Monday, December 15, 2014

I Believe in Christmas

ADVENT 3
Readings: Psalm 126, Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, Luke 1:46-55
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, December 14, 2014

I believe in Christmas. Whenever I say that, there is usually some wise soul, who wants to set me right.  They will point out that the celebration itself is a mish-mash of pagan and christian rites whose origins are lost in the mists of time. They will suggest to me that whatever  Christmas once was, it has now been hi-jacked by the cult of commercialism that dominates our lives. They may even suggest that  the puritans were right in banning it, for it was little more than an excuse for over indulgence and debauchery.

To which I can only say... 'Bah. Humbug'. I believe in Christmas. I believe that it has a history of promoting good will and positive actions in people of all faiths and none. I believe that the dark winter months need a few days of light relief. I do not think it is a negative, in any shape or form, to have a season when we can reflect on the mystery of God's love taking flesh, and being born into the midst of a crazy, contradictory world, not dissimilar to the one in which we live out our daily lives.

Coming from Great Britain, as I do, we did not observe a Thanksgiving holiday, so Christmas had a great significance for our winter months. So all those things that you do here in the USA, like the turkey and the family get-together, were rolled over into a few days in December. So in my mind those memories of family reunion and feasting around the table are part of my Christmas experience. And as for Santa Claus, the Elves, Rudolph, the North pole, A Christmas Carol and 'It's a wonderful life', what can I say, but 'Bring it on'!

Yet deeper than all that 'I believe in Christmas' because, in at least two of the gospels, that is where the story of Christianity begins. The Christian liturgical year starts with getting ready for the birth of the Savior. As the moment draws near, the scriptures are full of song. Our reading from Luke this morning, in many translations is titled 'The Song of Mary'.

It is song that is full of joy. Though she is nobody special God has looked upon her. God does not favor the Kings and Queens in their palaces, nor even the great prophets or religious leaders, but the favor of the Lord rests on this humble young girl in the middle of no-wheres-ville. She just bubbles over with rejoicing. You could say that she believes in Christmas with all her heart, mind and soul.

A friend, Rev James Hale, from Beckley, WV had a Facebook post this past week that said; “Want to keep Christ in Christmas? Then feed the hungry, cloth the naked, forgive the guilty, welcome the stranger and the unwanted child, care for all and love your enemies”. Such a sentiment resonates with Mary's song, as she sings of a God who '...has filled the hungry with good things!”

I like the way this church celebrates Christmas with many charitable projects. Projects such as Operation Christmas child, helping out feeding the hungry at 'Our Daily Bread', trying to see that some kids and families that are going through a hard time have resources to help them celebrate, our youth carol singing to folk in sheltered accommodation, collecting gifts for those who otherwise might not receive... this all seems to be fulfilling the spirit of Mary's song.

I believe in Christmas because it is an opportunity to remind ourselves that our purpose as a church is not just to nurture our own spiritual lives but to reach out to others in practical ways that demonstrate God's love to them. To share our joy.

Christmas is also, I believe, a time when we can show our solidarity with people of all faiths and no faith. Even those who believe there is no God, and doubt that we can even know if Jesus ever existed, find they identify with many of the values that Jesus taught. His simple message of loving each other, seeking peaceful resolution where there is violent conflict and lifting up values of care and  understanding resonates with many who lay claim to no particular spiritual values.

In my conversations over the years with those of different faith traditions, I've always been struck by our similarities rather than our differences.  At the heart of nearly all faith experience there is a desire that the essence of the divine, can somehow be birthed, into the everyday world in which we live our lives. Such to me sounds like what we celebrate was happening in a little stable somewhere around Bethlehem 2000 years ago.

Now I know, as a Christian I want to say more about Jesus than that He taught some great things and had a very humble birth. I want to talk of His love as a reality that can be birthed in each of our lives. I want to talk about resurrection and future hope and present transformation through the Holy Spirit. Yet Christmas offers a chance to stand alongside folk and not do that. It offers an opportunity to say, “Let's  work together towards the things our Advent candles represent; hope, peace,joy and love.” These are things all humanity seeks.

As I said earlier, for Matthew and Luke's gospels, Christmas is where their telling of the faith story begins. Well actually Matthew begins with a whole family tree, but... hey... families... trees... sounds a lot like Christmas to me.

Luke, though, is the real Christmas cracker. It is Luke who gives us the whole drama of Jesus and John the Baptist's unusual conceptions and births, who has angels and shepherds turning up to show their respects, tells us of elderly saints like Simeon and Anna who confirm the unusual nature of Mary's child, and even tells us about an instance in the childhood of Jesus when He went AWOL as the family journeyed to the temple.

Now John's gospel... John takes things to a whole new level. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Yet even John gives a nod towards the Christmas narrative as we are told  “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen His glory, the glory as of a father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.” Out of such statements theology is born. As one commentator observes; 'The essential essence of the Christmas story is captured in a single line from “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”—“Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail the Incarnate Deity”.

Which brings me back to thoughts of Christmas music. Not only is it joyous, but if we can actually listen to what we are singing, there is some amazing biblical teaching carried in the words of our carols. What a subversive way to influence our world with the gospel message! I believe in Christmas.

But maybe we should begin where Mary begins. “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for He has looked on the humble estate of His servant.” Thankful hearts have a tendency to blossom with joy. As we consider our many blessings, may it move us towards truly celebrating the season with generosity and love, and all to the glory of God.  Why? For me, simply because 'I believe in Christmas!” Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, December 8, 2014

I Believe in Peace

ADVENT 2 - COMMUNION SERVICE
Readings: Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, Mark:1:1-8, Ezra 6:1-12
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, December 7, 2014

Since I began my ministry here at Mount Hebron you have heard me talk a lot about the period of history covered by the books of Ezra and Nehemiah as the people of Israel returned from exile in Babylon and sought to reestablish themselves in Jerusalem. I've enjoyed researching and preparing these messages as they have been all about new beginnings.

We have seen how the people tried to restructure their lives around God's Word. We saw the restoration of both their physical settlement and their spiritual worship, they repaired the gates and rebuilt the temple. We saw how their return was made possible through the favor of secular kings, who felt it was better to be surrounded by friends than foes.

Long before those Kings came to their thrones there had been prophecies that had predicted the peoples return. Before Ezra and Nehemiah there had been Jeremiah, who prophesied, “Thus saith the LORD, after seventy years be accomplished at Babylon I will visit you, and cause you to return to this place. For I know the thoughts that I think toward you.. thoughts of peace, and not of evil...” (Jeremiah 29:10-11).

Before Jesus began His ministry, there was John the Baptist. John came with a message that invited people to get ready for the Prince of Peace to come. Through baptism they were invited to cleanse their lives and return to God so they would be prepared to embrace the new thing God was doing.  “I baptize you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." (Mark 1:8)

Restorations... New Beginnings... always carry with them the hope of peace. That with a new start, a new sense of order can be put in place. It seldom works that way.  As one commentator observes about the return to Jerusalem, “A high tide raises ALL the boats”.

As word of  the peoples return began to spread there were those who did everything they could to stop it. Some sent letters to the King telling him that he just didn't know what sort of people these Israelites truly were and that if they were given a chance to have any power again, it could be disastrous.

Particularly vocal in their opposition were two characters, 'Tattenai, governor of Trans-Euphrates', and 'Shethar-Bozenai'. They made it their duty to stir up hostility against those returning from exile. Another two characters, Tobiah and Sanballat, plot to have Nehemiah murdered and employ false prophets to discourage him from his mission.

Our readings from Ezra spoke about the partial resolution of the conflict through an edict of King Darius. “May God, who has caused His Name to dwell there, overthrow any king or people who lifts a hand to change this decree or to destroy this temple in Jerusalem. I Darius have decreed it.” 
Opposition is squashed by threatening that any who oppose will be impaled upon beams taken from their own homes and that their former property will be become the local public lavatory.  Such a threat certainly had a way of stopping peoples murmurings.

No sooner had the external threat been eliminated, than internal threats started to appear. Some of the returning exiles bought with them traditions and religious ideas from  Babylon. They had to make a choice. Were they going to follow the gods of Babylon or return to the One true God of Israel? In response some harsh measures are bought to bear against those who had foreign wives and children. Peace? Well, no, not really.

When John the Baptist, on the banks of the Jordan river, started to preach, 'People get ready', John's gospel tells us that the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. In Matthew 3:7 John greets them with the words, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” He recognized that their interest was only in asserting their own authority.

So here we are, on the second Sunday of Advent, lighting a candle for peace. We are aware of conflict all around our world. Until the August shooting of Michael Brown, most of us had never heard his name, nor of a town called Ferguson, Missouri.  One only has to use words such as 'Israel/Palestine' or 'Afghanistan' or  'Syria' or 'Ukraine' and images of war and mistrust and conflict soon begin to surface, rather than thoughts of peace.  We turn on the television and realize there is conflict all around us

Many of us have inner battles we are constantly fighting. Relationships, finances, sickness, loss, confusion, disappointment... these all sap our energy and take away our hope and our joy.  We are busy driving to our next important destination, and our over-reaction to that particular 'idiots' driving skills, reminds us that we are not in control of ourselves as much as we thought we were.

Despite all of that, I still want to declare to you, on the second Sunday of Advent, that 'I believe in peace'. Peace is not the absence of external conflict. Peace is the internal centering of our lives in the love of God.

We see that in the lives of Ezra and Nehemiah. Though outwardly the challenges they face seem overwhelming, they constantly put themselves in the secure place of knowing that God is with them.  This makes all the difference. They are not simply reacting to everything life throws at them, they are listening for God's voice in the midst of the craziness. They are confident in God's promises.

Promises like that of Jeremiah 29:11 'For I know the plans that I have for you,' declares the LORD, 'plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.' 

Security such as that voiced in the 23rd Psalm; "Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever."

John the Baptist speaks of One who will baptize us, not with water, but with the Holy Spirit. In the gospel of John, Jesus teaches His disciples that;  'The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. ' Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:26-27)

After the resurrection, Jesus appears to the disciples, and to Thomas, who had his doubts about this whole presence of God business.  He again tells them "Peace be with you!" (John 20:26) then tells Thomas, "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe."

If ever we are in a stressful situation and wondering how to handle it, try this little exercise. Picture yourself in that locked room with the disciples. Sense the fear and uncertainty that Thomas must must have felt after seeing Jesus crucified. Then picture Jesus appearing in the room, holding out those nail scarred hands and saying “My peace, I give to you, my peace I leave with you”. Know that what is being offered is a peace that passes all human understanding, a peace that only He can give.

If you feel that's a little far fetched, then consider what we do every time we celebrate the sacrament. We could call this place 'The Table of Scars'. We focus on the broken body and poured out blood of Jesus our Savior.  To this table we are invited to bring our own, scarred, compromised and sometimes fearful lives to be transformed by His love.  A famous hymn by Charlotte Elliott declares, “Just as I am, though tossed about, with many a conflict, many a doubt, fightings and fears within, without, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.”

It is here that we seek to find our quiet center in God's love and know ourselves free and forgiven. It is here we seek to allow the Holy Spirit to flood us with God's peace so that the words of Jesus, 'Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God,' might be fulfilled in us and through us. (Matthew 5:9)

Today we lit the second candle. The Peace candle. We know that chaos is going to continue to rage within us and without us. John Lennon and Yoko Ono once repetitively sang from a hotel bedroom in NY City 'All we are saying, is give peace a chance!' A nice idea, but one that depends on the action of others.

Myself I always felt that a song written some years earlier, that declared “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me” was a nobler sentiment! Peace has to start in the heart. It has to be a work of God's Holy Spirit. That's how it was with Ezra, Nehemiah and John the Baptist. World peace? I think, not yet.  I think we have a way to go. A long way. But the peace we can find around this table? Available today.  May God help us light a candle of peace in each of our hearts!  Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, December 1, 2014

I Believe in Hope

ADVENT 1
Readings: Psalm100, Matthew 25:31-46, Ephesians 1:15-23, Ezra 7:11-20
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, November 30th, 2014

The first Sunday in Advent and we light a candle for hope. For the next couple of weeks I'm sticking with the books of Ezra and Nehemiah and the return of the people of Israel from Babylon to their homelands. It's very easy to do that this Sunday, because it is story that is all about hope. Hope that God's Word would be fulfilled. Hope in God's ability to save God's people. Hope that whatever has been lost can be restored.

Our reading from Nehemiah today comes at a mid-point in their story of restoration. Some of the people have moved to Jerusalem. The walls have been rebuilt. The people were regaining a sense of worship and of the presence of God in their midst through the restoration of the temple. We read in Nehemiah 7:4 “Now the city was large and spacious, but there were few people in it, and the houses had not yet been rebuilt.

'The houses had not yet been rebuilt.' They were home. Kind of! Midpoints can be interesting times. You have started, but it seems there's a long way to go. There's a great quote from a 1998 movie that starred Sandra Bullock and Harry Connick Jr, called 'Hope Floats' in which Bullocks character, Birdie Pruitt explains; 'Beginnings are scary. Endings are usually sad. But it's the middle that counts the most. You need to remember that when you find yourself at the beginning. Just give hope a chance to float up... and it will.

Advent is a season when we try and give hope 'a chance to float up'. Advent is a time when we think about how all the pieces were in place for Jesus to come, the prophets had spoken, the promises were made, the time was right... yet nothing had actually taken place.

The Kingdom of God is described as being near. It's here among us, but yet to become fully realized. We know ourselves children of the King, the one we describe as our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, yet we pray every Sunday 'Thy Kingdom Come'. We are always works in progress.  We always need to give hope 'a chance to float up'.

One of the privileges I've had in my life is being involved with youth events during the summer months. I just received a phone call this past week inviting me to be part of the leadership team for the Trinity Youth Conference, held in Schellsburg, PA, next year.

Trinity Youth Conference (TYC) is a week-long event for high school youth (who are at least 15 years of age and have completed 9th grade by July) and college age young adults. The dates next year... youth and parents pay attention... are July 26th-August 1st, 2015.  I'd really encourage our youth and young adults to participate. It's one of those wonderful spaces where hope often has a chance to float!

I never ceased to be impressed at the tenacity and faith of some of our young people. I don't think, as we go through our own busy, busy lives, we are always aware of the things our youth are up against, nor are we aware the impact a week at a faith based youth camp can have upon them.  I wanted to share this morning a poem, one of the youth, Sam, wrote and read one evening as we gathered together.

Sam is a great, wonderful, talented, young guy. But, without going into specifics, he has had his battles and more than his fair share of bad stuff to deal with. It got to much for him. He was contemplating suicide; climbing up the highest tree and throwing himself off. That would end his pain. Instead he wrote a poem called 'The Tree of Destiny,' that describes what might have been... if he'd gone through with it. It's a little dark, maybe even a little disturbing, probably not what you were expecting on a Sunday in Advent, but for me... it is full of hope.

The Tree of Destiny – Sam Shiner
I take a look around, and nobody’s watching,
I’m consumed by the sound of the thoughts that mock me,
I take a step closer, no one’s gonna stop me,
I climb up a limb and the leaves begin to block me,
I keep climbing and the scene becomes surreal,
The branches scratch my arms but I don’t seem to feel,
The noises fade away and the sky begins to seal,
My fate as its beauty becomes all to me that’s real,
I rise higher and higher to a sight that no one sees,
At last I’m at the top and there’s a parting in the leaves,
I stand there transfixed as my hands begin to bleed,
This view is more beautiful than you ever would believe,
A limb points straight out, and my destiny is calling,
I want to think this through, but my thoughts are all out brawling,
I want to hesitate, but there is no time for stalling,
I step out into space and suddenly I’m falling,
My life plays like a tape before my eyes,
There is so much more good than I ever realized,
I had so many chances that I never did oblige,
I could have been happy, I could have had a life,
My body hits the ground with a sickening thud,
Limbs broken on the pavement, my face in the mud,
People screaming as my eye sockets flood,
Trying to save me getting covered in blood,
They load me in the ambulance and drive me away,
I don’t want to go but it’s too late to stay,
Everyone’s quiet, there isn’t much to say,
The truth they all know is that I died today,
When we arrive they take me straight to this room,
It’s freezing cold with a stench of strong fumes,
They put me on a tray and slide me into the gloom,
I want to scream it’s so dark in this tomb,
An eternity passes and I slide out into the light,
My Mom’s crying, my Dad’s got no fight,
My poor little Brother can’t even believe his eyes,
When they slide me back in I might as well have died twice,
I won’t be staying for the service, It’ll be a closed casket,
White marble, smooth and immaculate,
I remember my last thought, the one that cracked it,
The one that caught me up in my own death racket,
If I could go back I would try and save myself,
I’d say to hold on, I’d say this isn’t hell,
I’d say that all this agony was only meant to help,
I’d say just try and hang on, if you do, you’ll get well.

I spoke with Sam online as I was preparing the sermon. He's doing good. He's five month sober. He's working things out. He'd be the first to tell you that he's a work in progress. Like the one -time exiles of Israel in Babylon, he's not where he was. He's not in captivity. He's in a better place. He understands there's still much to do.  As Nehemiah put it; 'The houses had not yet been rebuilt.

I don't think we always are aware that Christian hope can be the difference between life and death. I don't think we are always aware of the power that the love of God can really make in our world and in our lives and in the lives of those we are daily interacting with.

A lot of the time we deal only in partials, not with completed works. We don't see the bigger picture, but become consumed by the troubles of the moment.  I love those last lines of Sam's poem... 'If I could go back I would try and save myself, I’d say to hold on, I’d say this isn’t hell, I’d say that all this agony was only meant to help, I’d say just try and hang on, if you do, you’ll get well.

Hanging on, waiting in hope, isn't that what Advent is all about? Looking, in hope, for the salvation of our selves, of our communities, of our world through Jesus Christ? A favorite Christmas carol of many people is “O Little town of Bethlehem”. There's a line in there, that speaking of the birth of Jesus, tells us; 'The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.'
When you consider the turmoil that present day Bethlehem is traveling through, it surely does seem that faith can often be something to cling to, rather than something realized. The author of the Book of Hebrews speaks of faith in this way: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

We are all works in progress. Our world is a work in progress. During Advent we look to the coming of One who changes everything. Jesus is born into the middle of this messy contradiction we call life. And the things He does, and the things He says and the life He leads, and the death He dies, and the resurrected love that blazes forth from an empty tomb, change everything. If we can but allow His Holy Spirit to be born into our experience, to reshape our faith and dreams and fears than I believe that we give hope 'a chance to float up'.

We may face dark days. Preacher Robert Schuller, a great champion of positive thinking, once said, “Let your hopes, not your hurts, shape your life.” My friend Sam Shiner is finding a way to do that.  The people of Israel as they returned from exile in Babylon were finding a way to do that, even though 'The houses had not yet been rebuilt.'

I hope those of you who are parents will offer your children and youth the chance to participate in faith based activities. Not just here at your local church, but also in the wider church. 84% of youth who stay involved in church do so because their parents are active in a church and walk alongside them in their spiritual journey. Only 1% come along of their own accord., without parental support.

Oh yes, I know, there's basketball camp and drama camp and this program and that program and if they do well at that or this, then maybe it will offer a college credit for this or an experience credit for that. That's all good.

But life isn't a game. Life's not an act. In my youth work over the years I've sadly encountered far to many who are brilliant at everything, except finding a foundation for life. Youth who can achieve, but haven't a clue what they truly believe. Kids who are hurting, but have never been allowed to participate in an environment where they could take a deep breath and ask 'Why?' Kids from good homes who are trying to figure out why they sometimes feel so bad.

Why just talk about youth? We are all victims to the loss of perspective, the loss of joy, the loss of hope. Life surely throws us a curve ball from time to time. I believe in hope. I take the prophet Isaiah seriously when he writes that 'Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.'  (Isaiah 40:31)

May this Advent be a season of hope for you and yours. We are works in progress. Spiritually speaking we all have areas in our lives where the 'houses have not yet been rebuilt.'  Remember what my friend Sam says. “Try and hang on, if you do, you’ll get well.” Recall the words of Birdie Pruitt, “Just give hope a chance to float up, and it will.

Over and above all that, trust in the Lord and seek for God's Holy Spirit to remind you of all that the love of our Lord Jesus Christ can do in your life. For in God is our hope, and to God's name be the glory.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

I Believe in the Kingdom

 CHRIST THE KING SUNDAY
Readings: Psalm100, Matthew 25:31-46, Ephesians 1:15-23, Ezra 7:11-20
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, November 23rd,2014

This Sunday in the church calendar is designated as 'Christ the King Sunday'. Seemed like a good Sunday to take the theme 'I believe in the Kingdom'.

If you have been around for the last couple of months you will have heard me talking about Ezra and Nehemiah, and the period in history when the people of Israel returned from exile in Babylon to their homelands and sought to reestablish themselves in Jerusalem, refortifying the walls and rebuilding the temple. They believed that the Kingdom, which had reached it's golden age under the reign of King David, had a lot of life ahead of it.

An important aspect of their story is the role that King Artaxerxes played in their return. Artaxerxes was the most powerful King of that period of history, the ruler of the Persians and all those that the Persians had domination over - which was just about everybody! It is not insignificant that the Book of Ezra, in 7:12 describes him as 'Artaxerxes, king of kings'.

As they return to their homelands the people of Israel are on a royal mission. Verse 14 explains; 'You are sent by the king...' Their whole venture is only possible because King Artaxerxes had an agenda. He wanted there to be peace in the land. It was a wise political strategy to surround himself with communities who were grateful towards him.

They are sent back to Jerusalem with the Kings authority. When questions arise as to the validity of what they were doing, their opponents are told 'Take it to Artaxerxes.' With his authority behind them, they had considerable leverage.

Their journey is made possible through the Kings abundance. We read in verse 15 “You are to take with you the silver and gold that the king and his advisers have freely given”, and then down in verse 20 “Anything else needed for the temple of your God that you are responsible to supply, you may provide from the royal treasury.” Abundant generosity!

Today we are not on a mission empowered by King Artaxerxes. We proclaim Jesus Christ, in the tremendous refrain of Handel's Messiah, as our 'King of Kings, forever and ever, Lord of Lords... and He shall reign for ever and ever.”

We declare with Paul, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

Our confession is found in Philippians 2:10-11 That 'At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.'

In the words of Ezra 7:14, 'We are sent by the King'... and as such we are sent out with the King's agenda, the King's authority and the King's abundance.  Think about each of those things, as they relate to our mission.

The King's Agenda

In the first ever sermon He is recorded as preaching, Jesus laid out His Kingdom manifesto. "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."  (Luke 4:18-19)

Our New Testament reading gave us a parable from Matthew's gospel about a King, 'the Son of Man in all His glory', who separates the sheep from the goats, the sheep being the ones who hear and respond to His call to feed the hungry, provide water for the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit the imprisoned.

To the sheep there is held out the promise of eternal life. Whenever they have served others they have acted in concert with Him. They have worked for Him and with Him.  The goats on the other hand are castigated for their contrary condition and convicted that nothing good could come of their callous concerns.

Less we have any doubt about the loving intentions of Jesus we need only travel to John's gospel, chapter 13, where we read “He got up from the meal, took off His outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around His waist. After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash His disciples' feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around Him.” Then verses 14-15; “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.

We are sent by the King, to pursue the King's agenda. An agenda of justice and peace, an agenda for the restoration of hope and joy, in Jesus name. His command to the disciples, that they 'Go into all the world” and make other 'disciples', is an invitation to extend the boundaries of His Kingdom, so that all may sit at His table and know themselves much loved, much valued, children of the most High God. We are sent out with the Kings agenda. We are also sent with...

The Kings Authority.

In Matthew 28:18, Jesus prefaces His charge with the words "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Earlier in His ministry, when He healed a paralyzed man who had been lowered through the roof of a house, He prefaces the physical act with the words “I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins."  (Matthew 9:6 NIV).

Historically there has been a debate between what commentators have described as the 'Spiritual gospel' and the 'Social gospel', as though they were two different ways of understanding Christian faith. Scripture makes no such distinction. 

The Gospel of the Kingdom proclaims that forgiveness, renewal and healing are possible through the person of Jesus Christ. To know Him as our Lord and Savior is vitally important. We need to ask for His Holy Spirit to transform our lives, to make us whole and to forgive our sins.

Resurrection faith informs us that transformation of the bleakest of circumstances is always a possibility.  Through personal disciplines of prayer and worship, through nourishing our lives by participating in the sacraments and the service of a worshiping community our lives can be changed in unexpected and joyful ways.

Our personal spiritual journey goes hand in hand with our communal spiritual journey. Jesus taught that the evidence of our spiritual gifting were the fruits that were produced through our lives. Matthew 7:20 “By their fruit you will recognize them.”

The Kings authority is an authority to build. That's how it was with King Artaxerxes back in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. He sent the people of Israel back to their homelands so they could honor their God, rebuild their defensive walls and get back to being the unique people of God they were meant to be.

In the words of a Beatles song, the Kings authority, gave them the authority, to “Get back to where they once belonged”. I was talking last week on the topic 'I believe in Music'. I'm often surprised how often the lyrics, not just to our sacred hymns, but to our secular songs can inspire us, if we can but listen for the guiding voice of God's Spirit speaking to us through them.

When my life is a little out of whack, when I'm in a place I don't want to be, when I'm feeling like the prodigal, far from home and a little shaky in my faith, and the Beatles come on the radio singing “Get Back, Get Back, Get back to where you once belonged”; I'm thinking, “That's right! That's what I need to do!” Get Back! Reconnect with the God who claims my life.

As a church community, we can be become focused on all sorts of issues that sideline us from our whole reason for existing. We exist to proclaim, with all the authority of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, 'The Kingdom of God is near!'  We exist to invite others to ask Jesus into their lives and be His disciples. We are here to demonstrate to all people that they are loved, that they are welcome in the Kingdom and that God cares for every single one of us. Some days as a church community we need to hear “Get back to where you once belonged' Get back to Kingdom business!

We are sent out with the Kings agenda. We are sent out with the Kings authority. Finally, we are sent out with...

The Kings Abundance

It has been said that no genuine work of God has ever failed because of a lack of funds.  Paul writes to the Corinthian Church, “God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” (2Co 9:8 NIV)

It's stewardship season and it's time to make our pledges. God filters the funds necessary for God's work through our pockets. God blesses us, so we can be a blessing to others. God grants to us both the ability and the opportunity to participate in the work of His Kingdom. We are encouraged to give gratefully and thankfully, with the awareness that God is abundantly able to supply all we need, both for our own lives and for the growth of Christ's church.

We are abundantly blessed so that we can abound in good works. Our good works flow out of our relationship with God; out of the knowledge that Jesus Christ died, that we may live free, forgiven 'shalom-filled' lives. We serve in response to the love that surrounds our lives, not in order to deserve or win God's love. God sends the Holy Spirit to empower us. To direct us. To open doors of opportunity that help us live in an attitude of gratitude.

We read in Ezra 7:14, 'We are sent by the King'. That is our mission. We are sent into the world with the Kings agenda, to lift up the poor, heal the broken-hearted, and do all the faithful things that the sheep in the parable we read earlier spoke about.

We are sent into the world with the Kings authority. In the words of one of our hymns, “Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven; To His feet thy tribute bring. Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, who like me, His praise should sing”.

We are sent out into the world with the Kings abundance. We are blessed. Our cup overflows. We are blessed with opportunity. We are blessed by each other. As we head into our Thanksgiving celebrations we recall how we are blessed with this land, its history, its achievements, and its freedoms.

It's Thanksgiving time. It's stewardship time. It's Christ the King Sunday. To reiterate some words that were part of our call to worship from Psalm 100; “Know that the LORD is God. It is God who made us, and we belong to God; we are God's people, the sheep of God's pasture.   Enter God's gates with thanksgiving and God's courts with praise; give thanks to God and praise God's name.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, November 17, 2014

I Believe in Music

 SERVICE FOR DEDICATION OF GRAND PIANO
Readings: Psalm 66:1-12,  Luke 10:21-24, Philippians 4:4-9,  Nehemiah 12:44-46
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, November 16th,2014

Firstly, I would like to thank all those who have contributed to make the wonderful grand piano a feature of our worshiping life here at Mount Hebron. It started out as a dream and has become a reality, due to the commitment of numerous folks working, promoting, and giving.

Secondly, I'll assure you that I am not going to speak at length. The music being produced by the skills of our music folk is enough! But I did want to direct your thoughts to a small verse in Nehemiah, Chapter 12:46 “For long ago, in the days of David and Asaph, there had been directors for the musicians and for the songs of praise and thanksgiving to God.

The idea of music being a feature of worship that glorified God has a long tradition. It is there throughout the pages of the Old Testament, continues into the New Testament and was a practice within the earliest church. Paul writes to the Church in Ephesus “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord,” (Ephesians 5:19)

I've been talking a lot over past weeks about the period of history when the people of Israel returned from exile in Babylon to Jerusalem. I wanted you to notice this morning that one of the things that they set about restoring to their lives was music.  Nehemiah talks about singers and musicians as being a vital part of their worship experience, for such reflected practices established long ago in their past by King David and Asaph.

I've always believed in the power of music. I think back to some of my earliest memories. We had a wind-up gramophone that played 78 records. There was a small collection of recordings. Some classical. Some children's songs. Some jazz. Then came the age of 45's and 331/3 vinyl disks that played on a record player. Then there was the stereogram and the Hi-Fi system and an ever expanding collection of diverse music. These days it seems music is everywhere, in more formats than you can shake a stick it. And I love to listen!

Yet that bears no comparison to attending live music events. That's one of the things I  love about the church. There are not many places left you can go to any more where you can enjoy singing as part of a group of people. 

Large mega-churches have the equivalent of rock groups leading their services. If you attend, you'll notice a lot of people are spectators rather than participants. Some churches that do traditional music have amazing choirs and orchestras, but it seems that the more elaborate the set-up, the less the congregation feel free to sing.  It is intimidating to be faced with a group of folk who not only know what they are doing, but do it very, very well!

But a piano? Yes... a thing of beauty on it's own. So versatile. You don't have to plug it in. You don't have to carry it with you. You just sit down and there it is. You can play the melody, the harmony and the bass line and combinations of all three! It's percussive. It's gentle. It's original name “Piano-Forte” is descriptive of it's ability to be so soft and yet equally capable of imitating a railroad train. There are no limits to the styles of music that the piano is part of. The classics, of course. Classic Rock as well.

We will sing after the piano dedication, Fanny Crosby's hymn “To God be the Glory.”
Fanny Crosby was an amazing lady. At six weeks old, Crosby caught a cold and developed inflammation of the eyes. Despite treatment by the methods of the day, she completely lost her sight and was blind for the rest of her days. Early in life she showed a talent for verse and music and would be seated at the piano where she poured forth her feelings.

At an early age she started to write Christian verses and hymns. By the time of her death she had composed nearly 9000 of them, in addition to a number of cantatas and numerous patriotic and political songs, not to mention volumes of poetry. Much of the money she earned (which was but a fraction of what it could have been, because the publishers pocketed most of the profits!) she gave to charitable causes, including 'The Bowery Mission' in NY City, to whom she was a patron.

The Bowery Mission continues to reach out to the homeless today. If you ever had a chance to visit, as I've been fortunate enough to, they may take you on a tour. In an upstairs room is one of Fanny Crosby's piano's upon which she wrote many of her pieces. It still works, because they let me press a few keys. It was a strange experience to think that she had sat there and done such amazing work for God's Kingdom.

It also, for me, because of where that piano was, made a connection between music, worship and service.  Crosby wrote for the glory of God and prayed that every hymn she wrote would be a means of leading somebody to her savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. She had a high vision of worship. But it was not music for musics sake, or even music used solely in the service of proclaiming a message. She wanted people to be helped in practical ways.

The music was a way into worship and worship was a way to empower people to serve. I pray that this Grand Piano will serve a similar purpose. That the beautiful music those who play upon it create may open us up to the presence of God. That as we are opened to God's love, so we are opened to the needs of those around us and God comes with the strength of the Holy Spirit, to empower us to be the hands, feet and voice of Jesus for the needy world which He died to save. Well enough talk from me!

As we prepare to dedicate this instrument to God's glory, let us enjoy some music, a piece by Mussorgsky, from his work 'Pictures at an exhibition'.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, November 3, 2014

I Believe in Stewardship

A COMMUNION SUNDAY
Readings: Psalm 119:33-40, 2 Corinthians 9:6-12, Matthew 6:24-33, Nehemiah 10:31-39
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, November 2nd, 2014

I'm returning this week to a series of messages prefaced by the phrase 'I believe'.  In many church calendars this time of year is when they look at their budget and wonder if all their financial commitments can be met by the time the year closes. Seemed like a good Sunday to lift up the theme 'I believe in Stewardship'.

If you are sitting there right now thinking, 'Uh-oh. The preacher is going to talk about money' then you are right. Stewardship isn't just about money, it is also about investing our time and talents and our influence. But I am going to talk today specifically about money.

Let me begin by saying that God doesn't need your money. If we believe we can make God any richer by handing over some of our hard earned cash, then we are more foolish than we look. Trying to enrich God would be like seeking to expand the ocean with a teardrop. The church? Yes, the church needs finances to do what God calls her to do.

Where I really want to go with this message is to say that 'I believe in stewardship' because I believe when we practice faithful stewardship before God it releases resources and opens up to us blessings we otherwise never experience, both individually and as a church community.

According to many marriage counselors one of the biggest stresses on any relationship is financial discord. It's not about how much or how little comes in, but how people practice  stewardship. Financial guru Dave Ramsey, who seeks to apply Christian principles to financial matters, suggests that, when handled correctly, our finances can be a source of unity, intimacy and joy, not only in our closest relationships but in our relationship to the whole community.

As in past installments in this series I am going to focus on insights from the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, books that addressed the people of Israel as they returned from exile in Babylon and sought to re-establish themselves in their homeland. Stewardship was a vital component of their life.  As we seek to be a people of God for the 21st Century, I believe there are stewardship insights offered here that we do well to take note of.

  • Their Stewardship flowed from their trust in God. 
  • Their Stewardship focused on the house of God
  • Their Stewardship was faithful to God's Word.
Their Stewardship flowed from their trust in God.
 
When the people were in Babylon they did what they needed to do to survive. Now they had returned to the promised land they were doing everything they could do to thrive. They had been a position where they doubted God's blessings. Now they were in a position where they had witnessed God's deliverance.  That changed the way they thought about stewardship.

In Nehemiah chapter 8, when Ezra read the law of God to the people now established in Jerusalem, it was a moment of rediscovery. People wept as they realized how far they had fallen from God's commandments. They were no longer captives, they were free. One of the ways they would express their freedom was through their stewardship. The focus of their time, talents and treasures took a dramatic shift as they focused their energies on building the Kingdom.

This shift is witnessed to in Nehemiah 10:31 where we read, 'If the peoples of the land bring in merchandise or any grain on the sabbath day to sell, we will not buy it from them'. When the people had been in Babylon, they had to go with the economic flow of  that land. Now they were in Jerusalem, those rules no longer applied. They are not going play by the old rules, even though there would be those around them who cared nothing for Sabbath observance or the law of Moses.

Christian discipleship is a process. We have been set free by Jesus Christ from all the forces and powers that destroy, enslave and cheapen life. But we live in a world molded by forces that do not claim His influence nor acknowledge His Lordship. That influence  is often greater than that of the teaching we have in Scripture, particularly in the area of Stewardship.

Every time we turn on the TV we are bombarded by voices telling us what we need to satisfy us.  We are constantly invited to believe that our happiness comes though what we possess rather than who we are. We are encouraged to live by standards that are not the standards by which God evaluates our lives.  Much of our information about what to invest in, and how to spend our money we accept from people who have no understanding of the teaching of Jesus Christ.

What we see in Nehemiah is a people who, by their experience of deliverance, have learned that God is faithful. They are Matthew 6:24-33 people. They know that God can be trusted and that God's desire was to bless them, to provide for them and for them to prosper and grow in faith and influence. That's where faithful stewardship is rooted. People who trust God that if they live their lives by His wisdom and ways, God will provide.

Christian stewardship flows from our personal experience of Jesus Christ. Without that trust in God, it makes no sense. But as we begin to perceive how God has, can and will provide for all our needs, so we understand that God expects a river of giving to flow through the life of God's people.

Why? Because that is truly the right response to make to what Jesus Christ has done for us at the Cross of Calvary... something today we are invited to recall and taste and see as we share in bread and wine. For the new community, delivered by God from exile, their stewardship flowed from their trust in God.


Their Stewardship focused on the house of God

 
In our passage from Nehemiah we see how a variety of different offerings were made to maintain the temple. First off, it had to be built. As things progressed there were offerings to keep the fire burning. There were offerings to support the administration. There were gatekeepers, ministers and singers who relied on the offerings for their income. Then, as now, the maintenance of divine worship needed to be funded by the people of God.

The most important verse in this passage is not the list of 'what went where' and 'to whom', but the peoples covenant.  This was a solemn agreement that they made in response to the faithfulness of God towards them and on the basis of what they were re-discovering in  God's Word. It's very simple and very clear. Nehemiah 10:39 'We will not neglect the house of God'.

Jesus came sent out His disciples not just to spread a message of love and hope, but to create living communities - 'churches' - where discipleship could be learned and lived and through whom the Kingdom of God could be actualized. So intimate was His concern for the church that she is described as 'His Body'... a body that seeks to be His hands, His feet, and His voice to the world.

It takes a lot of money to sustain a church. It takes even more money to grow a church. Growing churches have growing budgets. Declining churches have declining budgets. The budget of a congregation is determined by how much those belonging to that congregation are prepared to invest in their church. If people don't financially step up to the plate their church may survive, but it probably won't grow.

Here's some thoughts I garnished from one of my colleagues, a Baptist minister from Thomson, GA, Rev. David Lambert, on stewardship. 'How far does what you contribute towards your church, enable your church, to reach beyond the walls of your church? Does what you give support only maintenance or promote mission? If everybody in your congregation gave as you gave, would your church be cutting back on ministries or adding ministries?'
For the people who returned from exile in Nehemiah's day their stewardship flowed from their trust in God.  As they celebrated the new life God had blessed them with their stewardship focused on the house of God. Finally notice this:-

Their Stewardship was faithful to God's Word.

 
As they listened to God's Word being interpreted to them by Ezra, they sought to practice their stewardship in the way Moses had directed them. They promised to return to the ancient benchmarks of expressing thanksgiving to God. Our passage from Nehemiah 10 speaks about two of those benchmarks. The 'firstfruits' and the 'tithe'.

Giving of their 'firstfruits' meant that they gave off the top. They recognized that everything they had was a blessing from God, given to them by God. The circumstances of their lives, where they lived, their ability to work, their families, their livelihood... it was all a gift of God's grace. So before they even considered any other financial responsibilities they firstly expressed their thanksgiving to God.

They didn't do as I've witnessed some do as they consider their church offering. Some people sit down and work out their budget and then give God the leftovers. I give my dog leftovers. Though I love my dog, I care a whole lot more about honoring the God who gave me my dog! They gave their firstfruits.

They also gave proportionally. Nobody was asked to give more or less than anybody else. Everybody was expected to give a tithe, which was a tenth, off the top. Proportionally everybody gave the same. That was the benchmark that Moses had laid down and that they rediscovered and as they practiced it, it brought them God's blessing.

Tithing stemmed from their heart relationship with God. Because they trusted God, they trusted God's Word to guide them in their giving. They did so, not begrudgingly or reluctantly, but as a measured response as to how they felt God had blessed their lives.

I mentioned earlier financial guru Dave Ramsey, whose teaching has helped many, many people get out of debt and put their lives on a better financial footing. This is what he writes about tithing.

'The tithe, which is a scriptural mandate, was not instituted for God's benefit because He already has all the money He needs. He does not need our money. So why does God ask us to give 10% to Him? Tithing was created for our benefit. It is to teach us how to keep God first in our lives and how to be unselfish people. Unselfish people make better husbands, wives, friends, relatives, employees and employers. God is trying to teach us how to prosper over time.'


'If you cannot live off 90% of your income, then you cannot live off 100%. It does not require a miracle for you to get through the month. I think that if you sit down and look at your budget, you will see that you can make it while giving at least 10%. Read the Bible and take from it what you will, and if you tithe, (for goodness sake) do it out of love for God, not guilt.'


I believe in stewardship. We've looked today at some lessons from the newly restored community in Jerusalem about stewardship. Their stewardship flowed from their trust in God. Their stewardship focused on the house of God. Their stewardship was faithful to God's Word.


As we receive communion we will hold broken bread in our hands, bread that reflects the fact Jesus allowed Himself to be broken for our benefit. How can we reflect that through the stewardship of our finances? The cup represents His blood. We are the church. How can we through our monetary support cause the lifeblood of His resurrection to be a healing force within the community and world that surrounds our lives? 


Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:33 “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” I believe in stewardship.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, October 27, 2014

THIS IS MY STORY - THIS IS MY SONG - 3. "The Jonah Man"

Readings; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17, 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8, Matthew 22:34-36, Jonah 1:1-10
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, Ellicott City, MD, October 26th 2014

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been answering questions such as ‘How did you come to faith?' and 'What made you enter the ministry?' Today I’m going to try and relate how it was I felt a call to leave my homelands and home denomination for lands unknown. 'What made you leave the United Kingdom of Great Britain and come to the United States of America?'

I was sharing with you last week that going into ministry in the established church was something I  kicked against doing.  Even when as a twenty something I departed from my home near Liverpool to study at Aberystwyth Theological College (part of the University of Wales) I was still nursing a real hope that… well... God had only called me to be a candidate for the ministry, God hadn’t actually said I had to become a preacher.

But... darn it… by half way through my final year… there were a couple of churches expressing an interest in having me as their pastor. For Jonah it took sitting inside the belly of a stinky fish before He realized that, ‘Yes’, maybe doing what God asked could result in a favorable outcome for his life. In chapter 2 of Jonah he concludes a prayer about his plight with the phrase, “Deliverance belongs to the Lord”. Shortly afterward he is deposited on the shores of Nineveh in order to begin his task.

I’m glad that it didn’t take being thrown off a ship into the raging waves by a group of angry sailors, only to be swallowed up by a whale, that convinced me to accept the preacher’s role. It was much nicer going to Wales to study, rather than being swallowed by one!

So I accepted what they call ‘A Call’. A call to two wonderful churches in the beautiful Welsh Vale of Clwyd in North Wales, in two market towns called Denbigh and Ruthin. What I didn’t realize about the town of Denbigh was that it housed a large mental hospital and that 'Going to Denbigh’ was a euphemism for being sent to the asylum.

Such did however explain why people would look at me rather strangely when they asked what I was going to do after seminary and I’d smile and say, 'I’m going to Denbigh'. But after over thirty years of being part of this institution we call the church, I am of the opinion that being a little bit crazy is probably a help rather than a hindrance for pastoral ministry.

I could write a book about some of the experiences I have enjoyed (and endured) in the different churches I’ve served (but I may need a good lawyer first). After being in Denbigh and Ruthin, I moved on to inner city ministry in Liverpool, before accepting a call to minister in the churches of Menai Bridge and Caernarfon in North Wales. Caernarfon boasted the castle where the Prince of Wales was invested with his office, making it a Mecca for tourists from all over the world.

Now all of this is by way of a lengthy introduction to explaining how it was that I came to the U.S.A. Did I hear a voice from the heavens saying; 'Go to America'? Was it something that I had secretly been planning and hoping for all along? Did some scripture verse jump out of the bible to direct my path? Would be that it were that simple!

Over the years I’ve learned something about the guidance of God. It can be most irregular. As Spock used to say to Captain Kirk, 'Illogical, Captain'. As we place our trust in God and commit our way to doing the things God wants us to, wherever God wants us to do them, God’s methods and the outcome can be wildly unpredictable.

This was a message that Jonah found hard to understand. When he reluctantly marched into Nineveh declaring God’s judgment on its God forsaken inhabitants the last thing he was expecting was that they would listen, respond and set about amending their lives so as to live the way God wanted them to.

Jonah’s waiting for the fireworks. He wants to see Ninevites blasted by the judgment of God. The story ends with Jonah in an angry sulk, sitting in the shade of a tree which has died, leaving him even hotter and stickier than ever. God suggests that Jonah is acting foolishly and that as God, He had every right to show mercy where ever mercy was needed. And it was certainly needed in Nineveh. So Jonah, 'Get over yourself!'

So there I was, serving the denomination that had bought me to faith, in this beautiful area of Wales, enjoying the mountains and the beaches and the castles and blessed with two children who were blossoming at 10 and 12 years old, and my wife was in this wonderful job working in the offices of the Oceanography department. 'Settled' would be a wonderful word to describe how things were going.

One of the ministries that Castle Square Caernarfon Church operated was that on a Saturday morning they would open up the church to visitors and invite them in for a coffee and a chat. One Saturday morning, when I wasn’t there, a pastor and his son from the Chicago area walked in. The son was an organist and Alan Jones the organist at Castle Square was just finishing up his practice for Sunday. They got chatting and the son got to play the organ and a friendship was struck up.

A few months later we received a letter asking if we would be interested in doing an exchange trip to Chicago. So we thought about it and prayed about it and decided that a twelve week exchange trip to the U.S.A. might be kind of fun. We would live in each others houses, drive each others cars, minister through the summer in each others churches. It was all set in stone.

Then the phone rang. It was the pastor from Chicago. “Got bad news and good news” he said. “I’ve accepted a call to serve a United Reformed Church in Cornwall, England. I’m guessing you wouldn’t really be interested in doing an exchange trip to a part of England just over the border from Wales. However, there’s a guy from our church who is around about your age, who went into the ministry and is in a place called Red Wing, in Minnesota, I’ve spoken with him and he’s interested. What do you think?”

I thought, “Whatever. Red Wing, Minnesota, Chicago. I’m sure they are much the same” So in the summer of 1994 we exchanged pulpits and locations with Rev Gary Elg and family from Red Wing Presbyterian Church in Minnesota and had a great time. I went back to Wales with the thought that I could put the things I’d learned to good use in my churches in Wales. That was the plan.

But then, out of the blue, when I got back, I started to receive invitations to consider moving to other positions in Wales and also in England. Some of them weren’t even to do with me being a traditional minister. Maybe that ‘Get out' clause from ministry that I’d expected to come along during my seminary days had finally come to pass. My ship to Tarshish was still in port!

I investigated some of them, but they just didn’t feel right. Sure I thought I could do the jobs, but y’know I was kind of settled and the kids being of an impressionable age and all of that, it would be easier to stay where I was. However, following my Minnesota experience, I had received a subscription to a PC(USA) magazine, called the 'Presbyterian Outlook' that contained descriptions of pastoral vacancies.

I should explain that the calling process in Wales is very different to that over here. Wales is a small place. As a pastor you didn’t call the church, they called you. So the notion of applying to a church for a position was completely alien to me. I knew nothing of the Presbyterian USA’s process of filling in forms and matching candidates to churches and going through committees and presbyteries, and still less about the whole complicated process of obtaining Visas and permits and all the rest of it in order to live in the United States.

But, as it felt like things were stirring, I entertained a thought. ‘I wonder what would happen if I wrote to one of those churches in the United States?’ So I did. A letter along the lines of, “Hello. My name is Adrian. I’m a pastor. Believe you might be looking for one. What do you think?” Given the PC(USA) calling system, (and those of you who have ever been near a pastor nominating committee will know exactly what I’m talking about) with its interim ministers, mission reports, PIF’s and MIF’s and COM’s, and computerized dating service… the miracle is that I received any replies at all.

A very gracious church in Monroe, Louisiana replied to what must of appeared to them as a very weird letter, explaining the calling process and how they’d need a little more information than “Hello, my name’s Adrian and I live in Wales”. After we corresponded they even agreed to fly me over for an interview.  And I went, but I wasn’t the best match for that particular position. At the same time I was in correspondence with another church, but again, things weren’t quite hunky-dory and we never got as far as the come and see stage.

Then one evening, back in Wales, in the middle of dinner, the phone rings. A guy called Mike Smith from a place called Fayetteville, West Virginia, is on the line. He wants more information. I suggest calling the nominating Committee I’d met with in Louisiana and I had a video of me preaching in Minnesota that I could send them. I hung up the phone and went to look for an atlas. “Where on earth was Fayetteville? Come to think of it, where on earth was West Virginia?”

One thing led to another. It took a while for God to convince me that leaving the denomination that had nurtured my faith for a foreign land thousands of miles from my extended family was the right thing to do.  I’d always believed that those bits in the Bible about 'Going into all the world' to 'preach the gospel' only applied to other people. My ‘Jonah syndrome’ was still intact.

But every step of the way doors opened, and things fell into place. Not always tidily, or even without some struggles and many questions to deal with. As it so often does, it became a matter of obedience. Was I going to follow or was I going to back out? If I believed that God was God then was I prepared to live my life according to that conviction, wherever it led? When I sang 'Here I am, Lord?' did it mean anything?

'So what made you decide to come to America?' Well that’s about it.  A feeling of calling that was confirmed in many ways by many different people. A sense that this was where life was leading me. Time does not permit to tell you of the insight’s ministry in two churches in West Virginia blessed my life with, or even talk of the process that led to my moving from West Virginia to Long Island and now to Ellicott City. Certainly been a fascinating journey!

But… look…. here I am, and I am glad to be here. And I hope that as I’ve shared part of my personal spiritual journey, as I’ve answered some of the questions about my faith and receiving a call to ministry and how I ended up in the USA… that there have been things I have said that can help you in your own pilgrimage of faith.

If like me you are susceptible to ‘Jonah Syndrome’, I pray you will notice that God does not call us all in the same way, to the same tasks in the same places. But God is calling our name and God has a time and a place and a way that we are each called to serve our Savior the Lord Jesus Christ.

If the love of God can guide somebody like myself to be here in Ellicott City, then just think what opportunities are open to you! To God’s name be the Glory!  Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, October 20, 2014

THIS IS MY STORY - THIS IS MY SONG 2 “Go Forth”

Part Two: “Now the Lord said to Abram “Go Forth”
Readings: Genesis 12:1-8, Exodus 3:1-6, Mark 1:16-20, 1 Timothy 3:1-7
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church,  Ellicott City, MD, October 19th 2014

Last week I was explaining how there are questions that I always seem to be asked when  I've started ministering in a new situation These include, 'How did you become involved in the church?' 'What made you want to be a minister?' and 'What made you decide to come to America?'

Last Sunday I was sharing how through an unlikely combination of Rock Music, Youth Retreats, Mars Bars and the unmerited grace of God I came to be embraced by the Christian Faith in my late teens and started attending church. This week I’m approaching the question; 'What made you want to be a minister?'

As I said last week, the reason I'm offering this testimony is 2 fold. Firstly, so as a congregation you can get to know me. Secondly, because I hope you'll see, that if God can work in a life like mine, then God surely can do amazing things in your own situation.

I’d like you to picture me as a 19 year old. After High School I landed a job stocking shelves in a supermarket. Realizing this isn't the best career track the world could offer, I’ve been back to college to obtain some qualifications and I am now working on a Government funded job creation scheme.

The work involves helping elderly and disabled people with their gardening alongside working out in the countryside maintaining footpaths. I’m working with a mixed bag of people, including some young offenders whom I have become friends with, despite myself being ‘that weird kid who goes to church’.  What’s really good is that the hours are very flexible, so I’m able to give a lot of time to what was becoming my real passion... playing in a rock band.

I spoke last time about how coming from Liverpool I cherished a dream that, like one of the Beatles, whose music I grew up with, I could make it through life writing songs and playing music. Like Jake or Elwood from that film ‘The Blues Brothers’, I was “on a mission from God”, because my band was no ordinary band. I was playing in a Gospel Rock Band and we didn’t want to just be famous, we wanted to save the world.

Never mind that some of the church folk said we were playing the Devils music whilst some of the un-churched said, 'We like your music, but why do you have to keep bringing Jesus into it?' God was opening doors. There is talk of record contracts, festival appearances, slots on prime-time T.V. Now bear in mind this is back in the Mid-1970’s, before the days when there even was a category known as ‘Contemporary Christian ' Music'. I’m blazing a trail!

On top of it all ‘I am nineteen going on twenty’ and I’ve fallen in love. I’ll be honest. One of the reasons I was attracted to church was that some of the girls were really cute. And at 19 I was engaged to one of them. (I have my wife’s permission to say that because it was her and I still think she’s lovely.)

So for a near 20 year old lad things couldn’t be much better. Great job, great band, great times, great fiance, great expectations. Yet throughout it all, when I stopped to listen … there was this little voice, somewhere deep inside that said, 'You should go into the ministry'. And every time I became aware of it I would say; 'But Lord I have my ministry, my work.. my music.. my relationships. I’m doing fine.' Which brings me to my text for today…

Genesis 12:1 “Now the Lord said to Abram, Go forth....”

I often wonder how many times the Lord told Abram to ‘Go forth...’ before he went? Over the next two years my comfortable world fell apart. The band, my dream, my mission from God, broke up. It seems my musical skills were far more impressive to myself than to anybody else! Two of the band members I was playing with came and told me they had received a better offer. ‘Ouch’ that hurt my ego.

Yvonne and I had set our wedding date and obtained a loan on this lovely corner house in a nice area of town near the sea front. The week before we were due to be married the bank informed us the loan was no longer available.

The day before we were due to be married the works manager called me into the office. ‘Got a problem’ he said. ‘According to the governmental guidelines, we have to pay you a higher wage as a married person, and we don’t have that extra cash in the budget. Bottom line is… 'If you get married, we can’t pay you, and you are out of a job'.

Yvonne and I went ahead and were married. That scripture about Abram and Sarai leaving their Fathers house and going out not knowing where they were heading took on a special significance. I had lost my job, I’d lost my place to live, and my musical ministry dreams were shattered. The frightening thing was that I’d been trying so hard to do the right thing.

I learned however that when God is on your case, things work out. Against all the odds a place became available at a ludicrously cheap rent just a few doors down from where we’d first tried to purchase a home. Yvonne still had her work and after a while I managed to land a settled position in the Civil Service.

A few months after I was dismissed from the Government scheme that wouldn’t pay me if I was married, their whole project collapsed. It is amazing how things can turn out in retrospect! If we’d have had a loan to pay back on that corner house we could have ended up in serious debt.  What seemed like a set back was really a step forward.

My musical dreams of saving the world with Christian rock music?  Sometimes there is a very thin dividing line between 'Doing the will of God' and 'Doing what I’d like the will of God to be for me'. God was saying to me the words God spoke to Abram…'Go forth!'

There were reasons why I didn’t want to ‘Go forth’ and be a minister. In Great Britain most of the clergy I knew were a lot older than I was, seemed to have a strange attraction to wearing very dark suits that smelt of mothballs, and they didn’t seem at all interested in the things that excited me.

Whilst it was one thing going to a church, becoming an official part of that authoritarian, established and frankly sometimes incredibly boring institution was a different matter. As Groucho Marx once said, I wasn’t at all sure I wanted 'to be part of any club that would have me as a member.'

After we were married Yvonne and I started attending a church that had been the Welsh Presbyterian Church, but had become an Elim Pentecostal Church. We became pretty active and they even allowed Yvonne to be their Treasurer and me be their volunteer youth leader for a while. One night they had a youth mission rally.

During the prayer time, I was sitting in the pew, head down, eyes closed, not really seeking God for anything in particular, and there started to come over me an overwhelming sense that I should offer myself as a candidate for the ministry of the Welsh Presbyterian Church. There was no audible voice, no blinding light or messages from the pulpit or sky, just an incredibly intense feeling that this was something that I had to act upon, then and there, and until I did there would be no peace in my life.

After the service I went to see the preacher. I told him, 'I think I’ve had a call to the ministry'. 'PRAISE THE LORD!' he said. I then added 'Of the Welsh Presbyterian Church'. Nobody told me that the Welsh Presbyterians and the Elim Pentecostals were not in a good relationship with each other. The pastor said 'I think we better talk about this.'

After what seemed like an endless evening as he explained to me the errors of  Presbyterianism I gained the impression that, in his opinion, Presbyterians were slightly to the left of Satan. The strange thing was, the more he talked, the louder the voice inside of me seemed to be telling me to offer myself as a candidate for the Welsh Presbyterian ministry.

I thought I better tell Yvonne. 'Yvonne' I said (Using that voice husbands use when they tell their wives something that they are not sure how they will react to), 'Yvonne, I think I’ve had a call to be a Presbyterian Minister'. Yvonne replied, 'Well God hasn’t said anything to me about it!'  She was even less enthused at the prospect of being a minister’s wife than I was about being a minister.

We arranged to see Rev Barrie Redmore, the Presbyterian minister who had married us. He listened carefully and then told me to 'go away' and come back in a year’s time if I still felt a sense of calling. A year later the feeling was stronger than ever. The process of becoming a candidate for the Presbyterian ministry was set in motion. At the age of 23, after taking nearly five years to come to terms with the notion that God may be calling me to the ministry, I finally went forth to Aberystwyth, on the coast of Mid-Wales, where I attended seminary.

So to answer the question, 'What made you want to be a minister?' the fact is that I never wanted to be a minister. It became a question of obedience to what God was showing me. These days as I look back at just over thirty years of ministry on two continents, I am forced to swallow my pride and begrudgingly acknowledge that God knows best!

As I said at the start of this brief series my aim in sharing these things is not to put myself on a pedestal, but simply to share with you how God has worked in the life of one of God’s reluctant disciples. And if God can work in my life, then I am confident God also has plans for yours!

Maybe you are passing through one of those times when everything appears to be falling  apart. My prayer for you is that you find a way to stick close to God and hope that sometime in the future you'll sit and look back at this time and see God's guiding purposes. Sometimes what seems to be a setback turns out to be a step forward.

Maybe there are quiet voices in your own heart that have been whispering for a while, and you have been trying to ignore them. Could be God is stretching you to view possibilities for your own life that you had never even imagined could be there for you.

The exciting thing is that God has never and never desired that we all take the same path. I believe God has plans for all of us. Those plans will be different for each of us as we are all different people.  The challenge for each of us is, when God says 'Go Forth...” will we go?

Next week I'll be sharing how my spiritual journey led me to relocate from my settled life in Wales, and took me to West Virginia. Till then... to God be the glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, October 13, 2014

THIS IS MY STORY- THIS IS MY SONG 1. “Called To Be Free”

Readings: Psalm 150, Exodus 13:3-10, Luke 15: 11-24, Galatians 5:1-13
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, October 12th, 2014

There have been three questions that I am always eventually asked when I have begun ministry in a new situation. 'How did you get involved in the church?', “What made you want to be a minister?' and thirdly, 'What made you decide to come to America?'

Seeming as some of you have already asked me those questions, I’m going to take three weeks to answer each of them. My hope is that as I share some things about my own spiritual journey, you will be encouraged to see that if God can work in the life of someone like me He can also do awesome things in your life.

This morning I’d like to share with you how I became involved in the church and came to faith in Jesus Christ. For a text:- Galatians 5:13; “You were call to be free, but do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature. Rather serve one another in love.

Freedom was something I searched for from my earliest days. I grew up in a town called Moreton, near Liverpool, England. My school days were a fine example of the abuse of freedom. I started attending High School at a time when great changes were taking place within the Educational System. They introduced a system of “Fully Comprehensive Education”, which meant that the High School you went to didn’t depend on any grades you achieved but on parental choice.

I was sent to a school which until the year I attended had proudly been known as “Wallasey Technical Grammar School” a school with a history of academic and sporting achievements. A school, which until then had screened very carefully the kind of students they would admit. The school had now been renamed “Mosslands Senior Comprehensive” and they had to take any child whose parents wished them to go there.

On my first day, the principal (who was not far from retirement) did his usual welcome speech, about how fortunate we all were to have been ‘chosen’ and ‘allowed’ to be part of his wonderful school. Most of us knew, well enough, there was no question of being chosen or fortunate. He had to take the whole lot of us including those who in previous years he’d have wanted nothing to do with. So my first day at High School, I’m sitting there thinking, ‘This guy is an idiot. The government’s changed the rules, but he hasn’t changed his speech. And he’s the Principal!’

So, like a typical teenager, I rebelled. I developed a great distrust and dislike of authority. I found being- told to work at things I really didn’t think were important by people in whom I had little confidence in, infringed on my idea of freedom. I wanted to learn about life, -not how many hours it took Mr. X to get from A to B if he was carrying a load of ‘Y’ amount. Anyway, if ‘Y’ was so heavy, and it was going to take that long, why didn’t he take a taxi? I wasted so much time in school, because I thought freedom meant doing whatever I wanted to do.

I didn’t come from a religious family. My mum was a good Methodist but for the rest of the family; church wasn’t even on the agenda. Because most of my family never went to church; Sunday morning was an excuse for staying in bed. Why couldn’t I stay at home like my father, and my elder brother and sister? Why did I have to go and sit on those uncomfortable chairs, in that musty old room with the out of tune piano and listen to those people going on and on? Having to go to Sunday School was an abuse of my freedom.

So early on in life, I dropped out of church. I objected to being told to go to this place that seemed to bear no relevance to the rest of my life. I couldn’t say that I believed or not believed in God. I had other things on my mind.

Just over the river from my home was Liverpool, home of a pop group called  “The Beatles”. They were a glimmer of hope. It wasn’t just the music, it was the fact that here were these four working class lads; not particularly academically brilliant, living in a city that was on the way down  yet through their music and characters, they could rise above it and change the world.

Just about the first record (and I’m not talking mp3's or C.D.’s—I mean vinyl 33 1/3 records) we had in our house was “Please, Please Me” by the Beatles. I was about 7 years old. By the time I was in my late teens other groups had come along. Music had become for some people, not just something you listened to, but a reason for being, an end in itself.  I used to line up all day long to see concerts by bands like 'Deep Purple' and 'Black Sabbath', dinosaurs of rock that were then spring chickens.

As a teenager disillusioned with school, doubtful that if in the disintegrating economic climate of Northern England there would even be a job for me at the end of the road I found that loud, rebellious, rock music was something I could really identify with.

The image of success and instant achievement satisfied an urge. I liked the message. 'Be free to be whatever you want'. A lot of the songs spoke about the hypocrisy of the establishment. “How can they tell us how to live our lives when they are making such a mess of the world? The politicians are liars, the religious people are hypocrites, the men of war want to destroy us, who are they to tell us what to do?”

It was through rock music I eventually returned to the church. I’d grown up with the Beatles. Maybe if I could play the guitar.. bang some drums... write a song, just maybe my life would amount to something. I could be in one of those mega groups and tour the world and party on for evermore. So I taught myself to play guitar and spent a lot of time dreaming.

I had some friends, who not only played guitar far better than me, but also went to a youth club in the Presbyterian Church at the top of the road where I lived. Occasionally they would have a local band playing at the church hall. Other times you could just go along and hang out. I started to be a hanger out.

One of the youth leaders explained that as well as Friday nights, if I went along to the Youth Fellowship meetings on Sunday mornings I would qualify for half-price entrance on the nights when they had a band playing. Sunday youth meeting wasn’t actually going to church, but a discussion group talking about God stuff.

As I went along I discovered they talked about big problems like truth and honesty and peace, questions I was asking myself. An invitation was given to go on a course at a Youth college in a little Welsh town called Bala.

When I arrived at the youth college the theme of the weekend was ‘Freedom’. Boy, I was going to tell all those narrow minded, hypocritical, bigoted religious people what freedom was all about. I was expecting, because it was a church college, some very strict organization. I was surprised after arriving late nobody was hassling us to get to bed. I was getting tired when someone said, “Hey… let’s go to worship”. Worship at some other time than Sunday morning?

But what really got to me was the basement coffee bar. I should explain that whilst I was heavily into rock music, I am grateful to God that I never got involved with drugs. I’d seen what they could do to people and I wasn’t impressed. Be young, be free, get a little crazy, but when people started taking pills or sticking needles in their arms, that never struck me as clever.

Anyway, I had a secret craving. Mars Bars. Mars Bars in Great Britain are a bit like Milky Ways here, but thicker and yummier. If I was at a party and something illegal was being passed around I could always pull out my Mars Bar and say, “No thanks man, I’ve got my M.B.”

But back to the basement coffee bar. When you went down there, nobody served you. You just went and helped yourself to whatever you wanted and there was a box, to put money in and help yourself to the change. I should explain that I came from an area where the church had put barbed wire on the roof to stop the kids stealing the lead from around the roofing tiles! I thought to myself, “Are these people crazy? What is to stop you coming down here and helping yourself to the goodies and taking all the money as well?”

I went down there all alone and there was a whole stack of glistening Mars Bars on the counter. It sounds stupid now, but for the first time in my life I was conscious of having to make a decision to do right or wrong. “Do I just take a Mars Bar, or do I pay for it? No-one is going to know. It’s up to me... surely these crazy people don’t actually trust you?”

Getting back to that text from Galatians 5:13:- “You were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature. Rather serve one another in love.” It would have been so easy just to pig out on illicit Mars Bars, but so unfair to those people who had given me the freedom to make a simple moral choice.

One thing we had to do at this weekend was prepare an item for a Sunday morning worship service. I’d decided I was going to keep my mouth shut and play guitar. But someone found out I’d written some songs and suggested that I could write something about freedom, to use in the worship time. This really bothered me. Particularly after the experience all alone in the coffee bar. I liked these people. I didn’t want to let them down. Saturday night, and a little group of us are talking.

We talked about freedom. How we often abused it. I was so full, of questions. God must have been with us that night, because every question I threw at them, they seemed to find a bible passage that gave the answer in a way that I could relate to.

It slowly started to dawn on me that there was a whole realm of freedom that I had never explored; the sort of freedom that was in the life and work and words of Jesus Christ. Here was this one man, who died horribly, yet praying that the abuses and mistakes we make with our freedom (mistakes He was paying the price for!) might be forgiven. After His death, His followers are saying that He is alive and that His love could be a living force in our lives — through the Holy Spirit.

 I was hearing all this from some people who had a dimension to their lives I knew I lacked. It was all a bit mind boggling. One of them prayed a prayer that night, asking Jesus Christ to become a personal reality in my life and for His love to set me free. I was worn out. In a way very uncharacteristic of a youth weekend I slept.

Sunday morning I woke up and all I can tell you is that I knew life would not be the same again. It’s hard to put into words. I knew that God was my Father. I knew the reality of Jesus Christ. I knew that the Holy Spirit was doing something inside of me that had not happened before.

But I didn’t know where that journey was taking me, or how it would affect my life. I had no idea it would lead to a call to ministry, emigrating to the USA and by 2014 I’d be living in a place called Mount Hebron! I had come to faith. All I knew back then was that the freedom that had eluded me had now found me.  

I pray that you also have tasted something of the freedom Christ can bring and will know more of it in days to come! Such is my story, such is my song. But there’s more to tell and time has gone.

But for those who asked ‘How I became involved in the church’, hopefully that answers the question. And next week I’ll try and answer the question; 'What made you want to be a minister?'

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, October 6, 2014

I Believe in Mystery

WORLD COMMUNION SUNDAY
Readings;  Psalm 19, Ephesians 3:1-12, Luke 24:13-21, 28-34, Nehemiah 2:11-17
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, October 5th, 2014

I enjoy a good mystery. The first verses of our Old Testament reading would make a great opening scene in a mystery movie. Nehemiah tells us how his mission to restore Jerusalem began.  “I went to Jerusalem, and after staying there three days I set out during the night with a few others. I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem. There were no mounts with me except the one I was riding on. By night I went out...” (Nehemiah 2:11)

Nehemiah was the cup bearer to King Artaxerxes of Persia. He had gained the kings confidence and permission to begin the process of restoring Jerusalem. He was a man of faith. He believed that it was God who had motivated him and that his actions were helping fulfill the promises of the prophets of old that the Israelite people would return from exile in Babylon to their homeland.

He was politically savvy. He knew that Jerusalem's restoration would be opposed by neighboring powers. They would interpret their resurgence as a threat. Nehemiah goes out... by night... to inspect the walls. He takes with him only a handful of close acquaintances he could trust his life to. He rides upon a single humble beast, probably a donkey, lest any spies think he was making any kind of royal entrance. 

To Nehemiah his actions made perfect sense. But to anybody else his actions were, to put it mildly, mysterious. As he explains “I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem.”

The mysterious actions of God's people are somewhat minor when compared to the mystery of God's actual being. As hymn writer William Cowper expresses “God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform, He plants His footsteps in the sea, And rides upon the storm.

The great Baptist preacher C.H Spurgeon once wrote, "I worship a God I never expect to comprehend. If I could grasp Him in the hollow of my hand, I could not call Him my God: and if I could understand His dealings so that I could read them as a child reads a spelling book, I could not worship Him..."

When it comes to our faith in God, I believe in mystery. I am convinced that our faith has to have room for those things we will never understand. Natural disasters. Undeserved suffering.  God's will as it relates to human freedom. How death becomes resurrection. Greater minds than mine have come to the conclusion that such things remain a mystery.

For myself the greatest mystery of all is why God cares about us enough to send His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to die upon a cross for our sins. Such scandalous, unmerited love, defies explanation.

The churches greatest and original theologian was the apostle Paul. It was he who interpreted what the life of Jesus Christ, in particular His death and resurrection, actually meant for the church that Jesus came to build. In his letter to the Ephesian church, time and time again, he uses the word 'mystery' to describe the gospel message that had been entrusted to his care.

It was a mystery to him how God had intervened in his life, changing him from being one of Christianities greatest opponents into it's major advocate.  It was a mystery to Paul how God had chosen a Jew schooled in the ways of the Pharisees, to become the proclaimer of the gospel to the Gentiles.

I like the way the Message Bible transliterates Ephesians 3:8-10 “ When it came to presenting the Message to people who had no background in God's way, I was the least qualified of any of the available Christians. God saw to it that I was equipped, but you can be sure that it had nothing to do with my natural abilities.” 

And so here I am, preaching and writing about things that are way over my head, the inexhaustible riches and generosity of Christ.  My task is to bring out in the open and make plain what God, who created all this in the first place, has been doing in secret and behind the scenes all along.  Through Christians like yourselves gathered in churches, this extraordinary (that is 'mysterious!') plan of God is becoming known and talked about... even among the angels!I believe in mystery.

It is a mystery how the church has not simply survived, but thrived, over the centuries. Division. Persecution. Huge mistakes and failings. But here we are, on this day, celebrating 'World Communion Sunday'. From it's unlikely beginnings, 2000 years ago, in the 3 year mission of an obscure prophet who died a horrible death by the orders of the most powerful empire the world had ever seen, to becoming the dominant religion, firstly of that empire and eventually a world-wide faith... it is truly an extraordinary story. I believe in mystery.

Then there is the fact of communion itself. It is a mystery how sharing in something as inconsequential as eating a bit of bread and tasting some wine, can have such a powerful effect upon people. So mysterious is this communion experience that the theologians across the centuries have really struggled to understand what's going on, and many, many times the church has become (and remains) divided trying to understand it!

The Greek word used in the early church for the sacrament was 'Mysterion'. 'Mysterion' is usually translated, just as it sounds... "mystery." It indicates that through the sacrament of bread and wine, God seeks to disclose things that are beyond human capacity to know through reason alone.

It is a mystery how that happens. But it does. In one of the service books the communion prayer contains the words, 'God.. we thank You for this sacrament, for all who through the ages have found at this table the light that never fades, the joy that does not loses it's wonder, the forgiveness of their sins, the love which is Your love, the presence of their Lord.

In Welsh church history one of her most influential characters was a preacher called Howell Harris. Among other things Howell founded one of the worlds first agricultural societies as well as a ground-breaking reformed evangelical community, at a place called Trefeca in Mid-Wales. He was a contemporary of John and Charles Wesley, George Whitfield and American revivalist Johnathan Edwards. Like Johnathan Edwards he was at the center of a religious revival in his native land.

Howell Harris's religious pilgrimage began around the communion table. One Palm Sunday Harris attended his local parish Church. During the service the Vicar announced that there would be a Communion Service the following Sunday. The vicar commented that he knew there were many people who did not come to the Communion because they felt they were not fit to take of it.

His words were; 'If you are not fit to take Communion you are not fit to pray, if you are not fit to pray you are not fit to live, and if you are not fit to live you are not fit to die'. These words hit Harris like a bolt from the blue. As he considered the life he was living he felt he needed to make some radical changes.

Next time Harris came to the table it was an emotional, life changing experience. He writes in his diary; 'At the table, Christ bleeding on the Cross was kept before my eyes constantly; and strength was given to me to believe that I was receiving pardon on account of that blood. I lost my burden; I went home leaping for joy, and I said to my neighbor who was sad, Why are you sad? I know (this day) my sins have been forgiven!

Howell Harris went on to be one of the most celebrated preachers Wales had ever known. His influence led eventually to their being a Presbyterian Church in Wales, a fact the church over there is currently celebrating by marking 300 years since his birth.

But that's just one historical example. Many, many people testify, myself included, that there have been times, when, for some unknown reason this simple act of receiving bread and wine has strengthened them for the journey and restored to them a sense of the presence of God in ways other worship activities have failed to do. I believe in mystery.

The other great mystery of our faith is the mystery of prayer. Atheists scoff at believers when they claim God has answered their prayers. For the atheist prayers cannot be answered because there is no God to answer them. Therefore every answered prayer has to be a coincidence. No mystery to it all!

My challenge to the atheist is to ask how many coincidences have to happen before you attribute their source to something other than blind chance? Mary Cape Smith, a dear friend now deceased, from a previous church, used to speak a lot about synchronicity. Prayer for her was not asking for something then receiving it. Prayer was an atmosphere in which she lived her life. As her life was lived in God's presence things had a habit of working out in unexpected ways.

The phone call that just happened to come at precisely the right time. That TV program which completely complemented last weeks sermon and the novel they were discussing at Book Club. That person she spoke to who passed on her words to somebody who really needed to hear them. That meal she had prepared, not knowing quite why, that became a godsend to the lady down the road whose husband had just been taken into hospital.

These are not huge dramatic things. Daily little miracles that defy explanation when they occur within a lifetime that's framed by prayer. I know that sometimes bigger miracles take place. But they are the exception... which is exactly why they are called miracles, and such are always a mystery. I believe in mystery.

Returning to where we started... Nehemiah, as he set out to survey the walls of Jerusalem. He knew that God was going to fulfill God's Word and restore Jerusalem. He knew that he had to set out at night so as not to arouse suspicion. He knew, way before the apostle Paul was born, that the secret things of God, the mystery of the gospel, was something that had to be lived out in daily actions of faithfulness.

As we come to the table, as we celebrate the mystery, may the love that God has for us, shown through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, expand our horizons and place our lives into a framework of faith. Our theology is never going to give us all the answers. Like Paul, we have to leave room for questions to treasure, and trust that there are things only God knows.

Around this table we join countless numbers of the faithful around the world, and a great unseen cloud of witnesses, past, present and yet to come, who declare that Jesus Christ is Lord.  Let us pray that, through he Holy Spirit, this may be a moment when the mystery of God's love once more engages our lives. I believe in mystery.

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

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.