Monday, February 20, 2017

6. “The Temple of You”

 The Conundrums of Corinth
(And their legacy in the Church)
Readings; Psalm 119:33-40, Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18, Matthew 5:38-48, 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, February 19 2017
I was on a youth retreat in West Virginia, and as sometimes happens, the kids were making comments about my accent being a little different to theirs. They took great amusement at the way I pronounced certain words and would say 'Say it again'. Then one of the guys looked me straight in the eye and asked “What's it like... being you?”

I have to say that I really wasn't sure how to answer. Never been asked that before, never been asked it since! 'What's it like being you?' The strange thing is, sometimes on a Sunday morning when we're here in church, it seems to be the sort of probing question that God would ask us, both as individuals and as a community. 'What's it like being you?'

I'm sure, given time for reflection, we could all come up with some kind of answer. 'Actually' one may say, 'Not to good being me right now, got a lot on my mind'. Another may say 'Couldn't be better, can't complain'. There would be as many different answers as we are different people. Maybe as a church community we'd respond; “Well weare going through some changes right now!”

'That's how you are,' God may reply, 'But do you know what you are?' “Do I know what I am?” 'Yes' says God , “Tell them what they are Paul!” At which point somebody could read for us from 1 Corinthians 3:10, “Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in your midst?” Or as it appears in the Message bible “You realize, don't you, that you are the temple of God, and God Himself is present in you?

And that's what I want to talk about today. The temple of you. Because if we are temples, then there are implications to be faced. Temples need maintaining. Temples have a mission. The temple was the place for meeting with God, a sacred place, set apart and indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

1. Temples Need Maintaining

Temples, be they a small pagan temple in Corinth, the grandest of temples in Jerusalem or your local Presbyterian Churches have one thing in common. They always need taking care of. I know I could invite any of our deacons or our treasurer to come up this morning and tell you what a time consuming and expensive job that can be. You have to care for a building.

This text reminds us that we also have to care for ourselves. 'You realize, don't you. That you are a temple...' Historically Christianity has often created a divide between spirit and body, as though somehow the body was profane, and only our spiritual needs were sacred.
We are beginning to re-learn that body, soul and spirit are intimately related. That not all our diseases can be treated by administering a tablet. That prevention is better than a cure, that a healthy diet and physical life results in health benefits all round.

As I was doing some reading for this sermon I came across this, which though it is written primarily for an African-American context, I'm sure you'll see applies to other contexts.

“For African-American youth, re-imagining themselves as 'sacred' would mean praying for God's wisdom to avoid the kinds of risky behaviors which leave the temple vulnerable to all manners of sickness, disease, violence and other forms of physical harm; such as (but not limited to) unprotected sexual activity, illegal drug and alcohol abuse and gun-play. Also adults need to see our youth as 'sacred bodies' and not as 'Gangstas', thugs, lost causes, future prison inmates and absentee baby-daddies. If we begin to see them as young princes and princesses, future presidents, engineers, teachers, parents, preachers and more, then they will more likely see themselves and treat themselves in the same way”

One can apply such an illustration to almost any group of people. To recognize our bodies as scared means cherishing them. It means not being taken in by the lies the media tells us that certain body types and age groups are so much more significant then others. It means recognizing that God has made you 'you', and being thankful for that unique physical creation that you are!

If God says we are temples then we need to ask ourselves, how well are we doing in the area of personal buildings and grounds! Not so we can compare ourselves with others, or compete with people different from us, but so that we can have the physical well-being God desires for our lives. Temples need maintaining.

2. Temples have a mission.

When He was 12 years old Jesus took a trip with His family to Jerusalem and we find Him in the temple debating with the teachers. (Luke 3:41-50). The temple was a place of learning. The body may well be a temple but the person who lives inside it needs more than just the physical. God gives us a body and a mind.

Presbyterians have always been strong promoters of education. There are 65 colleges and universities nationwide related to the PC(USA), 10 seminaries and 2 further seminaries in a covenant relationship. For a denomination of our size, that's a lot! And the majority have a reputation for holding to high academic standards.

There remains an emphasis within our theology that all truth is God's truth. That the sciences and the arts are just as important as the theology and philosophy one traditionally associates with religious institutions. We believe that one of our callings in life is to grow in knowledge and wisdom. We are not happy with simplistic answers, easy solutions or simply offering the comment “Well, I think it says in the bible.”

We believe God has given us a mind and expects us to exercise it. That's why in many of our churches we host nursery schools or after school programs. That's why we have adult classes and bible studies. We recognize that we all have a lot to learn!

It also means we often hold to different positions on a whole variety of issues. This led to somebody quipping; “What do you get if you put two Presbyterians in a room together?” Answer? 'A disagreement!' Our Presbytery meetings can become quite volatile when opinions are strongly and deeply held.

Yet, for much of our history we have agreed that although we differ, we can still travel together. That the truth is so much greater than any of us can ever fully discern, and that sometimes we are the ones that need to listen, rather than those who have the answers. Sadly, there are times when peoples differences cause them to separate, but often when historically those situations are viewed retrospectively, we wonder why they were such a big deal!

Where I'm going with this is to say 'Keep asking Questions'. Keep your mind in gear. Never be afraid to think outside of the box or look beyond the confines of ones own comfort zone. Having said that I would also encourage you to make that journey of inquiry in tandem with God, and make the best use of the insights Scripture can offer. Bear in mind of course that in order to know what they are... you are going to have study the scriptures!

I like the way the Message Bible transliterates verses 18 and 19. “Don't fool yourself. Don't think that you can be wise merely by being up-to-date with the times. Be God's fool—that's the path to true wisdom.Temples have an educative component to their mission.

3. The Temple was THE place for meeting with God.

a. The temple was the dwelling place of God. The Jews believed that God dwelt in the temple, took possession of it and resided in it.Don't you know” asks Paul in verse 16 of our reading today “That you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in your midst?

I remember as a young person being invited to “Ask Jesus into my heart.” A little confusing if you take that image literally! What is actually meant by such a phrase is that we invite the Holy Spirit to be a central force in our lives, invite the power of resurrection to invade our time constrained existence, invite God to make a kingdom perspective the lens through which we view everything else around our lives.

Notice as well that this verse is both individual and corporate. “God's Spirit dwells in your midst”. Our lives individually and the life we share together as a church community are an arena for the activity of the living God. In Matthew 18:20 teaches His disciples “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.". The temple is a dwelling place of God.

b. The temple was set apart from common use for a holy purpose. Our call as Christians is not to be the same as everyone else and go along with the crowd. Jesus invites us to be in the world, but not of the world. (John 17:14) We are set apart for God's service, to live for God's glory and bring glory to God's name. How that works in our life and within our experience is something we work at with God!

c. The temple was a sacred place. This brings us around full circle to where we began talking about looking after our bodies and nurturing our minds. Just as the temple was sacred to God, so our lives are sacred to God. Sacred enough to send His son Jesus Christ to die on the Cross for us. Sacred enough to be a place in which God wants to accomplish the work of the Kingdom, within and through and all around us.

Returning to the question I was asked at a youth camp. 'What's it like being you?' Let's rephrase it and ask ourselves “How are we doing at being a temple?”

Being a temple requires a number of things. It takes maintenance. We need take care of ourselves physically. Exercise, diet, health, these are important. Being a temple means we have a mission and a mind to discern what that mission is. Being a temple means that our lives are a meeting place with God. We welcome the Spirit's presence and activity. We recognize that the call to be a disciple is a high call and a great privilege. We see our life in it's totality, body, soul and spirit as a sacred trust.

Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in your midst?

May God help us to live into our calling!
And to God's name be all glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, February 13, 2017

5. Solid Food

The Conundrums of Corinth
(And their legacy in the Church)
Readings; Psalm 119:1-8, Deuteronomy 30:15-20, Matthew 5:21-37, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, February 12 2017

I'm sure as you were growing up your parents said it to you when you were in the midst of a squabble, and I'm sure if you are a parent you have at some point had to say it to your children. The phrase “Why don't you just grow up!”

Such is the tone of our reading today in which Paul tells the church in Corinth to stop their quarreling and grow up. As the first verse reads in the Message Bible: “Right now, friends, I'm completely frustrated by your unspiritual dealings with each other and with God. You're acting like infants...” He says of the teaching that he has given them; “I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready.”

He chastises them for the infantile way they have lined themselves up to support a particular preacher. 'One says, "I follow Paul," and another, "I follow Apollos,” (1Co 3:4) Didn't they realize that Paul and Apollos were on the same team, about the same task and served the same Lord Jesus Christ? “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.” (1Co 3:6 )

His concern is that of a father in the faith to them. He calls them friends and sisters and brothers. He's not bullying them or disparaging them. Rather his love for them compels him to speak out.

Most concerning of all is that he discerns that they are not acting in a way consistent with spiritual growth. They are behaving according to the spirit of the world rather than the Holy Spirit of God. By their jealousy, by their partisanship, by their quarreling, they were betraying the trust placed in them as recipients of the great and good news of the gospel.

This gospel was a message that had been sown in their hearts through his work, and through the work of Apollos. Both had been reliant on God's grace. They needed to move forward, not be stuck in the midst of senseless quarrels and disputes that prevented them from receiving sound teaching. They needed solid food.

Reading between the lines in this passage we can see how Paul, whilst chastising them for being milk drinkers, is also offering them solid food, by teaching them what spiritual ministry looked like, using himself as an example. As we move forward as a faith community, we do well to take note of Paul's teaching about the nature of Holy Spirit motivated ministry.

1. Spiritual Ministry is Servant Shaped.

Verse 5a “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe-- “ Paul uses the Greek term 'diakonos' to describe both his own ministry and the ministry of Apollos. It is from 'diakonos' that we derive our term 'Deacon'. The traditional role of the deacon is one of service and the offering of care and support. From Paul’s perspective we are called to be 'deacons' ...'servants'... to one another.

If you have ever watched Downton Abbey then you will have observed what it was like to be part of the staff of a large country estate. When the Earl of Grantham or any of his family tells them to 'Do something', they do it. They don't argue. They don't complain that it's not their task or that it's not convenient right now. They don't say, “Sorry I have other plans this weekend.”

If Mr. Carson, the chief butler, suspects any quarreling or dissension in the ranks downstairs, then he nips it in the bud. They either shape up and get on with doing what they are meant to be doing or they are out of a job.

Being a Christian is not a job, it is an assignment. It is a spiritual task. Essential to the nature of the task is the attitude that we are not part of a church community to simply get out of it what we can, but that we are called to give what we can, sometimes sacrificially. Our pattern is that of Jesus Himself, who gave His life for us on the Cross, in order that we may be freed to serve others. We serve because that is the right response to make to Jesus who died for us. We love because He first loved us. Continuing with verse 5...

2. Spiritual Ministry is Task Orientated

“… the Lord has assigned to each his task.” (1Co 3:5b). Or as the Message Bible has it, Paul describes the servant ministry of himself and Apollos by saying “We each carried out our servant assignment.

Congregations are made up of people with different gifts and talents and abilities. Stewardship is determining how we are going to use our particular gifts and influence to enhance the spiritual community God has invited us to be a part of. We sometimes speak of stewardship as being about money. But what's the point of having a bank balance that balances if nobodies actually moving from being babies in the faith to mature believers?

Staying with the Downton Abbey imagery, everybody has an assignment. Be they in the kitchen or a personal maid or a butler or a gardener... everybody has a job to do. If any one of them fails to function effectively then the whole thing becomes out of balance and you find jealousy and quarrels erupting, precisely the ailments that were so troubling Paul about the church in Corinth.

It can be hard to find exactly where you fit in. Sometimes we can feel like a square pin in a round hole. Sometimes we become frustrated because we can see what needs to be done but we are not asked our opinion. Sometimes we observe that people occupy positions that are beyond their capabilities, but there's no way they are letting go of those positions because they have too much of themselves invested in that task or that position.

Do you know why that is? It's because God doesn't call us to be a business or an enterprise or a corporation or a company. God doesn't call us to be the staff of a country house. God calls us to be a family. “And there ain't no dynamics quite as curious as family dynamics.” There's our working relationships, there's the relationships we have with our friends and then there's the relationships we have with our families. There are times when it seems that we can get along with everybody, except those we were actually born to get along with.

Family relationships take all the grace, patience, understanding and tolerance that we are given... and then some. Loving people we don't know is a piece of a cake. Loving those God calls to be our spiritual family and with whom we share a space we describe as our spiritual home, that's another story.

Such is the reality we deal with and can only travel through with prayer, with lots of deep breathing and by focusing on each others needs more than our own. Yet, please be assured, there is room for us all at the table. There will come those moments when it makes sense and falls into place. It takes time. Things that matter always do. Solid food has to be chewed. You can chug a bottle of milk, but if you eat a steak dinner to rapidly is that you risk the chance of choking and get indigestion.

We are invited to center on the things that need doing and bring to them what we can. Spiritual ministry is always task orientated.

3. Spiritual Ministry is God Focused

I Corinthians 3: 7 in the Message Bible reads;It's not the one who plants or the one who waters who is at the center of this process but God, who makes things grow.”

Growth requires the planting and the nurturing. There have to be people in place to faithfully accomplish the assignments God has given them. But at the end of the day, we cannot predict the outcome. It is 'God, who makes things grow'.

Spiritual ministry is servant-shaped, task orientated and focused on what God can do. We build upon the heritage that those who have gone before us and we recognize that we are not alone in the task. We have each other and we have God to lead us and guide us. If it were entirely up to us, I don't think we'd have a hope.

Thankfully God promises to be with us and encourages us to go beyond spiritual infancy, to go beyond being in a place where we are nourished on milk alone and move to a place of being fed with solid food, the meat of God's Word, the knowledge of God's ways that allows us to take risks and make mature judgments.

At the commencement of our reading Paul appears frustrated by the Corinthian Church. “For goodness sake, grow up!” As we dig deeper into the passage we realize he is expressing parental concern and offering solid guidance as to what it takes to be a Holy Spirit centered congregation.

That it takes the willingness to be servants of each other, in genuine and realistic ways. He uses the term 'deacon' to describe that servant relationship he had with them and prayed they would have the desire to be 'deacons' for each other.

He reminds them that being a family could be hard. People had to find their place and do what needed to be done Spiritual maturity required time and effort and focus upon the tasks at hand.

He also, in his own unique way, reminds them at the end of all things, it wasn't about what they could do or be, but rather about allowing God's love to grow within them and minister to others through them.

Though this passage in Corinthians Paul invites us to grow in faith, in love and in hope; to grow up into Christ, into being people shaped less by the attitudes and shallow perceptions of our every day world and be transformed by the values of His Kingdom, where everybody matters and the little things we do count for a lot... and where the bottom line is always love.

Keeping in mind the Downton Abbey imagery I shared earlier, I leave you with Paul's words, as transliterated in the Message Bible, 1 Corinthians 3:7-9;

It's not the one who plants or the one who waters who is at the center of this process but God, who makes things grow. Planting and watering are menial servant jobs at minimum wages. What makes it all worth doing is the God we are serving.

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

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, February 6, 2017

4. The Deep

The Conundrums of Corinth
(And their legacy in the Church)
Readings; Psalm 112:1-9, Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 5:13-20, 1 Corinthians 2:1-12
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, February 5 2017

One of the biggest movie hits of the late 1970's was about a killer shark called 'Jaws'. In an effort to capitalize on it's success numerous follow ups were made including a lavish production in 1977 called 'The Deep'. The Deep was about a young couple who discovered a World War II wreck, called Goliath, that not only has a valuable cargo, but lays over a Spanish galleon with an even more valuable cargo upon it.

Not surprisingly other people, of dubious character, find out and are out to get their hands on the available wealth, and what with the presence of mutated sea creatures, the action becomes deadly. The posters advertising the movie contained the phrase “Is anything worth the terror of the Deep?”

In our bible reading today we heard Paul speaking of ' “What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived” – the things God has prepared for those who love Him... The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God ' (1 Corinthians 2:9)

There is however no terror involved in the deep things of God. On the contrary, the deep wisdom of God is pictured as a treasure to be highly desired, and available to all those whose lives are being recreated by the action of God's Holy Spirit.

The only terror expressed in our passage comes through Paul himself, who explains to the Corinthians “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling”

We sometimes picture Paul as a fearless, bold, extrovert of a guy; on a mission from God and afraid of nothing. Yet here he pictures himself as a stumbling and not-very-gifted speaker. As Christians, one of our duties before God is to share our faith with others. But often, even the thought of speaking about we believe, paralyzes us. We feel insecure, we feel inadequate. We are worried about doing more harm than good.

Maybe then we can take comfort from the fact that even Paul felt ill-equipped for the task God had laid upon him. He claims to have no power, other than that which the Spirit of God blessed him with, to present the gospel message. “When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God” (1 Cor 2:1)

In the last chapter he spoke about the 'foolishness' of the gospel and how it's power didn't lie in words or dazzling philosophical insight, but was something that people would witness as they observed the church in Corinth practicing love and hospitality towards each other, crossing boundaries of culture and tradition, breaking down centuries old practices of exclusion and privilege and seeking to be One in Christ. That went against the spirit of the age. Still does.

He rejoices that the good news of God's love is delivered through cracked and damaged vessels. That's how he felt he was. Later in his letter he writes We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” (2Co. 4:7)

'Jars of Clay'. We, who are nobody special, just fallible and frail humanity like everybody else, are commissioned by God to be the good news for others. Those whom God calls, God also equips with the blessing and empowerment of the Holy Spirit. We are called to do God's work, in God's way and in God's power. That way, glory goes to God and our service becomes an act of worship.

But how do we do that? “Is anything worth the terrors of the Deep?” How do we find the sterngth and courage to go deep?

It is interesting to note that Paul never describes people who put their faith in Jesus as being 'Christians'. In the Book of Acts we do read that the followers of Jesus were first called Christians in Antioch. (Acts 11:26). But most scholars suggest that the term was used in a derogatory way and not meant as a compliment. Rather like calling them 'Jesus Freaks' or 'little christs.”

Only later in church history did the word become associated not just with individuals but a phrase that carried sociological, cultural, and political, as well as religious meaning. Only later did the word have worldly status and become a positive.

For Paul a disciple of Jesus is a 'spiritual' person. But he makes a distinction between being spiritual, in some vague sense of the word, and a person whose life is being molded and shaped by the action of God's Holy Spirit. In verse 12 he writes “What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us.”

Paul found his strength, not in any vague notion of spirituality, but in his Hloy Spirit relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

There were many in the Corinthian community to whom Paul wrote, who could rightly describe themselves as 'spiritual'. Corinth was one of the broadest minded, eclectic cities in the whole Roman Empire. If Corinth had a theme tune it could have been “Anything goes” - and that applied to their religious life as well as their cultural life.

So Paul is quite specific in stating that what he had in mind was not any vague notion of 'spirituality'; “What we have received is not the spirit of the world”, but a spiritual nature formed by a persons relationship with God, through Jesus Christ and in tandem with the work of the Holy Spirit. When Paul speaks of 'Going Deep' he does not visualize the process as some individual quest for meaning, but tells us in verse 10 that 'The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God.'

“Is anything worth the terror of the deep?” declared the movie poster. In the movie 'The Deep' in order to plumb the depths and reach the treasure, those who desire the prize have to work at it, to put on their diving suits and search for it. Paul is in no doubt the gospel is worth diving for. In verse 7 he speaks of the gospel as 'A mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began' . At the end of verse 9 he talks of the things “God has prepared for those who love Him”.

His whole emphasis is that there are things about life, about ourselves, about each other, about God, that we have yet to discover. That we cannot afford to stay as we are but need to go deeper and deeper and deeper in our discovery of the love of God.

If there was anything to be feared, it was staying as we are. He cautions us that if we fail to go deeper, we will stagnate, we will fail to appreciate just how greatly God loves us, we will become disconnected from each other and from our church communities and even from God,

Just as a diver has to reach different levels in order to discover what they are looking for, Paul envisages spiritual life as a quest, and a journey of discovery that involves all of our senses.

In verse 9 Paul speaks of the deep things of God being perceived by our sight, “What no eye has seen', by our listening 'what no ear has heard' and by our thinking 'What no human mind has conceived.'

So here is what Paul invites us to.

We are invited to a deeper vision. We know that we see ourselves in certain ways. But we also know that another persons perception of our lives can be entirely different. Paul takes it one step further and tells us that God's perception of our life is something different again.

If only we could envision God's perspective on our relationships, on our problems, on our finances, on our worries, on our temptations, on our struggles as a nation and as individuals, on our hopes and dreams.... well things would look different. Bear in mind that God looks at us as people whom He loved enough to send His Son Jesus Christ to die on a Cross for. That God’s love is so powerful that Christ was raised from the dead. How we need to see that resurrection perspective over and above our narrow visions of what can and can't be!

We are invited to listen. Through the Old Testament prophet Isaiah 28:23 God addressed the people: “Listen and hear my voice; pay attention and hear what I say.” In John 10:27 Jesus, the Good Shepherd, describes His relationship to His people in this way; “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.

But how do we hear God? Matthew's gospel suggests we hear God's call when we witness the plight of the hungry and homeless, the naked and the prisoner and decide to take action. That's what separated the sheep from the goats. (Matthew 25:32)

We hear God when we approach Scripture in an attitude of prayer and humbly seeking God's guidance. The Holy Spirit is with us to interpret the written words in a way that they become the Word of God to us.

We hear God in worship as we open ourselves up to the music and the hymns and the words and the giving and the fellowship. We hear God when we actively engage in listening!

We are invited to understand 'What no human mind has conceived.' When we have an uncomplicated trust in God we witness unexplainable things happening in and around and through our lives. I can't put that into words. I can't explain it. But I do understand that God's love is so much greater than we dare imagine. Paul writes to the Corinthians: “What no eye has seen,what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived” the things God has prepared for those who love Him”.

This passage has taken us a few places this morning.

Firstly, that we have no need to fear that we are not good enough, or clever enough, or ideally suited to share with others the treasure of the gospel. God promises that such is the work of the Holy Spirit. We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.”

Secondly, that we are invited to dig deep into our heritage of faith. We are prompted to dive deep and discover hidden treasures within the love of God. Though being aware and involved in the struggles of others, though scripture and prayer, through opening our hearts in worship

Finally, let us recall that for Paul a disciple of Jesus was somebody, not spiritual in any vague sense of the word, but one who was being changed and inspired and renewed by the action of God's Holy Spirit.

Today there's football game. First time I ever attempted to play football was with some of the youth in Fayetteville, WV. I was standing there and one of them shouted “Go Deep, Go Deep” I had no idea what they were talking about. They explained that if went deep, I could catch the ball and maybe get it over the line before somebody pulverized me. “Is anything worth the terror of the deep?”

With the help of the Holy Spirit may we travel deeper and deeper and deeper into an understanding of the love of God as a treasure that changes everything. Here around a table laid with bread and wine is a great place to do that! And to God's name be the glory. Amen.

Monday, January 30, 2017

3. Field of Fools

The Conundrums of Corinth
(And their legacy in the Church)
Readings; Psalm 15, Micah 6:1-8, Matthew 5:1-12, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, January 29 2017

Little Joey is outside throwing a ball. Mum yells 'It's dinner time'. 'Just a few more minutes!' Joey protests. 'Now' says mum, 'You'll never get anywhere in life if all you can do is fool around with a ball'.

I'm fairly sure that such is a situation that every professional baseball player, basketball player, and indeed every player that will take part in next weeks Superbowl Game could identify with. That somewhere in their past, there were people who told them that they were being foolish investing their lives in throwing, bouncing or kicking a ball.

But next week there they'll be. Running out onto the field as some of the most admired athletes in the nation, taking part in one of the most watched TV events of the year. A field of fools? Very well accomplished, very well paid, very much admired fools. It does, if you think about it, seem rather strange that the ability to play a game well can bring so much adulation, but that's the way of the world.

I'm guessing that professional artists, writers and musicians had to face similar challenges. The girl in the dance class. The kid with the dream of writing a movie script. The one who is always fiddling about on the computer, coming up with codes and images and little innovations. There has been somebody who told them, somewhere along the line, “Look, that's fine to do as a hobby or a distraction, but you are a fool if you think you can make a living out of it.”

Tell that to Steven Spielberg or Mark Zuckerberg or Carrie Underwood When are they going to stop fooling around and get a proper job? There are many fields for fools out there!

Which brings me to a verse from our bible reading today, 1 Corinthians 1:18. Paul tells us 'For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God'.

There are many in our society who will tell us that we truly are fools, if we allow the message of Christianity to get a deep hold upon us. After all, look where it led Jesus and all those early disciples. He ended up on a cross, they ended up as martyrs. And that resurrection stuff? Get real! It's impossible.

The Christian message does not fit well with the way things are meant to be. Paul tells us, “Jews demand for signs, Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified; a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:22-23)

That phrase here translated as 'stumbling block' is the Greek word 'skandalon', from which we derive our English word 'scandal'. According to the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy 21:23 anyone who was 'hung on a tree' was irrevocably cursed by God. How could the Messiah, the anointed one of God, come to his life's end in such an accursed fashion? For those of a Jewish background that wasn't the kind of sign they were looking for! It didn't make sense. Foolishness.

The problem for the Greeks was different. Their problem was that almost everything about Jesus made no sense to them. His concern for the poor. The way He identified with people who didn't really matter in the larger scheme things. His teaching about the pecking order in life. His humility. Wasn't He supposed to be a King? Royalty and humility did not go together.

The power of God, which Paul claimed was shown through Jesus Christ, manifested itself in contradictory ways to established wisdom. The Corinthian Church was a case in point. The gospel message had called together a mixture of folk who, outside of their church community, wouldn't normally get together. There were a few influential folk, probably a few wealthy folk, maybe a few learned folk. But a lot of them were really, to Greek eyes, nobody special.

Paul writes to them, verse 26, “Brothers and Sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were influential, not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are”

Their very existence as a church was an exercise in foolishness that went against the wisdom of the day. I believe that when we are at our best, we as churches, can still do that! Our diversity can speak volumes to a world where everything has to have it's own category.

I am sidetracking here, but one of the things I really dislike about the way music has been marketed over the last few decades is that everything has to have a genre. If somebody asks you, 'What kind of music do you like?” they are expecting you to give a specific answer. “Oh, I'm into post-reformation, adult orientated, 1990's punk opera, with a hint of 2017 dub-step classical Techno.”

There's a lot of division associated with music. Especially with church music. As though certain types of music are much more “Holy” and “Acceptable” to God than other types. And who gets to determine that?

I've known some folks in 'trendy-modern' churches declare their superiority by saying they have done away with those dusty old hymnbooks and put everything up on a screen. And I have had folk tell me that if we are going to start singing those 'Happy-Clappy' songs from a screen then they will find another church to attend. Wow! What tolerant folk we Christians can be! Get with my genre or get another church.

Scripture seems crystal clear that the reason to attend church is to worship God, not for music, be it ancient or modern, but for the inspiration that comes to us through the Holy Spirit, for the message God wants to share with our hearts, to be equipped for God's service out there in a world that couldn't care less about if we sing from a hymnbook or a screen but just wants to know if anybody cares about them!

What God is looking for, is lives and hearts that are humble, and expectant, and truly open to Christ's love, regardless of the way that love presents itself.

Does that found foolish? Well, listen to Paul, verse 27; “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world, to shame the strong

Why? He tells us in verse 29 “So that no one may boast before Him. It is because of Him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God – that is our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord”

Whenever we confuse our 'preference' for God's will, then we are on shaky ground. It doesn't matter if it's our preference for the kind of people we want to rub shoulders with at church, the kind of worship service that we enjoy, the kind of music we like, or the temperature we like the church thermostat set at. What we are actually doing, when we idolize our preferences, is making worship, about us, not about God.

The Church in Corinth, like many churches, struggled with that! Such is one of the conundrums of Corinth that continues to haunt us to day. But because the Corinthians were learning to accept each others differences, to see each other through the eyes of Jesus as all equally needing His love to reclaim them and remake them, were accepting the radical thought that we are not all the same, then people were seeing that a different kind of wisdom was at work in their community. It was not the wisdom of this world, but the foolishness of God.

God invites us to make Christ's love and Christ's acceptance our focus. In his letter to the Ephesian Church, Paul writes “I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

The foolish, scandalous thing about a gospel that focuses on the Cross and the Resurrection of Jesus is that every thing is turned inside out and upside down. The little things are the big things. The things we often count as insignificant and, sometimes uncomfortable, are the things of the kingdom.

Jesus offers teaching that transcends the wisdom of this world. We heard earlier, part of His mountain top sermon; “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God..

It does sound a little foolish to suggest that poverty of spirit, mourning, being merciful instead of aggressive, and hungering and thirsting for righteousness are pathways that bring the Kingdom a little closer to peoples lives. And had not Jesus embodied such teaching, we may have been able to ignore it!

The gospel offers to us a radically different way of living. And there will always be people who suggest that to even try and live in such a way is kind of foolish. Paul insists that “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise.”

Rather like the kid who throws a ball, as though they could ever make a career out of it. Or the girl who dances a few steps and believes that one day she could make a living from her skills. Or the church in Corinth, thinking that by coming together across societies boundaries to worship God, the world could be changed. Or Paul, thinking that telling people about the wisdom of God and the foolishness of the Cross might actually be a world changer.

So we are invited today, to take our place on the field of fools, to see beyond our personal preferences and dare to believe that dreams we pursue, and the little things we do, in the service and worship of God, are actually the wisest and most important of all.

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

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, January 23, 2017

2. Church United

The Conundrums of Corinth
(And their legacy in the Church)
Readings: Psalm 27:1, 4-9, Isaiah 9:1-4, Matthew 4:12-23, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, January 22nd 2017

I recall watching a skit that featured two guys who meet together and begin talking about the churches that they went to. It went something like this.

The first says, 'I go to the Baptist Church'.'
'Really' replied the other 'Me too'. '
'Second Baptist?'
'Yeah, Second Baptist'.
'Second Baptist, American?'
'Yeah, Second Baptist, American!'
'Second Baptist, American, Southern Synod?'
'Yeah, Second Baptist, American, Southern Synod!'
'Second Baptist, American, Southern Synod, Pre-millenial?'
'Yeah, Second Baptist, American, Southern Synod, Pre-millenial!'
'Second Baptist, American, Southern Synod, Pre-millenial, King James only, Second edition hymnal?'
'Yeah! Second Baptist, American, Southern Synod, Pre-millenial, King James only, Second edition hymnal?'
'Second Baptist, American, Southern Synod, Pre-millenial,King James only, Second edition hymnal, that meets at 10:00 a.m?'
'NO WAY' replies the other 'Second Baptist, American, Southern Synod, Pre-millenial, King James only, Second edition hymnal, THAT meets at 6:00 p.m.'

The first one exclaims;
'I knew there was something weird about you!'
and walks away.

As he leaves the other shakes his head and shouts after him; “HERETIC!

The Church United? Paul writes : “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe's household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, "I follow Paul"; another, "I follow Apollos"; another, "I follow Cephas"; still another, "I follow Christ."

I'm preaching a series titled “The Conundrums of Corinth (And their legacy in the Church)” You may not know this, but January 18th through the 25th is the “International Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.” Seemed like a good week to ponder whether Christian unity can ever be a reality and visit again Paul's teaching to the divided church of Corinth.
Throughout it's history our own Presbyterian Church has divided numerous times into different camps over what seemed at the time to be irreconcilable differences. From attitudes towards slavery, to debates over evolution and creation, from women in ministry, to what creeds we adopt.

The big dividing issue of recent years is sexuality. Who should and who shouldn't be allowed to exercise ministry in the church, and who in our society should be permitted to marry... and... the larger debate in the light of more folk co-habiting and divorce rates spiraling... just what constitutes a marriage in our times?

I know if I raise a subject like this there are going to be a lot of contradictory views in the room. There will be strong differences of opinion. Some may feel that their belief is so deeply held... that all they can do is walk away from those with whom they differ. Which is... an enormous shame.

Jesus prayed that we may be One, as He and His Father were One. And we've already heard Paul encouraging us to have no divisions among us, but to be of the same mind. Which is, of course, very hard to do, if you are not of the same mind! Is there a way through times of disagreement? What does it take to be the church that Paul invites us to become, the kind of church Jesus prayed we would be? Is Church unity an impossible dream?

In our reading today a key verse is 1:13, Paul puts three questions before the Corinthians; “Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” “Was Paul crucified for you?” “Is Christ divided?” I'd like to think about each of his questions.

1. Were we baptized in the name of Paul?

Baptism is one of those huge historic issues that has divided the church, so there is a strange irony to the question Paul places before us. Where any of us baptized in his name? Of course not. Paul is clear that he saw his mission as preaching the gospel. He says 'I thank God that I didn't baptize any of you' but then backs up a little and says, 'Well actually I did baptize Crispus and Gaius, oh yeah, and the household of Stephanas, but I think that was all!”

It is as though he's saying that baptism was significant, but there were far more important things, in particular preaching and demonstrating the gospel of the love and grace of Jesus Christ. That task was so high above all the others that it made him forgetful when it came to lesser matters such as baptism.

Baptism marked a beautiful way to begin the life of discipleship. It was a sign of belonging. But of belonging not to the person who baptized you, or even to the denomination that administered the sacrament, but belonging to Jesus Christ. No matter who performed the baptism or in which church it took place, a person was baptized into the name of Jesus Christ.

Baptism is a sign of our Christian identity. Paul was concerned that it was being misused in a way that identified the act with a person or an institution rather than being an act of identification with Jesus and His Kingdom. He suggests that one way to get over our disagreements is by asking whose name we were baptized into.

Of course there will be those who will suggest that our way of baptism isn't really the right way of baptism so it doesn't really count whose name it was in. There are those who use baptism, not as a way of including people, but excluding them! Such did not seem to be John the Baptist's intention when he went down to the waters and invited everybody to turn their lives round. And Jesus identified Himself with us by going forward and receiving the baptism John offered... (even though, he had nothing to repent of.)

If we can get over arguing about the mode we were baptized with and actually remember whose name we are baptized into; then we could recognize that all those who are baptized into Jesus name are our brothers and sisters in Christ. Recognizing each other as brothers and sisters creates a good foundation for unity.

2. Was Paul crucified for you?

According to historic tradition Paul ended his life at the time of Nero's persecution of the church, not through crucifixion, but by being beheaded near or in Rome. Paul at the time he wrote this letter had no knowledge that such would be his fate. We could be pedantic and argue that Paul did give his life as a sacrifice in the service of a church that would be formed by his teachings, but to argue that meant Paul, and not Jesus, died for our sins, makes no sense.

And that is Paul's point! He could not die for another persons salvation. Only Jesus could do and had done such a thing. Only Jesus was the Son of God, born in Bethlehem to Mary and Joseph. Only Jesus had an amazing ministry that backed up every awesome word He spoke. Only Jesus was crucified and prayed 'Father, forgive them for they don't know what they are doing'. Only Jesus was raised to life on the third day.

Paul's point, very simply, is that only Jesus is our Savior. That no matter what denomination we may belong to, that no matter how correct we feel our particular interpretation of theology is, no matter who we think should be in or out of the Kingdom, no matter how many prayers we pray or services we attend, no matter how generous are acts of charity we accomplish... at the end of all things, only Jesus is our Savior.

Furthermore, Jesus is also our neighbors Savior. Even that neighbor we don't get along with. Jesus did not just die to save us, His salvation will redeem that person we don't see eye to eye with, the one who has a very different understanding of what Christianity is and the one who attends a church with a very different history, culture and tradition from ours. Paul... and even our interpretation of Paul... is no help when it comes to salvation. That's why he teases us; 'Was Paul crucified for you?” Which brings us to our final observation.

Is Christ divided?

The answer is 'NO!' The Church is divided. The church needs a “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity”. Christians around the world often find it impossible to get along with each other. We are experts at thinking only we have got it right. We are giants when it comes to building walls, breaking down bridges and fixing what isn't actually broken. We have an innate ability to think that our preferences are God's requirements and our words and doctrines and views are the only ones which carry truth.

But at the end of the day there is only, as the hymn writer so perfectly pictures it, there is only 'One Faith, one Church and one Lord'. And maybe, if we can dream of what will eventually be the reality, we can, in our better moments, step back from judgmental attitudes and shallow opinions and build toward what really matters. That in God's eyes there is only one faith... a faith defined by trusting in God, only one church, the one that Jesus invites us to be part of, and only one Lord, Jesus Christ whom God sent into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved though Him. Christ is not divided.

Let us pray that there will come a time when we see Him as He really is, when our desire for unity, is a strong as His and all things come together as they should!

Paul offers us some pointers as to how unity can be found.
  • By recognizing our mutual baptism into Jesus name, We are sisters and brothers.
  • Be realizing our only hope for salvation is in and through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus,
  • By understanding that despite all our attempts to pull apart from each other, it is ultimately a futile task, because we (and those we separate from) are the body of Christ.
I invite you this week to join with others around the world in praying that our historic divisions may be healed and the unity that Jesus prayed we may find, a unity that resembles that which He shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit, may be achieved.

Disunity is as old as the church itself. It was one of the conundrums of Corinth that is still with us. My prayer is that deeper fellowship and understanding may not be seen as an unreachable goal, but a genuine part of the Kingdom that we pray may 'Come upon earth as it is in heaven'.

That one day people really will know we are Christians by our love... our love for God... our love for each other... our love for those we totally disagree with and that maybe we'll even get as far as thinking about what Jesus said about loving our enemies. To God be the glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

1. Even Good Churches Have Bad Days

The Conundrums of Corinth
(And their legacy in the Church)
Readings; Psalm 40:1-11, Isaiah 49:1-7, John 1:29-42, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, January 15 2017

Corinth was a city located on a high plateau, a four-mile wide strip of land that joined the mainland of Greece to another big bulge of land that sticks out into the Mediterranean Sea. In Paul's day, it controlled trade conducted both on the road that passed by it and from sea at two ports, one in the north, one in the south.

It was a thriving economic center inhabited by people from all over the Mediterranean world. Like port cities throughout history, it had a reputation for being a place where anything goes. “What happened in Corinth stayed in Corinth.”

It seems an unlikely location for the Christian faith to take root. Yet a series of missionaries had traveled through and left an impression, including the apostle Paul. The first and second letters of Paul to Corinth were written as an answer to many questions they had about being a church and what was acceptable and what had to change.

Now if Paul's first letter to the Corinthians had only consisted of Chapter 1:1-9, our reading today, then we would be left thinking, “Wow! What a Church!” It would be the kind of church we'd be hesitant to join because we'd probably spoil it!

Paul speaks of them being sanctified by Christ and of their call to be holy. He praises them for being enriched in every way, having among themselves great speakers and those who were extremely knowledgeable. He describes them as being full of grace. In addition their church was a place where spiritual gifts were given free expression. Healing. Prophecy. Speaking in tongues.

In verse 9 he promises God will keep them faithful. “He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Blameless! Sounds like the perfect church. It's only when you get past verse 9 that the trouble starts.

I'm beginning today a series focusing on the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians that I've titled “The Conundrums of Corinth (And their legacy in the Church)” I'm calling this first message; “Even Good Churches Have Bad Days.”

What are some of the things we are going to be talking about?

Disunity. Because the church in Corinth and been founded by different evangelists with a variety of gifts and abilities, people had their favorites. Paul wasn't always one of them, despite the fact he was the person they contacted when they needed advice. As January 18th through the 25th is the “International Week of Prayer for Christian Unity ” it seemed like this would be a good topic to tackle. Though we claim to be all of one faith, the reality is we are a community divided by denominations and differences.

Pride. There were indeed some knowledgeable people in Corinth. The trouble was that it made them feel superior to everybody else. Paul takes them to task by talking about the “Foolishness” of the gospel message and encourages them to humbly seek for the mind of Christ.

Shallowness. While some professed to know it all others seemed extremely content knowing very little. It was as though they just wanted to get by with as little commitment as they could, but still experience all the blessings God had to offer. Paul encourages them to go deeper.

Immaturity Paul really longs to teach them about the meatier things of the gospel, but along with their shallowness there was also an element of childishness about them. Jesus had taught the disciples to be childlike... not childish... and the church in Corinth seemed to be getting the two confused. He complains they could only be given milk and would choke if he fed them meat!

Identity The Church in Corinth seemed to struggle to know who they were really meant to be and how that translated into how they lived. Paul speaks to them of being “Temples of the Holy Spirit” and how if they gave themselves to service of others then their identity wouldn't be such an issue for them.

As I've ministered in different churches, and shared thoughts with many colleagues who have the same task, it is interesting how these themes seem to show up with regularity in many congregations. They are certainly not conundrums unique to Corinth.

But as he begins his letter, flawed as they may be, Paul looks at the Corinthian Church through the eyes of grace and thanks God for them. He is thankful that they are even there! Establishing a Christian community at that time, in that place, was an awesome thing to have been accomplished. He is thankful for their potential. He is thankful, not only for what God had done in the past but what God was going to do in their future.

For sure there were things they needed to work at, and for sure there were things that needed to change. And for sure there would be some things he would not praise them for. But he knew that even good churches have bad days. Without exception.

Here at Mount Hebron there is so much I'm thankful for. I don't always get a chance to say that. I thank God for the opportunity of even being here. I thank God for each of you. I thank God for my morning commute. I thank God for the way you care about our buildings and grounds. I thank God for our worship services and the privilege of being able to preach and lead in worship. I thank God for our choir and our music.

I thank God for the families here. I love to see families together in church. What a blessing. I thank God for those who teach and prepare Sunday School and care for our little ones in the Nursery. I thank God for Judith and our office and the volunteers who help her out. I thank God for Evan and our youth program and that I got to spend at least a week with some of them at the Trinity Youth Conference. I thank God for Vacation Bible School. Always an amazing week.

I thank God for those of you who take care of the finances week by week, paying the bills, setting the budget. Not a task you always get thanks for when you tell us how it is. I thank God for Hebron House and Judy's passion to see it taken care of and utilized by our community. I thank God for our amazing Nursery School and the opportunity to sometimes share in their programming, for Amy and all the teachers and their commitment to creating an environment where learning is fun.

I thank God for our committees. For Session and Deacons and Personnel and Nurture and Worship and Mission and Membership. And all the rest. I thank God when I see people volunteering for ushering or fellowship or helping out in worship. I thank God when I see you reaching out to each other and expressing concern for each other. I thank God when we reach out into the community. I thank God for Operation Christmas Child reaching out to the world. I thank God for the Korean Church and the Quakers and all the other organizations that feel this a home base for them.

I thank God when I have the privilege of being made welcome in your homes or to offer a prayer in the hospital or to be close by when you suffer a bereavement. I thank God when I'm greeted with a smile by a child or a handshake from a saint. I even thank God when I'm called to task for something that hasn't gone well. There's always something new to learn. I make mistakes. I'm human.

Look, I could make this a very long sermon full of thanks. But you might not thank me for that. So I'll quit while I'm ahead.

There are times when disappointment comes my way. When a bible study is prepared and nobody shows. When folk feel that the ministry here can't meet their needs and they leave. When I see people not getting along or being uncaring. When I can't figure out how things are done a certain way or why they ever were done that way. Then I remember; even good churches have bad days.

And this is a good church. You should know that. You need to hear that! Of course we still manifest many of the conundrums of Corinth, but that is how it is. That's how it is in every church. At the end of the day what defines a church is not how perfect it is. A church isn't defined by how large or small it is. A church isn't defined by its strengths and weakness. A church is defined by grace.
  • A faithful church is one that is willing to become something more than it already is.
  • A faithful church is one that has an ability to go forward in faith.
  • A faithful church is one that recognizes it is on a journey, and that it hasn't arrived yet!
  • A faithful church is one that is both thankful for it's past and excited for it's future.
  • A faithful church is one that will acknowledge that it is far from perfect, but recognizes that God is at work in it's midst.
And all those things are a gift of grace. Paul thanks God for the Corinthians because God has given grace to them in Jesus Christ. At the end of his thanksgiving, Paul reminds the Corinthians that God, who is faithful, has called them into communion with one another and with Christ. In between, every verse of the thanksgiving Paul mentions Christ.

His letter is very much written to a community rather than any particular individual within the community. God knows that being a community can be incredibly hard work. Particularly when the only thing people may have in common with each other is a faith in Jesus Christ, and every single person is at a different stage of their discipleship journey with Jesus Christ.

If you are having a “Down on the church day” or feeling a little disconnected or that things are not going the way you had hoped, then remember... “Even Good Churches Have Bad Days.” and resolve not to leave it there, but take it to the Lord in prayer so that you become part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

And for some closing words... I'll stay with the introductory verses of 1 Corinthians. We'll get to some of the problems soon enough.

Verse 3 “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
And to God's name be all glory. Amen!

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.