Monday, August 13, 2018

The Bread Man


Readings: Psalm 51:1-12 , Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15, Ephesians 4:1-16, John 6:35, 41-51
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, August 12, 2018

There were all sorts of people used to call at the house where I grew up in England. The milkman would bring the milk. The paperboy would bring the Daily News. The Postman would bring the mail. The little grocery store around the corner would deliver fresh foods. And there was also the Bread man.

The Bread man came in a big bread van, with a drop down step at the back. He usually only carried four products. White Bread sliced, White bread un-sliced, Brown Bread sliced, and Brown bread un-sliced. But on Saturdays, something special. Long French loaves. Fresh baked rolls. Cakes and Apple Pies. And, occasionally, if I'd been real good, mum would let me climb the steps, go in the van look around and choose something nice for supper. I can still smell the aroma of that fresh newly baked bread in the back of the van. Delicious.

These days’ things are different. You go to the supermarket and you are faced with a whole aisle of choices. Sliced, unsliced, white, brown, white bread that's really brown bread, bread for those on a diet, bread designed to enhance your energy. The list is endless!

Jesus tells the people in our reading that He is the 'Bread of Life'. He talks of the manna that the Hebrew people ate in the wilderness and compares Himself to that manna. He is bread that came down from heaven to nurture the people of God.

Bread sustains us. In the Lord's Prayer Jesus teaches us to pray that we may receive our daily bread. God knows we need material things for our physical well being. Jesus also tells us that we cannot live by bread alone, but need every “Word” that comes from the mouth of God. That life is not just a matter of seeing that our physical needs are met, but that there is a spiritual side of us that also needs nurturing.

There are more than enough folk around to advise us on our eating habits. Here in the United States obtaining our daily bread is not a problem for the majority of people. Maybe a culture like this should amend the Lords prayer to read, "Give us our daily bread .... and not a crumb more!"

Though materially wealthy, we can be spiritually bankrupt. The abundance of things that we fill our days with tends to obscure the need to nurture the spiritual side of our lives. We have many, many distractions that save us from even having to think about the health of our souls.

In those moments when we do contemplate life’s deeper meaning, there is a bewildering spectrum of choices that we can pursue in order to become spiritually healthy. Jesus is not the only 'Bread of life' on offer to us in today’s world.

Maybe in days gone past things were less complex. Generally speaking most people in the United States were, to use the term in a broad sense, "Christian". Admittedly there was a choice of denominational brand names that you could identify with, but in general terms, if a person wanted to nurture their spiritual life, the Church was the place where they would expect to turn.

That is no longer the case. These days there are more spiritual roads on offer that there are brands of bread on the shelves of Giant. There is Christianity and Islam and differing forms of Buddhist and Hindu religion. There are New Age philosophies, Wellness and Self-Awareness programs, there are secular philosophies that rule out the possibility of there even being a God; a thousand ways to satisfy the needs of your soul.

But was it really that much different when Jesus spoke of Himself as being the bread of life? The Greeks and the Romans embraced many different philosophies. Within Judaism there were different groups such as the Pharisees and Sadducees.

And for many folk the simple business of keeping bread on the table was one that occupied much of a person’s time. Maybe things were not as different as we some times imagine! The "Way" that Jesus spoke of, the Kingdom He preached, was even then just one option among many.

The message of the church, from its birth in Jerusalem until the present, has been that Jesus Christ stands apart from all the others. That there is about Jesus a “uniqueness” that demands our attention. That truly He is the “bread of life come down from heaven.” That commitment to Him fulfills our spiritual hunger in a way that nothing else can.

1. Jesus promises to satisfy our spiritual hunger and thirst.

I heard a lady on the radio describe her experience of becoming a Christian. "It felt like coming home!" she said. There was an old blues song that contained the line, "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child." Back in the sixties the Rolling Stones sang, "I can't get no satisfaction. And I tried, and I tried and I tried and I tried. But I can't get no.. satisfaction. No,no,no!"

Dissatisfaction, feelings of somehow being alienated, dispossessed or far from home are common features of many people’s lives. People try to deal with those feelings in all sorts of ways. Some just get by and presume that's the way things are meant to be. Some try and party it out of their system. Some just evolve ways of dealing with it. But the feeling is still there that maybe, there's more to life than this!

"Come to me" invited Jesus, "And I will give you rest." "I am the bread of life, He who comes to me will not hunger, He who believes in me will never thirst." When we come to Jesus, we come home. We come to see how only He can satisfy the deepest needs of our souls. He encourages us to call on God in childlike faith, "Abba, Father." No longer do we need to feel like parentless children.

2. Jesus is the Bread that nourishes.

In our bible reading we heard the people murmuring against the idea that Jesus might be the One who could meet their needs – “The bread of life indeed!” “We know who He is. Mary and Joseph's boy, that's all!”

As the people murmur away, Jesus reminds them that their forefathers had eaten the manna in the wilderness. Where were they now? Dead and gone. What He was offering was something more than physical sustenance. He intended to nourish them, body, soul and spirit. What He could offer was not temporary refreshment, but eternal life. He was the bread they could eat and not die!

Of course He was not implying that they would never grow old or offering them some secret elixir of eternal youthfulness. Elsewhere Jesus proclaims, "I have come that you may have life, life in all its abundance." But, predictably, the people looked on things at the surface level only. They were far too preoccupied with life to consider what really living might entail!

Today, when the challenge to become a disciple is issued, often the first question that forms in peoples minds is, "Well all this sounds very good, but what do I have to give up in order to get it!" How pervasive is this idea that somehow we can do anything to earn the love of God. As though by our good behavior we can somehow slip into heaven. That if only we give up this and don't do that then God will see us all right at the end of the day.

Wrong! There is nothing we can do to increase God's estimation of our worth. He loves us unconditionally. It is a matter of Grace. The Grace of God that is greater than our sin. Asking, "What do we need to give up?" only reveals the emptiness of our souls. That we still believe love is something we can earn, rather than a gift to be accepted and embraced.

Whatever God may ask us to give up is for a reason. God has something better in store. We entangle our lives in stupid, unfulfilled, empty, trivial things. Jesus wants to nourish our soul that we become people who are richer, fuller, and more alive to God. God never asks us to give up something unless there is a better alternative. We don't always see it that way!

3. Jesus is the living Bread.

Jesus tells the crowd, "If anyone eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh."

The people do not understand that He is here talking of His crucifixion and resurrection. At first hearing it almost seems like some morbid invitation to cannibalism! Later many would understand that He came and gave His life on the cross of Calvary that His love would become the bread on which they could feed.

As Christians gather around communion tables, and ponder those words about eating flesh and drinking blood, far from being some morbid remembrance, the actions and symbols of bread and wine, take on a deep significance. Under the touch and inspiration of the Holy Spirit every act of worship can be a renewing and enlightening influence that draws us closer to God.

I started out talking about the bread man that used to come to my mums house in his big bread van, and how I loved on a Saturday to be allowed to choose something special. The wonderful odor of newly baked bread!

There was only one way to really know if the bread was anything special. You had to eat it. You had to taste it.

Among the many religious and spiritual diets on offer in today’s world, there's only one way to discover if Jesus truly is the bread of life He claimed to be. Follow Him for yourself.

Take Him up on the terms He offers. Give your life over to His care because you have the faith that God's desire is for your life to enjoy God's richness. Nourish your life on His Word, through Worship, through working for God's glory as the Holy Spirit enables you to do.

Hear God's invitation. To "Taste and See that the Lord is good!" Trust in the Bread Man who gave His life on a Cross that you may be free and forgiven, the One who was raised to life, that through the daily influence of the Holy Spirit, you may really live!

Hear again His unique claim, "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me shall not hunger, he who believes in me shall never thirst!"

May the Holy Spirit lead us all to a deeper appreciation of God's love towards us!

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Everyday Miracles


 Readings: Psalm 51:1-12, Exodus 16:1-15; Ephesians 4:1-16, John 6:24-35
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, August 5, 2018

Our readings focused on 2 incidents, "Manna from Heaven" and Jesus teaching that He was "Bread of Life." I'd like to offer some thoughts on what I'm calling "Everyday Miracles."

Let's start with the Hebrew people. You probably know the story of how Moses led them out of Egypt into the Wilderness and how once they were there they started to complain, "At least in Egypt we had something to eat! We're starving out here." Moses promises them that sustenance will come, meat for the evening and bread for the morning. And so it was, quail for supper and manna for breakfast.

"Give us meat" they said. The quail came and everybody said it was a miracle.

Yet sometimes maybe the miracle we observe, is not the miracle we expect. Let me explain. Without wanting to diminish the sense of wonder or the ability of God to do amazing things, we know that nature herself can be a source of amazing provision.

Quails are found in countless numbers on the shores of the Mediterranean and their annual migration is still an event that causes great excitement as they move in vast flocks towards Africa. It's an exhausting flight, done in stages. When the birds stop to take a rest, they are so exhausted that they can easily be picked up and captured.

So maybe the miracle wasn't so much that the quail came, it seems they had an annual migration pattern, but rather that, as the people of Israel responded to the call of God, they were in that place, at that time, when the quails arrived and were easily picked up.

And then there is the manna. In the wilderness where the Israelites camped lives an insect known as Najacoecus Serpentinus. I'm not making this stuff up. Look it up on the internet. If it's on the internet, it has to be true. Right?

Now... the sap from the Tamarisk bush on which these insects feed is rich in carbohydrates but low in nitrogen. In order to aquire enough nitrogen for their metabolism to operate properly, the Najacoecus Serpentinus consume an enormous amount of sap.

The excess from this process passes from the insect in the form of honeydew excretions which the desert air changes into clumps of sticky solids, which turn a whitish yellow color.

These solid lumps are thought, by a number of bible commentators, to be the “manna” that the people of Israel collected and ate in the wilderness. The Hebrews called it a miracle. As with the quails, maybe the miracle wasn't so much that the manna was there, but that they were in that place, at that time, to receive it.

Our lives continue to be surrounded by everyday miracles, many of which, if we work hard at it, can be found to have a rational explanation. What we cannot explain though is how we happen to be in a certain place at a certain time when a certain thing, which has a certain outcome, takes place.

I cannot tell you, how many times, over many years of ministry, that as I've opened up to God in prayer and asked, “Lord, what's on Your agenda today?” I just happened to have been positioned in a situation where I could offer something.

This is something I learned early in my discipleship journey, not in seminary, but from ordinary people of faith. Long before I was a minster, as a young person, I was working on a job scheme, helping old folks tidy up their gardens. I recall visiting one particular lady, and she said, 'C'mon in when you have finished, I'll have your favorite cake ready.” (Which at that time just happened to be Ginger flavored.)

That's strange,” I thought. “Firstly, you didn't know I was coming today. Secondly, we have never met, so how would you know what my favorite cakes was?” But sure enough, when I went in, there was a piece of ginger cake! When I looked puzzled, the lady said, “Last night in my prayers, I asked God what to be ready for...and God put the idea in my head to provide ginger cake. As it's not my favorite, I figured it must be yours.”

A saintly lady of God, confined to her home, needing assistance to get through every single day... yet experiencing the faithfulness of and reality of God's presence and being a blessing to others!

For me that is that is the real miracle... the timing and provision of the Holy Spirit. Nothing less than the Grace of God. One of the essentials of discipleship is cultivating within ourselves the kind of spiritual sensitivity that discovers the sacred within the common occurrences of everyday life.

If we don't do that we will find ourselves in the same boat as the people in our New Testament reading, who came to Jesus and said to Him, "What miracle will you perform so that we may see it and believe in You? You know, our ancestors had manna in the desert!"

There they were, talking with Jesus, who was a flesh and blood sign of God's grace and presence in their midst, and they couldn't see it. Instead they are saying, "Let God knock us off our feet, astound us... and then we will believe."

Wasn't it enough that Jesus had healed broken hearts, made outcasts acceptable and drowned fear with a flood of love? Had they not already had overwhelming evidence of His capabilities? Even if Jesus had done some Divine magic trick, would it have made any difference? They saw nothing and they felt nothing because they lacked the capacity to discover the sacred within the common-place.

Jesus tells them, "What God wants you to do is to believe in the One He has sent." What God desired for them was not that they seek for some blinding light or dramatic experience but that they wake up to the fact that in the flesh and blood of human existence and in the everyday miracles of grace and life, they could discover the miracle of God's presence.

That is something that I believe we have to do as well. For most of us, most of the time, life goes on in a very ordinary fashion. We are not looking for, or expecting miracles. We are not expecting God to show up, because we are not always showing up for God! We allow our self sufficiency and pride to direct us, rather than recognizing our dependence on God's grace for every breath we take.

Before I left for some vacation time, last month the United States celebrated Independence Day. Somebody asked me if we have July 4th in my homelands of the United Kingdom. I told them of course we have it. July 4th is the day before July 5th. But do we celebrate an Independence Day holiday? Of course not. Losing that rebellion in the colonies wasn't exactly a high point in British history!

As people and nations we celebrate the good things, not the times we have lost out. That's why coming together as the people of God once a week for worship is so important for nurturing our Christian faith. We gather together to open our hearts and lives, to remind ourselves that without God, we are nothing, we have nothing and we need God's love, and God's Spirit and the message of Jesus Christ to experience the everyday miracles of grace.

"What God wants you to do" says Jesus, "Is believe in the One He sent." When we fail to practice disciplines of daily prayer, and fail to take the time to make worship an important part of our routine, friends, we forget. We forget.

From time to time I like to do this. Repeat after me.
There is a God” “There is a God”
And it isn't me.” “And it isn't me”

We don't need independence from God. We need to have a deeper dependence upon God. For our sake. For our families sake. For our communities sake. We cannot serve without being equipped for service, and it is in God's church that we are trained for service, called to practice loving each other, so we can love the world that Christ died for. Jesus came, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.

The Hebrew people cried out to God "Help us out here in the Wilderness." God already had it all figured out. The quails and the manna were there but it took an act of faith to realize it. The people cried out to Jesus, "Show us a miracle and then we'll believe." But the miracle had already taken place. He was there, in flesh and blood, standing with them. But they lacked the faith to believe it.

So what of us as we go about our ordinary lives? Will we trust God to meet us in our needs? Will we recognize Him in the everyday miracles that surround our daily lives?

We are here surrounded by the Grace of God in the presence of His people, past, present and to come. Every weekend God lays before us an opportunity to worship, to seek Him to share our lives with Him. Christ died for our sins and was raised to bring us new life.

This is no little thing. Unless our hearts make it so. We need to recognize that it is through the ordinary that God seeks to do the extraordinary. "What God wants you to do is believe in the One He sent".

Believe in the capability of God's Holy Spirit,
to take the common things of life and make them miraculous.
Believe that the Christian message is the message for your everyday life.
Believe that being a community of faith, in age of unbelief,
is a challenge to be embraced, and a goal to work towards.

As we share together in worship and service may God renew us
that we may help others
discover everyday miracles
within them and around their lives.
AMEN.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, July 30, 2018

5000 Thankful Folk

Readings: Psalm 14, 2 Samuel 11:1-15, Ephesians 3:14-21, John 6:1-21
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, July 29 2018

A woman was hosting a dinner party and at the table she asked her six-year-old daughter to say grace. “But, I wouldn’t know what to say,” the girl responded. “Just say what you hear Mum say,” replied the mother. The little girl nodded, bowed her head, and prayed, “Dear Lord, why in the world did I invite all these people to dinner?”

Jesus must have felt that kind of pressure. Everywhere He went, crowds pressed in on Him, demanding His attention. Today’s passage tells the story of Jesus leaving the crowds behind to find some time alone. John 6:1-10 sets up the story for us. Jesus and His disciples are in the middle of their Galilean ministry. In the midst of this crazy, busy time, Jesus takes His disciples aside for a break. But the crowds begin to appear. “Then Jesus lifted His eyes, and seeing a great multitude coming toward Him...” You can almost hear the disciples sigh. “We really need some time out right now...”

Jesus turns to Phillip.“Where shall we buy bread?” Phillip answers in despair, “How should I know? Even if we could find any stores out here, we couldn't afford to feed a multitude!” Andrew comes on the scene. Andrew has found this cute kid willing to share his lunch: five loaves and two fish. There is a hint of sarcasm in his voice as he says, good try kid, and nice of you to offer, but “What are these among so many?

Rumbling along below the story is the idea that Jesus actually knows what is going to happen. That the disciples are being set up to witness a miracle that will change the way they think about God's provision. Verse 6 tells us about Jesus words to Phillip, “He said this to test him, for He Himself knew what He was going to do.

What is He going to do? First thing Jesus does is to tell everybody to sit down. I like that. How often have we been in a crisis situation and everybody is bustling around, “Oh no, what we going to do now, I'm so hungry, what's going to happen?” Jesus takes control. “Everybody, sit down, there's enough for everybody. Just settle down and listen.”

How often do we get so caught up in trying to fix everything and worry about very eventuality so much that we don't actually take the time to sit down and listen to how God sees the situation. It was only when they sat down and listened to Jesus that their hunger was met.

The crowd settles in the grass fixing their eyes on Jesus. Jesus took the loaves and did what? He gave thanks. At first glance this “Giving Thanks” seems like an insignificant detail. I would suggest that it is the most important thing in this passage. It is giving thanks that leads to 5000 folk being satisfied.

Later in John's gospel, in John 10:23 we read: “Then some boats from Tiberias landed near the place where the people had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks.” It doesn't say “Near the place where the Lord miraculously fed 5000,” or “Near the place where the Lord worked a great wonder,” but “Near the place where the people had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks.” What was important to John about this event was not the miracle feeding, but the lesson that Jesus taught about being thankful.

In a nutshell (or maybe a bread basket) this lesson is about thanksgiving. Being thankful releases resources within our situations that meet the deepest need of our hearts and lives. Let me offer a few observations about this principle of thanksgiving.

First, be thankful for what you have. Jesus gives thanks for the five loaves and two fish. The miracle hasn’t happened. He offers thanksgiving for the blessing that is at hand. Jesus knows full well what is going to come, but His disciples and the watching crowd don’t. All they see is Jesus offering thanks, for a little bit of bread.

I bump into discontented people on a daily basis. You ask them how they’re doing and they say, “You won’t believe what happened to me. This person came right up behind me on the interstate...” And then they’re off on a twenty-minute tirade. You ask them if they like their meal, and they tell you about a place that did it better. You ask them about their work, and a complaint session begins on the folk they have to work with. Whatever the weather is they find something to complain about. “It's miserable” “So cold” “So hot.” “Can't wait for it to change.”

You are in the shops and they are shaking their head, “The prices. Can't believe how much everything is.” Seems like they best they can muster about anything is “Well. It's O.K. I guess.” And whatever you do, do not mention politics or religion, because you are going to be told in no uncertain terms where you are getting it all wrong.

The worst part about it, is that the discontent rubs off on me. I find myself succumbing the curse of the criticisms and infected with the “If only’s.” “If only I had this...” “If only they would do that...” “Why can't she do something about him or he do something about her?” This atmosphere of discontent is like a virus. The action of Jesus, in the face of peoples hunger and dissatisfaction is to lift up a little bread and give thanks.

We can be thankful that we have a roof over our head. We can be thankful for the people God has brought into our life. We don’t need to worry that they’re flawed because we are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God. We can be thankful for the food on our plate each day. We can be thankful for the challenges that force us to grow. We can be thankful for the air we breathe. We can be thankful for the freedoms we enjoy. We can be thankful for the simple joys.

Like the little boy with the loaves and fishes, they may not seem much in the light of the needs around us. Nevertheless, we can be thankful and offer what we have God. Be thankful.

Secondly, realize that gratitude is more action than emotion. Have you ever thought to yourself “I just don’t feel thankful.” So notice that Jesus didn’t talk about “feeling” thankful, He instructs us to practice a daily discipline of thankfulness. Be thankful. You prayed “Give us this day our daily bread.” Well, you know what? You got it. So be thankful!

When I was growing up my mother made me sit down and write thank-you notes in the days immediately after Christmas. I didn’t feel thankful, I wanted to play with my new toys. We only had a few more days before Christmas break was over. But my mum was trying to teach me that expressing gratitude is important, even if the gift was a pair of green socks!

Too often my prayers are characterized by requests, when they should be full of thanksgiving. The act of expressing thankfulness makes us more aware of blessings. When we are thankful, it shifts our perspective away from what we don't have and towards the abundant blessings we have received from God.

God’s abundance comes in unexpected ways. None of the gospel writers gives us any idea how this miracle happened. Did the food miraculously reconstitute itself as it was passed around? Did it stretch as each person tore off a hunk? Was it placed in baskets that suddenly filled to the rim? We don’t know. John isn't about to satisfy our curiosity, because that's not what the account is about. It's about thankfulness.

It was unexpected. The disciples didn’t see it coming. You see this same truth in the turning water into wine at the wedding of Cana. We see it again when a whole town of Samaritans come out and believe on the testimony of a woman Jesus meets at a well.

When Jesus provides abundantly, He often does so through unexpected means. Our challenge, is to keep our minds open enough to receive the blessings when they come. And the way to unlock openness to blessing, is the path of thankfulness. So be thankful for what you have. Secondly, realize that gratitude is more action than emotion.

Thirdly, notice that thankfulness is never wasteful. In verse 12. Jesus tells His disciples to gather up the fragments, that nothing might be wasted. That is a fundamental principle of thankfulness, not wasting what you have. The United States is possibly the most wasteful nation on the planet. We throw away so much. I'm embarrassed by the amount I throw away. Wastefulness is an indication that we are taking our blessings for granted. It is in direct contrast to thankfulness.

In a world where millions go hungry I can think of few more disgusting sights than visiting an “All you can eat” restaurant, and watching people stack their plates high with food, and then throw half of it in the garbage. If ever there was a statement that says “We are blessed and we don't even know it” … there it is.

God has given us abundant life, and abundant possibilities and abundant time and abundant resources. For the majority of us who live in the developed world, life is an “All you can eat buffet.” But too often life is squandered and wasted and thrown away. Our wasteful actions betray our thankfulness. God calls us to be wise in our use of God's blessings, be it our time, our finances, or our abilities.

Thankfulness is not expressed through excess, but when we treasure our gifts and use them to their greatest impact in blessing others. Isn't that what happened with that little boy and his loaves and fishes? He was thankful. He had enough. He cared enough to share and God blessed everybody through His thankful action. Wastefulness is a direct contrast to thankfulness.

Neighbor, Hey neighbor, Be thankful for what you've got!
Neighbor, Hey neighbor, If you want to live at the right altitude,
                                        You got to have an attitude of gratitude.
Neighbor, Hey neighbor, If you want to live grateful,
                                       Then stop being wasteful.
  • Being thankful releases resources within our situations that meet the deepest need of our hearts and lives. Be thankful for what you have. Instead of focusing on other peoples circumstances, let us look into our own situations and wake up to just how blessed we really are.
  • Realize that gratitude is more action than emotion. When we focus on thankfulness, it releases good things in our lives and in the lives of those we share our lives with. Just as misery loves company, thankfulness can be a positive influence on those around us.
  • Notice that thankfulness is never wasteful. God never gives us blessings with the intention that we throw them away. The greatest gift of all is life itself. We honor God when we live with an attitude of gratitude.
5000 hungry folk went away satisfied when Jesus lifted up a little bit of bread and gave thanks. Lift up your life in thanksgiving for all the blessings God has showered upon you, and just maybe you will leave this place far more satisfied than when you entered!

And to God be the glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Mark My Words - Not Accepted in the Homelands

Readings: Psalm 48, Ezekiel 2:1-5, 2 Corinthians 12:2-10, Mark: 6:1-13
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, July 8 2018

It's always a strange experience visiting your homelands after you’ve been away for a while. Things are so familiar, yet at the same time so different. Time moves on.  People move on. Things change. There’s a new building here.  An old landmark is no longer there. Who we are, is not who we were.

There is the awareness that you have moved onto other things, whilst some of those who stayed where they were are much the same as they have ever been.  You see them through different eyes, but often they see you as they always did.

I was reading of the Welsh singer Tom Jones, (who had hits like, "It's not unusual" and "The Green, Green, Grass of home"), and how, for him, visiting his home village was a unique experience.  In the eyes of the world he was perceived as a glitzy Las Vegas nightclub superstar.  In his hometown he was still 'Tom, y’know, Mrs. Jones's boy, who sings a bit and went off to America.'

He found it a liberating thing to walk around his town and be treated just the same as everybody else.  There’s something in being around folks who knew us when we were growing up that is a great leveler and which can be very accepting and comfortable.

The reverse side of it is that it can limit people’s expectations of us. It is almost as though the people who think they know you the best, feel a need to set limits on what you should and should not be able to achieve in life.

That’s seems to be what happened when Jesus went to his hometown after being on His first mission trip. People wouldn’t accept Him. “Why, He’s just Mary’s boy, the carpenter. We know his brothers and sisters! He’s nobody special.”

It could even be that the townsfolk thought He was dodging His responsibilities. As there is no mention of Mary’s husband Joseph in the account, the presumption is that he had died and left Jesus, as the oldest child, as the head of the household.  To walk out on the family and go on some crazy preaching tour was not the thing to do!

For whatever reasons, be it familiarity or just resistance because of actions He had taken that were socially out of line, Jesus is met with rejection when He returns to His hometown.  The people are offended by His teaching, viewing it as alien to their understanding of what should and shouldn’t happen in their locality.

Jesus marvels at their unbelief, quoting them a parable, “A prophet is not without honor, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house”.  A few receive Him.  A number receive healing, but these are a small number in comparison to the multitudes that were touched elsewhere.

When I lived near New York City I found myself singing along and feeling all homely when any of the classic New York songs come on the radio. 'If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere, New York, New York...'

When I lived in West Virginia, I could whole-heartedly throw myself into singing, “Country Roads, Take me Home, To the place where I belong, West Virginia…” because back then that's where I lived.

It has been said that home is where the heart is. As one who has lived in a number of different situations, I take a lead from the phrase “Wherever I lay my hat, is my home”.  I know that, right now, where I grew up is not where I‘m meant to be.  Home for me, right now, is here in Ellicott City, Maryland.

Returning to our passage. Reflecting on the thought of Jesus not being welcome in His homelands, challenges me to ask the question, “How welcome is Jesus in my heartlands?” By that I mean, that there is no more familiar place to us than our own lives.  In our own experience we can easily become content with the way things are and not face the challenge of developing in our spirituality

We have heard the gospel message so many times that it has become familiar to us, so familiar that maybe we think we know what it’s all about and see no need for change or greater understanding.  We can become so satisfied with the status quo of church life that we lose the expectation of God’s Spirit breaking in on us, renewing us, and changing us.

Jesus could not do the work He wished to do in His homelands because the people were imprisoned by a view of life that allowed no room for the unexpected in the common daily life of their community. They knew the mighty works He had done, they recognized His teaching as having great depth, and they didn’t deny great things were taking place.

What they had a problem with was fathoming how a man from their little village had been anointed with such great wisdom and power. They found the thought that He had a divine work to do in their midst an offense.  Who was He to tell them how they should be living their lives?  Wasn’t He, after all just a carpenter, just a local boy? Things like that didn’t happen in their town!

In a similar way in our inner heartlands we can limit the work of God.  We find the thought that Jesus wants to do some divine work in our midst somehow unbelievable. After all, that’s not our daily experience. Of course we believe Jesus can do great things, and we know He gave great teaching, but does it really penetrate our hearts?

William Barclay, in his commentary on Mark, tells the story of the poet Thomas Campbell, a man of considerable talent.  His father had absolutely no sense of poetry whatsoever. When Thomas achieved his long time dream of having his poems published, he sent a copy to his father.  The old man looked at it.

At least he looked at the cover and the picture on it. He never actually opened the pages and read anything. His only comment was “Well, who would have thought our Tommy could have a book made with a nice picture on it?”

Sometimes” comments William Barclay, “when familiarity should breed a growing respect it breeds an increasing and easy going familiarity.  Sometimes we are too near people to see their greatness”. I would want to add; “Sometimes we are so familiar with our limitations that we fail to see the possibility of there being anything more.”

Yet there were some in Jesus hometown who were not content.  Though the majority reacted with an unbelief that Jesus marveled at, some were healed.  So there is a way to break beyond our familiarity barriers and expand our horizons! It may not be the way the majority takes, but has not that always been the case with those who desire to walk with God?

Consider Ezekiel, the prophet of our Old Testament reading.  God addresses him as ‘mortal man’ (for that’s what he was) yet identifies him as being a person of faith amongst a nation where many disbelieved. (Ezekiel 2:3) “Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have turned against me.”

Consider how, after His rejection by most of His own folk, Jesus does not despair or change His plans, but rather carries on expanding His work, training His small band of twelve disciples by sending them out two by two to give them their first taste of preaching the Good News of the Kingdom.

Consider how, though initially rejected by His family, His mother Mary was one of the few who stood by Jesus to the end, when the rest of the disciples deserted Him. Consider how His brother James, after the resurrection, came to be regarded as the apostle and the leader of the Jerusalem church.  Though their familiarity was a stumbling block, it was one they eventually overcame.

We have stumbling blocks in our faith journeys.  We have problems that we don’t seem to be able to get over. We become content with our unbelief and our unfamiliarity of God’s ways. We give up on ourselves.  We give up on each other.  We give up on our churches.  We let hope pass us by. The familiarity of our heartlands causes us to feel nothing can change or will change. We become so hardened by our familiarity that we reject even the words of those who tell us change is possible.

It doesn’t have to be that way. It wasn’t that way for Ezekiel.  It wasn’t that way for those in Jesus town who found healing that day.  It doesn’t have to be that way for us if we heed Christ’s words that we should seek the things of His Kingdom over and above all the other things we want in life.

This passage challenges us today, that though we are simply mortal women and men, it is in our lives, cluttered as they are with everyday concerns and mixed motives, that God wishes to work in the power of God’s Holy Spirit. It is for us to invite Jesus into our heartland, to see not the limitations that both ourselves and the world around us place upon us, but the vast possibilities that the Grace of God opens up to us.

Let us not be like those, whose familiarity with Jesus actually prevented His work taking place in their lives. Rather let us be those who, day by day, are being renewed and recreated by the love of God, found in Jesus Christ and known in our hearts through the working of the Holy Spirit.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Mark My Words - Jesus The Healer

 
This morning our bible reading gave us an account of two acts of healing that Jesus performed. Firstly that of the daughter of Jairus. Secondly of a woman who had a hemorrhage. The two accounts have a number of things in common.

Consider firstly this. That both these people were outsiders.

They were not the sorts of people who normally thronged around preachers. Jairus was a part of the ruling minority that considered the likes of Jesus to be dangerous. Scripture describes him as a “synagogue official.” The unnamed woman, because of the nature of her illness, was not the sort to get out and about much. Her illness made her unclean in the eyes of Jewish law. Any person she came into physical contact with would also be considered unclean by the law. They were outsiders.

There was a song some years ago that said, “I’m in with the In-Crowd, I go where the In-Crowd goes.” One of the things I’ve never figured out in life is exactly who the “In Crowd” are. In fact if some of the people who suspect they are 'in' the 'in crowd' are anything to go by, then I’m certainly sure I don’t want to be in with them, what ever that may mean.

When it comes to the love of God, we are outsiders whom God wants to be insiders. We all fall short of being the sort of people we could or should be. We’re all misfits. Sometimes we may be foolish enough to believe other wise. Numerous religious and political groups will invite us to be a part of their thing, and suggest to us that every body else’s thing is the wrong thing. But the testimony of scripture is clear. We are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God.

So remember this. Jesus healed these two outsiders. They were not outsiders in His eyes. Neither are we. He invites us, not to become part of the “In crowd” but to be part of a fellowship that meets around a common table. He invites us to be in His love. He invites us to be part of a community in which there are as many 'diverse' people as there are people.

The love of God invites outsiders to come inside. To taste and see that the Lord is good.

Notice secondly about this unclean woman and synagogue official, that though in the eyes of the world they were outsiders, in the eyes of God, they were insiders by virtue of being people of faith.

Faith is such a hard a thing to define. What makes it harder is that sometimes we seem to have it and some times we don’t.

I’m not a person who has tremendous confidence in air travel. The smaller the plane, the more angst-y I become. I remember being on a flight from Atlanta, GA to Charleston, WV, that was one of those tiny commuter planes with noisy propellers and engines that seem to splutter.

The pilot didn’t actually increase my confidence. He kept coming on the loudspeakers saying things like, “Duh, this your ..er.. pilot… erm. There might be some bad weather ahead. I guess… erm.. we’ll go round it some way. Erm.. Don’t know what time we’ll be getting in tonight… but hey, I think we got a lot of fuel on board!”

Of course everything went fine. There were no problems. Statistically I knew I was safer in a plane than crossing the road, but.. well faith.. it’s a strange thing. Some times we seem to have it. Some times it eludes us.

In our bible passage, the woman and Jairus the synagogue official have it. Big time. “If I just touch His garments,” says the woman. Jairus says about his daughter “Lay your hands on her so that she will get well and live.” If they have any doubts in their minds about the ability of Jesus to heal, their words certainly don’t express them. They have complete confidence in Jesus.

That sort of confident faith is elsewhere described in Scripture as a gift of the Holy Spirit. An experience that God grants to us through God’s grace. Faith is not something that we can artificially manufacture or achieve through the power of positive thinking. It’s a gift to be received.

But there are things we can do to be in a better position to be more receptive. We can be regular in our worship and personal walk with Christ. We can nourish our lives through scripture and prayer. We can be more trusting in God and less trusting in our selves. These things don’t guarantee instant abundant faith experiences, but they do pave the way to recognizing a gift when God is offering it to us.

How much faith is necessary? Jesus said a little less than a mustard seed is quite sufficient! Just a grain. That’ll do it. Just a whisper worth that tells you God loves you in spite of everything!

The love of God invites outsiders to come inside.
The love of God invites us to come with the faith we have, and trust God for the rest!

Finally, notice this about these two people of faith. They didn’t care what anybody else thought about them.
So many people worry endlessly about what others think of them whilst considering so little how their lives may look in God’s eyes. Jairus had reached a point where he couldn’t give two hoots what his influential friends made of him. His little daughter was sick. He believed Jesus could change things. So he went to Jesus.

The woman with the hemorrhage didn’t care that the law branded her unclean. She didn’t care that she’d seen this doctor and that physician and they’d all declared her condition incurable. She didn’t care about the social customs and niceties that every society inherits. She needed a touch from Jesus to be made well. Forget everything else. She went for it.

Sometimes, like the two in our story, we have to reach rock bottom before we stop wondering what other people think of us and start reaching out to God. But that does not have to be so.

If we can simply recapture the idea that God loves us, simply because we are God's children and precious in God's sight, that God sent Jesus into our world not to condemn the world, but that the world might through Him be saved, then we understand how outsiders become insiders. We recognize that it's the work of the Holy Spirit, a work of grace that accepts us, not what we can do or what others think of us.

Somebody asked me the other day, why they should bother attending a worship service, when there are so many other things they could do on a Sunday.

For me, it's like this. Every time we come to a worship service we are putting ourselves in a place that where God's healing and freedom and joy can break through into our hurting and needy lives. That what we can discover through worship is something this world cannot even put into words. It is through opening our hearts in worship that Jesus invites to experience His touch .

It is through opening our hearts to God in worship that we discover, like Jairus and the woman in our scripture reading, that we are outsiders that God wants to make insiders.

It is through opening our hearts to God in worship that we discover that however anybody else perceives us, God sees us as children in need of spiritual nurture and grace

It is as we open our hearts to God in worship, not with the faith we would like to posses but with the little faith we do have, that we become aware that if it we only have as much faith as a mustard seeds worth ...that is absolutely enough.

It is as we open our hearts to God in worship, we remember that what others think of us does not matter as much as how God sees us. And we discover God is the only One who truly sees us, who knows the real needs of our lives, and only God, through the Holy Spirit, can meet us at the deepest point of our need. Such was the experience of Jairus, whose daughter found healing, and of a unknown woman, known to God by name, but for us just another example of how God's love, can take what is broken and create something new.

Whatever our need this day... be it for healing, for direction, for hope, for comfort, for peace... may we lift that need to God, trusting that God alone can fulfill God's Word and seeking for God's healing love to be a reality in our own lives and the lives of those who we carry in our prayers. There is no better place to do that than around a table laid with bread and wine.

For to God's name be all honor, glory and praise. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Mark My Words - With Jesus in the Boat...


Readings: Psalm 9:9-20, 2 Corinthians 6:1-13, Job 38:1-11; Mark 4:35-41
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church on June 24 2018

Many of my childhood holidays when I was growing up were spent on the Bonnie, Bonnie banks of Loch Lomond in Scotland. My late father's parents were from Alexandria, near Glasgow, and my dad had spent a lot of time in his childhood exploring the area, an experience he wanted to share with his family.

One of the joys of the “Bread and Breakfast” we used to stay in, was that the lodging included access to a small motorized boat that enabled us to pack up for the day, sail out on the Loch and picnic on one of the many islands that the Loch contains. Dad even had friends that lived on one of the islands, Inchtavannach, and we would often be invited for a sumptuous dinner.

Scottish weather is unpredictable. Raincoats were never optional but considered essential supplies. One of the things you had to take note of, when out sailing on the Loch, was how suddenly and unexpectedly, the weather could change. One moment, a blue sky with a few clouds, the next a storm would roll in from the mountains, and it was much safer to be on the land, then out at sea. Thankfully, Dad knew the climate and knew the Loch, so we were never caught out.

However, unpredictable weather, is... well... unpredictable. And even the most professional of sailors can be caught out by unexpected storms. That seems to be what is happening to the seasoned fishermen, out on the Galilean Lake with Jesus, that is pictured in our Bible reading from Marks gospel. We read that “A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.”

It's not just boat trips that can be unpredictable. Life itself is full of unexpected and unwelcome twists and turns. One moment we are going along smoothly, the next, out of nowhere can come occurrences that shake us to our core and change everything. Illness. Accident. Disaster. Loss. Most of the time we sail along quite happily, but there are those other times that leave us afraid, confused and wondering what we are going to do next.

This morning I want to think about a number of things.
  • Firstly, I want to say that fear is normal. It is a natural reaction to our losing control.
  • Secondly, I want to say that one of our greatest fears, is that of abandonment, in particular as people of faith, the fear that God doesn't care.
  • Finally, I want us to see how, in this passage, the action of Jesus brings peace into the situation, and creates a great sense of awe at God's ability to effect change in our lives and our world.
Fear is Normal

Our Old Testament passage came from near the end of the book of Job. The story of Job is all about a man who, through no fault of his own, loses everything he held dear in a series of cataclysmic events. Though people seek to understand why all this is happening to him,and he himself is exasperated and fearful, by the end of the book we discover that no reasons for his plight are going to be given. Instead he is reminded that our lives, for better for worse, are in the hands of a God whose actions defy our understanding.

God's word to Job is Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements-- surely you know!” (Job 38:4-5) People will ask us, “Why is this happening to me?” Often we have to say, in all honesty, “God only knows” and we are not in on the secret. We acknowledge that even if we had an explanation, it would not help. When the boat is sinking, you don't care why it is sinking, you just want to know where the life boat is.

We have heard verses like 1 John 4:18 “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear and feel that, somehow, expressing our loss of control, expressing our deepest fears is unfaithful and not honoring to God. That an admission of fear is evidence of unfaithfulness.

Job had no such problem. He gets angry at God for the predicament in which he had been placed. The disciples had no such reservations. As the storm envelops their lives, in verse 38 they cry out, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

Fear is normal. When everything spirals out of control it is the right emotion to experience. It's a natural part of our defense mechanism. Of course we also have those irrational fears that nobody can explain, but that's just part of what reminds we are all unique... and we all a little bit crazy, we are all beautiful human individuals, but in each of us the image of God is tarnished by our sin.

Because of our imperfection, we are needy people. We need each other. We need God. And one of our deepest fears is of being alone. Which brings us to a second thing we see in this passage.

Fear of Abandonment.

Jesus is asleep in the boat. The disciples are terrified. Jesus sleeps. The boat is filling with water. Jesus sleeps on. They shake Him awake. They yell at Him. “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

We are His disciples, right? Isn't God supposed to take care of us? Isn't God being neglectful of God's duties when things don't work out for us? No.. wait a minute, what if God isn't really that interested in what we are going though? What if God doesn't really care? What if God has gone AWOL? What if God is sleeping in today and has missed this tragedy that we are living in the middle of?

How often have we been there? Yes, we know, we believe, that God is real. We believe that God is with us. Or at least, at times we have believed that. But now? Now this has happened? Now the unthinkable just became the reality? What's the deal God? Sleeping on the job? “Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?”

Teacher, do You not care how hard life is right now? Teacher, Do you not care about what is happening to my family? Teacher do you not care about that illness that is attacking that person? Teacher do you not care about the violence and the school shootings and the climate of mistrust that is evident in this nation? Teacher, do You not care that Your church is struggling to make sense of the world it deals with day by day? Teacher, wake up! Help us, wake up!

We read in verse 9 “He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.” It reads all so matter of fact. We don't read that He shook Himself, and cried out “Oh my goodness. I can't believe I was sleeping through this! Why didn't you wake me earlier?” We don't read, “And Jesus said, “Get out the life jackets, swim for the shore, there's nothing we can do, every man for himself!” We read “He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.” As the Word of God is spoken, faith is restored.

Faith Restored

Yes, the storm is rebuked and peace is restored. Dead calm. But something else happens. The disciples take on a different kind of fear. An experience of awe and incredulity comes upon them. While Jesus is comforting and challenging them, saying “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” They are saying “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

It is as though our faith is not just about recognizing that the Word of God can make a difference, but that we also need to get out of the mindset that limits what God can and is able to do, in our lives, in our churches and in our world. This story takes us from a position of life crippling fear for survival and invites us to embrace visions of incredible possibility. It invites us to trust God, not just for the immediate crisis we are facing, but to open up to God's love in a new way that causes us to rethink the way we see the world.

It is this sense of overwhelming awe, this sense of, “Wow! Not only was God not sleeping, but God is control of … well... everything,” that brings peace flowing into the situation. It is here that this story once again intersects with the Old Testament story of Job. Job is put in a position where he sees that, even though he cannot change or explain the events that have befallen him, God is more in control than he could ever be. Job and the disciples reach a position where they understand that God cares about them more deeply than they could ever dare imagine.

It is as though life is cast into a totally different framework. We see everything in a linear fashion. Life goes smooth. A crisis comes along. We panic. God gets us through. We get back to normal. Then another crisis comes along and we hit the “repeat” button.

This passage places our lives into an eternal frame. Good things will happen to bad people and bad things will happen to good people, but at the end of all things... God has it all under control. God is not sleeping on the job. Storms of life will come and go, but the Word of the Lord will endure for ever.

A church I used to attend sang a chorus that said “Peace is flowing like a river.” That was always a mixed image in my mind. When you witness the power that a river in full flood can create, that's both a challenging and a comforting image. Challenging because it reminds us that we are not in control. Comforting, because when we accept that God is in control, that's when the peace floods in.

That is also the sentiment behind the chorus I shared during Children's time. It is a recognition that we are all at sea. And we all sometimes become afraid. While probably the last thing that occurs to us in the middle of the storms of life is “Smile”, if we can embrace the hope that God is not asleep, embrace the hope that God has placed an eternal framework around our lives, embrace the hope that God is able to deal with our lives in a way that is more abundant, more precious and more expansive than we could ever dream is possible, then the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ will come flowing into the situation.

With Jesus in the boat we can smile at the storm,
Smile at the storm, smile at the storm
With Jesus in the boat we can smile at the storm,
As we go sailing home.

Sailing, sailing home. Sailing, sailing home.
With Jesus in the boat we can smile at the storm,
As we go sailing home.”

To God be all glory.
Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Mark My Words - Seeds of Faith

Readings: Psalm 46; 1 Samuel 15:34–16:13, 2 Corinthians 5:6–17, Mark 4:26-34
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, June 17 2018

Our New Testament reading this morning had Jesus talking about seeds. Little things that grow into things that are much greater. About how we play only a small part in it, we plant it and we harvest it, but God takes care of the rest. Like the process of growth, from a seed to a tree, Jesus pictures the Kingdom of God growing mysteriously from small beginnings into something majestic.

The first parable talked about the mystery of growth. The seed is planted.
It goes through changes. The stalk appears, then the head, then it blossoms.
When the grain is ripe it is harvested.

We know that sometimes the seeds we plant don't make it. We know that we have to prepare the ground. We know that a whole lot of conditions play a part. But most of it, just happens and as it happens we can do very little to change it. About the only thing we can do is stop it or ruin it.

It is much the same with spiritual growth. Seeds of faith are planted in people’s lives. Sometimes they take, sometimes they don't. At times people are prepared for growth, at times they're not. There are occasions when the storms of life cause the growth to be hindered. There are occasions when people won't go with the flow of it and the seeds do not come to anything.

But, by the Grace of God, sometimes things take root and we see people going through a process of changes and developments that show they are maturing and developing in their Christian life. And it is by the Grace of God. It is a thing that we can't explain. It is truly a miracle.

I've been reading recently some peoples accounts of their Christian journey. A common factor in them all is that somewhere along the way, somebody threw at them a seed of faith, not knowing whether it would take or not. Slowly that seed took a hold and as it did, things started to change.

Take for an example John's story. John was born into a Christian home in a predominantly Caucasian neighborhood where family values, right and wrong and the American way were the fabric of everyday life. As a teenager he played basketball. One day, visiting a neighboring community a non-Caucasian American started heaping abuse at him during a game. It planted a seed in him. A seed of racial hatred.

About the same time, things started to go wrong at home. His parents were splitting up. His school work was suffering. He had a lack of close friends. He was ripe for change.
He went to a rock concert and met a guy called Brian who suggested to him that the reason his family, his country and everything else around him was falling apart was because of racial integration and the disintegration of the white race. He didn't take much notice, until a few weeks later, after another concert, he was walking to his car when he was set upon. Some other guys came over and helped him and when he thanked them they said, "Anything to help a white brother out".

The next day, he decided to join his new "brothers". He went to the barbers, had a skinhead haircut and started getting into white supremacist and Nazi ideology in a big way. They were the most violent and radical group of people he had ever associated with. Their violence was all the more ferocious because they saw themselves on a moral crusade against non-whites, gays, Jews and anybody else who disagreed with them.

But then he had a chance encounter with an old school friend, Jill. She started to hang around with him. She sowed a different kind of seed. A seed of faith. She simply asked if he'd go to church with her one Sunday. He really liked her so reluctantly he went. During the service he started to feel that God was on his case. There was no dramatic conversion, he didn't immediately drop out of all the things he was involved in. But he did start reading his bible and praying to God and he saw that many of the things he'd started believing were the total opposite of what God said was right.

He went to talk to the pastor about it. The pastor prayed that he would find deliverance from his hatred - and so far he's doing good. He’s turning his life around. He's no longer part of any racist gang. He says, "If it were not for the Lord Jesus Christ, then I would either be dead or in jail." Slowly in his life, seeds of hate are being replaced by seeds of love. And guess what? He married Jill.

Now hearing a story like that you may be tempted to think, well I'm not a particularly bad person, I haven't gone off the road in that way. That's not the point! The point is that John is an example of a life, one of countless thousands upon thousands throughout history and in the present, that furnishes an example of how a seed of faith can be planted and grown. The Kingdom is working away today, just like Jesus said it would.

We have short memories. We don't know our history. We forget what advances have been made in our world through the growth of Christianity. William Barclay, writing in his commentary on Mark says;

"There is not the slightest doubt that the Kingdom is on the way if we compare, not today with yesterday, but this century with the ones that went before. When Elizabeth Fry went to Newgate Prison in 1817 she found in the women's quarters three hundred women and numberless children crammed into two small wards. They lived and cooked and ate and slept on the floor. They crowded, half naked, almost like beasts, begging for money which they spent on drink at a bar in the prison itself. She found there a boy of nine who was waiting to be hung. His crime? Poking a stick through a window and stealing some paints that were valued at two pennies.... Nowadays things like that are unthinkable. Why? Because the Kingdom of God is on the way. It may, like the growth of a plant be imperceptible from day to day; but over the years that growth is plain."

It can seem like two steps forward, one step back. There have been reports in recent days of immigrant children being separated from their parents at the border. Even conservative evangelical leader. Franklin Graham, has described the practice as 'disgraceful' and 'terrible'. One hopes that public outrage will cause those in power to care more about innocent children than their political aspirations.

Yet also in recent days we have seen seeds being sown that could lead to stability and peace between North and South Korea. These stories, and stories like them, will continue to dominate the headlines. Always have. Always will. That's the sort of world we live in. An age where people can be so cynical, so worldly-minded and so critical and so divided.

But how things are now, is not how things will be. How you are now is not how you will be in years to come. Where you are now on your spiritual journey is not where you are meant to stay. You have to grow, you have to move on. We are not at the end of the story. The story is still being written. The Kingdom, though we may not always see it, continues to grow.

The second parable talks of how the smallest of seeds grew to be a great tree,
providing not just a place for birds to shelter,
but fit for eagles to make their nests within it's branches.

The significance of both the mustard seed and the great tree would not be lost on the original hearers. The mustard seed stood for the smallest possible thing; the tree was a symbol of a great empire that encompassed many nations. So the Kingdom of God would grow from something embodied in the life of Jesus Christ to something that embraced the whole world.

Everything has a beginning. Nothing emerges full-grown. It can start out as an idea. It can originate with a prayer. It can begin as an idea that comes as you open your heart to God in a service of worship. Without the acorns there would never be Oak Trees. Never judge things by the initial size of the seed. Particularly the things of God and the things of His Kingdom.

Growth takes place, not in leaps and bounds, but by little steps. Seeds of faith are little things, everyday things that we pass on to others. The smile of hope when others are cast down. The phone call to express your concern. The few items or dollars given to a food kitchen. The volunteering to do that job or this task that no one else wants to do. The picking up of that piece of litter in the street because it's there and no one else has bothered. Little things that when put together grow to be big things.

Be patient with yourselves. Spiritual growth is also a progression of little things. Little insights. Gentle steps and gradual renewal. Why are we always in such a rush? You can't rush a seed. You can't go out into the garden and shout at the seed, "C'mon, grow, grow you little scoundrel, get up out of that earth and let's see what you're made of!"

The Kingdom is coming. But it takes time. It's taken all the generations that led to our birth and could take as many generations after our death. Sometimes it may feel like we take one step before taking two steps forward. If we can just trust that God knows how to handle time, then we'll be able trust Him to handle the times that our life is going through.

Our world is beset with many divisions. Divisions of race and color and culture. Divisions of wealth and poverty. Divisions of religion and class. Divisions of language and nationality. It shall not always be so. The Kingdom of God is growing from a small seed to a mighty empire. That is God's way. That is how Jesus said it would be. And we can be a part of it. Seeds of faith have been planted in our hearts. That's why we're here.

May God help us to nurture those seeds, to provide the right atmosphere of trust, prayer and worship for them to grow and to spread those faith seeds in the lives of others through our work and service and sharing of our gifts and talents.

Seeds of faith.
They take time to grow.
Be patient.
God hasn't finished with us yet.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D