Monday, September 29, 2014

I Believe in Believing

Readings;  Psalm 78: 1-4, 12-16, Luke 15:7-24, Acts 9:1-9, Nehemiah 1:5-11
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, September 28th, 2014

Some years ago I was visiting a friend who was studying at Leeds University in England. At one point during the visit we had to take a bus ride, and the bus stops were in front of a long church wall. The church had taken the initiative to hang a long banner on their long wall. A very long banner. You had to walk along the road to read it.

Upon the banner was the message (without punctuation) “WE ARE NOT WHAT WE THINK WE ARE BUT WHAT WE THINK WE ARE”. I am assuming that with  punctuation it would read , “We are not what we think we are, but what we think, we are.” We are familiar these days with the phrase 'You are what you eat!' (That probably makes me a cheese sandwich). The message this church was putting out was  “You are what you think!”

“I believe in believing”. What we believe really matters, because it is the basis for everything else that takes place in our lives. That applies to our individual lives and for our community life as church. 

As the Israelites returned from exile in Babylon and began to rebuild the walls and temple in Jerusalem, they needed to refocus on their belief system. You didn't undertake  monumental tasks like that unless you felt there was a purpose to what you were doing and a reason behind your actions.

Nehemiah, in chapter 1:5-11, offers us a vision of what motivated him. Among the words that he prays are these from verse 9, where he reminds himself (and his people) of one of God's great promises.“If you return to me and obey my commands, then if your people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them...

These words come after he has prayerfully reminded himself that the Lord his God was a great and awesome God, who across the centuries had kept a covenant of love with those God called to be God's children. A God, who even when the people rejected such love, refused to give up on them and kept making plans for their restoration and blessing.

Back in my homelands we used to joke that our education system was focused on 3-R's - 'Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic'. Nehemiah, in his prayer, focus's on 3-R's that I understand to be essential beliefs for Christian people. Repentance, Redemption and Renewal.

Repentance  Nehemiah 1:9 begins with the words “ If you return to me and obey my commands...” The word 'if' may only consist of two little letters but it carriers huge meaning! If our vision of God is distorted or we hold to beliefs about God that are very different than those revealed in the Christian Scriptures, than such will profoundly effect our relationship with God and have a negative impact on our relationships with each other.

Underlying Nehemiah's prayer is his core belief that God desires to be in relationship with God's people. That God's way was the best way to live and the door was open for every person to turn from their neglect of God and to know God's loving embrace.

Many people carry negative images of God.  The stern, distant Father. The invisible policeman waiting to catch them out. The killjoy god who is only happy when people are miserable. The avenging god who at a moments notice is ready to flash lightning bolts across the sky and burn miserable sinners in eternal flames that can never be quenched. The god who is impossible to please, because his laws are impossible to obey.

As a remedy to all such views Jesus told a story about a Father with a wayward son.  (Luke 15:7-24) The son disrespects the father by asking for an early release of his inheritance (basically wishing his father dead), then goes, takes the money and selfishly blows the lot, ending up in a terrible state, barely able to survive on a diet of pig slops.

Here's where the repentance comes in. The wayward son comes to his senses. He starts to realize he had been dreadfully wrong in squandering the freedoms that life had graced him with. He decides to go back to his Father and offers to work as an unpaid servant, hoping in some way to make restitution for his wrong doing.

When the father sees him coming home, the father is not stern or distant. The Father isn't thinking 'payback time', he's not going to strike his son down or judge him. Rather he (against all middle eastern convention) hoists up his robes, runs to greet him, embraces him, refuses to listen to any notion of him working to earn his future good favor, puts a ring on his finger, new shoes on his feet and then throws the biggest party the district had seen for a long time, because as he explains; 'This son of mine was lost, but now he's found, dead, but now he's alive!'

'That' Jesus seems to be saying 'Is how God feels about you.' God's over-riding concern isn't the mess we have made of things, or our desire to work our way back into God's good favor; God wants us to know that we are loved and cherished and accepted and that whenever we make a single step in a homeward direction the angels in heaven are ready to throw a party.

'We are not what we think we are, but what we think, we are.' If we know ourselves a child of God, accepted and loved, forgiven through the grace and merit of Jesus Christ, cleansed and set free by the action of the Holy Spirit, then we see ourselves, each other and our world through a positive lens. We see how repentance is always a possibility, that crosses can become resurrections and that there is no god-forsaken place in all creation that God's love can not call us home from.

All of which segways neatly into the next heading;

Redemption  Verse 9, the whole thing reads “If you return to me and obey my commands, then if your people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them...”  What amazing words for a people who had been in exile for generations to hear! They must of felt like they were at the farthest horizon it was possible to be. They were the wayward sons and daughters eating the pig slop. And now God had gathered them home.

We not only sometimes have to reprogram our ideas about God, we also have to do some reprogramming regarding our self-image. Many of us carry with us feelings of unworthiness or unsuitability or a lack of self-acceptance that can cripple our spiritual life.

Life isn't always friendly. People put us down and we shrug our shoulders and say “I deserved that'. We start to presume the worst rather than expect the best of ourselves. Our youthful wide-eyed innocence is replaced by our mature cynicism, skepticism and we don't trust anybody. Is it any wonder that Jesus taught that unless we become as children, we will never see the Kingdom of God?

Here is one of the beautiful things about the Christian gospel. It doesn't depend on us. It's all about what Jesus has done for us. He died for our sins, to free us from our selves, to wipe away the guilt, to redeem what has been lost. The death of Christ upon the cross achieves for us what we cannot achieve for ourselves. Acceptance. Forgiveness. Homecoming.

It's all about grace! “Amazing grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost, but now I'm found, was blind but now I see”. The mystery here is that our self assessment, as being unworthy, undeserving, ungrateful lost souls, is  realistic. We don't deserve to be embraced by the God of love. The gospel, the good news is that our relationship with God isn't based upon what we have done... or are doing... but upon what Jesus Christ has done for us when He died upon the Cross of Calvary.

 "Behold the Lamb of God' declared John the Baptist “Who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)

Through repentance we get to join in the celebration. Through the redemption we are offered in Jesus Christ, the door is open for us to know the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  'We are not what we think we are, but what we think, we are.' We are children of God, saved by grace.  But finally this. We are works in progress. My 3rd 'R' stands for;

Renewal  As Nehemiah offered his prayer there was still a lot of work to be done.  Walls still to repair. A temple to be built. He is seeking strength for the journey ahead.  If we think we have arrived, we will stop growing. And if we stop growing, we'll stop going the way God wants us to go. God always has more for us. More love. More grace. More challenges. More Opportunities.

The difference between water that stays fresh and water that becomes stagnant has to do with movement. If you leave water to sit, it either evaporates or turns nasty.  We read in John's gospel 7:37-39  “On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me,and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, 'Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water.'" Now He said this about the Spirit, which believers in Him were to receive...”

The work of the Holy Spirit is described as 'Living Water'. Something that flows through us and around us. A current to become caught up in that can take us somewhere. Water that renews and refreshes and reinvigorates. Water that cleanses and heals and inspires.

It matters what we believe.  If we believe God is unavailable or unreachable our relationship with God will proceed along those lines. If we believe ourselves to be beyond help, beyond redemption or beyond salvation then we have not understood what Jesus came to do! If we think we have arrived, then we are blind to what yet needs to be done through the work of God's Spirit. 'We are not what we think we are, but what we think, we are.'

It's not O.K. to say that it doesn't matter what you believe as long as you are sincere. Some beliefs are just wrong. Hitler was very sincere about his beliefs. Isis terrorists are very sincere in their belief that beheading innocent victims achieves something positive. It is naive to believe that it doesn't matter what we believe as long we don't hurt anybody, because our beliefs always impact others. Our beliefs shape the whole way we view our whole world.

It doesn't work saying, 'Can't we all just get along'. The fact is that we don't all get along. We never have done. Which is precisely why repentance is needed; those moments when we come to our senses and head home to God's welcoming embrace. We need our self-acceptance to be  based upon the redemption Jesus Christ offers to us. We need renewal, both in our life corporately as a church community and individually as disciples of Jesus Christ, for we need the renewing touch of God's Holy Spirit.

 'We are not what we think we are, but what we think, we are.'  Let us pray that we may know God as that welcoming parent,  know ourselves as free and forgiven through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and may grow more and more to appreciate the power to serve offered us through the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, September 22, 2014

I Believe in Worship

Readings; Psalm 105:1-6,37-45, Romans 12:1-18, Matthew 4:1-11, Nehemiah 8:5-10.
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, September 21st, 2014

According to the Westminster Catechism, a founding document of the Presbyterian Church, the chief end of a persons life is to glorify God and enjoy God forever. In Rick Warrens best-selling book 'The Purpose Driven Life' he writes of how all people were created for God's pleasure... and that what brings pleasure to God is laying our lives before God in worship.

He quotes from the Message version of the Bible Romans 12:1 “Here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering.

Today I want to draw your attention Nehemiah 8:10; “This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” This comes to us at the end of a section where Ezra has just reopened the Book of the Law and begins to read from it as he stands before the people.

It's been a while since the people had given the Word of God their attention. As Ezra reads some cry out ' Amen, Amen'. Others are bowing down in praise. Some are moved to tears. And all the time Ezra, and others of the priests are trying to interpret the Word to them, and instruct them that this was not a day for mourning, but a day for rejoicing.

Worship was important for the community as they returned from exile. They were not only rebuilding the walls of their city, they were also rebuilding the temple. A large number of people were assigned to the task of worship. Liturgists. Musicians.  Servants of various kinds with a variety of tasks that involved everything from ensuring offerings could be made, to caring for the facilities.

One of the six great ends of the Presbyterian church is 'The Maintenance of Divine Worship'. People of God, past and present, put a great emphasis upon worship as being an essential ingredient of religious life. I believe in Worship.

Worship Connects us. Worship Changes us. Worship Empowers us.

Worship Connects us.

Worship connects us to God, to each other and to ourselves. Worship reminds us whose we are, where we are and who we are. As the people stood listening to Ezra they knew that God had not abandoned them. As they looked around they could see how God had brought them back from exile and into a place of community. As they heard the law of Moses read they were reminded that they were the children of God, people that God loved and cared for.

Worship can do the same for us. As we share in liturgy, sing the songs of God's people and listen for God's Word through scripture and proclamation we discover that God has not abandoned us. As we reflect on the fact that God sent His son Jesus Christ to be our Savior, that He died upon the Cross for our sins and was raised to give us new life, so our connection to God is renewed.

People tell me they can worship God anywhere. I don't deny that. What I question is the notion that God desires us to be individual self-focused spiritual units, separated from each other, doing our own thing. Worship isn't about us, it is about God.

When I hear people saying, 'I didn't get anything out of that worship service', I'm tempted to ask 'What did you put in?' The word 'worship' is derived from an old English word that means 'to ascribe worth' or 'bow down before'. The word 'liturgy' means 'the work of the people'. In order for worship to be an experience that connects us to God we have to work at it! We have to be prepared. We can't just show up and expect that is the modern day equivalent of 'bowing before God'.

As an example consider the hymns we sing. Did you that everyone of the hymns in our hymnbook is there for one reason? Somewhere along the way it connected somebody to God.  We say, “But I don't know this one, I don't like that tune, we never sing my favorites, I'm glad it connected somebody, but it doesn't work for me!'”

So... look... here's a thought. Go on the Internet and look up that hymn you don't relate to. Discover who wrote it, why they wrote it, who they were and where they were coming from. Take a little time to learn that tune and read the words, and understand the scriptural allusions that are made.

“But, pastor, that sounds like hard work, can't we just sing things that make me feel good?” Liturgy is the work of the people. Worship implies that we are not present purely for our own self edification, but in order to glorify God.

Imagine how different our experience of worship could be if we came every Sunday with a prayer on our lips, “Lord, how can my presence here today help someone else connect to Your love?” Worship connects us. And the way we worship helps others to also make that connection. I believe in worship. Worship connects us, to God, to each other and to ourselves.

Worship Changes us.

There's a worship song, composed by Eugene Greco, titled 'In the Presence'. The chorus has the words 'Holy, holy, holy God; How awesome is Your name, Holy, Holy, Holy God - How majestic is Your reign, I am changed in the presence of a Holy God.” The final verse declares  “In the presence of Your glory, All my crowns lie in the dust”.

There are sometimes in worship those moments when God's Spirit breaks in, in the most unexpected ways. Ways that leave you totally in awe. I was at a conference in Montreat, N.C. some years ago and it had been a stifling week temperature wise. On the final day we had a communion service. Just as the preacher began to speak about the breath of the Spirit, a cool breeze wafted through the auditorium and I think everybody suddenly had goose bumps. The presence of God.

One of the things I've been helped lead for a number of years has been the Trinity Youth Conference in Pennsylvania. A few years back we had to cancel our usual mid-week lakeside service and return to camp, because the weather turned nasty.

The speaker that year was Rev. Ed Delair, who sadly passed away in 2012, aged 57. That day he spoke of how God is always greater than our disappointments and how God kept covenant with God's people. As the service ended we noticed the rain had stopped pelting down on the roof, so we decided to go outside for the final blessing. We were greeted by the site of a triple rainbow arching over the field. Never seen one before, never seen one since. Many were moved to tears at this sign of God's covenant and when we learned Ed had died, we thought of that moment and how we were changed.

Just this past year, on one of the final nights in worship, a lot of the youth were dealing with some pretty heavy things going on in their lives. Bad decisions. Stuff going on that no-one should have to travel through. I don't know exactly how it happened, but in the middle of a block of songs, worship suddenly erupted into a full blown dance party. And some of those kids were dancing with tears streaming down their faces. They knew God cared. They were free to let some of those hurts go, for the first time in a long time. And I was reminded of this text from Nehemiah 8:10; “This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

It doesn’t have to be at some conference far away, it happens in weekly worship services. I've lost count of the number of times people have said, 'When you preached about so-and so that was for me'. 99.9 % of the occasions I am not even aware that I have mentioned 'so and so'. Songs, liturgy, words... on occasions they all converge and by the action of the Holy Spirit we are changed and we walk away from the service knowing that something just happened that was a game changer.

We can't engineer it, we can't manufacture it, but when the Holy Spirit decides to move, then... friends... just go with it... and we shall be changed by the presence of a holy God. One of the works of the Holy Spirit is that of bringing conviction. Convincing us of God's presence, convincing us of our need for Christ's love to remake us and remold us, convincing that this is God's world and we are God's people. I believe in worship because it connects us to God. I believe in worship because it changes us. Thirdly I believe in worship because;

Worship empowers us

The life that God invites us to live, cannot be lived in our own strength. The tasks God asks us to accomplish are beyond us. The kingdom God invites us to build, is not a human kingdom, but the kingdom of God. Unless we allow God to work in us and through us, it can't be done. For the Christian believer, the power station, the place where we connect to God, where we are changed, is worship.

When Ezra and Nehemiah started  to rebuild the walls and the temple, they faced not only the physical task, but also those who were totally opposed to the work of restoration that was going on. It seems whenever anything good is happening there are those who are against it!

How do we deal with that? The fact that there are those who want nothing to do with the good news of the gospel, who want to see us fail, not succeed, who count what we believe as irrelevant and  stupid and even dangerous? We come before God and we worship God. God gives us the strength and the wisdom and the courage to continue.

As Ezra stood before the people and read the law of God, many of them broke down and wept. They were convicted of what they had neglected. They hadn't been worshiping God, they'd forgotten how to serve God; they hadn't so much turned their backs on God, but just forgotten who they were... the people of God through whom God wanted to change the world.

But as they worshiped all that changed. Ezra and the worship leaders knew that this was not a moment in time when they should walk away discouraged and down-hearted. That's why they give them the message; “This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Joy is a powerful thing. The joy of the lord, the joy that they rediscovered as they laid their lives before God and offered themselves unreservedly and unconditionally to God, the joy of the Holy Spirit that turned their mourning into dancing and their tears into laughter, was powerful!

I believe in worship. I pray that as we come before God, in our private moments as well as our times of corporate worship, there will be those inexplicable moments when God  breaks in, when we connect, when we are changed, when we are empowered.

Those moments when we come before God and say, 'Lord I believe, help thou my unbelief.' That there will be those moments when we cast down our crowns before God, and God is revealed in all the glory of cool breezes and triple rainbows and we walk away from a Sunday service convicted that our lives are in God's hands and that nothing needs to stay the same!

This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.
And to God's name be all glory and honor and praise. Amen.
The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, September 15, 2014

I Believe in the Church

Readings; Psalm 114, Matthew 16:13-19, Ephesians 5:25-30, Ezra 3:1-6
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, September 14th, 2014

The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, speak of events around the year 540BC when the faithful people of God returned from exile in Babylon and reestablished themselves in Jerusalem.

Our reading today from Ezra chapter 3 tells us that one of the first things they did, once they'd got their living accommodation sorted out, was come together to worship God. “When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, the people assembled together as one in Jerusalem. “ (Ezra 3:1 NIV). Although the construction of the temple had yet to begin, they build an altar and start offering the sacrifices and observing the festivals required by the law of Moses.

I'm beginning this week a series I've titled 'I believe'. As the new guy in your pulpit I hope this series will help you understand some of the things I aspire to as I seek to guide the church here in the ways of God's Kingdom. What I want to share this morning is 'I believe in the Church'. I believe that voluntarily gathering together to worship God is an essential aspect of Christian discipleship. I believe that being together as a servant community is central to our identity as people of God.

It is fashionable in our time to put the church down. We live in a society where many tell us that they can be spiritual without needing to gather together with others. Many are suspicious of and openly hostile towards organized religion. We are constantly told that our traditional churches are a relic of a bygone age, and that we, by implication, are dinosaurs whose extinction is only a matter of time.

The Church has been rocked by scandal after scandal. Priests abusing children. Homophobic placard wavers protesting at military funerals. Fundamentalists burning the sacred books of other religions. T.V. Evangelists preaching faithfulness and prosperity whilst becoming embroiled in affairs and being dishonest about their earnings.

I can understand why people want nothing to do with the church. As you travel back through history the picture does not become any prettier. The people of God have had some catastrophic periods of failure. The Spanish Inquisition. The Crusades. The identification of power and prestige with Christ and His Kingdom. The terrible atrocities that have been committed in the name of  Christ. One could go on and on. A horrendous account.

Yet here I am telling you that 'I believe in the Church'. Have I lost my marbles? Why would anybody want to be part of an organization with such a terrible track record? I am aware that some folk have written whole books about such a topic and that I am constrained by the time restrictions of a Sunday morning, so obviously this cannot be the 'be all and end all' explanation of why I believe in the church, but here's a few thoughts.

I believe in the church because God believes in the church.

The community of faith was God's idea – not mine! From the very beginning of Scripture we are given an account of how God has gathered people together in community as a people to serve the kingdom. From Abraham, though Moses, though the Judges, through the Kings, through the Prophets, God calls people together to serve Him.

In the New Testament we hear Jesus saying to Peter; “I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it.” (Mat 16:18). The church is built upon the foundation of those who profess faith in Jesus Christ. The Book of Acts is the story of the churches early days. The letters of the New Testament are addressed to communities of faith that meet together in different geographical locations. The final book of the bible, Revelation, includes a series of messages to seven distinct churches who are either praised or rebuked for their joint testimony to the saving grace of Jesus Christ.

When people tell me they can be a Christian and not belong to a church I seriously question if they have ever actually read the Bible. There is in scripture no recognition of 'unconnected to the church believers'. They don't exist. In one of his most sarcastic passages he ever wrote Paul pictures the Church as being the Body of Christ and chastises his 'all seeing,all knowing' readers who wanted to be spiritual lone rangers writing ; “There are many parts, but one body.  The eye cannot say to the hand, "I don't need you!" And the head cannot say to the feet, "I don't need you!" (1Co 12:20-21)

God initiates community. Jesus came to found the church. The disciples gave their lives to build the church. The book of Revelation speaks of the  'Marriage Supper of the Lamb' picturing the Church as the 'Bride who has made herself ready' (Revelation 19:7) how much does God believe in the Church? As the  bride of His only begotten Son! That's a powerful image to consider. So I reaffirm... I believe in the church because God believes in the church.

I believe in the church because of her capacity to do amazing things!

In July I went with a group of 14 youth and 3 adults on a mission trip to Honduras. As we traveled along a dirt road to reach the remote town of Trinidad de Copan, the first building we came across was a water purification plant. It had only been there a couple of years. On the side of the building a plaque with the PC(USA) symbol. So we drive into town and reach the house in which we stay, and there's that symbol again. On the second evening  the mayor Jesus Orlando Jimenez, gives us a presentation in which he explains how PC(USA) mission funds have provided opportunities that they could only dream of.

We travel further out into the countryside to the little village of Copan, and again there are houses with that PC(USA) symbol on the side. A number of homes have been built by volunteers and mission funds. Later in the week we are driving along a road to a remote Mayan village on the border between Honduras and Guatemala. The driver explains how the village was not accessible until funds and work crews from the PC(USA), working alongside local people from the community, built that road. We arrive in the village, a school, many houses, again, the result of mission efforts and there's that PC(USA) symbol. One of the leaders in the community explained how their land had been taken from his grandfather, how a struggle for justice that involved him having to oppose the local law enforcement, being imprisoned and abused took place, but how help from church sponsored lawyers and folk like the mayor had resulted in them reclaiming their rightful lands.

Another day we visit a family who, with help from PC(USA) funds have been working for 9 years to transform what had been considered a desolate piece of land into a family farm that now sustains them. They shared their dreams for the future and we were able, thanks to the generosity of folk supporting our trip, offer the son some scholarship money to further his dreams of starting a new business.

If we look around us in our cities we find many educational institutions, hospitals and facilities that bear the names of saints or churches. In New York one of the most renown hospitals is New York Presbyterian. We easily forget how much in our society, education, health care, even the structure of government itself would not be in place were it not for the teaching and guidance and work of the church.

That's the side of the story those who oppose religious belief never tell you. They are quick to point out the churches failings but keen to ignore the tremendous advances civilization has experienced because of her mission and the role the church continues to play, particularly in developing nations. I believe in the church because God believes in the church. I believe in the church because of her capacity to do amazing things!

I believe in the church because she has changed my life.

When I was around 15 years old I was not doing well in school. For various reasons the educational institution I attended failed to motivate me. Except for the English teacher Mr. Larkin. As exams drew near one day, as I was snoozing at the back of class, he suddenly hollered, 'Pratt. Come here. Up front. Now!' Having pulled me out in front of the class he told them; 'Class. I want you to see what a loser looks like. I predict that this boy here will totally fail his English exams because he just hasn't put the work in. Pratt, sit down and go back to sleep'. Mr Larkin turned out to be the only teacher in school who could actually motivate me. I was so mad at him that I went home and worked my tail off, just to prove him wrong, and when the exams came around I passed English with the highest grade I'd ever achieved.

When I later reconnected with the church community I discovered another group of people who knew how to motivate, not with the shock tactics of Mr. Larkin, but with love and acceptance.

As a teenager I liked to party. I'd sometimes connect with my Sunday School class on my home from Saturday night, often having no sleep and showing signs of over-indulgence. But they never judged me.

When an invitation came to go to camp, they included me in. At camp they allowed me to express myself, listened to my confusions and doubts. They shared where they were and what they believed but they didn't push it! Such led to me wanting what they had.

When at 18 I became engaged to Yvonne they threw a party. I was still a confused, rather impetuous individual, but they didn't tell us we were making a big mistake or suggest we go for counseling. When I desired to be confirmed, I was in a class of 1, but my wonderful minister Rev Barrie Redmore, still put me through classes and answered my many questions patiently and lovingly. When at 20 years old Yvonne and I were married, nobody said 'It won't work' or 'You are to young' and the church was packed with folk from the congregation, in attendance simply because they cared about us. As we walked out on the churches red carpet we felt like movie stars at a Hollywood Premiere, there were so many flash bulbs going off.

When I felt a call to ministry the church didn't say; 'What, You? Ministry?' They put me through the process. They supported me. They prayed for me. They surrounded me with grace and love. When in my second year in seminary I was struggling, the principal Rev Elfed Ap Nefydd Roberts, took me aside and said, 'You can do this!' When I began work in my first church, as a young, wide-eyed, dreamer, the congregation indulged my crazy ideas and some of them actually worked.

I am who I am because of the incubator of a faith community. Being part of a community of faith can radically change your life and have a huge influence on your community. Back in the days when Israel returned from exile in Babylon we read in Ezra that “When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, the people assembled together as one in Jerusalem”. (Ezra 3:1)

Assembling together as a people bearing the name of Christ is not an option for a disciple. God believes in you. God believes that there is a place for you in God's church. When Jesus said “I go ahead and a prepare a place for you” (John 14:2) He wasn't just talking about what happens when we die. There's a place for you now in the community of the faithful, the body of Christ, the ship of fools, the army of ordinary people known as the church.

  • I believe in the church because God believes in the church.
  • I believe in the church because of her capacity to do amazing things.
  • I believe in the church because she has changed my life.

And I pray that you also may know the life changing joy and challenge of belonging to God through the ministry and community of the church. Amen.
The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

New Beginnings

Readings; Psalm 149, John 5:2-9, 2 Timothy 1:1-7, Ezra 1:1-5
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, September 7th, 2014

In 598BC the powerful nation of Babylon invaded Jerusalem. The people were deported, the city and it's magnificent temple destroyed, and the future looked bleak. Time moved on. Their fortunes changed. In 539 BC the Persians invaded Babylon, and the Persian King Cyrus decreed that the people of Judah should return to their land and that their Temple should be rebuilt.

The Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah speak of that time of new beginnings. In terms of the world wide stage, what happened in a remote corner of the Middle East may not have held much significance. But to those faithful folk returning to their homelands, this was huge.

It was seen as the fulfillment of prophecies made by Jeremiah, Isaiah and Daniel. It was the start of a new era in the nations life, that historically became known as the Second Temple Period. It signaled a fresh commitment of the people to God to their mission, a revival of worship and religious life and the rebuilding of the walls and temple of God's Holy City.

The arrival of a new pastor to a congregation may seem like but a small event against the backdrop of international political and religious life. But for the people of God in the midst of change it is a big deal. For my own life this a time of great excitement. For all of us it's a time for moving in to something new and as yet unexplored.

As I read our bible passage from Ezra, I was particularly struck by Ezra 1:5 “Then the family heads of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites – everyone whose heart God had moved – prepared to go up and build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem”.

It is the idea of 'movement' in that last section that has particularly gripped me. “Everyone whose heart God had moved – prepared to go up and build the house of the Lord in Jerusalem”. It appears in other translations as “All those whose mind God had stirred – got ready to go up in order to build the temple of the LORD in Jerusalem.” (NKJV). In Hebrew the word 'uwr' 'moved/stirred' can also be translated as to 'arouse', to 'awake' or to 'incite.' Eugene Peterson in the Message Bible talks of everyone that 'God prodded—set out to build the Temple of God in Jerusalem.'

Mount Hebron is at a time of new beginnings because God has been stirring things up. God has been prodding people . God has been moving hearts. God has been waking people up, rousing them, inciting them.

Of course that doesn't go down well with everybody. Ever been on a plane and the person behind you keeps knocking your seat? You're about to take a drink of that hot coffee the steward has just served you and there they go again! You are tempted to turn around and complain 'Will you stop pushing me. Quit with the prodding!”

Not everybody in Babylon was moved. Some stayed where they were. In exile. They had become accustomed to life in Babylon. It didn't sound like a great plan to have to go back to Jerusalem and start repairing walls and rebuilding a temple. Sounded like hard work. And they realized that whatever they did, it could never be like the old days. They could never recreate their past glories, so they decided to stay put. No matter how much God prodded, they weren't budging.

There is no way I can recreate the church that was. I'm aware of following Rev. Sidney Venables, a pastor who was here for thirty years. He had an incredible ministry. I'm aware that I can never be who he was, do what he did or achieve what he achieved. Because that was then but this is now.

It's time for new beginnings. I just pray that as I build upon the foundation that others have laid down, I will do so in a way that honors the past, honors them, yet moves us towards a future with hope and with the confidence that the God of all ages is calling us and moving us and inciting us to faithful service.

Be clear in this verse that it was God who was doing the prodding. This wasn't just some self improvement scheme or political movement on the part of King Cyrus of Persia. Cyrus may have seen it that way, but scripture tells a different story. Cyrus had good reason for resettling the Jewish community. He believed that if he could surround himself with fortified colonies of favorable folk, then he was protecting his own interests. Any invading army would have to get through them before they got to him.

Scripture offers a different perspective. The first verse of Ezra reads; 'In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia' . It's that same Hebrew word being used there... 'uwr'. God prodded Cyrus. God was stirring things up, God was the one who was working out God's purposes, fulfilling the words of the prophets and acting with compassion on behalf of those God had chosen as God's own people. God had sent them into exile and God was bringing them home.

The eye of faith sees things from a different perspective than that of the world. Whenever I have been through a time of transition there have always been those who attributed it to anything but God. 'Oh, he's just looking for a promotion'. 'He's moving to be in city' 'They must have offered him a huge pay rise.' Suggest that it might actually be God that stirred things up? For some folk that is beyond their comprehension. There just has to be another explanation!

How do you see this moment in time, this new beginning that we are today in the midst of? Is this a God breathed, God incited, God provoked, God prodded intersection in the life of Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church?  Or are you with Cyrus? Are you thinking, 'Well, transitions happen, that's the way of the world. ' Are you with those who back in the day said to themselves, 'You know I think I'll just stay back in Babylon because I'm not sure where this is headed, but I'm pretty sure it's not going to be what it was!”

More significantly, as a person of faith ask yourself this. As we celebrate a new beginning, how is God stirring you? What is God inviting you to do as part of this process? How can this day of new beginnings be a new beginning in your own life?

The people who responded back in Ezra's day were faithful in completing the task of rebuilding that God called them to. The temple was established.  Worship was restored. The walls were put back in place. The gates were rebuilt.

One of those gates was called the Sheep Gate. Many years later, when Jesus came to Jerusalem the sheep gate had become a place of healing. There was a pool of water there that was said to have amazing properties. It was believed that whenever an angel stirred the waters, then the healing presence of God was present. By the pool sat numerous folk in need of  a miracle.

Amongst them was a man who had been an invalid for thirty eight years. Jesus walks through the sheep gate and asks him an unusual question. “Do you want to get well?”(John 5:6). You'd think that if you'd been unwell for 38 years the answer would be 'Of course I do!' But instead the man starts talking of how he couldn't get to the pool, because every time the water stirred there was just nobody to help him, and anyway, somebody always got there first. 

It's almost as if he is saying, “Yeah, I know God stirs the waters, but what am I supposed to do?” It could be like that with some of us. As we travel through a time of new beginnings we're happy to sit by and observe, but really, we are kind of hoping that God does not stir things for us.

The guy by the pool was in for a big surprise. Jesus was accepting no excuses that day. He looks straight at him and tells him, "Get up! Pick up your mat and walk." He does not offer any opportunity for hesitation. Even though it was the Sabbath Day... Jesus makes it quite clear that he was Lord of the Sabbath and His Word had the power to heal. This was not the new beginning that the man by the pool had expected!

That's the way it is when God does the stirring. We are never quite ready for it. We don't always know how to handle it. We may even resent it. But we find no peace till we get up and walk with it!

When Paul wrote to his young friend Timothy about the nature of ministry to which God had called him, he tells Timothy “Therefore I remind you to stir up the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” (2Timothy 1:6-7)

I like that. The stirring of God is not something to be afraid of.  It's an act of love. It's powerful, yet understandable. It moves us to action. It is an act of grace. The actions of Jesus always seem to be actions of grace. His Spirit doesn't force us, He prods us.  He invites us. And if we don't hear the first time, He'll invite us again. And He'll keep inviting us till we do hear!

In many churches today is Rally Sunday. I pray today that we are sensing God's rally cry. That we are prepared to be part of a movement, a movement of God's Holy Spirit. That we are ready for a new beginning. God is calling us to keep on building the Church of Jesus Christ, to keep on proclaiming that the Kingdom is near!

Let us not be like Cyrus, who thought this was all his idea, but rather be sensitive to the fact that God is at work in our midst. Let us not be like those back in Babylon who hesitated to get with the program because all they could see was that it wasn't going to be like it used to be. Let us not be like those who were so comfortable in their captivity that they just didn't want to do the hard work necessary for rebuilding the temple of God.

Around this table laid with bread and wine we have an opportunity to commit ourselves to new beginnings. For each of us that will mean something different. Maybe there's changes we need to make in our lives, things we've been putting off or thinking we'll get to tomorrow. Maybe there are things we need to say to people who are important to us. Maybe it's time we gave something up or took something up.

 I don't know for sure, but God does. And around a table like this is a time for starting afresh. A time to place our life in God's hands and allow God's Spirit to transform us and renew us.

And if you remember nothing else about the service today I hope you can take at least one thought away with you. Simply this.  With Jesus Christ as our Lord and our Savior every day is a day of new beginnings. And to God's name be all glory. Amen.
The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.