity produces thanksgiving. Because when you're generous, you're concerning yourself with other people. And when you're concerned with other people's concerns, you give thanks. You see beyond yourself. You see the people around you. You see your neighbors. And it makes you want to say, "Thank God. Thank God I got called here."

When you realize how lucky you are, you overflow with thanksgiving.


It's our turn to Answer the Call and overflow in Thanksgiving. We've got pledge cards. I wish they were called, "Thanksgiving Cards," because that's the point. It's an expression of thanksgiving. It's a sign of dedication to a cause. It's not your "dues" because, you know, we've gotta keep the lights on, people.

The church is not a building, but we take care of our building. The church is not a collection of programs and services, although we work together to accomplish those. The church is not the organization, or the Presbytery, or the state-recognized non-profit, tax-exempt corporation.

The church is you.

You are the church.

The church is your community thanksgiving. The church is you, expressing your gratitude, experimenting with your ministries, applying your devotion to the idea that all the community of God deserves justice, care, and compassion. That all God's children deserve love.

The church is you. The church is you saying that you want to do more than you can hold in your own two hands. That you want to overflow with many thanksgivings to God.

Make this day the beginning of a new set of days for you. If you have it in your finances to give one dollar or a million dollars. If you can give 2 percent or 50 percent. Don't JUST fill out a pledge card today. Make this day the commitment to a pledge life. If you've been here 55 years, or 18 years, or just one day... begin today - begin again - to overflow in thanksgiving, overflow so much in thanksgiving that you just have to share it. Answer the call. Answer the call to live a generous, thankful life all of this year. And the next. And the next.

And, thank you. Thank you for having us. But thank you infinitely more for having the Holy Spirit. Share what you can. And let your thanksgiving flow.