Monday, September 18, 2017

Wilderness Living 4 "Turn of The Tide"

Reading: Psalm 114, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:12-35, Exodus 14:19-31
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, on September 17 2017

Geographically speaking, the area where I was born and raised was known as the Wirral peninsular. On one side of the peninsular lay the River Mersey, where you could, as Gerry and the Pacemakers once sang, catch a ‘Ferry across the Mersey’ to Liverpool. On the other side of the peninsular lay the River Dee, and over the other side of that river, the nation of Wales.

The River Dee side of the peninsular held the best beaches. One of the fun things to do there was walk across the sands, at low tide, to visit a bird sanctuary called Hilbre Island, where you could watch seals playing out in the estuary (see photo above.)

In fact when the tide went out it looked as though you could walk across the sands all the way to Wales. You couldn’t because there was a deep fierce channel of water that separated the English from Wales (something historically the Welsh were rather glad about) but when you were walking out on the sand, it looked as though there were just miles of sand stretching in every direction. A beautiful place.

Beautiful, but dangerous. Almost every year people lost their lives through not paying attention to the tide. If you did not know at what hour the tide turned, then it was not safe being out on the sands. Whereas when the tide was out the sands stretched for miles, when the tide turned the whole area became sea.

The frightening thing was how quickly the change from sand to sea took place. Little streams in the sand would become rivers. The rivers overflowed. You could be walking on sandbanks, unable to reach the coast, unaware that the waters were closing in. If you were out on the sand when the tide turned, you were lost.

One can only imagine the dread that the Hebrew people felt as they fled from Pharaohs’ chariots. There lay before them a seemingly impassable body of water. Their only hope was that God would intervene on their behalf. That somehow the tide would turn.

People have a lot of questions these days about the future role of religion in national life. Many churches, our own included, have witnessed a loss of members and support. Others... strangely... to my mind... some that offer a very narrow form of belief... have seen huge growth. It seems that preaching a gospel in which not everybody is welcome in the kingdom of God, where homophobia is accepted and where the female of species is not considered an equal to their male counterpart, has a huge attraction.

From their perspective they are trying to fight against a tide of secularism that they fear is sweeping the old landmarks away... but to me it appears that cultural preservation rather than biblical faith is guiding such agendas. That's not where I'm going with this sermon. God loves them and God loves us, not because of who we are, but in spite of it. Grace is always amazing and if God loves those who differ in their views, then so must we.

It feels in the nation as a whole, to somebody who has lived here for but a couple of decades, that there is more dissent and unhappiness and fear around then when we first moved here. Of course we moved here pre-911. September 11 2001 was the day it was understood that safety can no longer be taken for granted. That security was a questionable concept. That none of us are invulnerable or isolated from the rest of the world.

On that occasion it wasn’t pursuing enemy chariots and threatening soldiers that were swept away, but the lives of ordinary people going about their daily tasks and the many heroic souls who attempted to rescue them. When the tide turns, the waves do not care if their victims are aggressors or innocents.

The reasons behind the growth of terrorism are incredibly complex. Political, economic, geographical, religious, educational, historical. Issues of poverty and injustice and imbalance and history and empire and greed. Trying to isolate any particular aspect, or people group, or religion, or nation and suggesting that ‘this’ alone is to blame is as futile as investigating a single channel flowing through the sand and claiming that it alone caused the tide to turn.

You will notice that the turn of the tide does not lead the Hebrews to the Promised Land but into the wilderness. The destruction of their enemies in the crushing waters leads them not into a place of peace, but one of fear, regret and dependence. The closing verse of the passage we read this morning; verse 31 ‘And when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the LORD displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and put their trust in Him and in Moses His servant’.

Surely we can identify with that picture. We feel like we are in the wilderness. There is mistrust. There is fear. The old certainties have been swept away and exactly where our anchor should be placed remains a topic for debate. The tide has turned. Many remain unsure which direction to go to find anything like a Promised Land.

Every passing year brings unpredictable turns of events, both for the church and society. Not only can we not predict the actions of our fellow human beings, nature herself seems happy to remind us of our own frailty and insignificance in the larger scheme of things. Natural disasters, hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, tsunamis, wildfires, climate change related events are on the rise.

Somebody told me I shouldn't talk about things like “climate” from the pulpit because it was being political. Who could have predicted mentioning weather statistics would become a political statement? We feel the changes in the tide in many areas of our lives.

Against this backdrop it is important to remind ourselves that we still have choices. The Hebrew people had a choice. They could stay in Egypt in slavery. Or they could, as a community, follow Moses.

They may well have wondered at the wisdom of their choice when they were faced with the prospect of being destroyed at the water edge by the advancing Egyptian army. Even after their miraculous deliverance, though they saw their enemies, dead and defeated, they knew their journey was far from over. They still faced an uncertain and unpredictable future.

So we have a choice. We can rally together and seek to be a community of God’s people. We can put our trust in God to lead us towards better days. We can choose to build our lives upon faith in Jesus Christ, over and above trust in any other institution.

We can choose, as did the Hebrews, to invest in nurturing the spiritual lives of both our selves and our children in the ways of God’s Kingdom. We choose our priorities. We can say ‘no’ to unreasonable demands on our time that take away our energy to invest in the things of God.

Events such as terrorist attacks and hurricanes in which some lose so much, cause us to question “What is really important?” For a moment people are taken out of the normality of the hectic everyday race we are pursuing. Think about your emotions during a power cut. For a moment the power goes away, the TV has no programs, the phone stops ringing because the connection has no connection. For a moment we realize our dependency. Do we treat it as a wake up call? Or do we just hop back into our routine and in six months time wonder why nothing has changed?

The Christian gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, is that there is another way to live, a better way, and a higher way! But the rub is, in order to discover it, we have too choose to change. We have to let go of some of the things we are so reliant on. We cannot allow our I-pods and I-phones and I-pads to become our I-dols. We cannot pursue both God and wealth. We cannot keep seeking happiness and joy and fulfillment through every avenue but the love God and expect that somehow God will bless us anyway!

Scary, horrific events force us to examine our choices. As the Hebrews gazed across the Sea at the bodies of their enemies, there was little rejoicing. I remind you again of verse 31 ‘And when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the LORD displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and put their trust in Him.’ In moments of crisis you have to choose in whom you place your trust.

I started out talking about the tides that ran on the River Dee between England and Wales. Because of the tidal estuary that lay on the sands between England and Wales, I learned at an early age that you had to take notice of the changing tides. It was not anything you could control. Tides happen!

A best selling book in my home area was the ‘Tide-Tables’ that cataloged the times when the tides would turn. The tables told you how high the tides were likely to be, and all the vital information that would let you know when it was safe to walk out to Hilbre Island and when you needed to stay away from the sands.

God has not left us in the dark. We have “Tide Tables” for life. God’s Word in Scripture. But we have to read it. We have the living presence of Jesus Christ to lead and guide us. But we have to discover the guidance of His Holy Spirit, which only comes through prayer and commitment and opening our hearts to God in worship. We have a community of faith to which we can belong. But we have to make life choices that enable us to be active participants.

The tide is going to keep turning. Sometimes it will flow against us. Sometimes it will carry us along. We can't do anything about that. But we can choose who is going to navigate our lives through the shifting currents of the present day. It was a deputy of Moses, Joshua, who declared “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve... But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord." (Joshua 24:15.) 

Amid the changing tides of opinion, may God's Holy Spirit lead us to make the right choices for ourselves, our family, and our faith community. To Jesus name be the glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Wilderness Living 3 "Fast Food to Go!"

Back to Sunday School – Outdoor Service/Picnic
Reading: Psalm 149, Matthew 18:15-20, Romans 13:8-14, Exodus 12:1-14
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, September 10 2017

“Is that for here, or is it to go?” asked the girl at McWendyKing (or some such fast food place). “To Go!” I replied, because I was on the go. A hundred things to do and a lot of folk to see. Got to keep moving. I would have gone around to the drive-thru but some days I just can’t stand talking into that little loudspeaker. I can never understand what the assistants saying on the other end. They speak with an accent!

And I don’t understand why you need to do that anyway. Couldn’t you just drive up to the window where you pay and give your order to the human being there instead of to the little box? Does it really save time? Usually there’s only about two or three cars distance to the window anyway! Seems less than efficient, particularly when, on some occasions I come away with exactly what I hadn’t asked for.

But, why worry? It’s not as if the food you are about to throw down yourself has any gastronomic integrity. It’s made as cheaply as possible, put together as quickly as do-able, and often consumed at a speed that deserves a mention in the Guinness Book of Records. FAST FOOD. – LET’S GO!

Meanwhile, back in Egypt, Moses has been having a hard time convincing Pharaoh to “Let my people go.” Although the land has been hit by a series of plagues, Pharaoh keeps changing his mind. First they can go, then they have to stay, then they can go, then they can stay. It’s becoming kind of repetitive.

But not for much longer. The Israelite's days in Egypt are numbered. The numbers have nearly run out. There is to be one, final, decisive action on the part of God, that will finally convince the Pharaoh that it would be a deadly thing to keep the Israelite's there any longer.

There is headed their way a horrible plague, a final affliction in a series of nasty events... a plague of death. At the time Moses was born, the Pharaoh was murdering every first-born Hebrew Child, ordering them to be killed at birth or thrown into the river to drown. It was a miracle that Moses had escaped with his life, let alone grown up to be an ex-prince of Egypt who now led Israel.

They do say that what goes around, comes around. That certainly seemed to be the case in Egypt. The nature of the final plague is that the angel of death will take down every firstborn in the land, both humans and animals.

The only exception is to be those households whose doorposts are covered by the blood of a sacrificial lamb, a lamb that has to be prepared and consumed in exactly the way Moses tells them. This would be a sign for all the faithful that God had set them free. It would mark the beginning of a new era in the nations life and a new stage in Israel’s history. For them history would begin again. The month that they left Egypt would be considered forever more as the first month of a New Year.

Knowing that the angel of death was approaching, I’m sure that, if they were able back then, there would have been those among the Hebrews who would have ordered their sacrificial lamb from the Egyptian equivalent of McWendyKings.

“I’ll’ have seven lambs, (make that 8, better get one for the dog in case he turns out to have been the first born).. and oh.. an extra order of blood on the side, please”. “Is that for here or to go?” To Go! Fast food to go!” (Of course being in Egypt maybe they could also have said, “I’ll have a crocodile sandwich.. oh.. and make it snappy”: ) Hmm.

Like my jokes it really was no laughing matter, in any way. The events that were about to take place were horrific. There really hadn’t been anything to rejoice about for a long, long time in Egypt for the Hebrews. Were they really, after all this time, after all that had been taking place, were they really free to go?

The answer, right at that moment, was an extremely hesitant and cautious “Ermm... yes.” They wouldn’t actually be free from Pharaoh until after they had passed through the Red Sea. They had hard times in front of them and most, including Moses, would not live to enter the Promised Land.

What they are about to do is something that would be, for all time, a symbol of faith. Something that turned that hesitant “Ermm... yes” into a declaration of faith. They are given the Passover Meal. Exodus 12:14 “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance”.

Passover was a meal to go. Remember Moses instructions? Exodus12:11 “This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the Passover of the LORD.”

Passover was something to prepare them for the journey. Something that would etch into their minds God’s saving power. A celebration that would always remind them of their deliverance from slavery and misery.

Deliverance came at a price. They would eat, among other things, bitter herbs and unleavened bread. I don;'t think either of those are on the menu for this mornings picnic. There would be great mourning all around them, on the part of those who chose not to heed Moses instructions. The deep irony of the situation was that their deliverance to life would only come through death, the death of unblemished lambs and innocent firstborns.

There are, of course, parallels between the celebration of Passover and our own Christian celebration of Holy Communion, parallels that both the Gospel authors and the writers of the N/T letters are keen to point out.

The first time as a boy that Jesus goes to Jerusalem it is for the family to celebrate Passover (Luke 2:41). It is at the Passover meal Jesus takes the bread and cup (which represent the broken body and shed blood of God’s only begotten Son) and shares them with His disciples. To a Corinthian Church beset with division and troubles Paul writes “Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be …new …… For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. (1 Corinthians 5:7).

Passover was a meal that was eaten – ready to go. However Passover was not fast food. Passover was not something prepared hastily or carelessly or least expensively put together. It took time. It required understanding. It was costly.

Preparation for the meal began four days prior to cooking, when a lamb (from either a sheep or a goat) was chosen. The lamb was to be shared with those who were not able to afford a lamb of their own. Neighbors were to come together. Nobody was to be excluded.

The lamb had to be a yearling without blemish. In other words it was prime stock. Not the left over or the weakling. In economic terms it was the costliest. It had to be kept until at twilight there was a community act of slaughter. It was then that the blood had to be smeared on the doors of the houses where the lamb was to be eaten.

That same night it was to be eaten in equal portions by all those who came to supper. It was to be slow cooked over the fire.. not boiled or eaten raw. The whole lamb was involved… the inward parts, the head, the legs.. all had to be roasted. Anything that became left over had to be burnt up. Only then… after all of that… were they ready to go.

We live in a fast food world. People want answers, even to their religious questions, in quick, digestible bytes. Instant Spirituality. Sign up here today and tomorrow it will be yours! The problem is that ‘Fast-Food’ is sometimes called ‘Junk Food.’ In other words it doesn’t sustain, it doesn’t really nourish, it doesn’t meet the dietary needs, it just makes the hunger go away for a while.
Today is our “Back to Sunday School Rally Sunday.” By offering a year round education program we are saying that Christianity isn't something you can just pick up at a drive through window. You have to sit down and study and learn. You need folk to teach you and people to mentor you. It's a life long journey and there is always... always... always... something new to learn.

Just like the Passover was something you had to prepare for, so we have to daily be working on having hearts and lives and minds that are ready to hear God, that are ready so that when God says “Go” we “Go.”

So I encourage us all to make the most of the educational opportunities that come our way to deepen our relationship with Jesus Christ. A great way to learn something is to teach it! We are always looking for volunteers... even if it's only short term volunteers. There's nothing like preparing a lesson for somebody else to imprint it on your own mind.

And, through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior, give thanks to God! God alone can nurture our hunger for what is right, what is good and what is true. God alone satisfies the deepest needs of our hearts and lives. Not with 'Fast Food” but with the wisdom of His Word and strengthening of God's Holy Spirit.

To God be all glory. Amen!

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Wilderness Living 2 "Holy Ground"

 Reading: Psalm 105:1-6, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28, Exodus 3:1-15
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, September 3 2017

I received my training for ministry at the Welsh Presbyterian Theological College in Aberystwyth, on the coast of mid-Wales. Historically, Welsh Presbyterians were passionate about their theology. Whilst their church was born in the midst of Methodist Revivalism, their founding fathers looked to the work of an earlier reformer, John Calvin of Geneva, for a theological identity. They sifted and studied and sought to be faithful to God in defining what they believed. They argued. They separated. They forgave. They came together again.

That process eventually gave rise to the writing of a document, in 1823, a defining charter, that eventually became the theological statement of Welsh Presbyterian orthodoxy. It was called “The Confession of Faith of the Calvinistic Methodists.” It was the bedrock of a church that for the next 75 years of its life would experience wave after wave of religious revival, adding thousands to its membership.

As a college student, even more exciting to me, was the fact that the very building, even the actual room where that document came into being was still there in Aberystywth! I figured that those who put that document together must have experienced a powerful movement of God’s Holy Spirit in their meetings.

So one day I decided to check the place out, hoping that maybe something of the fire that inspired those early pioneers of the Welsh Presbyterian faith still lingered on the premises and that, just by going in there, it may ignite my own heart and spiritual passion. One day somebody pointed the building out to me.

I never did go inside. It had become part of the warehouse of a local supermarket. No plaque on the building. Nothing to even indicate that an event of tremendous significance, a moment of divine grace, had been felt in that place.

It was just a run down old building. The only atmosphere I may have experienced if I had gone into the place was that of the workaday world of a busy little town. There would be nothing to indicate that this, had for a brief period in history, been holy ground.

Moses had an encounter with a bush. I would imagine that if by some process we could go and stand at the actual spot where Moses stood, even view the very bush that Moses saw burning without being consumed, we would wonder what all the fuss was about. It would just be a bush.

Even more so would that be the case if we happened to be somebody who had never even heard about Moses or the encounter with God that Moses had. If that was our situation then we wouldn’t even be looking for a sign or expecting a presence. The last thing on our mind as we walked through the desert would be that we might be standing on holy ground.

Moses didn’t expect to be confronted by God either. Moses was just getting his life back together. He’d made his escape from Egypt and had finally come to terms with the fact that he wasn’t an Egyptian prince but a Hebrew son of a Hebrew slave. He had a wife and was out working for his father-in-law tending sheep. He was fully immersed in the culture and traditions shared by a long line of his ancestors.

And then what? God upsets the whole apple cart! The line between the sacred and the secular is obliterated. He thought he was treading common ground, living in the way his forefathers lived. It turned out to be holy ground and his life was never quite the same again.

It took something a bit special to get his attention. There he is, going about his daily business, when he notices a bush on fire. On further examination it turns out to be all fired up but not burning up. Then God speaks. This was not normal. God was not in the habit of encountering people in such a direct way.

Moses is awestruck. It was one thing to see the bush, but to then hear God’s call! “Here I am, Lord,” he says. “Come no closer” he is told, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the land on which you are standing is holy ground.” Moses removes his sandals and starts to be afraid and hides his face.

After identifying Himself as being the same God whom had been followed by ancestors whom Moses had become familiar with, in verse 7, God explains how He had seen and heard and knew about the terrible circumstances under which His people suffered.

For sure many of them kept faith, but as their plight grew worse, their faith could not always rise to meet the challenge. Therefore to know that God had seen, heard and knew about their circumstances was a positive thing. The sort of thing that shone a bit of light into the darkness.

There’s a lot of times in our own lives when we need that assurance. Some of the things that life brings our way can cause us to question what we believe about God. We are easily shaken. It can be something personal like an illness or a family tragedy. It can be something that touches us all, like a natural disaster or a terrorist attack.

At times we just need to be reminded that God sees and hears and knows. Sees the things we go through. Hears the prayers, sometimes spoken, sometimes to difficult for words. That God knows not only what we are going through but also how best we can get through such times.

In verse 8 God says, “I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians”. The Hebrew word that is used for ‘come down’ is ‘yarad.’ ‘Yarad’ is rich in meaning, particularly when used of God. It pictures God as one who stoops down to lift us up, who wants to enter, in a powerful way into the circumstances that hold us back from being the people God would like us to be.

It’s a word that has particular significance for Christians, for we believe that it is precisely this God who is revealed to us in Jesus Christ. A God who is not content to let us keep going on and on in our own way, but comes where we are to open us up to possibilities never dreamed of. The Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. God Incarnate enters into our world and redeems our times.

The Hebrew word used for ‘deliver’ is also worth considering... “nawtsal.” It carries with it the ideas of rescuing, saving, plucking out, plundering or even ‘stripping away from.’ God in Christ comes to us, as He came to the Hebrews, in order to deliver us from sin and guilt, to strip away from us all that robs us of the dignity of being children of God, to plunder the dark places of our lives by flooding them with His light and life and setting us free.

As always there is a sting in the tale. Moses must have been very happy to hear that God had not only seen, heard and knew about the peoples plight and that now He was going to rescue them. But when he learned that he personally had an important and difficult role to play in the process, well, he is the first to suggest that God may be looking to the wrong person.

Who am I?” he cries out, “To do such things as these?” He complains he is not fitted for the task, not suited for such a position, that he didn’t speak right, walk right, talk right, act right… you name it... every excuse in the book goes through his mind. He is scared that nobody will believe him. He even asks God what he’s supposed to say if the people started to question him about how he was so sure that God had given him the job to do. “Who should I say sent me?

God answers that request for a name in a wonderfully ambiguous way. “I am who I am” comes the reply. “If you have to tell them something, tell them “I am” sent you.” In some bible versions the footnote is included that “I am who I am” can also be translated as “I will be what I will be” or “I am that I am”

One of the hardest things about being a preacher is that you have to explain to people that God can’t be explained! When all is said and done, at the end of the day, God defies all our theories and dogma and creeds and concerns. God remains enigmatic, mysterious and unpredictable.

Some things we can be sure about though. One of them is this. God’s purposes in the world are not going to be accomplished unless God’s people take the work of God’s kingdom upon their shoulders.

We rejoice that Christ died on the cross for us. Unless that rejoicing in turn causes us to be willing to ‘take up our cross and follow Him,’ then all that saving and setting free and liberating and healing and forgiving will never happen.

We may say, “Now if God came and spoke to me through a bush then I’d believe.” It’s not going to happen. Do you know why? God has spoken His ultimate word. God’s final word came not through a bush, but through a tree. Through a wooden cross that was outlined on Calvary’s hill, the cross upon which Jesus Christ was crucified. Moses is told in (Exodus 3:8). “I have come down to deliver them.

In Jesus Christ came to deliver us. And then God said to Moses, as God says to us today…(Exodus 3:10) “So come, I will send you…

You may have walked in here today thinking this was common ground. No. This is holy ground. I challenge you this morning to hear God’s call in this place. I challenge you to respond to God’s call. The church is not a holy place but a holy people. Unless you and I respond to the call God places upon our lives, then God’s work will not happen.

Holy Ground cannot be captured in buildings or confined to deserts. Go with God this week, and wherever you go, will be holy ground. Carry Christ in our heart and walk in the presence of the Holy Spirit and the common places of our daily lives can become touching places, places where God’s love can be known and communicated to others.

Tread gently,
walk in peace
and go with God.
For we stand on Holy ground!
AMEN.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Wilderness Living 1 "Faith Against the Odds”

Reading: Psalm 124, Exodus 1:8 – 2:10, Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, August 27 2017

When you think of Egypt, you think of pyramids. When Joseph was in charge in Egypt times were good for the Israelite's But Joseph died and people started to treat the Israelite's as the outsiders. As successive Pharaoh’s came along the treatment they received grew worse. Ambitious building projects were started and cheap labor needed. The Israelite's were forced into slavery. By the time that Moses was born, the Israelite's plight was desperate.

A pyramid like power structure had come into play. At the top was the Pharaoh, and just below that, the governors of Pharaoh’s court. Then various layers of government reached down to the Egyptian people. Below them were the foreigners and slaves, referred to in some ancient texts as the ‘hapiru’ - ‘lower class folks’ who were both despised and feared. They had a purpose in that they were necessary to carry out the work that the Pharaoh’s needed doing.

There was even a power structure among the ‘hapiru’ (or Hebrews as the Israelite slaves became known.) Those who would collaborate with the government were given the job of overseers. Those who were the strongest were honored above the weakest. Of least importance were the women and children. Their place was very much at the bottom of the pyramid of power.

Impressive as the Pharaohs pyramid of power may have been, there was a power in Egypt that could flatten the tallest pyramids. That power rested not in the hands of the Pharaoh, nor the government, or in the Egyptian population, or in some Israelite warrior, but in the lives of 3 women and a young girl. The power of faith.

That’s one of the things that frightened Pharaoh about those Hebrew people. They appeared to be blessed, despite their lives of servitude. Their numbers were growing and their influence was spreading. Some of them seemed to have their finger on some thing that eluded everybody else. They didn’t seem to fear him in the same way as everybody else did.

They had their faith in a higher power than Pharaoh. No doubt at times they worried what would become of them, but they clung to the promises made to their ancestors, that one day their people would prosper. Right then, it must have seemed a dim and distant hope. Yet it was a hope that lived in the life of three women and a girl child at the bottom of the pyramid of power. They had a faith that went against the odds.

The odds were that the Israelite people could look forward only to a long and unhappy life of drudgery. The odds were that Pharaoh’s jealousy and fear of them would bring nothing but trouble. Their chance of survival in such a hostile environment was extremely slim.

Everyday brought more bad news. They were forbidden to marry. They heard an order that at birth their sons were to be murdered. When this order failed to be carried out, they had the threat that all their boy children who were born would be thrown into the river and drowned. 

Despite all of that, the faithful actions of three women and a girl-child were about to set in course a chain of events that would bring the Egyptian nation to it’s knees and have Pharaoh begging for the Israelites to depart from the land.

The first two women to give voice to this life transforming faith are two mid-wives, “One of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah,” Not exactly household names these days, but without their faithful refusal to carry out Pharaohs commands, then Moses would not have survived to be a child, yet alone a leader of the people of God.

Pharaoh calls the women to him and tells them that, at the time of birth, if it is a Hebrew boy child they are to kill it, if it is a girl then that was fine. But, Scripture tells us, Exodus 1:17 “The midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.”

Pharaoh is not pleased by this and demands an explanation. The midwives are less than truthful and inform the Pharaoh that these Israelite women are so blessed and fertile that they kept having babies before the midwives could even get to them. Of course Pharaoh is not pleased and then gives the order for all the new baby boys to be drowned in the river.

The first two ladies expressing “faith against the odds” are Shiprah and Puah. The third is the mother of Moses, Jochebed, who was married to Aram. They were both from the priestly tribe of the Levites and after getting married they have a daughter, followed some time later by a son who appears on the scene at the time the Pharaoh is trying to murder all the baby boys.

Now there are hints in the story that this new born is no ordinary child. There is almost a mirroring of the early chapters of Genesis, that may not have been as lost on the original hearers of the story as it has become for us. First of all there is Exodus 2:2 “The woman conceived and bore a son; and she saw that he was a fine baby

The word structure in the Hebrew for the phrase ‘saw that he was a fine baby’ is similar to that of the Creation narrative, where God looks upon all the earth that has been created and proclaims “It is Good.” The idea of new beginnings is here hinted at, that through this child something new and creative was about to happen.

We are familiar with the story of Moses mother, Jochabed, placing the child in a specially prepared basket, and floating him on the river so that he may escape the wrath of Pharaoh. Here the images of Noah and the Ark that became the people’s salvation are evoked. Again the impression is given that this is no ordinary child.

Something more than just self-preservation is going on here. The mother of this child is acting with a faith that went against the odds. To simply hide the baby in a basket and let it float away would be a rather foolish action. The impression is given that she was following some barely discerned plan; acting in faith that these were actions God was directing her to take.

Then, the boldest of them all, the fourth in our quartet of faithful ladies, is the sister of Moses, Miriam, who sticks around to see what was going to happen to the baby. That the daughter of Pharaoh should come and find the child, then adopt it as her own, was not anything that either the baby’s sister or mother could have predicted, but that’s what happens.

Think of the boldness of that little girl in approaching the daughter of a Pharaoh! The daughter was a princess whilst she was the child of a slave. And how quick witted she is, arranging that the child’s nurse be her mother. Who could have seen that one coming? Truly these are examples of women and a little girl who had faith that went against the odds! Shiprah, Puah, Jochabed and Miriam. Four great (female) hero's of faith!

We have the benefit of hindsight. We have not only watched the cartoon “Prince of Egypt” but even read the original script in our Bibles. Not surprising they made a movie out of it. It’s a heroic story. Moses the adopted Prince, coming to terms with who he is, then leading the people towards freedom.

BUT… were it not for the faith of two-mid-wives, Shiphrah and Puah, of mother Jochabed who faithfully obeyed what she sensed God was calling her to do and the boldness of a young girl called Miriam in approaching a princess, then Moses would never have survived being born and his name would be lost among all the others who fell foul of Pharaohs madness.

There is a lot of talk around these days about the future and even survival of the traditional churches. It is no secret that most of the major denominations have seen a numerical loss. It’s part of our story here in this church that congregations once were larger and membership figures were once higher.

The world has changed. This is a land where many people believe they can live comfortably without needing a religion to help them through. We live in a period of history where people are more and more defined by what they do rather than who they are.

We are a fast food, speed of light, instant gratification society across the generations. The processes of sustained thought and disciplined action; the whole idea of denying of self in order to serve others has become increasingly devalued. We are just too complacent, too stimulated and too busy for the things that Jesus suggests are Kingdom priorities.

That’s a lot to deal with. It’s a huge pyramid of ideology that we labor under. It’s a difficult thing to truly influence when there are those that tell us right and wrong no longer have any meaning and that the only thing that really matters is that we do as best as we can.

BUT... we can learn from this story of three women and a little girl. They had the one thing that could bring the pyramids down. Faith. A trusting, uncomplicated reliance on God and ability to respond to what God was calling them to do.

Remember some of the things that Jesus said about faith?

(Matthew 17:20) “He said to them, (Because of their little faith), truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you."

(Luke 17:6) “And the Lord said, "If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, 'Be uprooted and be planted in the sea'; and it would obey you.”

To those who felt his healing touch. (Luke 8:48) “He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace."

To those needing to know they were accepted by God:- (Mark 2:5) “And when Jesus saw their faith, He said to the man, "My son, your sins are forgiven."

Mountain removing, tree-planting, wholesome making, sin forgiving, pyramid shattering faith. That’s all those ladies back in Pharaohs day had. What a difference it made. How it changed things. What sort of difference should faith be making to our lives? What sort of changes can faith in God bring about in our situations?

We’ll never know, unless we like those ladies, seek to be people who are faithful to God. Such is the challenge they lay before us today. To embrace a faith that goes against the odds. A faith like that of Shiphrah, Puah, Jochabed and Miriam.

In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ
Through the power of God’s Spirit
May that be a challenge we take on board
To the Glory of God.
AMEN.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Hand Washing or Heart Changing?



Readings: Genesis 45:1-15, Psalm 133, Isaiah 56:6-8, Matthew 15:10-20
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, August 20 2017

The Pharisees were offended. Jesus and His disciples hadn’t washed their hands in the way that Pharisees said hands should be washed. Hand washing is important. Everybody knows that. If you don’t wash your hands then germs can spread and people can get sick. Surely Jesus knew that?

But for the Pharisees hand washing wasn’t just about germs… but about ritual purity. It was a way of showing that you were one of God’s important people. Lesser people just didn’t get it! It wasn't good enough to be just a religious person. You had to practice your religion in a way that let people know they were not up to the standard when it came to the things of God.

Pharisees were important and influential people. The disciples knew this. That’s why they came to Jesus, and said to Him, “Jesus, be careful. You are going to offend the Pharisees!” Jesus takes it up a notch. He tells His disciples that the Pharisees were the blind leading the blind. He suggests that their hand washing rituals accomplished nothing more than massaging their own ego’s.

In Shakespeare's play “Macbeth” Lady Macbeth stands by the sink and vainly tries to wash invisible blood from her hands. Her guilty conscience consumes her. “Out damn spot” she declares as every night she tries to absolve herself of her murderous actions. But no amount of scrubbing and washing is able to cleanse her soul as she descends deeper and deeper into madness.

Jesus is saying that hand washing doesn’t work. That it is not enough. That the only solution for the dilemma of sin and guilt was changing the heart. Matthew 15:19 “For out of the heart comes evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.

On August 11th I celebrated my 60th birthday. It was a good day. I got to play with my grand baby and eat out at a nice restaurant in Castle Rock, Colorado, with my wife, daughter and son-in-law. After dinner there was a festival to celebrate summertime going on downtown. We listened to the music and I smiled to see the joy in my grand babies eyes when a vendor made her a balloon animal. A day of good things.

On August 12th the largest crowd of White Supremacists seen in decades gathered to spread their particularly vile message of hate. It was not a good day. It was a bad day for Charlottesville and for the United Stares. I never believed as a teenager, as a young adult or even a not so young adult I would live to see large numbers of people openly declaring their allegiance to the ideals of Nazi Germany.

The very fact of my existence is partly due to my father, a gentle, peace, loving man, serving his country to fight against the manifest evil that was the heart and soul of Hitler’s Germany. My father-in-law, captured at Dunkirk, spent most of the Second World War in prison camps and his salvation came partly from the fact that injuries received when trying to escape landed him in a prison camp hospital rather than an extermination camp.

It was Hitler's bombs that bombed my parents home of Coventry and took the lives of many of their friends and Hitlers bombs that dropped on the city of Liverpool, where, when I ministered at my congregations annual service of remembrance there were always tears in the eyes of those widowed during those raids and that conflict.

So on my Facebook page I posted a picture of a man, on August 12, in Charlottesville, proudly wearing a t-shirt that featured a quote. The quote said; “Those who want to live, let them fight, and those who do not want to fight in this world of eternal struggle do not deserve to live.” The man was not ashamed to display the source of such wisdom. A quotation from Adolf Hitler. No doubt those who waved swastika flags and gave Nazi salutes saw no problem with such a sentiment as they shouted their racist and homophobic slogans.

One of them, Alex Field James Jr, a man with history of association with right wing hate groups decided to drive his car into the crowd, injured 19 people and killed Heather Heyer, an unarmed young woman with a bright future ahead of her and a passion for peace and justice. You know this. And it’s horrible.

Jesus declared that evil begins in the heart. Sadly, what has been revealed is that there is is evil in the heart of this nation. The sort of evil that finds a focus in Nazi ideology, that rejoices in violence and feeds on people's ignorance and insecurity, just as the Nazi ideology of the late nineteen thirties was able to propel a nation of rational people into waging war against the whole world.

Those who want to live, let them fight, and those who do not want to fight in this world of eternal struggle do not deserve to live.” Words designed to fuel violence, inflame prejudice and cause harm. Words that the man wearing that T-shirt and his fellow agitators identified with, as a course of action to make this nation a great place.

Out of the heart” declared Jesus, “come evil intentions.” From evil intentions in people's hearts violence overflowed on Virginian streets. Freedom of speech was not meant to be a license to indulge in hate crimes… for that is what we call words that incite violence, prejudice and discrimination. “Out of the heart” says Jesus’ “Comes murder, false witness and slander.

Here and now we are not in a good place. So what are we going to do about it?

We can look for someone to blame. The current president. The previous president. The presidents before them. The Republicans. The Democrats. The media of the left or the right. The war in Iraq. The Korean War. The Second World War. The Civil War. Ignorance. Selfishness. Materialism. The 1%. The 99%. Religion. Religion that isn’t our religion. Wrong religion. Lack of religion. Atheism. The Devil. God.

We can claim we are not responsible. That “white privilege” isn’t a thing. That we do our best and can’t be expected to do more. That it’s not our problem. That if people lived decently.. and kept to the script… and washed their hands when they were expected to… they wouldn’t end up in such troublesome situations.

We can wring our hands and like Lady Macbeth, hope that by our constant scrubbing there will be no blood on our hands. We can start making lists of “bad sins” and “acceptable sins” and excuse some, while condemning others with fire and brimstone like intensity.

When Jesus spoke about the hollowness of the Pharisees religion, He knew it would land Him in trouble. He accuses them of leading many astray. Their response is to plan His death, an act they, in cooperation with others whose cages Jesus rattled and lives He exposed, managed to achieve. Being a follower of Jesus is hard.

Hard, but not impossible. It means we dare to be different. That we are sold on the idea that hearts can be changed, that hope can blossom in hopeless places and that love will always find a way.

The best thing we can do right now is recommit ourselves to being a community where love can be found. What the events in Charlottesville reveal to us is that what we believe, really, really, really matters. That if we operate on the level of “hand washing”, of constantly becoming obsessed with things that matter to nobody but ourselves and fail to practice the radical hospitality and belief and audacious love demonstrated in scripture, then we are just playing at religion, not living for the Kingdom.

Did you catch those words from the reading from Isaiah? “Thus says the Lord, 'Maintain justice and do what is right.' ” Or those words from Psalm 133; “How good and pleasant it is when kindred live in unity.

Evil has raised it’s voice in the heart of this nation. The kind of evil that truly believes the way to greatness is through violence, domination and oppression. That unless you get with the program you are a threat that doesn’t deserve to live. That’s the message of Adolf Hitler a participant in a demonstration in Charlottesville proudly displayed. “Those who want to live, let them fight, and those who do not want to fight in this eternal struggle, do not deserve to live. ” In other words, “Get with our program or you deserve to die!”

Removing Confederate monuments seems like a good idea when they are so offensive to many citizens of this country. Then again Welsh castles are seen by some Welsh folk as signs of English oppression. There’s usually more than one side to every argument.

But it would be naive to think that what happened in Charlottesville had much to do with monuments. It was about ideology, about belief, about a group of dangerous Nazi, white supremacist thugs who feel that the current political and religious climate allows them to spew their racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, self promoting violent form of hate into the mainstream of American society. That is not acceptable and needs to be called out and named for the evil that it is.

This could be a defining moment in the nations history. The only way to combat evil is with love. Love that isn’t afraid to call out evil as evil. Love that is expressed at a local level through community and care. Love that refuses to become bogged down in debates about “hand washing” and takes seriously the possibility of “heart changing” that comes through a relationship with Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

That’s the challenge this scripture in the light of recent events seems to throw down before us. What is it going to be? Hand washing or Heart Changing? When Jesus put that challenge before the disciples it was clear where the process began. With the man (or the woman) in the mirror. As a well known song declares, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”

Let us take a personal inventory, using maybe the sermon on the mount or Paul’s words about love in 1 Corinthians as our guide, and let us ask God to show us where change needs to be made and how we can make the change from being hand washers to heart changers.

Let us commit ourselves to prayer. To pray for those who are blinded by hate. To pray for those who are hurt by their actions. To pray for justice to be tempered by peace and peace be the aim of our justice. To pray against all those who see violence as the way to get things done, be that violence physical, verbal, online or in the community.

Then come back next week and worship God and seek God and lift each other up in prayer for the living of these days! We need Jesus. We need His Spirit to move us and strengthen us. We need each other. And most of all we need the love and grace of God to lift us above our limitations and expectations.

We are not alone. To quote a letter from our General Presbyter Jackie Taylor “A broadcaster asked the question, "Who is our moral compass"? The answer? We are - The Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. represented by the congregations and entities of the Presbytery of Baltimore and our wider denomination. Our statements are in our sermons, when we denounce and defy those in our country that embrace and act on violent racist values. Our statements are evident in our activism when we march and pray and sing. Our statements are in our communication toward one another and the people of God when we speak truth and we speak peace.

Above all, our statements are in our actions demonstrating our unwavering faith in Jesus the Christ, who placed righteousness over rhetoric and love over law. Friends, it may get worse before it gets better. But we are a people of light, faith and hope "And hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us." (Romans 5:5). May that same Spirit comfort, sustain and empower us in the days to come.” To God be the glory. Amen

The Reverend Adrian J Pratt B.D.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Patriarchal Ponderings - Jacob's Wives

Readings: Psalm 105:1-11, Romans 8:26-39, Matthew 13:31-33,44-52, Genesis 29:15-28
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, July 30 2017

Jacob had a dream. A dream that a lot of people have had. The kind that has consumed generations before and ever since. He’s in love. His dream girl is called Rachel. Leah, Rachel’s sister was OK, she had nice eyes, but when Jacob thought about Rachel, “Oh mamma, that lady was fine.” He promises himself; “She will be mine!”

In our lives we have dreams and passions. We have dreams for our lives, for our relationships, maybe even for our community or our church. The lesson we learn from Jacob is that seeing our dreams come to something can take a while and we might not always get exactly what we expected.

  • Firstly, this passage reveals that we are broken vessels that have to live within the consequences of our own shortcomings.
  • Secondly, that we are surrounded by those who do not share our values and are as equally broken as our selves.
  • Thirdly, this passage has something overwhelmingly positive to tell us. That whenever love is real, it can change things. God has an unusual way of turning our dreams into His plans!

Firstly this passage reveals our broken lives

Let us remind ourselves of whom Jacob was. This is the mommy’s boy who deceived his visually handicapped father to get an inheritance that should have been his twin brothers. This is the Jacob who was doing all he could to avoid a confrontation with Esau, who had vowed, “If I ever see Jacob again, I’m gonna kill him!”

This is the Jacob who had become aware God was on his case after having a strange dream of a stairway to heaven. Far from comforting him, this dream terrifies him. It makes him rethink his relationship to God and gives him a sense that life may turn out better if he started trying to do things God’s way, instead of listening mostly to his mothers’ advice!

Jacob is no wide eyed innocent enduring his first teenage crush. Life was actually passing him by at speed and it seems relationships weren’t something he had a lot of time for. But then he sets eyes on Rachel and something goes ‘zzzinngg’.

Who can explain that? The mystery of human attraction! Crazy thing is that it doesn’t seem to matter if one is a sinner or a saint, once Cupid fires his arrow people are rendered helpless.

And it looks like things are going to work out. Rachel’s dad, Laban, seems to like Jacob. Because of family connections he takes pity on him and even offers him a job. When the subject of payment comes up Jacob says, “All I want is your daughter Rachel’s hand in marriage”. Laban smiles and it seems like it’s a done deal.

Seven years later it turns sour. Jacob is getting ready for his wedding night. No doubt there was much partying and probably a bit of drinking involved, but the upshot of it all is that when Jacob awakes in the morning, it is not Rachel laying at his side, but her sister, Leah.

Laban has turned out to be snake! He turns out to be as cruel and devious and sly and calculating and shifty and unreliable and untrustworthy and manipulative as … well … he turned out to be as much of a sneak as Jacob himself. They do say ‘what goes around comes around’ and Jacob encounters in Laban somebody who has ‘out-Jacobed Jacob’.

We sometimes think that in life we can escape our shortcomings and that we can gloss over our failures. The scary thing is they can actually confront us in the bad behavior of others who share our faults to such an extent that we finally see what fools we can be! How many times have we said, “There but for the grace of God, go I?” How often do we find that we recoil at others actions, because actually, we have a horrible fear we could have done that ourselves?

We never truly escape our upbringing or the mistakes of the past. They come back and haunt us in the most unlikely of ways. At events like school reunions, you go there recalling the good times, but sometimes memories of the bad times also resurface. ‘I can’t believe we used to call him that’ or “What were we thinking!”

Friends, we are all broken. Paul in the Book of Romans simply says ‘There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22-23 NIV). Life can, as it did with Jacob, bring along experiences that reveal our broken-ness. That’s not a bad thing. Because oftentimes it’s only when we see where we are going wrong, that we start wanting to put things right!

A second thing revealed in this passage is that we are not the only broken ones.

The actions of those who are broken around us can cause us great pain. Laban hurts not only Jacob, but also Rachel and Leah. Because of the tension he creates between them all, he also will hurt their children. We don’t get to hear the whole story of Jacobs’ interactions with Laban, but I can tell you, things did not improve further down the line.

What we did get to hear in our story was Laban’s lame excuse for marrying Jacob to his older daughter instead of his younger one. He tells Jacob that, ‘Well, it’s just the custom around here. We don’t allow the younger one to get the inheritance before we’ve taken care of the senior child’s needs.’

Was this God’s way of making Jacob understand just what a rotten thing he had done to his brother Esau? Esau, was after all the oldest child who had deserved to be taken care of first, even if he was only older by an arms length! One of the twins had to be born first, and that counted for something back in those days. Once again some kind of negative karma seems to be impacting Jacob and enabling him to see the error of his ways.

We have no control over what others do to us. If folk are mad at us or uncaring towards us or disrespectful of us, then whilst we don’t have to be a doormat and let them walk all over us, we also have to accept that there are some folks we just can’t change. Why? Because...they are, like us, broken. That is not to excuse bad actions or reprehensible behavior, just to say that some people are resistant to change.

We don’t have a choice in the way other people act towards us, but we can choose the way we respond to them. We can choose to go beyond gut reactions and the search for vengeance. We can come to the realization that when we hold anger towards others, it is chewing us up far more than it is them.

And our model for doing so is our Savior Jesus Christ. In Him we see a compassion that refuses to be sidelined by those who reject us. As we take our hurts and our failures to God in prayer, so we seek for the strength to overcome our very human reactions, that they may become something more, something that carries the acceptance and love of God that we ourselves have found in Christ.

In the midst of this crazy story about Jacob we see a little miracle. Love changes Jacob. When Jacob realized he has been tricked by Laban, the natural ‘Jacob’ reaction would have been for him to totally lose it. To storm off back home to mother, who would create a fuss, and other family would get involved and pretty soon it would be like the set of a Jerry Springer show. Family Feuds part 2!

But what happens in this story? Jacob asks Laban; “What’s going on?” Laban lays it out for him and says if you want Rachel, then you have to work another 7 years. The miracle here is Jacob’s silence. There is no argument. Laban says, fulfill your duties to Leah, then get back to work”. We read “And Jacob did so, and fulfilled her week; and Laban (after 7 years) gave him Rachel his daughter as his wife” (Genesis 29:15-28)

And this moves us quickly to the positive point in this story.

When love is for real, it can change everything
There is, of course more going on here than the fact that Jacob is crazy in love with Rachel. That is a huge part of it, but the other side of it is that Jacob is beginning to realize that the love God has for him requires him to change.

Jacob already knew God was on his case. He had understood that when he experienced the dream of a ladder going up to heaven and was aware that God was covenanting with him to walk with him and lead him in his life. When he met Rachel, he must have thought, “Yes, this could work!”

But Jacob also had to come to a place where he could be confronted by his sins in such a powerful way that he would determine that this time around, things were going to be different. Through the love of a woman and the love of God, change was happening!

We can run from our sins and our failings for a long time. But there needs to come, to all of us, those moments when we realize, we need help. And the only true hope of forgiveness and change is the love of God that we can discover in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Only His life-changing Holy Spirit can take what is broken and make something beautiful out of it!

We are victims of our own actions and we are victims of the actions of others. Jesus Christ went to the Cross, as a victim, to totally identify with our situation. The story did not end in death, but in new life. In the birth of the Church. In the blossoming of hope of in people who recognize their need and encounter God’s love.

We like Jacob, live our lives, may well fall in love and face many strange twists and turns. We will sin and be sinned against. So we can learn from Jacob.

We learn that we are all broken.
We learn that, through the love of God, broken lives can be remade.
We can learn to watch and wait and trust that in God’s time, all things are possible.
And to God’s name be all the glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, July 17, 2017

“The Courage of Abigail" (Pre-VBS Outdoor Service)

Introduction

Vacation Bible School begins tomorrow. We'll be looking at famous Bible characters who were real heroes. People like David and Jesus and disciples like Peter and Paul. But there's one we don't often hear about. And her name is Abigail.

First Reading: Our first reading introduces us to the characters in this biblical drama! A mean man called Nabal, his wonderful wife Abigail, and how things went wrong with future King David.

Read: 1 Samuel 25: 2-13 “Setting the Scene”

A certain man in Maon, who had property there at Carmel, was very wealthy. He had a thousand goats and three thousand sheep, which he was shearing in Carmel. His name was Nabal and his wife's name was Abigail. She was an intelligent and beautiful woman, but her husband was surly and mean in his dealings--he was a Calebite. While David was in the wilderness, he heard that Nabal was shearing sheep. So he sent ten young men and said to them, "Go up to Nabal at Carmel and greet him in my name. Say to him: 'Long life to you! Good health to you and your household! And good health to all that is yours! "'Now I hear that it is sheep-shearing time. When your shepherds were with us, we did not mistreat them, and the whole time they were at Carmel nothing of theirs was missing. Ask your own servants and they will tell you. Therefore be favorable toward my men, since we come at a festive time. Please give your servants and your son David whatever you can find for them.'" When David's men arrived, they gave Nabal this message in David's name. Then they waited. Nabal answered David's servants, "Who is this David? Who is this son of Jesse? Many servants are breaking away from their masters these days. Why should I take my bread and water, and the meat I have slaughtered for my shearers, and give it to men coming from who knows where?" David's men turned around and went back. When they arrived, they reported every word. David said to his men, "Each of you strap on your sword!" So they did, and David strapped his on as well. About four hundred men went up with David, while two hundred stayed with the supplies.

Part One – DIFFICULT PEOPLE!

Like it or not, in life, we come across people, who are well... “Difficult” to deal with. They can be young or old, rich or poor, strangers or family. In our first reading the difficult person is a rich middle aged man, who lives in a place called Maon and whose name is Nabal. Mean, mean Nabal is scriptures verdict upon him.

Here's a bit of the story we didn't read... to set the scene a little more. Some of Nabal's workers had been in the land where David's shepherds used to work. Now David, when he was younger, had been a shepherd himself, and David knew what a hard job it could be. The days could be long and tiring and hot. Sheep could be stupid and needed a lot of looking after. So when some of Nabal's workers, who were shepherds, were working near some of David's workers, who were also shepherds, David told his men to be kind to them.

And they were. They looked after them. Shared their food and drink with them. Protected them from enemies nearby. Trusted them not to take anything that wasn't theirs. It had been a a good and satisfying experience working with them. Now, the tables had turned. It was sheep shearing time, a very busy time in a shepherds life, and David's men were working near Nabal's men.

So David sends a message to Nabal. “Hey, Nabal. Remember when your shepherds, were working near my shepherds. Well, we treated them right. Please treat my men the same! We just heard in our reading that “He sent ten young men and said to them, "Go up to Nabal at Carmel and greet him in my name. Say to him: 'Long life to you! Good health to you and your household! And good health to all that is yours! "'Now that it is sheep-shearing time.... be favorable toward my men, since we come at a festive time. Please give your servants and your son David whatever you can find for them.'"

How does Mean Mean Nabal react to David's men? He's horrible. “Who is this David person? And who is his father Jesse? I don't care how he treated my servants. I'm not giving his men bread and water. Why should I? I'm Nabal. I'm important. So important. I don't have to share anything with David... whoever he may be!

Well.. “Whoever he maybe David” was somebody destined to be King of all Israel and you didn't speak to David like that. When David hears what Nabal has said about him, he's mad. Really mad. David puts an army together. Tells his army, “Strap on your swords, we are going to teach meanie Nabal a lesson!” Uh-Oh. Trouble coming!

I'll be honest with you. I don't understand why people like Nabal can be so difficult. I don't understand how they get it into their head that they are so important. And that the rules that apply to everybody else somehow don't apply to them. Maybe they get so used to bossing other people around that they think they treat anybody that way.

But I just hope, one day, that they wise up and realize, that in particular before God, we are none of us THAT important. Because in life, often, what goes around comes around, and we reap the consequences of our actions, no matter how important we mistakenly believe we are. “Meanie Nabal” was about to discover that!

Right now, is a good to take a pause before we move on with the story, and move into that part of our service we call “Our prayer of confession.” Because I suspect we have all at some time or other fallen into behavior not unlike Nabal.

Isn't God awesome? Always offering a chance to be forgiven and start over again.

The story continues....
Second Reading: 1 Samuel 25:14-31 The Courage of Abigail

One of the servants told Abigail, Nabal's wife, "David sent messengers from the wilderness to give our master his greetings, but he hurled insults at them. Yet these men were very good to us. They did not mistreat us, and the whole time we were out in the fields near them nothing was missing. Night and day they were a wall around us the whole time we were herding our sheep near them. Now think it over and see what you can do, because disaster is hanging over our master and his whole household. He is such a wicked man that no one can talk to him." Abigail acted quickly. She took two hundred loaves of bread, two skins of wine, five dressed sheep, five seahs of roasted grain, a hundred cakes of raisins and two hundred cakes of pressed figs, and loaded them on donkeys. Then she told her servants, "Go on ahead; I'll follow you." But she did not tell her husband Nabal. As she came riding her donkey into a mountain ravine, there were David and his men descending toward her, and she met them. David had just said, "It's been useless--all my watching over this fellow's property in the wilderness so that nothing of his was missing. He has paid me back evil for good. May God deal with David, be it ever so severely, if by morning I leave alive one male of all who belong to him!" When Abigail saw David, she quickly got off her donkey and bowed down before David with her face to the ground. She fell at his feet and said: "Pardon your servant, my lord, and let me speak to you; hear what your servant has to say. Please pay no attention, my lord, to that wicked man Nabal. He is just like his name--his name means Fool, and folly goes with him. And as for me, your servant, I did not see the men my lord sent. And now, my lord, as surely as the LORD your God lives and as you live, since the LORD has kept you from bloodshed and from avenging yourself with your own hands, may your enemies and all who are intent on harming my lord be like Nabal. And let this gift, which your servant has brought to my lord, be given to the men who follow you. "Please forgive your servant's presumption. The LORD your God will certainly make a lasting dynasty for my lord, because you fight the LORD's battles, and no wrongdoing will be found in you as long as you live. Even though someone is pursuing you to take your life, the life of my lord will be bound securely in the bundle of the living by the LORD your God, but the lives of your enemies he will hurl away as from the pocket of a sling. When the LORD has fulfilled for my lord every good thing he promised concerning him and has appointed him ruler over Israel, my lord will not have on his conscience the staggering burden of needless bloodshed or of having avenged himself. And when the LORD your God has brought my lord success, remember your servant."

Part Two – FINDING COURAGE

You may recall from our first reading that while Nabal is described as“surly and mean in his dealings” his wife Abigail was described as “an intelligent and beautiful woman.” But she was a lot more than just clever and good looking. We'll be celebrating in VBS that she was also courageous.

One of the servants explains to her how David had been offended and was on his way with a whole company of soldiers to attack them, because Nabal had been so outrageously disrespectful towards him. The servant has tried to do something, but he says of meanie Nabal “He is such a wicked man that no one can talk to him.

So Abigail does something very brave. She decides to take action without consulting her husband. Now... in our day.. that might not seem such a big thing to do. But back then? It was unheard of! Particularly if you were the wife of somebody as powerful and mean as Nabal. One can only imagine what he might have done had he found out what Abigail was up to!

What was she up to? Well she's gathering together supplies to offer David and his men in the hope that doing so will change their mind about attacking them. That was a huge risk to take. Not only was it going against her husband, but there was absolutely no guarantee that David would even listen to the plea of a woman like her, the wife of somebody who was now his enemy.

She loads up donkeys full of good stuff and approaches David. She can tell how mad he is. He's absolutely fuming! He's raging..."It's been useless--all my watching over this fellow's property in the wilderness so that nothing of his was missing. He has paid me back evil for good. May God deal with David, be it ever so severely, if by morning I leave alive one male of all who belong to him!" What was she to do?

She gets off her donkey and bows down before him. She tells David... “Don't pay any attention to Nabal... do you know what Nabal's name means sir? It means “Idiot” or “Fool” and he's living up to his name right now! Don't waste your time dealing with a loser like him! Don't spill innocent blood on the account of such an idiot.”

Then she talks to David of how she knew that God was on the side of right, and that David was always doing the right thing and how God would always bless David. She even hints that she thought one day David would be King! This vengeful killing of Nabal wouldn't be helpful. If David was acting out of anger then he would regret what he did. If he left Nabal alone she says; “My lord will not have on his conscience the staggering burden of needless bloodshed.”

Wow! That was brave! Telling somebody you thought would one day be the King how to think? Advising him to change his plans? Abigail's courage just jumped up another notch. If you didn't do things without consulting your husband, even less did you go around telling future royalty how to think! It could all go very wrong very quickly. We'll find out in the next reading how things turn out.

The source of Abigail's courage was that she trusted in God. She knew that it wasn't right that her servants and family should be destroyed because of the actions of one stupid person. A very rich, powerful person though he was, meanie Nabal wasn't greater than God... and God was on the side of right. She knew also that God had blessed David and felt that David was somebody who could be trusted to do the right thing.

It's not easy to stand up against powerful people. It's not easy to call out a bully or challenge somebody who is doing wrong, especially when everybody else seems to let them get away with it and go along with it. It's never easy to come out of your comfort zone and risk your own reputation. But that's what Abigail did. She did the right thing because she trusted that God was on the side of right.

She must have been a person of prayer. Prayer strengthens us to do the right thing. One of the songs we are going to learn this week tells us “Strength will rise as we wait upon the Lord.” The chorus teaches us about God; the God who is on the side of right. “You are the everlasting God, You do not faint, You won't grow weary, You're the defender of the weak, You comfort those in need, You lift us up on wings like eagles.”

Third Reading:1 Samuel 25:32-42 Abigail's Vindication

David said to Abigail, "Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel, who has sent you today to meet me.
May you be blessed for your good judgment and for keeping me from bloodshed this day and from avenging myself with my own hands. Otherwise, as surely as the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, who has kept me from harming you, if you had not come quickly to meet me, not one male belonging to Nabal would have been left alive by daybreak." Then David accepted from her hand what she had brought him and said, "Go home in peace. I have heard your words and granted your request." When Abigail went to Nabal, he was in the house holding a banquet like that of a king. He was in high spirits and very drunk. So she told him nothing at all until daybreak. Then in the morning, when Nabal was sober, his wife told him all these things, and his heart failed him and he became like a stone. About ten days later, the LORD struck Nabal and he died. When David heard that Nabal was dead, he said, "Praise be to the LORD, who has upheld my cause against Nabal for treating me with contempt. He has kept his servant from doing wrong and has brought Nabal's wrongdoing down on his own head." Then David sent word to Abigail, asking her to become his wife. His servants went to Carmel and said to Abigail, "David has sent us to you to take you to become his wife." She bowed down with her face to the ground and said, "I am your servant and am ready to serve you and wash the feet of my lord's servants." Abigail quickly got on a donkey and, attended by her five female servants, went with David's messengers and became his wife.

Part Three – THE GOD WHO LISTENS

Things turn out pretty well for Abigail. David is amazed by Abigail's courage and wisdom. He thanks God for her. He tells her that if she hadn't come along, he would have killed every man belonging to Nabal... and done so out of anger, which wouldn't have been right. He thanks God that he had taken the time to listen to what Abigail had to say instead of striking her down. The “LORD, the God of Israel, ...has kept me from harming you.” He sees how the courage of Abigail had been an action that was rooted in her faith in God.

But now Abigail had to go home. When she gets there, it's not good. Nabal has thrown a party, is acting like he was the king, completely oblivious to the fate Abigail's actions had just saved him from. He really was living up to his name of being a “fool.”

When he's sobered up, in the morning Abigail explains what had happened. Nabal does not take it well. He has a heart attack and dies a few days later! It's a shame that he only realizes what an idiot he's been when it was to late!

I guess Abigail really made an impression on David when she went out to meet him with those donkeys and supplies. Now free from mean old Nabal, she receives a proposal of marriage from David. She seems happy to accept the offer and rides off to start a new life. And they all live happily ever after. Well they do in storybooks, but for David and Abigail there were crazy days ahead. Abigail is kidnapped by enemy forces. David rushes to save her.... but … no that's for another time! For VBS purposes our story about the courage of Abigail has been told! What can we learn from it?

I wish I could promise every lady here that if they do the right thing they will be free from all the difficult people in their lives and end up marrying a man destined to be the most powerful king the nation has ever seen... but, for so many reasons, that's not going to happen.

The perspective this lesson does offer to us is that when we listen to God and seek to do the right thing, God honors our decisions. Faithfulness takes courage. As we wait upon the Lord we find ourselves strengthened to do the things God calls us to do.

And you know.. it's often the little things that make the big difference. They may not be as dramatic as saving our whole neighborhood from destruction by a vengeful army, but it's living faithfully every day, in all that we seek to do, that builds us up and bless peoples lives.

There are those occasions when we are called to take direct action. I believe God is able to prepare us for such times and grace us with whatever we need to get through them. But such moments tend to be the exception, not the stuff of everyday life! This story is a call for us to build up our lives through faithfulness, so that we are always ready to act when God has need of us.

Such was the same thing Jesus taught His disciples. They spent a lot of time learning and listening, learning how to pray, listening to His teaching. It wasn't all action, but day by day discovery of God's ways and desires for their lives.

Let us pray that this years VBS will be an opportunity for everybody involved, organizers, students, teachers and helpers, to learn more about what it takes to be a disciple of Jesus Christ in today's world! May we live up to the theme of being “Hero Central – a place to “Discover Your Strength in God!” To God's name be all glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J Pratt B.D.