Monday, December 15, 2014

I Believe in Christmas

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

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

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.