March 2006


Please read Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21

An old “Saturday Night Live” skit concerned a family called the Whiners. Whatever the situation or the subject, they never spoke unless they whined. If they had a dachshund, I suppose it would have been a whiner wiener.

No doubt we encounter the ancestors of the Whiners in the Old Testament reading. Fresh from a great military victory and on their way to the Promised Land, the people of Israel can still do nothing but complain. They blame Moses for bringing them out into the wilderness, as if the great leader could have forced hundreds of thousands of Israelites to follow him into the desert! Certainly it could not be their responsibility or choice to be here! And then they whine about the fooood. In one breath, they claim there isn’t any food or water; then in the next, they contradict themselves, and say that the food is terrible!

Their complaining doesn’t improve the menu one bit. Nor does it make Canaan land any closer. Instead, the people are stricken with deadly snakes that bite and kill many of them. These are not just any snakes, by the way. The same word—“seraph”—is used here as in the description of the serpent beings that Isaiah encountered in the Temple (Isaiah 6). These are the servants of God, sent to judge the people for their faithlessness and their murmuring.

This rather drastic measure taken by God grabs the attention of this ungrateful bunch. Now those that aren’t face down in the dirt come to Moses, all of a sudden their friend again, to ask that he do something, like praying, that will take away the serpents. Being the gracious guy he was, Moses agrees, and God tells him what to do. The cure is to put a bronze snake on a stick and bid the people to look on it. The afflicting agent is also relief. That’s not so surprising, is it? That’s the way we cure snake bites or manufacture vaccines.

It’s an odd story, not an easy one to hear or interpret. But let me suggest that this is a tale about the deadliness of self-indulgence. It is about what results from a loss of focus, a dearth of gratitude, a constant preoccupation with trivialities, and the attitude that success and power equal the right always to get what we want. It is a tale not about folk long ago, but about you and me, this moment.

This neglected account from Numbers may be ignored so much because it tells too much truth and hits too close to home. It’s like looking in the mirror and seeing our families, our church, our work, ourselves. It reminds us how quick we are to criticize, and how slow to praise. How we rush to judge the intentions and competency of others, but delay as long as possible turning the harsh spotlight on ourselves. It wants us to realize that what we are is helpless and hurting, face down in the dirt like a snake, when we want to see ourselves as good and right and worthy. This little text won’t let us off the hook; it tells us how sinful and petty and shallow and loud-mouthed we are. It’s a story about the deadly poisons that infect and destroy us when we are intent on getting what we want when we want it, which is right now. It’s about losing sight of the goal in order to have short-term satisfaction. But mostly, it’s about forgetting the God who will get us to the Promised Land.

The whining, manipulation, complaining, and self-absorption described in Numbers shows up all over the place. We find those toxic activities and attitudes in the workplace. I once heard the following story, which leaves me shaking my head in disbelief. An anonymous memo was sent to an office manager by an employee of a large Southern corporation. In it she complained that her cubicle was six inches smaller than her neighbor’s. Did management say to this disgruntled worker “Get a life?” No. They reconfigured all the cubicles at the cost of thousands of dollars, including getting new furniture, tearing up tile, repositioning an electrical junction box, and making all affected employees waste a day of work to clean out their cubicles so the workspace could be changed. We have to wonder if energy and money could not have been spent on improving the increasingly bad position of the company in the marketplace instead of placating one selfish employee.

Self-centeredness rears its head in the family. How many spouses and kids use badgering, whining, nagging, and complaining to wear down a partner or a parent until he or she gives in to demands for this, that or the other “must have” of the moment?

Finally, shallow, superficial, self-absorbed complaining and loss of focus is no stranger to the church. In a church I was once pastor of, some people were worried over the positioning of items in the bulletin but not over restlessness, talking, and movement during the service. Others argued and complained about aesthetics, like the color of stain on the wood during a renovation of the church’s chapel, but apparently did not notice the empty pews and missing people every Sunday. A whole room that could have been devoted to Sunday school was instead dedicated to storing Christmas decorations. People were elected to lead, then hurt and offended and discouraged when they sought to make decisions. Those insecure officers were thus unwilling to take action for fear of reprisal. They were constantly second-guessing and trying to figure out what would be acceptable to those most vocal in their viewpoints.

How can we be healed of our self-indulgence in workplace, family, and church? First, we need to admit our sin. As someone in my church wrote: “Taking personal responsibility for our actions and wrongdoings is imperative. The words, ‘I’m sorry, I was wrong’ are sometimes all that is needed to make amends.” Part of saying “I’m sorry” is admitting we can’t make it on our own, that we need help. So next, let us redirect our faces up from the dirt of our own demands to gaze on the icon of God’s care. Use for creative and imaginative service the energy and resources we have devoted to getting our own way. That turns the source of our malaise into the key to a cure. But finally, and most of all, we look upon the One lifted on a cross like a snake on a stick, and we see in him our true humanity. We find in his dying form the demonstration of the amazing depth of God’s love and the possibilities for dedicated human service. We look up, reaching beyond ourselves, so we may be healed and live.

© 2006 by Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

Please read Mark 6:1-6.

Quite a number of years ago, there was a popular country singer named Ray Stevens. He had a string of novelty hits like “Guitarzan” and “Ahab the Arab,” along with more serious works like “Everything is Beautiful” and “Mr. Businessman.” My sister and I went to see him in concert at an auditorium in Albany, Georgia, where we lived. Albany liked to claim Ray Stevens as a home town boy made good, and everybody said his real name was “Ray Ragsdale” from out at Kinchafoonee Creek. If the singer really did hail from Albany or nearby, he was one of those rarities from my old stomping grounds that gained national recognition. I was never sure whether the rumors of his origins were true, but the mayor gave him the key to the city.

When Jesus came to Nazareth, though, the mayor made sure to be out of town on business. Nobody hung out a big banner saying “Welcome home, Jesus” or came up to him on the street asking for his autograph. Yes, he was well-known and had “made good,” as we would say. But the folks in Nazareth were not particularly pleased. As someone has said, their reaction was somewhere between amazement and annoyance. They were somewhat skeptical that the neighborhood kid who had played in their streets and grew up fixing their plows and furniture had anything wise and fascinating to say. He was no rabbi, no legal expert; what could he know?

“They were amazed,” says the gospel writer. So were the folks at numerous healings, so were the disciples on a stormy lake, but that’s where the similarity ends. The Nazarenes were unbelieving and scornful. They were unwilling to accept that anything particularly significant could come from such humble beginnings. Their scorn is all the more amazing and ridiculous when we remember the proverb of the day: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” These proud people living in a fifth-rate town should have been glad for something to boast about. But Nazareth was so snobbish and pretentious, its inhabitants such piranhas in a puddle that no sign greeted visitors informing them of its one and only claim to fame.

Can’t we just hear these jealous, small people shouting and mocking? One would say: “Where did this man get all this?” Another would chime in derisively: “What is the wisdom given to him?” A third: “Such mighty works he does.” Then as a chorus: “Isn’t this the carpenter, Mary’s son? We know his sisters and brothers. What makes him so special?” The prophet was indeed without honor. The words hit us like a hot blast of wind: “He could do no mighty works there” except heal a few sick people.

We are glad for those that benefited from our Lord’s touch. But compared to his accomplishments elsewhere, what he did was paltry. Rejected by his own, largely powerless because of their lack of faith, Jesus went elsewhere. The Nazarenes missed out on what Jesus could have done among them. They would not hear him because they knew his mother and his family. They had watched him grow up. Such humble origins, they believed, would not produce a wise man. In a word, he was too ordinary.

Jesus is rejected by his own these days for the very same reasons he was greeted with such scorn in his home town. We know Jesus. We have heard all the stories at one time or another, even if we can’t quite keep some of the details straight. We know the creeds. And familiarity breeds contempt or more likely, apathy. The words roll off like water from a duck’s back, and we go away from worship on a Sunday satisfied that we have held God at arm’s length for another week.

And isn’t that what our rejection of Jesus is really about? The Christian faith does not ask us to believe in just any Christ, any deliverer. There are lots of Messiahs around, a good many religions and philosophies to believe in. If you don’t like the usual options, this is America—just make up one of your own. There is always some con artist who says his book or her system will provide the answer to all our troubles. The other ways we are offered are often a great deal easier than believing in and following this Jesus as the Christ.

It’s the specifics that bother us. This real person who lived in a certain place and time, who had parents who changed his diapers and read him bedtime stories, this child, youth, adult who learned and ate and drank and laughed and sweated in the hot Middle Eastern sun, this man who died a cruel death reserved for the low-lifes of society–this one is the Christ sent by God to save us. As someone has said: “Jesus is too ordinary and therefore too relevant.” Give us a deity who is out there somewhere, close enough to call on when we need him, but conveniently absent when we want to go about our business, kind of like the way the typical college student thinks about his or her parents. But this Jesus of the Bible. Spare us! He talks about real things like money and priorities; sex and relationships; lawsuits and conflict; the way we treat children and the helpless of society. Everyday values, everyday situations, like a woman sweeping her house or a father worried about his runaway son, a man in a tight financial spot or the games children play. We can keep God and Jesus out of our lives by insisting that he is concerned only with so-called “spiritual matters. But the incarnation puts the lie to any talk about the so-called “spirituality” of the church, which was invented by the southern stream of the Presbyterian Church after it got literally burned in the Civil War. No, we the Church belong in the world. In one sense, the more secular our faith, the more effective and committed we will be.

What I mean is this: What does Jesus, what does the Church, mean to you and me Monday through Saturday, not just on Sunday in worship? Living as a Christian is not simply or even primarily what we do with church committees or programs or groups. It is mostly about commitment in the every day, workaday, school day world. Isn’t that what it means to believe that Jesus is the Christ: that in the bread and cup of the Eucharist and in every meal; in the church building and in every building–shop, school, home, council, and boardroom, Jesus is to be honored; that we are to display clearly–not ostentatiously but clearly–the cardinal values of faith, hope, and love, doing mercy and living justly; that we show everyone how being a Christian makes a difference in relationships, work, play, attitudes, interests, priorities of time and money and energy?

What amazing things would Jesus do among us if we were sold out to him, if we saw him with new eyes and heard him with new ears, if we his own welcomed him with open arms and open hearts? Has the good become for us the enemy of the best, satisfaction with the adequate an excuse not to trust God for the extraordinary? Will Jesus go elsewhere or will we know and feel the full rush of his power and be transformed by his word? Will he marvel because of our unbelief or because of the way we hear and trust him?

Only you and I have the answer.

© 2006 by Tom Cheatham

Mark 2:13-22 (Lectionary reading for Friday, March 10, 2006)

A pastor I know wanted somehow to revitalize his church. They were downtown in a city of about 50,000, and their attendance was dwindling Sunday by Sunday. Their building was deteriorating, and the budget was suffering. All the while, a church of another mainline denomination, right across the street, had expanded to a city block and counted 3000 members. So location wasn’t the problem. The pastor thought worship maybe was a bit dull. So he tinkered with the order a bit, added some choruses, and a noisy greeting time. He updated the language of the prayers and added a confession of sin sequence. And it was a mess. The updated language sounded silly. A member of the “old guard” thought that the addition of a confession of sin was a conspiracy born at the denominational headquarters, foisted on the church by liberals. The sappy chorus sung each Sunday got old. Everything felt haphazard. And still the church did not prosper.

Tweaking the service didn’t help because the service wasn’t the problem. The pastor was trying to give an antihistamine for a coronary condition. The congregation needed a culture change, a different approach to its life together, the fermentation of new wine in fresh bags. A new perspective, a new structure, new people. The new wine in the old, rigid skins just made more to clean up.

How often do churches want the new without realizing what that means? When the Spirit of God is determined to do a new thing, what can stand in the way? And what power will be released that cannot be contained? Without a suitable structure, an approach to life together, a worship form that invites the outpouring of grace and fervor, there’s likely to be little happening but conflict, fear, suspicion, ripping of the wineskins. There has to be room for the new ideas that will come forth, a flexibility of structure whose purpose is to encourage things to happen. Sometimes there’s nothing to be done but to begin afresh.

But how do you know whether it’s right to patch the old garment or get some new wineskins? How can you tell if a little updating and rethinking will do the trick to revitalize the old? What’s the signal that it’s time to do something radically new?

Some will speak of the need to survive or the press of desperate times. And that may be true. Your course of action in such a situation might go either way. You could fall back on what you have always known or you could be in such a state that you will try anything, no matter how far-fetched it seems at the time. Others will make the criterion the need to respond to some new opportunity in the culture. Put more crassly, they will talk about how we market. What does a focus group reveal? What sort of things do people want in a church? And that has merit, too. It’s silly to answer questions folks aren’t asking or provide programs and services which no one needs.

But Jesus speaks of what I believe is a more faithful standard on which to base our decisions about corporate and personal ministry. After he called Levi from his tax booth, Jesus attended a banquet at the new disciple’s home. Levi’s friends were there, mostly men and women like Levi who lived on the margins of Jewish life, not very faithful in practicing the Torah, not too concerned about kosher rules. Those whose duty it was to interpret the Jewish religious code and ensure compliance were not happy with Jesus that evening. It was not proper for a rabbi to eat with outsiders like Levi and his companions.

Our Lord’s response was a defining one for his ministry. He quoted a proverb and then identified his mission not as maintenance of the righteous, the well, but healing of the sick, the sinners. In other words, he put the need of people to be related to God and find reconciliation with him at the top of his agenda. And he would do what it took to call people into that relationship.

Here then is the standard for deciding about patches and wineskins: does what we are doing call people to a relationship of wholeness with God in Jesus Christ? Whether it’s something old or something new, that is the question to ask about it. Whether it’s administrative structure or the songs we sing in worship, that’s the query to make. Whether it’s Sunday school or a service project, that’s what we wonder about.

But still, how do we know what’s right to do? I believe we need to pray for the the gift of discernment. We need to ask God to show us if it’s time to fast or party with the bridegroom, whether we rend or sew, speak or remain silent, fight or flee, break down or build up, root up or plant, whether we shrink the cloth or get a new skin for the wine. The wisdom teacher I have just quoted might have said that knowing the right time, the right place, the right words is as much intuition as anything else. Those whose religion consists in adherence to rules and regulations aren’t going to get it. They’ll keep on wanting to see ritual and tradition and practice as ends in themselves. But for those whose hearts are open, who can live with a little or a lot of ambiguity, who trust that God will show the way, there is so much amazing to be learned, so much exciting to be done, so many ways to show the love of God in Jesus Christ.

© 2006 by Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.

I recently read a story of meteorologist George Flickinger, who was fired for interrupting a football broadcast to warn viewers about the approach of dangerous wildfires. He broke into the game after local emergency management officials informed TV stations about evacuation plans (The Progressive, March 2006: 11).

Fired! For warning people of danger! For doing his job faithfully! I gather from this sad tale, as well as my own experiences and those of some colleagues, that people only want to hear the truth when it is convenient, and it fits their plans. When the message doesn’t match those parameters, they get rid of the messenger.

Telling the truth, especially the Gospel truth, is dangerous work. It can get you fired. Or crucified.

But the messenger cannot keep quiet. He or she has a calling that is irresistible. Listen to Jeremiah: “I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, ‘Violence and destruction!’ For the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (Jeremiah 20:7-9, NRSV). Or Paul: “…for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16, NRSV)

A prophet of God is held accountable for his or her faithfulness. He or she must tell the truth, must warn people about the consequences of their actions. Ezekiel was told: “Mortal, I have made you a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give them no warning, or speak to warn the wicked from their wicked way, in order to save their life, those wicked persons shall die for their iniquity; but their blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked, and they do not turn from their wickedness, or from their wicked way, they shall die for their iniquity; but you will have saved your life. Again, if the righteous turn from their righteousness and commit iniquity, and I lay a stumbling block before them, they shall die; because you have not warned them, they shall die for their sin, and their righteous deeds that they have done shall not be remembered; but their blood I will require at your hand. If, however, you warn the righteous not to sin, and they do not sin, they shall surely live, because they took warning; and you will have saved your life” (Ezekiel 3:17, NRSV).

Fired for telling the truth? For issuing a warning that’s not welcome? Better that than face God and tell him I was too busy keeping my job to fulfill my calling as his servant.

© 2006 by Tom Cheatham. All rights reserved.