Monday, December 10, 2018

Advent 2 "Outlasting The Energizer Bunny"

Readings: Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 3:1-6, Philippians 1:3-11, Isaiah 40:1-11
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, December 9, 2018

Bunny Rabbits at Christmas Time? Well… not just any bunny. Not good old Bugs Bunny asking “What’s up Doc?”… or even those cute little wabbits in Watership Down, “Bright eyes, burning like fire”… but the annoying little rabbit banging incessantly on the drum that used to walk across your television screen, the Energizer Bunny.


My adapted version of Isaiah 40 verse 8 this morning reads; “The Grass Withers, the flower fades, “the energizer bunny eventually runs out of gumption”; but the Word of our God will stand for ever.”


There is not a lot in life that lasts forever. Though in songs and poems artists speak of everlasting love, though there are those who suggest that hope springs eternal, though sermons can seem unbearably long if you have a table booked for Sunday lunch, science and scripture tell us that… eventually… the earth and the heavens will pass away.


But the Word, not just the words of the Bible or any other words, the living Word that is Jesus Christ, the Word through whom according to John’s gospel, God created all things, the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld His glory… if we allow our lives to be absorbed by that sort of Word, then I tell you, we have something more than snowy scenes and St Nicholas to celebrate at Christmas Time.


What this text does for us is call us to consider, not why we celebrate Christmas, but why we are on this planet in the first place. Is there a purpose? Is there a meaning? Or have we just been abandoned to futility and eventual dissolution?


This text is a Good News text. It affirms that life can have direction and purpose and meaning because the God who gave us life is a permanent fixture… a God beyond the limitations of human or earthly existence, a God who is all the things those grand theological words like immutable, immortal, and incarnational seek to convey to us.


Let’s take my adapted text phrase by phrase.


The Grass Withers, the flower fades”


Every second of our life that passes brings us one second closer to our demise. If you want to get into a business where you never have to be out of work… become an undertaker. Writer Steve Turner has a poem about death in which he writes;


Boxers can’t punch it, Nor critics dismiss it,
Don’t knows can’t not know, The lazy can’t miss it,
Capitalists can’t bribe it, Socialists can’t share it,
Terrorists can’t jump it, The Third World aren’t spared it,


Scientists can’t quell it, Nor can they disprove it,
Doctors can’t cure it, Surgeons can’t move it,
Einstein can’t halve it, Guevara can’t free it,
The thing about dead, is we’re all gonna be it.
(Steve Turner in “Nice and Nasty” Razor Books -ISBN 0551008652)


The Grass withers, the flowers fade, from dust we have come and to dust we shall return. Whatever you are today… eventually… you will not be it. In fact you won’t be anything. The time for being anything will have reached its inevitable conclusion.


Cheerful thoughts as we travel through Advent aren’t they? But that’s the point. Isaiah’s words come in the midst of a book that features a lot of gloom and doom and futility. It is partly about the way people waste their lives and live… well… for nothing but themselves and at the end of the day their selves breathe their last… and what’s left? Nothing but a huge funeral bill for the relatives to take care of. The thing about dead is we’re all going to be it. “The Grass Withers, the flower fades, and...


The Energizer Bunny eventually runs out of Gumption”


How do we cope with the inevitability of our mortality? Not so well a lot of the time. Young folks live like there was no tomorrow. Old folks keep looking back to yesterdays. And those who can’t work out if they are young or old, they just keep working for whatever it is they are working for!


Folks, we are the energizer bunny. We just keep going, going, going, banging on the same old drum. Have you seen that advertising campaign where you think that you are watching a different advert and then suddenly bang, bang, bang, in comes that bunny again. That’s us. The circumstances may change around us but we go on year after year with the same unresolved issues, accumulating more and more baggage, evading our problems rather than dealing with them.


The energizer bunny of course runs on battery power. It is powered by something that is man made and manufactured. Eventually the battery dies. Eventually the bunny runs out of gumption. A battery powered life is no guarantee of immortality.


In our lives we can accumulate a lot of stuff that we hope will keep us powered up. We pin a lot of our hopes on our stuff. Stuff is the battery that keeps us going. If we get a better job, a better car, a better house, a better neighborhood, a job with better prospects, sometimes a better husband or wife, sometimes a better church or let’s drop church altogether… then we will attain happiness and we will live more contentedly and therefore live longer and be better and life will be more fulfilled.


If that stuff doesn’t work then people turn to other stuff. Drink, drugs, endless fruitless relationships, escapism on the Internet, the shopping channel, lottery tickets. Dangerous stuff. Stuff that doesn’t tell the truth. Stuff that tells you that this is what you need. You try it and for a little while it feels just like what you need. But when you come down you are lower than where you started from. The kind of stuff that gets its teeth into you so deeply that you just can’t live without it. Addictive stuff.


The Good News we celebrate at Christmas Time has nothing to do with stuff that runs out, with batteries that die or bunnies that cease to be energized. The Good News of Christmas is contained in the last part of our text. “The Grass Withers, the flower fades, “the energizer bunny eventually runs out of gumption”; but...


The Word of our God will stand for ever.


The Word of our God will stand for ever! The Word who became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld His glory, the Word who was and is Jesus Christ, the Word to whom the words of our scriptures point us and direct us, the Word who comes to us in the person and the presence of the Holy Spirit… will stand for ever.


Not like the food at the store that has an expiration date. Not like the gas in your tank that keeps running out. Not like that account you had in the bank that because of having no funds in was terminated. Not like that series you were watching on Television that finally reached the concluding episode. Not like that game you were playing until GAME OVER illuminated the screen.


Not like that old radio you had for years and years, with glowing valves in the back, that picked up transmissions on every band from short wave to long wave and F.M and goodness knows where, but you turned it on one morning and it simply ceased to function… not like any of that. Not like anything that is not permanent or everlasting or eternal. The Word of God will stand for ever!


All the stuff that we build into our lives that is other than the Word of God, all that we put our hope in that is outside of the Word of God, is going to come to an end. But those things that are related to the Word of God will last for ever.


Ever wondered why us preacher types keep going on and on and on like the Energizer Bunny about how scripture reading and worship and private devotion and prayer and service to others are so important? Because somewhere along the way, we have been led by the grace of God to the understanding that everything else can’t hold us, everything else eventually goes kaputt, everything else just doesn’t cut it when it comes to eternity.


If we seek for our lives to be molded by the teaching of the One who came to us as a baby in a stable in Bethlehem all those centuries ago, then we are allowing principles and forces and dynamics with eternal reverberations to shape who we are and what our life will be and where our lives will take us.


God saw to it that we were born for a reason. Born to be people who know God’s love, who taste and see the salvation of the God in Jesus Christ, who are energized and recreated by the Holy Spirit. God did not put us on this planet to play ‘He who has the most toys wins’ but to dwell with one another in love and peace, in relationships that nurture and help each other to grow.


Yes, we have fallen and will fall again and again, but that’s why Jesus is known as the Savior. Outside of His love we have no hope. But when we dwell in His love and His love dwells in our hearts through the Holy Spirit we have everything to hope for, everything to live for and everything to die for.


We who believe in Jesus Christ know that we have not just been abandoned to futility and eventual dissolution. We know this because we seek to live our lives by and through His love. The love that came down at Christmas.


And so we look forward in this season of Advent. We look down the road to a day when those things we now see through the shadows will appear plain in the light of Christ. We look to what God can do and can enable us to do as we give our lives into God’s hands.


We look ahead to catch a vision of a new heaven and a new earth and the Holy Spirit brings to us a sense of confidence in the Grace of God that whatever may come our way, God is able to carry us through.


Isaiah 40 verse 8. What a wonderful text. “The Grass Withers, the flower fades; but the Word of our God will stand for ever.” Let us seek to build our lives on God’s Word. Let us not be energizer bunnies going on and on and on, oblivious to our surroundings until we eventually cease to function. Rather let us be disciples of Jesus Christ, saved by grace through faith, looking to a better day.

To God’s name be the Glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Advent 1 "Look Down The Road”

Readings: Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-10,1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-36
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, December 2 2018

I’d like to start this morning with a quote from Calvin. Not John Calvin the great reformer but Calvin and Hobbes, the comic strip. In the particular one I’m thinking of, Calvin speaks to Hobbes and says: "Live for the moment is my motto. You never know how long you got."

In the second frame he explains "You could step into the road tomorrow and WHAM, you get hit by a cement truck! Then you'd be sorry you put off your pleasures. That's what I say - live for the moment." And then he asks Hobbes: "What's your motto?"

Hobbes replies: "My motto is - Look down the road."

Look down the road.” Such is not a bad theme for the first Sunday in Advent. Our brief reading from Jeremiah was one that encouraged us to look ahead. Encouraged us to look beyond the present and to a future filled with possibilities.

Fact is that the situation in which Jeremiah wrote these words was anything but hopeful. The Babylonian army were laying siege to Jerusalem. Jehoichin, a King in the Davidic line had been replaced by a puppet king called Zedekiah. There was trouble within and without the nation and Jeremiah in previous chapters has warned that it was going to get worse before it ever got better.

Yet he doesn’t leave it there. He says, “Look down the Road.” Beyond these troubled times there will come a time when God makes things right again. It won’t be the same as it ever was. Though based upon what has past it will be something new. And it will be the Lords doing. Jeremiah 33:14 “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.

Look down the road. The promise will be fulfilled.

As we look down the road towards Christmas, expectations, particularly among the young ones, can run high. As an old English carol proclaims, “Tis the season to be jolly, Fa La La La Lah, La Lah Lah Lah.” The Christmas celebration provides a welcome break in the dark days of winter. It’s theme of “Joy to the world” is a message seldom proclaimed among the hullabaloo of every day endeavor.

It is easy to become cynical about the materialism and gross excess that seems to parody the genuine message of Christmas spirit, but as Charles Dickens marvelous character “Mr Scrooge” reveals to us, to not allow room in ones life for celebration, even when it takes place in circumstances of desperation, is a soul destroying attitude of life to adopt.

Look down the Road. Jeremiah 33:15” In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David”.

We know about King David. That whilst he wasn’t the perfect King, he nevertheless had one thing that set him apart. He had a heart for the things of God. Now before David ever came to the throne, before even his predecessor Saul had become Israel’s first King, the prophet Samuel had warned the people that having a King wasn’t necessarily a good thing. His words had proved sadly true.

Many of the kings had led the people into the destructive worship of foreign idols. Others used their positions for selfish gain and advantage, and had depended upon military strength rather that in trust in God to get them through. In all of Israel’s history after David, only five kings in the Southern Kingdom, and none in the Northern Kingdom were remembered as being even marginally faithful to God.

Some of the people began to yearn for one who would be a worthy successor to David. Hezekiah had looked promising, but then his son Manasseh had negated much of the good he achieved. Josiah had come along with his reforms and message of renewal, but he died a sudden death.

As the nation faced the calamity of defeat and destruction the longing for a righteous royal deliverer grew more intense. Though the people knew they had fallen from God, there was also the recognition that God was faithful, and that all those promises made to Abraham and Moses and David were promises that could not be erased by the sins of the people, but had a power that remained in force. Look down the road. God would redeem God’s people! God’s promises were solid as a rock. A righteous branch would spring up from David’s line.

This was far more than just being a promise that some earthly king would come along. To the people of Israel facing an immanent catastrophe, this was a promise to them, that no matter what, God would remain faithful. It is a message about God’s faithfulness in the face of failure and despair. It shows that God is committed to God’s people, in spite of their disobedience, in spite of their failure, in spite of their sinfulness.

This morning we lit the first candle on the Advent Wreath. The candle of hope. Let’s face it, these aren’t the brightest days. Violence and unrest stalk the land. The world is still a place of famine, war and suffering for many of it's inhabitants. Questions as to the future are perplexing.

On a personal level we can face family illness and troubles of many and various kinds. Some days are just plain difficult, and it takes a good dose of holy grace to carry us through. At such times it is hard to look down the road, because the crisis of the moment takes away our vision for the future.

Yet here’s the thing. If the Advent message has nothing to say to these situations life throws at us, it could be that the Christian Gospel is the emptiest hope of all. It seems to me that our belief does not make us immune to life’s troubles, rather that it is our faith that informs us and carries us through the hard times.

It is the nature of Christian faith that sometimes the road gets tough. Sometimes it’s not our fault, but often times it is. We mess up. We make bad decisions. We sin and are sinned against. We are offered the best way and we take the easiest. We know what’s right yet time and time again choose the wrong.

Furthermore, even when we are faced with the consequences of our actions, we are more likely to complain and plead innocence rather than admit defeat! Was this not the situation of the people of Jeremiah’s day? ‘Yes we’ve been unfaithful, yes, you told us that if we didn’t change our ways, trouble would be coming, and yes, we know it’s about to hit us hard, but you know Lord? We just couldn’t seem to help ourselves!’

What were Jeremiah’s words of hope to these hopeless ones?
Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safely.
And this is the name by which it will be called:
The LORD is our righteousness.
(Jeremiah 33:16)

Did you catch those last words? ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’ I’ve heard it suggested that the way God justified people in the Old Testament era was different to the way God saved them in the New. That the old way was the way only of the law, whilst the New Testament is all about grace.

Not so with Jeremiah! Jeremiah’s only hope for the people of Israel and Judah was in the saving act of God. “Look down the Road.” You’ve tried again and again to save yourselves but it’s just not in you. The sky is dark and your enemies are at your door, but this is not the end of the story. God will redeem God’s people. Your salvation is in God’s hands. The Lord is your righteousness.

God did indeed raise up a righteous branch from the line of David. As we look to celebrating the birth of Jesus, in David’s town of Bethlehem, we see the birth of new hope into the worlds darkness, a hope we are called to make our own.

It is to Jesus Christ that we are called to turn for our salvation. He alone can be our righteousness. He alone has the power over sin and death and hell. He alone can renew life and restore life, lift up the fallen, forgive the sinner and bind up the wounds of those who need healing. His joy enriches the laughter of God’s faithful ones and His tears sanctify the tears of those who mourn.

When I’m faced with the hard times, it seems that the faith God offers to me as a gift, has a habit of rising up and taking control. It’s when I try and suppress that reliance upon God, when in my pride and foolishness I think I can get through on my own or could do better without God’s interference, then I fall.

I’m so thankful that I have a God who just won’t give up on me. I’m so thankful that my destiny is not dependent on my own works but upon the righteousness of Jesus Christ. I’m so glad that I have a Savior who calls me to “Look down the road.” To see that, even in times that are not filled with light, there’s something good just a little further away than I can glimpse right now.

Living one day at a time’ is not the same thing as ‘Living without a care for tomorrow.’ Jesus encouraged us to live life in day-tight compartments, particularly as we never know what may be coming around the next corner. At the same time He also suggested that we “Watch and Pray.” That we dream dreams and envision possibilities. That we trust in God our Father to take care of those things we can’t fix for ourselves.

Look down the Road
For those who put their faith in Jesus Christ, There’s something good in store.

It kind of puts me in a Christmas frame of mind. Recapturing that feeling of not knowing exactly what Santa had left under the tree, but knowing it was something good.

I remember one Christmas years ago being taken to my Grandmothers. I had deep questions, like ‘Had my parents left Santa a forwarding address?’ We got there and I caught the measles. But it was O.K. I’d asked Santa for a cowboy suit, and on Christmas Day I put it on over my pajamas, and everything was fine. There had been something good down the road and it had given the nasty bits of the journey a new perspective.

Now didn’t Jesus say something about having the faith of a child?
Look down the Road.
Thanks be to God.
Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D

Monday, November 19, 2018

Faith In Changing Times

Readings: 1 Samuel 1:4-20 & 2:1-10, Hebrews 10:11-18, Mark 13:1-8
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, November 18th 2018

We are living today in an era of unprecedented change. When I consider the world that my grandparents grew up in, compared to the world that my grandchildren are growing up in today, it’s not just a different world it’s more like a different planet! How can we find faith in changing times?

Our Bible reading this morning pictures the disciples walking out of the temple in Jerusalem and taking the time to look back at it’s magnificent walls and structure. One of them is talking to Jesus. It’s almost like the disciple is a tourist walking through Manhattan. “Wow! Will you look at this place! Is this awesome or what? Look at the size of the stones. Look at the thickness of the walls. Look how tall the buildings are!”

Jesus gives that disciple an answer he hadn’t expected. After all this wasn’t just any old building in the city, it was the Holy Temple of God he was gazing at! "You see these great buildings?” says Jesus, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."

The other disciples by now have their ears buzzing. But they are afraid to ask Jesus straight away what He means. Instead they wait till they are out of the city and up on the Mount of Olives before a group of them come and ask Him to explain. They want to know ‘how’ and ‘what’ and most of all ‘when’ such unimaginable things could happen.

Jesus will not be drawn into a discussion of dates and times or methods. Instead He offers them a strategy for holding onto faith in the midst of a world where things could go crazy at the drop of a hat.

One of my favorite bands of old "The Eagles" have a song that contains the refrain, “In a New York minute, everything can change.”  Having lived near New York City, I know how people are all too aware that even the tallest buildings in the world can be reduced to rubble. How in the midst of this rapidly changing, often frightening, often confusing world can ordinary people like ourselves hold on to faith?

Here’s the Mark 13 strategy.
  • Don’t be led astray.
  • Don’t be alarmed.
  • Do be alert!
Let’s think about each of those.
  1. Don’t be led astray. Verses 5-6 "Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and they will lead many astray.
Faith is not just about trusting in the right things; it is also about rejecting the wrong things. It’s about discerning the real thing from the false thing. If we follow the wrong thing, then we go the wrong way. If we follow the right thing it sends us in the right direction. “Beware” cautions Jesus that “no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say “I am he’”

Notice Jesus says “In my Name”? The name Jesus means “Savior.” He is telling His disciples that many would come and offer to be their Savior in His place. He is making it plain to them that in a changing world there would no be shortage of voices calling for attention, inviting investment, asking us to side with them, promising to give us the real picture of what is going on.

It is not so hard to identify such voices around us. Despite the twentieth century being one in which mankind created such wonderful things as weapons of mass destruction, there are those who insist here in the twenty first century that only the scientific viewpoint will eventually reveal all truth. Some encourage us to abandon our childish beliefs in an almighty invisible friend and trust that the rational application of inquiring minds will make all things well.

There are other voices that suggest we need to abandon over 2000 years of tried and tested Christian belief and practice and discover more informed spiritual sources. There are many religious and non-religious ideas that offer us the secrets of the universe.

Within Christianity itself you don’t have to dig far to find those who parade their beliefs as the only absolute truth. The red flag should fly when we see how often they are associated with nationalistic ideologies, partisan politics, or ethnic identity. That and the usual claim that God is on there side alone!

I could go on… but it’s enough to offer again Jesus words: “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' Many have come and many will come and suggest to us that we do not take seriously the teaching of Jesus Christ, but pay attention instead to them. Don’t be led astray.
  1. Don’t be alarmed.
Mark 13:7 “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.”

Has there ever been an age in human history that has not had “wars and rumors of wars”? That’s the way it is. As Jesus says “Such things must happen.” Why? Reformed theology would suggest that it must happen because humankind is a fallen, sinful, self-seeking, power hungry race of creatures that never find their true relationship to each other until they are once more at One with God.

That the chaos and violence that is pandemic throughout all creation is the result of separation from God. In Jesus Christ God offers an opportunity to go against the tide, but until Christ’s Kingdom comes in all its glory then the chaos will continue. Mark 13: 8 “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines.”

Our world continues to be a place of chaos and uncertainty. That should not surprise us. That’s the way Jesus said things would be. So when we pick up a newspaper or hear on the news of the latest tragedy that has rocked our world, maybe we should listen for the voice of Jesus telling us “Don’t be alarmed!

With the benefit of hindsight we can see how the words Jesus spoke to His disciples held incredible insight. In AD70 the army of Roman General Titus laid siege to city. The temple and much else were destroyed. They were terrible days, particularly for those who never fled to the hills and remained in Jerusalem. Elsewhere the Roman Empire was under attack around its borders. There were wars and rumor of wars. A great earthquake would devastate Laodecia and the volcano Vesuvius would erupt burying Pompeii in molten lava. In the days of Claudius a great famine did take hold in Rome.

Jesus told the disciples that events like these would continue to scar the ages. They were not to put their faith in human achievement and ingenuity, no matter how impressive. But more than that, they were not to be alarmed! God was in control.

Despite the seeming chaos and uncertainty and craziness God was in control and remained with them in the midst of these events. He would give them words to speak and the strength of His Holy Spirit to get through. As we put our faith in God we can make that promise our own. No matter what may come our way, God promises to travel with us, even, as Psalm 23 tells us, through the valley of the shadow of death.

We are not to be led astray. We are not to be alarmed. And thirdly (a positive, not a negative, this time) Jesus tells us;
  1. Do be alert
In Mark 13 verse 5 Jesus puts it so simply. “Watch out!” Be aware, be alert, be prepared for these things. Do not let them catch you out or catch you off your guard. If you have a worldview that only allows for the good things in life, then when the bad things come along your faith is going to be shaken to the core.

Tragedy, misfortune, disaster, disease, war and rumors of wars, persecution, famine and unrest, a constant cycle between belief and unbelief, a never ending parade of folks who offer a new view on things that they suggest will save us all, be they theists or atheists, theologians or philosophers, doctors or psychiatrists, sociologists or media superstars… “Watch out,” Jesus seems to say… "It’s all out there and unless you are aware of the things that can cause you to fall, they might just drag you down!"

For myself it’s a chapter that tells me that if I am going to put my faith in something then I had better put it in Jesus Christ. As He told His disciples…the greatest constructions of humankind eventually crumble into the dust. Nothing in life is certain other than somewhere along the way trouble will catch up with us. In a New York minute everything can change. An endless parade of folk seek for me to abandon my faith in Jesus Christ and trust in their views to be my truth, my reason for being and my salvation.

So I pray ‘Lord let me not be led astray, let me not be alarmed. Help me to be awake to all those things that would pull me away from Your love.’ There is, I believe, in the Christian gospel, hope for a hopeless world, good news for a society that is full of bad news and deep joy that awaits the transformation of sleeping souls.

Our world is constantly changing. But the love of God is solid as a rock. If we anchor our lives in the eternal reality of God’s love than we can discover that faith remains a glorious possibility in changing times. May God make it so for each of us here today. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.


Monday, November 12, 2018

The Widows Mite

Readings: Psalms 127:1-5, Habakkuk 3:17-19, Hebrews 9:24-28, Mark 12:38-44
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, November 11 2018

A bible story about a widow and a rich man. Jesus challenges any who will listen, "Who gave the most?" The widow had nothing going for her. The rich man had everything going for him. He was in the position of being able to make a sizable offering, which it seems he did. But in the light of God’s economy, he never gave as much as the widow. The widow gave her all. It was upon the widow that God's favor shined.

Here's a sobering statistic. A recent survey concluded that the average Presbyterian gives more in tips and gratuities for the meals they eat out during the week than they put in the collection plate of their local church. I am thankful therefore that here in this church there are many who are well above average in the way that you support this church and its mission.

That being said I don’t know who gives the most and who gives the least. I don’t know how that all breaks down into percentages, whether some of you who have less income are proportionally giving a whole lot more of what you have than somebody who gets a lot more than you do. I don’t know.

But I do know that many of us are hoping and praying that this church can blossom and flourish and grow. We then need to acknowledge and act upon a basic principle in life. The harvest is always related to what is sown. You cannot grow anything without planting the seeds. You cannot grow programs and new opportunities and new ministries within a congregation without investing in them, with time and talents and, yes, with plain old cash!

Now you may be sitting there thinking, ‘Listen Preacher, I know it's Stewardship Season but I’ve made my pledge. Just typical of a preacher, all they want is more, more, more.” All I can say is that this was the lectionary text set for this Sunday and it’s hard to talk about this passge without mentioning money!

So… let’s take a different route. In the calendar year we are heading towards the celebration of Thanksgiving. The Pilgrim Fathers, who are celebrated at Thanksgiving, didn't have much to be thankful for. They had been hounded out of one country. They tried settling in another but that didn't work out.

They fled persecution and sailed across the ocean in that tiny ship they called the Mayflower. When they got here they were met with a land that needed to be tamed, a hostile environment, new diseases, inclement weather, starvation, challenges they had never dreamed of. How did they handle it? They gave thanks.

Our first reading this morning was from the book of Habakkuk. I'm glad Habakkuk wasn't a chef. What a mouthful it would be to go to the bookstore and ask, "Can I have a copy of Habakkuk's Cook Book, please?" He didn't have much to be thankful for. Why? Habakkuk didn't have a Cook Book because Habakkuk didn’t have anything to cook!

In verse 17 of Habakkuk, Chapter 3, the fig trees aren’t blossoming, there’s no fruit on the vines, no food in the field, no sheep or cows in the stalls to provide meat. "Yet" (and listen to this), he says “Yet, I will exult in the Lord, I will be thankful, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength.” (Verses 18-19)

There's that crazy thing again. The widow thing. The Pilgrim thing. People who by the standards of this world wouldn’t appear to have a great deal to get excited about are overflowing with generosity and thanksgiving.

Some weeks I feel like I need some cheerleaders up here with me instead of just a choir and lay reader. (No offence to the choir. They do a fantastic job.) But you know, when our faith is under attack, a few cheers of "Dee-Fence, Dee-Fence" wouldn't come amiss.

What about when the collection plate goes around, “Put it in, Drop it in... Touch Down!” How about an; "Everybody in the pews, Come and stamp your Good News shoes," something along those lines to get us psyched up to the importance of what we're doing here as a church when the offering plate goes around.

We have a lot to be thankful about. For sure, disposable income is always at a premium, that’s the truth. The bills keep rising and the taxes always seem to one step ahead of them. But you know what? We’re alive and kicking. We have a beautiful facility for worship and service. We have people around us who love us and pray for us and care about us.

We are free to come here and worship. None of us are going to be imprisoned today because we came to church. We are not going to be considered enemies of the state or political subversives because we claim Christ as our King. That is not the case for many in our world today, nor has it been for many generations throughout history.

We have schools. And when our kids go to school they have books and computer labs and playing fields and sports coaches and heated classrooms and class sizes that are, well sometimes larger than we would like, but small in comparison to the one-room, all age school-houses of other nations, where kids share paper and often the only text book is a blackboard.

We have roofs over our heads, food in our bellies, if we get sick we have doctors we can go to and hospitals to be treated at. On a worldwide scale that puts us at the top of the food chain. We have transport, we have gadgets galore, we have entertainment and opportunities and advantages that most of the world doesn’t share.

Today is Veterans Day, and 100 years since the First World War ended. When we recall those who gave their lives for our freedoms, we are aware of the sacrifices and hardships of those who paved the way for so much we take for granted. How do we honor such a legacy?

I’m not trying to make us feel bad or feel guilty or feel unworthy. Friends, I want us to feel thankful. We need to embrace every new day that we have to enjoy, every day filled with all these blessings and acknowledge before God that we are truly, truly, truly blessed.

Genuine thanksgiving always produces an outpouring of generosity. It causes us to think about our responsibility towards God in terms of how we spend our time, how we use the talents and gifts that God has graced our lives with and to consider what we do with our treasures.

What do we sow? What do we invest in? How can the money that we earn be used to glorify God and grow God’s kingdom? How do we express our thankfulness in tangible ways that benefit folks other than ourselves, ways that grow our church and bless our community? Our giving should not be motivated by the fact that there is a bill to be paid but from a gushing out of thankfulness… a response of joy.

In that sense this story about the widow is not about money. It’s about who she was and the genuine nature of her relation to her God. The money she gave was just an indication of something far more important. She was thankful.

She challenges us through her actions to consider if we genuinely have a heart of thanksgiving. We are invited to take our spiritual temperature by considering our giving as a guide to gauge how committed we are to the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, the grace of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

The New Interpreters Bible Commentary offers this reflection. "The story of the widows mite poses the same challenge to readers today as it did in Jesus time. People usually think of giving to the church and to charities as an option. The money for charitable giving comes out of the surplus after personal expenses have been met. Those "necessary expenses" usually include many many extras in terms of entertainment, clothes, food and playthings"

Do we have the widows heart, prepared to give all, or the rich mans heart who just gives the left-overs? What is the nature of what we offer to God? Is it our first-fruits, the best that we can give or just what’s left after we’ve taken care of the rest? I know these are uncomfortable questions but I really don’t believe that Christian faith and experience were ever meant to be comfortable!

Notice how the widows act of dedication foreshadows the giving of Him-self that Jesus Christ revealed to us through His death on the Cross. He died that we may live, embraced poverty that we may enjoy God's prosperity. He took on the mantle of service that we may learn the joy of serving each other.

Giving is a spiritual practice and an expression of a life that knows itself touched by the Grace of God. It is not a duty but a delight. It is not a requirement but a heart response to the love of God that in Jesus Christ laid itself naked and bare on the cruel cross of Calvary to win our devotion. It’s not about “making a donation” but everything to do with “overflowing with thankfulness.”

A rich man and a poor widow. One gives because it seems that’s what is expected, the other brings an offering from a thankful heart. A group of pilgrims flee persecution to a hostile environment that will take years to tame. What do they do? They give thanks! An Old Testament prophet Habakkuk, who doesn’t have a cook book, because there’s a famine in the land, proclaims “Yet, I will exult in the Lord, I will be thankful, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength.

By the example of these faithful ones, through the action of the Holy Spirit upon our hearts, may God teach us how to live in ways that express true stewardship, stewardship that flows out of our thankfulness and overflows in blessings towards others. Stewardship that engages us passionately in the work of God’s kingdom, heart, mind, and soul, with our time, talents and treasures.

To God’s name be the Glory.
Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D

Monday, November 5, 2018

The Most Important Thing



COMMUNION SUNDAY
Readings; Psalm 146, Deuteronomy 6:1-9, Hebrews 9:11-14, Mark 12: 28-34
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, November 4 2018

If somebody asked you what was the most important thing in your life, how would you respond? (Asked the congregation for their responses - answers included "Love, God, Family and Friends")

I'm sure you know the account of Moses leading the people out of slavery in Egypt to a new land of freedom. As the people were beginning a new life together there needed to be some ground rules, some ideas that shaped them and made them who they were. In the Old Testament the Book of Deuteronomy tells us how, before they reached the promised land, Moses gave the people some commands.

Deuteronomy 6: Verses 4 and 5, we read these words... “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”... that became known as the 'Shema'.

The traditions Moses began have been preserved to this day among our Jewish sisters and brothers. On the doorposts of traditional Jewish homes (and many not-so-traditional homes!) you will often find a small case known as a 'Mezuzah' attached to the doorpost. Sometimes those entering the house will pause to touch it and offer a prayer. Inside the 'Mezuzah' is scroll with the words of the 'Shema' written upon it.

In you attended a local synagogue you might notice that when some of the men come to worship they have a leather pouch, known as a 'tefillin' or 'phylactery' strapped to their head or on their arm. In the pouch are the words of the 'shema'... 'Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.'

They take quite literally the command of Moses that these laws were to written on the door frames of their houses and tied on their hands and bound on their foreheads. If every time you go in and out your house, there's the law on the door, then it helped you remember. If you have that law physically attached to you, then it's hard to ignore it. We were asking earlier, 'What's important?” That's how important the command of God is to them.

Our Bible reading from Mark's gospel had a very religious Jewish gentleman, a teacher of the law no less, coming to Jesus with a question. “Which is the most important commandment?” Jesus answers him with the 'shema'. 'Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.'

But then Jesus adds something else. A second command that was just as important as the first one. 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' Jesus puts it out there! Loving God and loving our neighbor are the most important things. Jesus saw how even the most religious people could do one and sometimes forget about the other! They were so busy thinking about God that they forgot to think about other people!

That's a reminder for us as a church. Somebody once said, “The church is the only institution in the world whose main reason for existing is the benefit of those who are not its members!” We worship our God in order that we may go out and serve our neighbor. I've been in churches where they say or have printed in their bulletins at the end of the Sunday service something like “The worship is over, now the service begins.” or even, “The service is over, now the worship begins”... because worship is all about service, not just about saying prayers or singing hymns!

The teacher of the law in our account agrees with Jesus. He says to Jesus “You are right! 'Loving God' and 'Loving neighbor' is a whole lot more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” The people in those days would have special offerings that helped them feel forgiven and acceptable to God. But sometimes they left it there. They got themselves right with God but then didn't do a whole lot about helping others to know about God's love!

It's been a strange few weeks. During October I took some time out for study leave and professional development. The first week I was away the ceiling fell down in Hebron House. Thank the Lord we have people here who take care of our property... a shout out to them. But this last week it's like the whole sky was falling.

Political figures receiving bombs in the mail. Jewish sisters and brothers being gunned down by a hate filled maniac as they met to celebrate worship. A couple of people being murdered because their skin wasn't white. People expressing fear over gender rights being taken away from them. A young person in one of our churhes on Facebook asked for prayer because a member of their community had just committed suicide.

There's an immanent mid-term election and all the ponitificating and pointing of fingers of blame that always seems part of the course. If your party or your position, does not come out victorious, then, I will offer you this. Just be thankful that at least you have an opportunity to vote and the freedom to let your voice be heard. Historically, that's a luxury most civilzations have not enjoyed and many across the globe still do not share.

I've also had some amazingly positive experiences over the last few weeks. Heard some truly inspiring life stories. Met some people committed to being the best they can be within their own particular callings to service. Celebrated with a new friend over Facebook that they were just declared cancer free. Heard and seen people in the midst of darkness declaring that the light will still continue shine. Learned of situations where people who are battered, brusied and bewildered have declared that despite what has happened, they are not finished.

And it all brings me back to asking... so what's really important? What really matters? Winning? Losing? Caring? Loving? Scripture reminds me that, as a minster of the gospel, it is my privelige, and my responsibilty, to place before us the words of Jesus Christ and to lift up before us all, what He said was most important. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'… 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these." 
 
Our calling as Christians is to put God first and make the love of God the most important thing in our lives. Not politics. Not work. Not success or prosperity. Not Church. Not family. Not country. Not self. That's not easy! It takes time and effort and devotion. But it's so well worth it. Because as we focus on God we are reminded of the things God has done for us. God has given us a wonderful world in which to live. God sent Jesus to be our Savior, example and friend. God sends the Holy Spirit to let us know that we are free and forgiven and to give us the strength to love and serve our neighbors.

Worship is important. It reminds us that our lives are not our own and that every moment we spend on this planet is a gift. Like any gift, we choose how we use it. We can seek God's way or go our own way.

This morning is a communion service. We can take bread and wine and invite God to renew our lives so we can be faithful disciples. It is not our practice to write the law on our gateposts or wear pouches with the law on our heads or arms. Yet many of us may have pictures or plaques with bible verses on them in our homes or vehicles. Many of us may well wear a cross somewhere near our heart as a reminder of what we believe.

At the Cross the two things Jesus said were the most important came together. He died to show us that putting God first was most important. It's not meant to be easy. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus pleaded that there may be another way than the way of the Cross, but in the end He said, “Not my will, but Thy will be done.” Each of us around the table is invited to engage in that struggle, the struggle to put God first.

Through dying on the Cross Jesus showed us that there were no places in life, however tragic or awful, that God is not prepared to go to that we may understand God's love and forgiveness. Jesus was betrayed, rejected, mocked, tortured and murdered. He faced pain, humiliation, and all this when His only crimes were loving the unlovable, accepting the outcast and blessing those others wanted to curse.

He went to the Cross for us, as Paul explains, 'He died that we may be forgiven.' Though people acted as though Jesus were their enemy, Jesus treated them like a neighbor and invites us to make our neighborhood the Kingdom of God.

As we take bread and wine and remember Him, we declare that God has first place and first claim on our lives. To know we are so loved brings a response of love from us! That's how God wants us to be. To know we are loved so we have the security and strength with which to love our neighbor. If we feel we lack it, then around the table is also the place to find it. We remember that Jesus promised to always be with us and to send to His disciples the Holy Spirit who would empower them to carry on the work of God's Kingdom in every generation and in every nation, until the end of all things!

Communion is important. The commandments are important. Our Scriptures are important. Our church is important. Our families are important. Our communities are important. Our politics is important. Our nations are important. Our friends are important. But what is the most important thing? Love.

Jesus tells us, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'… 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these."

If we take those words to heart, we may also discover, as did the teacher of the law all those years ago, that, as Jesus says in verse 34 "You are not far from the kingdom of God." It is as we do the things Jesus invites us to do, that we realize His love is with us! Right now one of those things is to remember Him through the sharing of bread and wine, through prayer and song, through reflection and seeking renewal. My God help us to always be mindful of the most important things! Amen.

The Reverend. Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Camels and Needles

Readings: Psalm 22:1-15, Deuteronomy 28:1-9, Hebrews 7:23-28 Mark 10:17-30
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian, MD, October 14 2018

Mark 10, verse 25;
It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle
than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God"

Alice the Camel had a hump. At least one hump. As you know (of course) that's what made her different from a horse. Humps could get in the way. Particularly if you filled your hump with provisions that you were saving for a rain-less day. You never knew when you were going to have to go trundling through the desert wastelands. "I shall be prepared" she said. A hump was also handy for hanging things on. It was surprising just how much stuff the back of a camel could store. "I never go nowhere without me hump" she had a habit of saying.

Humps also slow you down a bit. Alice never jumped out of bed with anything on her face other than a "Hummppff". It's not so easy to embrace the morning with a smile when you can hardly get to your feet. She didn't usually like going places at all. If you asked her to come to your place and spend some time with you she had a habit of being so busy keeping her hump and the things she packed around it in order that she would refuse.

Mind you, having a hump had it's h'advantages. Self-sufficiency brought with it independence. When everyone else had to go to the store every day to stock up, she only had to make a trip to the nearest oasis once a month. Nibble on a few palm leaves, nice tasty fig here and there, and you didn't have to bother with no one and no one had to bother with you.

One day, Alice the camel had to go to the city. It was a real busy day and most of the Gateways in the city wall were blocked with traffic. On the way in to Jerusalem she met a horse, a donkey and a dog who were heading in a different direction. She thought "I think I'll follow those fellows".

They led her to a gate in the walls that was known as the "Needle Gate", on account of it being rather slim and low. "Woof" the dog went through. "Hee-Haw" the donkey went through. "Clippity Clop" and Mr. Ed was through to the other side.

Now it was her turn. She put her head through, but then all the stuff she had stuffed on her back became stuck. So they had to shove her back. "Lighten the load" said Mr. Ed. So she shed some stuff and tried again. "Hee-Haw' said the donkey (Which she understood as meaning take some more things off your back). So she shed more stuff and tried to stuff herself through the gap. Nothing doing. "Woof" said the dog (As dogs have a habit of doing) and she dropped everything she was carrying and tried to sqeeeee - eee - zzze through the gap. But .. no. Her hump couldn't handle it.

"Humppff" she said. "How am I going to do this?" The dog, the donkey and the horse suggested that if they tied a rope around her neck, maybe they could pull her through. So they tied, they pulled, they tugged with all their strength. "Your strannngggling me' she spluttered. The rope snapped followed by a "Woof," "Hee-Haw" and an "Ouch" as the animals catapulted backwards onto the floor.

"We'll have to push her from behind' suggested Mr. Ed. So they all stood at her rear and pushed and shoved with their shoulders and their backs and their legs and their arms. Alice squeee- ee- ee- ezed slowly through the gap. The dog, the donkey and the horse pushed and pushed and pushed. Alice squee-ee-ee-zed and squee-ee-zed until suddenly, with an almighty PLOP, she shot through the Needle Gate and they all landed on the other side of the wall in a heap.

By laying aside all her possessions and with a little help from some passing friends she had managed to squeeze on through to the other side.

After they had picked themselves up off the floor and dusted themselves down, a man who had been watching from a distance approached them. "Now" he said, "That was quite impressive." He reached into his pocket. He pulled out a shiny, tiny, needle which sparkled in the sunlight. "For a real challenge" he said, holding up the needle in the air, you try and squeeze yourselves through that little hole, the eye, that we put the thread through."

The dog, the donkey, the horse and Alice the camel all laughed and laughed and laughed They were all in agreement. "Woof, Hee-Haw, Don't be stupid, That's impossible" they said!

Meanwhile, in another place, at another time and this time not in fantasy but in reality, Jesus told His disciples, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle
than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God."

He had spoken those words because a very rich young man had come running up to Him and said, "Good Teacher, I have kept the commandments all my life, What must I do to gain eternal life?"

Jesus had looked him in the eye and said, "Why do you call me good? No-ones good except God." Then he had told the young man, "There's one thing you need to do to find salvation. Sell everything you have and give it to the poor." Because the young man was loaded he had walked away like a sad puppy with his tail between his legs.

After seeing what had happened the disciples were thrown into confusion. They had always had the impression that if you kept the commandments and God blessed you with health, wealth and prosperity then you were heaven bound with no questions asked. They themselves had left everything, family, friends and possessions. Surely that was worth a bit in the eyes of the Almighty? They were therefore astonished at His answer to the rich man and even more astonished when He told them, "Children, How hard it is for anyone to enter the Kingdom of God!"

They were worried. "Well look if that man who kept the commandments can't be saved, if we who have left everything to follow you can't be saved, what's the deal here?"
And Jesus replied, "With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God." He implies that by the grace of God, camels can fit through the eyes of needles, and people can find salvation.

When Alice the camel shed her possessions she was acting a little like the rich young ruler. She needed to squee-ee-zze through the gate. How could she? Well by a process of reorganization, follow a few simple rules, then no problem, she'd be through. Likewise, the young ruler believed that if he could make himself good enough by observing the commandments of God, then that's all there was to it. Eternal life was in the bag.

Problem was he had a hump. Every commandment he kept, everything he was doing for his salvation was only for the benefit of one person in the world. Himself. He was the center of his own tiny universe and needed to be reminded that God's Salvation wasn't about him, it was something larger and grander than his cosy life. There were people out there who needed practical help. He had the means of supplying it. If he started to do that, then he would be starting to understand what the Kingdom was all about. So Jesus tells him, "Sell everything you have and give to the poor."

The disciples were more in the position of Alice the Camel who needed her friends help to squeeze them through the gate but then found themselves with the impossible task of now squeezing through the eye of a real needle. Peter complains to Jesus, "We have left everything to follow you." Through the things that He is saying Jesus is challenging the disciples to think. "Now, why did you leave everything to follow me? What is your motive? If you are only doing it to gain your own salvation then you are wasting your time."

They had gone further than the rich man. They had made it through one narrow gate and on the other side were with a company of friends. But now it was time for the real challenge of discipleship. A real needle. Could they leave everything, including their personal desires for comfort, for self advancement, their dreams for the future and hopes of how things might turn out when Jesus was crowned Messiah, could they leave all that behind?

They needed to. Because Jesus was not going to turn out to be the sort of Messiah they were expecting. His was not going to be a victory won by zapping the enemy with lightning bolts from beyond. His victory was to be won through loving the unlovely, through bringing dignity to those others looked down upon, through undeserved suffering, a death on a cross and a resurrection from an empty tomb.

What was impossible for man, God was working in their midst. He, Jesus Christ, was the bearer of salvation, the way, the truth and the life. Only through total reliance on Him, would they ever experience the salvation of the Kingdom.

The game play hasn't changed. There is still not a thing we can do to earn our salvation, other than throw our lives upon the grace and mercy of God. Being good at keeping the commandments won't do it, because none of us is that good. Leaving it all behind won't do it because none of us ever leaves everything behind.

We need to come to Jesus and ask "What must I do to gain eternal life?"

We may have to give up a lot. Our dreams. Our pride. Our self-sufficiency. In fact any activity that takes us away from the obligation and privilege of worshiping and serving God in the company of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

To truly be a disciple we have to literally surrender to Christ in our hearts all that we are and all that we own We need to say to Jesus, "This is everything I am and everything I have, my time, my talents, my relationships, my stuff, and it's all Yours to do with as You please."

If we can do that then like the disciples we will be rewarded by so much more. Jesus tells Peter; "Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age -- houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields... with persecutions -- and in the age to come eternal life."

Strawberries and Cream, Love and Marriage, Horse and Carriage, they go together. Camels and Needles. They don't fit together. Go ask Alice. You just can't get a camel through the eye of a needle.

And we never truly will discover the Kingdom until we are prepared to offer up everything for it's sake. In the kingdom of God it is through abandonment that we find all things, it is when we are prepared to let go that we let God; it is when we give ourselves to others that we find our true selves.

Of course it is a daunting challenge. The noblest things in life have always been worth living and dieing for. May God help us to live as Kingdom people, not as camels who are trying to sqee-eee-eeze through the eyes of needles.

The Reverend Adrian J Pratt B.D.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Who's In Charge?

Readings: Psalm 124 , Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22, James 5:13-20 , Mark 9:38-50
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, September 30 2018

Church communities are fascinating institutions. Particularly Presbyterian ones. Our structure includes a lot of checks and balances. We have processes we follow through and sometimes we find it hard to make decisions. I sometimes find myself saying, “Well, I'd like to help with that, I think it is a great idea, but we'd have to run it past, the such and such team, and it will need to be approved by Session.

Sometimes people presume that because you are the pastor, that you have total control over every single thing that happens in the church. That has never been the Presbyterian way! We strive for democracy and community and hesitate to give any one person (or even any group of people) total authority in deciding what the mission of our church should be. We believe that discerning the way the Holy Spirit is leading us should be a group effort. We try and allow God to be in charge of what we do in Jesus name.

That kind of questioning “Who’s in charge when it comes to what goes on in Jesus name?” is the same kind of questioning that our bible reading from Mark places before us. Here’s the situation. The disciples have their heads full of questions. Questions about what sort of Messiah Jesus would turn out to be. Questions about what true greatness looked like.

John’s got all these question marks swirling around in his head, so he goes off for a walk on his own, to try and get focused. He turns a corner and encounters a group of people doing an exorcism for some poor tormented soul. John’s thinking, “I know about this stuff. Seen Jesus do it a few times.” He’s ready to offer his expert advice.

As he approaches he hears them praying. They are praying, “Help this person, In Jesus name… help him…Lord, in the name of Jesus.” And the person is responding. They are looking calmer. Something good is happening here!

This makes Johns’ blood boil. Who do these people think they are? He didn’t recognize any of them and they didn’t seem to realize just how important he was! “I’m a disciple of Jesus don’t you know!” So John gives them a mouthful of bad advice and then heads off to find Jesus. Jesus would put them right. How dare they!

The reply John receives from Jesus totally confounds him. "Do not forbid them; for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is for us.”

Do you see what’s going on here? It’s a control issue. John thinks he should be in control. He’s not, so he calls on Jesus to control the situation. Jesus, in effect tells him that there was nothing to control… because God was already in control of the whole situation. In fact Jesus sees possibilities where John could only problems! Jesus suggests that wherever loving service is being expressed then people are opening up for themselves a real possibility of encountering God’s love.

This wasn’t something to get mad about but something to be glad about. “John, don’t you get it?” “He that is not against us is for us.” Anything other than outright opposition to the Kingdom was something that favored the growth of the Kingdom.

Such did nothing for John’s personal rewards account or enhance his reputation as being the greatest disciple whoever walked on the planet, but “John, do you see… it’s not about you…”, it’s not even about Jesus… it’s about God’s will being done, about God’s love not just being spoken about but acted upon. “For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ, will by no means lose his reward.

Who’s in charge? You know that very statement is all about issues of control. That’s what this passage is about. And you know what? I don't mind being in control when things go well. I don't mind taking the credit when something good happens. When I meet other pastors and they say, “How are things going?” I can say, “Pretty well actually, I” (meaning probably some of you) “just finished this project or took this action.” If I needed a resume, then I would welcome things that would look good on my resume.

I’d meet Saint Peter at the gates of glory and he’d smile and say “C’mon on in Saint Adrian of Mount Hebron, here are the keys to your mansion... We are so pleased and privileged to have you grace heaven with your presence.”

You see I think that’s what John was expecting from Jesus. That as he had rebuked those ignorant disciples for using Jesus name, Jesus was going to slap him on the back and say, “Good job. You can sit with me at supper tonight. I’ll reserve a special table just for us!”

Instead Jesus turns the whole thing around and calls us to examine our own personal control issues. First off he chastises John for the potential damage he had done to those who were taking their first steps in discovering the power of His name. To discourage those who were just starting out on the road of discipleship was a terrible thing. Verse 42: "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea.

It’s a harsh picture, but a necessary one. It is important that we realize how damaging our proud and unfaithful actions can be to those who are just starting out to find faith. I’ve heard too many stories of folk who started to go to churches and then, when they tried to suggest something or sought to understand something, some “know it all” church member cut them down and belittled them so completely that they never came through the door again.

We can be so proud. So insensitive. So judgmental. So controlling of others and not in control of ourselves. Jesus then turns the spotlight on our darkness with a glaring intensity. “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell,”

When people look at this verse they invariably pick on the wrong things. Cutting off hands and feet, gouging out eyes, what kind of talk is that? We need to come at it from a different angle. It’s a verse about sin and the avenues through which sin comes into our lives. Remember what has just happened? John is standing there before Jesus feeling as tiny as an ant at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. He thought he was doing right and he was shown to have been doing everything wrong because of his misplaced pride.

Here’s Jesus saying, “John, if you want to control something, then work on controlling yourself.” Sin, in these verses, is attached to hands, feet and eyes. Hands, feet and eyes have to do with what we touch, where we travel and what we see.

Remember as a kid going shopping and your mum or dad would say, “You can look but don’t touch.” “But mum I want too”… crash… “I thought I told you!” Remember somebody said “Listen, you don’t want to go there. If you do there will be trouble!” and you went there and you got into trouble! You know how temptation gets at us. We look. We desire. We want it. We can’t live without it. Next minute we’re in deeper than we can handle.

Another way of phrasing “Cut it Off” is to say “Cut it Out.” It is as though we are complaining to God that we have a problem with this or that sin and God tells us loud and clear “So don’t touch it, so don’t go there, so don’t look at that! So don't do that! Cut it out!” Cut it out. Change the way you are doing things and you won’t be in the situation that causes you to fall. Refocus. Redirect your path. Get some hands on experience of something that causes you to be a positive influence rather than something that causes you to sin.

Better that than to be thrown into hell “Where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.” Did you notice the worm in that verse? Or rather to whom the worm belongs? Listen again, verse 47, ‘their worm does not die’. Whose worm? The person who insists on carrying with their destructive habits and fails to deal with the sin that’s eating them alive.

Sin is like a tape worm. It clings inside us. The more we feed it the more it grows. It ruins our appetite. It saps our vitality. It takes away our taste. It makes us sick and unable to function in the way we were created to. Tape worms are personal. They don’t eat some body else. If you want to get rid of them, you take care of it. You get it removed and you are careful to watch what you consume.

Jesus concludes His talk with a word of encouragement. Salt is good; but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another." In the context of His conversation with John He is saying, “John you messed up, learn from your mistake. You are like salt in the world. You are, by your actions bringing my Kingdom to others. Don’t lose that. Let me burn away what’s bad, and let’s all move on… together… in peace… being who we are meant to be.

Who's in charge? Our Presbyterian system, with it's checks and balances, seeks to ensure that God is in charge, seeks to allow God's Spirit to works through us as a community. We try to recognize that everybody have something to offer and even if things are not being done in precisely the way we have always done them, if the name of Jesus is being honored, then we are on the right track!

Our calling as individuals, as the Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, as part of the a worldwide community of Presbyterian Churches (and churches of all denominations) is to lay our lives before Jesus Christ as a response to the tremendous love He has shown by laying down His life on the Cross, to seek daily to live as disciples of the Kingdom and seek to be a means of resurrection life to others, all in Jesus name.

To God's name be all the glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.