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

Monday, June 11, 2018

Drovers, Cowboys and Pilgrims

SCOTTISH HERITAGE SUNDAY (Outdoor Amphitheater Service)
Readings: Psalm 100, Deuteronomy 8:11-18, Mark 6:7-13
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, June 10 2018

When I was a young one, growing up near Liverpool, England, my Father, who identified strongly with his Scottish heritage, and loved no place more than the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond, always enjoyed cowboy films and series on the TV. There were some regulars. The Lone Ranger. Bonanza. The High Chaparral. I sometimes wondered. Why was a Scotsman so interested in cowboy films?

Because of those series, I always thought that cowboys came from places like Argentina and Mexico. There always seemed to be characters with names like Manilito and Pedro, rather than MacGregor or MacLeod! Yet historically there is a close connection between the drovers of the Scottish Highlands and the cowboys of the 18th Century. As today we celebrate the Scottish heritage of the nation and in particular the Presbyterian Church, I wanted to talk to you about “Drovers, Cowboys and Pilgrims.”

Up until the 19h Century, the biggest industry in the North of Scotland, it's islands and highlands, was cattle. It was considered there was no better beef on the planet than Scottish beef, nurtured on the rich pastures and waters of that stunning landscape. Locations like “The Isle of Skye” were strongholds of the industry.

But of course, the people who consumed most of this beef, were not in the North, but in the south and over the border in England and even further afield. So every year, the cattle had to be taken to market by hardy folk who took on the task of being drovers.

The biggest market was in a place called Falkirk, today a rather quiet town. But in its heyday Falkirk was the home of the largest cattle market on the planet, the Falkirk Tryst. To give you an idea of the scale of the market, some 150,000 cattle + 200,000 sheep would change hands every season. Sometimes the lines of animals trying to get into the town would stretch for 7 or 8 miles.

This is in the days before motorized transport, airplanes, interstates, and railways. So how did you get the cattle from the highland farm to the market, which could be 250 miles away? There was no easy way. You had to walk. Or rather, your cattle had to be driven. Hence the name drovers.

Cattle can't be rushed. They like mooing, plodding and eating. The absolute maximum anyone could expect to do was 15 miles a day. And there were rivers to cross. Mountains to get around. Over the centuries these formed what became known as “Drovers Roads,” which eventually became the highways that exist today in Scotland.

But the danger wasn't the traffic. There were highway robbers and cattle thieves and hostile clans who had old scores to settle. So you had to carry a sword or a gun to defend yourself. There were land owners who every year negotiated tariffs for the privilege of crossing their territory. You had to know how to strike a bargain. And every year the exercise had to be repeated. A hard life.

Come with me to ancient Israel. The earliest Hebrews were a nomadic people who, like the Scots, moved their animals from place to place. Only later in their history did they start to settle in towns and build cities. Our first reading today is from Deuteronomy 8:11-18 and it's a reminder to the Hebrew people, that once they were settled and wealthy and safe, not to forget their heritage.

Take care that You do not forget the LORD Your God, by failing to keep His commandments, His ordinances, and His statutes, which I am commanding you today. When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good. Do not say to yourself, "My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth." But remember the LORD your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth, so that He may confirm his covenant that He swore to your ancestors, as He is doing today.” (NRS)

Returning to the Scottish drovers and the cowboy connection. In the mid-eighteenth and into the 19th Century, a huge change came about in the Highlands. The Lairds who owned the land came to realize that greater profits could be found through raising sheep than rearing cattle. The woolen industry was about to boom, and so began one of the most desperate periods for the Scottish people, the Highland clearances.

By 1800 some 10,000 crofters had been driven from their homes by the desire for profit. The following years saw the end of the domination of the Scottish beef industry and while some fled to the lowlands, many former drovers emigrated to the new world.

They found their skills, of herding, of living in the wild, of husbandry and of gunmanship, were readily adapted to the growing cattle industry. Enterprising Scots were often to the fore in the build-up of huge North American cattle empires. Firms like the “Prairie Land & Cattle Company” were actually based in Edinburgh. The “Matador Land and Cattle Company” had headquarters in Dundee.

One way we know how strong that influence was, is through music. Brian McNeil,a scholar of Celtic music. He was surprised, when on a visit to a small Appalachian town, he visited a music evening and discovered the band were playing an old drovers tune, called “Cambell's Farewell to RedCastle.” When he asked the fiddler how he knew the song, the fiddler replied, “Oh, that's a traditional Appalachian tune called “Farewell to Red Gap.” It seems the drovers had carried their music as well as their herding skills, with them.

In the 20th Century legendary Scottish Americans like McTaggart, Quick Draw McGraw and the James Brothers, became the stars of a whole new culture, the Hollywood Western. A classic example is the movie “Red River” made in 1948, starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, gives a fictional account of the first cattle drive from Texas to Kansas along the Chisholm Trail, a trail named after a Scotsman.

Moving on from Drovers and Cowboys, what about pilgrims?

Scotland had always had a diverse religious history. Before the Reformation, and some time afterward, it was a Catholic nation. This was partly due to political affiliations with Europe, but also because the United Kingdom as a whole was divided after Henry 8th decided England was going to be Protestant. The history of his successors, of Mary Queen of Scots ( an ardent Catholic) and Elizabeth 1st (the first Protestant queen) is the stuff of legend.

Eventually, a man called John Knox, converted to the Protestant faith and, due to many, many historical factors, under his influence, Scotland became a Protestant nation and “The Presbyterian Church became “The Church of Scotland,” a position it continues to occupy today.

The Scots carried their Presbyterian religion with them when they came to the United States. One of the first places they brought it was to Maryland. Rehoboth Presbyterian Church, in Somerset County, Maryland, is the oldest continuously operated Presbyterian church in the United States. Francis Makemie, a Scottish Presbyterian missionary, arrived there in 1683.

The first Presbyterian worship held within the the current bounds of the Presbytery of Baltimore occurred in 1713 at the home of Thomas Todd. Tradition holds that the Todd house church was the predecessor of the present Mt. Paran Church in Holbrook. We live in an area steeped in early Presbyterian history.

To be a person of faith means accepting the call to be, not a herdsman or cowboy, nor necessarily a Presbyterian, but a traveler, and a pilgrim. Hear this reading from Mark 6:7-12. Jesus sends His followers out on one of their first missionary journeys;

He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, "Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them." So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.

The early Hebrews were a nomadic people, who led their herds through the wilderness. There's a little scene in the show “Joseph and His Technicolor DreamCoat”, when the brothers, dressed as cowboys, sing “There's One More Angel in Heaven.” Something about that scene made me think of drovers and early Hebrews as pilgrims.

Jesus instructs His earliest disciples to be people on the move. For many Scottish people, after the decline of the cattle industry, they were moved, not by choice, but by necessity. Many turned their misfortune into a new beginning and helped shape the life of a new nation.

Isn't that part and parcel of what being a disciple of Jesus is all about? Are we not called to demonstrate the values of a New Kingdom, the Kingdom of God, in a way that enriches our own lives and the lives of our communities?

Discipleship is all about going on a journey. It may not be a geographical journey, but it is always a spiritual journey. We can never determine what life is going to bring our way, but we do choose how we deal with it and handle it. The drovers of Scotland never woke up one morning and said, “Hey let's go to the New World and be Cowboys.” Dour circumstances forced them into a situation where they had to move on.

The unwelcome and unexpected challenges of life, can often be the catalyst for life changing moments. When such come our way, we can trust God to guide us. We can trust God, because God sent Jesus Christ to be the model and inspiration for our lives and sends the Holy Spirit to inspire us and lead us. At the Cross God declared all barriers that may stand in our way are broken down through the love of Jesus, that we are welcomed and invited and encouraged to be pilgrim people, seeking for a better world to come into being.

We have a great heritage of faithful folk whose example can guide us. We heard in our Old Testament reading God telling the Hebrew people, “Don't forget your roots. When you are happy and settled, don't forget your God.”

Just as this land has been formed by folks of many traditions of many nations, including a whole host of Scots, our faith can be nurtured by many different streams of spirituality. We don't always make the connection. I could never understand as a kid why my Scottish heritaged Father enjoyed Cowboy films so much. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that the Drovers of the highlands were a part of his birthright.

Celebrate your heritage, whatever it may be. Celebrate your journey of faith, wherever it may lead. Above all be thankful for the grace of God that has blessed us with land and people, with challenges and opportunities, with hope and a future. To God be all glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Mark my Words - Celebrate The Sabbath

Sermon Series: Mark My Words
Readings: Psalm 139:1-18,2 Corinthians 4:5-12, Deuteronomy 5:12-15; Mark 2:23-3:6
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church on June 3 2018

"Yvonne, I don't want to go to church!"
"Get up, you're late'
"But Yvonne, let me lie in bed, just this once!"
"Get out of that bed, now!"
"But Yvonne, I don't want to go to church!"
"Adrian, you've got to go.., You're the minister."

"Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy" (Deuteronomy 5:12)

There was a time when that commandment about keeping the Sabbath day was observed with a legalistic thoroughness that made the Pharisees look lax. Time was when about the only thing you were allowed to do on a Sunday was go to church.

Things started to change. The stress started to be put upon the bibles teaching about "Rest" rather than "Holiness.” Someone noticed that even God took a day off! So Sunday became recreation day. Take a walk in the countryside. Go out to eat. Do some stuff that will re-energize you for the week to come, and included in that was recharging your spiritual batteries in church.

Then someone noticed that a lot of people had time on their hands on a Sunday. Some of that time could be spent shopping. We could schedule a few sports events. In fact let's make it a really recreational day. Suddenly we find ourselves rushing around like mad folk and not only is the idea of holiness a forgotten echo but we've lost the restfulness as well. And church? Hmm. How does that fit in?

When you think of all the things you can do on a Sunday, when you try to figure out where your priorities lie, when you try to sort out, not just what has to be done, but what is the right thing to do, well, sometimes you could be tempted to say that a circus juggler has an easier task!

Our scripture reading from Marks gospel focused on two incidents where Jesus spoke about the Sabbath. In the first He explains that man wasn't made for the Sabbath, the Sabbath was made for man. In the second Jesus exposes the diabolical double standard in the lives of the Pharisees. They affirmed it was right to do good on the Sabbath whilst plotting His murder. Let's look at those two stories and ask; "How can we best "Celebrate the Sabbath" and honor the fourth commandment in our lives?”

Plucking the grain

At the time Jesus disciples were accused of breaking the commandments there were complex laws surrounding the Sabbath. Doing work, preparing meals and plucking grain were not allowed. By walking through a field and eating corn the disciples broke the law.

Jesus defends their actions by quoting Samuel 21:1-6. In that passage David, the anointed one of God fleeing for his life, ran to the Tabernacle, the Holy Place where Abiathar was the High Priest. He demanded something to eat . There was no food available except "Shewbread," a weekly offering of 12 loaves meant to be eaten exclusively by the priests. It was all they had. So David took and ate the bread and so broke the law.

Interpreting that event Jesus explains; "The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath." The disciples were on an urgent mission to preach the Kingdom of God. Jesus, the anointed one of God, the "Son of Man" was in their midst. These were exceptional circumstances. They had done no wrong.

There were occasions when individual and human need took precedence over Sabbath laws. In Matthew's account of questions about the Sabbath, he recalls Jesus saying to his opponents, "Look, if one of you has a sheep that falls into a ditch on the Sabbath, you don't leave it there to die, you lift it out!" Doing the right thing was more essential than doing the prescribed thing. Mark develops this argument by giving us a second story.

The healing of the withered hand.

The opponents of Jesus are sitting in the synagogue waiting to catch Him out. He knows what's going on and confronts them by calling out of the congregation a man who has a withered hand. The man stands before them and Jesus puts it to them straight. "Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?"

As His adversaries real motives are bought out into the open they are shamed into silence. The authority of Jesus in the situation is vividly illustrated as the man's hand is healed before their eyes. The issue was much larger than, "Is it right to do this or that on the Sabbath." It was about "Do we reject or do we believe the message of God's love as it is revealed in Jesus Christ?"

The irony in the situation was that those who claimed to be committed to keeping the law were there, on the Sabbath Day, plotting to break the law by murdering an innocent man. This plot so darkened their minds, that when a miraculous healing took place, right before their eyes, it was not seen as an occasion for rejoicing, but as another reason to condemn the healer.

How do we celebrate the Sabbath?

In the first story, Jesus answer to the Pharisees that "The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath," may appear to suggest that we have total freedom to do what we like and that His opponents were nothing more than narrow minded bigots. But then the verse continues with the words;"...the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath."

In the film "Chariots of Fire," British devout Christian athlete Eric Lidell is entered for the Olympic games. When one of the heats is on a Sunday he refuses to run. He is accused of being a traitor to his nation, of letting his team down and betraying those who had put there hope in him. He sticks to his principles, becomes entered in another race that wasn't his best, but goes ahead and wins all the same.

What the film doesn't show is the continuing story of his life. Lidell felt a call to be a missionary to China and during hostilities between Japan and China was placed in an internment camp. Before his life was cut untimely short by a brain hemorrhage, he took upon himself the job of keeping up the spirits of the children who were in the prison camp with him. He arranged athletic events during their free time. Guess what? Some of that free time was on a Sunday. And in those circumstances, he ran.

Did he betray his own principles? On the contrary he showed that his talents were something he harnessed to doing the will of God and the service of others. By making a public stand for God at the Olympic games, he reminded the world that there was a fourth commandment. By working to relieve the anxiety of a group of children in a death threatening situation he showed the compassion of Christ. Two totally different situations in which two different actions were appropriate. Both were valid celebrations of the Sabbath.

One commentator makes this observation; "Christians who acknowledge Jesus as Lord should keep the Sabbath in the same spirit as Christ." Not legalistically, but lovingly, not as something restrictive but as something to celebrate. As the second story of the healing of the man with the withered hand shows, the question of the Sabbath is a question about our intentions, of our whole system of values and priorities, of our acceptance or rejection of Jesus Christ.

A group of eighth graders were shown a film about the life of Jesus. They were asked, "Who do you identify with in that film: the disciples, the Jews or the Romans?" None of them" said one, “They were all jerks just out for themselves. The only good person in the film was Jesus." The teacher challenged them to explain why the authorities had wanted to murder a person who was so clearly right. They were quiet for a while. Then one of them noticed that Jesus always insisted on the truth. "Truth" he volunteered, "Upsets people."

You know if you want to upset someone today, after church go to someone's house who could have been here this morning, hammer on their door and demand, "Why weren't you in church!" I can guarantee you won't get a warm reception. Then lay some judgmental lines on them.

"So, you had to do some shopping, I get it, being a consumer is more important than your Christianity!" "So, you felt like staying in bed, can't even be bothered to get out of the sheets and praise God, may God reward your idleness in the way it deserves." "So, it's a nice day and you felt like some time out, who gave you this day in the first place? Didn't your parents teach you to say thank You?"

I used to have a teacher in school. Every time he gave out homework, he gave us the same line. “I'll accept no excuses, only reasons.” Many times people have excuses why they don't go to church. But reasons?

Well there are some. For instance if you are physically or mentally unable to be in a service of worship then nobody expects you to be there. If there is some service you are doing for others that unavoidably means you can't be in church on a Sunday, then that service is in itself an act of worship. If you are involved in some endeavor which is essential for your health or well-being or peace of mind then there's no problem.

Then there's the real tricky ones. Time to take your kids to events that are increasingly scheduled on a Sunday... and if they are not there ,they are no longer able to participate. Time to spend with family members for whom Sunday is just another day and they don't even see the problem.
What about the rest? The bottom line? That's between you and your God. You need time to worship. You need time for recreation. You need time to be a family. And it can be real hard when commitments to family, or to your team or to your work, conflict with your commitment to be an active member of your church. It's not easy. But God knows that and God can help us work it out. Some days, like Eric Lidell, it's right to make a stand. On others it's more important to serve. Offer reasons, but don't give excuses. You know that God can tell the difference.

And remember that whilst the purpose of being a disciple isn't to fill a pew every Sunday, filling a pew every Sunday can help you become a better disciple! Jesus calls us to worship Him not as an obligation, nor out of a desire to keep a commandment, but out of joy, out of love for God and each other. Celebrate the day. Throw your hearts into worship of our wonderful God. Open your life to His glory. Open your mouths in praise. Be filled with His Spirit.

Be here when you can.
Be elsewhere when you must.
But in all things, give God the Glory.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Living The Trinity

Reading: Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31, Psalm 8, Romans 5:1-5, John 16:12-15
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, May 27 2018

Today in the church calendar is Trinity Sunday. And we know what the Trinity is… right? It’s that doctrine that tells us that God is One yet at the same time is three… or is it that God is three and at the same time One. It’s that thing about God being Father, Son and Holy Spirit and how that’s not three separate things… but all the same thing … but actually different things… but all at the same time.

We are all crystal clear about that aren’t we? It’s something our minds can deal with, right? Now why is it, I’m standing here and some of you are shaking your heads and looking a little confused? It’s Trinity Sunday! We are here to proclaim that we believe in God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit… One God.

The Trinity. Did you know that the word “Trinity” never once appears in Scripture? Not once, in anything that Jesus says or that Paul or any other of the biblical writers teach us are we told to believe in something called the Trinity.

Now before any of you are about to report me to the “Presbyterian Heresy Committee” I can tell you that the bible does speak about God as our Father, about Jesus as being uniquely the Son of God and the Holy Spirit being both the Spirit of Christ and the Spirit of God. The Bible also uses other images of God, such as Creator, or as one who has a motherly concern for us, or as our Sustainer, but I’m focusing on the traditional orthodox view that the church has lifted high over the centuries, God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

I can remind you of what we read this morning, some of the things that Jesus said. In verse 15 He says, Everything that the Father has is mine”. In verse 14 He says of the Holy Spirit “He will take from what is mine and declare it to you. Back in Chapter 14 Jesus has told the disciples; “If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.” In John 17:21 Jesus prays for His disciples “That they may all be one, as You, Father, are in me and I in You, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that You sent me.

Whilst the word “Trinity” isn’t used, throughout the New Testament the relationship between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is pictured as being a unity. Each person of that unity has distinct attributes and functions, but they are never separate from the other persons. That’s the idea the word “Trinity” attempts to communicate to us. It’s a shorthand word to explain that the nature of God’s revelation has come to us in three distinct, yet united ways, and seeks to speak of a great mystery; God is a Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

It is a great mystery. Things that are a mystery tend to be difficult to understand. My favorite way of trying to get my head around the idea of God as Trinity is to think about the sun. (That’s sun… S.U.N.).

We know that the sun, up there in the sky, is essential to life. In fact our solar system revolves around the sun. It is the center of our little bit of the universe. We also know when we look up to the sky that there is only one sun. Yet we experience that sun in three distinct ways.

We know that the sun is a vast ball of molten rock, gases and heat that is out there, way beyond us and impossible for us to penetrate. If we sent a spaceship it would burn up before it even got near. Nobodies ever actually been to the sun but without the sun nothing else could be.

But how does the sun get to us? Well, you’ve heard about light speed. The light of the sun travels to us at the speed of light. Sunshine illuminates our lives. In a literal sense the suns rays come down from the heavens to light our way here on earth.

How do those rays affect us when they reach us? As they light our way, they also give us warmth. That warmth spreads throughout our whole being. When people say they enjoy sunbathing they don’t mean that they have flown for countless centuries through the solar system and dived headlong into a molten pool of rock, they mean that the light of the suns rays is warming them through.

Although we understand the sun in three distinct ways; as the physical mass around which we revolve, as rays which bring light to the earth and as heat that warms the earth; the body, the rays and the heat are not separate from each other but all part of one sun.

So how does that help us understand God as a Triune God?

Sometimes the Old Testament pictures God as a consuming fire, way beyond us. We cannot travel to God in a spaceship nor completely immerse ourselves in all that God is. God is out there whilst we are down here. We know we couldn’t exist without God, but neither can we fully contain God or enclose God.

God has chosen to reveal Himself to us through sending a bright ray of light to us, Jesus Christ, “Who came from the Father and returned to the Father.” The way Jesus lived and the things He did reveal to us the nature of God’s love. “God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten son so that whomsoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

We experience the love of God in Christ through the warmth of the Holy Spirit acting in and around our lives. The Holy Spirit and the work of Jesus Christ, like heat and light, are closely related. Sometimes it can be hard to distinguish them. In fact we may even just choose, as at times do the biblical writers to say that “God is at work in us.”

The physical sun, the suns rays, the warmth of the sun. Three things yet one thing. God our Father, Jesus our Savior and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Three things yet one thing! Such is the way the Scriptures speak to us of the God we are called to trust our lives too. But… that being said, how do we live the Trinity? After all Christian doctrine isn’t just meant to tickle our imaginations, but help us live as faithful disciples. How can the idea of the Trinity help us do that?

With it being Trinity Sunday, let me suggest three ways.

Firstly, understanding God as beyond us can help us accept that to be a disciple we don’t have to know everything or do everything for ourselves. For myself the idea of God as my Father communicates to me both the distance of God from myself and the nurturing love that seeks to mold the way I live. The idea of Father reminds me that I am a child who has a lot to learn. And whilst, as Jesus bids me, I can sometimes use the familiar words of childish babble, ‘ABBA’, my ‘Father,’ I also need to respect that the Fathers ways are higher than my ways, my father’s thoughts higher than my thoughts.

If you are fortunate enough (and I know there are many in our world who are not) to have had a loving and stable two parent family, then you can identify with the experience of a small child who look upon their father in complete awe. That childlike heart that looks up and thinks; “Dad, if I can grow up to be half the person you are, then I’ll be some body”.

Even if such a father figure is absent from our lives, I believe God opens the doorway to other ‘Father-like’ figures around our lives, people, female or male, parent or mentor, teacher or friend, to whom we look up and think, “I want to be like them.” I know that when Jesus speaks of God as Father, He doesn’t mean for us to bring God down to the level of any earthly parent, but directs us towards a heavenly Father whose perfect love is beyond anything we can conceive. Understanding God as that perfect Father, nurturing us, yet beyond us, helps me to aspire to greater things.

Secondly, understanding Jesus Christ as One who “Came from the Father and returns to the Father” helps me understand that I constantly need the light of Christ to guide my steps. The Bible speaks to me of that light in a way that nothing else can do. Trinitarian faith is biblical faith. The scriptures tell us how the prophets of old foreshadowed Jesus coming, what He did when He came and how the church sought to carry on His mission.

This idea of coming and going reminds me that being a disciple is a process. We see something, we understand a little more, and it leads us to the next step. We can’t say, “Well that’s it. I’ve arrived. I’ve met Jesus and that’s the end of the story.” Yesterday’s light is not much use for us today. We need the suns light to light up where we’ll be traveling today.

Thirdly, understanding the Holy Spirit as the present influence of Jesus Christ, as the presence of God within me and around me, reminds me that faith is something that I live, not an intellectual exercise that somehow validates my life before God. Presbyterians have been described as “God’s Frozen Chosen.” If that be so, then its time we got out of the freezer and sat by the fire.

The Holy Spirit is the flame that ignites my love and my passion for God and the mission that God is calling us to. I don’t just need to understand that I am to love God with all my heart, mind and soul and to love my neighbor as myself, I need to experience that love in tangible, practical ways. I need to feel the heat!

Now putting all that back into our scripture reading of John, and I hear it in a different way. When I hear Jesus saying, “Everything that the Father has is mine” then because I have a Trinitarian understanding of God, I look at that and think, “Wow!”

When I hear Jesus speaking about the Holy Spirit who “Will take from what is mine and declare it to you” then again it’s a “Wow!” Through Jesus Christ we get a glimpse of what the heart of God desires for this world in which we live out our days. We are not left alone and abandoned.

When I read of Jesus praying for His disciplesThat they may all be one, as You, Father, are in me and I in You, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that You sent me,” then again I am caught up in awe, that our lives, we who seek to be the church of Jesus Christ empowered and inflamed by the Holy Spirit, that the ordinary lives of everyday people like you and me are in some mysterious way participating in something so much greater than ourselves.

And yes, all that is a great mystery! It’s all about as easy to explain and decipher as the doctrine of the Trinity itself. The best way to explain it is to live it!
  • To live in a way that brings glory to a Holy God, ‘Our Father’, Our Creator and the Righteous Judge of every human heart.
  • To live in a way that is molded by the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, redeemed through His death upon the Cross and bathed in hope by the resurrection light that shines out of an empty tomb.
  • To live in a way that is guided, comforted, enlivened, renewed and re-energized by the Holy Spirit, within us, around us, binding us together, communicating the love of God in Christ through our lives.
May God help us to be people who are living the Trinity! Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Messages From the First Letter of John - 5. God Birthed Faith

'Sin, Forgiveness and Love '
(Messages from the First letter of John)
Readings: Psalm 98, Acts 10:44-48, John 15:9-17, 1 John 5:1-6
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, on May 6 2018

Our reading this morning, from 1 John 5, brings us to the end of a series that has dealt with his themes of 'Sin, forgiveness and love.' Last time we saw how it was John who penned the awesome words; “God is Love.” In this mornings reading he again brings us back to the theme of love, but this time he reminds us that unless we act upon the love that God offers to us, then we haven't really got it.

Our reading today takes us a little further than just suggesting that because we are loved we should love others. John suggests that our loving actions need to revolve around a center. In the home the center is often the parents in the household. In the household of faith, John tells us that our center is faith in Jesus Christ. He writes in verse 5 “Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.

Isn't John's focus on faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God a little restrictive? What's the big deal about believing in Jesus? Isn't it enough that we are generous and charitable and get along with each other? Why does John insist on muddying the waters by telling us we need to get our focus right about what we believe about Jesus Christ?

As far as John was concerned there could be no separation between belief and action. 'In fact,' he says (Verse 3) 'This is love for God: to keep His commands.” Earlier in his letter he spoke about people who had become so sophisticated in their believing that they had fallen into all sorts of wrong ways of thinking that led them into wrong ways of acting. For John what you believe determines what you do, and what you do shows what you really believe.

John believed that faith is something that God has to birth within us through the action of the Holy Spirit. Faith is something that in John's gospel is described as being “born from above” that effects the individual as though they had been “born again.” Truly believing in God, for John is about having a God birthed faith. He gives us some reasons.
  • Only a God-birthed faith could give us a true love perspective.
  • Only a God birthed faith could create true community.
  • Only a God-birthed faith could conquer the world.
1. Only a God-birthed faith gives us a true love perspective.

In previous chapters John has been very careful to define what he means when he uses the word love. He always uses the Greek word 'agapé'. There were other words in Greek that he could have used. They had a word for family love 'storgé', they had a word for physical love, 'eros', they had a word for brotherly love 'philia'. John uses none of these, but uses the word 'agapé' which was particularly descriptive of the kind of love that was seen in the life of Jesus.

'Agapé' love described a life lived for the benefit of others. A love that healed and recreated and went beyond what was expected. A love that lifted up the fallen and was more concerned for the needs of the other than needs of the self. John outlines this love in chapter 4:9-10 This is how God showed His love among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as a propitiation for our sins.”

John sees Christian action as a response to what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. The act of God in Christ is the motivation and the centering point for loving the world. When we get it right about who Jesus is, and why He came, it changes the way we live.

It changes the way we see others. We cannot look down on any body else or see any person as beyond the reach of God. Because Christ died for us, He died for them. Through the eyes of Jesus there is no “us” and “them”. All people are people who need the love and grace of God.

That's love” says John. It's not a feeling. It's not an emotion. It's not something we fall in or out of. It's not being benevolent or feeling charitable. It's not giving out of a sense of guilt or acting out of duty. It is centering our life in Jesus Christ, being empowered by the Holy Spirit, opening our hearts and lives to the grace of God and acting in gratitude for the blessings of salvation Jesus obtained for us through His death and resurrection. Only a God-birthed faith gives us a true love perspective.

2.Only a God-birthed faith creates true community

John also insists that if we say that we love God, but do not apply ourselves to loving each other, then we are deluding ourselves, and the truth is not in us. He goes as far as saying that people who act like that, think they are children of God, but in actuality are walking in darkness, not in the light.

In previous chapters we see that John takes sin seriously. One of the most pernicious of sins is that of failing to work at creating community. We had these words in our reading this morning:- (verse 2) “This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out His commands.” The stress is on centering our lives in Jesus Christ, and allowing Jesus to be the hub around which our community life revolves.

To truly be a community of faith we have to look to Jesus and see each other through the lens of the love of God. If we look to each other, if we look to having common interests or being like-minded as a center for our life together, then we become nothing more than a civic organization organized around a particular sense of values.

There's nothing wrong in having community organizations. They can do some great things. But they are not the Church of Jesus Christ. The Church of Christ has a higher calling. To be a place where all people can discover the love of God in Jesus Christ. A place where the outcast can find a home and those who feel unloved can be embraced by God's love. An oasis in the midst of a barren uncaring world where the hurting can find healing and the hopeless be inspired by the action of the Holy Spirit renewing their lives.

Unless we make Jesus Christ our focus... none of that can happen. Unless we make Jesus Christ our center... we quickly become exclusive rather than inclusive. Believe me, I am well aware that bills need to be paid, the building needs looking after and that we have to plan our programs and have our cmeetings and maintain our records. But, please, never let us stop asking “Why?”

Why are we a church?” Because God has called us to be a community that demonstrates to the world what living a life together focused on Jesus Christ looks like. Because God has a task for us, a task that can only be accomplished through our faith in Jesus Christ, a faith that we demonstrate by having love for each other and inviting others to be in on it. Only God-birthed faith gives us a true love perspective. Only a God-birthed faith creates true community.

3. Only a God-birthed faith conquers the world.

1 John 5: 4-5 “For everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.”

Conquer the world? Lord, who are You kidding? Lord, it's all I can do to hold my life together! You expect a 'pulled in one thousand directions, conflicted, stressed out, not always sure what I'm doing or what I really believe, things to do, places I need to be, person' like me, to conquer the world?

Friends that exactly why what we believe about Jesus Christ is so important. Verse 5... one more time... Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.”

When John says 'Believe' he is not asking us to intellectually give a reasoned response to a number of theological formulations or do a check-list on the Apostles Creed. He is challenging us to consider where we are coming from, what our lives are revolving around, what we are centered upon.

If we can get it in our minds, that we, you and I, here today, at this time, in this place, are God's ultimate concern, than it can change the way we see ourselves, those around us and everything about our lives. If we can see that God's love really is so committed to us that in and through Jesus Christ, God can transform everything we are and everything we do, then it's going to make more than a little difference to the way we live.

It as we allow God to make a difference in us, through the working of the Holy Spirit, that our lives start to make a difference to the world. It happens in simple ways. Like inviting a friend to church. Like visiting one of our shut-ins. Like being a little more attentive to prayer and Scripture reading.

To do any of that it is important we get our center in the right place. John reminds us in his first letter that the center for both our personal faith and corporate life as a church is our faith in who Jesus is and what God is seeking to do in our lives... about the life of God's world through the Holy Spirit. Why does he do that? Because...
  • Only a God-birthed faith can give us a true love perspective.
  • Only a God birthed faith can create true community.
  • Only a God-birthed faith can conquer the world.
Let us seek to be people whose confession of faith is more than words and endeavor to be a church whose focus is so clearly on Jesus Christ, that others can't help noticing Him!

And to God's name be all glory. Amen.

The Reverend. Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Messages from the First Letter of John - 4. Fearless Love

                                   Readings: Psalm 22:25-31, Acts 8:26-40, John 15:1-8, 1 John 4:7-21
                                  Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, April 29 2018

Everything I know about growing plants could be written on the back of a postage stamp. I claim zero experience in the green finger department. But this much I know. Nothing grows by coercion. Things only grow through nurture. If you plant tomatoes you cannot go out in the garden and terrify them into maturity. “Now come on little Tommy Tomato plant. Grow up or I'll give you a such a thrashing that you'll never even be able to say the word fertilizer.”  You have to tend plants, carefully and gently.

Spiritual growth is no different. Fear can not produce spiritually mature believers. The only fertile ground for true spiritual growth is the love of God. 1 John 4:18-19 tells us “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.  We love because He first loved us.”

The last few weeks we have been following a series on John's first letter that has taken us through the themes of sin, forgiveness and love. Last week we were considering the great legacy of love that has been passed on to us. We affirmed that love is a great mystery which opens up to us amazing possibilities. In chapter four John takes us further. He gives us the famous phrase “God is love.”

One of the amazing things about the life of Jesus was how He never acted out of fear but always out of love. That is not to say that Jesus was never afraid. In the Garden of Gethsemane He prays that He may be spared from the pain and agony He would face at the Cross. There's nothing wrong in being afraid. It's part of what makes us human. But being afraid and living in fear are different things.

There are two kinds of fear.
The first is best described as 'Honor' or 'Respect,' the second as 'Dread'.

When the Book of Proverbs tells us  'Fear the Lord' the intention is not for us go through the whole of our lives being afraid of what God may do to us if God finds out what we are really like. The fear we are to have towards God is by the way of honor and respect. That was the kind of fear that Jesus had towards His Father. He refused to do anything or be anything that didn't represent the love of God.  His whole ministry was built upon respect for and trust in what the love of God could do.

The opposite of respectful fear, the unhealthy, negative kind of fear that John tells us to have nothing to do with, is maybe best described as dread. John writes “Perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.”  Dread is the fear that has to do with punishment. Fear of punishment can never help us build a mature relationship with God or with each other. Jesus lived fearlessly because His life was centered in the loving heart of God.

He didn't care what people thought about Him. He was totally secure in His relationship with His Father God. He didn't have to gain favor with people or use people to get where He wanted to be. He was right where He wanted to be, in the will of God. He was able to act in complete freedom and without dread because He knew Himself a child of God. Both at His baptism and on the mountain of Transfiguration He found His identity in His Father's claim on His life “This is my beloved Son”.
What might it take for us to live lives defined by fearless love?

How can we apply these words about 'perfect love casting out fear' to our own lives?
In 1895 a lady called Clara Scott had a hymn published called  “Open my eyes”.

Open my eyes, that I may see, glimpses of truth Thou hast for me;
Place in my hands the wonderful key, that shall unclasp and set me free.

Only through having a clear picture of God, ourselves and each other can we unlock the mystery of fearless love. Or to put it another way...
  • We need to redefine how we see the Divine,
  • Remember the claim of God's name
  • Reach out to others as sisters and brothers!
Let us explore those themes a little more!

1. We need a clear picture of God … we need to redefine how see the Divine

What are we afraid of that prevents us from letting the love of God enfold us and envelope us?  Our fears can come from an irrational picture of God. Even with my lack of gardening skills I recognize that nothing grows by coercion. Growth takes place through nurture. The first picture the Bible gives us of God is as the Creator. The second picture is as the Gardener. As you read  the New Testament the images Jesus uses are often nurture related. He talks of sowing seeds. Of Vines and branches. Of Seeds and Weeds. Of Springtime and Harvest.

Many of us have picked up on negative images of God. A tyrannical father. A mean dictator. An uncaring judge. A strict disciplinarian. A God of hell-fire whose greatest delight is to punish unrepentant sinners with eternal torment. A warped policeman on high. A God of disapproval. Unapproachable. Unrelenting. Irrational. Making rules we can never keep. A rather scary God.

Many times I have had people say to me,'Oh, I wouldn't want to set foot in church, probably make the roof cave in or cause the place to be struck by lightning'.  A God who toys with people, who is a despot, a blue meanie, a dark disturbing brooding figure from our worst nightmares.  I have heard people describe to me the God they don't believe in and found myself thinking that I don't believe in that kind of God either!

If ever those negative images of God start creeping in on you, read this passage from 1 John and see how many times life affirming love is mentioned. “This is how God showed His love among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him.' 'We know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.'  'There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.”

In order to live fearless lives we need to put our faith, not in a God we dread, but one whom we have the utmost respect for and seek to honor in the way we live our lives. The first letter of John paints a picture for us of a God whose very being is love. A God who wants to nurture us and feed us and grow us. A God who wants us to live life in all it's variety and abundance. Not a God whose desire is to restrict, control or dominate, but One who sets us free to live into the people we are meant to be.   Again hear verse 18; “Perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.”
2. We need a clear picture of ourselves... we need to remember the claim of God's name

Verse 19 reminds us “We love because He first loved us.” Our capacity for loving others comes from the security of knowing that we ourselves are loved by God. Every Sunday following our prayer of confession we celebrate, with words of Assurance, that through the grace and love of Jesus Christ, God claims us as God's own. There is nothing we have to do or can do to be God's children other than thankfully accept our salvation as the huge, undeserved , unwarranted gift that it is.

One of the greatest Christian thinkers and apologists of the last century was Karl Bath. I have the fourteen or so volumes of his “Church Dogmatics” (a study in dialectic theology) on my shelf in the study. Still working my way though it. He was the architect of one of the confessions in our Book of Confessions, “The Barmen Declaration,” a historic and incredibly brave challenge to the rise of the Nazi ideology in Germany, a work that made him an enemy of the powers that sought to destroy the world. He wrote thousands and thousands of words, some very hard to get your head around, during his life.

In 1962 he made his one and only visit to America and the story goes that he was asked how he would summarize the essence of the millions of words he had published, and replied, with words many of us have known since Sunday School Days; "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so."

“Jesus loves me this I know, For the Bible tells me so
Little ones to Him belong, They are weak but He is strong
Yes, Jesus loves me, Yes, Jesus loves me,
Yes Jesus loves me, for the Bible tells me so.”

Verses 16 and 17 “ If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God.  And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.

In a couple of weeks we celebrate a confirmation service for four of our young people. Confirmation is saying “YES!” to the promises that are made on our behalf when as little ones we were baptized. We “Confirm” that... “YES”.. we are a child of God and we claim all the blessings that such entails. In order to live fearless lives we  claim our baptismal heritage as beloved sons and daughters of a God who calls us by name and desires only the utmost best for our lives. A phrase I learned from my Lutheran friends was that Christian discipleship is all about “Growing into our baptisms.”

We need a clear picture of God … we need to redefine how see the Divine We need a clear picture of ourselves... we need to remember the claim of God's name

3. We need a clear picture of each other... reach out to others as sisters and brothers

The final verse we read this morning reminds us that the love of God isn't just about us. True, Jesus loves us, but He calls us to share that love with each other. 'Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.' 

John is keen to point out that unless love is also transforming the way we see each other, then God's Spirit is not truly at work in our lives. We are called to see each other as God sees us, as people God sent Jesus to die for, as people God loves, as people, who, like us, are marred by our sins, but nevertheless have all the potential that being human gives us.

There's a movie currently showing on Netflix, called “Come Sunday.” The movie charts the course of a highly successful fundamentalist  preacher, who, partly through his study of scripture verses his Pentecostal tradition choose not to focus upon, like these we have been considering in first John, has something of a conversion experience. At the end of the movie He is invited to speak to an inclusive Unitarian congregation... folks he would once have considered the enemy.

In speaking to the congregation he says, “I spent a lot of my life living in the fear of God. And I preached that fear. I preached it and I preached it and I preached it and I preached it.  So much so, that I became afraid not to preach it. And I have found it so hard to let go of that fear. Why is that? Is it  because, if God loves everybody unconditionally, maybe we have to? Is that it? What is it about loving each other unconditionally that scares us so much?”

In order to live fearless lives we must treat others how we would like them to treat us. Grant them all the respect and honor that we ourselves receive from God.  That's the challenge. “Whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” That is the challenge of love, of God being love that names us and claims us, and calling us to love each other as we have been loved.

We can't grow spiritually by coercion but only by love. When it comes to growing plants, I confess I am not so good. When it comes to growing in the Spirit, by the grace and love of God, I'm hopefully doing better every day. The greatest source of love in all creation is the love of God, that we see demonstrated in Jesus Christ and which impacts our lives through the action of the Holy Spirit.

There's a whole lot of teaching that John packed into these verses we've been looking at this morning. So let me finish with a quick review.

In order to live fearlessly we need to;
  • Have a clear picture of the nature of God, we need to redefine how see the Divine.
  • Have a clear picture of ourselves, we need to remember the claim of God's name.
  • Have a clear picture of each other, we need to reach out to others as sisters and brothers.
May God help us, through the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to live lives of fearless love that truly reflect the light of Jesus Christ.  AMEN!

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.