Monday, February 18, 2019

Inside Out, Upside Down

Epiphany 6
Readings:Psalm 1, Jeremiah 17:5-10,1 Corinthians 15:12-20, Luke 6:17-26
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, February 17 2019

Inside out and upside down. What on earth was Jesus talking about in today’s lesson. Blessed are the poor? Happy are the hungry? Fortunate are the tearful? I have yet to meet those happy, contented poor people. I never heard anybody say, “Isn’t this great, I’m starving!” I have never seen a person sobbing their heart out with a smile of joy on their face. Have you?

It makes me uneasy the way Jesus speaks about rich folk who enjoy a good time and are well respected in the eyes of almost everybody. “Woe to you!” says Jesus and implies that whatever you have now, you better enjoy it while you can, because when tomorrow comes you’re going to have to pay for it. Big Time. Woe to you rich.

These statements makes me uneasy because I live in a very rich country. On a worldwide scale the U.S. is a very rich place. And Jesus says, “Woe to you rich.” This nation is way, way, way up there in terms of Gross National product, income, life expectancy, health care, educational opportunity, and military might. In terms of what this world calls rich, if you live in the United States, you are rich.

This is not Swaziland, where the average life expectancy is just 31 years, where the majority of all deaths in the country are caused by HIV/Aid's, leaving behind an incalculable number of orphans, some carrying the virus themselves.

It’s not the Congo, where the GDP, (Gross Domestic Product) one of the primary indicators used to gauge the health of a country's economy, is $409 a year... (compared to $62,000 in the US).

It's not Afganhistan where, despite all of the measures undertaken, insurgency clashes and Taliban attacks continue to persist. Civilian lives, many of them women and children, continue to be claimed through bombings, crossfires, assassinations, and improvised explosive devices. For sure as a nation the U.S .has it's problems, but not on that sort of level.

Blessed are the Poor? Happy are the hungry? Fortunate are the tearful?
Everything is inside out and upside down and back to front.
Jesus described His intentions, His desire to turn everything “inside out and upside down” at the beginning of His ministry. He proclaims in His first sermon in Nazareth; “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, Because He anointed me to preach good tidings to the poor: He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, And recovery of sight to the blind.”
Do you remember what happened shortly afterwards? Some people tried to throw Him off a cliff! Understandable when you think He’s been predicting the downfall of the rich and powerful. He wasn’t “Mr Popular” with them!

Reading the gospels, you could suggest that Jesus only got what was coming to Him when they crucified Him. I mean what did He expect? Insulting the religious authorities, trampling on their traditions, speaking words they would interpret as blasphemous and suggesting even that most sacred of all institutions, the temple, would come tumbling down? Proclaiming himself a King in the process of building a Kingdom?

To the eyes of the rich and powerful, how could He not appear as a threat? “Woe to you rich!” is not a comforting statement. As they saw the devotion and power He had among the outcasts and the dispossessed and the poor, how could they not be fearful for their positions in society? To them Jesus was not Good News, but Bad News.

If they didn’t take action, their whole world
could be turned upside down and inside out.

But to the poor? He was a hero. Think of the situation of the poor in the crowd to whom Jesus was talking. They did not live in a democracy. They did not choose for the Romans to come and conquer their land. They had no vote. They were in this little troublesome corner of a vast empire, governed by incompetent puppet rulers desperate to impress the powerful people back in Rome.

They were poor, not only materially but also in terms of rights and expectations and almost every other area of life. They were the downtrodden. They were the imprisoned ones. Life was not smiling down good fortune upon them. Those who had once been described as God’s children, felt like God’s orphans

Consider also the corrupt state of religion. Jesus calls the Pharisees “Whitewashed tombstones.” He describes the temple as “A den of thieves.” He accuses the teachers of the Law and the intellectual Sadducee of not knowing the Scriptures.

Put yourself in the position of the poor. You go to hear Jesus speaking. He heals your cousin from something he’d been suffering from for years but could never afford to go to the doctors about. You see in the crowd that crazy guy everyone had written off as bad news, now looking calm and in his right mind. You hear all these stories about God looking for the lost, rejoicing over those who would come to Him in childlike faith.

A God who was not far off and remote but One whom you could call “Abba, Father.” You hear of a God who had an intense interest in the misfortunes and struggles of people who felt they were at the bottom of the pile. You are blessed. Glory to God you are blessed! Such a message would surely lift your heart. God can do wonders for you! God has a bias towards the poor!

But woe to you rich! By contrast God can do little for the self-satisfied, the self-seeking and the self-centered. Eugene Peterson’s translation “The Message” captures extremely well the flavor of the pronouncements of woe made by Jesus, speaking of them in terms of “trouble ahead.”

It’s trouble ahead for those who think they have it made,
What you have is all you’ll ever get.

It’s trouble ahead if you’re satisfied with yourself,
Your ‘self’ will not satisfy you for long.

It’s trouble ahead if you think life’s all fun and games,
There’s suffering to be met and you’re going to meet it.”

Just as there is nothing intrinsically wonderful about poverty or tears, there is nothing intrinsically evil in riches or laughter. The blessing the poor receive comes because they are in a situation of complete dependence upon God. In seeking God they find God.

The woe of riches is that they blind us to our need of God and create such a comfort zone around us that we forget that the hurting people out there are the ones God calls us to serve. We forget that privilege carries with it a corresponding responsibility. That to those to whom much is given, much is expected.

Jesus sets His face strongly against those who don’t take the time to care. Jesus is not with those who see others misfortunes as none of their business, those whom, like the priest and the teacher of the law in the parable of Good Samaritan, are so busy pursuing their personal agendas that they just walk on by when faced with the desperate needs of others. God is not on their side, for they are not on God’s side in raising up the fallen or healing the broken hearted.

Woe to you rich! To those who have everything they need, the gospel comes as a rebuke, that seeks to stir complacency and calls us to stop building our own little empires and get with God in the program of building the Kingdom.

Now you know and I know that if we rock the boat, then things won’t be so easy any more. Ask the poor! We suspect that if we speak out for Jesus we’ll make a nuisance of ourselves. We suspect that if we side ourselves with those that Jesus appears to, then some of their poverty, and their hunger and their tears might rub off on us.

That’s not what we want. Those are the things we are trying to shield ourselves from. We would like to have it all in this life and the next. So we need to remind ourselves that Jesus tells us, it’s not going to be that way. That if we think we have it all in this life, and are not prepared to pass that blessing along, then we are not acting as a child of God's Kingdom.

When Jesus elsewhere says that it was easier for camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God, He wasn’t pulling His punches. When He told the rich young man to go and sell everything he had and give it to the poor, He meant for that man to go and do it. Jesus knew, in a way we fail to understand, the destructive power of having all we need.

He knew because He faced that temptation in the desert after His baptism. The Devil offered Him it all. All the world. “All yours Jesus, if you’ll just get with my plan and kick this ‘justice for the poor’ nonsense out the door.” Jesus said “Man cannot live by bread alone.”

He came to turn it all inside out and upside down. Actually that’s not quite right. He came to put everything the right way around and the right way up. It’s just that we’re so used to doing it our way that we don’t see things God’s way.

This passage of scripture we’ve been looking at, isn’t meant to be easy listening. Unless we are the poor, or the hungry, or those in mourning, it’s meant to make us feel uneasy. It is Jesus’ call to get our priorities in line with the priorities of God’s Kingdom. It’s meant to make us search our hearts and challenges us to consider what we really believe the gospel to be.

That’s a question we may never find a complete answer to this side of eternity. But we do have a simple rule to follow. It’s called love. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul” and “Love your neighbor as much as you love your self”.

May God help us not to compromise our commitment to serving others, because our comforts shield us from their cries. May we heed this warning of Jesus regarding the seductive power of materialism to sap our spiritual energy.

May we allow God’s Holy Spirit to turn our lives inside out and upside down so that we can be part of the process of making things the right way around and the right way up, the way of God’s Kingdom.

This passage is a reminder of our call to reach out to those less fortunate than ourselves… to embrace their suffering and hear their cries and to become part of the solution rather than part of the problem

May God help us so to do. And do so in Jesus name, in the power of His Holy Spirit and to the glory of God our Father. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Fishy Business

 Epiphany 5
Readings: Psalm 138, Isaiah 6:1-8, (9-13), 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Luke 5:1-11
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, February 10 2019
Today, or at least for the next 10 minutes or so, I may look and sound exactly like your normal preacher, but indulge me a little and use your imagination and call me Simon. For a short while I want to play the part of the Simon who became Peter and played such a large part in our Gospel lesson. The Fisherman who became the disciple. So say “Good Morning Simon.”

Good Morning. My name is Simon, (also known as Peter) and I am here to tell you about how I became a disciple on the shores beside the lake of Gennesaret. I used to have a fishing business there, me and my brother Andrew, along with two of Zebedee’s sons, James and John.

We’d just had the most unfruitful night, ever, and we were resting up on the shore washing the nets. We’d dragged the boats up onto the beach. In every job there’s bad days, and then there’s really bad days. We’d just reached the end of the worst of the very, very, bad days. There were fish out there. Swimming around. Swimming around our nets. Ignoring our bait. I’m pretty sure they were laughing at us!

Nyer, nyer, Call yourselves fishermen, you couldn’t catch a cold!”

I was not in the best of moods. That mood became increasingly dark when a preacher man arrived with a crowd of people on the shore, just down from where we were working. Religion. Preachers. A fishy business. Wouldn’t trust most of them further than I could throw an anchor. Why can’t they get a proper job like the rest of us?

This one seems pretty popular. The crowd just keeps on growing. “Hey, Hey” says me little brother Andrew, “That preacher there, that’s y’know, the carpenter guy, the one who made ‘em all mad in the synagogue and then cast out a demon or something, y’know, what’s is name?”

Oh” I said, doing little to hide my intense disinterest, “The Prophet Whatisname – there’s a novelty.” I was thinking ‘what’s so impressive about casting out demons. I cast out nets every day.’

I was kind of listening with one ear to what he was saying. Talking about the ‘Kingdom of God’, and ‘Justice for the Poor’ and ‘The year of Jubilee being proclaimed.’ Radical stuff. And he was telling some stories, that, well, made you smile. Y’know, “Hear the one about the shepherd who lost his sheep. Goes and leaves 99 and sets off looking for it!”

Actually this guy wasn’t a total stranger to us. He’d been a carpenter in town and we were all more than a little surprised when he got the religion bug. Seemed like quite a genuine sort of guy, but that’s the thing with religion… let it get to you and you don’t know where it could lead you. The crowd was continuing to grow, pushing him down to the water’s edge.

Hey, Hey,” says me little brother Andrew, “Look, he’s getting into your boat!”
What” I says. “He’s getting into your boat” little Andrew says.

Gaw!” I say, throwing down my net. “They don’t half take some liberties these preachers. Think that because they know a little about God they can do whatever they please. That’s rich. Probably put a hole in the bottom of the thing stamping his feet at some moral outrage.”

So I pick up my nets and start pushing my way through the crowd. “Excuse me, there’s a Rabbi in my boat.” Coming through… Rabbi in the boat, mind your back. Look out lady I'm carrying a net and I know how to use it!”

To this day, I don’t know what I intended to do. Andrew had already cautioned me, “Hey, Hey, now you just watch your temper. Punching Rabbi’s in front of crowds who think the sun shines out of them would not be a good idea.” I had no intention of punching his lights out. To be honest I had no intention - whatsoever.

So I climb into the boat, throw down my nets, He turns and looks at me, as though He’d been waiting for me to arrive, and says, “Put out a little way from the shore.” I’ve been on my feet for hours!” and sits himself down. I smiled at him, in a rather sarcastic way, but thought, “I just got to humor this guy. Maybe then he’ll go away." I went to the front and rowed Him out on the lake.

It was a good move for someone in his business. The way his voice carried over the water made him easy to hear for all on the shore. Sitting with him there in the boat it was more like he was telling stories around the campfire than it was listening to some preacher in the synagogue. Despite myself, I found I was warming to this guy. The morning rolled on and as he told a few last tales the people began to disperse, leaving just the two of us in the boat.

He looked at me and smiled. ‘Fishy Business’ he said. “Well, let’s see. Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.”

Now all the crowds had gone I almost said a few words that Rabbi’s shouldn’t be subjected to. Right. Sure. A rabbi who knows about fishing. Knows my job better than I do? What next? A servant becoming a King?

But I was a picture of restraint. “Master”, I said, “We have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” I called Andrew over to help me. We threw the nets over the side.

"Hey, Hey" says me little brother Andrew, "This is a waste of time, isn't it? I mean we've just cleaned the nets, now we're going to have start all over again." "Just hold on a minute" I said, "Pull... pull... pull harder... woah… have we got some fish here or what?"

The net was absolutely teeming with the things. "James, John, Get over here. Now!" They came out in their boat and stared to haul in them fish. We were hauling them in and hauling them in. Fish. More fish than we had ever fished. Pulling them in. Drawing them in. Trawling them in. Fish after fish after fish after fish.

The boats were swimming in fish! Nope, the boats weren't swimming. They were sinking. Fish. Too many fish! The boats were going down! But the fish kept coming. There we were. Sinking to the bottom of the shallows. Fish jumping and wiggling everywhere. We're falling about, slipping and sliding and shouting. And the nets are tearing under the weight.

And I turned to look at Jesus - sitting there - half submerged - in water with fish flubbing about everywhere- quite calm. And there was something about him that just made me stop in my tracks. Spooked me really. You know how they say that just before you die your whole life flashes before you? Well it was kind of like that.

All at the same time, the four of us, me, little brother Andrew, (standing there saying “Hey, Hey’) and James and John all sensed it together. What was happening had gone beyond the normal. Our minds were acting strange. It was as though somebody had prised open my life and was staring right into my heart, reading every thought and judging every action I'd ever done. I was terrified. We all were.

And we knew it all had something to do with that preacher sitting in the boat with us. I dived over and threw myself at his feet. At his knees actually. His feet were under water. We were in a half submerged boat, fish everywhere to be seen, and I'm shaking in fear. I look up at Jesus and I blurt out, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man." The others were equally confused and fearful.

Jesus just smiled. "Don't be afraid" He said, "From now on, you will be catching people." Right at that moment it all made sense. Looking back it was kind of impetuous, but at the time it all seemed to make sense. We hauled up the boats onto the shore, and left them. We left everything because we knew that what we had to do was follow that preacher man. Everybody believes in something. I believe in fishing. Fishing for people that is.

"Hey, Hey!" my little brother Andrew was pulling at my sleeve as we walked up the beach. "Jesus told me to tell you something" "What's that then?" I said. "Fishy Business" said Andrew. And I laughed all the way home!" End of story.

O.K. Simon has left the building. It's back to being your normal preacher now! Reflecting on that fabricated tale, I do want to ask you something. In that story about following Jesus, where are you?

Are you like Simon, sitting on the shore, cleaning the nets at a distance and feeling rather skeptical about the value of spiritual things? Are you listening, but not listening? Do you feel God may be calling you, but you really don't want to hear it?

Or are you like Simon, pushing through the crowd, annoyed that Jesus is in your boat? God's been on your case about some of the things you've been doing, you're concerned about how really following Him might cause you to have to make some changes in your life.

Maybe you're like Simon when he was frightened at the amount of fish. Life's all too much for you to cope with right now. Things just haven't worked out. Your boat’s sinking and you're running scared. You don't know what you’re going to do.

Or maybe where your life is right now with God is that you feel God's calling you to follow a particular way or to take on a particular task and you're ready to say, “Yes, Lord, I'm with you!"

Wherever you are in your walk with God today, hear the word of Jesus. "Do not be afraid." Take on His invitation and be somebody that catches others up in the challenges of His Kingdom.

Everybody believes in something. I believe that God is calling us to take the next step. To go on a bit further. To deepen our trust and love for God. Do that and maybe we’ll witness things happening in our life we had never before dreamed were possible!

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Misplaced Pride

Epiphany 4/Communion Service
Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13:l-13, Luke 4:21-30
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, February 3 2019

When you have been away from your home town and you go back again, it can be an awkward experience. Sometimes you have changed and it seems that everything else is still the same as it ever was. The longer I have lived here in the United States the more unfamiliar my hometown and my homelands in Great Britain have become when I’ve made a visit.

I’ve noticed some people have reacted to me a little cautiously, in a few cases even critically. My accent… believe it or not… has changed. Some of my views and tastes have altered. When it comes to British culture I no longer know what is ‘in’ or ‘out’, what the latest thing is or the current fashion… so it can be more difficult to find common ground for conversation.

And sometimes, although people don’t come out and say it, you can tell that some folk, (thankfully the exception rather than being the rule), are thinking in a negative way about you. “Well, who do you think you are? Going off to America like that… don’t think you can come back here and tell us anything we need to know!”

Having been in that situation it has helped me gain a fresh insight into what happened when Jesus went to His hometown and started to preach the Good News. There was a familiarity about Him that caused the local folk to feel that they knew who He was and what He was capable of. By suggesting to them that He was more than they realized, it caused not rejoicing but offence. “Oh... for goodness sake, it’s only Joseph’s Son!”

A couple of times in Luke chapter 4 the Greek Word ‘dektos,’ meaning “Acceptable” but also translated as “Welcomed,’ is used. In Luke 4:19 Jesus states His purpose as being “to proclaim the acceptable (dektos) year of the Lord." In Luke 4:24 we read “He said, "Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable (dektos) in his own country.”

Notice that the first instance is a positive one. ‘Today is an accepted time to participate in the work of the Lord, a day to welcome God, a day of God’s favor.’ The second is a negative. ‘This is not the time. You are not that person. You should not welcome this, because we certainly don’t!’

What I want to take out of this passage this morning has to do with spiritual growth. You can call spiritual growth by whatever term you wish. 'Growth in Grace’ 'Discipleship’‘Transformation’ ‘Your personal walk with Jesus’ ‘Growing into your baptism’; whatever term works best for you. No matter how you describe it, the fact is that two principles will be at work; a positive force and a negative force.

The positive principle is that we are capable of spiritual growth. Indeed if we are not growing spiritually we are either in a state of spiritual stagnation or we are spiritually dead. Spiritual growth is highly acceptable and to be truly welcomed.

The negative principle is that there are all sorts of forces in and around our life that are telling us that spiritual growth is not an option and that if we think we can become a better followers of Jesus Christ then we’ve got another thing coming.

Let’s look at both these principles.

Firstly: The Positive

Jesus comes to the folk of His hometown with an absolutely awesome proclamation. That the time for people like them, people who thought of themselves as people that God wasn’t very concerned about, to wake up and see that God had a huge desire to bless them right there and right then. That they were central to what God wanted to do in the world.

Behind His proclamation lies the custom (which I mentioned last week) of the year of Jubilee. During a Jubilee Year, servants were released from their obligations and were set free. Those who had debts that couldn’t be paid were released. Those who had been put into a situation where they had to mortgage their land had their land returned to them.

Jubilee was an amazing time for those who felt themselves unable to help themselves. A time of great grace and new beginning. Here is Jesus standing before His people and telling them “It’s Jubilee! You are free to be all that God wants you to be!”

We need to know that it is STILL Jubilee time. That today is the day of the Lord’s favor. That today is a day to welcome the presence of God into whatever we are doing. That today is the time to seek to grow in our faith and to believe that God can do amazing things in us and through us!

Why is it Jubilee time? Because Christ has died, Christ is Risen and Christ will come again. In Jesus Christ everything necessary for our spiritual growth has been accomplished. What it needs is the application.

Christ died for our sins. We can stop agonizing over them and using them as an excuse to step back from following. It’s Jubilee time. The debts are paid, we are slaves no more, what we had lost has been returned. Christ is Risen. Holy Spirit power is available here and now. The power to change. The power to bring about Kingdom change in our world. Christ will come again. The victory is assured. What is of Christ is eternal, what is of this world won’t last. It’s Jubilee time!

The door to spiritual growth, as individuals, together as a church community is wide open. God invites us, “Ask and you will receive, Seek and you shall find.” It’s Jubilee time!” But no… hold on a minute… look around you… it’s just us… and it’s just me and you… it’s just the same old same old.

Already we’ve moved to the negative. Already, even as Jubilee is proclaimed we’re seating ourselves in the synagogue and saying, “Now hold on a minute, that’s just Joseph’s son isn’t it?”
And Jesus knows exactly what’s going through our minds. Here it is in Luke 4:23: And He said to them, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Physician, heal yourself.' What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well."

You hear what they are saying? “Listen, if you are so wonderful then show us some fancy stuff, like we’ve heard you did elsewhere, then we’ll believe.” Now why was Jesus able to work miracles elsewhere? It was because the people in those other places believed it was Jubilee time, but the people in His hometown couldn’t get beyond their limited narrow ‘nothing can ever happen here’ mindset. The most limiting factor for those folk in Nazareth was their Nazareth mind-set.

Secondly; the Negative

This was no ‘glass half empty’ pessimism; it was a deeply rooted misplaced pride that cut faith down before it could even flex its wings. To illustrate Jesus uses two stories that were well known to the listeners, one involving Elijah and a widow of Sidon, the other about Elisha and Naaman.

The first story is set in the middle of a drought and Elijah needs something to eat and drink. He goes to Zarephath in Sidon and encounters a widow about to make a final meal for herself and her son. He asks her to make him a meal as well, and tells her that 'The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the LORD gives rain on the land.'" (1 Kings 17:14). Everything happens just as Elijah has said.

In the second story, Naaman, a great general in the command of the King of Aram, seeks to be healed from a leprous disease. He comes to Elisha, who instructs him to dip into the waters of the Jordan seven times, and eventually he receives his healing. (2 Kings 5)

In both accounts there is an initial reluctance to respond. Both the widow and the General are outsiders. Yet, in both cases, once they humble themselves before the prophet’s words, and act upon what they hear, miracles take place in their lives. They rise above their fears and overcome their misplaced pride.

Misplaced pride prevents God from working in our lives. Such pride grows out of our insecurity and fears. It expresses itself as a control issue. Those worshipers in Jesus hometown had a lot to be rightfully proud of. That was Joseph’s son up there preaching a blazing sermon. He was somebody that their town and their synagogues had nurtured and given a great start to. They had been gracious enough to give Him a platform from which to express His views.

But the offense came when He suggested that there was more to the Kingdom then they realized. That the message of God wasn’t all about them and their town, or even just their nation, but was something that wrapped its arms around strangers and outsiders and people whom they still considered beyond the boundaries of God’s Grace. In fact it was something so close to them, that they just couldn’t see it!

To recast this story into a contemporary mold. These were people familiar with the gospel story, but strangers to the gospel’s power. They were proud of their heritage, proud enough to defend it against anything they perceived as a threat, but that same pride prevented them from experiencing the love of God as something that could work miracles in their midst, something that could change and renew their lives and enable them to experience the Kingdom of God in a way they never had before.

As a Presbyterian Church we have a tremendous heritage. We have some great stories to tell and as a denomination have been instrumental in helping shape the history of nations. But that was then and this is now. Let us not fall prey to the familiarity of the hometown crowd. Let us rise to the challenges of the present, confident that the Lord Jesus Christ, who stands in the midst of His church, the same yesterday, today and forever, continues to lead us and guide us in unfamiliar ways and with fresh insights.

Let it not be said of us that we are people who knew the story of the gospel but not its power. We can grow. As individuals and as a church community God desires our growth. Let us be proud of where we have been but have the humility to recognize that we haven’t yet arrived. That the fields are once again ready for harvest and that we are called to ‘keep on keeping on’ building the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to the Glory of God!

Believe it! With God’s love as our incentive, with hearts and lives prepared to make positive investment in the things of God’s Kingdom, I believe that miracles still happen. And there is no better place to strengthen ourselves for service than around a table laid with bread and wine, these symbols that point us to the depth of God's love towards us and the lengths God was willing to go, that we may go and take the jubilee, good news message to our hurting world.

To God’s name be the glory!
The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D

Sunday, January 27, 2019

What's it all about?

Epiphany 3
Readings: Nehemiah 8:1-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, Luke 4:14-21
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, January 27 2019

I'm pretty sure that I'm not the only person here who likes to browse around bookshops. It's hard to say what attracts you to a particular book. It can be the cover. It can be because you've read other books by the same author. It can be that you've heard the title is on the best-seller list and you’re interested to see whether it’s all the critics make it out to be.

I always take the time to read the back cover, where there is usually a summary of the book’s content. You know the kind of thing; "Detective Dan Dare takes on a new challenge in 'The case of the Missing Sermon' the first of a new series of mind boggling adventures." If that's what I'm looking for, then I might go ahead and buy it.

"What's it all about?" That's what you want to know when you’re going to be investing your precious time in reading something. "What's it all about?" is also a question that confronts us when we think about our faith. Luke, right near the start of his gospel, gives us an account of Jesus going to the synagogue, at the beginning of His public ministry, and outlining what the gospel He will preach is going to be all about.

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because He anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set free those who are downtrodden,
To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord"
(Luke 4:18-19)

This quotation from the prophet Isaiah is sometimes described as the “Nazareth Manifesto.” Through these words Jesus outlines where He's coming from and what He intends to do. If we want to know what the gospel is all about, this passage offers a great starting point. Join me in looking at these words a bit deeper.

Firstly, notice that Jesus describes His mission as the work of God's Holy Spirit who has anointed Him for the task. The work of the church is a Holy Spirit anointed work. Christian life is a work of grace, not an undertaking of mere human effort. If we attempt to live the Christian life without maintaining a prayerful attitude and without seeking to apply God's Word to our life, we will dry up.

Right through the gospels you see Jesus consistently working within the framework provided by the Old Testament and consistently taking time out to pray and keep His relationship with God fresh. That's the pattern He calls us to adopt if we wish to be disciples. Life in the Spirit, guided by the Word! That's where Jesus was coming from. But what did He intend to do?

The first task He speaks of is; Preaching the gospel to the poor.

Poverty takes different forms. One is economic poverty. Jesus was born into a family whom at the time of purification could only afford to make the 'poor persons' offering of two young pigeons or doves (See Luke 2:24). Many times in His parables He spoke of God's Kingdom as being a place where a reversal of fortunes would take place. Everything would be turned upside down and inside out.

Think of His parable of the rich man and Lazarus, or His encounter with a rich nobleman whom He informed needed to sell everything he had and give to the poor if he was to be saved. His comment that it was easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom, all show a definite bias towards those who were economically disadvantaged.

Through New Testament injunctions to care for the widows and orphans, to the many charitable options that the different denominations today pursue, this is a bias the Church has continued to pursue. But poverty is not just an economic crisis. There also exists spiritual poverty. His message is good news to those who are lacking direction or purpose, for the Gospel offers riches of grace that cannot be found elsewhere. The gospel is good news to be preached to the poor, be they poor economically or spiritually.

Next Jesus speaks of Proclaiming release to the Captives. Elsewhere the word used for 'release' is a Greek Word, 'aphesis', that particularly relates to the forgiveness of sins. Sin is described by Paul as the crippling disease, which holds all creation captive. (See Romans 8:22).

The Good News of Jesus offers a remedy for the condition of sin that holds us back from living the way God intended. He went to the Cross and prayed for us, "Forgive them Father, for they don't know what they are doing." One of the tremendous affirmations of the Apostles’ Creed is that we believe in 'the forgiveness of sins,' made possible through Jesus Christ who was 'crucified, dead and buried' and 'rose again from the dead.'

The “New Way” Christ comes to offer is one where the past, where guilt and shame, where failures and regrets no longer haunt us, but become opportunities for Grace. We are to learn from our failings, not dwell upon them or be held back by them. Though time and time again we may fall, God's love never declares us to be failures or hopeless cases. Because He died and rose again the door to forgiveness and New Life is always open. He came to proclaim release to the captives, which means to all of us, for we are all held captive by sin.

Recovery of sight to the blind.
A new vision. A vision that perceives new possibilities where before nothing could be seen at all. The gospel can do that for us. Help us see things in a way we had never seen them before. All the time Jesus encourages us to do just that.

To see probable enemies as potential friends. To see problems as opportunities. To see broken lives as things to put back together. To see setbacks as challenges through which we grow stronger. To see others and ourselves as those who are greatly loved by a God we can call “Our Father.” To see all of life as a wonder to be cherished and even death as a doorway to glories yet to be revealed.

The wisdom of the Book of Proverbs declares that without a vision the people perish. (Proverbs 29:18). Jesus declares that He has come to bring about a restoration of vision.

As well as lifting up the poor, offering forgiveness and giving sight, the vision has to do with setting free the downtrodden. During His ministry time and time again Jesus encountered people trodden down by physical circumstances, by political circumstances, even by demonic forces. And time and time again He spoke the Word and they were set free.

There’s a song based on Martin Luther King Jr’s. words that says,

Free at Last, Free at last,
Thank God Almighty that we are free at last,
Gone are the chains of the past,
Thank God almighty we are free at last.

The gospel message has shown itself on countless occasions
to be a message that sets people free.

In the final part of the verse Jesus proclaims He has come; To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.

In Isaiah Chapter 61 proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor is connected with the Jubilee year legislation of Leviticus 25. Following a series of seven sevens, the fiftieth year was to be a year ‘When you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.” (Leviticus 25:10). Slaves were set free to return to their families. Debts were cancelled out. Jubilee was a time of new beginnings when the field was leveled and all had an equal chance of starting afresh.

Isn’t that what the grace of God can do for us? Christ’s forgiveness offers the chance to start over again. No matter how much debt we have incurred, (be it materially or spiritually), no matter how enslaved to habits or lifestyles we have become, Jesus says to us, “It’s jubilee time! I believe in you. I see your potential. Let’s pick up the pieces and make something beautiful out of this mess! C’mon. It’s jubilee time!!!”

What’s it all about, this gospel we seek to follow?

It’s about Jesus whose Holy Spirit enriches our lives, forgives our sins, grants to us new vision and sets us free to serve. It’s about Jubilee and new beginnings and enjoying the favor of God. It’s about the relationships we have with each other and about how we treat those less fortunate than ourselves. It’s spiritual and social and political and a whole lot more. It’s about our private lives and our public lives, how we live when everybody is watching us and how we live when nobody’s watching.

Above all it is GOOD NEWS! 

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because He anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set free those who are downtrodden,
To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord"

GOOD NEWS – that God isn’t through with us yet.
GOOD NEWS – that God cares about the things we are going through.
GOOD NEWS – that God is on the side of those for whom life is hard.
GOOD NEWS – for those who make a mess of their lives, for God offers forgiveness.
GOOD NEWS – for those who are seeking direction and purpose because God brings us vision.
GOOD NEWS – for those who feel trodden down, because He has the power to lift you up, the Holy Spirit power that turns death into resurrections.
GOOD NEWS – that the day of the Lord’s Jubilee is here and now.
Now is the time to set things right.

Our passage closed with Jesus saying these words,
Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).
Many years before Moses had told the Israelites,
Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.” (See Hebrews 3:15)

Today then...
let us hear afresh Jesus in the synagaogue,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because He anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.”
Today... let us allow ourselves to be embraced by God’s awesome love.
And to God be all glory.
Amen and Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Did You See That?

Epiphany 2
Reading: Isaiah 62:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, John 2:1-11
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, January 20 2019

I was watching a guitarist playing, brilliant guy, could get sounds out of guitars that you never thought they had in them. I was trying to pick up some tips to improve my own technique. This guy knew his scales, the fingers of his left hand zipped up and down the strings like greased lightning.

But it was a little trick he did with the pick he held in his right hand that I’ve never seen anybody else do, before or since. Usually he held the pick between his thumb and forefinger, but occasionally, if he wanted to play a harmonic or a bass note (Or even both at the same time) he would flick the pick to between his middle fingers, play the bass string with his thumb, a chord in the middle and a note on the top string with his little finger. He would do this just for a quick phrase, then go back to normal. Now that may not seem like much to some of you, but if you are some one who tries to play the guitar, then that is very impressive.

First time I noticed him do it, I said to my friend who was with me, “Did you see that?” “See who?” he said, thinking some pretty girl had just walked in. ‘See what he did with his pick!” “Oh” he said and laughed. “No.” You have to watch out or you can miss out!

I was watching a basketball game and one of the opposing side not only knocked one of the other players to the floor, but grabbed hold of his foot and tried to trip him when he got up. I said to my friend, “Did you see that?” The referee didn’t. Despite my ignorance of the technicalities of American sports, I suspect this was not a legal procedure. And the man about two rows down from me on the balcony certainly gave his verbal expression as to what he thought about it. You have to watch out or you can miss out!

A man goes to a party. One of the family friends has just married. It’s late in the day and the steward brings round the drinks. He thinks twice about having a glass of wine, because at these functions, as time went on, and people’s taste buds became a little desensitized, they tended to start serving the cheap and nasty stuff.

But he has a sip and then goes over to greet the bride’s Father. “Sir,” he says, “I want to shake you by the hand. Most people serve the best wine at the beginning of the day, but you have saved the best till last!” The Father smiles in appreciation, but also looks a little confused. He’d just had a message that the wine was all gone and he was anticipating complaints, not compliments.
He rushed off to find his wife, “Did you hear that?” he said, “We’ve got jars full of wine, how did that happen?” “I really don’t know” she replies, “I think it’s got something to do with Mary’s Son, y’know the carpenter who’s started going round preaching a bit. It’s amazing!”

It was amazing. It was the first miracle, the first sign that John’s gospel records, where Jesus starts to reveal His glory to the disciples, by turning water into wine. Yet most people at the wedding party saw no miracle. They just thought that the family had saved the best wine till the end and they knew nothing of great big jars being filled with water that when poured out became the richest, reddest, most sparkling wine, in town. Where Jesus is involved, you have to watch out or you can miss it!

I guess the servants who filled the jars didn’t miss out. They’d be going around for quite a while saying, “Did you see that?” Same with the disciples. They were starting to see that there was more to this Jesus than they thought possible. It was a sign to them of His glory.

His mother, Mary? Well, she’d known Jesus was something special ever since the angels had started calling. John suggests that it’s Mary who prods Jesus into performing the miracle. Maybe she’s been chatting with the bride’s mother, we don’t know how she knew, but she comes to Jesus and tells him, “Son, the wine’s running out.”

At first Jesus seems reluctant. He seems to say, “Mother, What’s that got to do with me?” He knows that she, of all people knows who He really is, has a faith that recognizes His unique connection to God, but it’s as though He says, “This isn’t the time and the place to let everybody else in on the secret.” (What He actually says is, “My hour has not yet come.”)

It’s one of those times though that mom knows best. Call it a woman’s intuition if you like. She doesn’t argue with Him or try to persuade Him. Just turns to the servants and says, “Do whatever He tells you.

There are these huge, enormous water jars there. These aren’t little wine bottles, but six, whopping, big, stone jars that hold about twenty or thirty gallons of water. They were usually used for ceremonial washings that were a significant part of the ritual life of every Jewish person.

A lot of talk took place between the rabbis and the scribes about when to wash, what to wash, and even what kind of pot could hold the water to be used in the washing. Jesus chooses to use these “holy vessels” for an act completely outside their intended purpose. It’s kind of ironic that some of the religious folk at the wedding probably would have taken issue with Jesus for putting wine in their holy stone jars!

We are never told how it happened, but after the servants have filled the jars to the brim, Jesus tells them to draw some of the water off, they take it to the steward; he tastes it, and recognizes it as the finest wine he’s tasted all day. He’s got no idea where it’s come from, but is surely pleased that the servants have managed to obtain it. The servants on the other hand, know that a miracle has taken place.

This passage of Scripture is rich in meaning. For the Jewish people, wine, like bread had a particular significance as being a symbol of God's presence and blessing. That symbolism carried over and was given new significance within the Christian Church, something we remind ourselves of at every communion service.

Yet the thing I'd like to focus on, is the ever-present possibility, of missing out on what God is doing in our midst. At times the worries of life obscure the ways of God. At other times, living as we do in such a materialistic culture, our constant craving for things of this world makes us so insensitive to the things of God's Kingdom. God acts and we just don't see it.

I've had people say to me as a pastor, "I would believe if only God gave me some definite sign." I sometimes feel like shaking them, (rather like some folk feel when a referee makes a bad call at a ball game) and saying, "Wake up, Open your mind. Your life from the moment you get out of bed is surrounded and peopled with evidences of God's blessings."

"Do you have a home? Do you have family who care about you? Is there a church you can be a part of? Do you own a bible? Do you get to eat every day? Then friend you are more blessed than many people in this world who do not enjoy a tenth of the luxuries you have, yet still every day, open their lives and receive the goodness of God's love. How much more does God have to bless you till you count it as a sign?”

There are miracles surrounding our lives every day. Miracles taking place in our schools. In our places of work. In our offices. In our hospitals. In our lives. God isn’t holding back. God is showering down blessing upon blessing upon blessing. Do you see that?

If we hadn’t been snowed out last Sunday, I would have encouraged you to make 2019 a prayerful year. That’s one sure way to see that you don’t miss out on all the good stuff that God is doing around your life. Tune in to what God is saying and tune your life into what God wants for your life, and you are less likely to miss out on what God is doing.

Now, I know that what I’m describing as miracles some would say are just everyday happenings or even coincidences or things with totally rational explanations. That’s what the Steward said. “There’s new wine in my glass, so it follows that the logical conclusion is that it must have been there all the time. No miracle here that I can see.”

But if you asked the servants who had put the water in the jars or the disciples for whom it became a sign of God’s glory; “Has a miracle taken place?” they would put you right! It’s that sort of story. It invites you either to say, “I can explain that some other way” or to say, “Wow!”

I’m impressed by the extravagance of this miracle. Six thirty-gallon stone jars full of the richest wine is more than enough for anybody throwing a party! I’m reminded that Jesus has more than enough love and grace and peace and joy to offer than we will ever need. He can turn the stagnant, insipid water of everyday experience into sparkling encounters with His love.

Now it’s time for a random fact. Did you know that the African Impala is an animal that can leap almost ten feet high and a distance of fifteen to twenty feet? Did you also know that if you keep one in a zoo that you only have to put a three foot high wall around its enclosure to keep it fenced in? Why? Because an Impala will not jump unless it can see where its feet are going to land.

The faith that Jesus calls us to is one that doesn’t give us the luxury of knowing where it will lead us. Faith in Christ does not come with a prescribed landing spot. Allow the new wine of God’s Holy Spirit to become your driving force and I cannot tell you where it will lead you.

But I do caution you that, unless you commit your life to following Jesus Christ, then every day of your life that you walk without Him, you will miss out on things that the love and grace of God are doing all around you.

It would be tragic if on the last day our judgment came in the form of an angel saying, “Did you see that?” and our only reply was, “No, I was too centered on myself to realize miracles were taking place all around me.”

The message is plain. Center your life on Jesus and the new wine of the Holy Spirit will be there, in all His richness and abundance, to surround your life. Sometimes it will come as the wine of healing. Sometimes it will be a boost in a time of joy or a pick me up in a time of sadness.

Open your heart to Jesus Christ and Christ will come. Open your eyes to the everyday miracles around you and you will see that God is there for you. Focus on the darkness and you’ll always have your back to the light. Walk in the light and even the darkness will disappear.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Snow Happens (blast from the past)


Back in 1998 I was a minister in Fayetteville, WV. An almighty snow storm came our way, taking out the power, and eventually the water as well. As services at Mount Hebron Presbyterian are cancelled today, thought it would be an opportune moment to share a blast from the past...

Readings: Job 37:1-7: John 13:5-8
Preached at Fayetteville Presbyterian Church on February 8th
(following the Snows of 1998)

"For to the snow He says, 'Fall on the earth',
and to the downpour and the rain, 'Be strong
(Job 37:6)

I have added a new word to my vocabulary. "Tetchy".  When the power went out and the water stopped flowing and the snow kept coming a lot of folk started to get a little irritable.. a little on the edge.. a little "tetchy".  I was no exception.  I asked my wife for a cheese sandwich at one point of the powerout and.. well.. I guess it wasn't the right time. I know my household hasn't been the only one where things have been a little strained over the last few days.

The kids say, "Hooray.. no school again." But then it's, "Got nothing to do.  I'm bored."
Then more storms come along. And so it goes and again it snows.

The storms have had another affect on me than "Tetchiness".  They have been a hard lesson in humility.  Think about it.  We have computers that are monitoring the paths of storms and calculating their effects to the "n"th degree.  We have satellites circling the earth, watching us from beyond the atmosphere.  We have great nuclear power stations manufacturing power from plutonium. We have every imagined convenience, things our grandparents would never have dreamed of.

A couple of snow storms take an unpredictable course and catch us off guard.  The power stops coming.  The gadgets cease to function.  We start to realize just how dark and cold the nights can be.  We become very vulnerable.  Some people become mad about the situation.  Some get busy. Some get "tetchy". Most just get by.

All it takes is for God to say, as Elihu puts it in the book of Job, "Snow..Fall on the earth" and we're in a rare old mess.  Our technological advances seem to amount to so little when your huddled around a candle playing Scrabble for the fourth night in a row.

I feel humbled.  Things come along now and again that cut us down to size, make us realize that were it not for the Grace of God we would all be a bunch of gibbering idiots. 

These storms have been one of those things.

Somebody suggested that maybe these storms were a judgment of God on a wicked nation.  That didn't ring true to me.  If ice and snow are a sign of God's wrath then Eskimo's and Alaskans must be the most wicked people in all Creation and those near the equator the most righteous. I don't see the wrath of God as being distributed along topographic lines. Snow happens.  And that's that.

We certainly haven't had it as bad as some.  Further up towards Canada the power has been off for a month and still hasn't been restored. "No phone, no electricity, no hope of either" has become a familiar litany in New York States upper five counties.  Further North, over the border in Quebec, some families are reportedly tearing down decks and porches to use for heat because a whole years supplemental wood supply had been used up in a matter of weeks.

Storms have been hitting all over with many different effects, be it floods in California or Tornado's in Florida.  Seems the whole nation has got a reason to be tetchy! This puts me in mind of Job.  A different kind of storm hit his life.  It wasn't a judgment on him.  In God's eyes he was the righteous guy.  Then he saw his family dieing all around him, his livelihood slips away, his health deteriorates and his only place to stay is the towns garbage dump. He had more reason than most to be tetchy.

He, not surprisingly, does get mad at God. As the story unfolds his so called comforters give him all sorts of reasons why things had turned bad for him. Mostly they make him take the blame, using the argument that bad things didn't happen to good Godly people.  Then along comes Elihu, the fourth speaker who reasons with Job that whatever was going on was way out of his control and he had better just hang in there because God would show up sooner or later.

When God does show up, far from explaining anything as to the why's or whatever's, He just points Job to the mystery of the Creation around him and seems to say, "Job.. could you make all this stuff? can you make it snow or stop it raining? Can you tame sea monsters or dance along mountaintops?  Life is so much more than you can imagine".

And Job is left feeling rather small and humbled.  At the same time his faith receives a boost.  He realizes that it is not necessary to have all the answers.  He recognizes that there are things that happen you can never understand.  He feels humbled before the awesome mystery of the life God had called him to.  At the end of the book he is restored many of the things he had lost.  God even manages to turn his crisis into something good.

Springtime will come.  The sun will shine again.  The snows will melt and the waters recede.  We know that for a fact.  But it still gets us tetchy. It should humble us that compared to the Creative love of God our lives seem hopelessly limited.  To me the mystery is why God should even bother with the likes of us!

Let's think about thanksgiving. 

There are so many things right now we can be thankful for.
For power workers who have gone beyond the call of duty to get life back to normal.
Fors in touch with the outside world.
For blankets.
For hot flasks of coffee.
For warm clothing.
For firewood.
For shovels.
For chainsaws.
For emergency services.

For so many things and so many people.
We should be thankful.

When Jesus offered to wash Peter's feet, Peter wasn't thankful.  He said "No, you shouldn't be doing that, I don't need that."  He had to learn the hard way that unless he let Jesus help him and stepped down from His position of pride and self sufficiency then his journey of discipleship was coming to an end. "Unless I wash you" Jesus says, "You have no part of me".  Peter was humbled .

The mystery of a Creation which can dump so much snow on us; those around us who continue to work through this crisis, they are our wake up call.  They remind us that despite all our so called technological miracles God still calls the shots.  They remind us that we really can't get along without each other.

So be humbled.
And be thankful.
The two go hand in hand.

The words of a children's hymn that was in the Welsh Presbyterian hymnbook have been coming to mind these last days as I've been going about, shoveling snow and trying to keep warm.

"God who made the sun,
The moon, the stars, is he
Who, when lifes clouds come on,
Careth for me.

God, who made all things,
On earth, in air, in sea,
Who changing seasons brings,
Careth for me.

God, who sent His Son,
To die on Calvary
He, if I lean on him
Will care for me."

When life gets you tetchy, do a bit of leaning!
For as another popular song puts it;

"We all need somebody to lean on".

Whatever the future brings our way may God help us to see it through in the knowledge that though He may send the snow,
He also provides the sunshine that will one day,
(hopefully not to far down the road)
 be shining down on us.